'Revolution is like Saturn': children as metaphors of unsettlement

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The eponymous hero’s description of revolution in Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death (1835) – ‘he devours his own children’ – is richly suggestive. Evoking the paranoiac consumption of his offspring by Cronos (Saturn), it offers a figure for the complex relationship between children and media – not least, the ways in which this relationship, characterised by tropes of absorption, authority and sequence, might correspond to patterns of evolution within media culture itself. Rhea saves Zeus from his father by substituting a swaddled rock for the child. Significantly, swaddling cloths – incunabula – have often been used as metaphors for emergent media, initially in relation to the printing press.
This paper is part of a wider project proposing a theoretical model of media development based around the idea of ‘unsettlement’. This contends that all media undergo an incunabulaic period of unsettlement or radical instability (typified by formal self-consciousness and experimentation) which is followed by assimilation within a ‘mythic’ world-view (typified by more settled processes of narration, representation, reception). Once a medium has been integrated, the restless energies of its inception are diverted into marginal practices that nevertheless inform and at times challenge the mainstream.
Childhood is our common period of unsettlement and, not suprisingly, its representation in media reflects a sense of profound instability. The child, idealised and demonised, embodiment of innocence and vehicle for evil, both the apotheosis of hope and the epitome of vulnerability, has been depicted with increasing prominence and edginess throughout modernity. Considering portrayals in the art and literature of the nascent mass media age (from the mid-1700s), the aim here is to begin to trace extended patterns of unsettlement via recurrent concerns about the effects of media on children (the Lady Chatterley trial, the James Bulger killing, the Byron Review) to contemporary fantasies of childhood (His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, Doctor Who).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventDevils and Dolls: Dichotomous Depictions of 'the child' - Bristol, United Kingdom
Duration: 27 Mar 201328 Mar 2013


ConferenceDevils and Dolls: Dichotomous Depictions of 'the child'
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • media influence
  • romanticism
  • modernity
  • storytelling
  • audience
  • narrative
  • myth
  • mass media


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