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Journal of Medical Humanities [jmh]


November 23, 2002


Style file version June 4th, 2002

Journal of Medical Humanities, Vol. 24, Nos. 1/2, Summer 2003 ( C 2003)

A Very Childish Moral Panic: Ritalin

Toby Miller1,3 and Marie Claire Leger2

This paper examines some of the moral panics around hyperactive children, the

construction of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, and the lure of Ritalin in

turning kids identified as “at risk” into successful, productive individuals. Through

a historicization of the child as a psychiatric subject, we try to demonstrate Ritalin’s

part in the uneven development of modern trends towards the pathologization of

everyday life, a developing continuum between normality and abnormality, and an

emphasis on the malleability of children and the importance of environment in their

upbringing. We conclude that Ritalin is a part of modernity’s project of turning

people into individuals—in this case, a kind of US transcendence fantasy—which,

along with discourses and institutions, promises to transform young subjects and

biocosmetically alter their futures.

KEY WORDS: Ritalin; modernity; Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder; children; everyday life;

productive; psychiatric subject.


For years it has been a nostrum of the cultural left to attack the psycomplexes—psychoanalysis, psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatry, and psychopharmacology. These complexes are easy marks for accusations that they generate and sustain false consciousness, bourgeois individualism, racism, and sexism,

as well as implicating folks in the policing apparatus of medicine, therapy, and

thought control. The taste for the psy-complexes is seen as a luxury unavailable

to those preoccupied with subsistence, a manifestation of middle-class guilt at

1 Professor, Cultural Studies and Cultural Policy, Department of Cinema Studies, New York University,

New York, NY.

student, University of...

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