Freudian pyschoanalytic theory views the acquisition of ego identity as a project which is initiated at birth and realized in the context of a never completely resolved conflict between the needs for attachment to and separation from the original and compelling power of the infant-mother bond. Freud’s account posits an infant whose self-identity is initially merged with that of its primary caregiver, assumed by Freud to be the child’s biological mother. In this intrapsychic narrative, the focus is on the child’s dawning sense of his/her separateness from the physical, and then from the psychic identity of the caregiver. The infant is seen to be advancing along a course from an original oneness to a state of separateness.
Benjamin argues that we should reject this, what we might call “trajectory” model of development, and replace it with an account that fully appreciates the relational aspects of the developmental project. Self-identity cannot be achieved by a development of the infant by itself, for self-identity is founded on the mutual recognition of subjects. The intrapsychic view of the infant subject must, Benjamin claims, be exchanged for a intersubjective perspective. Since the infant’s sense of self emerges from the context of relationship with the primary caregiver, the process of differentiation from others must be seen on a continuum of relatedness:
The intersubjective view maintains that the individual grows in and through the relationship to other subjects. Most important, this perspective observes that the other whom the self meets is also a self, a subject in his or her own right. It assumes that we are able and need to recognize that other subject as different and yet alike, as an other who is capable of sharing similar mental experience. Thus the idea of intersubjectivity reorients the conception of the psychic world from a subject’s relation to its object toward a subject meeting another subject.1
From birth, the relationship of child to primary caregiver and of primary caregiver to child, is a relationship which necessitates a recognition which in turn points to an original distinction of self and other, acknowledged and bridged by both child and mother in the act of recognition.
Recent studies of newborns indicate that the extent to which they recognize the mother and/or other primary caregivers is much greater than was previously thought; this recognition, different from mere reaction, is only possible between subjects who also recognize a distinction from and between others. In even very early infant/mother interactions, Benjamin argues, there is empirical evidence that, the mother can already identify the first signs of mutual recognition in the interactions between she and her infant.
The psychoanalytic literature has failed to adequately acknowledge the mutuality of mother/infant relationships this research suggests, though it has long been recognized as crucially important in infant development theory, where it has been referred to it as emotional attunement, affective mutuality, sharing states of mind, etc.2 Despite this ego, psychologists have continued to adopt the “trajectory” model of development deriving:
the idea of separation from oneness: which contains the implicit assumption that we grow out of relationships rather than becoming more active and sovereign within them, that we start in a state of dual oneness and wind up in the state of singular oneness.3
Benjamin argues that the assumption of an original symbiotic unity is as problematic as the assumption that the telos of the ego trajectory is the achievement of an identity defined in complete separation from the other.
She advances her argument on several different fronts. First, she argues that evidence of the newborn’s recognition of the mother undercuts the claim that the infant experiences the symbiosis with the mother ascribed by the Freudian psychoanalytic model.4 In Freud’s account, child and mother both experience the merging of self and other. He describes the child’s experience of this unity in terms of a primary narcissism. The mother’s unity with the child on the other hand, is described as a blissfully satisfying regression achieved in part by recreating the bond she had with her own mother, and achieving psychic wholeness through the child which functions as a phallic substitute. In identifying the experience of mother and child, Freud does not recognize the distinction between mother and child, and thus forecloses the conception of two selves meeting in relationship.
Benjamin also questions the psychological telos to which Freud’s perception of the infant-mother bond leads him. Because he does not view the mother as a subject, in relationship to whom the child becomes a subject, Freud cannot construct a narrative of the mother-child relationship as one of ever more mutual recognition. Instead, ego formation is seen as a desperate struggle to assert difference in the face of an always threatening maternal sameness. The Freudian child must establish autonomy by denying the subjectivity of the mother by establishing his5 identity over and against hers. While needing to assert himself in a dynamic which necessitates his domination of the mother; the child cannot completely obliterate her, for that would destroy the very source of the recognition he is attempting to compel. In destroying her, he destroys himself; in allowing her a subjectivity, his own is threatened. “Mutual” recognition is impossible in this Freudian frame as it is in the Hegelian one which it echoes; any balance is temporary and only tenuously maintained.
In this psychoanalytic narrative, the infant is the developing male self and the mother is the “other” who must be made to recognize this nascent male subject whose self-identity rests precisely on his denial of the subjectivity of the other. Thus, the denial of the other’s subjectivity becomes a necessary moment and gives rise to the fiction of the bourgeois autonomous subject giving birth to itself, a fiction the psychoanalytic tradition shares with the philosophical one. The concept of autonomy which these narratives reflect identifies self-determination with freedom from the control, the manipulation or the determination of others. Benjamin, like Adorno and Horkheimer before her, argues that with this ideal of autonomy we merely reverse relationships of domination rather than escaping them. In seeking to conceptualize freedom, the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition again like the philosophical one, has seen relationship itself as a threat to the realization of freely constituted subjectivity. In its account of autonomy, self-identity, and agency are only achieved by denying the significance of and the dependence upon the other.
The thrust of Benjamin’s critique of autonomy is directed at the patriar – chally constructed and maintained gender system the psychoanalytic narrative reflects, which casts men as subjects, women as objects, and objects as mothers. Benjamin argues that in this narrative of the dynamics of self/other/male/female relationships, the ideal of male autonomy recreates a version of the Hegelian master/slave dialectic, where the infant male, the nascent subject, plays Hegel’s master, necessarily resulting in the casting of the mother both actual and internalized, as the slave. The female child, in turn, internalizes the father as the master and constructs femaleness, her own and that of the maternal caregiver, as lack.
Benjamin concludes that the process of ego identity formation must be reconceptualized by replacing the ideal of “autonomy” with that of “mutual recognition.” Mutual recognition, unlike autonomy, requires sustaining connection to another as one individuates in the process of ego identity formation. Full mutual recognition is achieved when both selves in a relationship maintain a balance between assertion of self/other and denial of other/self. The establishment of self-identity does and should involve the recognition of the other as other, and the recognition of the dependence of the self’s identity on the other’s recognition of it. Ideal subjecthood requires a relational dynamic whose ideal expression involves this fully mutual recognition which is possible only if the dependence and independence of both members of the relationship are recognized. As Benjamin puts it. “The need for recognition entails this fundamental paradox: at the very moment of recognizing our own independence, we are dependent upon the other to recognize it.”6 The subject’s subjectivity involves another subject who must be recognized if the nascent self is to fully constitute itself as a self.
Benjamin’s arguments, while complex, are clear and to my mind are up to this point quite convincing. She expounds a normative critique of our idealization of autonomy and argues that its attainment involves a gender structure especially costly to women. At this juncture however, she moves in a direction which strikes me as somewhat unfortunate.7 She abandons her clearly normative claims about what we ought to adopt as the ideal of ego achievement, and moves, through an assessment of the empirical evidence, to the claim that ego development not only ought to proceed along a course of normative development, but that it does in fact do so. While moving from to ought is not necessarily problematic, Benjamin loses sight of the distinction between the normative and the empirical and in so doing fails to recognize the role that norms play in structuring and maintaining relations marked by mutual recognition. This failure, in turn, explains her otherwise surprising dismissal of Jurgen Habermas’s moral theory.
Benjamin’s failure to recognize the role norms play in interaction can be clearly seen in her discussion of the empirical literature on infant-mother relationships. Her condemnation of current notions of autonomy as implicitly idealizing relationships marked by inadequate ideals of recognition, is followed by an analysis of work on the dynamics of infant-mother play. Describing films made of mothers interacting with their three – and four – month old babies, she argues that what is depicted are complex self-other interactions where mothers do not merely mimic their babies facial and hand movements, but introduce changes which the babies then mimic, respond to, adapt, and change, whereupon the “attuned” mother then responds to the baby’s responsive adaptation. Good primary caregivers use the interpretations of the movements and expressions of the babies in their care in order to adapt their play so that it is pleasing to the child. In the infant-caregiver relationship, the onus of the work of mutual engagement falls heavily on the caregiver and the engagement is not mutual in the fullest sense, since it is many years before the child can learn to return the recognition of the caregiver’s gaze. The ideal of caregiver-maintained attunement can perhaps be best understood, Benjamin suggests, in light of filmed instances where this attunement is not achieved:
We also observe how mutual regulation breaks down and attunement fails: when baby is tired and fussy, when mother is bored and depressed, or when baby is unresponsive and this makes mother anxious. Then we will see not just the absence of play, but a kind of anti-play in which the frustration of the search for recognition is painfully apparent. The unsuccessful interaction is sometimes almost as finely tuned as the pleasurable one.
With each effort of the baby to withdraw from the mother’s stimulation, to avert his gaze, turn his head, pull his body away, the mother responds by “chasing” after the baby. It is as if the mother anticipates her baby’s withdrawal with split-second accuracy and can only read his messages to give space as a frustration of her own efforts to be recognized…. Here in the earliest social interaction we can see how the search for recognition can become a power struggle: how assertion becomes aggression.8
True attunement, in contrast, is not this chase, not this power struggle, but rather involves a “recognition” of the infant’s subjectivity, needs, and preferences by a caregiver who structures interaction on the basis of this recognition.
One could take Benjamin’s point here to be a clarification of how mutual recognition functions in an infant-adult relationship, thus providing a model of the realization of recognition; or one could take Benjamin to be pointing to some natural impulse of caregivers which primes them to adopt recognition as the telos of infant-caregiver relationships. While I think Benjamin uses the films to depict worse, better, and ideal interaction, I don’t think she intends to suggest that there is a natural impulse or ability involved in realizing fully mutual recognition. Alison Weir, however, reads Benjamin as making precisely this latter point, and she vigorously objects to it:
Benjamin makes the mistake of assuming that… human beings are born ready-made subjects with the capacity to recognize themselves and others as subjects…. But the assumption that to recognize the other is a social need or a normative ideal in no way entails the assumption that we are born with the ability to do so.9
While I think Weir is right to see a confusion in Benjamin’s argument and while I share her rejection of any claim that the ability to engage in relationships of mutual recognition is natural, I think Benjamin only inadvertently suggests such a claim, unlike Weir, I do not believe that rejecting this entails rejecting Benjamin’s claim that the notion of autonomy operative in the classic psychoanalytic narrative involves an identity that is constituitively determined in relation to a dominated other.
One motivation for Benjamin’s appeal to these filmed studies of children and their caregivers is to argue that mutual recognition is, in fact, a normative ideal of infant-development literature that has been eclipsed by the ideal of autonomy in the psychoanalytic literature. The normative model of maternal engagement which infant-development theorists adopt, reflects an evaluation of the sensitivity of caregivers to self-other boundaries that determine the teaching and learning of the early lessons of mutuality. In normatively evaluating relationships in terms of the caregiver’s ability to recognize and sustain self-other distinctions and boundaries in their relationships with children, these theorists challenge the accuracy and desirability of the Freudian view of the mother-infant relationships as completely symbiotic. Infant researcher Daniel Stem, for example, argues against the Freudian vision of the merging of mother and child, claiming that while the very young infant is never completely undifferentiated from the mother, it is “primed from the beginning to be interested in and to distinguish itself from the world of others.”10
Benjamin points out that in the Freudian account, the symbiotic unity of a mother-infant must be disrupted to allow for the child’s individuation. This logically leads to Freud’s claim that separation is the essential moment of the child’s establishment of autonomy. In contrast, a psychological model which adopts as its normative ideal a simultaneous responsiveness to the connectedness as well as to the distinctness of the infant from the start, opens up the possibility of recognizing the achievement and significance of attachment as well as of separation:
Once we accept the idea that infants do not begin life as part of an undifferentiated unity, the issue is not only how we become free of the other, but how we actively engage and make ourselves known in relationship to the other.11
Though much infant-development literature implicity at least, adopts as its normative standard a relational ideal of mutual recognition, it does not provide a critique of social roles generally or of gender roles specifically. Benjamin uses the achievement of the capacity and opportunity to engage in relationships marked by mutual recognition as a measure to assess the unhappy role the gender-system plays in setting up sexual relationships of failed recognition, relationships characterized by domination, and not by reciprocity. Problems arise when Benjamin expands her argument and claims that the binary logic involved in the production of the gendered subject does not merely determine the structure of the individual psyche but:
… has its analogue in other long-standing dualisms of western culture: rationality and irrationality, subject and object, autonomy and dependency.12
These oppositions, so constitutive of gender, are “replicated in intellectual and social life.. .(eliminating) the possibilities of mutual recognition in society as a whole.”13 In identifying rationality with domination and maleness, Benjamin is forced to discount the role rationally articulated and justifiable norms play in establishing and evaluating relationships of mutual recognition. It is just this association of rationality with domination that prompts Weir to dismiss Benjamin’s reconstruction of subjectivity, pointing to the problems inherent in her account of the genesis of failures of mutual recognition located in the establishment of male identity:
So, male identity is established through separation from the mother, which produces objectification and the development of rationality, all of which are equated with domination.14
Identifying rationality with domination implies that mutual recognition does not or should not involve rationally mediated relationships. The process of ego formation thus becomes a directly affective process where one’s subjectivity is constituted in an immediate identification or disidentification with the other. Weir rejects this account on two grounds. First, because it fails to recognize the extent to which ego identity is socially and symbolically mediated and thus fails to acknowledge the role that rationality plays in the understanding and taking up of the roles constitutive of identity. And second, because it fails to recognize the role social norms play in the demand for and the creation of relationships based on recognition.
In conceptualizing recognition as a purely affective relationship and by identifying rationality with an objectification of the other involving domination, Benjamin cannot account for the role that norms play in identity formation and dismisses Habermasian theory as merely reinscribing a patriarchal view of rationality in the moral and social domain. This unfortunate move springs from her oscillation between an empirical and normative analysis, which leads to her failure to examine the normative structure of the relationships crucial to identity formation. I would also argue, however, that Habermas’s normative account of relationships presumes an adult whose subjectivity has originally been constructed in the crucible of the relationships of mutual recognition Benjamin describes, or at least one whose subjectivity has been radically reconstructed in light of an understanding of the failures of those relationships.
Habermas’s account of the intersubjectively acquired ability to navigate in a post-conventional world of norms assumes an autonomous human being whose ego-development is complete, though its moral development may not be. Benjamin’s, argument, however suggests that the concept of self embedded in psychoanalytic and moral theory relies on a model of autonomy that establishes relationships of domination as essentially entangled in identity formation. Since one’s ego identity is intersubjectively constituted all the way down, human beings are subject to distortion, to psychic blightings which can be reflected in even our ideals of moral engagement. Benjamin argues that Habermas’s account of moral judgment and justification reflects just this kind of problem, insofar as the over-valuing of the rational and the universal springs from the over-valuation of separation over attachment and hence the domination of women by men:
(Habermas) merely displaces the problem of rationalism—the inability to recognize the other—to the area of symbolic interaction and moral discourse. And there, the same issue arises as in science: only formal procedures and abstraction allow a universal form of recognition, but these negate the recognition of the other’s particular subjectivity.15
If this is the case, those engaged in supposedly ideal discourse, by virtue of the constitution of their identities, are incapable of relationships with others not shot through by domination: gender domination, race domination, ethnic domination. Any and every kind of domination does in fact occur and could have been expected to occur. The norms which guide interaction and serve to arbitrate conflicting moral claims arrive, in a sense, after the moment of self/other engagement. My constitution of my self and the other, while not fixed, lies below the ground of disputed norms. My subjectivity must allow for the mutual recognition of the other, or I inevitably construct the other as master or slave, limiting the extent to which truly ideal discourse is possible. Subjectivity, constituted in the context of mutual respect, makes possible the self’s recognition of the other and is therefore a precondition for normative engagement with others. Affective recognition is as Weir puts it, a “necessary though not sufficient criteria for intersubjectivity.”16