Subjectivity, Gender and the Struggle for Recognition
Paddy McQueen, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
It’s a rare pleasure to get to read a book by a friend in a group of friends. In other words, I have been organizing a reading group on recognition (and gender) with my lovely fellow philosophers this autumn and what we have read is a book by Paddy, an old friend from Belfast. What I am sort of saying here is that more of my friends should write books. I will read them, yes I will.
Anyway, to get to the point, in his book Paddy argues that some of the recognition theorists – that is, Axel Honneth and Charles Taylor – have inadequate accounts of power. Their “recognition deficit theories” basically hold that more recognition for a wider range of persons is the solution to social harms. Paddy’s claim is that this neglects the ambivalent nature of recognition: the harms that recognition can do or the benefits of remaining socially invisible. Paddy draws from Butler and Foucault (amongst others) to construct a picture where our identities are fluid but at the same time dependent on others and the power-laden intersubjective relations that happen in a given historical normative context. This account of subject is then used to critically evaluate the debates around (trans)gender recognition and especially forms of essentialistic identity politics or politics that rely on an ‘authentic’ semi-Cartesian self. (Following this one could say, for example, that any postmodern mindfulness talk of finding one’s true inner self just is just misguided.) In the end, Paddy argues that the feminist recognition struggles should concentrate on expanding the realms of possible gender identities, which would, in turn, make different patterns of recognizable or ‘liveable’ life possible.
While I fully accept the broad arguments, I still think – as I thought some five years ago – that Paddy’s reading of Honneth is not the most charitable one. I do not think that Honneth is actually that blind to the issues of power or the negative side of recognition. After all, although Honneth gives a slightly narrower and more positive definition of recognition, he does have terms like ‘social pathology’ and ‘misrecognition’ available for conceptualizing the negative side of social relations. However, I admit that here I might be overly gentle with Honneth. Paddy is certainly not alone with his critique. If I remember right, similar claims have been recently made by at least Deranty, McNay, and Petherbridge.
Nevertheless, in my mind the best parts of the book are the last two chapters, 5 and 6, where transgender recognition and queer politics are discussed. I have never been a big fan of thinking of identities as completely fluid “nomad no-identities” and I was happy to see that Paddy takes the same line. I don’t think that we are completely free to choose or change our identities or that destabilization of all collective identification is necessarily a good aim.
“Naturally, we can try to enact certain alterations in our gender identity, and our identities more generally, but any movement away from one’s current identity will always be rendered meaningful against a backdrop of norms that govern the intelligible and possible; it is to move within a set of constraints that determine how one can make sense of (i.e. recognise) oneself. It is not to construct one’s gender identity ex nihilo.” (p.184)
At this point I found myself nodding, thinking that this is completely right. However, I would really like to know how that ‘backdrop of norms’ is construed, how it affects our intersubjective relations, and how much room it really leaves for change. Luckily someone I know does research in exactly those questions. Yes, that’s me. Thus some answers will hopefully be provided in the years to come…