Ambivalent recognition and liveable life

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.

Paddy and Hans
Paddy (left) meets Hans in Amsterdam. Next meeting won’t be so nice and not in so nice environment. That is, we have invited Paddy to Jyväskylä to answer our questions about his book.

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…


To feel or not to feel?

Earlier this year we  – that is, me and three other philosophers – wrote a paper on Charlie Hebdo where we argue along the lines that freedom of speech is a social freedom and thus it also has its limits. Right now, roughly two days after the most recent Paris attacks, the cold analysis of the different conceptions of freedom of speech that are used in the terrorism-discussions feels shallow, futile, and almost insulting. When I heard of the attacks, I felt an initial shock that quickly turned into anger, spite, and frustration with a hint of sorrow and empathy. All of these seemed to demand direct action (although it is still somewhat unclear to me what kind of action) and pointed towards the conclusion that a mere philosophical analysis is not helpful at all.

While having this minor guilt-trip and wallowing in the mixed bag of emotions, I started noticing an increasing amount of posts in my Facebook feed that highlighted the fact that attacks like this happen all the time in other places. The main claim seemed to be that focusing on Paris is somehow wrong as it makes us forget other terrorist attacks, like the one in Beirut a day before. Focusing on paris makes some (the white westerners) more equal than others (all the rest). In the name of moral universalism, everyone should have equal moral standing and thus these reminders that we should care about all of those who have been harmed seemed intuitive and justified. Am I then doing something wrong in feeling more for Paris than for Beirut? Perhaps. However, there are some senses in which I find the “don’t focus on Paris, focus on the world” comments problematic.

  • One way to understand the comments is that we should feel for everyone. This kind of ‘world pain’ comes pretty close to what my mother has but as a demand for everyone it is emotionally and epistemologically too demanding. It is unrealistic to demand that we should know the harms that happen in the world and that we should have equal or proportionally scaled emotional responses to these. (How much more one should feel for 2000 deaths than 129?) Emotions just don’t work that way and we have our limits for the knowledge (or the time to acquire the knowledge) too.
  • Another way to understand the comments is that we should not identify with Paris any more than with any other site or group that has been attacked. This is very much against the idea that our identities are formed in close relationships, smaller groups, and through comparisons with others. Should we all just identify with abstract humanity and deny any smaller identity groups? This claim sounds even more odd when it comes from leftist activist circles that have also very much concentrated on positive identity politics.

Although the posts on Facebook can be read in these two senses, in a more charitable reading, what people are saying is that we should not forget others or downplay their suffering. That is all good but if it really is what one is after, policing other’s emotional reactions and shows of empathy seem unnecessary at best. Demanding more equal media coverage and more equal institutional reactions to suffering, on the other hand, could do some good. And is there any room for philosophical analysis in this? Well, even if it does not save anyone from horrible violence, at least it can help us to waddle through the sea of knee-jerk reactions that follow.

We will all die soon

This Changes Everything
Klein, Simon & Schuster, 2014

Roughly ten years ago I frequented an environmental philosophy discussion group. Although I felt and looked like an outsider amongst the more activist types, I also enjoyed being part of those discussions and certainly learned a lot. Part of that lot was that somehow all the environmentally reasonable options seemed to be always trumped by lack of political will, which, in turn, was directly related to the economic sacrifices one needed to make or the bigger short-term gains that the environmentally disastrous options would offer.

Klein’s book touches all this. I have actually had this book for quite a while but for some reason it has taken ages to read. Starting this blog and reading Holly’s article that mentioned Klein were the last motivators that I needed to finish it. Anyway, Klein claims in the book that capitalism does not include mechanisms that would help us to avoid climate disaster – rather it is the driving force behind climate change – and that science will not save us. She quite convincingly manages to show that we are pretty much screwed and I tend to agree. In the end Klein does find some hope in the form of social movements that challenge the whole capitalist/extractivist form of thinking.

A proof that I have at least seen these books that I’m talking about.

It is here that I would love to agree with Klein but I tend to remain sceptical. In fact, it feels that the world moves exactly the opposite direction. At least in Australia and Finland – yes, this is not very representative but these are the governments that I mostly follow – the recent recession is used as an excuse to look towards mining industry and to forget the presumably costly green options. Climate change is acknowledged but halting it isn’t a priority in political decision-making. It would be wonderful if people would challenge the big corporations and aim for greener and more equal future. However, in societies where political left is more on the right than ever before, where populist nationalism is on the rise [and they don’t really care about the nature as long as there are refugees to be afraid of], and where the greens get at best 10% of the votes, it is hard to see any movement towards limiting exploitation of nature in any meaningful scale. While the underground environmental groups may win battles, they are not winning the war. Of course, this is where I would love to be wrong.

The book ends with a suggestion that to survive the climate change, we should radically change our worldview from the earth-as-a-machine thinking to the earth-as-an-organic-whole thinking. Personally I don’t see these two as opposites. One could easily have an “engineer’s attitude” towards environment and agree that what we have is just a really complex system where tinkering with some parts (e.g. releasing fucktons of CO2 into atmosphere) can and will have bad effects from the point of view of the whole system. In other words, I don’t think that we need to radically change the way we see the world – especially if one talks about scientific point of view.

What might need a change is our values and that can be enourmously difficult. People, me included, tend to like their Western lifestyle and if avoiding disastrous climate change requires radical change to that – even if we hold onto the scientific attitude towards nature -, it should be no surprise that we will act too little and probably too late. But do we really need a total change in lifestyle or merely alternative CO2-free energy sources? I have absolutely no idea. An optimist would say that as we have green energy options with an EROEI value that is high enough to sustain the Western lifestyle, all we need from the nature are the materials for our consumer goods. Is that too much asked? Probably, if we want everyone to be part of the middle class. Anyway, as a pessimist in this matter I am already waiting for the scarred Mad Max world where corporations fight over the dwindling resources with their private armies, just so that the few rich can still cling onto the luxurious lifestyle at the cost of everyone else.