Saturday, 7 November 2009

Winnicott and Benjamin on Recognizing the Other

Referring to Winnicott's essay, "The Use of an Object and Relating through Identification," in which he theorizes the child's need to destroy the object as a necessary passage for recognizing the other, Jessica Benjamin writes:

Winnicott explains that the recognition of the other involves a paradoxical process in which the object is always destroyed in fantasy. The theory that placing the other outside us means destruction in any case has often raised doubts. And yet, intuitively, one feels that it is very simple. Winnicott means that the object has to be destroyed inside in order for us to understand that it has survived outside; in this way we can recognize it as not subjected to our mental control. This relation between destruction and survival is a reformulation and a solution of Hegel's paradox: in the fight for recognition, each subject has to risk his own life, and has to fight to deny the other--and woe betide him if he manages to do it. In fact, if I completely deny the other, he does not exist; and if he does not survive he will not be there to recognize me. But, in order to realize this, I must try to exert such control, and try to deny his independence. To verify whether he exists, I must desire to be absolute and completely alone, then, opening my eyes, as it were, I can realize that the other is still there. In other words, destruction is an effort to be seen as different(7).

Beyond Hegel and the psychoanalytic interpretation that Jessica Benjamin gives of him, we add that recognition of oneself and others is a decisive passage toward egalitarian relations, starting from the affirmation of diversity.

Therefore, the child begins to gain his autonomy first by deceiving himself that he is alone, through the imaginary destruction of the object, and then by verifying that the other exists. In this passage, the process of becoming autonomous develops within the relation with the other, that is, not by severing the ties with the other, but by transforming them. The two opposing poles of this process are:

a) Autonomy as cancellation of relation and isolation (Robinson);
b) Dependence on the domination and the authority of the other (Robinson over Friday).

In Jessica Benjamin's words:

If the mother does not give any limits to the child, if she forgets herself and her interests and agrees to be completely controlled, she ceases to be a vital other for the child. She is destroyed, and not just in fantasy. If she reacts by trying to break the child's will, convinced that any compromise will "spoil him"; she will instead end up inculcating in him the idea that in a relation there is space only for one I--and the child will have no other choice than to cancel his own, at least for the moment, with the hope of being able to recuperate it later, perhaps by excessively emphasizing it. It is only by means of the survival of the other that the subject can pass from the terrain of subjection and revenge to the terrain of reciprocal respect (8).

Alfonso M. Iacono, 'Francisco Varela and the Concept of Autonomy', J E P -  Number 15 - Fall-Winter 2002
Also see In-between-isms: Winnicottian film, media, and cultural studies at Film Studies For Free