Understanding Jessica Benjamin’s Theory on Subjectivity

Jessica Benjamin argues that identity is formed from mutual recognition and intersubjectivity. In traditional psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud’s theory on subjectivity states that a childs identity is created from the father (a figure of authority) raising a conflict between the child and their mother (symbol of comfort and nurturing). This enlightenment marks the end of the childs “mirror stage” where they believe that they are an extension of their mother. However, as many psychology analysts will note, this theory is flawed because it it leaves out a crucial group of people: women. For women, since the anatomical difference between the mother and daughter is not as clear cut, a hole in reasoning opens up to the development of subjectivity of women under Freud’s theory. In his time, Freud shrugged off this logical hole by using it to say that women have inferior reasoning skills to men. Evidently, this is not true, which has led many psychoanalysts to revise Freuds theory and create new ways to explain the development of subjectivity.

This is where Benjamin steps in to share her comprehensive argument on intersubjectivity and mutual recognition. Rather than proposing a binary system where the child is their own person because they are NOT their mother, Benjamin proposes that a person becomes a subject through mutual recognition. She explains that through interactions between people who each believe that the other is an individual with a separate identity, one strengthens their own individuality. This idea shatters the thought that one builds individuality through differentiation, and instead proposes one’s individuality through connections with others. This theory also builds on power struggles. It proposes the idea that domination and submission (or any power struggle/imbalance) are the result of unbalanced relationships of mutual recognition, where one person does not believe that the other is a subject (submission), while the other one asserts themselves (domination). Overall, this explanation, although optimistic regarding mutual recognition, better explains intersubjectivity compared to Freud’s theory.

An Analysis Of Jessica Benjamin

According to the philosophies of Freud a person has two distinct breaks in their childhood, one from their mother and one from their father. In Bonds of Love, Jessica Benjamin argues otherwise. Instead, she argues, this connective break does not factor into the need to connect to others but instead, the discovering of self in the connection to others. Benjamin expresses her belief that it is not a binary issue, disconnected or connected, but rather a need to have an almost paradoxical balance of interconnectedness and separation

I definitely understand her theory and definitely agree with her thinking. Broadly, as a theory built upon the theories of Freud, I think she fills in the holes of his theories and effectively stretches them to not only apply to men but to women as well. First of all, her analysis of the binaries that show up in human society is spot on, in my opinion, and I think the way that we not only put ourselves into such binaries but put others into those same binaries separates us from those we therefore characterize as “different” or possibly “less than”. While, as humans, we rely on and are evolved to need socialization and connection, it is also very important for us to see ourselves as individuals who do not belong in the same category as others.

We cannot all embody the same societal roles, therefore, we feel we must differentiate ourselves from others through binaries- man, woman, employee, boss. While that disconnection is healthy, we have too effectively separated ourselves from others and have lost the mutual recognition we crave. By living in and accepting such binaries we are distancing ourselves from the mutual recognition of “us” and “other”. I would take these lessons and urge others to at least consider and understand the binaries that are ingrained in society and try to go against the urge to follow them. While I believe it is impossible to fully separate ourselves from all binaries- society is too powerful and binaries are too ingrained in us to allow for such a separation- the closest we can get is recognizing and fighting against as many as we can.

Can you read well and for fun? Nabokov

After reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Good readers and good writers” I found the passage that explains how you cannot read well if you identify with a character or event in the writing very interesting. When I read for fun I usually relate to a character or event to sort of put myself in the position of the character to understand their thoughts and feelings. But after reading Nabokov I understand his point of view. He argues that when you relate to a character you may become biased or immersed in their story so much that you may miss important details about the rest of the plot. I understand this if you are trying to fully understand the book or if its for an assignment but I wonder if this apply’s to when you read for fun. After I reread the passage I don’t think that it does because if you read for fun you usually read for the story, you read to get that tingle down your spine and maybe, when reading for fun, to get that tingle you need to relate to a character to get inside their head and feel what they are feeling. Also when you read for fun you don’t necessarily read to understand all of the content of that book unlike you would do for school. When I read a book I try to imagine the plot like its somewhere i’ve been to, as Nabokov said, “get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal”. This helps me imagine the characters as if I am in the world the author has created.

Semplica Girl Diaries and Bonds of Love

I see Benjamin’s theory heavily exemplified in Semplica Girls. I see how a dynamic like the SG’s could take place within a binary like those that Benjamin identifies in Bonds of Love. If a family believes so completely that they are saving these girls, and the girls “willingly” buy into this creation, then the two continue on identifying one another by being opposites: I have money so I buy SG’s. I am a poor person and as such, my only hope at a better life is submitting to the systems in place to “help” me.

Eva is the only person achieving mutual recognition in this story, or at least beginning to. She understands herself as a human, but she also understands herself to be no different than the SG’s. As such, she recognizes the girls as human beings, and so with that understanding she decides to let them free. As the reader of these diaries, we are meant to root for the family to succeed, we want them to gain some happiness in what we (or at least I) view as an abysmal livelihood. When Eva lets the girls go, the reader is meant to be so ingrained in the binary–that these people have the power and should be able to do and buy whatever they please–we can’t even fathom what she has done. Because what she has done is the one thing Benjamin argues is so extremely difficult to do: recognize yourself and someone else as human, and have those people recognize your humanity as well.

Benjamin’s Theory and Religion

Though Benjamin doesn’t explicitly mention religion in her argument, religious affiliation undoubtedly involves a multitude of connections with others and the world around you. As a member of the Jewish community, I face challenges on a daily basis. These obstacles, though difficult, I do not categorize as conflict. In connection with Benjamin’s ideology of mutual recognition, I have found that being a member of a minority religious group has allowed me to fully understand and connect with other religions. Even though I have different beliefs and values, I have found a way to empathize with other belief systems. For example, when the anti-semetic hate crimes struck the OPRF community in 2018 and again in 2022, I was devastated and angry. Instead of ragging out on members of other religious groups – that were possibly seen as a threat to mine – I took this as an opportunity to connect with those who inflicted this damage. After taking some time to reflect on the situation, I understood that misconceptions are prone in our current society to heal these misconceptions, we must educate ourselves and those of other backgrounds.

This is a prime example of Benjamin’s idea of mutual recognition – a profound understanding of who I am, which comes with recognizing someone else as an equal human; and the process of them recognizing me as equal. At the time, those who participated in this hate crime on the jewish community did not see us as equal. When education and connection prevailed, change and respect for my religion occurred. Those who once viewed minority religions as less than now bond over the same values that we all share.

Social Movements and Mutual Recognition

One of the most obvious examples of Benjamin’s theory in action is social movements, particularly Black Lives Matter. After learning about her theory, I find this movement to be a near-perfect example of attempting to achieve mutual recognition. The Black Lives Matter movement is a counter to the systemic inequalities that have given way to white dominance and severe discrimination against black and brown people. The movement (as it says) is dedicated to achieving a universal recognition of Black lives and their importance, in the same way, that white lives have long been recognized as important and worthy of recognition and protection. Now knowing about Benjamin’s theory, I find it to be the core principle of most social movements that fight to achieve rights and acknowledgment of different groups of people. Movements are centered around organization, they’re people gathering in the streets to protest, boycotting institutions, and doing what they can to draw attention to themselves, to be recognized the same as those in power. Because the dominant majority (white men) has long been recognized, the power of achieving mutual recognition lies in the movements of those who have yet to be fully recognized in their worth, their rights, and their power. Social movements that attempt to achieve equal rights and equity are key to advancing democracies and building a better society. Now that I understand Benjamin’s theory on mutual recognition, I truly believe that it is the key to social movements and thus a better world. I think that perceiving these movements as attempting to achieve mutual recognition, highlights their importance in a broader sense of the world. Many people turn away from movements because of their political associations (for example Black Lives Matter is widely recognized as a democrat movement). Further, I believe that by explaining to others that the core principle of social movements is simply mutual recognition, we can give everyone a reason to see their importance, ultimately making them moral causes rather than political ones. 

Semplica Girls and the Interaction of Mutual Recognition

Semplica Girls and Lilly work toward mutual recognition when she interviews the girls for school. She goes beyond acknowledging the SGs by their Greenway names and worked on learning about their diverse backgrounds. Lilly’s interview took steps to treat them as equals, and SGs told her the stories that demonstrate they are complex people who have experienced life in a variety of ways. One SG, Januka, expressed that her name means “happy ray of sun,” and that her home country was in Laos. Rather than reducing the SGs to products of their less-developed countries, like her parents had, Lilly was able to educate her classmates about the authenticity of the Semplica Girls. In return, Lilly was mutually acknowledged by the school environment that allowed her to present her project. One could assume that the public school system would perpetuate the views of the outside world, and potentially agree with the objectification of SGs since students were educated on the Microlining process. However, in the context of the school project, Lilly was still able to share her views that opposed popular opinion.

Benjamin’s Reflection on Political Polarization

Benjamin’s theory is built on the basis of defining oneself through the opposition of another. Knowing what you are not allows you to understand what you are. This idealogy can explain the extreme polarization of politics in America. While “Democrat” and “Republican” are labels used under the two-party system, they have evolved into divisive terms. Unlike Benjamin’s typical binary, the oppressor and the “Other” are subjective to the individual. By taking Benjamin’s theory into account it is easier to understand how individuals adopt alienating attitudes toward the opposing party. The fact you are a democrat or are a republican as opposed to having democratic views emphasizes how support for a political party is directly tied to an individual’s identity. In defining yourself as a Democrat it becomes obligatory to align with all viewpoints associated with that party. If you are a democrat then by default you are not a Republican, meaning you agree with all and only democratic positions. To overcome this label-riddled political system, constituents should vote for candidates that align with their beliefs first instead of a “brand”.

Jessica Benjamin’s Theory Surrounding Power

Jessica Benjamin’s book, Bonds of Love, introduces her theoretical argument around subjectivity and power combining the ideas of domination and social, gender, and family roles to bring light to the problem of the power structure. She uses the idea of binary thinking as leverage for domination and hierarchical thought processes. Benjamin ties individualism and the idea that you are you because you are not them into what creates a false sense of self hood and the roles or expectations given to certain people.

The main argument, evident throughout the examples she presents, is that there needs to be a mutual recognition of power and a connectedness to find a common ground on theory of identity. She also highlights the importance that the theory doesn’t deny anyone else’s sense of self as a means to achieve personal individuality and self.

Total domination is a result of unhealthy subjectivity, not being able to be humble enough to fathom the idea of being equally powerful. Mutual respect and recognition between others, being able to recognize an equally respectable sense of self, is what generates a healthy identification of individuality and balance of subjectivity.

Benjamin Reflection

Benjamin’s theory illustrates the power dynamic reflected in many binaries that exist in everyday life, like the relationship between boss and employee. She explains that in order for someone to have power over another, someone has to submit. With money as an incentive, employees willingly follow orders from their bosses. The boss has no physical control over the actions of their employees, but because the employees choose to listen the boss can dictate what they do throughout their shift. Understanding this theory makes it possible to recognize the different power structures in life and potentially dismantle harmful ones. The relationship between boss and employee isn’t innately harmful but many power dynamics are and cannot be addressed without knowing how they are maintained.