Benjamin argues that one becomes a subject by having someone else, who also recognizes themself as a subject, recognize you as such.
This differs from Freud’s model of identity as Benjamin’s centers one’s capacity “for agency and relatedness” rather than separation from another. Benjamin denounces Freud’s theory for the purpose of neglecting such connection as integral to one’s subjectivity. She argues we become more of an individual when interacting with other subjects and that knowing oneself “in the context of knowing another” contributes to identity formation.
According to Benjamin, her proposed formation of identity (that recognizing oneself, recognizing another self, and being recognized by that other self) is necessary to eliminate hierarchy (which arises out of Freud’s model) and create equality. This hierarchy is evident in Freud’s assertion that one is an individual when they realize they are not something, implying superiority and centralizing one identity (i.e. a child is not their mother). Benjamin formed her theory on the basis that one’s identity does not rely on the invalidation of another self to become whole. If this hierarchy is not eliminated, Benjamin asserts that there will always be a power imbalance where one person controls the identity of the other.
An application of Benjamin’s theory may be a younger person wanting to sit at the big kids/adults table. To become a part of the “in group”, to be a revered, cooler, older person, the younger person must be recognized by the older folks, who the young person recognizes as subjects and have recognized themselves as subjects in sitting at the “big kids” table.
This illuminates the power dynamic between those already recognized, an “in group”, and those wishing to be recognized. There could be a faction who recognizes one another, but refuses to recognize someone outside of the group. This upholds a certain sense of superiority of the “in group”, and is exemplified in our society with systemic hierarchies in regard to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Those who hold material as well as non-physical power can control the recognition of another group as worthy of personhood or not.
To eliminate this superiority and hierarchy, one must always recognize another as a subject who wishes to be recognized and also recognizes you, as we are all humans who have no superiority or right to grant or deny subjectivity to another. Of course, I am contradicting myself by saying we have no right to grant or deny subjectivity so we must always grant it, but Benjamin’s theory is also based on a contradiction.