Bonds of Love: Jessica Benjamin’s Theory of Identity

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.

Benjamin’s Theory Applied to U.S Immigration

Benjamin’s theory is present when looking at U.S citizens’ attitudes toward immigration. Many U.S citizens have a negative attitude toward people trying to immigrate to the U.S. Since immigrants were not born in the United States, they are seen as other, or not the same, as U.S citizens. Their dehumanization through the separation of families and unfair treatment is seen as acceptable to many U.S. citizens because U.S. citizens do not view the immigrating people as humanely as they view themselves. There is no mutual recognition between the U.S citizen and the immigrant. They are othered through their different birthplace, language, and culture. Although there are some U.S citizens who advocate for better treatment of immigrants, which works toward mutual recognition, the fact that mistreatment still occurs shows that mutual recognition is not yet met.

Benjamin’s Bonds of love realted to real world

 Benjamin explains the minor flaws in Frued’s argument because there needs to be a “balance of separation and connectedness,” for individuality to truly form. She states that one has to recognize the differences and similarities between subjects and have a sense of connectedness in order to have a healthy sense of identity. For a person to actually find their identity they need to understand that they are not the other, they are an individual, yet still doing so without conflict. It is important to recognize differences and understand them. Her theory makes me think about my sense of individuality. Do I have it? Meaning a full sense of identity. If so, how did it happen? What did I do? It brings up so many questions that I truly do not know the answers to. How does one know they have individuality? The concept is still new to me. However, it does make me think about the amount of people that believe that women don’t have a great sense of self due to their gender, and the topic of gender is also a huge deal today. This can be tied in with the broader discussion about gender and that can be tied into politics and individuality and power. Many struggle with the search for individuality and many want power in some way. These are challenging topics to begin to understand because it happens for everyone. Everyone must experience these dilemmas in some way, maybe it is more difficult for others and maybe it’s easier for another. Maybe, an event had to happen for someone to truly understand. As I stated before, it is a very interesting topic to me but as a senior in high school I still have no idea what it means.

The Deeper Bonds of Love

Domination; the state of being in control. Jessica Benjamin expresses domination a lot; she calls it “a twisting of the bonds of love.” She emphasizes that domination starts between yourself and others. And that there’s a psychological destruction within the desire for recognition. Benjamin states that to recognize the heaviness of psychological destruction it has to start with parent and child. That’s where domination kicks in, whether if it’s the child that has dominion over the parent, if they want that special toy, they kick and scream just to get it. Or if the parent has control over the child, by always telling them what to do. Benjamin believes that’s a bond of power and powerlessness. Where you can’t just have good and not evil, but both.

Benjamin’s and Sigmund Freud’s similarity are pertaining to Parent and Child. Well in Freud’s case Father and Son. Which, Benjamin argues, is not fair to leave women out of his subjectivity. So she uses a psychoanalysis theory to show that feminism and masculinity are a new problem of domination along with parent and child. Benjamin mentions this because of how they play a part in Psychoanalysis theory. When we have both feminism and masculinity, it opens up many possibilities for Men and Women to confront the difficulties and recover an idea of interconnection.

Benjamin’s idea of life, can open our own thoughts and connections to the psychoanalysis theory she was explaining about. Like how it’s okay to have masculine features in women or vice-versa for men. And just to dive deeper in the explanations of how she talks about the bond between parent and child, and how sometimes it is rough, especially when you both want to be right, but you know, that’s not fair on all engagements. When reading “The Bonds of Love” we can deeper relate to what Benjamin is talking about and how it has a role on us and the world.