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Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 243–263 | Cite as

The cunning of recognition: Melanie Klein and contemporary critical theory

  • David W McIvor
Article

Abstract

Ever since Freud introduced the idea of the death drive as a means of explaining the apparently inborn inclination towards aggression, psychoanalysis has been riven by the question of negativity. For social theorists who lean upon psychoanalysis, the question is even more acute: how should these theories interpret the persistence of misrecognition and violence within contemporary societies? Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition represents the most compelling attempt to address these questions within the so-called ‘third generation’ of critical theory, yet Honneth sidesteps or sublimates the most troubling aspects of the psychoanalytic legacy, displaying a quasi-Hegelian ‘cunning of recognition’ that sees human destructiveness as a purposive, experimental force within the psyche and the social. By rooting his theory in the work of D.W. Winnicott, Honneth avoids the ambivalent account of psychic and social life offered by object relations theorists such as Melanie Klein and Wilfrid Bion. However, I argue that Klein’s concept of ‘integration’ offers a more compelling orientation for social theory, insofar as it countenances the fragility of recognition alongside a desire for misrecognition. The turn to Klein and those directly influenced by her, such as Bion and Hanna Segal, has both theoretical and practical implications for contemporary critical theory. Theoretically it makes the case for reconnecting mainline critical theory – with its overtures to liberalism and deliberative democracy – with agonistic approaches to social life. Practically speaking it directs attention to the social and political spaces by which destructive impulses can be effectively articulated, held, and to some extent worked through. In particular, it offers a psychological and political defense of recent experiments in local, grassroots-organized truth and reconciliation processes.

Keywords

recognition Axel Honneth Melanie Klein critical theory aggression agonism 

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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • David W McIvor
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

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