The cunning of recognition: Melanie Klein and contemporary critical theory

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    By the mid-1970s Habermas would write of inner nature as inherently malleable insofar as it does not erect any ‘absolute barriers’ to social integration (1973, p. 43). Even within his earlier work, however, Habermas was leery of claims about the drives; as he put it in On the Logic of the Social Sciences, ‘we shall never arrive at such a thing as drives that have not been linguistically interpreted’ (1988, p. 73). I examine the implications of Habermas’s turns towards and away from psychoanalysis in McIvor (2014).

  2. 2.

    In this respect, Honneth attempts to honor the interpretive authority and ability of individual social actors, rather than assuming that unarticulated (or inarticulable) needs, which only the well-positioned social theorist can detect, lie behind the backs of these actors. For a similar argument about how social life is increasingly characterized by an operative ‘imperative to justify’, and how this imperative might shift the orientation of the critical theorist or sociologist, see Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot (2006).

  3. 3.

    In this quote the reference is to Dewey, and not Hegel, but Honneth’s writings on Hegel display the same uneasiness towards teleological accounts of human development.

  4. 4.

    Lacanian theory takes the latter approach. See Edelman (2014) and Dolar (2009). For a critique of Lacanian approaches and ideas of ‘lack’, see Alford (2014); see also McIvor (2014).

  5. 5.

    It should be acknowledged that Winnicott is often and justly considered a successor to Klein and an inheritor/developer of the object relations approach. Nevertheless, Winnicott was unable or unwilling to take on board certain controversial claims by Klein about envy and greed, feeling that this amounted to an untenable theory of drive dynamics. However, there are significant costs attending this choice, as the works of Segal and Bion make clear. For more on the relationship between Klein and Winnicott, see Aguayo (2002) and Likirman (2002).

  6. 6.

    As C. Fred Alford puts it, Klein not only identifies ‘evil’ as a presence within our lives, but she goes further in positing a ‘love of evil’, made manifest by envy (Alford, 2006b, p. 220).

  7. 7.

    Andreas Wildt (2010) has noted that within psychoanalytic approaches, recognition is not exclusively an intersubjective relation but also ‘the affirmation of reality in spite of efforts that conflict or reject it’ – or what Klein would call integration. On this reading, recognition is a ‘counterconcept to “defense”, repression, and especially disavowal’. As a counter to disavowal, recognition involves accepting what Wildt calls the ‘bitter facts of life’, including mortality and finitude (2010, p. 190). Patchen Markell (2003) makes a similar distinction between recognition and acknowledgment, which for Markell is a better means of appreciating human non-sovereignty and plurality. See also Shulman (2011) and Benjamin (1995).

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McIvor, D. The cunning of recognition: Melanie Klein and contemporary critical theory. Contemp Polit Theory 15, 243–263 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2015.47

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Keywords

  • recognition
  • Axel Honneth
  • Melanie Klein
  • critical theory
  • aggression
  • agonism