Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition.

Citation: Markell, Patchen. “Introduction.” and “From Recognition to Acknowledgement.” Bound by Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.  1-8; 9-38.
_________________________________________________________________Argument  This book is a complex entry into debates around recognition and alternatives to it. His central thesis is that a politics of acknowledgement rather than recognition is in order, as well as a better understanding of how recognition works to support hegemonic forms of power, along a temporal rather than spatial axis.

Scope/Organization/Main Points:

Apparently driven by civil rights movements and attendant assertions of cultural distinctiveness, “scholars have even begun to talk of a general shift away from a ‘politics of redistribution’ towards a ‘politics of recognition’” (2). The concern is that the turn to recognition ignores the fact that recognition politics exist within “relations of social and political subordination” that are not simply failures to “recognize others’ identities, but as ways of patterning the world that allow some people and groups to enjoy a semblance of sovereign agency at others’ expense” (5).  In fact, “politics of recognition” embody an entire discourse of action and reaction, identified by others as such, or not (6). Hence, one of his objectives is to ‘out’ those not normally regarded as engaging in a politics of recognition (6).

Expanding on Taylor’s differentiation between monological and dialogical conceptions of identity formations, Markell writes that recognition has its own detrimental role to play, insofar as it “deals with socially and historically situated subjects, with human beings understood as members of communities and as bearers of particular identities, and with distinctive forms of injustice that operate not merely by systematically depriving already-constituted subjects of resources, but by shaping subjects themselves in ways that produce and perpetuate systematic inequality” (11). This is correct, but it also “misses the point” (11), insofar as recognition works for a desire for an unachievable sovereignty, in part derived from the State’s own processes of achieving sovereignty, that perpetuates limited and limiting cycles of recognition and misrecognition (12).

He discusses Hannah Arendt’s rare but important insights about recognition, such that identity is formed always in the moment of perception and action, rather than based on a pre-existing, a priori form, meaning that the “relationship of action to identity” must be rethought (13). Privileging the temporal bent of identity (ie., in flux an changing) enables Markell to recentre time, which he feels has been neglected, in order to implicate “the pursuit of sovereignty” in unjust and inequitable systems (23) and thus counter some of the spatializing effects of recognition, where identity is conceived of as fixed and pre-existing. This seems to be his way of turning away from essentializing approaches to identity, albeit in fancy language. As he later states, “the root of injustice in relations of identity and difference is not identity as such but rather the effort to make identity – that as-yet-unfinished and unpredictable story of one’s life – into the ground of an impossible sovereignty over one’s own future” (23-4).

This has some relevance for me, particularly given the problems that arise when Indigenous identity is taken as fixed. However, he is also saying that identity is not the problem.  He soundly denounces Taylor for not taking power and knowledge into account, and for treating identity too much as a fait accompli, but gives Nancy Fraser more credit.

Nevertheless, he notes that, in arguing for a combination of redistribution and recognition to form a “status model,” Fraser misses “an extended engagement with the deeper question of the sources of misrecognition, including the meaning of misrecognition for those who commit or benefit from it” (21).  His problems with recognition has much in common with Coulthard, whereby recognition claims, and their concomitant responses, “furth[er] the state’s project of rendering the social world ‘legible’ and governable: to appeal to the state for recognition of one’s own identity – to present oneself as knowable – is already to offer the state the reciprocal recognition of its sovereignty that it demands” (31).

Counter to recognition, Markell recommends “acknowledgement”: “to acknowledge another is in the first instance to respond to, to act in light of, something about oneself; and conversely, the failure of acknowledgement, the ‘avoidance’ of the other, is crucially a distortion of one’s own self-relation, an avoidance of something unbearable about oneself” (35). This definition doesn’t totally hold up, as he later describes absence and refusal as forms of acknowledgement, and these approaches might actually be more desireable than striving to confront our others all of the time. At the same time, he is aware of the problem with the concept of acknowledgement insofar as it risks locating the centre of attention in the self (which reminds me of Helen Hoy’s introduction), insisting that acknowledgment means reconceiving knowledge as not all-encompassing and final, but instead rethionking “what we can expect our knowledge of others to do for us” such as “serv[ing] as the ground for of sovereign agency, of a posture of mastery” (36).

Markell contends that “the modesty of acknowledgement” is what allows it to be flexible and adaptable to particular contexts – another limitation of Fraser’s assessment, which imagines a somewhat more universal approach to establishing “peer” relationships.

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • His insistence on locating recognition within a matrix of power and attempts towards sovereignty
  • Concept of “acknowledgement”
  • The limitations of rejecting knowledge (which he tempers somewhat), including the tendency to locate the subject in the self too much
  • The relationship of recognition to sovereignty and action can be extended to discuss land and place-based politics, and connect to Indigenization insofar as recognition is always-already in the service of the impossible quest for sovereignty.
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