Empathetic Engagements

[The following was provoked in response to an article by Daniel Rhodes posted at Epoche Magazine, On Honneth’s Reification, which draws from Axel Honneth’s 2005 Tanner Lectures, Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical ViewI recommend the reader to look at both when they have the time. In the meantime, I’ve edited and filled out my initial response, so that hopefully it is readable in this form, on its own.]

Althusser writes in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses“:

As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being’. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc…). Like all obviousnesses… the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect. It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’

However, it is clear that the ‘obviousness’ of our interpellation as a concrete subject is not something Althusser wants to affirm ‘just how it is’, as if interpellation were a good thing. In a subsequent paragraph, he continues:

But to recognize that we are subjects and that we function in the practical rituals of the most elementary everyday life (the hand-shake, the fact of calling you by your name, the fact of knowing, even if I do not know what it is, that you ‘have’ a name of your own, which means that you are recognized as a unique subject, etc.) – this recognition only gives us the ‘consciousness’ of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition – its consciousness, i.e. its recognition – but in no sense does it give us the (scientific) knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition. Now it is this knowledge that we have to reach, if you will, while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology we have to outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of a scientific (i.e. subject-less) discourse on ideology.

These two paragraphs articulate the illness and the cure: on the one hand, the obviousness of the ideological operation that renders each of us subjects; on the other, the science of this operation, knowledge about how this mechanism of ‘ideological recognition’ works.

Axel Honneth, by contrast, articulates the illness and the cure in different terms. As the title suggests, for him the illness is ‘reification’ and the cure is ‘recognition-view’ or ‘recognitional stance’. Reification is a translation of Verdinglichung (thing-ifying) and it stands for the process or distortion whereby the world is objectified and everything in it treated as an object, equivalent or exchangeable with any other. Reification reigns in commodified exchange. The effects of reification on the lives of humans is pathological like a “mental habit or habitually ossified perspective.” Honneth references Lukacs who tells us that under reified conditions, “subjects begin to perceive their surroundings as mere thing-like givens.” This comes into play, “as soon as [the thing-like givens] come to be viewed according to their potential usefulness in economic transactions.” This in turn causes subjects to lose their empathetic connection to their surroundings and those who populate them. Once everything is a thing, it is easy to detach, not care, and act like an objective observer or bystander. Things, others included, become valuable only insofar as they are, “useful for the pursuit of profit.” These are all distortions of a more genuine praxis of life, which Honneth believes we can restore ourselves to by taking a ‘recognitional’ view on reification (rather than, we could say, an object-oriented one). I will come to Honneth’s understanding of recognition in a moment, but first Althusser.

As is often the difficulty, it is hard to tell here sometimes if the subject is being treated as an object or as a subject. When Althusser suggests that the ideological operation is what first sets the subject apart as a subject, is it not more precise to say it turns it into just another object in the ideological field? Suddenly the individual has a name, a position in space and time, a duration like an object (as Bataille has also noted, this is what brings us into the world of work and utility; my discussion here). As far as ideologies go, nothing could be more fundamental than the interpellation of individuals as subjects in an intersubjective milieu, which comes along with the ‘reification’ of the lifeworld into objects in an external milieu (in which those subjects are also included). In truth we know that this reversibility of the subject, the fact that it can be treated like an object, a thing with a first name, is what opens it to the worst exploitation. The ideological form of recognition that Althusser names is really the solidifying of the subject-object duality: ‘reification’, this time explicitly applied to the individual as a State operation. This cognition, this way of counting things, divides experience up according to the coordinates of space and time; it divides an otherwise holistic environment into a grid of manipulable representations. The individual is reduced to being represented to the other like any other object might be, even if it is nominally endowed with predicates like ‘free’, ‘human’, ‘speaking’. But we do not need to equate all ‘recognition’ with reification, since the question remains: upon what is ideology overlaid? A science of ideology ought to help us recognize what, in recognition, might precede ideology and make its very mechanism possible.

Regarding interpellation and reification, other traditions have recognized these to be the cause of misery and lack of ‘empathy’ in the human lifeworld. In Buddhism, for example, both the notion of myself as subject (the obviousness of ‘I’, my ‘self’ as a thing or unified entity) and my relation to the external world of objects (reification, illusion, projection) arise from the same ignorance. Individuals and things are certainly cognized in this operation, but it is is never guaranteed that such cognitions aren’t ignorant. Spiritual practice was, in large part, a way to recognize what underlies all these cognitions, what lies underneath the name and form we organize in our head, what is behind the ‘other subject’ we interpellate and who interpellates us, and what we share in terms of consciousness or ‘interestedness’. Otherwise, thinking remains ideological: it wallows in an ignorance or forgetting of something more primary about our shared lifeworld that in every case is more immediate than thought and ‘prior’ to it. That more immediate, qualitative experience, which in a sense precedes the ideological world and its subject-objects each time, gets lost with ‘reification’. This loss is exacerbated with the full development of capitalism and its scheming, calculating attitude; or by science when we are treated as automotons, consumers, or a mere bundle of neurons. Buddhists would more radically understand ‘reification’ as an unfounded belief in the reality of the phenomenal world, an attachment to things and the ‘profit’ they might bring in terms of wealth, status, pleasure, and a lack of insight into the ’emptiness’ of such cognitions (ideology is “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”). Enlightenment could even be compared to a quasi-instantaneous ‘recognition’ of what is each-time-prior to the reified world and our acts of cognition, though obviously it is not separate from them. If reification is what imprisons, recognition may liberate.

Now approaching Honneth, any recognition of the falsity of ideological interpellation and reification must be based upon recognition of a more original, antecedent lifeworld or meaningful context that self and other share prior to all cognition. Solterdijk has amply explored this in his Bubbles (see my review). Adorno also states, importantly, that the most primordial aesthetic phenomenon is the shudder, which signifies being-touched-by-the-other [vom Anderen Angerührtseinbefore we are constituted as a subject ourselves; it is the ‘aesthetic’ element of a sensible recognition or contact between… that precedes ideologically produced identity. There, “subjectivity stirs [sich regt] without yet being.” Acknowledging the “blind anxiety” provoked by such a contact, driving the subject into the spell of being, Adorno nonetheless tells us that, “life in the subject is nothing but what shudders” [nichts ist Leben am Subjekt, als daß es erschauert]. He then makes clear the importance of ‘recognizing’ this antecedence of the other’s touch: “Consciousness without shudder is reified consciousness” [Bewußtsein ohne Schauer ist das verdinglichte].

Though we ourselves struggle to find a language to express or communicate this ‘shudder’, this prior-to-self touch or encounter, this qualitative experience that precedes the mind-driven division of…, we nonetheless find many testimonies to this effect. What is crucial in combating the reified world is a recognition of what it itself is based on: the shared lifeworld, non-identitarian consciousness, mutual meaningful involvements, etc. Broadly speaking, this ‘recognition’ would always seem to come ‘prior; to cognition, while also making it possible (Krishnamurti deals with this problem in the transition from thought to ‘intelligence‘). However we phrase it, for Honneth recognizing the antecedent self(-)other interaction, cross-identification or sympathy, obliges us to undertake the difficult work of suspending our ‘indifferent, observing activity’, our habit of relating to the world by way of a ‘neutral cognition of objective circumstances’ (facts included, since facticity is only grounded in care). For him, “the conception of objectified and reified relations is merely a kind of interpretive veil concealing our factical care and empathetic engagement.” That interpretive veil is the ideology we so spontaneously have about subjects and objects, interpellation and duality. It is ‘obvious’ and unquestioned, yet everyone suffers under the careless, emotionless, self-based ‘society’ it creates.

Let me say why I take issue with Rhodes’ characterization of Honneth. He writes that the latter advocates, “a pre-critical stance in which things are so merely because they are so” and elevates “precognition” or “uncritical obviousness” to the level of “redemption” (Honneth uses none of these terms). First, the ‘obviousnesses’ in Althusser referred to the way in which we are submitted to the ideological operation par excellence: our being interpellated as a subjects in an intersubjective space, ‘reified’ as atomic things in the external world. This ‘obviousness’ is of the ideological operation itself, not of what is in itself. Indeed, the moment one questions the obviousness of ideology, of life according to the Logos, one asks what is underneath language itself and the entire mechanism of naming, what ‘prior engagement’ might be driving cognition itself. Prereflexive knowledge could very well lie beyond acts of cognition; neither contradict awareness. If what Honneth urges us to recognize is ‘obvious’ in any sense, it is clearly an obviousness we struggle to remember and which we have a very hard time bringing to language (whereas ideological obviousness functions smoothly, it ‘works’ every time). The obvious is always ‘vanishing’ from our thought–or at least from wherever thought looks for it.

All the great spiritual disciplines, which are in their own way sciences of ideology, emphasized that we have forgotten our source somehow, our essence. Even if its idea is firmly planted in us, it takes work to break reified habits and overcome ignorance with knowledge and insight into these mechanisms. Honneth speaks of ‘prereflective knowledge or marginal practices’, but he says clearly analysis helps us recognize this knowledge; this is no more pre-critical than Buddhamind or gnosis. Recognition is not a magic wand but a practice that protects against ‘pathology’, ‘skepticism’ and ‘identity thought’. It increases our attentiveness to interdependence (pratītyasamutpāda); to the qualitative experience and engaged praxis that precede all ‘useful doings’ and ‘acts of detached cognition’ (111); and to the holistic nature of the world as its value —everything that ideology, which interpellates us as social atoms, reifies the subject-object duality, and renders everything manipulable by representation, obscures and deadens our capacity for. Subject and object only correlate when they indicate together their common origin or common belonging in a disclosed whole world, in the ‘total pervasive quality’ of the immediately ‘given’ (but this is not a ‘thing’ and no ‘subject’ receives it).

So, we must be careful to avoid a misunderstanding. Honneth refers to a recognition of what is antecedent a) to ideological interpellation as a subject in Althusser’s sense and b) to reification as a thing in consciousness more broadly. It is antecedent to ‘obviousnesses’ of ideology, but this is far from obvious, except perhaps in moments when we shudder. The difficulty, of course, is that any recognition of our prereflexive co-implication with others is all but ignored or brushed over in our normal thought-worlds. ‘Forgetfulness of recognition’ is at the root of wars and capitalist discourse, violence and dispute, for to forget it is to forget our antecedent interaction and reify the other as a thing to be judged, placed, manipulated and exploited. What is pathological about this forgetting is that it encourages an environment in which humans act without acknowledging each other and each other’s meaningful involvements; without recognizing that an affirmation of the other is presupposed in all our acts and that therefore care and justice must always be involved.

What is clear is that Honneth does not mean ‘recognition’ in the sense that Althusser outlines at the end of his text. There, individual is interpellated as a subject in order to be subjected to the Subject, through which subjects will recognize each other and their subjection, leading them to accept everything as it is and say ‘So be it!’ In this form, recognition only guarantees, “the conditions of exploitation and its reproduction,” and assigns subjects to their posts. But Rhodes’ comment that, “perhaps there’s no escaping the reality that we are all interpolated subjects,” cannot be Honneth’s position, because ‘escaping’ such a subject-ified reality (ideology, reification) is what recognition helps us with or paves the way toward. Better put, recognition implies another vantage point on, stance toward, the reified social world as such. It encourages different economies of care between self, other and nature that can resist the individual’s ideological interpretation as a subject to a Subject it must obey. When Honneth writes, “I am concerned with showing that emotional receptivity ‘comes before’ the transition to cognition of intersubjectively given objects in a strictly temporal sense,” this includes the subjects that are treated as objects (i.e., reified, commodified, sold, etc.) by the powers that be. The critique is lodged against ‘cognition’, ‘scheming’ and ‘calculation’ because the ISA reaches down that far. Implied is not a rejection of thought for the sake of some pre-critical ‘thereness’, but a call to reground cognitive our activity and habits in recognitional stances (Cavell) that, in a sense, refuse the operation of interpellation and reification as much as possible. (Martin Buber also contrasted the I-You relationship with the I-It object world and sought to brighten the latter by entering fully into the light of the former.) At any rate, Honneth understands, “the antecedent act of recognition not as the contrary of objectified thought but as its condition of possibility,” which in turn means that, “acknowledgement of the other is the nonepistemic prerequisite for linguistic understanding” (acknowledgment is different from interpellation). Prior to acts of reason, acts of com-passion. Prior to logos, meaning or ideology, an encounter and focus of listening. Understanding as a product of care and empathetic engagement, not its opposite.

Rhodes is right to point out the quasi-religious element that pervades this form of thought and all the others that Honneth examines, but he either does not grasp the kernel of this religious element or he exaggerates and mischaracterizes how is being retained here. Contrary to the impression he gives, this entails no ‘let it be’ mantra or obvious messiahs. Moreover, I see no reason to consent to Rhodes’ assertion that, “We cannot shine our intellectual lights upon recognitions.” Don’t we do this all the time? If I recognize I love someone, sure, this means I ‘already’ love them. This is a fact before I can or know how to think about it (and we all know that cognizing it sometimes brings trouble). But that does not mean my love remains impenetrable or unthinkable for me. On the contrary, I am capable of reframing my entire life based on this recognition. A primary recognition could potentially be thought through infinitely, since no act of cognition or expression of it can ever exhaust it. Without that possibility, what good would be psychoanalysis, for one, or investigating the mechanics of consciousness through other methods, for another? I might even argue that all great ‘intellectual’ pursuits are based in recognitional stances, upon profound recognitions (unforgettable) and ‘nonepistemic’ understandings that take form in habit and bloom in works and contemplation (in Agamben’s sense, not Althusser’s). Recognition need not imply something static; in fact its fundamental mode might be surprise or, following Adorno’s suggestion about the ‘life in the subject’, shuddering. The point is that we did not recognize before what we now recognize and this changes our view on everything. Even if it was waiting there all along, recognition itself is the crucial step, the watershed moment from which unknown and potentially infinite consequences can flow. It cannot be overestimated, since only upon recognition can it be estimated.

The lesson to be drawn here is that intellect and cognition are rooted in an ‘empathetic engagement’ where an attitude of care prevails; and that they risk becoming pathological and ‘inhuman’ whenever care is lost. But recognizing these care-structures rooted in the I-You perspective, prior to interpellation; recognizing ‘us’ as preceding and making possible cognition of the I-It object world; waking ourselves up from ignorance, from the ‘socially compelled neutralization’ of primary recognitions; overturning the most fundamental moves of ideology, inter-subjectivization and subject-object duality — none of this is easy business. There is no false messiah of obviousness here, but the hard work of caring, of undecidable compassions, of disclosing meaningful and creating just worlds in and for others, seeing that all our world-making activities involve all. The suggestion that Honneth thinks, “our world is ultimately justified in that nothing is unjustifiable,” is not supported by my reading of the lecture. He does not promote the simplistic reality Rhodes accuses him of promoting in which, “answers precede solutions and questions never become problems.” The allusion to Heidegger’s embrace of remembrance and poetry as evidence of Honneth’s potential complicity with fascist, aestheticized politics is not to my mind a reasonable conjecture. It seems to me, on the contrary, that he is at pains to emphasize how conceptual thought is not the opposite of empathetic engagement [Anteilnahme]. To speak of empathy and care in the construction of meaningful worlds, to see that recognitional stances have, “genetic and categorical priority over all other attitudes toward the self and the world,” does not mean abandoning our critical faculties. Though he does not recommend ‘reasonable policy’ as Rhodes would like, Honneth’s recognition-view of reification is clearly meant to help us toward better uses of life, nature, technology, language, economy, other and self. Granted, it is not a prescriptive method; it can only approach us on an ‘individual’ level, where it is our singular intrications, potentials and life-tasks that we become more aware of (though what is recognized each time is indeed perhaps much simpler). It is not a flight into poetry that naively says yes to things as they are, even if it sometimes is. To mistake recognizing the simple with a simple task is to misrecognize recognition, including one’s responsibility to the other and to recognition itself. To see the challenge in the simple: that is empathetic engagements’ great chance.

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