The Violence of Recognition

I had a conversation recently with a student of mine from 15 years ago. She rather casually, and not necessarily meaning to be provocative, referred to me as an asshole. This gave me pause — but not for the reasons you might think.

The fact is, for many years, I considered myself a certain kind of asshole. And, no doubt, I was. I was often flippant with feelings, my own and others. In any conversation, I quickly tried to prove myself smarter and more socially perverse than to whomever I was speaking. Somebody would say,  "I'm so excited I'm going to India for a month!" To which I'd inevitably reply, scowling, "Of your own volition?"  Yes, I took a certain pride in being an asshole — and wore it, like an asshole, as a badge of pride.

But people change. I've changed. I got older and less interested in being much of anything to anybody: I no longer need to be the smartest or most provocative person in the  room. In fact, I spent a year purposefully trying to be the most boring person in the room (which taught me a lot but was, well, boring). And I've experienced some things that have humbled me, made me more acutely aware of the pathos of life, the pain of existence many people carry. Where I never used to cry, now I cry all the time — and I love it. I love feeling deeply, resonantly, with all the joy, fear, loss, and pain of existence. This isn't depression. This is joy, an affirmation of the world's pathetic becoming — Spring's buds, Fall's decay, Winter's dearth, Summer's dehiscence. Anyway, I stand towards myself and others in a fundamentally different way than I used to.

And yet this young woman, in a gesture of social complicity, called me an asshole as a way to recognize me. She didn't mean anything bad. On the contrary, she was looking for easy complicity. Such is the presumed power of recognition: it articulates a seeming intimacy. When we turn to someone and say, "Oh, you in particular will love this," we are claiming to know that person so well we can become an extension of their taste.

But there is an aggression, a violence, in this recognition. As the word itself tells us, to recognize is not to see a person; it is to know a person again — to re-cognize. By definition, recognition is backwards looking. It takes up what's in front of you and rather than seeing how it's going right now, how it might go differently than you anticipate, you place it in a pre-existing category. When I was in grad school, I was suddenly delirious with Deleuze — an excitement I'd express. My fellow grads would casually mutter, Oh, that's just rehashed Bergson, or some such equally vacuous utterance. Grad students are taught to recognize, not to reckon.

This is in fact the cornerstone of our dominant epistemology. We teach classes on Freudian psychoanalysis and then ask students to recognize Freudian concepts in the films, books, and art they see. Look, there's Oedipus! There he is again. I see penis envy over here. Suddenly, the world of art is no longer actually seen, no longer proffering new worlds, forging new relationships, new ways the world can go. On the contrary, it is already known, examples of a world that's already happened.

This is what I refer to in my book as exemplary reading — making something an example of something else that already exists. We watch movies and define their genre: That's noir! Or we see them playing out patriarchy or the Oedipal complex or colonialism— things that pre-exist the film and are themselves not up for grabs, not to be interpreted. The film, then, is no longer something that creates its own school, its own concepts, its own set of associations: it is an example of something else. This is how we control the chaos of the event, of life as it transpires: we rely on anchors — buckets of things we take as true that we can then put new things into. This is postmodern; that's Renaissance; that's neoclassical. In this way, nothing is ever new. Everything is recognized.
Of course, recognition is not necessarily violent or even reductive. We can recognize things in surprising places, see ourselves or things we love in a work of art in such a way that we think about ourselves differently. Deleuze finds Francis Bacon in Egyptian bas-relief. In this case, recognition inaugurates the uncanny — the point at which we know and don't know something. We don't know it already; we know it again, that is to say, anew (repetition rather than recognition).

There can also be something comforting about plain old recognition. The flux of life is often difficult. I, for one, can feel lost, dazed and confused, not sure of who I am. It's a disconcerting feeling, to say the least. At such times, it can be so nice to be recognized — even by myself. Perhaps I'll put on some music I've always loved to recognize myself in that love (mind you, this can backfire when you don't feel that love anymore). The recognition can come from someone else, too. I've definitely lived through a few personal spiraling outs and been rescued by a friend telling me who I am, telling me things I already know about myself, giving me my legs back.

So I am not disparaging recognition per se. I am, however, trying to displace it as a cornerstone of how we know things — whether it's a film or another person. Because it can be so particularly violent to recognize another person. When this young woman, meaning no harm, so casually referred to me as an asshole, I felt suffocated. If she thinks she knows me as such, is there anything I can do to bring her — and me, us, our rapport — to the present? If all my behavior is already seen as an example of my assholeness, what can I possibly do? The true violence of recognition is that, because it already knows, it never questions itself — and everything new gets filtered through its murderous gaze.

And this is the violence of recognition. It denies a thing its life, its ability to be in time, to be in flux: to change. Imagine no matter what you do, what you say, it is already interpreted as you being an asshole. Or a partier when you're more sober than you've ever been. Or as a mean guy who manipulates people when you've worked hard not to be like that anymore. It is such a wretched kind of violence as you're still alive, still doing things, but everything you do is already accounted for. It's a particular kind of horror: a living, breathing suffocation.

We do this to ourselves, too. At the risk of being too personal, I was a bad parent when my son was a baby — too quick to anger or indifference. And, as is my mode, I made casual self-deprecating references to my lousy parenting; it became part of how I identified myself, how I recognized myself. But I worked hard to change, to be a good parent, to be patient and demonstrably loving and interested. Frankly, I've been pretty successful (it is one of only two things I am proud of in my life; the other is my divorce). And yet, at times, I still try to recognize the bad parent in myself. Even writing that I've changed gave me pause as I still don't recognize myself as a good parent. I

Recognition, of course, is deployed as a mode of social control. Stop doing that! That's not you. This is a common theme in films. Think about "Mad Men"'s Peggy Olson. She is at first recognized as a secretary from Brooklyn which comes with a whole series of assumptions and expectations about what she wants in life. Everything she does is read in terms of this category of woman; her every action is an example for which she is judged. Don't hide those ankles! You'll never get a man. The show does a great job of letting us see this from her perspective — and it is horrifying. Then, after working hard to be seen differently in the workplace, her family refuses to see her with soft eyes, to witness her flux. This is how social groups — from the nation to the family to a group of high school friends — maintain control: they insist on recognizing you. Try to act otherwise and you are shamed or rebuffed.

Small groups of friends do this all the time. I think about this scene from "Grease." The look on Travolta's and Stockard Channing's face are so telling, so complex, so heartbreaking. To stay in his group and maintain his social capital, Danny has to be recognized as a certain kind of cool. Of course, by the end, he wants to recognized otherwise — as does Olivia Newton-John's Sandy. This is a film, in many ways, about the power and violence of recognition.

So how are we to see others? Isn't it another form of violence to not recognize your friends? To have them constantly assessed, reconsidered, their identity obliged to keep meeting some more or less elusive criteria of judgement? Imagine every time you saw your lover, your best friend, your mother and they asked: Who are you? It'd be disorienting. You want — need — them to recognize some of you.

I want to suggest that there's a way of knowing, of seeing, that is tethered neither to recognition nor to the ever-alien. It is not just generous to the now; it takes more than soft eyes. It's an historical mode of seeing that is historical all the way through — where history is not just what's happened but what is happening. The image I keep returning to is the act of leading the other the way a hunter leads the running deer. But while we might conjure images of assassins with rifles, we might also think about leading your teammates in soccer or hockey — a generous collaboration.

There's something generous and beautiful here, a feeling for the way someone is going. It demands a coming to know — not of an identity but of a way of going, feeling for the speed, rhythm, and intensity of a living body. It's a feeling for style. Style is a how, not a what, and so demands a different mode of engagement — a temporal sense making. Sure, we might still try to recognize someone's style even though it's changed. I was just watching the new Jerry Seinfeld stand up special and his comedy has changed— not just his content, but his style (thankfully, he's shed his "affable" banality for cranky misanthropy). And, no doubt, many feel betrayed, confused, annoyed.

Which makes me think of Dylan going electric. He was met with aggression everywhere he played, the audience would booing and walking out. That audience was so focused on his what, not his how. They viewed him as a folk singer and protest singer. But Dylan was showing off his style, his mode of engagement with the world. When he went electric, it was not discontinuous per se; he offered a how (relentless protest, relentless change) that refused the tyranny of the what (acoustic folk music). His style is precisely the refusal to be recognized (this is the very basis of Todd Hayne's movie on Dylan, "I'm Not There"). At one show, someone rather famously yells, Judas, at which point Dylan and the Band promptly launch into a loud, rollicking version of "Like a Rolling Stone" — a song all about change without a direction home.

To lead someone, to anticipate them, is to recognize them while remaining open to what's happening, to what may come. It's a look that sees the past and the present while leaning into the future, the way a batter in baseball follows a pitch. It's an engaged, lively mode of seeing, certainly not for the lazy. It's a mode of seeing that doesn't seek identity but engages repetition (pace Deleuze) — the way something forges itself ever anew along a more or less complex series.

This can be disconcerting. Often, we want certain people to stay the same — our parents, our professors, our therapists, our oldest friends. We may rely on them as an external anchor so we can define ourselves by them. My mother's conservative but I'm radical! That gets complex if your mother is no longer conservative. But that's on us, not them. Limiting these figures to what they were is cruel.

If my former student — with whom I hadn't spoken in a decade — had led me rather than recognized me, she'd have given me room to become, to be different to myself and her. For better or worse, I'd not be the person she knew but someone living here and now like this — a this she'd yet to reckon. A person who perhaps has metabolized life in such a way that he's something else. In which case, she might have called me something other than an asshole. Then again, maybe not.

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