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The Politics of Recognition


Read through the following excerpt and then respond to the cluster of related questions in your post. You should cite at least one specific passage (include page or chapter #).

In “The Politics of Recognition,” the philosopher Charles Taylor spells out what is meant by demanding recognition:

The demand for recognition in these latter cases is given urgency by the supposed links between recognition and identity, where the latter term designates something like a person’s understanding of who they are, of their fundamental defining characteristics as a human being. The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by the recognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being. (Taylor 25).

Taylor’s essay is largely a meditation on multiculturalism, which he endorses, as an effort to accord every culture and individual worth. Here we are not just talking about tolerance but acceptance. Asymmetries of power in this context are very important, as certain groups have more power than others, so their refusal to recognize a marginalized group or minority can create real harm. This is why, for example, discussions of racial prejudice must account for structural inequalities. So long as power is unevenly distributed among groups of people, not all prejudices are equally detrimental. Thus, the demand for recognition is made by a marginalized group to a group or groups of people with the power to recognize. It should also be noted this is a demand for social equality rather than economic equity (therefore it’s liberal).

Based on what you’ve read so far, does it seem to be the case that Chesnutt is (or any of his characters are) demanding recognition in the sense Taylor describes? Or does his critique of the law and other Southern institutions assume a different form? Put simply, this is an invitation for you to speculate on this novel’s political vision—you may even suggest that it isn’t overtly programmatic at all. If that’s the case, why would Chesnutt leave things ambiguous? Or, put another way, does Chesnutt play around with the idea of recognition—are there misrecognitions or nonrecognitions in this novel, and what is the significance behind them?


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