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  • The Politics of ‘Misrecognition’: A Feminist Critique
  • Claudia Leeb (bio)


For the past decade and a half, social and political thinkers have appropriated the Hegelian trope of a “struggle for recognition” to generate theories that lead to a democratic politics of inclusion.1 The different strands within the “politics of recognition debate” share the conviction that “recognition” is a central human good and the precondition for justice in pluralist societies. However, the French psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan questions an ethics based on recognition. “Lots of things have been made to fit within the political myth of the ‘struggle for life,’” he argues in Book I, “If it was Darwin who wrought it, that was because he came of a nation of privateers, for whom racism was the basic industry.”2

I share Lacan’s suspicion of an ethics based on recognition or its counterpart—misrecognition. Contemporary thinkers, who have wrought this trope for politics have continued to mythologize it, thereby not so much contributing to a politics of inclusion, but instead, perpetuating a politics of exclusions. What parades as a pluralist society where subjects supposedly “equally recognize each other in their diversity” often ends up in the exclusion of different subjects, such as women, sexual and racial minorities, and the poor. Although the influence of the politics of recognition is fading, perhaps because some thinkers have realized its inherent problems, it remains a dominant strand in contemporary political theorizing.

Some thinkers, such as Patchen Markell, have pointed to the problematic aspects of a politics based on recognition. The dominance of the “politics of recognition” in contemporary political theorizing, Markell argues, does not so much contribute to establish more just societies; instead, this strand of theorizing “made it more difficult to comprehend and confront unjust social and political relations.”3 Although there are some contemporary thinkers who question the validity of the politics of recognition debate, a thorough critique on this strand of thinking remains to be written—its representatives remain perhaps too powerful figures in the field of political theory and philosophy to be challenged.

This paper develops such a challenge further. Its aim is two-fold: First, it explains why the language of recognition delivers an inadequate foundation for a political theory that aims at a politics of inclusion. Second, it proposes an alternative political theory, a “politics of a subject-in-outline,” as a philosophical foundation for a politics of inclusion.4 It shows that a politics of recognition functions on the level of the Lacanian ego, which excludes everyone who does not neatly fit into the ideal whole it defends. In contrast, a politics of a subject-in-outline emerges in the Lacanian real, the moment beyond recognition, which points at the gaps in the political community. It is through these gaps where those excluded can enter the political community and contest its boundaries.

The paper defends its argument in three sections. The first section, “The Ego in the Hegelian Mirror Encounter,” explains why a politics of recognition leads to injustice. It reads Lacan alongside Hegel, to show why Hegel himself, who is claimed by contemporary recognition theorists (from Fukuyama to Honneth) as the central source for their vision of a just society based on mutual recognition, was rather suspicious of an ethics based on recognition. This section argues that Hegel’s staging of the processes of “mutual recognition” in the Phenomenologie des Geistes leads to the creation of a politics of the ego, which violently suppresses difference.

The second section, “A Politics of a Subject-in-Outline,” shows that the aspect in Lacan’s thought where Lacan goes beyond Hegel—the real—provides a philosophical basis for a politics of inclusion. Hegel, although suspicious of an ethics based on recognition, ultimately aimed to establish a just society based on recognition, which renders his project problematic for political theorizing. In contrast, Lacan’s thought is fruitful for such theorizing, because it breaks with the limited language of recognition. Such a break occurs at the point when the real takes center stage in his later works.5 Here the language of recognition and misrecognition disappears and the possibility of an ethics grafted on the real reappears in...