Beyond Neoliberalism’s final terms: ‘Only one can live’ – Jessica Benjamin in Trump times

Review of Jessica Benjamin: Beyond Doer and Done To – Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third, Routledge, London, New York, 2018. 

Jessica Benjamin’s works span almost four decades by now, making a widely appreciated contribution to the feminist and relational turn in psychoanalysis, with considerable impact in many other cultural leagues. Beyond Doer and Done To is a collection of updated key articles and brand new texts as well, tending towards an interesting radicalization of her original feminist point of departure, yet at the same time giving us an excellent opportunity to get a comprehensive view of her ideas and achievements in both psychoanalysis and politically committed reflection.
An important question emerging here is to what extent the ideas of recognition and ‘the Third’ which Benjamin developed in the field of psychoanalysis, are also applicable in the socio-political domain, and in care ethics. Particularly in times of Trump, with discord and disregard afflicting Benjamin’s own country, in flagrant contrast to what she stands for so explicitly.

The relational embodied

In the first four chapters Benjamin unfolds, more poignant and consistent than ever before, her philosophy of relational psyche, not necessarily against, but now solidly next to the classical intra-psychic approach, according to which one has to deal with mental problems individually, in biographic or neurological constellations. Benjamin is not unique in postulating personality development as an inter-relational process, implying being human is only possible in relation and interdependency with other human beings. Neither is she the only feminist thinker and female activist criticizing patriarchal, masculine modeling of growing up (Freud, Lacan), which is undervaluing the role of the (m)other in embodied learning how to live in relation to others.

Benjamin distinguishes herself however with far-reaching elaborations of this ‘embodied learning to live in relation with others’, substantially based upon the thorough, empirical researches done by Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). Benjamin extends the significance of the mother-child learning processes as pertaining to possibilities and conditions of living justly together, not only next to our kin, but in mutual recognition (peaceful limitation) with every-body (one could add here every-thing on our planet, in the sense of Latour, Haraway and Puig della Bella Casa, although ecology is not Benjamin’s main focus).

Obviously, embodied, pre-linguistic learning to live with the mother, and thereafter the other, seems very important as one learns to grow from unity with the mother into becoming a self, a person who can distinguish ‘itself’ from the mother, or any primal caring other.

Transitions from ‘oneness’ and ‘twoness’ to ‘thirdness’

Benjamin, however, emphasizes the aspect of ‘twoness’ here – individuals standing in opposition to any other.
Now the crux of her contribution is her pointing to the learning processes in the transition between the ‘Oneness’ (of being ‘one’ with the body of the mother) and the ‘Twoness’ (of having a personal identity discernible from and therefore opposed to other identities, other selves, consciously being some-body). In this transition, Benjamin argues, the child is offered an opportunity to try-out, together with the mother, a delicate rhythm of attuning to each other, throughout an acting which is a re-enacting at the same time, more or less like two people engaged in a dance together. Syncing and mirroring movements, moods, emotions and feelings, certain attitudes and other physical ‘synchronizations’ that people are rarely aware of.

Quintessential to the understanding of Benjamin’s main concepts of ‘Thirdness’ and the ‘Third’ is the idea that in their mutual attuning, both the child and the mother are aware of this interaction as ‘something beyond’ their being apart as separate subjects. This ‘something beyond’ is tantamount to a ‘third position or perspective’ relative to the dualistic perspective of two separate subjects. Naturally in the child, this ‘feeling of thirdness’ is still very intuitive, almost exclusively physical, yet has to be considered nonetheless, according to Benjamin, as a kind of kernel indispensable for learning to recognize others as equals, instead of adversaries one has to compete with for the sake of being distinctive and avoid being discarded, done with. Without this originally embodied ability to co-create with others some intersubjective space of mutual recognition and atonement, the discord of twoness leaves us with the famous three F’s: fight, flee or freeze.

Strong enough is by far not enough

Classical pedagogics would notice here that at stake in mother’s caring is sufficient attachment, by supporting the child to become an individual, strong and self-confident enough to cope with life. Precisely at this point Benjamin takes a step further by contending that ‘being strong enough’ will not suffice to withstand boundless individual omnipotence, the apparently innate drive to hold everything and everybody in one’s own hand – indeed, without limits to the will to empower and control one’s life, such as is characteristic for liberal individualism, and for that matter, neo-liberalism.

Benjamin goes to great lengths setting forth how the ‘twoness’ of opposed, ‘independent’ (instead of knowingly interdependent) individuals inevitably generates relationships of ‘Doer’ versus ‘Done To’, a complementary role-play, splitting action and re-action between ego combatants. Levinas once referred to a world without transcendence as an ‘endless eternal chain of accusers and accused’. This would be a slightly pathetic metaphor, if not – according to Benjamin – close to reality in a world in which the possibilities seem limited to transgress individualist’ twoness towards intersubjective mutual recognition, which she refers to as ‘Thirdness’.

According to Benjamin, the kernel of this Thirdness resides in what she names the rhythmic third between mother and child. This rhythm does not only occur in primary relationships. However, not yet having mastered a language seems the best condition to assimilate the germs of this intimate inter-relationality on a level of embodied learning. Later on in life, we are apt to take a distance from physical experiences by using concepts and abstract representations. Yet, similar physically rooted learning experiences, as they might continue even into adulthood, need not to be excluded or ignored,  despite predominantly conceptual framings.

Acknowledgment and recognition

Art and skills of Thirdness as a lifelong challenge to transgress dyadic discord of twoness, are very much in need of further development as one grows up through infancy toward adulthood. Indispensable then, as Benjamin argues in several chapters of Beyond Doer and Done To, are the two dispositions of acknowledgment and recognition, explained here by Benjamin more clearly than in her previous works. Recognition as a characteristic of Thirdness is awareness of the other(s) as potentially fully equivalent co-creators of a shared alignment and atonement, with respect to certain issues or situations, needs or interests, which would otherwise lead to conflict, disagreement or disregard. This recognition is not a result from rational deliberation in the first place. Rather, it is made possible by something else, a blend of (often very tedious) surrendering one’s subject-centered stand to (very difficult) acceptance of the other as one’s equal. This means to say, it feels then as if both are able and even concerned to care for each other just as much as both might be in need of each other’s care.

Necessary counterpart of this recognition is, for Benjamin, the acknowledgment of knowing when Thirdness is not shared with other(s). Let us return here to the bond of mother and child. Often situations arise in which the mother is unable to give care issuing from a full atonement to her child. She may acknowledge that, and the child will feel it. Recognition as it was experienced before is gone. Nevertheless, the disruption might be repaired, and often the child is justified in having confidence it will be repaired in due time. Thus, mandatory to further development of the ability to tune in to states of Thirdness, is having felt mutual equivalence once before, as well as knowing when it is absent, and having confidence in its repair. Clearly enough, these various states are not available or accessible at will. Those involved will have to contribute without reserve, not by what they say or write, but by what they actually do in the physical presence or other kinds of (virtual) meeting the other. Acknowledgement in Benjamin’s sense is the key to containment of boundless egoistic behavior, disrespecting other’s values and integrity, in endless struggle for undisputed best and spotless positions.

It is interesting now to link Benjamin’s psychoanalytic model to social philosophy, politics and care ethics, as she does so herself quite extensively.

Lawfulness – the Moral Third

Concerning care ethics, questions can be raised whether and how conditions of good (or bad) care are at work in Benjamin’s model. Obviously, in the mother-child relation, the mother is care-giver and the child care-receiver. Yet most care ethics’ expertise would agree upon the importance of good attachment resulting from having received sufficient care in the first years, without which it might be more difficult to give or receive sufficient care later on in life. Of course Benjamin does not doubt this at all, but as stated before, she takes a step further by contending that firm individual attachment in life is not enough to overcome the inevitable struggles in life, i.e. the twoness of subjects in dissension, be it individuals against others in intimate relations, be it groups, parties, classes or even nations. Here we encounter the ethical-political implications worked out in Beyond Doer and Done To quite extensively. They evolve from a complex and far-reaching assumption which in my opinion could be stretched most radically to: ‘Doer – Done To relations typical for Twoness are unlawful and ultimately lead to a world in which Only One Can Live’. A world deprived of any kind of care, except for oneself, no doubt. In a way, Benjamin suggests we already live in such a world.

In Beyond Doer and Done To Benjamin considers how mother and child, in their rhythmic Thirdness, are recognizing the beneficial aspects of their togetherness as lawful, as it should be for them both (for the mother in her conceptual mind – as long as she perceives and recognizes the pair of them in intersubjective thirdness, not from her subjective position). For Benjamin, this ‘lawfulness’ is the kernel of all moral life later on: we know from felt experience what is ‘lawful’ and what is ‘unlawful’, as long as we can acknowledge and recognize, to a certain extent, this Moral Third in contexts of togetherness. This is certainly not the case when we feel and judge exclusively from within twoness, from a subjective and individualistic, intra-psychic point of view.

The chains of Doer Done To

Having touched upon lawfulness and Moral Third, we now need to dwell a bit more on how according to Benjamin, Twoness’ syndrome of ‘doer-done to’ ultimately emerges into the ultra-individualism of ‘only one can live’. In the ‘doer-done to’ syndrome, people are split into subjects and objects – persons doing something to other persons as active subjects do to passive objects.

Interestingly, to some extent this corresponds to the grammatical ground structure of most Indo-European languages – sentences relating active subjects to other more or less passive phrase elements. J.-F. Lyotard’s phrase philosophy distinguishes active senders and passive receivers or referents – the fundamental dividing pattern according to which everything we do or don’t do, gets represented in our communication as well as in our minds. This means to illustrate how deeply we are involved, with our subject-centered language and concepts, in splitting ourselves into twoness: either as active subjects or as passive objects/referents. Benjamin does not invoke this language argument extensively. Nevertheless, she pinpoints twoness as the default mode by which most grown individuals are relating to each other. Rather, we could say more precisely, the default existential mode of relatedness is being either subject or object of the other(s). Naturally, this twoness does not exclude the simultaneity of being subject and object of other(s) at the same time: remember Levinas’ endless chain of accusers and accused.

Failed witness

Language and cognitive thinking, in which we are trained from early childhood, are not appropriate to deal with the paradoxical duality of my-self and my subjective mind opposite to other selves, minds, except in binary, generalizing concepts, resulting in valuing others as different, ultimately unequal. This is why people usually live in twoness, not recognizing each other as fundamentally and fully equivalent, in the ethical sense. To stretch this argument further, going along with Benjamin: our linguistic framework does not impede, but rather enables us to go into the ‘doer-done to’ framing – doing at will to others what you wouldn’t want them equally to do to you – misjudging, manipulating, neglecting, excluding and finally discarding. ‘Doing at will’ has its roots in unbound, unconstrained individualism, which is intensified strongly in Western neo-liberal culture during the last decades. This results in extreme partiality, imaginary ‘populist’ identities, us against them, us above them or at least safely separated from them. Even ‘not doing anything at will’ has its abject downside in these contexts, as Benjamin pleads. She refers to the deficiency typical for affluent societies: the failed witness’ i.e. remaining a passive bystander in the face of injustice, violence and limitless expansion in worldwide frames of twoness – ultimately dividing the world into The discarded and the dignified: from the failed witness to ‘You are the eyes of the world’ ( Jessica Benjamin, 2015).

Beyond ‘Only one can live’

The last chapter of Beyond Doer and Done To is entitled Beyond ‘Only one can live’: witnessing, acknowledgment and the moral Third.’ Only one can live’ is, according to Benjamin, the ultimate consequence of the splitting twoness, driving people apart until everybody is left to his own device – the ultimate liberalism.
Benjamin’s ethical critique is rooted in and presupposed by the assumption of a more profound human condition, which she shares with many feminist and care ethicist writers, like Joan Tronto, Judith Butler, Maria Puig della Bella Casa, Donna Haraway. In Benjamin’s Thirdness, people may re-discover their mutual and original interdependency and interrelatedness, as deeper existential preconditions we are rarely aware of, just as we couldn’t survive without oxygen and water, yet we forget about them. Benjamin’s pleas to recognize human’s roots in reciprocal care for each other are of a kindred spirit as Desmond Tutu’s thematic description of Ubuntu: ‘A person is a person through other persons… my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours’.

To reanimate these root conditions, determinative and palpable in our primary maternal bonds, a radical turn is required from a conceptual, logocentric orientation towards an embodied, material one. ‘Surrender and rise from the trenches, forgive and meet the enemy in the flesh’. Benjamin reports the stories she came across in Palestine and South Africa about war victims forgiving their perpetrators by meeting them personally and thereby ‘restoring each other’s humanity’, to the immense relief of both sides.

From 2017 onwards, Benjamin has been lecturing about the moral crisis in her country today, which is torn apart by an ultra-individualistic ‘only one can live’ dynamics, driven by fear to lose privileged positions, and get degraded to the crowds of the discarded, those who may as well perish. Benjamin appears to make a stand here against masculine, patriarchal traditions still predominant in education and personality formation, thereby suppressing and displacing more maternal and feminine dispositions.

Most poignant becomes, to my mind, linking Benjamin’s concepts of Twoness and Thirdness to the earthly ‘soil’ in the sense of Bruno Latour, pertaining to the question to whom belongs the Earth? The ways to bring people closer to thirdness deserve further inquiry.


Jessica Benjamin The Wolf’s Dictionary: Predatory Profit and the Unconscious Assumption that ‘Only One Can Live’, lecture Chicago December 2017 (Youtube in six parts)

Lyotard, J.F. (1983) Le Differend Minuit, transl. English ‘The Differend: Phrases in dispute’, Manchester U.P. 1988, transl. German ‘Der Widerstreit’, Fink Verlag 1987

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017), Matters of Care – Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds, University of Minnesota Press

Tutu, D. M. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House

About the author: Richard Brons

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