The pleasures of misrecognition

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Tumblr_inline_nj2tldu6Ok1qjuey1When I first moved into an apartment onto campus to take up my current job as faculty at one of the most prestigious institutes in India, I knocked at my neighbour's door to introduce myself, only to be asked, "What department is Sir in?" Highly amused, I responded, that actually only madam would take up residence and work here; madam, of course, being myself. What would otherwise have raised my feminist hackles, to this day amuses me, perhaps because I was able to take pleasure in overturning a kind of misrecognition, no matter to how small a degree. Gender, age and body are easy and frequent stages for misrecognition—one is seen, heard, and assumed to be of a certain age, gender, and life stage. "You don't look your age!" is a form of misrecognition that can offer pleasure or otherwise depending on whether such looking is over- or under-determined.

In the social sciences, such misrecognition informs identity. In other words, across literatures, it is only through agreeing, refusing, conforming, partly conforming, and co-opting available labels and modes of being does one gain identity. We all therefore, exist, by misrecognizing ourselves and others for there is either no core self, outside of such temporary and sometimes sedimented forms of knowing, or the possibility of gaining any authentic self is always already lost. In this short essay, this is what concerns my exploration of pleasure. For other theorists like Nancy Fraser, misrecognition refers to the denigration and refusal of common humanity in others; in other words, a literal refusal to recognize. While there are clearly pleasures to the latter, I do not take it up in this piece. However, where the first and the second come together is in reading Pierre Bourdieu, for who misrecognition resides in the everyday where things, people, and processes get attributed to available realms of meaning and thereby misrecognized as such, making no room available for the uncommon, the changing, and the different.

These days, I walk around utterly confused as to who to be. I am a thoroughly misrecognized entity; seen as woman even though I do not know how to behave in an adequately womanly fashion; considered responsible even though only I know how often I misplace my keys; accorded the privilege of teaching despite my own frequent misgivings and surrender to the "imposter" syndrome; and the most egregious burden of all, considered an adult, even though I, like most others, fake it.

A long time ago, at a perfume counter located in a strip mall in Madison, Wisconsin, I was treated to multiple samples of delicious scents by a very tall, statuesque, immaculately coiffured and groomed, transgender woman, who told me all about her childhood in Utah, growing up being constantly misrecognized, until she left to find a life where she could recognize herself. She spoke in the most exquisite dulcet tones, pausing at every sentence to take in a whiff of air, and commented when I told her about my work in call centres, and voice and accent training, that she could relate because she had trained herself to speak in the way she currently did. When I asked, seemingly innocently, "Why?", she placed her elbows on the counter, bringing her tall frame down to mine, face propped in front of my eyes, and said, a deeper, different, uncanny, beautiful baritone emerging from the body in front of me, "Because if I spoke like this, it'd scare the hell out of you."

I am told I have a phone voice, and a meeting voice.

There is nothing more difficult to place than the voice, for as Mladen Dolar argues, it is neither language, nor body, and yet of both. One recognizes in the voice, tone, emotion, possibility, intent, and presence. In recordings of my recently deceased grandfather's voice, I recognize, long, hot, afternoons, deep in the South of India, him trying to stave my boredom with stories and sagas, and I interjecting with less than exuberant nods and questions. In replaying that recording, I am able to misrecognize the passing of time.

466671_10151380051462267_547312914_oI misrecognize my love for prose, for I actually love poetry. But I give in, instead, to my dependence on precision, my identification as an academic, and my pride in meaning-making. I misrecognize the weather sometimes. When I wake up to a drizzly Madras morning, I think I'm back in the bed of my childhood, covered in Sholapur blankets, looking forward to the cancellation of school. Petrichor brings unbidden the muscle memory of paper-boat-making, the deft machinations required to produce a blade that protrudes beneath, cutting through the stormiest of drainage waters. When I see blossoming trees—flame of the forest, they used to be called—I think I'm riding to my first job, streets weighed down by flaming orange colored blossoms, momentarily producing in my body the feeling that the world is open, and life, endless. Perhaps these are not the misrecognitions of the social sciences. Perhaps, these are only what Proust wrote endlessly about; loss of time, lack of meaning, the desperate and flailing search for things other than what one is offered in current time and space—a something else. For hope, for more, for less, for else. But if in misrecognition is the heart of all things, if we can pause for a bit, and if as Pema Chödrön says, "In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things", then perhaps there is pleasure even in this space of not knowing, and searching, of being misrecognized, and of sitting with it.

The oldest pleasures in the world may well be of misrecognition. For what is God, if not the willful and hopeful misrecognition of the world? And what is love, but the hope of recognizing and being recognized, knowing fully well of its impossibility.