We’re off to seek recognition

I watched a couple of movies with the kiddos this weekend, and though I’d seen them before, I noticed new things in them. First was The Wizard of Oz. I’d forgotten how absurd (literally) the ending is: Dorothy could have gotten home all along, but first she had to endure a laborious journey so that she would know and believe; the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion each already had a brain, a heart, and courage, but they had to complete a pointless errand for the Wizard before they could recognize those things inside themselves. What I noticed this viewing, besides the feel-good ethic of finding the virtuous that inheres in all of us, is that none of these qualities are known to the characters until they receive recognition from the Wizard: The Scarecrow isn’t smart until he receives a diploma, the Tinman doesn’t have a heart until he receives one on a string, the Lion isn’t courageous until he gets a medal pinned to his chest. Without sanction from the Wizard–i.e, the state, or the putative fearsome machine that is, once the curtain is lifted, really a benevolent ruler–the protagonists of Oz are empty, incomplete.

In other words, the journey in Oz is a complete cycle: After being dispossessed of the means of production, the heroes are put to work on a task that is simultaneously random and strictly controlled, must seek approval from the universal agent of recognition, and then are given possession (i.e., made into property) of certain traits that will allow them to continue working.

In the relationship between the robot and the boy in Iron Giant, however, issues of recognition and identity are side-stepped, when they are not critiqued. The boy, Hogarth, never knows where the Iron Giant comes from, and while the adults and the war machine try to figure out what the robot is–alien? Soviet agent?–Hogarth is content to befriend and interact with him without knowing. In fact, Hogarth’s desire to hide the robot, to refuse to answer questions about him, to even acknowledge his existence is a recognition that the government’s desire to identify the robot is inseparable from its need to destroy it, or at least control it. Hogarth and the robot’s relationship develops in cramped spaces freed from the confines of stable, traditional identity. And when Hogarth tells the robot that he loves him, it’s not just an expression of machinic love but a refusal of the necessity of recognition.

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