I thought I would kick off the last morning of the year by chiming in on the comments to Dr.LibertyBell’s very generative second post on empathy here at SM. But I seemed to have found the post and comments so generative, that I now find myself rounding off the last afternoon of the year by posting this companionate redux instead.
On the Particularity of the Empathetic Subject
It is great that the particularity of the empathetic subject emerged as an important strand in the comments thread of Dr.LB’s second empathy post (e.g. here). Twist this strand around her anchor point of the particular contemporary understanding of empathy as a good and, let’s say, personable, orientation to others, and we can see how empathy emerges as a capacity for recognition of human identity in which the apparently (but not actually) universal value of human life is ground. Didier Fassin has done a lot of work to describe the often insidious and sometimes deadly effects of this affective politics (which claims it is nothing of the sort). Check out his book Humanitarian Reason, to think about the shadow sides of empathy, even, or exactly when and where it finds the kinds of people who are its proper subjects.
On the Specific Objects of Empathetic Regard
What about the objects of empathetic regard? It is so interesting that, on the one hand, the genealogy of Einfühlung that Dr.LB offers is grounded in a proper human subject regarding things, like mountains, or even not-quite-things, like optical illusions, and projecting into them (i.e. imbuing them with) some lively human sensations. And, on the other hand, empathy as a contemporary politicomoral imperative is supposed to be about humans, that is, about other living beings enough like ‘you’ that ‘you’ can ‘put yourself in their shoes’.
I mean us to take ‘shoes’ here as a marker of human specificity, and also to immediately note that we regularly extend this shoe wearing specificity to other companion species (like horses, and occasionally dogs), who are exemplary as both objects and subjects of empathy (this mutual capacity for empathetic regard being part of the logic that renders horses and dogs exemplary therapy animals for soldiers and veterans with PTSD).
What’s more, we also regularly extend this specificity to non-shoe wearing animals, like orcas and great apes, when we render them objects and properly perceptive subjects of empathy–and therefore human-like–so as to argue for their humane treatment or their human rights.
The ability to render other species human-like relies on a recognition of an already existing commensurability between ‘exceptional’ (sacred?) fully human beings and other (killable?) kinds; an instance of what Mel Chen calls “is-and-is-not” politics (as in, a human being is-and-is-not an animal, so an animial-can-and-can-not be a human being). Here, again, we might find Fassin, and the insidious problem of grounding of rights in lowest common denominators of life itself, such as the capacity to feel, fear, and suffer traumatically from pain.
(Or was that Animacy?)
While I have been talking about humanness here, I have actually been leading us (barefoot?) down the primrose path toward Mel Chen’s iteration of animacy, a cline of liveness, sensibility, and (linguistic) agentivity, which articulates bio and necropoitical arrangements of proper lives and deaths.
Empathy fits nicely into the normative articulation of animacy that puts a category of (able-bodied, normatively conscious and sensate, masculinized, capital unconstrained, racially and sexually unmarked) human at the top, and some thing like a stone at the bottom (speaking of stones, we could anachronistically read Elizabeth Povinelli’s 1995 article “Do Rocks Listen?” as about what happens ‘when animacies meet’).
Coming back to where I started this point (about the proper objects of empathy), thinking in terms of bio/necropolitics and animacy is a helpful way to consider what/how empathy does to a horse, a dog, an orca, a great ape, as well as to a mountain. After all, though feeling empathy for a mountain might sound a little strange these days (perhaps anti-fracking activists would protest?), Eduardo Kohn and Bhrigupati Singh have each recently made me feel otherwise with regard to forests (Singh foreshadowed the forestry of his forthcoming book at the Undeadening Death panel in Chicago, suggesting that as the life of, and in, an Indian forest dies into silence, no one may be compelled to make a sound). And I leave that there before I digress to here.
Final, disgusting thoughts, anyone?
One more thing to throw up. There is a whole burgeoning field of “disgustology” within psychology that seems, in my glancing contact with it, to suggest that disgust is the opposite of empathy (in the positive and neurologized senses), and that if we can make one individual person (like a securely middle class commuter) regard one Other individual person (like someone on the subway who looks dirty and smells of urine) with empathy, we can make that person overcome their disgust, feel empathy for (but not with) the Other (here the ‘empathy’ becomes ‘recognition predicated on common human-not-animal identity’), and work our way out of empathy deficit (I heard one researcher present a mechanism for producing this effective affective shift: Make ads with pictures of homeless people eating sandwiches, or perhaps other barely ‘humanizing’ things).
So, thanks to Dr.LibertyBell, and all the SMers who continue to chime in on her empathy posts. Here’s to a 2014 full of generative and companionate thinking!