Empathy: A Companionate Redux

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!

Zoë Wool is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works on the intimate, carnal, clinical and political making of fleshy life for severely injured American soldiers.

8 thoughts on “Empathy: A Companionate Redux

  1. 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’.

    This statement is largely true—but not quite right when applied to empathy in therapeutic contexts. The slip is at the end, in the metaphor ‘put yourself in their shoes’. This is precisely what the therapist is not supposed to do. Like the anthropologist as participant-observer, the therapist is supposed to come to understand the other without becoming the other, maintaining distance while open to the possibility that what the other thinks or feels may be radically different from anything that the therapist may imagine based on her own response to what she is being told. Reflective feedback is,thus, a vital component in the therapeutic process, for it provides a mechanism by which the therapist tests her interpretations: “You sound angry.” “I’m not angry, I am furious and about to throw up!” Or, an actual encounter, the client is young, Iraqi, female, the time just before Desert Storm: “You are angry at your father for not letting you make your own decision.” “I want to die with my people.”

    There is to be sure an underlying assumption that the other is human enough to be understood and a moral commitment to respect for the other, but “unconditional positive regard” does not imply agreement with everything that the other has to say. Imagine, for example, that you are dealing with a case of domestic violence but are speaking with the perpetrator instead of the victim. He expresses remorse but says that the victim made him do it. He promises never to do it again, but massive empirical evidence indicates that perpetrator and victim are caught up in a vicious cycle that makes promises largely empty words. Unconditional positive regard means treating him with respect and not denying that he feels remorse. It does not mean automatic forgiveness or the absence of clinical judgment.

    Turning then to the politics of empathy: When Obama says that right wing Republicans suffer from an empathy deficit, he is saying that they do not accord the poor the same respect and humanity that they claim for themselves. In a Calvinist or pharasaical manner they behave in ways exemplified by the famous prayer: “Dear Lord, bless me, my wife,my son John, his wife, us four, no more.” When Obama authorizes a drone strike, he is saying, in effect, that those at whom such strikes are directed have put themselves beyond the pale of humanity. There is no contradiction here. There is, however, a serious debate to be had about where that border lies.

    As for empathy and marketing, the last several decades have seen a dramatic shift from market segmentation based on simple demographics (age, gender, marital status, income) to attempts to characterize consumers in broad psychographic terms to what is called one-to-one marketing, the sort of thing exemplified by Amazon book recommendations,which are based on tracking previous purchases. Along the way, folks in the marketing trades have suffered a general collapse of confidence in ability to predict consumer behavior based on social stereotypes. Empathy has emerged as a tool for understanding clients and customers who have become increasingly diverse and thus increasingly mysterious. Whether the empathy boo will survive Big Data remains to be seen.

    Those are my thoughts at this point. Hoping for other perspectives. Respectfully yours.

  2. So much great stuff here. I am knee deep in boxes as I am moving but I am thinking and will post soon. I have lots to say on disgust and different kinds of therapeutic interpretations of shoes wearing. What a New Year’s treat :)

  3. Hi John, Thanks for elaboration of empathy as a strategic orientation in this therapeutic context.

    It seems like what is most important there is a kind of cultivated cognitive (and affect?) /practice/, an intentional exercise in unconditionally positive other regarding, for the sake of clinical discrimination. A practice of empathy. That makes good sense for psychotherapy.

    I think your second example especially (‘angry with your father’ vs ‘die with my people’) highlights how important this practice might be, not only generally for producing a clinical assessment, but also as a moment of friction that could slow the colonizing and anti-politicizing rush of many well intentioned (and, indeed, helpful) psy-therapeutic paradigms. I am surprised by that possibility. Cool.

    Perhaps because I didn’t have anything pragmatic (or therapeutic, or practical) in mind, I didn’t mean to suggest that we tend to think of empathy as the practice of actually being in an Other’s shoes.

    I meant to highlight a certain necessary slippage in a contemporary moral politics of empathy: A moral politics that is /supposed/ to be about humans and our special obligations (a very important term DrLB also raises in Empathy III) to each other, but that also relies on a definition of the human (a bare commensurability that means ‘you /can/ put yourself in their shoes’) that can, despite itself and sometimes to its own embarrassment, embrace many non-human beings or things and place some humans beyond the reach of that embrace, or as you say beyond the pale.

    I also didn’t mean to suggest any necessary relationship between this kind of commensurability and an act of /forgiveness/ nor that comensurability evaporates blame or the attribution of responsibility for bad things (also nicely shown by DrLB in Empathy III).

    The drone strike example you offer is so interesting, especially when I think about it alongside with the examples I tend to think about in such territory: people with cognitive disabilities or with configurations of vitality that fall within various measures of death. (Agamben uses the secession of Karen Ann Quinlan’s to think about similar questions to ours, but from the angle of sovereignty)

    We’ve got some important flickering here too, more of Chen’s ‘is-and-is-not’, and of different kinds in your example and in mine. If I can parse my thinking on this bit into comment sized bites, I will pass them along….

    In the mean time, I wonder (thinking of Eve Sedwick), could we all put away true-ness for the purposes of our conversation here? It doesn’t seem to give our thinking much traction. After all, it’s not like we are trying to wrestle some singular creature called Empathy to the ground and then make a full and final accounting of what makes it tick. Or at least I don’t think we are, and I certainly hope that I am not.

    As DrLB suggests, we are thinking our way through empathy, or maybe even a space that can be located by the term empathy, to see what turns up there (and then we get to ask, “why that? and why then and there? how comes it? what does it do? and what kind of ‘it’ can do a thing like that?”).

    And anyway, even if there was only one singular creature whose proper name was Empathy, and we managed to pin it down and describe it perfectly, like a pair of Borgesian cartographers (or entomologists), what then? A dead and stultifying end, I’m afraid. And what a waste of conversation that would be…

  4. In the mean time, I wonder (thinking of Eve Sedwick), could we all put away true-ness for the purposes of our conversation here? It doesn’t seem to give our thinking much traction. After all, it’s not like we are trying to wrestle some singular creature called Empathy to the ground and then make a full and final accounting of what makes it tick.

    Oh, yes, oh, yes, indeed. It is far more productive to map the multiple senses and usages of a term than to try to pronounce judgment on what it should be saying.

  5. Aw shucks .

    Re the moral politics of empathy, a powerful, while fictional, example of empathy in action can be found in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which the Earth is at war with hive-insect-like creatures called “the Buggers.” While I do not approve of the author’s right wing, conservative, Mormon, Republican politics, the novel itself is a true masterpiece of science fiction. The plot concerns the training of Ender, a child when the book begins and still in his teens when it ends, to become the military genius who finally defeats the Buggers with a strategy aimed at genocide. To win his victory, a life and death matter for the Earth, he must learn to think and feel as the Buggers do. Then he must use what he’s learned to kill them.

  6. Is this an example of empathy?

    The Cardinal, the most physical team on the West Coast, were 8 for 12 on fourth downs entering the game. Stanford called one timeout and then MSU, after getting a look at the Cardinal’s set-up, called its own timeout. Narduzzi had two defenses called depending on Stanford’s personnel. The coach shifted Elsworth over to outside linebacker and inserted sophomore Darien Harris at middle linebacker. The “Jumbo” package was met with MSU’s “Spartan” defense.

    “Once I saw their offensive linemen’s stance, I knew the way to make a play was for me to go over the top,” Elsworth said, adding that the plan was to make sure there were no run-throughs and to take out knees. Elsworth vaulted into the air, over the pile into a collision with Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt for no gain. (MSU stopped Stanford on both of its fourth-down tries.)

    If not, why not? I’m serious here. Does empathy have to incorporate the “poor you” attitude that we associate with sympathy or pity?

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