Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL
I am not a specialist in the anthropology of emotions, nor am I a psychological anthropologist. Yet, for some time I have been preoccupied by the concept of empathy. I want to thank the SM community for engaging with me in this think-out-loud. I am grateful that Zoe Wool has thrown away our shoes so that we may continue to wander/wonder about this topic. In this last post, I share the motivations for my curiosities.
I came to my concern for/with empathy in much the same way many of us writers-of-real–lives-lived do, ethnographically. My work revolves around dramas of national obligation as they unfold in northern Canada. Specifically, I write about the intersections of race, gender, citizenship and political economy that belie a region marked by high natural resource revenues (diamonds, oil, gas) and substantially uneven distributions of social harm between Aboriginal people and Others. I write about enduring optimism and continued faith in extractive capital, despite its record of impermanence and destruction in the area. When I was working on my dissertation, I had all the usual writing woes around the politics of representation. Pile those on top of that concerns for narrative and style and you have a perfect storm for paralysis. I took my fears to weekly writing workshops with fiction writers. I floated my ‘scenes’ to the group to see how, or if, they were working.
A bit of back-story may help here. My work is based in a multi-ethnic community in the Northwest Territories. My writing is primarily about how the town’s residents, indigenous and not, understood the boom and bust of the Canadian diamond industry (2007-2009). The industry doubled the region’s per capita GDP in very short time. However this growth and decline were not evenly experienced by residents. Race, gender and citizenship came to configure how uneven development was experienced, often in ways that Aboriginal-Settler binary can’t account for. I use equal parts history and ethnography to show how social harms come to pass in resource rich regions, and how people make meaning in the face of everyday difficulties.
One thing that struck me in my time in the writers’ group was that no matter how hard I tried to paint pictures that revealed structural elements of my interlocutors’ distress, readers would be drawn to individuals’ stories. After reading my work, they would give their feedback and usually conclude with something like, “It’s so sad for them.” Then there would be a kind of outrage of the “something-must-be- done!” variety. Some of this was my writing (I do have a penchant for dark drama), yet some of it was a reflection of the structures of expectation that are built up around Indigeneity in Canada. Here, as in other liberal-settler states, concerns about Indigenous populations and their injuries are touchstones for settler national identity (same can be said in Australia, see work by G. Cowlishaw, T. Lea and E/B. Povinelli to this effect).
The reactions of my writing mates troubled me. I was concerned I had rendered the people I work with proper objects of empathy. And as Didier Fassin and others have shown, there are insidious effects of these affective politics—or, as Tania Li has called them, “make live” projects. My dissertation was a case study in this very point. In Canadian public culture, eclipsing the everyday to spotlight difference and inequality actually comes to fuel resource development. More plainly put, Aboriginal social suffering enlivens development even as it threatens to undermine it. If there is a shadow side of empathy, then Indigenous-state relations in Canada are akin to a lunar eclipse.
Ethnographic writing has the capacity to elicit emotion. That is precisely why I turned to anthropology from Sociology/Linguistics. Anthropological writing registers truths in subtle and poignant ways, yet few of us would say we aim to elicit sympathy from our readers. However, the presentation of “real people doing real things” in writing seems to allow for emotional lives of texts that defy our intentions. The tendency for humanistic writing to elicit empathy (at least on the part of Canadian readers) leaves me (and my writing) in a bit of a lurch. Perhaps then, I should continue to think about ethnography of empathic regard? What say you Savage Minds?