The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade. She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right. Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion. By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster? Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?
About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.
Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time. Brian Massumi’s claim that
“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”
suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us. Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.
Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.
But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?
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