Empathy; Rankine; Citizen

Elizabeth A. Povinelli. 2008. “The Child in the Broom Closet: States of Killing and Letting Die.” South Atlantic Quarterly. pp: 509-530. Here are some quick reading notes for the article I just found. They’re by Eric A. Stanley, a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept of Communication and Critical Gender Studies at UCSD.
Also worth looking at: Talal Asad’s 2009 lecture “Reflections on the Origins of Human Rights” at the Berkley Center. Asad discusses how empathy “can be a mode of manipulating others. What Lerner calls ’empathy,’ Shakespeare calls ‘Iago’.”“entering pleasurably into the pain of the other.”

A note in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen – An American Lyric reminded me of comments by E. Povinelli. In Citizen, among other incidents, Rankine writes about Mark Duggan, a Black man shot down in 2011 by Scotland Yard. Riots ensue in Hackney. Here is Rankine discussing the issue with another writer she has met at a house party in London:

Will you write about Duggan? the man wants to know. Why don’t you? you ask. Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated.

How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?

Rankine goes on to observe:

And though in this man’s body, the man made of English sky, grief exists for Duggan as a black man gunned down, there is not the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile work to and gone to sleep each day.

I mentioned in this post how some of the responses to Garner’s murder were oriented towards people for whom racism is largely a theoretical matter, that is, those who (therefore) lack the sense of urgency that Rankine discusses here. What struck me reading Rankine was the irritation of the man that she notes, when she asks why he doesn’t write about it. Why is he irritated? Where does he imagine himself to be located in relation to Duggan? Does he feel this is not a subject proper to him because he is neither Black nor a racist, that this, in other words, is a dialogue (for violence too is communication) between racist whites and people of color in which he, the empathizing liberal, has no part?

But, empathy as Povinelli and Asad separately have discussed, re-institutes the division between the self and the other that the empathizing liberal claims to be overcoming. “Empathy asks us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What would it be like to be them?…And yet, this very act—this ethical gesture—initiates a separation between you and me.” (Povinelli 2008: 520). For, if one takes seriously that identities are co-constituted, then one is already located inside the dialogue–not beyond it. So, for instance, if whiteness and Blackness are co-constructed — one cannot have meaning without the other; being white exists only in relation to that which is not white: Blackness and vice versa — then the empathizing liberal is not beyond or outside of that conversation. The “man made of English sky” is co-constituted through and with Duggan.

Racism is not just something racist whites do to people of color. It is a systemic, structural system in which the distance the empathizing liberal feels to the subject matter of race or the way in which racism and race function largely as a theoretical matter for some — is a produced effect. It doesn’t just happen. A lot of work goes into co-constituting worlds in which so much distance can exist among people moving in the same sphere:

The distance between you and him is thrown in to relief: bodies moving thorugh the same life differently. –Rankine

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