“The repressive effects of empathy”

Saidiya Hartman’s discussion of empathy in “Innocent Amusements,” from her book Scenes of Subjection provides a really interesting lens through which to examine Lauren’s hyperempathy. Hartman studies the letters of an abolitionist named Rankin who endeavored to, “reenact […] The grotesqueries enumerated in documenting the injustice of slavery and intended to shock and to disrupt the comfortable remove of the reader/spectator,” in order to, “rouse the sensibility of those indifferent to slavery” (Hartman, 17, 18). Hartman cites Rankin’s explanation for the rhetorical moves that he makes: “We are naturally too callous to the sufferings of others, and consequently prone to look upon them with cold indifference, until, in imagination we identify ourselves with the sufferers” (Hartman, 18). Rankin’s theory is predicted on the idea that, “pain provides the common language of humanity; it extends humanity to the dispossessed and, in turn, remedies the indifference of the callous” (Hartman, 18). The really interesting move that Rankin makes is to, “literally narrat[e] an imagined scenario in which he, along with his wife and child, is enslaved” (Hartman, 18).

Hartman claims this as a way in to seeing the, “difficulty and slipperiness of empathy” (Hartman, 18) Harman’s main concern is perhaps best highlighted in the following quote:

“Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach. Moreover, by exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. In other words, the ease of Rankin’s empathetic identification is as much due to his good intentions and heartfelt opposition to slavery as to the fungibility of the captive body.” (Hartman, 19)

Hartman argues that such exercises in empathy reinforce the violence inherent in making black bodies into objects. She explains that this move, “fails to expand the space of the other but merely places the self in its stead” and she further problematizes a move which, “requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible” (Hartman, 20, 19).

Further, Hartman repeatedly refers to Rankin’s positioning as a “fantasy”—a term which not only identifies it as an imaginative process but is also rank with the implications of pleasure (Hartman, 18). Hartman claims that there is a certain aspect of, “sadistic pleasure to be derived from the spectacle of sufferance,” (Hartman, 21). Hartman repeatedly references the terrible violence of chattel slavery as a spectacle and points out the, “thin line between witness and spectator” (Hartman, 19).

I think this complicating of empathy is important to keep in mind while reading Lauren’s hyperempathy in the Parable series. This condition is introduced in Parable of the Sower and Lauren immediately explains, “The sharing isn’t real, after all. […] It’s delusional” (Parable of the Sower, 11). Again and again, in fact, focus is placed on Lauren’s experience of pain as being “not real.” Soon after Lauren says: “I get a lot of grief that doesn’t belong to me, and that isn’t real. But it hurts.” (Parable of the Sower, 12). This admission draws out the interesting concept of ‘owning pain’ which reminds me of the idea of owning personal experience, and the impossibility of anyone knowing someone else in totality—someone who necessarily has different personal experiences. The link between ‘doesn’t belong to’ and ‘not real’ is also interesting—and perhaps concerning. Even Lauren, who has a somewhat supernatural capacity for empathy, distances herself from the pain of others, and cannot conceptualize of this pain as real—even though she actually feels a reflection of it. What does this suggest for the possibility of the ideal form of empathy that Rankin seems to want—though perhaps does not, and cannot, approach correctly?

In the times when this pain isn’t just dismissed as not real, Lauren describes it completely in terms of her own experience. Here’s one such example:

“I rubbed my mouth, trying to get past an irrational certainty that two of my own teeth were gone. I felt horrible—scraped and bruised and throbbing, yet whole and unbroken, undamaged in any major way. I just wanted to huddle somewhere until I felt less miserable” (Parable of the Sower, 232).

Though Lauren’s pain is real, and felt so intensely that at times she finds it completely debilitating, she is not at risk of injury from it. Yet, her experience of this pain does not seem to ever elicit a reaction of pity from Lauren for the injured person. I suppose this makes sense because Lauren isn’t hypersympathetic, and I don’t mean to advocate for a response of pity—if empathy makes sufferers fungible, pity certainly does. However, I do think it is interesting how one sided Lauren’s empathetic experience of pain is. It is not that Lauren thinks of her own pain and then discusses some feeling of unity with the other sufferer, or a greater understanding of them—rather; Lauren experiences the other’s pain and then almost withdraws into herself. The pain becomes intelligible to her inside her own body but she still does not feel ownership over it, or even feel that it’s real. Because of this reaction, I can’t decide if I think this ability makes Lauren more altruistic or not. She certainly demonstrates some altruism, but it is not clear to me if that is because of her capacity for empathy or because of some other facet of her personality. While I don’t think Butler frames empathy as a simple solution to caring about the suffering of others, I’m also not sure if she sees it as entirely detrimental (it should be noted that I don’t think Hartman sees it in such black and white terms either, but she certainly espouses caution in conceptualizing the suffering of the other).

It does not seem like a stretch to me to connect Lauren’s hyperempathy with the letters of an empathetic abolitionist—and not only because empathy is the direct focus of each narrative—there certainly seems to also be a political link between the two. At one point Lauren describes: “I heard someone scream in agony. I didn’t move. When someone was in plain, the only way I could avoid sharing the suffering was not to look” (Parable of the Talents, 33). It strikes me that the reference to ‘looking away’ cannot help but be a political one. “Looking away” resonates with me as a common way to describe the political position of complicity in state sanctioned violence, though perhaps I am also quicker to make this connection in the wake of the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore. I’m not sure yet how exactly to apply the warnings about empathy that Hartman and Butler seem to be writing—because, as I mentioned earlier—I also don’t see either author as being a proponent of “looking away,” which seems like the other option. Rather, both Hartman and Butler make their readers aware of the possible violence inherent in even well-intentioned rhetoric, and thus make obvious the need for new ways of conceptualizing the other.

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