By Carolyn Pedwell (auth.)
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Extra resources for Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy
Following Berlant, I understand empathy as an affective relation linked to power and privilege as well as the ambivalent promise of unsettlement and change. As such, my approach extends the important work of other feminist theorists who have explored the relational nature of empathy and linked emotions. Lynne Henderson, for example, has described empathy as ‘the foundational phenomenon for intersubjectivity, which is not absorption by the other, but rather simply the relationship of self to other, individual to community’ (1987: 1584).
Similarly, Dominic LaCapra argues that ‘empathetic unsettlement’ can play an important role ‘in attempting to understand traumatic events and victims’, placing ‘in jeopardy fetishised and totalizing narratives that deny the trauma that called them into existence by prematurely (re)turning to the pleasure principle, harmonising events and often recuperating the past in terms of uplifting messages or optimistic, self-serving scenarios’ (2001: 78). He warns against a mode of empathy, however, that over-identifies ‘with the victim to the point of making oneself a surrogate victim who has a right to the victim’s voice or subject position’ (78).
By contrast, critical theorists such as Elizabeth Wilson (2004) draw on Darwin to argue for the relationality of ‘the biological’ and ‘the cultural’ in a way that figures biology as much more heterogeneous, contingent and malleable than mainstream discourses allow. 29 Following Wilson, I am interested in the complex and contingent ways in which empathy may be considered ‘innate’ and how contemporary neuroscientific perspectives on empathy might be read against the grain, through the lens of cultural, social and political theory, to highlight the plasticity of empathic circuits in the context of contemporary geo-politics.