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Commodifying the pain of others

Commodifying the pain of others

Nelly Bateman is going into her fourth year of Contemporary Studies at King’s and French at Dalhousie University. When she’s not studying, she can be found reading (she loves Donna Tartt and Helen Oyeyemi), writing (aspiring and failing to be Tartt and Oyeyemi), or drinking copious amounts of coffee and thinking about how she really should be studying. Her favourite classes she’s taken at Kings’ include: Terror and Totalitarianism: the Life and Work of Hannah Arendt, Montaigne’s Essays and the Modern Self, and Apocalypse: Transformations in Politics and Culture.

The most impactful experience she has had in her life is going on exchange last semester to Dijon, France. The trip taught her a lot about the trials and tribulations of empathy amongst fellow humans, even if and perhaps especially because the experience was cut short by Covid-19. The following is a collection of some of her musings on the subject, and she would certainly appreciate it if you sent her a note (@nellythebean on Instagram) if you have any answers to the questions and ideas posed. 

The tensions between the individual and the collective have never been more fraught. And, given that I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others this winter, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy, the way we travel up and through these links between ourselves and others.

The cultural revolution towards racial equity we’re waging makes these wonderings feel particularly relevant. For example, take Ron Haviv’s era-defining photograph from the Balkan war: we see the picture of the unknown Bosnian woman, murdered in Bosnia, and we say that the situation is rationally bad without really engaging with the woman on the ground. In doing so, we maintain the separation of our fates and our experiences and theirs. This distance keeps us safe from others’ emotional pain. At the end of Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag famously asserts that it ‘proclaims our innocence as well our impotence.’ And she has a point: seeing an image of a Serbian soldier mutilating the corpse of a dead Muslim woman stirs sympathy, but the distance between the viewer of the photograph and the moment the photograph captures, and the literal distance between the picture, and ourselves creates ample space for dissociation. If taken with Sontag’s aesthetic consideration, “we need an erotics of art,” the moral alternative becomes empathy: taking on another person’s pain as if it were our own. When we put morality in terms of an aesthetics of space, empathy’s proximity comes to oppose the distance of sympathy.

Then, the pandemic hit, and we all became at once radically distanced by a virus and radically closer to each other with Zoom, social media, and all the false proximity of the internet. Then, mass protests against anti-Black racism reignited, and I began asking myself the long-awaited question: how do I help those whose experiences I don’t — and can’t — understand without centring myself?

If we follow Sontag’s model, epistemological proximity to experience of another person is the condition of empathy. However, gaining knowledge can also be an assertion of power, even and especially under the guise of empathy. Our historical moment makes me wonder if we’re falsely associating empathy with our news-consumption of the Other’s — specifically, Black and Indigenous people’s — suffering.

When the news broke about the Minneapolis protests, my mom and I were watching CBC, where they showed the video of George Floyd’s murder once again. My dad asked, “Why are they still showing this?” She simply responded, “Because we need to know.” But what is the price of this knowledge, and did it need to be paid? My white parents have no experience of police violence, and so, my mom felt as if she needed to know the essence of the experience of racialized violence to adequately support the Black community. For that, she felt she needed to consume footage of Floyd’s murder. This thinking not only falsely equivocates knowledge with empathy, but also asserts her privilege to know of the suffering and not experience it. Similarly, I used to think that I needed to follow the news to know ‘what’s going on in the world,’ and up until recently, my role in creating a better world stopped at bearing witness. I thought that knowing about the world’s suffering could tangibly ameliorate it. I mistook the numbing, impersonalized grief I felt at consuming other people’s pain for empathy.

In ‘Desire and Resistance,’ bell hooks describes the commodification of the Other, the transformation of the Other’s experience–––specifically, the racialized-Other–– into an Object of consumption for the white Subject’s pleasure. For example, when one commodifies the Black Other, one presents their lived experience as an object to be pleasantly ‘eaten, consumed, and forgotten,’ while covering up its inherent racism — treating another person’s experience as consumable and thus disposable — under the veil of a desiring Self wanting to know the desired Other.

Sontag’s aesthetic manifesto, ‘Against Interpretation,’ is just that: a scathing rebuke of glorifying interpretation, which she claims is an essentially distancing way of engaging with art. The interpreter takes a step back, literal and figurative, from the picture, to examine it as a whole. They separate their immediate reactions to the work in order to achieve a sanitized, rational analysis of what it ‘means.’ They also distance the art from itself; once they have soared above the realm of experience, they break the painting down into its composite parts before sewing them back together to create a resuscitated monster of meaning. Her final recommendation is that we need an ‘erotics of art.’ According to Sontag, we need to think of art in terms of touch, taste, smell, sight, aspects of sensual experience that necessarily require proximity.

In February, Ron Haviv held an exhibition of his work to commemorate the anniversary of the Balkan War. War-photography expositions are hardly uncommon, and this certainly wasn’t Haviv’s first. From the walls hung pictures of unspeakable violence: one in particular featured an ocean spray of blood from a man just shot in the face. We can’t distance ourselves from a scene like this one. These people were shot in this world, in our shared reality, just as Floyd was murdered not in some distant, uniquely racist land, but under the same racist ideology that props-up the ongoing reality of police violence. However, to claim that we need to ‘eroticize’ war photography, that we need to bring ourselves closer to these horrific instances of violence, especially if we are neither Bosnian nor Black, reeks of necrophilia, sadism, and abuse of privilege.

hooks uses the following metaphor to describe the problem with our way of understanding empathy: ‘It is by eating the Other […] that one asserts power and privilege.’ Is the consumption of pain we do not understand a way of asserting power over it? Empathy, when we understand it as Sontag does, as a unique proximity through knowledge to another person’s experience, might very well be. The way we access knowledge about other peoples’ pain — through war photography, the news cycle, and social media — represents a power dynamic. The Subject exerts power over the Object by analyzing it and turning it into a Thing to Know rather than a dynamic, equally agent Subject. I worry that the way we have gone about our bid for liberation has failed us. That is, I worry that in our quest to develop empathy for that which we don’t understand, the commonly accepted understanding of empathy has only ended up commodifying the most vulnerable aspect of human experience. The Bosnian woman Ron Haviv made the subject of his now-famous photograph didn’t know he was taking her picture. Now she is the centrepiece of a decade-defining image. She is the ‘main-dish’ of a new generation’s sensual feast for knowledge of a genocide Bosnia committed before they were even born. I worry the horrific video of Floyd’s murder will share the same fate.

My thoughts on this matter are by no means settled, the validity of the questions I am asking are by no means certain. But something tells me that the more we think the links between ourselves and others are settled matters, the more we regard them unthinkingly, and the more we risk innocent blood continuing to be spilt.


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