Empathy As Form

By Kate Brock

July 3, 2020

st francis
Still from Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1950).

In Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini’s 1950 film, The Flowers of St. Francis, the young saint’s life unfolds in luminous episodes. Francis, the son of an upper-middle class merchant in Assisi, relinquishes the benefits of his societal position and all physical possessions to pursue a life of poverty and spiritual truth. The film portrays his radical confrontations with power, like stripping naked in the middle of town upon taking the vow of poverty, or spending years in the wilderness outside Assisi.

The story of Francis and the leper takes place in a thicket beyond the city walls. The scene is silent but for gentle birdsong and a lone clanging cattle bell. Francis lies in the dust, crying O mio dio, as the sound of the bell draws closer. On the other side of a clump of trees, a leper plods through the landscape, the bell dangling from him to alert others to the danger of his presence. In the dim light, the two of them nearly miss each other, for a moment locked in the orbits of their own identities, the healthy man and the untouchable one.

When Francis rounds the bend, the gruesome reality of the leper’s face shocks him; for a moment he covers his eyes. He wants to turn away—and could do so—without harm. Instead he walks out from the trees. At first, a touch on the hand. The leper keeps walking. Francis pulls back. Another touch, then a few steps taken together. Francis stops. He forces himself to pursue and embrace the leper, from behind. They turn slowly to face each other. A greeting with a kiss and the bell is silent.  The confused leper continues walking in the field. Francis collapses into a carpet of flowers, a body made fragile by contact.

Empathy and pathology share the etymological root pathos, or suffering, and a semantic link to contagion. In the Greek, empatheia includes physical affection and emotional status. Pathologia is the study of infectious diseases, or more literally the study (logia) of suffering (pathos). Contagion is formed from the Latin tangere, to touch, and con, with, or together. To dwell or touch, together. The current pandemic has ruptured the collective possibility of touch in everyday life. With a virus as volatile and easily transmitted as Covid-19, every physical interaction has potential for contagion.

Who are the lepers, the untouchables, during this pandemic? Maybe all of us, though the most vulnerable—the poor, the homeless, the refugees, the immigrant workers, the elderly—suffer the greatest potential for, and consequences of viral transmission.

Compared to Covid-19, leprosy is difficult to contract. It requires sustained exposure to droplets from the infected person’s nose or mouth. After exposure, it has a possible incubation period of three to five years, in some cases as much as twenty. Leprosy is not a virus, but the stigma it once carried is an instance of early viral phenomenon. Stigmatization, which marks certain people as “other,” can spread through the masses as perniciously as infectious disease. In Francis’s time, the stigma of leprosy codified beliefs regarding political participation, and the ability of a subject to speak freely. In our current society, stigma is a symptom of the existent caste systems of poverty and racialized violence, and mass incarceration. It preserves a social dimension to the hierarchies of oppression.

Language surrounding “capitalism-as-virus” and “racism-as-virus” has recently become a framework wrenched from the pandemic and applied to unemployment, police brutality, and broad social inequity. The trouble with this linguistic turn is that the human-driven component becomes detached from these systems of race and capital, giving an autonomous, random attribution to a social hierarchy built to execute violence with impunity. As with Francis and the leper, it is not leprosy that creates the alienating conditions in which the leper must exist, but rather the unjust society in which the leper lives.

don lemon
Still of CNN Tonight‘s May 27 broadcast with Don Lemon discussing Covid-19 and capitalism as viruses, which went viral on Twitter.

The pandemic has radically magnified the existing imbalances that characterize American life. Viruses spread without premeditation but racism does not. Capitalism is not randomized, nor is it a natural occurrence. Treating the wounds of police brutality and incarceration is absolutely necessary, but attributing those wounds to something like a virus is dangerous for the public conception of racism. White Americans were not blind to the atrocities of slavery, but rather they tolerated it and relied on it to maintain a supremacist social order for hundreds of years. It is not their ignorance of racist acts, but their indulgence, which allowed for the preservation of racist American institutions.

Racial acts of terror have long been a deliberate part of American social history, and in the current optics of social media, pictures of police brutality extend a long lineage of terrible images, like that of lynching. It is necessary to resist language that capitalizes on the thrill of evil, the extreme shock of evil, in order to commit acts of anti-racist equity. As Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” The real work of anti-racism is not in the emotional, penitent outpourings white guilt manifests, but instead exists in the actions and alliances that take place across social boundaries. While the Black liberation movement has activated networks of mutual aid, sparked demonstrations resulting in material change, legislative reform, and experiments in autonomous zones, much of the anti-racist awakenings on behalf of white people have doubled down on the arena of language, which treats race as an emotional or psychological feature of experience.

Discourse prioritizing empathy as a necessary emotional component of growth disavows empathy’s power to transcend emotion and occupy the realm of radical action. This understanding does a disservice to embodied anti-racism; it is a paltry application of empathy to our current moment. Acts of empathy work against the optics of a moral economy by integrating the personal more deeply into the political, often in surprising and asymmetric nodes. Empathy is highly adaptive, emerging at unexpected intersections and demanding a moral presence that does not fit cleanly into ideological framework.

German-Jewish philosopher Edith Stein, a contemporary of Weil, wrote a dissertation entitled On the Problem of Empathy. Both women lived through the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. Stein died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, her life and death a testament to another machine of evil, which successfully committed so many atrocities through the simple acquiescence of its functionaries to the commands of its leaders. In her work, Stein made a crucial distinction between content-based knowledge and empathic form: ”Knowledge is blind, empty, and restless, always pointing back to some kind of experienced, seen act. And the experience back to which knowledge of foreign experience points is called empathy.” Without it, knowledge has nowhere to go within the realm of experience. It remains in abstraction. Empathy forms a horizon against which knowledge stands out, as body in landscape. Empathy encompasses while knowledge informs. Without empathy, one can have all the correct moral views—can be instructed in how to be an anti-racist, for instance—but knowledge will never transcend into the realm of action.

Systematic and recurrent acts of police violence against Black people in this country are not random, the singular aberrance of an individual police officer’s inability to empathize. Rather they are results of embedded systems of patriarchal and racialized violence. The maintenance of a police class, a network of functionary-employees whose job descriptions require the denial of human empathy on a daily basis, allows for and perpetuates this violence.

Associated Press Protest
Aerial view of protest. Courtesy of Associated Press.

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight,” Walter Benjamin wrote in “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” The current uprisings resist seamless identification by any one group—academic, state, or religious. Black Lives Matter as an organization is a large part of the uprisings, but it is the language of Black Lives Matter applied to the protests by countless affinity groups and individuals, rather than centralized leadership, which give it power. As a slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is a raw appeal to the base transformation of “I” to “We.” It affirms Black life while forcing white recognition of the egregious violence toward Black lives in America. It’s an open term, which allows the uprisings to synchronize with collective imagination and material action of all sorts of groups, from the militant, to the nationalist, pacifist, youth activist, poor, highly-educated, religious, anarchist, rural, and urban. After months on lockdown and technological revolution, people are hitting the streets in widespread organizing. They are gathering together, the realm of touch remains.

The convergence of a global pandemic, sudden technological domination, and public demonstration operate as material realities within the regime of capital, all of which are capable of being bent toward its aims. Benjamin projected into the future a vision of technological oppression, in which the constant stream of information buttressed emergency as the rule, not the exception. The inequalities the pandemic amplifies are so great that even those who have long been able to ignore the emergencies of others are now feeling the hard edge of history. Even though the protests sparked greater awakening for many people, influencers, celebrities, and corporations have reinforced a continuous cycle of content that aligns activism with consumerism. This is not identical to other kinds of co-optation, which happen with every politically potent movement. The result is more vertiginous on the Internet, wherein the speech and image of revolutionaries coincide with the feverish form of corporate statements and political posturing. Deep divisions in information access meld with conspiracies to create a dizzying tremor of fictive and abstract realities.                       

The rapid move to total techno-social relations (via Zoom, FaceTime, and the like) during the early days of the pandemic paved the way for the strange duality of the current moment. Thousands gather in proximity on streets while the virtual world remains abuzz with language of revolution, all while essential workers continue to support the necessary labor for life (and capitalism) to continue as usual. The convergence of technology with collective consciousness is not new or surprising, but it bears witnessing, as it eclipses other dark forces surging beneath the shine of our best intentions.

True empathy has no appearance. It can only manifest within material conditions. It is inherently anti-virtual. It requires a transformation of the “I” subject to a “We” subject—a process that unfolds between physical bodies within space and time. Real empathy is invisible to authoritarian regimes, though not to the persons who are transformed by it. Empathy is invisible to algorithms, corporations, and the political elite. It is a silent force, resistant to the phenomenon of the viral trend. No criticism of this moment can fall outside the realm of the incarnate “we,” if it is to be directed toward healing ends. It is neither trend nor comfort, but necessity. So necessary, in fact, that it sustains every relation at any moment an utterance is shared between subjects. It is the real, the encounter with the awakening to your own life and the lives of others, which refuse to be contained by algorithmic expression.

Empathic connection is the shock of the good, like Weil writes. You’ll know it when it comes to find you, whether that is in the streets marching with a thousand others, or in the silent touch of two hands, or in the foothills of Assisi, caught in the embrace of another you were once taught to see as untouchable. Like Francis, you might collapse when you see it, or you might feel the groundswell of possibility beneath you, because you recognize it as the ground from which you and everything forms, and it rises up to meet you.

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