new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics
Volume 79, 2013
Social feeling is understood as the foundation of civil society, an emotional connectivity that underlies pro-social action. These ‘ordinary affects’ are commonly expressed in the concept of empathy, a transpersonal state of emotional extensiveness. But this term was only introduced into Anglophone cultures in the first decade of the twentieth century, gaining purchase on social explanation over twenty years later. This essay examines competing understandings of social feeling in this period of transition, which resisted situating it in relation to those individual processes of perception, ‘inner imitation’ and projection that spoke of empathy’s origin in aesthetic theory. By contrast, psychologists, sociologists and political theorists invoked an innate capacity for association and ‘fellowship’ - the ‘gregarious’ and ‘herd’ instincts - with altruism as the expression of that transindividual formation in externally directed action. In these models, emotional extensiveness was tangled up with questions of creaturely sociability, the dynamics of collectivity and mutual tenderness, moving beyond the problem of perceiving ‘other minds’ to imagine the inner states of others in their social embeddedness. Hence they speak to contemporary concerns with our capacity to respond to ‘distant suffering’, the everyday consolations of association and human presence, and the ability to effect social change.