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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.1 (2003) 88-124

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Empathy, Pornography, and Suffering

Carolyn J. Dean

In an editorial on photos of lynching recently exhibited at the New York Historical Society, reporter Brent Staples claims that “[t]he modern era takes it on faith that images of suffering stimulate sensitivity to that suffering.” Yet, he continues, the effect of these images is more often to brutalize spectators and “normalize” atrocity, turning the “likenesses of these events [into] a form of brutality in themselves.” Staples’s challenge to the modern era’s putative faith in the power of empathy—or what was called “sympathy” when it became an important quality of the feeling individual in the early nineteenth century—is a familiar one. The notion that images as well as narratives of suffering produce indifference, numbing, or emotional “death” is by now unremarkable. “The mind sickens and grows numb,” wrote George Steiner to describe the effects of so much brutality in the twentieth century (173–74). Political scientist Clifford Orwin notes: “The final pitfall of the new abundance of televised suffering is also the most ironic. It is the danger that constant exposure to such suffering will not sensitize but inure us to it” (49). Some scholars have defined a new problem in trauma studies they term “empathy fatigue” or “compassion fatigue,” in which numbness is explicitly conceived as a form [End Page 88] of self-protective disassociation. 1 And even those responsible for fund-raising in international humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International and the French Doctors without Borders, have claimed that they face a “numb” public. 2

Certainly such pessimistic commentary is now commonplace. Yet its very repetition, pervasiveness, forcefulness, and tendency to hearken wistfully back to the very humane ideals it insists we can no longer live up to bears investigation, for this pessimism takes specific forms and expresses new historical restraints on imagination and feeling. Discourses about various impediments to empathic feeling have of course existed since the eighteenth century, when sympathy was first deemed a crucial component of the enlightened self, the feeling individual, and the new social order. In his “Letter on the Blind,” for example, Denis Diderot noted that distance inured us to the suffering of others, and satirists from Mandeville to Richardson sought to expose the exploitation and manipulation of sympathetic emotion by do-gooders (Ginzburg 62; Smith 9). In 1769, when sentimentalism was the height of fashion, the witty correspondent Madame Riccoboni wrote from Paris, “One would readily create unfortunates in order to taste the sweetness of feeling sorry for them” (qtd. in Boltanski 101). In this vein, significant denunciations of bourgeois moral hypocrisy from Balzac to Marx sought to reveal how the pity that moved the prosperous classes consolidated the very social hierarchies they bemoaned. Marx depicted a more consciously vicious bourgeoisie who profess pity but secretly revels in spectacles of pain, so that, for example, prominent wives of bourgeois politicians enthusiastically applauded the “revolting atrocities” to which Parisian Communards were subjected (52). 3 In response to the images of violated and abused slaves that American abolitionists circulated in the early nineteenth century, several commentators noted that while they were meant to inspire moral action, the drawings often owed their impact to other more dubious pleasures (Haltunnen).

Thus efforts to inspire moral action on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised presumed that arousing human compassion required some symbolic proximity to the sufferer. One had to be inspired by the powers of imagination to feel the likeness to the sufferer that images or narratives of violation were meant to generate. These images, however, could also arouse the “wrong” sort of compassion, or insincere forms of sympathy. Diderot, Rousseau, and Balzac, among others, each presumed that all natural human compassion has socio-historical limits determined by the extent of our real likeness to others. Thus geographical, ethnic, and [End Page 89] social distance may preclude or distort compassion: either distance extends across space and culture, so that when there are calamities in Japan, says Rousseau, I can’t get...


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pp. 88-124
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Archived 2004
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