Thursday, December 26, 2013


The video linked, not uncritically, at Savage Minds. Not uncritically is not enough.

My [three] comments
I found the animation almost unwatchable. The meanings of words change over time. The word the author wants to use is not sympathy which is a broad term, but “pity”. It’s that word and its history that allowed Mother Teresa to say that the sufferings of the poor are God’s way of teaching the powerful the importance of pity. The doctrine is Gothic, literally. And pity in this context is a form of contempt.
I’ve met a lot of Irish Catholic nurses. Their brand of intimacy with their patients gives me the creeps. And the politics is grotesque.

On the rest, I have to argue as always against the bureaucratization of intellectual life, the arguments for false -pseudo- objectivity and neutrality that makes life easier by dumbing down, or numbing, our capacity for experience. I don’t blame Bourdieu for this, but I shouldn’t have to point out that he had the genius of a brilliant file clerk,a moralizing petit bourgeois.

My favorite response going back 25 years is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, but any other tragedy will do, works made to short circuit the emotive responses of their viewers: sympathy, empathy, pity, voyeurism, judgment, moral condemnation: it’s all there in one package, true as life.
1. Perspective taking, recognizing that someone else’s perspective is their truth.
That would includes the truth of heroin addiction. And you can’t do it: that’s the contradiction that’s unavoidable.
2. Staying out of judgment
To avoid judgment is to pretend to avoid loyalty to your own perspective; to attempt to want to be a machine. Andy Warhol said he wanted that, but his art was about the attempt. not the fact.
3. Recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that
Recognizing emotion is not having it. How do you acknowledge kinship, or equivalence, and otherness? To show respect is also to admit that you do not feel the pain of someone else’s terminal cancer, but that you will bear the responsibility for their care as they suffer.
4. Feeling with people.
The theater of concern is still theater. 
I wrote this 8 years ago, during the last week of my mother’s life.
There’s a difference between caring for someone, in the sense of emotional attachment, and being attentive to them, to their wishes or their pain. Pain itself is lonely and expressions of sympathy are often theater used to hide incomprehension and fear.
I’m watching the old watch their friend die. They have become professionals at this. They are honest actors: the most aware both of the distances between people, and the similarity of their experience.
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I made it all the way through the animation. The choice she’s describing is between sympathy/empathy and indifference with a few words tacked on.

Professional caregivers are battle-hardened, but the good ones are good at their jobs. Pity is one way to keep a distance.

My mother died at home. The hospice worker who stayed up all night so that we could get some sleep was cool as a cucumber; she had the friendly smile of a hooker. She was gorgeous and she was a pro. Sex and death are intimate experience. She watched people die for a living. She was watchful and aware of our mother’s needs and we were grateful.

I was at a bar and met an ER surgeon. She loved her job. I made my usual comments about nurses and added that surgeons have to acknowledge that they enjoy cutting people open.The high wire act is a rush. “You feel like a god, until you kill your first patient.” Her eyes widened and she looked at me, surprised. “You understand”.

Moral responsibility is hard to describe because it’s hard.
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Stephen Greeenblatt argued in The Improvisition of Power that our modern sense of empathy comes out of the Renaissance and that it’s tied to the expansion of empire. Iago understands others’ weakness. Manipulators and con-men weren’t a product of the 15th and 16th centuries, but Machiavelli was.

The lack of an understanding of empathy is an aspect of our fixation on predetermined ideas, data points and the logical manipulation of supposedly known quantities.
Mathematics and formal logic are neat. It’s an engineers’ joke that an architect is someone who didn’t know enough math to become an engineer, but their clean fetish means the engineers skew towards the right when in comes to politics. See Gambetta and Hertog on engineers and terrorism.
Platonism in the world is fascism. Democracy and moralism don’t mix.

One the of great tropes and failures of Modernism was the engineered society; the new popular trope is the hot-house anarcho-capitalism of the market: if authoritarian communitarianism failed we now must be self-interested monads. In both, individual human beings are replaced with idealized representations. The only measure is the aggregate. But who’s the measurer, the new master of mediocrity?

It makes life much less painful to see things simply. It would be a simpler world if all the conflicted emotions of Double Indemnity made no sense to the audience in the theater. It would be a simpler world if the surviving victims of a regime dedicated to creating an ethnically pure state did not themselves set out to create an ethnically pure state. It would be a simpler world if groups linked to both groups would not out of loyalty and guilt take the side of that new state, even as it created a sea of refugees who ironically enough, are genetically at least the closest kin to their new conquerers. It would be nice if this behavior, given what we know about humanity, were not entirely predictable,

It would be a simpler world if college professors were always on the forefront of political and moral progress, but they’re not. Mostly they play catch-up. Read Bourdieu on the importance of the leadership of intellectuals. He and those like him remain the arbiters.

Once something becomes articulated as an idea, a named specific thing, the thig itself has been around for a while. Outside of purely technical activities, there are few “discoveries” in intellectual life. Mostly its the articulation of tendencies that already exist. Practice precedes theory; the fact of bureaucracy spawns arguments in its defense.

Pico Ayer has a nice piece in the NYRB Blog.
The beauty of Proust is that he ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow. “So long as you distract your mind from its dreams,” the painter Elstir tells the narrator at one point, “it will not know them for what they are; you will always be being taken in by the appearance of things, because you will not have grasped their true nature.”
If you don’t understand your own preferences, your own habits, your own weaknesses, your own innate conservatism, you’ll end up confusing your supposed concern for others with concern for yourself. And those others will notice it.

If Proust was an observer and a connoisseur, he was also a diagnostician. A diagnostician is a connoisseur by definition. Jerome Groopman explains why doctors need to examine patients themselves, not just look at the charts. Measuring as a human being with all the moral weight that applies to that term means measuring in the finest detail you’re capable of, not by a yardstick they gave you in grad school. Life is a continuum; we break it up into categories in order to function. It’s the mistake of Modernism that the biggest generalizations are the most important because they’re the most universal. But being the biggest makes them the most banal. Masters of ideas are masters of bureaucracy. We need a return of connoisseurship because we need to become better diagnosticians of ourselves and others.

Sorry for the second rant. I have a manuscript of Sahlins’ desk, recommended by the editor of U Chicago Press. I’m spending my days pacing. I don’t want to go on Craigslist looking for carpentry jobs any more. I’ve got 20 years to go till I can dig into my parents TIAA-CREF accounts and I have to pay the rent. One little book, a succès de scandale, and I’ll be able to take my show on the road. I’ve been making this argument for 25 years. Maybe. Just maybe, some respect. For once.

And the woman who did the animation should spend more time with Miyazake, whose depictions of empathy are as powerful as they are because even with all the stock effects of studio animation, they’re detailed and specific. The sense of intimacy we feel is the result of great artifice.

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