Speaking Difference

If it’s possible to hear resonances of empathy in sincerity, where else can it be found?

On the recommendation of my dear friend Jesse Birch, I have come upon Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect. With just a cursory reading, Brennan’s proposal of affect being those cases of feeling another’s feeling resonates with a common definition of empathy as being exactly that: feeling another’s feeling. Granted, Brennan seems to have a grander scale in mind as when “the ‘atmosphere’ or environment literally gets into the individual” (1). Could the difference between empathy and affect be this progression out from a relation between individuals, to a relation between an individual and their surroundings?

After having tried for a long time to adequately define empathy, one notion that sticks with me is that empathy should somehow increase interdependencies–our empathetic relation implies an understanding of the world that now requires the vital energy each of us represent. For me, empathy is this particular and elemental exchange. However far empathy or affect may take us from our self, it is clear that Brennan and I share the assumption that emotions go “farther than the skin” (2).


5 thoughts on “

  1. Brennan’s definition of affect turns out to be “the physiological shift accompanying a judgment” where judgments are “‘any evaluative [positive or negative] orientation toward an object'” [5]. Affects are physical in their effects and unlike emotions. The example Brennan gives is that “when I feel angry, I feel the passage of anger through me. What I feel with and what I feel are distinct” [5].

  2. I just read Lisa Cartwright’s Moral Spectatorshp for my comps and it made me think of you. She advocates for a model of “empathetic identification” as a viewer which is not about feeling the feelings of the subject, or imagining ourselves occupying their space, but rather “acknowledging and even facilitating the otherness of the other”.

    I’m not sure how she would position affect in relation to this model, but I liked her use of acknowledging difference as a fundamental element of empathy.

    • Yes! I like that proposal quite a bit, for a number of reasons. It acknowledges that feeling the feelings of another is a practical impossibility. Further, there is an insurmountable problem of verification that is only exascerbated by our unique trajectories and experiences as humans. I also appreciate how it maintains distance between subjects, because, as Ranciere says better than me, “it is the normal condition of any communication.”

      And yet, I think I hate “other” as a designation. I much prefer “another.” When I come across talk of the “other,” its implication is to normalize something else, the non-other. When it comes to human interactions, I just don’t feel like there’s a ground zero [other than our particular subjectivity]. Also, there is some poetry here. Recall Rimbaud’s “I am another.” I am I, but there is something between us where we are in each other. Perhaps this is only semantics, but to me, “another” captures this reciprocal implication much better.

      But then maybe “another” effaces the difference that Cartwright is trying to maintain…?

  3. I think Cartwright would be okay with “another” instead of “the other,” but I can’t speak for her. What I liked most about Moral Spectatorship was that all her examples and case studies come from filmic representations of subjects who are dis- or differently abled in some way (many of them hearing impaired or deaf) and who therefore cannot participate in “normal” conceptions of communicative exchange. She uses these examples to test a lot of the traditional notions of how relationality and identification occur (especially all the metaphors about speaking/hearing, touching/feeling) and some of their impossibilities in the face of physical differences.

    Reciprocity figures into the book through what she terms a “radical interdependence” which disabled subjects demonstrate through their communication tactics. But an internal reciprocity that figures subjectivity, such as the internal “others” that are a part of identity formation and identification, might be an interesting addition to her argument.

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