Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The "empathy gap"?

As news of the Guantanamo Hunger Strike continues to come to the forefront of media outlets, including the New York Times publication of Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel's op-ed of his experiences in the camp, a major victory for the counter-terrorist state took place in Boston. Last September, Amnesty International published an article, titled "Why Close Guantanamo? A Dead Man's Poem Speaks" by Zeke Johnson on the death of Adnan Latif on September 8, 2012, which has been determined to be suicide (but as Marc Falkoff writes before the autopsy was done, was a result of "detention"). As Andy Worthington states in an article first published on the Close Guantanamo website, Latif was released for return to Yemen, but the actual release was prohibited by Obama's moratorium on releasing Yemenis in Guantanamo following the (failed) 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot. Latif's "Hunger Strike Poem," published in the 2007 collection Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak functions to phrase those pertinent questions about the role of the "world" that have similarly been raised in the juxtaposition of the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing and the victims of US drone attacks, and relatedly about the characterization of certain violence as "terrorism." Latif writes,
They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults
and humiliation.
Where is the world to save us
from torture?
Where is the world to save us
from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save
the hunger strikers?
The questions raised by contemplating the role of the "world" as observer have come down, in some accounts, to an "empathy gap," a term which writer Teju Cole has used to describe the "heavy silence" surrounding the use of drones to assassinate people outside of the country, and in general the incapacity of the American public to care about the victims of its violence.

But there are problems with the "empathy gap," and in general with using empathetic identification as a guideline for moral action or responsibility, and Latif's poem addresses some of these problems, which I would like to deliberate over here in both a preliminary and a restropective way. The primary problem with what I call "empathic identification" is the way that it constructs the subject as a victim of imperial aggression without taking into account the fundamental ambivalence of this subject as victim and as an agent who exposes aggression. In an essay published in Postmodern Culture in 2011, "The Enemy Combatant as Poet: The Politics of Writing in Poems from Guantanamo," I argued that the status of guilt assumed by the "enemy combatant" is related to this exposure of the aggression of his enemies and that even liberal commentators do not get past reading the poems as testimonies of the violence and of their suffering. And while this testimonial function is important to effecting an actual change in either conditions or in the existence of the prison on the basis of Human Rights violations, the poem, like other poems in the collection, also challenge at a more fundamental level the complicity of the discourse of Human Rights with US and Western interests. The poems point out that this complicity, and not a lack of empathy, informs the blindness of Western, in particular, US observers.

In Latif's poem, as in other poems, the language of universal human rights is pursued through the figure of the “world” as an impartial judge or law outside the prison: a world “that will wait for us,” to which “photographs of my corpse at the grave” will be sent, “before” which men will bear a “burden” and, finally, as an implied addressee, if “justice and compassion remain in this world.” As Latif writes, “Where is the world to save us from torture? / Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness? / Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?” In these formulations, the world becomes a figure for human rights, the neutral observer who is there to witness suffering. But as we know, and as critiques of Human Rights Discourse have long established, such neutrality is a pretension. Despite this, there is little sense about how to move past these constructs and frame the terms of moral responsibility in another way. The poems, however, which challenge the triangular relationship between "Us," "Them," and the "World," present a poetic speaker that takes place within a history of forms that is irreducible to the enunciation of a universal human subject. The ambiguity of this poetic speaker resists discernible efforts to provide a “close-up” of the terrorist turned victim, and in this way, the poems operate critically in a milieu otherwise rife with na├»ve assumptions about the self-evidence of testimony in expressive work.

In important ways, reading this poetic speaker yields a take on aggression that might help us to perceive some of the alternative expressive aspects of "terrorist" violence. It's this--and not empathy--however, which the American public does not want to hear, since then it would also have to confront the violent contours of its own guilt--not the aggression of imperialism as a national phenomenon, but the aggression that figures in the experience of complicity (as a registration of both empathy and the "empathy gap"). Such ideas, I would suggest, could help us to think about the ambivalence of aggression and victimhood, or of civilization and barbarism, in constructions of morality in imagining alternative experiences of political and ethical subjecthood.

1 comment:

etc said...

c.f. Jackie Wang "Against Innocence" in LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism (Vol. 1 2012): "I contend that the politics of innocence renders such violence comprehensible only if one is capable of seeing themselves in that position. This framework often requires that a white narrative (posed as the neutral universal perspective) be grafted onto the incidents that conflict with this narrative" (155-156).