On not closing the loop: empathy, ethics, and transcultural witnessing
KeywordsLanguages and Literatures
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AbstractThat an empathic response to testimonies can lead to altruism is a key assumption of much cultural research on trauma and witnessing, which prides itself on its ethical commitment. Most trauma theorists also agree that empathy is to be distinguished from forms of affective involvement that do not recognize and respect the otherness of the other, and which are variously referred to as sympathy, projective identification, incorporation, or crude empathy. While this caveat against imperialism and appropriation is meant to prevent empathy from turning into a closed-loop process, canonical trauma theory itself has been plagued by Eurocentrism from its inception, as it tends not to adequately address the sufferings of members of non-Western or minority groups. In this essay, I will discuss the challenges that transcultural witnessing poses for empathic understanding and ethical thinking, using both theoretical and literary texts as examples, and focusing specifically on Dave Eggers’s novel What Is the What. Published by McSweeney’s in 2006, What Is the What, subtitled The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, is a collaborative first-person testimony that tells the story of a refugee from the second Sudanese civil war. I argue that in this book Eggers manages both to stay true to the continuing cultural demand for empathy with distant others and to defuse or counter the prevailing scepticism about the morality of empathic identification that tends to find such efforts hopelessly wanting. What Is the What does not resolve all the moral ambiguities surrounding transcultural witnessing, but it is unafraid to confront them and refuses to be paralysed by them. The novel harnesses feeling in the face of suffering while continually reminding the reader that Deng’s experiences are not his or hers to inhabit. Rather than solidifying an already existing community, it calls a community of otherwise distant and disconnected people into being for the purposes of alleviating suffering.