These are most likely incoherent notes (really draft thoughts) that I’ve collected in the various digital spaces I jot down notes to myself collected in one place. I was hoping there was a way to make them make sense but I don’t think there is. The topic is empathy because I personally have a hard time with it and spend a lot of time thinking about it as I try to make sense of how we humans interact in my own head. It often seeps into my work and rants. Please note these are just my thoughts and not a judgment on anyone else. If empathy works for you, keep at it.
I sort of understand where you are coming from, but rather than claiming empathy I offer you my solidarity.
Trauma has empathy and a beyond the moment to it.
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) April 27, 2015
I grew up knowing there were people who would rather see me hanging from a tree in their yard than have me as a guest at their dinner table. Still, I was raised to try to understand and empathize with people despite their hatred, shortcomings, etc. That would somehow make me “better”. I never quite knew what it would do for them, though, or my safety.
In 4th grade, we read Number the Stars and I became mildly obsessed with understanding what makes something as horrific as the Shoa (Holocaust at the time) happen. By the middle of 6th grade, I wondered why there weren’t as many books on slavery? Why was it that it was so easy for me to get books on the Shoa but there were no resources for me to learn about the holocaust of my own people, even as I knew that there were places I was not welcome, where people would want to hurt me for just being in their neighborhood. Instead of “never forget” for me and my family it was “get over it”. To the credit of the special school where I was a student, instead of Columbus day we had resistance festivals and we watched Mississippi Burning and took a field trip to see Malcolm X at the theatre… festivals and dramatized films circulate differently than books in school and other spaces of knowledge production though.
By the early/mid-90s as I was going to middle and then high school I’d moved on to reading books on religion and meditation and massively consuming news. There was so much suffering. I tried to empathize with everyone. Rwanda happened and I cried. When Kosovo started something broke. At school, I was still being told by laughing peers how they could never “bring a black person home” lest their dad kill them. I’d overhear jokes where the punchline was the N word. I remember one year in my yearbook a girl’s senior quote was to her boyfriend “I love you [random dude name], my jew basher”. I went to the teachers and the principle, crying out of anger and fear. Every time I was told that “I didn’t understand the context,” or, “I should lighten up because they are just jokes”. But my family passed down the memory of those who would rather see me in a tree than a guest at their dinner table. If they were willing to kill their sons for knowing they spoke to someone like me, what might they do to me for existing? I had nothing left to understand.
At 16 I no longer had empathy and I started to try and recenter through… whatever I thought meditation was at the time…
I met a man. He grew up Catholic and always thought he would be a priest. But something happened and he left home at 16 and ended up hiking from central Asia to India. In India, he decided he was not going to be a priest. He changed his name to Ramdas and became a monk. As he grew into an adult he had a hard time making sense of some of the oppression that he saw as part of Hinduism. He spoke to one of his gurus, a seer, who told him he wouldn’t stay a monk and that he would get married and have kids. He laughed. A year later, after almost a decade of being a monk. He became Buddhist and came back to the states and enrolled college. He went through and eventually decided to get a Ph.D. in religion. While finishing his Ph.D. he met the woman who would become his wife. In the future they would have two kids and he would teach where I went to undergrad. Ramdas helped me finish working through how to live in this world with so much pain where, as I told him, “I can’t have empathy for people who would sit there and watch the Rwanda genocide happen and do nothing”.
I think he laughed at me. That was one of our later conversations. He said, “Just because you think they did nothing doesn’t mean they actually did nothing.” He said that all over there are people who seem like they are bad who are capable of good. We had lots of talks too, about people who truly believe what they are doing is good even if the results are horrific. I remember after taking a course on eastern and western mysticism I was baffled with where I was in terms of really understanding how intertwined good/evil are… and he finally told me to read some things (that are of course now forgotten) on compassionate love… that I short hand to compassion…. Which is bad. I did, and I realized I can love everyone, as a human, and I could want peace for them. But I didn’t and couldn’t understand everyone. And even if someone believes something they are doing is good and just, it isn’t always. I decided that my goal was to be a more compassionate being going through life. It requires letting go of understanding and expectation. But it also leaves openings for connection and recognition. I am awkward and slow to open up to people, but when I do it is intense. We don’t often get to interact without judgment. This is what compassion allows for me.
Lightly annotated definitions from around the web
Empathy is not Sympathy! Sympathy isn’t bad if love is centered.
Origin Early 20th century: from Greek empatheia (from em- in + pathos feeling) translating German Einfühlung.
I think Einfühlung is really into feeling… which is sort of different? Or one feeling.
The dictionaries have feelings on it too. Always one sided. Always an “other” or and “object” so I guess empathizing is turning the “other” into an object so I can erase the other and/or strip the other’s agency to make their feelings my own… well, not make them my own, but understand.
empathy [em-puh-thee] noun 1. the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. 2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self. Simple Definition of empathy : the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings
Full Definition of empathy 1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it 2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this NOUN [mass noun] The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Sympathy isn’t bad if love is centered.
noun 1. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. verb (used with object) 2. Archaic. to compassionate.
Simple Definition of compassion : a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.
Full Definition of compassion : sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
com·pas·sion kəmˈpaSHən/Submit noun sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. “the victims should be treated with compassion” synonyms: pity, sympathy, empathy, fellow feeling, care, concern, solicitude, sensitivity, warmth, love, tenderness, mercy, leniency, tolerance, kindness, humanity, charity “have you no compassion for a fellow human being?”
BUUUUUUUUT really compassionate love… that is the real goal. I’m not there yet. I try though.
Approaches to defining Compassionate Love from wikipedia According to Underwood’s framework, which has informed a substantial portion of the scientific research, 5 key and defining features of compassionate love include:
- Free choice for the other
- Some degree of accurate cognitive understanding of the situation, the other, and oneself
- Valuing the other at a fundamental level
- Openness and receptivity
- Response of the heart
Maybe someday writing…
deep thoughts on the relationship between empathy/oppression. Readings on empathy outside of performance? I’m also thinking of these things wrt to how they relate to identity and lived experience in digital/non-digital/”seen as ‘other’ contexts. and how the version of self that is “other” is different than the not “not” me but are collapsed into one in digital contexts.
Theoretical Stakes of Empathy and oppression.
With the rise of digital media, people around the world are more connected than ever before. Forms of transportation such as bicycles, boats, and cars, connected clans and civilizations to those beyond where their eyes could see. Connections led to both cultural gains, and catastrophic losses through war and disease. Electronic media was different. Rather than taking people further than they could see, it made that which is further away suddenly appear in high definition as one in front of many without carrying disease or war. In fact, electronic media allowed for individuals to sit in front of disease and war without risk of being contaminated by the losses and risk they might bring. That does not mean that there was no harm in the images and sounds transported through electronic media. Electronic media in many ways annihilated the need for physical war and disease for the destruction of people. Instead, they could be symbolically destroyed in front of an audience of the world. While there is still physical oppression, electronic media, much like the other shared cultural framings of History and Education, oppresses culture on a psychic level. In our current world dominated by digital media and social networks, where everyone is able to have a voice, rather than using that voice to speak to the universal suffering that characterizes humanity, at this point in history, it is still used consciously and subconsciously as a place to further the little bits of power that alleviate some of the psychic pain of our current human condition.
From Painkiller to Empathy Killer: Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Empathy for Pain https://t.co/b4ANJI473y
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) May 10, 2016
And there is always Fanon. The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon… or too late. This is empathy for me. It is the never ending distance of your feelings becoming real to me only after they’ve already occurred for you. They are endless misinterpretation and out of timeness with the real. It is Time and the Other. Empathy becomes the inability to recognize the love in yourself in a pursuit that has already failed because the emotions we empathize with are always already the past. If we empathize too soon, we are already too late. We’ve already failed to recognize the human in front of us.
There is work to be done but… pic.twitter.com/LTrpCPi3MI
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) November 10, 2016
The oppression of empathy is the call to mutual recognition of the other and a recognition that even I am other for an imagined you that is a reflection of myself. Being empowered is the opposite of oppressed and it is defined by being in a position to continue oppression. Empathy is how we recognize oppression and it is based on the continued alienation of the oppressed in the name of understanding. Empathy, loss, and fear are experienced alone. Even in collective pain, the intensity is individually determined.
Empathy and Tolerance
no idea what prompted this. pic.twitter.com/UBZabwi7aW
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) August 23, 2016
When media, society, and technology theorist Marshall McLuhan coined his famous phrase, “the medium is the message” (1964) he also stated that all technology is an amputation of the human. While McLuhan is often used to explain the role of technology in society, what is missed is that the initial medium for McLuhan is always already the human body and the neural pathways, pathways that pre-exist the electric age, creating meaning through internal electrical impulses that move through the pre-defined pathways of the body that create sensation and meaning. The moment those impulses move outward and try to create meaning or a message, they are already and amputation because all things outside of the body are external even as they represent the individual. Thus, the very act of trying to commune with another human is an act of amputation that we imagine as a cohesive whole through our attempts to empathize and understand. While we get that if someone touches a hot pot they probably experience burning pain (unless their neural pathways are not properly connected, which does happen), and we know that that is an unpleasant experience, we are unable to feel their actual pain. We create a theoretical copy of ourselves to experience the burn of the Other. The medium, the human, is the message of the social imaginary. Much like Benedict Anderson’s discussion of European’s “discovering” new worlds in the chapter “Old Language, New Model’s” in Imagine Communities, Machine Learning’s new fascination with big data that is bleeding out to other disciplines is a recreation of things already discovered: In order to commune with others we create large patterns that we then re-create. The most obvious example of this would be language. The new models though favor a more mathematical or scientific mind. Rather than being dependent on having a shared language or experience that can be understood with only a theoretical amputation of the self, these require a complete amputation in the form of thinking machines that run without human presence. Machine learning and the big data it analyzes has been so far removed from a theoretical human medium that when humans are reintroduced to the configuration of information, the human is unable to cognitively make sense of where it came from, thus Google’s learning machines out learning their creators and human monitors. Despite the inability of the human to understand the origins of what the machine is putting out, I would still argue that if we go back to the nodal point of interest, the social and big data, the output is still a creation of the human mind inasmuch as it is recognized as having some meaning of importance, even if it is outpacing the mind that created it in terms of finding connections.
because empathy without compassion freaks me out.
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) July 10, 2015
We can see so much more now than we could in the 90s. We are not better off for it. This is a limit of empathy for me.
We moved our empathy bias onto big data where there is no room or context for compassion. But big data is an object, so we can empathize.
The biggest myth I’ve identified to date in trying to understand how we can move from Big Data to individuals is that there is no social in big data. There are things that happen in Big Data that have strong effects on the spaces we conceive of as being part of the social (the area of most interest for me being the ethical/legal space). In big data, there are no nodal points, only strings, and vertices. Big data inherently reduces the actions that my ethnomethodological heart would call individuals to neutral points on a graph or system that is interlinked with other points that might be individuals, objects, or things, as organized by some algorithmic system that was original programmed based on programs of other people to output information that can be read by whatever needs to read it to begin another action. The reason I say “read by a whatever” is because the reader might or might not be human. A good portion of the reading of Big Data that is done is done by other machines and algorithms in an endless loop of finding something that resembles meaning (a command) and producing actions based on the meaning, all defined by patterns in the behavior of programmed recognizable points. This is interesting because the most successful instance to date of a machine learning to read big data is from Google. The model being used by the machine was the human brain (which of course is different than the human mind, the mind being where we understand the social, but that is another paper). Naturally, one of the first things their neural network learned to do was recognize cats.
Only, it didn’t actually learn to recognize “cats”. The machine learned that there was a connection between this phenomenon of grouping pixels together in a specific way that became a pattern of unknown name that was only recognized as “cat” when a human reader took the information the machine had compiled, looked at the pattern of the pixels and recognized a “cat”. Up until that moment, the machine had simply algorithmically found a pattern in the noise of the data and noted that it was a recurring instance. “The Social” we find in big data is like the Google cat, only even more imaginary, inasmuch as there is no algorithm that can output “the social”. “ The social” is something we define in our scholarly pursuits to understand the phenomena that occur in patterned sets amongst individual actors linked together by contingent circumstances defined for the purpose of our scholarly projects.
Big Data represents a strange occurrence of “homogeneous, empty time” (Anderson 24), a concept he borrowed from Benjamin. Benjamin discusses this term in the context of history being “fulfilled by the here-and-now”. Big Data lacks a here-and-now as it represents an unending displacement and movement. When we don’t allow the “here-and-now” to exist due to the pace, scale, and processing required to make sense of big data, there is never a “now”. Big Data, as it is used, understood, and conceptualized today, does not allow a space for human experience. As a result, it erases any chance for a social experience to come into being within the data. Whereas traditionally the role of social science has been to explain and explore the diversity of human experience, to create meaning out of this finite thing we call life, all big data seems to be able to offer us is the near future, through predictive analytics. When we move towards understanding everything as a bit of data in a large data stream that can tell us something about the future, we erase the inherently human. And because we erase the human, the ethical components of big data are hard to place, because there are no bodies in data. There is no sociality inherent in the data. For all the metaphorical space big data takes up in certain scholarly circles, the data are empty. Yet we still empathize with their findings.
As someone who studies historical trauma & media I spend lots of time thinking about limits of empathy. This moment is a limit of empathy.
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) November 10, 2016
Media does not create empathy. It numbs and reifies existing positions structured by systems of uneven power, Lack/lack, and unfamiliarity. It is also great for propaganda.
People expected others to vote against Trump because of how he and his supporters spoke about marginalized people. The problem is, if empathy could fix things, marginalization wouldn’t exist so starkly as it does in the first place.
can go both ways, but on a societal level those in power tend to use empathy to silence.
Never forget vs Get over it.@KarlTheMartian
— Jade E. Davis (@jadedid) November 23, 2015
TO win with logic there has to be a shared emotional foreground. That was never created. Empathy was assumed rather than recognition of common ground being created.
It is always worse for the next generation in historical traumas because people are reacting to a ghost. The thing from the past, long gone, is no longer fixable, but the damage can never heal. You can never beat a ghost because it is not of this world. It is locked in a foreign past that we grasp for in order to give now meaning. Nostalgia, making things great again, reminds me of McLuhan addendum, the rear view mirror is a different kind of nostalgia. It isn’t about the past, it is about hope for the new future. There are too many people suffering for all to be made well, so let me take care of me and mine. Interesting, but him with them over there. We’ll leave you behind too.
We cannot continue to sugarcoat the past. It only terrorizes the future.
Racism and economic slavery are our heritage. Before all else. Everything we are bleeds in relation to that original wound. Even the adopted children, those who came through Ellis island long after the end of slavery had to be indoctrinated into this truth and empathize with the enslavers, trying to make a better life. Even today the ability for people who are being marginalized to empathize with those who continue to carry the burden of slavery, even when their position here marks them as participants in similar suffering, often fail to empathize those enslaved. We’ve been pathologized. We should go with what those who are suffering but not as much as us. Others who are suffering assume auto-empathy from us. It is unfair. It is taxing. It kills.
Today’s interpretation reality seems to be…
If you want to survive here others must suffer (scarcity?). If you can dehumanize or distances yourself from the suffering you don’t feel it (lack of empathy) so it isn’t real… or, better, those who are suffering have earned it.
The suffering we endure is of our own design but not really our choice (it’s that inheritance problem). Rather than letting go of the past, we must embrace it. All of it. I approach my ancestors with compassion. And I remember the stories my family always told me about my ancestors. I remember the fears they raised me with and question if I should have given those fears to my children as well. Most of my ancestors never had much to offer because of life conditions but they had hope for the future. For the generation that managed to pull on the chains of oppression to attempt a better life, all they received was a “wish you well”. I wish everyone well in this moment.
On Saturday I went to the first Version conference. I went in as my skeptical self and left really amazed at the conversations I was able to listen to from the wonderfully curated panels. I didn’t have any deep thoughts until this morning when my normal train route was not running on my way to work. I’d also forgotten my idevice and headphones so I was reading Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology (I’ve not finished it yet, but the deep thought came so here it is, jotted down before my next meeting).
I was very struck by the work of Jacolby Satterwhite. He is using virtual reality to create a world where he is more whole than he can be outside where his myth can be constructed, completed and fully experienced in a way not possible I the real world. In fact, he said as much, vulnerable, on a stage with only a few faces that looked like him in the audience.
These thoughts are so drafty I can feel the virtual wind on my body
I am stuck in this place where VR is the broken mirror stage as defined by a footnote in black skin white masks that I can’t cite because the book is at home coupled with the McLuhan idea of amputation, only it is the ultimate amputation. What this has me thinking, or realizing maybe, is perhaps I was so attracted to the theory of Fanon and McLuhan because they are both talking about the same exact thing/experience. Media amputates us from our embodied selves in various was as it extends who we are. When we other stand the body as a medium in and of itself, when the body is stuck in a place of alienation due to a lack of mutual recognition, which is the case for different bodied people, be it because of race, ability, or other things that might present as a visible or aural difference, there is an amputation from the perceived metaphysical (not sure this is the right word, but the basis for all of this is there is no actual self just the perception… oh damnit this is so theory I’m angry) self. Okay, I forgive myself. The way VR is being imagined right now does not give primacy to embodied experiences. It gives primacy to the plaststicty of the brain and the fact that because of the brains plasticity you can fool the body into disembodying itself and attaching to a virtual analog.
So why race? Well, there is always race. I live in a raced body. Also it is female. I’m a little bit chubby. I feel and experience my inner self and live in a body that is marked and reacted to in particular ways based on things outside of my control that I do not notice until I realize I’m being seen in 3rd person. What the experience of race or marked/unexpected difference highlights, unveils, demystifies is that some of us are never ourselves. We live as a virtual version of who we are because there are things about us that already script how we are read and reacted it. If I am on a train, and people see me all of those markers of difference might or might not make them have thoughts about me that are untrue. Because of the ways I am marked by difference, those thoughts might veer towards negativity (but that is a whole other conversation on perceived mircro-aggressions versus actual ones and the complications of interpreting a space when you are “Other”). So, back to this third person business. Everyone (not everyone but many people) gets mad at me when I use Fanon to speak about existing in 3rds, but I have to because he is the one who is speaking specifically about the broken mirror stage, as mentioned above. The mirror stage, per Fanon, breaks for the black child when the child in pre-adolescence realizes their body, their self is not the one projected by media, history or society.
The plasticity required to reconcile the self already exists for those bodies marked by difference as they already have to exist in third person when they live in dominant societies. They are at once themselves, the person they project and the person others perceive them to be. We see t his in Mamie (and Kenneth) Clarks doll experiment. The black child, seeing the dolls wants to play with the white dolls. The sadness the child has at having to reconnect with the doll they rejected, the doll they said was bad, shows that for many people, they always already live in a state of detachment from their bodies in a meaningful way because that is where society takes them. When I listened, and reflected on what Satterwhite was saying about having to take in the racism of the live audience and how the virtual him could be layered and contain the mythologies and performance that cannot be done in the real world, even as they were still a representation of himself, unchanged, it was meaningful. For me, the black body is one that is, by society and media and culture, amputated from its own humanity. The mask in Black Skin White Masks is a virtual reality where I realize to the world outside I am a monster (at times). It is one I cannot escape. There are no goggles. It is a light field discussed in terms of color and hues. I am sad that the place of empowerment and humanity is a virtual one… but there is another side to this too.
I love Fanon because he says that we all experience this world in 3rds, it is just more obvious to those marked as Other in a way that cannot be escaped if they are to move with other humans. For those in groups of privilege that don’t acutely feel the amputation, VR is the tool that takes them to that space through that wonderful plastic brain of theirs. In the Code of Ethical conduct, seeing the virtual body as the real body was seen as being detrimental and something we should worry about the psychological effects of (in the part that I read). And Yes! Yes! Of course!! but what about all the children who go through this micro-psychological change very time they are confronted with their own image. Every time they choose them self (in a doll or other thing) they are briefly experiencing a moment of disembodiment and radical embodiment… and this is fascinating and I’m still trying to figure out how/what I think and feel about this. I guess the question is, is VR different because on chooses to enter that world, but with race (or other marked difference) choice is removed and there is no world without the goggles (except for the electric one)?
Anyway, to end, because I have another meeting… The danger in VR around bodies and alienation, then, is that those in power and privileged might realize their bodies are meaningless because others have the power to manipulate and define their image (because it is clear that VR is a tool that can radically manipulate those who enter virtual worlds through immersive experiences that cause the body to feel and experience things that are not real outside of the image/sensation created in the mind). In the world of immersive VR that comes as a prepackaged experience the experiencer is at risk of being stuck in the world they entered, unable to change what’s been coded into their lived experience by the machine and the people who control it.
But hey, this is the world I was born into so…
/very drafty thoughts.
This is my first post-PhD semester, and much to my sadness, I will not be teaching students. My new role is in faculty development around media and pedagogy. I am lucky enough to have a fantastic circle of friends who finished with me that beat the odds and found academic positions. As we all explore our new institutions, I think we’ve been dismayed to hear similar things to what we heard in grad school..
“students are stupid”
This is one of my pet peeves. In my past life, I would hear colleagues say their students were stupid or dumb or some variation of students not living up to whatever intellectual standard the person leading the class has set as the baseline. I do not believe in stupid students. There are three reasons for this:
- Entering a formal learning space as a student is an act of submission and vulnerability. If someone is in a class, they should be there precisely because they do not know something. So, they are ignorant, but not stupid.
- Every person that enters a classroom has an effect on that space, and, as such, contributes something to the people they are able to interact with. Encounters in formal learning spaces all have the potential to be learning experiences.
- The way we ask students to show proof of proficiency in learning tends to mirror how those of us who are able to teach showed academic and intellectual aptitude. Not everyone is able to think or express themselves in the ways that we request. This is a barrier to seeming smart that is arbitrary but very real.
An Adolescent and Undergrad Story
I had my first job when I was in 6th grade and I spent my $100 a week on books. Not fun books though. I had a thing for history and humanity. I spent more time than was probably healthy trying to figure out human morality and reading primary texts of various religions as well as philosophical texts. I also read a lot of books from French enlightenment thinkers, in French, because that is what a teenager does when she is learning French, n’est-ce pas? In addition to all the reading, I was obsessed with the news, probably because I was fascinated by how people framed things because of that morality thing. When I got to undergrad, I was very excited that one of the required classes was a religion course. Religion 150: Introduction to the World’s Major Religions. I took it over a summer while I was fasting for spiritual reasons (yes I was that type of teenager. NO REGRETS!!!). My professor was Ramdas. I really, really loved learning from him. I took as many courses with him as I could. One of his classes changed my life.
Religion, Politics, and Society
We had courses that were designated as writing or speaking intensive. Ramdas taught a course on Religion, Politics and Society that was designated as oral intensive. I enrolled. I need to start this part by saying, I was an awful undergrad. If I felt I was not going to get anything from a course I didn’t go. I did the minimal I had to do to keep my GPA high enough so I could graduate. I spent the rest of the time sleeping (because I really liked sleeping as teenager and I excelled at it).
The first day of class, Ramdas went over a list of topics we would be reading and discussing during the semester. I was disheartened. Abortion? The Death Penalty? Homelessness? I’d already spent so much TIME thinking about these things. My classmates were PHENOMENAL, brilliant, passionate, amazing students to learn and think with. However, I did not know this on day one so, after class, I took my smart ass self up to Ramdas and said “I’ve spent so much time thinking about these things already and I don’t know that I will get anything from the course,” as one does. I am shocked at how patient and open Ramdas was because I would have laughed at me. But, he took me seriously and he said, “You are very smart, and I don’t doubt that you’ve thought about this. But in this class what you will learn is how other people think about things.” It was probably the best class of my undergraduate career. It let me know that even if I am smart, I am really, really, REALLY stupid too. And that is a good thing.
“Why do we keep talking about ‘Youth in Asia?’”
There is a story I share about this course that sort of made what Ramdas meant all sink in. The class was over enrolled. There were 30 people in a class that had 15 spots, but the conversations were fantastic and everyone was always there. We would do our reading that had various points of view from religion, philosophy, politicians, and academics on the topic. We would start the conversation circle with general reflections on what we read. One day we had a very in-depth conversation on the dilemma of youth in Asia. When is suffering too much? Who gets to make a decision about when it will end? How will the family cope with it? I think person X did a better job than person Y explaining why “youth in Asia” is such a difficult topic. And, then there were the people who said, “I’d never really thought about Youth in Asia.” One girl was getting visibly more and more upset and confused. She finally raised her hand and asked “WHY DO WE KEEP TALKING ABOUT YOUTH IN ASIA!? I read something about people dying.” It took a second, but then someone realized she’d never said or heard euthanasia out loud.
Usually when I tell people this story they laugh, but not in a “a-ha” kind of way. It is more of a, hahaha what an idiot kind of way. That usually makes me sad. For me, it was the moment when I realized how arbitrary a barrier can be. If just not knowing how a word you read is pronounced can make it so you are unable to participate in a conversation in a meaningful way when you have the capacity to do so, imagine the effects of all the other barriers people have. We were a special group where people felt safe being “dumb”. I am not sure that is the case in most classroom environments. It was not the norm in most of mine.
When we enter the academy we are surrounded by intellectually curious peers who have done reading and writing and reflecting and speaking. They’ve had the privilege to have the time to do so. Not everyone lives that life though, and not everyone wants to (and that is fine). Students not being able or not wanting to do these things doesn’t mean they’re stupid… for me, when I teach, it just means I need to figure out what tools I need to give them so they can teach me that thing that I don’t know as a teacher. I need my students to teach me how they think, which is why I created an almost fail proof final.
What are the lived effects of surveillance? From the anxieties of the surveilled to those of the surveillers, this panel considers the cultural, physiological, political, and psychological effects of mass surveillance.
Moderator: Kate Crawford [Deep Lab] Speakers: Simone Browne Jade Davis (HASTAC) Biella Coleman (McGill) Karen Levy (NYU)
My talk specifically looked at how, from the early mid-to late 90s as internet enabled surveillance and distribution of private/amateur video footage become one of the past times of the internet, we culturally learned how to take pleasure in consuming the surveillance of “others”. I related this to the contemporary phenomenon of watching black men being killed on social media because my working thesis is this is an act of (America) citizenship.
The conclusion was, given our current moment we need to be reflective about our roll in the surveillance machine that has been culturally normalized through social media in our current moment. This is different than surveillance and sousveillance. The terms I used is
Reflective surveillance and censoring in acknowledgement of the “other”.
The thing that I want to add to this larger conversation is Seveillance. This is outside of the phenomenological self, because that tends to have some idea of unification, and I don’t think there is such a thing and I am okay with that. Seveillance is a reflective practice in mainly socially media environments where both surveillance and sousveillance collide in a stream of information where, as individual users, people are forced to encounter a media mirror that, while pleasurable for some, is painful for others. It is the thing that gets people wrapped up in flame wars or trolling as they attempt to define a safe space in an open stream of information.
This becomes important when we (society) start to break down some of the alienation we experience as a result of our digitally augmented social lives. We are able to talk to a more diverse group of people than in the past, because social streams feed the same algorithm, we need to think about what we are sharing and how, and who we are asking to watch with us and why. It is one of the ways we need to self-censor that we do not often discuss. And it leads to my big questions.
1.What does it mean for something to be both a place where we come to watch playful things and sacred men die?
2.How do we reconcile that we allow their deaths to render invisible the countless others who die in the same manner?
The Nitty Gritty of the Talk
I laid out three types of pleasure in a foreign language, because that’s how I roll, with definitions taken from the internet. Jouissance, Divertissement, and Schadenfreude. A working hypothesis for why the three examples were sticky or different is because people see them as something that could happen to them but did not. They are also all types of pleasure that have some pain, discomfort, or cringeworthyness attached to them. I think it is so so so important that we acknowledge that without pain there is no pleasure.
Jouissance: Physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy.
The Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape, leaked on line in 1998, wasn’t the first sex tape made, but, with the proliferation of 56k modems and T1 lines at universities, it was able to spread in a new way thanks to the internet. It allowed people to watch a what happened behind closed doors of a popular sex symbol. The eventually licensing of the tape also paved the way for Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.. And it was a predecessor to the recent “The Fappening“, the leaking of celebrity photos stored in their icloud accounts.
Divertissement: A minor entertainment or diversion.
Unfortunately, most of the Audience hadn’t had my experience of big brother, and the video didn’t work, but here is the opening for the first minute that I was unable to show during the talk.
For me, the show that was a predecessor to what we are seeing today in terms of day to day surveillance, and privacy is Big Brother. The US version premiered in 2000. I thought it might be fun to watch the first minute of the first episode to hear what the host says, and to see what was shown on TV.
What this clip doesn’t mention is the 24 hour feed that was available on the internet. As someone who was home that summer in a small semi-rural town in California, most of my friends were online. We’d spend hours in the chat rooms watching and wondering if Brittney, one of the house guests they made a big deal about in the marketing for being a virgin, would lose her virginity.
What I find so interesting about how Big Brother was position versus how we are positioned now in a day to day environment that resembles the house is, they agreed to this for a large cash prize. We pay for the privilege. Watching people early on do this was merely diversion and entertainment though.
Schadenfreude: Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.
This form of surveillance pleasure is most popularly seen in Sousveillance Genre of Russian Dashboard Cameras, and, I think for our contemporary moment, and where I will be going next, this is an important comparisons. These films show accidents, scams, fights, and other Russian craziness. The seemingly endless feed of Russian dashcam footage caused many to ask Why they have this. The reason is corruption. These films allow people to protect themselves in court from corrupt police officers and scam artists. It serves the people filming and provides them a level of agency they would not have otherwise. And, as a side bonus, it gets them tens of thousands of views on sites like YouTube when they capture and upload something Schadenfreude worthy… like a cement truck driving over a road and falling into a hole because it couldn’t handle the weight.
Surveillance vs Sousveillance
That thing we’ve culturally been calling for as a fix. The wearable police camera… but, it is false sousveillance, and it has shown, thus far, that, it will not bring about change in the current social order, so to speak. Politically, even our attempts at sousveillance, given what we now know about how or devices and communications are tracked or how they are taken out of context by state power means that in the US we culturally have a very limited potential for what I would consider true souveillance. What we do have is this..
PLEASURE IN THE SURVEILLANCE OF “OTHERS” IS A DISTRACTION FROM A LOSS OF AGENCY AT A CULTURAL LEVEL.
WE DEFINE THE OTHER BY ALIENATION, and IN THE PROCESS ALIENATE OURSELVES.
At this point I shared a link to my post, “Black Men Being Killed is the New Girls Gone Wild” and provided a list of names I will not being sharing here of the black men and boys whose deaths have been shared on social media as clickbait because it combines all three forms of surveillance pleasure into one, if you are an ideal citizen (and not everyone is).
And now the wall of text…
I am thinking through this with both Agamben and Fanon.
‘The sacred man is the one who people have judged on account of a crime. It is not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet, he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide; in the first tribunation law, in fact, it is noted that “if someone kills the one who is sacred according to the plebiscite, it will not be considered homicide.” This is why it Is customary for a bad or impure man to be called sacred’ (pulled from an ebook of Homo Sacer so I don’t have a page number)
Black men represent both the sacred man and bare life in a meaningful way. Bare life reduces a person to just a body, unable to participate in politics or the good life. As a sacred object, it is the space we look to to make things okay. The watching of these deaths is not new. We have the history of lynching, and slavery (Simone did a fantastic job speaking of slavery). This is a historical American past time. In fact, the ability to take pleasure in this is part of what defines the good life in America.
The other side is what Karen, one of my other co-panelist was speaking about in terms of care, family, and surveillance. For all of the people that are able to take pleasure in the watching, there is another group that suffers, those that see a mirror of themselves in these bodies that die from both sousveillance and police cam footage that is then uploaded and shared online. Rather than joy, seeing these image repeated and the amplification of the positive reactions to these deaths (and I consider lots of clicks a positive reaction), means that certain bodies are still seen as always already dead. Additionally, if you are a political being (or citizen) in the United States, you are already implicated in the idea that there are some bodies that deserve state death, as we do have capital punishment. These men are bare life. And media and education, for Fanon, are, psychic mirrors. In these mirrors heroes and history are the realm of whiteness. Blackness is the realm of monsters, death, and fear.
The thing that is important to remember is that these actions are Jouissance, Divertissement, and Schadenfreude all at once. And they are a placeholder. The high visibility of the scared man is a distraction from the fact that these actions that are culturally seen as reasonable when done to certain bodies is inevitably happening to all of them, because, any citizen has the potential in the future to be homo sacer, or experience bare life. And, the distraction that homo sacer provides is that the future is now. These things are already happening to everyone. But because homo sacer is the visible representation of the opposite of citizen ship, we focus, in this case, on his black male death, ignoring the black female death, the latin@ death, the queer death, the white death, and all the other deaths that are happening in the exact same manner.