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Review: Politics of Empathy by Anthony Clohesy

The Politics of Empathy by Anthony M. Clohesy is a compellingly original and innovative engagement with empathy in a political context. 

[Anthony M. Clohesy. (2013). Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 160 pp.]

I begin by expressing my admiration and enthusiasm for Clohesy’s contribution. Encountering this straight up, occasionally understated, frequently dense, work was thrilling. For me it was a page turner, albeit in a scholarly way.  I saw old things in new ways. This book changed my thinking. At the risk of a military metaphor, Clohesy’s work is like two inbound cruise missiles: the first blows off the door of conventional political thinking, the second, blows up the bunker. Not for the faint of heart. 

Clohesy’s big idea is that empathy is about identity and similarity, but it is just as fundamentally about differences. Key term: empathy of differences. This provides a powerful angle on that vexing issue of empathy and ethics, which has the frustrating aspect of being a chicken and egg dilemma. Does empathy found ethics, which seems too “touchy feely”; does ethics found empathy, leaving us with the counter-intuitive sense that the “bad guys” sometimes use empathy; or do empathy and ethics develop separately, leaving us with a non-empathic ethics or a non-ethical empathy? The matter starts to spin.

Clohesy’s idea (continued): the challenging relation between ethics and empathy is that they both emerge

The threat of violence: pushing that boulder up the hill and fearing it is going to slip down again – and it does!

simultaneously in the encounter with difference –  the encounter with the other individual – and the result is – politics. 

I now try to motivate the discussion of this innovation of an empathy of difference and recognition from an eventual encounter with the other individual. Key term: the event of an encounter.

Speaking in the first person, when I encounter an individual who is different than I am, then I have an experience of otherness. However, every person I encounter, without exception, is different than I am, even if there are many similarities between us. The other is different. Period. And, here is the punchline, without the other individual there is no empathy. Empathy is born in otherness. Empathy is a function of otherness. Empathy emerges from and in otherness. Without the other individual there is only myself – oneself – all alone. Empathy is the one thing you cannot do all alone. 

The empathy of differences emerges in encountering the other individual, who resists one’s spontaneity, initiative, and one’s action, pure and simple. This resistance creates a boundary between self and what is other. The attempt to traverse this boundary and overcome the resistance requires an expenditure of effort, force, energy. This dynamic of effort and resistance, strictly speaking, is different than violence, but resembles the “violence” of Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill (in the myth), only to have it slide down again. 

Clohesy does not use the term “resistance” and he may not agree with it, but I find I need to get to the key role in Clohesy of “violence,” which is not standard violence. This expenditure of effort, energy, or reaction to resistance, is experienced as a kind of violence. 

As I read Clohesy – and he is extremely subtle on this point – the encounter with otherness inevitably turns violent in some metaphysical and even mystical sense. Or more precisely was already violent. The encounter with otherness thus entails a struggle with otherness. Otherness shows up as resistance to my will.  

Clohesy denies that he uses “violence” in the ordinary sense of the word as to kill someone: “My use of the term “violence” should not be misunderstood. It does not refer to how we kill and oppress each other [….] Rather, it refers to how the fragile interiority of our lives is constituted and sustained by power” (p. 85). 

Clohesy writes: “My central claim is that empathy is important, not because it can eradicate our inherited capacity for violence and cruelty, or reconfigure the deep structural forces that inhibit a transition to a more ethical world, but because it can make us more aware of our violence and cruelty. Thinking of empathy in this way is important because it allows for the emergence of a space in which more ethical relationships between us can develop” (p. 67).

I agree and align: empathy expands our awareness. But if that is all, then we are in even more trouble than we imagine because we humans are an aggressive species, highly territorial, intermittently over- or under-sexed, now armed with weapons of mass destruction. Heavily armed. Absent an intervention, this is not going to go well – indeed it is not going well. Where to go from here?

Clohesy comes into his own with an empathy of recognition. With an empathy of difference, instead of identity politics, we get a politics of recognition. Though we are different, our interests, experiences, and aspirations as human beings are recognized. Our possibilities converge instead of conflict. Our opportunities align instead of clash. We are able to cooperate instead of obstruct one another. We are able to build instead of tear down. 

Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes yields an empathy of differences. One discovers the otherness of the other. The shoes rarely fit right. One discovers where the shoe pinches – but the other’s shoe almost inevitably pinches at a different spot than it pinches one’s own foot, because the other foot is slightly different – longer or shorter than one’s own. 

Clohesy traces the empathy of identity and difference (recognition) through nature, religion, and culture. He invokes and critiques “otherising”: the act of essentializing the identity of others. He cites Kathleen Taylor: we are hardwired for contamination – to experience contamination or a sense thereof from contact with the othered other (p. 8). 

 According to Clohesy, empathic experience of difference allows us to recognize others. This is the encounter with difference: feeling into the life of another person as culture (p. 30).

On a good day, the way we engage with “others” is sufficiently empathic to understand the reasons why their values, norms and practices are often so different from our own. Clohesy is clear that “understanding” is not confused with “condoning” or “agreeing” or “approving.” We must deploy a rigorous and critical empathy that challenges practices and values with which we have issue or divergences. 

Nature brings with it an empathy of identity – essentializing differences which makes them difficult if not impossible to overcome.

With nature, the shadow of tribalism falls over politics – and empathy. The empathy of identity is ultimately that of proximity to family, tribe, local community. There is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent. We would be less than human without it. But it is ultimately derivative and incomplete without an empathy of difference. 

Empathy of identity gives us communalism, which provides a strong internal empathy towards family and friends and those near and dear, but does not recognize the otherness of those remote – does not acknowledge the otherness of those not proximal (those who are remote) – they are not other – they are invisible – pre-other – we may think of them but we think of them in the way of not thinking of them 

Clohesy properly cites evolutionary psychology as to how our first instinct is to favor those of our own tribe, those we see as ‘our own’ (p. 47).  Yet when seen in the context of empathy, the violence of nature requires that we humans must engage with strangers in a spirit of recognition and solidarity, rather than distancing ourselves from them.  Clohesy does not cite Martin Luther Kind but I do: “Learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Easier said than done. 

Perhaps religion can help. Regarding transcendence, Clohesy’s argument is that we can and should recognize the importance of religion without necessarily having conventional beliefs about it. He makes good use of Karen Armstrong:  Religion “works” when it is appreciated in the context of myth or when it is seen in the context of unknowing. Logos could not undo, assuage, or cure human grief or find meaning in life’s suffering. For that, people turned to mythos or myth. 

What then of myths? Clohesy’s is a slim volume with limited word count, but the religious and political myths are legion – mostly as echoes and allusions. The time of the mythical violence of Hobbes’s “war of all against all” or Rousseau’s State of Nature or Rawls’ Original Position. The struggle of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Freud’s band of brothers murdering the tyrant father and inventing an early version of the blessed Eucharist, Cain and Abel, are one-and-all echoed mystically. 

Then there is the matter of The Event. One needs an encounter with The Other to get empathy started. This encounter takes on the quality of a logical reconstruction and even mythical Event. It is like the Big Bang in cosmology. It does not make sense to ask what happened before this Event, because the before/after distinction itself did not exist prior to the Big Bang, which is when time itself emerged, time being the source of the before/after distinction. Clohesy has a lot to say about the Event in the context of empathy and politics (cosmology does NOT come up, but maybe it should). 

It’s not like there is a temporal sequence at this point. The other already has always been a synchronous aspect of oneself. If there is a myth, it is that human beings are unrelated. We are always already related. Definitely.  

At this point, we (and Clohesy) are in mystical or metaphysical time (as near as I can figure out). Empathy is one thing one cannot an individual cannot do all alone. One may be the creator of one’s entire universe – life is literally but a dream – until one encounters the other – then one wakes up to the reality of the resistance of the other – the otherness of the other. I would rewrite certain passages using “resistance” rather than “violence,” but I do not claim this is the truth with a capital “T.”

For many people, life is experienced as pushing a boulder up a hill at which point the boulder slides down and has to be pushed up again (think about Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus). One works all month to put food on the table for the family and pay the rent, then next month one has to start over and do it again. For people who are born rich life is easier, and yet at some point everyone has the experience of pushing that boulder up the hill. 

When pushing the boulder up the hill, it is hard to empathize with the boulder. It is easy to hate the boulder. But that hatred is already a form of negative empathy with the boulder. But in a mythical context one might discover that the boulder was made by the other or is itself the ultimate other.

Though Clohesy does not explicitly say so, I believe he would agree that empathy is the foundation of community, that is, the political community. But it is an empathy of difference, not one of identity. If you go with an empathy of identity, the result is tribalism. “I get you, man, and you get me, bro, because we are [mostly] alike.” But then there are all these different tribes – Democrats, Republicans, Progressive, Conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Quakers, all 193 member nations of the United Nations – not to mention the Chicago Cubs Baseball team. 

Once again, though Clohesy does not explicitly say so, tribalism itself sets in motion a dialectic whereby each individual can belong to multiple tribes with multiple identities and affiliations. Even you get enough tribes and enough overlap between tribal identities, the notion of identity starts to dissolve into a kind of melting pot of  multiculturalism or ecumenical spirituality or market place of competing political ideologies. Even if the melting pot never completely melts, it can at least become a colloidal suspension – cosmopolitanism – where the identities and differences are fine-grained enough not to subvert individual diversity or the aspiration to universally shared values. 

But absent such a dialectic – for example, in traditional societies or insular communities – the empathy within the communal group works well enough but breaks down at the boundaries.

Clohesy’s response to the breakdown of the empathy of identity? He asserts that the protection of culture and the recognition of difference require an account of cosmopolitanism (informed by an empathy of difference). In turn, cosmopolitanism “is able to subvert essentialist conceptions of difference … the most toxic enemy of the politics of recognition” (p. 43).  

Clohesy endorses a cosmopolitanism that recognizes others as equals and opposes committing arbitrary  violence against others in a context of values disclosed to us by the empathic experience of difference (p. 44). Presumably nonarbitrary  violence would be a police man stopping a home invasion by the bad guys. Presumably non-arbitrary violence would align with Max Weber’s definition of the state as having a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. 

The mythico-metaphysical ontological aspects of Clohesy’s contribution emerges with his innovative application of Alain Badiou’s distinction of the Event, itself perhaps inspired by Heidegger’s Vom Ereignis. “Or, to put it differently, our constitution as ethical subjects requires experience of an Event in the form of the empathic encounter with difference” (p. 92). “…[E]mpathy is important in this respect because the experience of difference it makes possible to give form to our ethical lives by allowing us to emerge as beings aware of our finitude, but also aware that we are condemned to commit violence to realize that which is impossible” (p. 93). What could be clearer or more transparent?

Since this is not a softball review, it msut be said, this is as clear as mud – and yet there is something extremely original and powerful going on here. I can make some sense out of it in terms of a rational reconstruction of the encounter of the self and other, in which the other offers resistance to the self thereby bringing the intersubjective world of conditional possibilities and impossibilities into existence. 

Another word of caution: Clohesy’s is work of significant scholarship, and merely well-educated readers without an academic background may find parts of it to be a challenging read, though a valuable one. I think Clohesy has read everything – okay, almost everything, relevant to politics and empathy. An impressive accomplishment. 

My most significant concern is with his use of the term “violence.” As quoted above, Clohesy does not mean “killing” – I believe he means a kind of struggle or resistance or encounter with the otherness of the other than deteriorates into the violence that creates what Hegel called the butcher bench of history. 

Clohesy writes of arbitrary violence. Presumably when Cain slays Abel it is arbitrary violence, but when David slays Goliath that is nonarbitrary? When Pharaoh or King Herod slaughter the First Born that is arbitrary violence? But when Yahweh takes the first born Egyptians that is non arbitrary? How about when Burnham Wood come to Dunsinane, and McDuff kills Macbeth, the tyrant? How about when the posse chases down the John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, and burn down the barn in which he is hiding? 

In this regard, Clohesy might have done well to deploy Hannah Arendt’s fundamental distinction between violence and power. When political power of a state or regime goes down, then out come the riot police, the tear gas, the rubber (and lead) bullets. “Power down, violence up” – Arendt’s proposal – is as predictable as night following day. 

In conclusion, Clohesy asserts his use of empathy opens the articulation of an account of politics that promotes and reflects a sustainable vision of the good life. He  claims that the relationship between empathy and politics can and should be understood in the context of reciprocity or as elements within a virtuous circle. Clohesy further claims that, because empathy provides use with a sense of our duties to others, it allows us to see politics as something that is enabling, necessary, noble and ethical (102). 

References

Anthony M. Clohesy. (2013). Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 160 pp. 

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy  Project

Review: A Silvan Tomkins Handbook: Foundations for Affect Theory by Adam Frank and Elizabeth Wilson

Silvan Tomkins (1911 – 1991) is an innovative, ground-breaking interdisciplinary psychologist. Tomkins’ four volume Affect, Imagery, and Consciousness is a Mount Everest of the study of affects and the emotions. Like Mount Everest itself, Tomkins’ work is on the border of several gigantic kingdoms, extending from philosophy to psychology, neurology to evolutionary psychology, data rich empirical research to high speculation, phenomenology to an early version of critical theory, behaviorism to personality theory and psychoanalysis. 

The result of the complexities and multidimensionality of Tomkins’ contributions is that his work has remained less well known, for example, than Tomkins’ student Paul Ekman, and Tomkins is regarded as hard to read, dense, difficult and even inaccessible. Until now. 

A Silvan Tomkins Handbook: Foundations for Affect Theory by Adam J. Frank and Elizabeth A. Wilson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020, 105 pp.) provides a sophisticated roadmap into the

complex terrain and intricacies of Tomkins’ innovative approach to the affects. Without oversimplifying and with admirable conciseness, Frank and Wilson engage with the tough issues and reliably clarify and illuminate them: the relation of Tomkins to Darwin – continuity or innovation; the philosophical deep structure of Tomkins thinking, including his PhD dissertation in philosophy on the Scottish enlightenment figure Bishop Butler; his work with W.V.O. Quine in logical empiricism and pragmatism; the debate about the affects as the bearers of propositional content; the relationship to Spinoza and the latter’s theory of desire, passion, and value; the adversarial relationship to Freud’s drive theory, while using psychoanalytically-informed listening to describe the affects in their intersubjective context; what happens to the affects in the human context of community, namely, affect control scripts. 

Tomkins’ life spanned the time when the dominant design paradigms in psychology were behaviorism and psychoanalysis. As the authors, Adam J. Frank and Elizabeth A. Wilson, note, Tomkins himself underwent a seven-year psychoanalysis with Ruth Burr (p. 138), and said that it had cured him of his neurosis. 

As usual, the devil and the innovations are in the details. The conventional wisdom is that a straight line exists between Darwin, Tomkins, and Ekman. Frank and Wilson demonstrate decisively that it is a best a zigzagging dotted line. 

A biological dimension exists to the affects – neurological, glandular, muscular, parasympathetic, visceral, and so on. How society and community then take and elaborate, magnify, and transmute that biology are of the essence. 

The difference between Darwin and Tomkins is substantial. Darwin sees the human smile (among many things) as a vestigial remnant of our canine ancestors baring their teeth to express the mixed message “I am friendly enough but also know how to be aggressive and bite” [or a sentiment to that effect]. If the smile expresses anything for Darwin, it is as a fossilized remainder of mammalian behavior, thereby making Darwin’s key argument of continuity between man and animals. 

According to Frank and Wilson, while Tomkins does not contest Darwin’s finding, Tomkins’ thinking moves forward and perhaps at right angles. Tomkins endorse a “stored affect program” but does not reduce “affect complexes” to such a program (p. 35). Most authentically, Tomkins innovates an “inverse architecture” to the emotions whereby the affect of interest and excitement (“happiness”) is literally in the smile itself. Nothing is hidden. The affect lives in the smile. 

Tomkins is just getting warmed up here: “the affects are also always necessarily social, conscious, facial, scripted, ideological, and interpersonal (p. 33). It is not even clear that Tomkins is a proper Darwinian: “What is evolutionarily basic for Tomkins is not fitness but rather the capacity to conjoin and disjoin and cleave” (p. 34), which provides the complexity of affects transmuted into emotions in real life social situations. 

Neither Frank nor Wilson – nor Tomkins – are responsible that Darwin’s classic, innovative, ground breaking work on the emotions is deeply flawed. 

Darwin’s work on the emotions took considerable pains to disagree with and refute Charles Bell’s assertion that the emotions were purposeful in a spiritual deistic sense, showing us the wisdom of the ultimate designer of the clockwork universe, as noted, the God of the deists and quasi-Unitarians. Apparently the emotions could not be both purposeful and perform the work of Darwin’s own quasi-divine first principle of adaptation, natural selection. 

Though this goes momentarily beyond the confines of Frank and Wilson, the matter is of the essence. The scandal is that Darwin, after banishing purpose from the human emotions to link them with the animals, then had to fall back on the [Lamarckian] inheritance of acquired characteristics (not natural selection!) to account for the continuum between the “expression” of emotion in man and animals. Animals such as dogs and chimps were indeed expressing their emotions; but man was performing habitual behaviors continuous with the behaviors of dogs and chimps without purpose that had taken on a fossilized life of their own in man in the species homo sapiens. The scandal grows as, for Darwin, the emotions are not even expressive (in a work with that title!) – the emotions are vestigial gestures. 

Tomkins may have had an appreciation of the nuances of Darwin’s position that even Darwin lacked thanks to Tomkins’ work on Bishop Butler and the other Christian and deistic divines of the Scottish Enlightenment. But Tomkins never made explicit the noted limitation or background controversy. 

Meanwhile, Paul Ekman has built on the work of the giant, Tomkins, that came before him. Ekman states he spent seven years on a potentially career ending research project to map Tomkins’ example that, in effect, happiness lives in the microexpressions of the smile on the face. Until his retirement, Ekman broke out of the academy and was consulting to the FBI and other large law enforcement organizations about how to tell if the would-be suicide bomber is unwittingly expressing his contempt for the capitalist dogs by focusing on the barely conscious microexpressions of contempt that provide “tells” of a hidden affect. 

Given the authors sustained discussion of Tomkins interest in computers, cybernetics, automation, science fiction accounts of biological robots in Philip K Dick, they will be interested to learn (but do not note) that a version of Ekman’s facial action coding scheme has indeed been implemented by a company called Affectiva. To their credit, Affectiva has refused to do business with totalitarian governments, but that does not prevent the latter from trying to steal or reverse engineer the algorithms. The genie is out of the bottle. 

Frank and Wilson point to the speculative deep structure of Tomkins’ thinking in the work of Spinoza. The crosscurrents and parallels are abundant – including quotations that echo one another: “It is our theory of value that for human subjects value is any object of human affect. Whatever one is excited by, enjoys, fears, hates, is ashamed of, is contemptuous of or is distressed by in an object of value, positive or negative (1:329)” 9p. 76). Freud was a secret – and not so secret – admirer of Spinoza, whose therapeutic project gives aid and comfort to all those fellow travelers seeking to extend the bounds of self-knowledge in transmuting affects into action, not mere cognitions. 

Frank and Wilson consistently push back against the assertions of Ruth Leys on the rise of affect. Now one should never dismiss Leys’ penetrating and incisive commentary. If one is going to hunt and look to bring down big game, it makes sense to go after Ekman and Tomkins. No one is interested in refuting, for example, the author of this review, because few have heard of him (i.e., me). No glory there. 

Frank and Wilson defend Tomkins against the assertion that he initiates the anti-internationalist movement (which, presumably, accelerates with Ekman). I summarize the defense: because affects are born in an unintentional (“non propositional”) context does not mean that they remain there. 

Building on Tomkins’s account of affects, his theory of imagery and consciousness recruits significant propositional content in a powerful and therapeutically informed context of scripts. Frank and Wilson perform an admirable job of explaining the non-intuitive subtleties of affect control scripts. I provide an example:

Consider, for example, the section titled “Production of a Total Affect-Shame Bind by Apparently Innocuous and Well-Intentioned Parental Action” (2: 228), which begins, “Our hero is a child who is destined to have every affect totally bound by shame.” Over two pages, Tomkins sketches an excruciating set of hypothetical scenes that take place around a 1950 American dinner table in which a child is shamed by his parents for expressing each of the primary affects: “Don’ ever make that face again at the table – it’s disgusting” (2: 229), “Oh, Robert, you’d think you hadn’t eaten in a week, really!” (2: 229), “Robert, where are your manners? Sit up (2:229 – 30), “Robert, you could be a little more attentive, you don’t have to sit there like bump on a log. Say something” (2:230).” 

This does indeed set up a script – an affect “out of control” script. As I read them, each of these is a micro-narrative – a script – in which a breakdown in empathy occurs, inflicting micro-aggressions in a context of affect amplification, psychological magnification, and a script for ongoing emotional disequilibrium. I hasten to add that the word “empathy” does not occur in Tomkins, but it lives there nonetheless in this and many other dramatic sections.

To tie together nonintentional affects with the propositional content of affect control scripts, an account of emergent processes, properties, and relationships is required. Although elements of such an account are to be found in the systems thinking, and feedback mechanisms that inspired Tomkins in the works of Norbert Wiener and the early cyberneticists, I do not believe a complete or satisfying answer is to be found there – or, for that matter, in any philosophy of science or design paradigm. This is not a criticism of Tomkins or the fine work of Frank/Wilson; but points to one of the great intellectual challenges of our time – a coherent account of emergent properties in context. 

Another one of the take-aways from my reading of Frank and Wilson is that some of the best work being done in psychoanalytically-oriented circles is occurring in comparative literature, gender studies, and the like. While not narrowly psychoanalytic, this work is an example of that latter. 

Psychoanalysis as a clinical practice continues to succumb to self-inflicted wounds of arrogance, elitism, cost, scheduling, and intermittent dogmatism. Today’s analysts are simply practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and asking clients about their dreams between homework assignments. 

Psychiatry does allow for some simple affects as anxiety (fear), low spirits (depression), high spirits (mania), or anger; but, notwithstanding Panksepp or LeDoux, psychiatry lacks a sufficiently complex or nuanced account of the affects. “My amygdala made me do it” may indeed be true in specific instances of traumatic activation or “being triggered,” but it does not clarify the rich affective detail, nuances, human blind spots, struggle and effort in people’s lives, relationships, communities, and, ultimately, it demonstrates you’ve just got the wrong philosophy of science. A better one based in systems theory that allows for the emergent properties of the affects in their richness and complexity in biological and sociopsychological context is brought forth in the course of Tomkins’ contribution and this guide to it. 

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project