Living in the Affective World, or How Empathy Functions

Say I'm at a dinner party. And I see this guy across the table talking to some other guy and this other guy is holding loudly forth about his latest app and, man, does my guy look forlorn. I know just how he feels.

But if we assume an atomized view of life, that we are all discrete actors on the stage of the world, then empathy becomes a tricky thing. After all, if I'm over here all wrapped up in my history, experiences, constitution, and feelings while you're over there with your history, experiences, constitution, and feelings, how in the world are we suppose to feel each other's feelings? We'd have to dismiss empathy as so much malarkey. Or else construct a convoluted apparatus that involves imagination and projection and, most likely, some breed of neurons in a remote region of the brain.

As a culture, we love the brain. It's where we imagine everything happens. So some funded folks in white coats hook sensors up to our skulls and make us look at disturbing images while a computer captures the movements of color on a screen. At which point, all of this enables a journalist to say things like, "That told the scientists where the empathic error was playing out, but it didn’t tell them how it was working: Did activity in the rSMG cause the egocentric bias, or was it trying to suppress it? In other words, if the rSMG stayed quiet, would our empathic skills be better or even worse?" (from some article in Time entitled, "How Empathy Works," with a sub-head/lead line that reads: "Feeling what someone else feels isn't easy, but the brain is wired for it."Oy!).

In a world that assumes the atomization of identity, the brain has to do all kinds of peculiar, magical things to grasp the world. After all, what else could explain the wonder of me feeling what you feel? What else could overcome this chasm?? Well, the brain! It's at once magical and, somehow, nothing but a series of quantifiable mechanisms. Poor brain! It has to do such strange, elaborate things to answer questions that it should never have had to answer.

The philosopher, Henri Bergson, calls these false questions. And they account for so much of how philosophy, science, and cultural discourse goes off the rails trying to make sense of this life. After all, if you ask a question that everyone tries to answer with money and mechanisms but the question is fallacy-filled from the get go, things get odd. It seems to me that before answering any question, it behooves us to question the question and then, perhaps, ask a different one.

So let's ask a different question and begin from another place all together — and perhaps we'll have different answers. What if rather than assuming that I am here and you are there and between us yawns an inevitable chasm, we assume that we are all at once constituent and constitutive of the same stuff — namely, the world. That rather than there being a gap between us, space is infinitely dense, infinitely rich, with itself. So between me and you is not nothing but, on the contrary, there's all kinds of stuff — gasses, ideas, affects, desires, what the French philosopher calls "the flesh."

In this view, we are not atoms who function as discrete entities on the stage of the world. In fact, we are not even fundamentally different from the world. On the contrary, we are aspects of the world just as rocks, gasses, words, ideas, and space dust are. The world, in this case, is not a stage we act upon; it is the milieu in which we act.  We don't act on the world or in the world but with the world. Or, better yet, as the world — or at least this piece of it, this perspective, this vantage, this trajectory.

We will never have been discrete atoms. To be in this world is always already to participate with other things in this world — we come out of someone else, we breathe air, eat food, walk on ground, participate in language. Identity is porous and fundamentally, ontologically, networked.  I will never have been a me per se. That which is me is, in fact, a series of mechanisms — a metabolism — that is always already taking up other things in order to constitute myself.

Let's begin, then, like this: I am a series of mechanisms taking in, taking up, other things and mechanisms. And, with this world view, let's once again ask the question of empathy: How am I to feel what you feel?

Well, let's say that empathy is not a one-to-one experience of your feelings. That just seems silly. It doesn't demand an equation of your feelings and mine, a one-to-one mapping. That may be what quantitative scientists demand. But not us: we have different answers because we have different questions born of a different world.

So I'm over here, you're over there, and I feel I know what you're feeling. How is that possible? Well, it doesn't seem so farfetched now. We are both participating in the same fabric of experience. So just as a ripple on this side of the blanket throws my cat from the bed — a cat who's way over there! — I can get what's happening to you. The gap between us is not a gap at all; it's continuous.

And yet my feelings are not your feelings. The demand for that equivalence stems from a flawed understanding of how we go in this world. We are not, alas, atomized. We are all constitutive and constituents of the same plenum of a world. So of course I feel things you're feeling! Not only is empathy no longer an epistemological dilemma; it's an ontological inevitability.

Due to the prevailing atomized view of the world — a world view that reduces people to integers — I'm 1; you're 1; she's 1 — so that we can readily run algebraic equations — we neglect to teach or even discuss the affective flows that permeate our lives. We are never taught how to lean into situations to suss out the affective resonance of this or that — a book, room, film, job. No, we teach that everything should be reducible to an integer that can be plugged into an equation.

And yet we all live in affective fields. We even have a vocabulary, albeit limited, to make sense of such things. I hate that bar! It feels so, well, creepy! Or: That house is just plain weird! I always get anxious there! Which is to say, we're not foreigners to the world of affect. We just lack the discourse, the concepts, the honed faculties to process and discuss such affect.

We live in a world saturated with affect. In fact, there is no such thing as an unaffective space. Everything — rocks, trees, tchotchkes, words, smiles — is affective. And, if we abandon the atomized view of the world and assume a plenum, a place in which the world is full of itself, then of course I feel with you — not as you but with you. How could it be otherwise?

I want to suggest that if we assume we operate in an affective plenum, then we will teach differently, think differently, ask different questions. If rather than solely ask what a book or film means, we teach students how to lean into the affect of a text, then empathy is a necessary byproduct of life. It is to feel with the world in which we are all continuous.

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