On Consumptive Empathy: The Referential Self and the Other

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proteas – a few of my favorite things

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Audre Lorde

In my recent writing and theorizing, I’ve been thinking about the notion of “consumptive empathy”- that is, empathy that consumes the Other and centers the Self.

The Other is the object of knowledge. The Other is the object of desire. Here, I draw upon  Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari‘s concept of the desiring-machine that is ever-producing the subject, which they elaborate in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. One contribution that Deleuze and Guattari make (while building upon their predecessors Nietzsche and Spinoza) is breaking from the tradition in Western thought which links desire to lack. Instead, desire is defined in positive, productive terms, not negative terms.

What does desire produce? In the context of a society whose disciplines produce individuated subjects (individuals), and whose dominant forms of reason take the form of the binary, the dialectic bequeathed by the Enlightenment, desire can be said to produce The Other. The Other stands in binary opposition to the homogeneous Self/Us. The Other is the unknowable, yet known subject of the Gaze. Indeed, it is the gendered, racialized, queer and otherwise Othered bodies that are most subject to the Gaze.

There is another context that must be accounted for- that is the social definition of the Self in terms of consumption. “You are what you eat.” This manifests in banal ways, such as escapist entertainment like “Eat, Pray, Love,” where the white woman protagonist goes elsewhere in search of Self. It is with the help of the (brown/exotic/wise/mystical) Other that she finds her Self. It is through consumptive empathy that she finds her Self. To descend upon the Global South as a Westerner is to find one’s Self in contrast with the Other. One’s Western-ness is not threatened by the consumption of the Other. One’s desire for the unknowable Other does not collapse the ‘objective’ distance between subject/object.

Now, I know that someone reading this is thinking, “But, empathy is necessary for relating across difference!” To that I answer: yes, it is possible to ethically include the Other. But, before we can even attempt to ask the ethical question, we must dig and grasp at the roots of the construction of the Other. What power relations produce the othered subject? What power relations produce the referential Self? How do we move beyond Self-referential empathy that consumes the Other? If we do not uncover those power relations and remain cognizant of them, we will continue to Eat the Other with our self-referential empathy.

It is tempting to play the color-blindness game and say, “I don’t see ____.” That is a discursive violence. But, to be clear, denial is not the same as negation. In another conversation on humanism and human rights, I pointed out that dehumanization can be termed as the denial of the Other’s humanity. After all, you can deny something that exists. When I use the word “dehumanize” I don’t speak of a “theft”/robbing”/negation of one’s humanity, so much as I speak of a discursive denial. From a de/constructivist point of view, there are material consequences for that discursive denial. (Now, this completely ignores the question of the production/construction of the human being. [insert Agamben])

What triggered this line of thought was a Facebook status written by a white American woman in [African country] musing on Women’s History Month. In this musing, she expressed gratitude at being an American with access to health insurance and reproductive rights. She stated that, unlike [African woman], she had access to safe, confidential reproductive healthcare. There was no self-reflection, although the whole post was Self-referential consumptive empathy. “I’m glad that my husband doesn’t consider it a point of pride to continue to have babies that he can’t afford to feed, clothe, house, or send to school. It is completely unfair that African women work so hard, but have so little.” Translation: those poor African women who have abortions in huts because their husband pride virility over taking care of the children they already have. It struck me that she was expressing an anxiety about the Other- that beastly, fecund body that embodies difference. She was faced with the nature in the nature-culture dyad that the West conquered in its expansion and advance.

This is where Western feminisms have failed. For all of the talk about ‘intersectionality’ and ‘subject positions,’ there is little scrutiny or deconstruction of their Western Self, especially in regard to discourse about ‘gender in the Global South.’ Here, the “Third World Woman” is the referent trapped in a binary analytic. A monolith defined in terms of a generalized “suffering” on the basis of their gender, the “Third World Woman” is the body upon whose body Western feminists direct their violent Gaze.

Note here that I include Western feminists of color also. For example, Black women were deliberately centered in Kimberle Crenshaw’s formulation of intersectionality. The Black Woman (never mind the variation in subjectivities and subject positions) is the referent Self of intersectionality. She is the nexus of race, gender and class. She is the locus.

So, then, employing this analytical framework, it is easy for Black women in the West to overlook the importance of their subject positions as internal to global hegemony. Even as hyphenated Americans who are marginalized internally, they occupy privileged epistemic spaces internationally. Their stories are centered in the theorizing and story-telling of the African Diaspora. Their voices are the most amplified. In this sense, it makes sense that a Black American feminist like Alice Walker writes blithely of the Other, the Third World Woman, the African Woman in Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. Echoing her white, Western feminist counterpart Fran Hoskens, she imposes a proto-phallocentrism in her fixation on female pleasure via the clitoris, thereby betraying a profound ignorance of physiology and anatomy. (For alternative perspectives on “FGM” see Dr. Wairimu Ngaruiya Njambi, Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, and Carla Obermeyer).

Yes, Black women in the US have been subject to the biopolitical exercises of the state, wherein their sexuality and fecundity has been ‘controlled’ through coercive and deceptive means. But by no means does that translate to the practice of ‘female genital cutting/excision’ in Africa and the Middle East. To suggest that the two are equivalent is to ignore the contextual, cultural differences. To do so is to engage in consumptive empathy.

Reading Suggestions:

  1. Chandra Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses
  2. Audre Lorde, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance
  3. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
  4. Jasbir Puar, “‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics”

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