Brainfarts on empathy.

“The issue the Diary presents, with a force perhaps only a working ethnographer can fully appreciate, is not moral; it is epistemological. If we are going to cling – as in my opinion, we must – to the injunction to see things from the native’s point of view, what is our position when we can no longer claim some unique form of psychological closeness, a sort of transcultural identification, with our subjects?” (27-28)

“The ethnographer does not, and, in my opinion, largely cannot, perceive what his informants perceive. What he perceives – and that uncertainly enough – is what they perceive “with,” or “by means of,” or “through,” or what- ever word one may choose. In the country of the blind, who are not as unobservant as they appear, the one-eyed is not king but spectator.” (30)

“In short, accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal for capacities ego-effacement and fellow-feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their life at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate, or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are “really like” comes not from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography not of theirs, but from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke – or, as I have suggested, reading a poem – than it is like achieving communion.” (44-45)

– Clifford Geertz, “From the Native’s Point of View”: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding (1974)

“Humans are a highly cooperative social species”, says Victoria Burbank during her paper at our weekly Anthropology seminar. We congeal subjective feelings that we perceive directly and external postures, movements, and speech that we enact. Empathy is the transformation of an observed experience of another person into a response into the self.

But can empathy be extended to cross-cultural understandings, different cultural feelings, of totemic subjectivity? Can we feel for animals or trees or ‘nature’ like we identify with human subjectivies? Can we experience totemic empathy?

Is the correlation between intimacy and co-presence birthed out of prior sensory connections that inform our choice/intention/desire to build relationality with others? What happens when physicality is not essential? Does our body play on previously registered somatic and neuro associations of intimacy, does this map onto abody interactions like text?

Empathy is important to me because I don’t want to be an effusive theorist, or a playground anthropologist, or make tangential judgements.

PS: In today’s episode of Anthropology Anonymous: Post-fieldwork realization/epiphany that fieldwork was lonely.

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