I found pages 35-39 to be bizarre. Here Ahmed may either be harming or helping her intervention into the politics of empathy. I am not sure. Beginning on page 35, Ahmed emerges with acute self-awareness, both in her style of writing and in the event that she recalls (reading the document about Fiona and her mother).
“So I read through this document. Admittingly, it hurts to read the words, they move on me and move me. The stories, so many of them, are stories of grief, of worlds being torn apart. So cruel, this world. It is a world that I lived in. I remind myself of that. Yet I also lived in a very different world. Each story brings me into its world. I am jolted into it. I try and turn away, but you hold my attention.” (Pages 35-36)
I assume Ahmed’s self-awareness is not an easy or obvious knowledge-gaining process. She explains, “Knowing one’s implication in history is about accepting the violence as a form of un-housing.” It creates an impression on you and sticks. Her “un-housing” continues:
“I close my eyes. It becomes a scene. But the desperation of the mothers who are about to lose their children cuts through the scene and obscures it. I blink. I come to hear. Sounds, screams. My ears tremble with force of hearing those screams. Hearing the screams makes me shudder. The sounds of Fiona being taken away.”(Pages 36-37)
I found this bizarre because Ahmed is drawn into a past that she has never inhabited (and never can inhabit). But she still “hears” the screams and this produces a bodily reaction, i.e. the shuddering. I found her appraisal of this experience to be complicit in the very commodification of victimhood that she speaks against (page 31). Her emotions appear out of context—ahistorical. Considering the impossibility of feeling another’s pain, how can she imagine pain so that her ears “tremble with force”? And how can she write about another’s pain without flattening pain out in attempt to connect with it?
But maybe Ahmed’s appraisal is the very attempt to evaluate her contact with this particular history, to react, to have an orientation. Her self-awareness stems from the realization that “individuals [are] implicated in national shame insofar as they already belong to the nation, insofar as their allegiance has already been given to the nation, and they can be subject to its address.” I initially thought this was unfair, but then a wise and mature realization. What if we think of empathy not as sharing emotions with others, but as recognizing and evaluating emotional histories in others? That is, what if self-awareness is the pre-condition for empathisizing (e.g. “So cruel, this world. It is a world that I lived in.”), and empathizing means the willingness to explore the larger structures of cruelty that we directly or indirectly inhabit? What if empathy is the cognitive capacity to track the origins of other’s feelings and histories?
Today, as we are become more precarious, more “home-less”, moving freely among many flows, transcending beyond what is local, intimate, and immediately accessible (a la Appadurai “Global Disjuncture), we are continuously un-housing ourselves. Of course, there can be a backlash against un-housing; a counter-movement of home-finding that seeks refuge in traditional, oppressive territories of nationalism, racism, sexism and other national-building or community-forming practices that are conditioned upon exclusion and “otherizing.” But, I am interested in un-housing and self-awareness as the first-step of simply responding to (and not sharing) other’s pain in order to work through the “gulf that cannot be overcome by empathy.”
“The impossibility of 'fellow feeling' is itself the confirmation of injury. The call of such pain, as a pain that cannot be shared through empathy, is a call not just for an attentive hearing, but for a different kind of inhabitance. It is a call for action, and a demand for collective politics, as a politics based not on the possibility that we might be reconciled, but on learning to live with the impossibility of reconciliation, or learning that we live with and beside each other, and yet we are not as one”
This “hearing” is a form of self-awareness about the impossibility of a fellow feeling, but also about the possibility for a productive opening into the social and material world, a site for political and cultural work, activism, and (re)-building. Here, emotions can be gateways, leading to collective politics and social alliances. I am still working through, however, issues of concealment—that self-awareness and response may not be insufficient. For example, a person may give to charity because they are motivated by pride, social awareness, guilt etc. But does their response and emotional satisfaction conceal that their wealth exists only because of others’ poverty? How do we handle this?