Affect at the Margins: Alternative Empathies in A Small Place
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‘[G]reed is out, empathy is in.’ Primatologist Frans de Waal’s catchphrase captures the spirit of the popular Euro-American affective imperative to eschew ‘bad’ feelings for ‘good’ ones, value generosity and connection over self-interest and division, and have faith that ‘putting oneself in the other’s shoes’ can remedy the most deep-rooted social problems. As de Waal declares in The Age of Empathy, the public’s outrage at the US government’s ‘lack of empathy’ in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, together with the global financial crisis and the election of a new American president, ‘produced a seismic shift in society’ (2009: ix). If we can harness this empathetic surge to focus public attention on ‘what unites a society, what makes it worth living, rather than what material wealth we can extract from it’, he contends, we will be one step closer to ‘a more just society’ (ix; see also Obama, 2006a; Rifkin, 2009 and Krznaric, 2013). Concomitant with claims for an epochal shift into ‘the age of empathy’ are stark warnings that current neoliberal political ideologies and policies are depleting the very affective capacities that hold our potential to become a more equitable and democratic society. For example, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, philosopher Martha Nussbaum contends that with universities becoming increasingly corporatised, and the arts and humanities being everywhere downsized, we are witnessing a serious erosion of the very qualities essential to democracy itself, namely empathy: ‘the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicaments of another person’ (2010: 7).
KeywordsAffective Relation Small Place Liberal Discourse Affective Capacity African American Literature
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