by Beverly Weber

In the following “pages” I want to think about empathy, including the possibilities and dangers of empathy as a motivation to feminist action.1 At least twice in the last 24 hours prior to the initial draft of this piece, somebody had said to me, “I feel you.” And I appreciated it. But: I am suspicious of this feeling.Can you ever feel me? Can I ever feel you? What is this feeling, and what alliances might it motivate? Can empathy play a role in decolonized solidarities? Does it rely on shared vulnerability? To whom do we feel obligation? To what extent? In what way does that sense of ethical obligation rely on empathy? How does empathy function as an emotional force that compels one to move? What role can it play in our feminist communities-to-come?

I cannot feel your suffering.

As a feminist humanities scholar, I’ve also wondered how to approach the problem of empathy in humanities education. Much discussion about the value and importance of humanities education and research has relied on the idea of teaching empathy, presumably as a step towards making a better world, or making better citizens, or making better humans; ones who can understand another’s experience, another’s pain, the pain of the Other (see, for example, Kristof; Lee; Gilbert).

I don’t wish to dismiss the value of empathy. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the possibility of intersectional feminist collectivity without some kind of understanding of a connection to those who are different from us, and some kind of empathy is one possible route to that connection, an understanding of “being-with” somebody, even if one is not “in tune” or in the same situation, to use Ahmed’s words (Ahmed “Becoming Unsympathetic”. As a white, cis-gendered woman, to “be-with” transwomen or women of color in a feminist alliance requires a knowledge that I actually cannot be “in tune” with their particular experiences of sexism, inflected as they always are by social formations that render me privileged. I need only to consider the vastly different experiences in moving through various institutional spaces at the university: things that I can say that colleagues of color cannot (or, that elicit different reactions), the spaces I can inhabit in the classroom, the reaction to my challenges in certain conversations.

In addition, over the last years, as I have considered the politics of welcome vis-à-vis contemporary refugee migration, I am confronted with the problem of empathy. Like welcome, empathy is often imagined as a gift (rather than, say, a responsibility), thus embedding empathy in a grammar that renders one active, one passive. In a blog post, Sara Ahmed considers possible forms of sympathy (and here, Ahmed speaks of sympathy in much the same terms as we might speak of empathy):

Becoming sympathetic might describe a pedagogy: learning how to respond well to another person’s situation as an attunement to how they feel […]. This sympathetic knowing might require a certain kind of intimacy with a person, a capacity to pick up what they asking of us in the flicker of a passing expression, as well a less intimate knowledge: knowingness about situations and what they demand of us. More than that: empathy, compassion and sympathy are modes of being that are about how we respond to a situation of being with someone whose situation is not one that we are in: this being with, but not in, requires that we take care, that we be careful. (“Becoming Unsympathetic”).

Elsewhere, Ahmed thinks through empathy gained by living in witness to the pain of her mother (Cultural Politics of Emotion; “Breaking Bones”). It is perhaps the desire to feel another’s pain so that they “can be released from it” (“love as empathy”). The desire itself, Ahmed points out, exists because the pain is something that “I” do not have; the desire therefore “maintains the difference between the one who would ‘become’ in pain, and another who already ‘is’ in pain or ‘has’ it” (Ahmed, Cultural Politics 30). Ahmed suggests an ethics of empathy that involved being open to being affected by that which one cannot know or feel (30).

The impossibility of knowing or feeling the experience of another raises the questions: Who is imagined as capable of extending the gesture of empathy? Who is excluded? How can we imagine cohabitation and ethical obligation in ways that move towards social justice? These questions all circle around the important ways that we live with one another, are obligated to one another, and how we speak with and listen to one another.

I would like to bring Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, and Sara Ahmed into conversation here. In a recent piece Butler has considered the possibilities of ethical obligation that are solicited from afar, or from those we experience as distant. Following Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt, she suggests that there are ethical obligations that exist before our consent, and to those with whom we have not chosen cohabitation. She argues that “No one escapes the precarious dimension of social life—it is, we might say, the joint of our nonfoundation. And we cannot understand cohabitation without understanding that a generalized precarity obligates us to oppose genocide and to sustain life on egalitarian terms” (Butler 150).

Is our shared vulnerability the basis for empathy?

That vulnerability is obviously marked by profound difference. I consider the forms of cohabitation imagined in discussions of refugees in media, literature, art installations. One recent art installation in Berlin, organized by KunstAsyl, was structured around dormitory beds, which both guided and blocked movement past the images of security/insecurity, safety/danger, home/exile/transition that make up the exhibit: waves, house plans, journals, maps, flames, and quotes from Anna Segher’s Transit. In the last weeks, we have been faced with the images of thousands of children separated from their parents in the United States as these families seek a better life through flight to the United States across the southern border.

I have lived in 15 cities. My transit has little in common with those forced out of their homes by war, natural disaster, and extreme economic or political instability. The vulnerability I might have experienced in my life or career could only be brought into dialogue with the vulnerability of many recent refugees in a grotesque act of violence. In this context, the difference in vulnerability, or the “histories that render some more fragile than others” must generate action that transforms such differences (Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life 178-179).

It seems that listening across the distance between us is a less violent act, an empathy across distance that is less about knowing suffering than about listening, learning, recognizing obligation, and acting.

Butler’s article has returned me to Spivak’s notion of the planetary subject (set against the subject of neoliberal globalization). The planetary subject, for Spivak, imagines a planetary community. Training in becoming such a subject, she suggests, may rely on teleopoeisis. Here Spivak responds to Derrida’s notion of teleopoeisis as imaginative remaking (poeisis) in order to affect the other—without guarantees (Spivak, “A Note” 12). This is an insecurity that underlies solidarities and alliances for Spivak, for not only textual reading, but also “[s]ocial contact is curved, for no one can be directly accessed. The political must therefore act in view of a ‘perhaps.’ Because we cannot decide it, the undecidable future must be acknowledged as decisive, the unrestricted gamble of all claims to collectivity” (13). As part of any collective, including a feminist collective, one must acknowledge that one has no direct access to the Other—but has the right/responsibility to learn to learn from those who are not in positions of privilege. This work requires a practice of “patient reading, miming an effort to make the text respond, as it were, is a training not only in poeisis, accessing the other so well that probably action can be prefigured, but teleopoeisis, striving for a response from the distant other, without guarantees—one cannot predicate “reaching toward” on the success of that act, nor on whether that invitation is answered (Spivak, “Righting Wrongs” 191).

To knit together some of the pieces of this very brief conversation: I wonder if an intersectional feminist understanding of empathy might rely on a notion of obligation that exists before contact with the other, that relies on reaching out to the other, that acknowledges that our relationships are embedded in multiple social formations that situate us in various (and possibly contradictory) relationships of power, that a listening to the other nevertheless requires a suspension of the simple grammar of a gift, that expectations of “return” or response, as well as success must be rejected.

And empathy can never be enough. It must move beyond the feeling towards collective action. Yet, collective politics must also respond to “pain that cannot be shared through empathy” (Ahmed Cultural Politics  40), pain that divides, injures. Collective politics, Ahmed implies, can never solely be based on empathy, but requires “learning to live with the impossibility of reconciliation … that we live with and beside each other, and yet we are not as one” (Cultural Politics 40).

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “Becoming Unsympathetic.” Feministkilljoys, 16 Apr. 2015, https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/04/16/becoming-unsympathetic/.

Ahmed, Sara. “Broken Bones.” Feministkilljoys, 15 Aug. 2014, https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/15/broken-bones/.

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh UP, 2004.

Butler, Judith. “Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 26, no. 2, Apr. 2012, pp. 134–51.

Gilbert, Sophie. “Learning to Be Human.” The Atlantic, June 2016. The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/learning-to-be-human/489659/.

Kristof, Nicholas. “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities.” The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2014. www.nytimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/14/opinion/nicholas-kristof-dont-dismiss-the-humanities.html.

Lee, Chris. “Searching for Empathy in the Humanities.” The Chronicle, 15 Oct. 2015, http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2015/10/searching-for-empathy-in-the-humanities.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “A Note on the New International.” Parallax, vol. 7, no. 3, 2001, pp. 12–16.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Righting Wrongs.” Human Rights, Human Wrongs: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 2001, edited by Nicholas Owen, Oxford P, 2003, pp. 164–227.


1 Many thanks to the members of the 2017 GSA Seminar Feminist Scholar-Activism and the Politics of Affect for their discussion and comments, particularly Mareike Herrmann and Faye Stewart who provided written comments and commentary.