Jun 3, 2011

empathy and counter-topographies for solidarity


I keep coming back, again and again, to the question of empathy. Here is a paragraph from this article of mine. If you don't have academic access email me for the full pdf.

"Pratt and Yeoh (2003) argue for the power of “imagination” and “partial identification” in drawing counter-topographies. In a separate article, however, Pratt (2005) problematizes empathy and warns of the simplification of thinking, “oh that woman is really just like me” in a way that evades the specificity of their lives and their vulnerability to violence. I do believe there can be empathy that is not appropriative, but will we ever be able to imagine what it is like to be tortured? To have our child dismembered in front of us? Would we want to imagine it? Would those who suffered such a fate want us to imagine it? We do not need to move into another person's skin to draw lines of connection. We do not need to try to move them into our family, our homes (to imagine what it would be like if that were happening here). As Pratt argues, to try to move homo sacer back into citizen through seeing sameness does nothing to change the ongoing process of abandonment. It is enough to be moved by the stories. Rather than move homo sacer, it is we who move as we draw these lines of connection. We are transformed by witnessing, by mourning."

Oddly in that article I don't really define what counter-topographies are, other than to call them lines of connection. It's actually one of my favorite geographical terms. It was first used by the inimitable Cindi Katz (see photo) in “On the Grounds of Globalization: A Topography for Feminist Political Engagement,” Signs 26, no. 4 (2001): 1213-1234. She defines it more clearly in “Vagabond Capitalism and the Necessity of Social Reproduction,” Antipode 33, no. 4 (2001): 709-728. It's well worth reading the whole thing. As she puts it in the abstract, "The paper develops the notion of “topography” as a means of examining the intersecting effects and material consequences of globalized capitalist production. “Topography” offers a political logic that both recognizes the materiality of cultural and social difference and can help mobilize transnational and internationalist solidarities to counter the imperatives of globalization."
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