[-empyre-] Empathy, film, re-enactment

Reinhold Görling goerling at phil.hhu.de
Sat Nov 15 05:07:02 EST 2014


sorry for being very occupied during the week and responding therefore with delay:

Empathy: I often have the impression that discussions about empathy are running in the wrong direction. All living being is open, in constant exchange with the world, with persons, other species and things around, with what is his Umwelt or his living-world. A newborn is in an extremely intense exchange with his environment. Just read what Daniel Stern 1985 wrote in his „The Interpersonal World of the Infant“ about the vitality affects: Long before there is any experience of an „I“, there is an intense communication of forms of feeling, of affects taking place. Or to say it in a more philosophical way: The „I“ always comes late, the encounter with the other always already has taken place before the „I“ notices it. This feeling of being addressed by the other, of being affected therefore is never free of a certain uncanniness. These points of encounter with the other are always already present, inside of me, passive synthesizes. The „I“ that comes late - in the history of the individual development as well as in every daily encounter - reacts to this, tolerating it, loving it, rejecting it. Violence, I assume, has always to do with this rejection. It tries to denial the presence of the other. 
There are probably two dynamics that can be been interwoven but can determine the process in a different manner: there can be a kind of violence that is to be understand as a way to deny the vague presence of the other. This is a violence that cannot be „explained“, it tries to answer to a diffuse feeling of an uncanny presence of something unknown. And there is the violence that can be understood with the psychoanalytic concept of identification and projection. This violence has a kind of inner representation of something that one tries to deny. In racisms the second form often is dominant. In the chapter on anti-semitism in their „Dialectics of Enlightenment“ Horkheimer/Adorno make clear that often hatred is accompanied by a mimetic play to imitate the other. (Taussig quotes this in his „Mimesis and Alterity“). 
Empathy then is giving room for the other inside me, yes, but for the other who already has touched me. Loss of empathy on the other hand is a dissociative process. 

I still believe that art has the power to weaken dissociative processes - not by confronting me with what I already have seen and want to denial. If there is such a power it comes from shifting the modes of perception, shifting it’s automatism. What we consciously know about our constant exchange with our environment is just a small part of what is this multifold relationship. It is constructed by automatisms and dissociations, changing in time and always determined by media: the little toy the infant plays with and is played by it (Freud’s grandson playing fort-da), the theatre, the film, this space we are in talking right now. Film turns the men’s alienation to its environment productive, that’s the key thought of Walter Benjamin’s „The Work of Art“.

Pier Marton already mentioned Joshua Oppenheimer’s film „The Act of Killing“. Two months ago a published a book (in German) about „Scenes of violence. Film and Torture from Rossellini to Bigelow“. Roberto Rossellini’s „Roma città aperta“ is the first film, Oppenheimer „The Act of Killing“ is the last film I’m talking about. Perhaps both films mark a period of filmmaking. Rossellini’s film was key to the emergence of Italian Neorealism and to its grounding question: Is film able to help to reconstruct social and empathetic relationships. And the key scene to put this question was the 16 minutes long torture scene near the end of the film. Rossellini is completely conscious about torture being an act that always takes place before a third part. He offers these images of violence to the spectator, the torturers, the bystanders, the ignorant: in the room or in the threshold that is the threshold to the torture chamber as well as the threshold of the cinema. There is a lot of hope in this film but Rossellini also shows how easy it is to denial what one has seen. And Oppenheimer’s piece confronts us with exactly the fact that film can be a means that helps to denial what one does and that even offers methods to kill. Rossellini wrote in the 70ties about his fear that cinema „est transformé en université du vol et de l’assassinat“. For Anwar Kongo, Herman Koto and others that formed a death squad during the massacres in Indonesia in 1965/66 - when between 500 000 Thousand and 2 Million people were killed after the General Suharto’s putsch (which was supported by the USA and other Western States): film was their university. And 40 years later they try to make a family film out of it. Oppenheimer worked for (I think) eight years with them, a long time; but this documentary shows that step by step by re-enacting their crimes at least some of them start to weaken the dissociative dynamics and begin to feel their responsibility.

For me the question of re-enactment is kind of key for art to deal with violence: re-enactment by women and men who were involved as victims and as perpetrators: Oppenheimer’s movie, the TRC(s), „Rwanda, à travers nous, l’humanité“….. Do you have further suggestions?

(I hope I’ll find time the next days to come back to Jon Mackenzie's important question about the relationship between violence and data.)  

Jean-Luc Godard writes about the cinema:

„its humanity
is truly formidable
as inevitable as justice
devastating as love
dramatic as a duel
unbiased and continuous
between all that is born
and all that dies

following our march towards death
by the trail of blood that marks it
the cinema doesn’t cry
doesn’t cry over us
it doesn’t comfort us
since it is with us
since it is us“



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