Photography and the limits of empathy: Reading Garner and Brown through Saidiya Hartman

I wish I had more time to write this, but I’ve been reading Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection this week and have found that it’s brought some clarity to my thinking about the recent news and coverage of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. In particular, it’s informed my thinking about the photographs circulating around these two tragedies: why they seem to compel some people but not others, and the limits of the ability of the photograph (and the video, in the Garner case) to convey deeply entrenched injustice.

So I thought I’d share these extended quotations, in case they’re helpful to anyone else.

On the limits of empathy

Writing in response to a harrowing description of enslaved people by John Rankin:

Properly speaking, empathy is a projection of oneself into another in order to better understand the other … Yet empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach. Moreover, by exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. … Put differently, the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. (18-19)

The photographs of Mike Brown’s and Eric Garner’s family, and the video of Eric Garner’s arrest, should, it seems, be enough to inspire widespread reevaluation of the justice system. These are human beings in terrible despair, and that should convey the depth and urgency of structural injustice. Yet somehow it isn’t and doesn’t. Again and again, we’ve seen these images submitted to what Tressie McMillan Cottom has called “the logic of stupid poor people”: picked apart, judged on someone else’s terms. If empathy is the act of transposing oneself into another’s body, than perhaps it has limits: We who are not continually besieged by state brutality cannot properly empathize; or if we can, then the very act obliterates the specific body we try to inhabit. The demand must consist of something stronger than identification or empathy. Justice, I guess? Deep and searching scrutiny of structure?

On the Ferguson hug

The simulation of consent in the context of extreme domination was an orchestration intent upon making the captive body speak the master’s truth as well as disproving the suffering of the enslaved. Thus a key aspect of the manifold uses of the body was its facility as a weapon used against the enslaved. (38)

The hug. It appears to have been staged, but that almost doesn’t matter; the excitement with which it was circulated as an emblem of hope says a lot about what we want black bodies to do at this moment.

On what we feel entitled to see

However, what I am trying to suggest is that if the scene of beating readily lends itself to an identification with the enslaved, it does so at the risk of fixing and naturalizing this condition of pained embodiment and … increased the difficulty of beholding black suffering since the endeavor to bring pain close exploits the spectacle of the body in pain and oddly confirms the spectral character of suffering and the inability to witness the captive’s pain. If, on the one hand, pain extends humanity to the dispossessed and the ability to sustain suffering leads to transcendence, on the other, the spectral and spectacular character of this suffering, or, in other words, the shocking and ghostly presence of pain, effaces and restricts black sentience. (21)

We demand, in an effort to convey the depth of injustice, the most exquisitely graphic images of brutality. Should we question our own right to scrutinize the body in pain, and our own hunger to view and circulate these images?