Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion

Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion

Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion

Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion

Synopsis

In Compassion, ten scholars draw on literature, psychoanalysis, and social history to provide an archive of cases and genealogies of compassion. Together these essays demonstrate how "being compassionate" is shaped by historical specificity and social training, and how the idea of compassion takes place in scenes that are anxious, volatile, surprising, and even contradictory.

Excerpt

There is nothing clear about compassion except that it implies a social relation between spectators and sufferers, with the emphasis on the spectator's experience of feeling compassion and its subsequent relation to material practice. To open the investigations of compassion that follow, I would like to propose a counterintuitive view. You will see that these essays cannot help but be histories of the present: not just because knowledge always shapes and is shaped by the scene of its emergence, but because in the context of the United States where these essays are written, the word compassion carries the weight of ongoing debates about the ethics of privilege-in particular about the state as an economic, military, and moral actor that represents and establishes collective norms of obligation, and about individual and collective obligations to read a scene of distress not as a judgment against the distressed but as a claim on the spectator to become an ameliorative actor.

This national dispute about compassion is as old as the United States and has been organized mainly by the gap between its democratic promise and its historic class hierarchies, racial and sexual penalties, and handling of immigrant populations. The current debate takes its particular shape from the popular memory of the welfare state, whose avatar is Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, with its focus on redressing those legal, civic, and economic inequities that acted, effectively, like disenfranchisement. Now the Republican Party of the twenty-first century brands itself with the phrase “compassionate conservatism” and insists that there is a moral imperative to . . .

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