Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Violence, Postcolonial Fiction, and the Limits of Sympathy

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Violence, Postcolonial Fiction, and the Limits of Sympathy

Article excerpt

In this article, I consider the implications for fiction of Slavoj Zizek's argument that the violence of individual subjects is informed by "symbolic violence" (1-2), that is, the distortions concomitant on language's constitutive, rather than merely referential, relation to the world. Given that the medium of the novel is language, Zizek's contention raises serious questions about this genre's capacity to address violence. I argue that this problem is most apparent in those forms of realism that, in seeking to render language transparent, compromise their ability to recognize the violence of the symbolic order. While my argument in this connection has implications for fiction-writing in general, I confine my discussion to postcolonial fiction that focuses on the racialization of the human body, that is, its reduction to a sign in a discursive system.

My contention is that realism's inattention to the interplay between subjective violence and symbolic violence impairs the ethical efficacy of the emotion with which this mode of writing has traditionally sought to counter violence, namely sympathy. In constructing the reader as an autonomous subject, realism refuses to acknowledge that it actually engages his sympathy by positioning him in a discursive network of competing positions. It fails to realize, that is, that sympathy is intentional or directional, that one always sympathizes with someone else from one's position in language and culture, and therefore that language and the values it bears cannot not limit one's sympathies.

I should add that my argument is not against sympathy. Indeed, the capacity to relate affectively and feelingly, rather than simply rationally and conceptually, to other entities has genuine ethical potential. Through its proximity with the body, sympathy constantly intimates the possibility of responding to other bodies as singular entities, that is, in a non-conceptual way that does not reduce their otherness. Differently put, sympathy holds out the possibility of being affected by another entity rather than simply asserting conceptual control over it. This is not to say that sympathy exists independently of language. As I have already indicated, it is totally imbricated with language and therefore limited by the differences this medium installs. Even as sympathy gestures toward an extra-linguistic relational possibility, this possibility is declared impossible by language. One of sympathy's principal characteristics is precisely this irreducible tension between the body and language, in which language not only acts on the body but also the body on language. Being premised on this tension, my understanding of sympathy differs from rationalist conceptions of both it and empathy, which, in separating the subject from the object with whom she sympathizes or empathizes, run the risk of foreclosing the possibility of a corporeal interruption of the symbolic order. (1)

My argument, then, is that sympathy's ethical efficacy is not simply a given. For sympathy to gain ethical potential, writers must recognize and negotiate the tension between body and the language that informs it. At the very least, the work of such writers would have to be self-reflexively aware of the degree to which sympathy is limited and delimited by language. What this would entail in practice, I argue in this article, is a recognition of the text's "worldliness" (Said 35), that is, its location in a cultural and political dynamic, and of the role this plays in positioning readers in a manner that limits and delimits their response to the violence of which they read.

The postcolonial novels I discuss in this article evince precisely such a consciousness. I briefly show that Elleke Boehmer, in Nile Baby, uses the uncanny as a device with which to direct readers' attention to the fact that their responses to the human body occur from within the perceptual regime in which the novel itself is located. …

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