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Overcoming Our Empathy-Deficit:
Phenomenological Reflections on the WTC Event
By Jeffrey Paris, Ph.D.
September 13, 2001
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
I was recently asked to provide a philosophical response to the tragic Event in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania that has not only destroyed the World Trade Center, killing thousands, but has shaken the very globe. I hope to offer a few reflections that help us understand the nature of the world in which this atrocity took place and of the possibilities we may have for a future beyond the further destruction of life. I also hope that these reflections demonstrate at least one way in which philosophy serves as a powerful tool for the analysis of experience and of social and political realities, even or especially in times of a crisis of humanity. (1)
None but ourselves can free our minds.
-Bob Marley, Redemption Song
This analysis utilizes two constitutive aspects of experience described by Phenomenologists: the temporal horizon and the empathy horizon. By utilizing these, I hope to offer us a sense of hope for the future and a means to resist the forces seeking increased militarization of the U.S. political economy. The notion of the temporal horizon will be used to examine the Event of September 11, and the empathy horizon will help us to see how our capacity for intersubjective empathy with the suffering of others has been dramatically curtailed in recent years, leading to what I will term an Empathy-Deficit. Let me explain.
Phenomenologists and so-called post-structuralists alike agree that an "Event" is not merely a singularity, a Now. (2) Instead, every Event takes place in an event-horizon that has a temporal structure of both past and future tenses; thus it has its own temporal horizon. Any Event is precisely the sort of entity that crosses from past to future, carrying all the Nows that have led to it, and pressing forth to the future where it is projected as part of the event-horizon itself. So, even today, we continue and will continue to live this Event, and can immediately reject the idea that September 11 is something we will be able to simply "put in the past"; rather, it will always be out there in the future as well, as part of our event-horizon and thus part of our projects, our permanent life-activity.
In this light, we must investigate the past and future tenses of this Event. What are some of the past events that are implicated in it, and how will it reshape our future? I approach this question by examining the way our event-horizon (the way we experience reality) has been, in important ways, transformed into what I will call a televisual horizon.
Many of us recall that the War Against Iraq was, for most of us, a war fought on television. (3) Although I cannot go into all of the details here, this war was fought for us as a dramatic video game that, as we learned, was a direct feed mediated by the U.S. Department of War. We were given the heroes and victims, told when to applaud and when to cry, all within a very narrowly prescribed narrative field of vision. The "applause" generated by this show was resounding! The human and ecological devastation that occurred in order to guarantee petroleum supplies to the U.S. and European nations became a prime-time hit. So, astoundingly successful were the War contractors in generating a specular and televisual event-horizon that they embarked on the immediate consolidation of the media industry under the control of military and entertainment industries. (4)
The results of this consolidation (which placed perhaps 75% of the U.S. media in the control of less than a dozen corporations) were powerfully displayed in the 1999 War Against Yugoslavia. Here, we learned the true power of the War Machine. As our event-horizon had now been successfully transformed into a televisual horizon, it was no big trick to make enemies, this time not of Arab or Muslim or Asian peoples (who can be demonized as "barbaric" by whites rather easily, given the racist nature of their portrayals in U.S. media and history books well before the televisual era), but of "civilized" Europeans living in a city more like Prague or Vienna than like Hanoi or Baghdad. Don't mistake my point-the transformation of whites into "animals" and "barbarians" is no more ethically despicable than the transformation of non-whites into such. It is merely a more difficult trick, which shows the extent to which the televisual horizon colonized the event-horizon.
The televisual horizon, I think, has a way of creating reality, whether through the framing of issues or by the very absence of an issue. For instance, many of us probably think that the War Against Iraq took place over a few weeks in early 1991. After all, we watched the troops come marching home to crowds of cheering thousands-we watched it on television. The very temporality of the event was thereby altered. But there is a more genuine event-horizon beyond the specular, televisual one that is filtered through our living room Propaganda Machines. This event-horizon recognizes that the War Against Iraq began in 1991-and has not yet ended! The past ten years have consisted in the continuous bombing of the people and infrastructure of Iraq, combined with a devastating blockade that has led to the deaths of, by most estimates, over 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians due to preventable disease and malnutrition. (5) Yet since this event has not taken place within our televisual horizon, it has not been for us an Event.
In consequence, most people of the United States have been experiencing an Empathy-Deficit with the people of Iraq (and not only Iraq). The exclusion of so much suffering from our "radar screen", for which the United States is no doubt responsible, has only been possible by the very exclusion of these others from our televisual horizon. To understand this, let us add another phenomenological notion, that of the "empathy horizon." What makes it possible for us to connect with others, to experience the world not simply stuck in our solipsistic ways, but as others experience it? According to Edmund Husserl, every person has, along with the temporal event-horizon I have been describing, a "horizon of empathy, that of [our] cosubjects, which can be opened up through direct and indirect commerce with the chain of others, who are all others for one another." (6) The obvious and immediate importance of the empathy horizon is that it makes communication possible, and also all of the feelings that we share with others. It is the having of an empathy horizon as a constitutive aspect of human experience that enables us to reduce the "Otherness" of the other and to live in a world populated by more than our lonely selves.
But when the Other is simply erased from our event-horizon, there is no intersubjectivity, no empathy, to be had at all. This has been the sad state of American hegemony in the last third of the 20th century. Not only has the U.S. devastated economies and populations through overt militarism (Vietnam, Iraq, Panama, Yugoslavia...), covert actions (Guatemala, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador...), and economic starvation vis-à-vis the IMF/World Bank (Nigeria, Congo, Haiti, Russia...)-it has also changed for the population of the United States our possibility of empathy by eliminating from our televisual horizon the true dimensions of the Other.
Does the Event at the WTC, in which I and others lost relatives and friends, offer us the possibility of reconstructing an empathy horizon? Can we act, not in vengeance and retaliation and support of violence, but rather in intersubjective solidarity with the suffering of others? After all, the outpouring of grief and offers of aid and assistance from all corners of the globe these past few days-including those who are typically posed as our "enemies"-shows that We are not off the empathy horizon of these Others, who seem better able than we to distinguish a state military apparatus from innocent civilians.
Perhaps the consequence of this all too brief account is simple: turn off the television and turn on our minds. Only in and through a serious commitment to radically reconceptualize the Events and event-horizons of our everyday lives in an empathetic manner will we be able to decolonize out minds. I wish us all strength and courage in the process.
I use the term "Crisis" in the manner intended by Edmund Husserl in his Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970, these lines written in 1935), where he writes, echoing Nietzsche: "The European nations are sick. Europe itself, it is said, is in crisis... But why do the so richly developed humanistic disciplines fail to perform the service here that is so admirably performed by the natural sciences in their sphere?" (270). In Fanon and the Crisis of European Man (New York: Routledge, 1995), Lewis Gordon glosses this passage with the comment: "Husserl's complaint is that the practitioners of the human sciences, philosophy, and cultural criticism often identify the symptoms, but they shrink cowardly from the task involved in identifying the disease" (7).
2 There is no unifying factor for either post-structuralists or postmoderns. Some, especially Jacques Derrida, are probably best understood as "post-phenomenologists." In his Edmund Husserl's 'Origin of Geometry': An Introduction (first published in 1962), Derrida writes: "...the Living Present has the irreducible originality of a Now, the ground of a Here, only if it retains the past Now as such... But this retention will not be possible without a protention which is its very form: first, because it retains a Now which was itself an original project, itself retaining another project, and so on; next, because the retention is always the essential modification of a Now always in suspense, always tending toward a next Now." Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl's 'Origin of Geometry': An Introduction (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 136f.
3 Jean Baudrillard, in an essay entitled "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place," (in Jean Baudrillard: Selected writings, 2nd ed., Cambridge: Polity, 2000) suggests, somewhat but not entirely ironically, that since it was fought (if it was fought) on television, as a "spectacle," that in some important sense it did not take place. "What we live in real time is not the event, but rather in larger than life...the spectacle of the degradation of the event and its spectral evocation... in the commentary, gloss, and verbose mise en scène of talking heads which only underlines the impossibility of the image and the correlative unreality of the war" (246). For a respectful critique of this notion that also is attentive to the importance that television plays in the representation of war, see Douglas Kellner's The Persian Gulf TV War (Westview, 1992). An important source of Baudrillard's thought is Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, written in 1967.
4 Obviously, this was not a new phenomenon, but it took entirely new dimensions with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. See Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly: With a New Preface on the Internet and Telecommunications Cartels (Boston: Beacon, 2000). The Media Monopoly has gone through at least 5 editions, the first of which was published in 1983.
5 Famously, on May 12, 1996, then-UN representative Madeleine Albright was asked on 60 minutes by Leslie Stahl: "We have heard that a half million children have died (as a result of sanctions against Iraq). I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Albright, who became Secretary of State only six months later, replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price-we think the price is worth it." Albright's admission that U.S. military strategy is pursued through intentional killing of civilians contravenes the Geneva Conventions and constitutes a crime against humanity.
6 Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern U. Press, 1970, p. 255. This analysis is indebted to Gail Weiss, "Imagining the Horizon," in New Critical Theory: Essays on Liberation, ed. William S. Wilkerson and Jeffrey Paris (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).
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