“Empathic Unsettlement”

This week I’m thinking back to the Insider interview with Kari Barclay and Erin Leyson, two undergraduate students involved in last year’s multimedia art project #Migrations (led by Kenan’s first Graduate Arts Fellow, Caitlin Margaret Kelly). The piece they created brought together different live Twitter feeds clustered around terms—both ‘neutral’ and non—related to migration and immigration. I asked the two students to articulate their thinking about the relationship between art and policy in light of their work on #Migrations.

EL: I think the point with our project is that we weren’t really making a point. We’re giving everyone the tools they need to make their own point. That’s difficult for me, coming from a public policy background where everything is very pointed. We could easily push an agenda, [but] we don’t really want to do that. We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it…

KB: Some things exist outside the realm of the political or the realm of what policy can affect or change. The language that we use around migration is very much an everyday occurrence. It’s not something you really can legislate. Policy is more informal and it comes through experiences.

We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it. Last week, Kenan hosted author Leslie Jamison, who writes gymnastically about empathy. Two days ago I sat it on the final group meeting for the Humanities Writ Large/Bass Connections project “The Language of Genocide and Human Rights.” Nora Nunn, a first-year doctoral student in the English department, gave a presentation that situated trauma in post-genocide Rwandan cinema. Last night I screened the 2006 musical film Once, about an Irish singer-songwriter and Czech pianist who meet, make music, and fall in love in Dublin. My first thought when enumerating this series of events is, when will I next hold a position that enables me to come in contact with such a swath of people, materials, and ideas? My next thought, a two-pronged one, is, do, and how do, these different things connect? This is a question I imagine is on people’s minds when they ask me what I do in my position at Kenan, as they did as I bobbed between bar tables at the reception following Jamison’s public reading last week.

Much of Nora’s presentation revolved around the idea of “empathic unsettlement,” discussed by historian Dominick LaCapra in Writing History, Writing Trauma. Empathic unsettlement, LaCapra writes, “poses a barrier to closure in discourse…from which we attempt to derive reassurance or a benefit.” Nora applied empathic unsettlement to different examples of films about genocide, highlighting the dominance of ‘harmonizing narratives’—often Western-produced, unambiguously hopeful stories of spiritual uplift following a violent or traumatic event. In either smoothing over such events or focusing on singular stories of traditional ‘success’ or overcoming, these narratives exclude all else. They negate space for questions, confusion, and alternative stories. Nora’s research was more interested in works, such as the films Matiere Gris (Grey Matter) and Munyurangabothat compose narrative through conflicting narratives—flashbacks, fragmented dream-sequences, documentary realism—and thus give us, as viewers, something more complex to wrap our heads around.

Importantly, this complexity doesn’t come in policy-memo form, assuring us that genocide won’t happen again. This complexity—like the complexity of empathy—is taken instead, as Kari alludes, as everyday, as a natural occurrence, which we must in turn work to excavate.

I was faced with a challenge to perform such excavation on Tuesday, as I composed opening remarks for the screening of Once. I felt I needed to justify the film’s inclusion in a series related to music, ethics, and identity; since Once is a musical film, and a romance at that, it carries an air of immunity to critique or analysis. Yet its plot and style refuse easy categorization or unequivocal uplift; its two central characters, who meet and make art together, make difficult choices in order to honor their obligations to others. They are grounded in a realism, and a reality, of Ireland in the mid-aughts: one teetering between the demise of the Celtic Tiger and the imminent economic collapse that coincided with the global Great Recession. They are immigrants and nationals, and carry those complicated ties, and choose to make art—to make, in effect, an ethics of “making it” in the first place. This is the space they forge and the infrastructure for the points they make. This is the space which we enter, as viewers, singing along but asking our own questions along the way.