Our Violent Commons: Empathy and Codependency
Imperial violence is our commons, our form of being together.
– Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism
We invite short responses that engage Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s rethinking of the relationship between violence and the commons in contemporary cultural production and political organizing.
Liberal representations today reflect what I have elsewhere termed, following Hannah Arendt, a “co-dependent politics of appearance.” In psychological terms, codependency is the excessive reliance on a partner who requires support regarding an illness or addiction. A codependent politics of appearance is the resulting social pathology, which manifests as superficial investment in others’ problems, often to satisfy the emotional needs of the voyeur. This mode of despotic empathy has displaced the sharing of a world-in-common—precisely what, in Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s wording “was destroyed and should be restored”—with ubiquitous spectacles of privation and racialized violence.
A look at documentary media on the subject of social death in Mexico and Central America reveals the centrality of such themes to even humanitarian representations. Consider Carne y Arena (Virtualmente present, físicamente invisible) (2017), a VR installation by filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, conceived in collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center at UNAM. The exhibition—which was shown at Cannes, LACMA in Los Angeles, and the Prada Foundation in Milan—seeks to confront audiences with the experience of immigrants crossing the Mexican desert to the US border.
The work employs a series of media interfaces such as a panoramic screen, a VR mask, as well as video interviews with migrants to place spectators in a 360o virtual desert landscape. It is clear that the installation seeks to expand documentary cinematographic language: González Iñárritu shows the out of field and thus attempts to expand audiences’ perspectives by interpolating them in the immediacy of a virtual border crossing. The work offers the audience the momentary fantasy of becoming zoe, in Arendt’s language, or non-mournable life. About this project, González Iñárritu declared:
I never conceived it as a response or as a political project but as an artwork that would be about human crisis at the world level . . . . It has the power to transport you to the Sonora desert so you can live in your own flesh the tragedy. (The objective is) to be seen in Washington by those who make international policies in the United States.
The problem with González Iñárritu’s installation is that its logic resides in a clinical apparatus. The immediacy of its effect, its claim to objectivity, its performance of technical realism are all confused with emancipatory social change. Gonzalez Iñarritu’s installation invites us to ask, perversely, whether virtual reality may recreate the experience of domestic violence or even rape, hoping that it would work as an antidote to gender violence. Such ideas are in keeping with the representational strategies of pornomiseria, fetishistic engagement with bare life that has become popular in neoliberal Latin America.
Certain journalistic representations reprise these tendencies. In Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), a book that also addresses the migration crisis of Mexicans and Central Americans to the US, Valeria Luiselli parts from her experience as a translator of migrant children seeking refugee status in the US to describe the migration system and expose their ordeals in the form of literary reportage. She tries to explain the origin of the migration crisis and to denounce the complicity of the Mexican government, which has made the crossing even more dangerous for the migrants. The challenges Luiselli faced when obtaining a Green Card led her to work as translator for the New York court reviewing the asylum petitions of children. This is how she translated into Spanish the forty questions solicited by Migration Services and to English the children’s responses. (Under Barack Obama’s DACA policy, children had 21 days, after being released from humiliating and dangerous ICE Boxes, to find a lawyer and put together a case.) Depending on the answers Luiselli was able to extract from the children, their chances of staying in the US diminished or increased. In most cases, the children were deported by a judge in absentia.
The key to attaining asylum was to make the children express a narrative of extreme violence, direct persecution, and danger of death that would attract the interest of a lawyer. Luiselli’s narrative is punctuated by the recurrent question posed by the author’s five-year old daughter: “tell me how it ends, Mama.” The impossibility of giving a concrete and hopeful response to the child, imagining the mother living the moment of silence she takes to process her frustration, pain, and incertitude before the migrant children’s situations and then be able to articulate an answer to her daughter, achieves the transmission. We feel the knot forming in her throat.
For Luiselli, the attitude of US authorities regarding migrant children is not always negative, but is generally “based on misunderstandings or voluntary ignorance.” It is urgent to put on the table the causes of the mass exodus and thus enjoin the US and Mexico to take responsibility for the deteriorating social conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Toward the end of the book we learn that the author’s students, inspired by her, have created a political organization to establish a program to integrate children of refugees into US society: the TIIA or Teenage Immigrant Integration Association. Luiselli concludes: “while the story continues, the only thing to do is to tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself.” It must be told, she writes. The problem resides in the fact that works like Luiselli’s, along with the mass media, draw a horizon of the common in mere legibility.
Representations of violence, in lieu of direct action, tend to delineate an arch of what can be said and done, what positions can be legitimately adopted and what actions can or not be committed. It is worth drawing a distinction from the actions taken by, for example, Scott Warren, the activist accused for offering food, water, and shelter to Mexican immigrants stranded in the desert at the Mexican-American border; or against Captain Pia Klempe, who is currently facing 20 years in an Italian prison for rescuing some 1,000 people from drowning in the Mediterranean, and who as who has been accused of assisting illegal immigration.
A well-known quote by Uruguayan thinker Eduardo Galeano draws the difference between solidarity and charity (or what I call codependent empathy): “differently than solidarity, which is horizontal and is executed between equals, charity is practiced from top to bottom. It humiliates the receiver and never alters power relations, not even a little.” A redoubling of social hierarchies is, in short, endemic to the modes of representation by which we perceive the world. It is therefore necessary to move even beyond the intersubjective validity of judgments of taste in Kantian morals, which are for Arendt the grounds for political consensus. For this, we would need to modify commonness on the go, acknowledging interdependence beyond mere empathy.