A Transnational Approach to Comparison, Affect and Empathy
From debates about ‘the veil’ in European and American schools, to calls for increased empathy in the wake of financial and humanitarian crises, it has become ever more important to articulate contemporary ideas surrounding gender, culture, emotion and ‘difference’ in a transnational context. The ways in which we do so, however, are complex.
Critically investigating how, why and with what implications we attempt to understand each other, Carolyn Pedwell’s current research spans multiple publications, two fellowships and a book, Feminism, Culture and Embodied Practice: The Rhetorics of Comparison (2010). Critiquing both the trend for cross-cultural comparison and the generation of ‘positive’ emotions as ‘solutions’ to complex social and political problems, Pedwell challenges us to move beyond current ways of seeing, being and feeling, which simply confirm what we already hold to be true.
Drawing on a range of feminist, postcolonial and queer literatures, and situating texts within the context of global power relations, Pedwell’s approach to the workings, translations and transformations of emotion, affect and empathy is of key importance to those with an interest in media, cultural studies, sociology, gender studies and international politics.
In her book, Feminism, Culture and Embodied Practice: The Rhetorics of Comparison, Pedwell argues that the gendered body remains a key site through which anxieties about cultural difference are articulated.
However, Pedwell critiques the end point of popular feminist frameworks, which often view cross-cultural comparisons as a conclusion in and of themselves. For example, it is often suggested that by highlighting cultural and geo-political similarities, e.g. between ‘Western’ cosmetic surgery and ‘African’ female genital cutting, racial and ethnocentric generalizations and hypocracies are revealed and challenged. Examining a theoretically and politically diverse range of feminist scholarly texts over five chapters, and assessing related comparisons made in the media and on popular cultural websites, Pedwell instead asks: how and why are these links drawn and what is it that they do? Pointing out that the very terms used, such as ‘Western’ and ‘African’, problematically group together complex and distinct practices, Pedwell argues for a relational approach that re-orientates previous frameworks, and which can tease out connections between people and practices without presuming these connections to be equivalent.
Similarly, Pedwell’s more recent work draws on feminist, postcolonial and queer theories of emotion and affect in a transnational context. For example, in ‘Affect at the Margins: Alternative Empathies in A Small Place’, she considers ‘affective texts’ ranging from feminist and post-colonial theories to Jamaica Kincaid’s postcolonial novella, A Small Place (1988). Here, Pedwell demonstrates that calls for increased empathy nearly all portray a socially advantaged subject who is compelled to imagine the feelings and constraints of a less privileged ‘other’, fixing in place certain peoples and practices and preserving oppressive relations of power.
Likewise, in ‘Economies of Empathy: Obama, Neoliberalism and Social Justice’ and ‘Affective (Self)-Transformations: Empathy, Neoliberalism and International Development’, which consider Obama’s political speeches and memoirs and popular business books and international development training literature respectively, Pedwell is concerned with how empathy can, in the context of neoliberalism and neocolonialism, be mobilized as a biopolitical technology of governance and regulation. Pedwell further expands her arguments here to explore the tensions and contradictions of such affective structures and dynamics and how empathy might be imagined, translated and felt differently.
Arguing that it might be more useful to first consider what notions of empathy do, to whom, what they risk and how they might be understood differently, this on-going research examines the critical implications of empathy’s uneven effects, and brings together key sets of literature that often remain separate from one another: cultural, literary and psychoanalytic writing on emotion and affect, and political and sociological scholarship on postcoloniality, globalisation, neoliberalism and biopolitics.
In Feminism, Culture and Embodied Practice: The Rhetorics of Comparison, Pedwell re-orientates major theoretical frameworks and advances new concepts that explore the theoretical, social and political effects that result from practices of comparison. For example, Pedwell demonstrates how, despite their productive possibilities, cross-cultural comparisons risk a range of problematic effects, which can affirm, rather than challenge, dominant cultural and sociopolitical hierarchies.
Pedwell therefore introduces a ‘relational web’ approach that aims to generate feminist theory and politics premised not on the recognition that our experiences are essentially similar, or that we have suffered common ‘cultural wounds’, but rather on how we depend on and affect one another. As such, her work significantly contributes to an important epistemological trajectory of feminist theory.
Her more recent work builds on this approach, offering a vital transnational perspective on the ‘turn to affect’. For example, questioning the use of empathy as a means by which to achieve social transformation on an international scale, Pedwell has instead explored alternative empathies that do not view emotions instrumentally, but rather examine diverse and shifting relations of feeling for what they might tell us about the affective workings of power transnationally.
Investigating the complex translation and transformation of emotions as they travel between diverse contexts, processes and technologies, Pedwell’s research therefore not only clarifies complex arguments and debates, but also offers credible tools for future work.
Pedwell’s first book, Feminism, Culture and Embodied Practice: The Rhetorics of Comparison was funded by an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship: ‘Gender, Embodiment and Cultural Practice: Exploring Issues in Theory, Media and Policy’), held at the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths. The book received an outstanding review in the European Journal of Women’s Studies and was also positively reviewed in Sociology and Contemporary Sociology.
Pedwell’s more recent project has resulted in four publications, a number of events and symposia and a (forthcoming) second book:
- Pedwell C. Affect at the margins: Alternative empathies in A Small Place. Emotion, Space and Society 2013, 8, 18-26.
- Pedwell C. Economies of empathy: Obama, neoliberalism, and social justice. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2012, 30(2), 280-297.
- Pedwell C. Affective (self-) transformations: Empathy, neoliberalism and international development. Feminist Theory 2012, 13(2), 163-179.
- Pedwell C, Whitehead A, ed. Affecting Feminism: Questions of Feeling in Feminist Theory (Special issue of Feminist Theory). London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd, 2012.
Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy will be published as part of Palgrave’s 'Thinking Gender in Transnational Times' series in 2014, edited by the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics.
An interview covering both projects can be found [here] (http://feministing.com/2012/05/22/the-academic-feminist-goes-global-a-conversation-with-carolyn-pedwell/).