nikki moore

a quick *reflection

In Law, Subjection on May 8, 2009 at 12:11 pm

let me begin by saying (as will become evident) i am a fan of Jonah Lehrer’s blog, the Frontal Cortex. also, I am fresh out of a talk on ‘the liberal subject’ by Jay College’s Jill Stauffer at the New School for Social research, which is coloring my response.  from what I have read and heard of both Lehrer and Stauffer, at least for now, both seem to engage a classic liberal idea of the subject, (Lehrer from a neuro-scientific point of view and Stauffer from a legal and philosophical background) albeit in both cases to challenge as well as posit.  for Lehrer, Obama’s statements this week on his upcoming supreme court judicial nominations sparked a very needed discussion on empathy, where for Stauffer, the question of empathy is or could be contained in her probing of infinite responsibility via Levinas.  both of these conversations come to bear on the upcoming nomination as the reach of law, justice and empathy is part and parcel of a justices’ job description.  and while this is a lot to parse out in a blog post, nonetheless, i’d like to quickly *reflect on two of his Lehrer’s latest posts: Empathy and Watching Movies as something about the I and that liberal self emerge in this linkage. 

first, beginning with Lehrer’s discussion on Adam Smith:

According to Smith, the source of these moral emotions was the imagination, which we used to automatically mirror the minds of others. (The reflective mirror, which had recently become a popular household item, is an important metaphor in Smith’s writing on morality.) “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith wrote, “we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” This mirroring process leads to an instinctive sympathy for our fellow man⎯Smith called it “fellow-feeling”⎯which formed the basis for our moral, legal and ethical decisions.

Adam Smith, classic liberal thinker par excellence… (classic liberal meaning one who values individual liberty and equality.  awkwardly classic liberalism in the US is now most closely politically aligned with conservatives or republicans, i.e. we are not talking about ‘bleeding hearts’ when we talk about classical liberalism). in the mirror analogies as presented both by Lehrer and his own writings, Smith opens us up to a very problematic debate on the Other.  for Smith, empathy functions because we can imagine how the other feels, as that other is a mirror image of one’s self.  yet as this dialogue progresses it is crystal clear that the Other is no longer other, but a self projection.  many thinkers, economists, writers and political theorists have worked at this issue, so  i will simply point to it here: if we think the Other as the same, as simply a projection of self, we are never dealing with another, but just another me.  politically this is incredibly problematic as questions of empathy, which Lehrer has brilliantly raised,  rely on our ability to feel what the other feels.

in her presentation at the New School last night, Stauffer, via Levinas, brilliantly raised the problem of the razing of the  Other.  for Stauffer, something like empathy is a response to the infinite responsibility of a subject who never chooses the responsibilities that do befall them.  what emerged both in Jill’s talk and the discussion following was the role that law plays in 1) determining the liberal subject and 2) determining modes of response for trading (not ridding) the weight of infinite responsibility for institutional justice.  yet problems arise when we think of justice as legally derived, for it is only those who are already legally recognized who can seek justice, and precisely those without recognition who need it.   it is ‘clearly’ a problem of poor reflection.  of biased mirrors which see themselves in others and obliviate the Other that is not the same.

this is certainly a brazen run through of very intricate territory, but pushing on… perhaps there is an engagement with this mirroring in Lehrer’s approach in Movie Watching:

in his piece on Movie Watching, Lehrer deftly points out that the brain in a post-modern (if we want to call it that..?) film does not have the ability to shut off.  the fracture on screen will not let the brain settle into a comforting and ‘entertaining’ narrative.  and while Lehrer is simply pointing to this fact and explaining it, rather than making a value judgement, something in the collusion of Movie Watching, Empathy and Jill Stauffer’s work emerges through post-modern film theory.  part of what we could say, at least, is going on in movies like Syriana, (or say Synecdoche  which could be an archetypal film for fracture about fracture,) is that writers, directors, actors are working to portray something that more closely matches up with the fractal nature of lived experience: i.e., by this explanation, in life we don’t have a cohesive narrative until after the story ends, until death writes closure that can then be strung back through a completed life in narrative forms.  therefore, even the move to “…dole out comprehension in sudden spurts, when a crucial twist is suddenly revealed…” is cheating or disingenuous.  

of course we should recognize the flawed fluid narrative of fracture that undergirds fractal postmodern theory, yet this alone ‘gotcha’ is not enough to call for a simple return to narrative form and easy pleasure.  clearly lehrer was not, as his asterisk notes, calling for anything of the sort and what i’d like to suggest, at least for this 5 minutes, is that perhaps, as Stauffer went on to suggest last night, that fractured definitions can lead to a less reductionist understanding not only of the self, but also the Other we can never define as well as our responsibility to this other that is always so large a burden it is hard to move in, with or under.  perhaps a sort of fracturing that does not let the mind shut down – that recognizes, as one of Lehrer’s blog commenters brilliantly pointed out, [brackets mine],

The fundamental error, of course, [in the debate on whether or not empathy = activist judgement] is that the human brain is incapable of objectively reading anything – brains are not passive input reading devices, we are actively processing, recreating, and INTERPRETING every bit of information that enters our sensory organs … including our eyes when we are reading the Constitution. This is scientifically beyond dispute, every human brain is an “activist”.

‘every human brain is an “activist” and perhaps it does well to be: to be active in fracture rather than passive in unity, whether this fracture be that of film, self and Other or otherwise…

  1. I’m usually too intimidated to comment here (I assume it is natural for scientists to be intimidated by philosophers?), but I thought I should share some thoughts given that back in the day my research was on empathy and moral thought.

    There used to be talk, although I never saw any evidence, that the military gave the Defining Issues Test to recruits, and anyone scoring higher than the authority orientation was kicked out. You could say they wanted “Yes Sir” people. But it was beyond that – they wanted “Yes Sir’ people who truly felt that their actions were moral/ethical — because the “authority” was moral and ethical.

    Although morality (in Kolhber’s domain) is linked to, but not the same as, empathy, I think some of the media conversation about judges is mixing the two. We could argue that what conservatives really want is not judges without empathy, but judges at the stage four (authority orientation) of ethical development, while liberals (term used loosely) may prefer judges at stage 5 or maybe even 6.

    I think republicans want judges to conceptualize justice as an execution of rigid laws – an authority (in this case the constitution) – that must be applied equally to maintain a “social order”. In contrast, progressives argue for judges who conceptualize justice as the application of adaptable rules that have as their principal function the safeguard of individual liberties.

    Here the pink elephant in the room is our view of authority – the constitution – and our conceptualization of its nature and its function. I can help but to note how much our socially acceptable view of the constitution, or actually the only socially acceptable view of this document, reminds me of relation between evangelical christians with their own authority book.


    • Nestor, this is fascinating – i need to read more about kohlber and the stages you mentioned to engage this adequately, but the examples you gave are so interesting. i wonder to what degree communities depend on yes sayers? the constitution/bible parallel is provocative in that in community relations to each text we would have the full range of ‘readers’ – from literalists to the conceptually creative. while it is tempting to say the literalists have a stronger conception of authority, clearly the more generative readers are reading under the authority of the terms of creativity. i am thinking of say, fundamentalist christians who work to read literally (as far as we concede this is even possible) and derridian deconstructionists (like myself) who work within a structure that nudges, shifts and problematizes structure itself. in both cases, (while it almost hurts to say it!) would it be fair to say then that both camps are ‘yes sayers’ simply answering to different types of authority orientations? or is that a reduction i’ll want to rethink tomorrow? regardless, so glad to have your natural scientist’s insights… take care, nikki

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