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Post-Wounded: On Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams
Daisy Lafarge , October 26th, 2014 11:13

Daisy Lafarge examines the ideas of empathy, accountability and the reality of immateriality as they present themselves in the contemporary experience of, both, women and men via Leslie Jamison's collection of essays, exploring - bodily and textually, physically and metaphorically - the concept of the wound, The Empathy Exams. (Image: Doris Salcedo)

If future historians use hashtags to graspingly define what constitutes post-millennial life, we can imagine that ‘immateriality’ will be one of its darlings.

We are routinely inundated with the ways in which our experiences are increasingly intangible: the ebb and flow of global finance, the emergence of digital currency. Relations played out at the level of the Cloud, identities monitored algorithmically by Big Data. Romantic encounters perused and pursued at the filtering distance of fingertips. Print media losing out to digital. Music. Porn. Everything as some kind of file.

If we allow this to amass to a symptomatic overview of culture, it is easy to forget that we are not immaterial ourselves. No matter how much we theorise an abstract distance; it remains that we only encounter the world through our bodies. You may meet your girlfriend on tinder, but this ‘immateriality’ depends on a device made by someone’s hands, in a certain factory, at a certain time of day. The particulars of life are still rooted in geographical space and matter: it is our placement of those boundaries, and our attitude towards them that fluctuate.

It’s this impassioned interest in bodies and boundaries that motivate the brave, vivid and flesh-laid-bare essays in The Empathy Exams. Jamison emerges as its nomadic anti-heroine: hiking through problematic sites of labour, punishment, obsession and pain, to expose the pseudo-distancing of ourselves from the experiences of others.

Rolling up the sleeves of objective essaying, Jamison intersperses accounts of her own physical and emotional pain alongside her ‘tourism’ of the suffering of others. What does it mean to witness someone’s pain? What good is guilt, or empathy, is the latter possible without the former? Where is the line between observation and parasitism?

Instead of neatly answering these questions, as laid out by well-behaved Western (male) scholarship, Jamison uses the essay form to inhabit these anxieties, using her ‘cripped organs of compassion’ to push them to uncomfortable limits. Unlike objective reporting or academic treatises, Jamison’s writing fails to perform an autonomous inertia, suspended in time and space. Rather, the essays spill out as textual effluvia from her own precariously-bodied viewpoint. The narrator is painfully aware of her own post-colonial presence and the potential toxicity of writing: the alchemy of turning trauma and trivia into text.

Whether speaking from her own body post-heart surgery, or mingling with ultramarathon obsessives in the wilderness of Tennessee, the writing tries to hack away at the callouses that have thickened between subjective and objective experience, revealing a gaping wound that binds them in a spectrum of embodiment. This wound, or threshold – metaphorical or physical – is a motif that reoccurs obsessively throughout the essays.

The wound spreads out across the texts, over terrain and bodies alike. It is the geographical slit between North and South America that Jamison crosses back and forth: on one level a mobile, privileged body dining with a poet in Mexicali, embodying a fluidity between law and countries denied to others. On another she is reduced to the body of a Vulnerable Female, mapping the experience of getting mugged and punched in the face whilst teaching in Nicaragua.

Prisons are described as ‘wounds’ in the land. A later essay analyses the language of Lena Dunham’s Girls in which the characters lobby back and forth: “you’re the wound”, “no, you’re the wound.” Why does the wound reoccur in this way? Arguably because it visualises the liminality of borders: where something begins and ends. A wound is site-specific but felt throughout the body. It can grow and things can fall into it – but it can also heal.

As rigorously researched as the writing may be, a shaky self-consciousness lurks behind each study and statistic, injecting a gendered personality into its objective accounts. They read as news stories once the camera has stopped rolling; the reporter rematerialising as a fragile, feeling body, afraid that her ‘...curiosity will prove no more than useless voyeurism, a girl lifting her sunglasses to peer between the bars, stuttering What’s it like in here? What part hurts the most?

Such insecurities spark a consideration of our cultural attitudes to pain and suffering, which often hides in the illusion of an active/passive binary. We either observe, or we do something. The line between these two is first blotted in the title essay, where Jamison discusses a familiar Western phenomenon – the assimilation of emotional performance to labour. She recounts her employment as a medical actor, play-acting the case history of patient ‘types’ in order to help med students pass their exams. Except it is not just a correct diagnosis they are graded on, but an adequate show of ‘empathy’ for the patient.

This is the springboard for Jamison’s exploration of empathy – the degree to which we raise empathy as a worn, tattered flag, devoid of consequence or substance. Like doctors trying to qualify, we nod along to the suffering in the world, our keeping up with it going some distance in alleviating passivity. After which we close the paper or tab and resume our day, some sense of guilt shaken for being made aware. As Jamison puts it: realising that ‘the material of your diverting morning is the material of other people’s lives’.

The placement of her own body in areas of ‘danger’ chimes with the inner voice that plagues many of us after watching the news: Why doesn’t someone do something. Why don’t I do something? Jamison does something: she goes, and witnesses and writes. But this doesn’t offset the guilt. If anything, it augments it. The narrative oscillates between attached and detached observation, implicating her own body into the story, then guiltily revealing its ability to transcend or escape it. She goes to teach English in Nicaragua; she gets drunk and punched in the face. She visits the lethal silver mines of Bolivia; all she can do is offer her guide a soda. She’s human, not a saint.

Yet we want her to embody our idealised selves: that in her shoes we would transcend mood and selfhood, be fully dedicated to ‘helping others.’ But Jamison denies us this model, offering her own shortcomings alongside attempts at empathy.

There is undeniable allure in Jamison’s writing. It is consistently accessible, with glimpses of profound insight shooting through its body-strewn text, reminding us that wisdom, knowledge and experience are all in and of the flesh. She is alternately celestial and chick-lit; female mystic and Sex and the City. Transcendental and saccharine.

Two of the essays are titled ‘Pain Tours’ (I and II); vignettes of her thoughts on reality TV, Frida Kahlo’s corsets or her experiences in hostile spaces. I read these and think about the colonial origin of touring: the ‘Grand Tour’ taken by those climbing social ranks in the British Empire. Cultural spectacle as a rite of passage.

As I read I become aware of a growing distaste, as the author’s body reoccurs as the marker against which to measure the suffering of others. At a conference for Morgellons disease in Texas – an obsessive skin-irritative disorder often medically derided as delusional parasitosis – it is through her own experience of a worm-infested ankle that she approaches the sufferers. In play-acting patients for the med students, she draws on the model of her own abortion and heart-surgery. In the last essay, she objectively scrutinises her own experiences of self-harm and eating disorder, alongside their representation in literature and film.

I realise that my distaste of her self-as-case-study partly masks a guilty pleasure in identifying with her, in acknowledging that it is only through my own body I can conceive of what happens to others. The automated response is to heckle the essays for self-involvement, narcissism, navel-gazing. At points they do indulge in these, but Jamison is too deft to leave it there. Rather she petulantly asks us, why is it that we find the confessional form so distasteful? As she puts it: ‘Maybe drunken heartbreak was the lamest thing I could possible write about, but this was precisely why I wanted to write about it.’ She sacrifices the safety of neutral detachment to be the Girl Who Cried Pain, risking us not taking her seriously, pressing us to formulate why we privilege the (pseudo)neutral over the personal.

In the last, overarching essay: ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, Jamison coins the term ‘post-wounded’ women, referring to the social phenomenon of cloaking experiences of pain in irony, self-deprecation and cool detachment, to avoid being seen as a victim, all the while secretly craving sympathy. We turn our wounds into jokes, but they gape all the same.

This summer I broke both my arms, on separate occasions. The first time, drunk, I tentatively approached a taxi, wanting to get checked at A&E. The driver screwed up his face and told me to take some paracetamol and go to bed. I was obviously an ‘overreacting female’. I was more afraid of being an overreacting female than of the pain in my arm, and so took his advice - only to wake up in agony a few hours later and taxi to A&E, where they asked why I hadn’t come in earlier. I realise I too have swallowed the post-wounded mentality; letting fear of the cultural cliché of female pain overrule my actual experiences of it.

But as Jamison retorts: ‘Female pain is prior to its representation, even if its manifestations are shaped and bent by cultural models’. We must go beyond the postmodern fear of seeming stereotypical. She seems to be saying that instead of remaining dryly aloof for fear of seeming ‘too’ (emotional/hurting/cliché), we should instead point the finger at language, which is ‘…often not enough for feelings themselves, that sentimentality forces them into artificial vessels…’

Throughout the essays Jamison frequently cites medical studies to explicate the intensity of female pain. How women experience it more strongly, how our ‘post-wounded’-ness prevents us from uttering it. However, it is here that the concluding essay aims just a little low. Her touring of pain takes the reader through many bodies, male and female. The text itself is a liminal body, incorporating the wounds of men and women, across class and borders. She rightly asserts the social and cultural production of post-wounded women, but only subtly hints at what we could call ‘pre-wounded’ men, whose pain is not stereotypical because they are discouraged from vocalising it in the first place. We read of the miners, wedded to darkness: “Let me tell you how we get through the day… we are always telling jokes.”

This is far from a ‘what about the men’ reading: Jamison’s essays are deeply personal and she makes it clear that it is only from a female body she can speak. Rather, it is arguable that the essays collectively prompt a universal rethinking of pain, one that needs to dismantle the trite silences around pre- and post- wounding so that empathy can begin to flow freely again.

Jamison’s body descends to us as a medium of identification, a way in which to configure our bodies in the process of empathy. Here she echoes the sentiments of the philosopher Simone Weil, spectres of whose subtle wisdom resound throughout the essays: ‘Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).’ The same could be said of empathy.

The Empathy Exams speaks like a body that has finally learnt to stop apologising for itself. Jamison calls us down into the trenches, in a subterranean solidarity of faulty embodiment. A fuck you to immateriality. Perhaps we are not all heroes-in-waiting. Perhaps the war reporters we see in the media are in that split second, just as pissed off about the sand in their eyes, as where the enemy troops are located. Perhaps, like Jamison, all we can really do in the moment are tentative gestures: sharing a pile of vending-machine snacks in a prison visiting room; gifting a microscope to the skin-obsessive; buying a soda for the weary silver miner. But it is these gestures, rooted in our commonality as bodies, that can coalesce to something greater than ourselves, something that could be empathy, something that acknowledges our own shortcomings, treating the wounds not as fatal, but fertile.

The Empathy Exams is out now, published by Granta