Our wildest imagination: violence, narrative, and sympathetic identification
At this polarizing moment in American politics identifying with the experiences of others feels especially difficult, but it is vital for sharing a world in common. Scholars in a variety of disciplines have argued that narratives, and especially literary ones, can help us cultivate this capacity by soliciting sympathetic identification with particular characters. In doing so, narratives can help us to be more ethically and political responsive to other human beings. This is a limited view of the potential for narratives to solicit sympathetic identification, and it prevents us from identifying and grappling with our resistances to identifying with others. In this article I propose a more expansive view – inspired by Elizabeth Costello, a character in JM Coetzee’s novel of the same name – that there are no bounds to our capacities for sympathetic identification. Through critical readings of Waiting for the Barbarians and Animal Farm I explore the possibility that we might identify with people who cause others to suffer, and perhaps even with animals too. Both sorts of identification engender fierce resistance. Identifying with those who cause suffering demands that we grapple with our own capacities for cruelty and violence. Identifying with animals demands that we confront what is animal in ourselves – the perilous instincts that, unmoderated, incline us to aggression. Acknowledging and working through – without rejecting or disavowing – our capacities for cruelty and our animal instincts is necessary for the practices of sympathetic identification upon which sharing a world depends.
Schiff, Jade. 2019. "Our wildest imagination: violence, narrative, and sympathetic identification." Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 22 (5): 581-597.
Taylor & Francis
Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy
Special Issue: Political Violence and the Imagination, edited by Mihaela Mihai and Mathias Thaler.
Coetzee, Orwell, Narrative, Posthumanism, Sympathetic identification, Violence