“Sympathy” is a term generative for political theology in its ability to reflect on and give rise to problems. One way to engage with “sympathy” as a keyword is to note the divergence in meaning that underscores a difference in how critical theorists make sense of problems. This difference maps loosely onto broader political orientations that we might name, provisionally, as humanist and post-humanist. In part because “sympathy” has such different meanings in these orientations, it draws us into tensions between these approaches.
Another way to engage with this keyword is to reflect existentially on our own orientations, in terms of our affective relations to problems. Who and what are we drawn to, as we choose our objects of inquiry and embark upon lines of thought? In similarly loose and provisional terms, I find it useful to note another difference here in the ethos animating our intellectual work. We might consider this difference one of philosophical affiliation: are we persuaded by thinking that seeks to connect, to build bridges, and to diagnose and heal broken relationships? Or are we compelled by thinking that tracks divergences and seeks to propel differentiation? Connecting or diverging? “Sympathy” maps onto each of these, with the meaning of “difference” itself being one stake of this contrast; humanist responses to problems of difference (to other minds, to other species) become, in post-humanist projects, impediments to differentiation (to becoming-otherwise, to mixing with unexpected entities).
For thinkers who draw on humanist frameworks or who reflect on such frameworks, “sympathy” can refer to empathy, compassion, and similar feelings that respond to the suffering or experiences of others; sympathy, on this understanding, has an interpersonal as well as subjective meaning, feeling what someone else feels. As a reader, I might feel what someone else is feeling, precisely because a text’s tone or a character’s behavior draws me into identifying with them (Ngai 2005, 49, 188); on the same grounds, I might detach from such identification, if an “unfriendly” tone or character blocks my affection (Ngai 2005, 50, 207). As this adjective “unfriendly” suggests, “sympathy” is inflected with a capacity for variation: one can be more or less sympathetic. Sympathy can also appear and disappear again, as in the literary passage, “His sympathy lasted as long as his curiosity, once that had gone he suddenly withdrew, making himself unavailable” (Kitamura 2017, 40). Likewise, “sympathy” conjures up affective opposites, like antipathy or distaste, or even a mixing of positive (“gift”) with negative (“invasion”), terms Leslie Jamison uses to name its impacts: sympathy, Jamison writes, involves entering “another person’s pain as you’d enter another country” (2014, 6).
In terms of this broader framework, “sympathy” as a political resource draws on 18th-century associations of asymmetry (Lobis 2015, 256), in which someone feels sympathy for another’s suffering. In terms of political systems, these feelings can reinforce, rather than mitigate, structures of inequality; as Lauren Berlant argues, we learn for whom (and whom not) we should have sympathy through “the privileged pedagogies of social coldness” (2004, 11). As we will see, the inegalitarian effects of sympathy Berlant tracks align with the second account’s sensitivity to violence wrought in the name of humanism.
More often, though, “sympathy” takes on a positive valence, referring more broadly to a caring and empathetic “I,” as in the case of Lori Gruen’s account of “entangled empathy” (2017), which groups sympathy within a broader net of moral perceptions. This “I” includes the habits, affects, and relations by which someone’s subjectivity reaches out and affirms the subjectivity of others, which might well include—importantly, for Gruen—non-human animals. In this understanding, sympathy often crosses into the terrain of empathy, despite definitional attempts to parse their differences. “Empathy,” in contrast with sympathy, is a newer term, associated initially with aesthetics and then with cognitive capacities. The word “empathy” entered English vocabulary in the early 20th century as a translation of the German einfühlung: the activity of “feeling into” (Debes 2015, 286) or “feeling for.” Across work in phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and moral philosophy, “empathy” is tasked with shaping a shared world (Throop and Zahavi), with enabling connectedness (Pigman 1995), and with creating common ground (Read 2021). The problem that concerns many researchers, in these contexts, is the problem of other minds: how to recognize, feel for, and ultimately understand another’s perspective. “Sympathy” tends to bring these meanings—of empathy, of feeling-for—together with an additional, pragmatically ethical sense of caring. To feel sympathy involves wanting to alleviate suffering (Wispé 1986).
For thinkers who draw on post-humanist methods, “sympathy” is at odds with such ascriptions of connection. Rather than an enabling (human) capacity for identification or imitation, “sympathy” is an open-ended, dynamic exchange that might involve human and non-human animals and might also involve things and even ecologies, an exchange that generates forms of becoming rather than building bridges between (human) beings. In contrast with positioning others or other minds as problems—and to engaging problems as if they have solutions—this account draws us into an altogether different relationship with problems. This latter point is why a difference in ethos is ultimately at stake in these two accounts.
On this understanding, “sympathy” concerns the a-personal, rather than the interpersonal, especially in terms of how people, animals, and things inhabit their milieus. Wherein the first account, feelings matter because they variously express someone’s agency, in this account, “sympathy” is a conduit from which agency might emerge (Manning 2020, 36, 91). Thus Erin Manning describes sympathy as a “force of feeling” (2020, 94), with an emphasis on the impersonal nature of this force. Along similar lines, Jane Bennett describes sympathy as “profound but impersonal” (2020, 43), “a feeling-with that respects the distance, and preserves the differences, between each being” (2020, 36). We cannot qualify “sympathy” on this account as being more or less, as here or not-here, but we can draw out its qualitative registers through synonyms like vitality, temper, range, and ambience (Bennett 2020, 35, 87).
It might seem strange, even oxymoronic, as Tim Clark points out, to describe “sympathy” as impersonal rather than personal (2008, 33), in part because the first account holds such intuitive sway. Bennett herself queries its political utility, asking, “can appeals to sympathy retain their persuasive force in political life?” (2020, xv; 2017). Others affirm its political value as improvisatory, experimental (Hankins 2019), and ecologically responsive. Looking to its Greek etymology, Marjolein Oele defines “sympathy” as co-affectivity (2020, 142), in which all boundaries are porous, including the boundaries of individuals ourselves. We are inseparable from our ecologies: “Sympathy is what things feel when they shape each other” (Spuybroek 2016, 109). As a keyword, “sympathy” might even extend to quotidian activities like reading and writing. Katrin Pahl explains, for example, that “Hegel demands sympathy with the life of the subject matter” from the speculative reader (2012, 116), and this descriptor of readers, “speculative,” points us toward non- or post-humanist approaches to reading, as it connects us with the materiality of books, book-production, and reading itself. Following Manning’s attention to the force by which relations take place, Nathan Snaza shows how literacy is not reducible to “human” abilities: books as objects are entangled with geological agency (forming clay), plant agencies (creating papyrus), and other kinds of corporeal engagements (2019, 63).
As one of the key interlocutors in such work, Gilles Deleuze provides a succinct definition of the keyword. “This is sympathy,” Deleuze declares, “assembling” (1987, 53): sympathy is a connecting force, one that generates feedback loops of difference-making, even in terms of selfhood itself. In this a-personal account of “sympathy,” we should not“speak for, in the place of…”; instead, Deleuze writes, we must “speak with, write with” (1987, 52) – in order, it seems, to discover what new forms of “we” emerge from such creative relations. “Individuation without a subject,” Deleuze stresses (1987, 40), is a claim that opens up the first account of sympathy-qua-empathy as a problem.
One might examine this problem via a much earlier understanding of “sympathy.” In premodern Europe, Michel Foucault explains, “sympathy” served as an explanatory way to find sameness across apparent differences, precisely because world and language seemed to mirror each other, as “the theatre of life or the mirror of nature” (1994, 17). As Foucault puts it, sympathy worked to render “things identical to one another” to such a degree that their individuality disappears (1994, 23). We might understand this premodern understanding as fully in the past, especially in the broader metaphysics of similitude Foucault traces. “Sympathy” continues to hold associations of metaphysical intervention, however, even around scientific inquiry and treatment – from “sympathetic powder” to the occult (Gurton-Wachter 2018), to the magic of ethnographic witnessing that Kath Weston describes as sympathy (2018). For political theology, this keyword reminds us to query any neat lines between what counts as belief or affective powers and what counts as scientifically verifiable.
Another way to examine the first account as a problem is to foreground “care” as at odds with the force of sympathy. Indigenous poet and theorist Billy-Ray Belcourt writes, “You are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come” (2019). This refusal-of-invitation comes at the end of an essay in which Belcourt is describing modes of writing—what he calls “a listening and looking practice”—that expose and displace the settler state’s practices of so-called “care.” Belcourt notes that such writing, exemplified by Indigenous artists and theorists like Beatrice Mosionier, Audra Simpson, and Terese Marie Mailhot, has a vitality “that is in the name of Indigenous freedom and nothing less.” Importantly, then, it is not open to any or all readers: settler readers are hailed, specifically, as not invited, as invaders and therefore not guests. This interpellation of me and other settler readers as invaders echoes Jamison’s metaphorical account of “sympathy” as gift/invasion.
Jamison’s understanding of sympathy-qua-empathy though is biomedical, an understanding that supports the governance of care Belcourt exposes; after all, anyone appeasing the gatekeepers can meet criteria for “care-giving” by attending medical school or other state-based institutions. Belcourt calls out the lie that such seeming homogeneity sustains: namely, that this “monotony of voice” is recognizable as a settler one, based on the illusion that “humanist” means all people. As Snaza puts it, “while this human would loudly proclaim its universality, it is, in fact, highly particular” (2019, 29); “same, same, same, other,” Manning writes (2020, 62).
For political theology, the divergence between the two accounts of “sympathy” can draw attention to the ethos by which we undertake our work. On the one hand, as Vinciane Despret explores in her work on animal studies, problems of “difference” necessitate practices of sympathy. Researchers occupy different roles and perspectives from their subjects of research. Despret describes an “embodied empathy” that, partly because it lacks symmetry, can tap scientists into what matters for the subjects they study (2013, 55). This willingness to extend sympathy, to take on another’s perspective, means risking being touched and affected by that other (2013, 57), not in a romantic sense of imagining life as another being but in a responsive sense of living alongside someone else. A scientist is a caretaker, on this account, designing experiments in which research subjects can articulate themselves (Despret 2004, 124). Key to Despret’s analyses is that research subjects who are hailed, with interest and care, into articulating themselves might well resist a researcher’s question or even program of study. As Jamison puts it, a sympathizing doctor must ask questions, “knowing you know nothing” (2014, 5), open to discoveries such questions might facilitate.
On the other hand, we can relate to this “not-knowing” by affirming a more open-ended approach to thinking. Deleuze’s philosophy, for example, displaces the horizon of “knowledge-in-advance,” a horizon that can be accessed by posing problems that have solutions. Instead of solutions that can be deduced from what we already or will soon know, this approach inquires into the conditions under which problems emerge (Koopman 2016; Mader 2017). As I write elsewhere, we might describe this orientation as immanent or situated, in contrast to the transcendent or pre-set orientation of the first account of “sympathy” (Jaarsma 2020, 17). Problems become things to think with and about, rather than motivations for undertaking inquiry. So, along these lines, “sympathy” (especially qua empathy) becomes a meaningful problem to query. In this context, Despret makes a claim I’ve been musing about for years: empathy, she writes, “squats in the other” (2004, 128).
Despret’s choice of verbs—to squat—reminds us of associations of invasion and encroachment, drawn out by Belcourt and others. To squat in the other, as a researcher, is to deny the conditions of possibility for symbiosis, or emergent-mixing. Conversely, to tap “sympathy” on the second meaning is to find ways to become open to many other forms of knowing and not-knowing. “Sympathy” includes the non-conscious, the unactualized, and the unnoticed, forms of not-knowing falling outside the first account. For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions. The philosophical or theoretical work, emerging out of such practices, turns the question of affiliation and even ethos into one of experimentation.
Bennett, Jane. 2017. “Vegetal Life and Onto-Sympathy,” Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms. Ed. Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein. New York: Fordham University Press, 89-110.
I recommend this edited collection exploring the intersections of political theology with materialist, post-humanist methodologies. Jane Bennett’s chapter, in particular, points to “sympathy” as a keyword for exploring and inventing new methods. It prefigures Bennett’s recent Influx & Efflux, which also takes “sympathy” as a keyword for invoking and making sense of vibrant, relational processes.
This is one of my favorite articles by Vinciane Despret, which contains the wonderful line “empathy squats in the other.” In addition to providing a wonderful overview of Despret’s methodological approach, the article asks us to consider the dramatic differences between non-human animals and humans, when they or we find ourselves to be the objects of scientific inquiry.
The first essay in this book, “The Empathy Exams,” draws us into the vexed and all-pervasive biomedical model of empathy—dramatizing and reflecting on how medical students learn how to become “empathetic” according to a prescribed set of scripts and values.
Like Ngai’s more recent Theory of the Gimmick, this book combines rigorous analyses of affects like “sympathy” with close readings that exemplify the affects in play. This is my favorite account of how sympathy might or might not arise out of reading, in part because Ngai’s prose is so unflinchingly ambivalent about its significance, existentially, and politically.
This is an engaging philosophical exploration of the many and varied aspects of relationality, especially in the context of broader post-human ecological concerns. I especially appreciate how Oele brings ancient Greek philosophy together with contemporary continental philosophy; “sympathy” and its related terms like “compassion” come alive as concepts that bear directly on pressing social and environmental issues.
This book is a marvellously materialist account of the activities we undertake as academics and as educators: reading, writing, and engaging with texts. In the context of “sympathy,” the book reminds us of the limitations of overly humanist frameworks and methods, especially in the context of decolonial and critical race theories.