Saturday, October 2, 2010

International Relations


Trauma and the Politics of Emotions: Constituting Identity, Security and Community after the Bali Bombing

5. Representing trauma and the power of emotions

Whether one can comprehend, or feel for, or even as some suggest identify with another’s trauma has therefore much to do with the way it is presented. Rather than an arbitrary or even impartial system of depicting trauma’s ‘truth’, representations of trauma both communicate and are fi ltered through the particular cultural, aesthetic and affective sensibilities of those who view or listen to them. Trauma gets its shape, its more public meaning, from the way it is represented and the messages such representations are perceived to convey. Emotions are central to the process of representing trauma. Indeed, understanding that emotions are bound up in how trauma is represented and portrayed is necessary in order to provide meaningful insight into how individual experiences of trauma can help to inscribe community boundaries. Yet emotions are largely neglected in the scholarly analysis of international relations. Considered ‘confused perceptions’ – sporadic, unpredictable and individually felt phenomena – the dominant view in social science has been that emotions are best kept private.25 The task of this section is to illuminate the role emotions play in shaping how individuals and wider communities make sense of representations of trauma. To do so I focus on a few scholars who show how emotions – or ‘affect’ – can play a crucial role in the politics of witnessing and responding to human suffering and trauma.26

Some scholars have begun to examine the various ways that representational strategies can align and re-align individuals in the wake of violence and trauma.27 Luc Boltanski and Lilie Chouliaraki examine in particular the affective impact of gazing upon distant trauma.28 They begin with the seemingly simple assumption that affective sensibilities – that is, emotions, feelings and moods – inevitability infl uence how people see. For ‘those more fortunate’ – to be witnessing rather than experiencing catastrophe directly – Boltanski suggests that such sensibilities generally elicit emotions such as sympathy or pity.29 Chouliaraki also writes of the feelings of ‘sympathy’, ‘anger’, ‘protest’ and ‘loss’ that accompany witnessing. Emotions such as these may seem straightforward, yet as both scholars show they are not as simple as they may fi rst appear. A ‘politics of pity’ has become almost routine in the relationship between victim and witness, they contend.

Rather than an ethic of care, responsibility and action being implicit with such emotions, pity and sympathy merely help to make ‘the spectacle of suffering not only comprehensible but also ethically acceptable’.30 They highlight that this is particularly so for Western societies accustomed to witnessing ‘distant’ catastrophe and trauma through the media. Still, Boltanski and Chouliaraki remain optimistic, arguing that emotions associated with a ‘regime of pity’ may be cultivated in ways that lead to the ‘practical action’ needed to alleviate distant pain.31 Boltanski and Chouliaraki’s line of argument is highly contested. Scholars have long critiqued the way the Western world seems to ambivalently play ‘spectator’ to suffering in the developing world. Ann Kaplan argues that rather than feelings of empathy and pity being ingenuous, invoking not merely a sense of despair or indignation but also responsibility and action, such emotions may instead be ‘empty’.32 Arthur and Joan Kleinman similarly claim that the widespread – yet utterly ineffectual – representation of distant trauma can only be considered with dismay.33 International relations scholars similarly caution against such ‘sentimentality’, showing that in reality emotions such as pity tend to generalise (rather than sensitise) onlookers to cultural difference, in turn perpetuating the selectivity towards those needing to be ‘saved’.34 To varying degrees these thoughts are also shared by scholars who write of ‘compassion fatigue’ or an ‘exhaustion of empathy’.35

In contrast, an important study by Jill Bennett contends that some representations may activate viewers’ affect and shape thinking in ways that promote the ability to imagine the pain of another.36 Such imaginings are thought to inspire some form of emotional and, in turn ethical, response – even if the latter takes the minimal form of a heightened critical awareness of another’s pain. David Morris goes further in suggesting that imagining others’ pain can ‘link us together in a chain of feeling’.37

Far more important than these debates and disagreement is the underlying recognition that emotions are important sites of not only personal but also political experience. Mediating trauma through selectively representing it produces discourses that either attach or un-attach one to the world. Such attachments are made possible at least partially through the emotional responses solicited by witnesses – even if, that is, such witnessing is via the television or newspaper, and from the comfort of one’s couch. Simply put, representing trauma solicits emotional responses that help to distinguish how one is connected in the world. Feminist scholars have elsewhere intimated as much. They point out that representations of violence, such as photographs or testimonies of trauma, can become ‘iconic artefacts’ that prompt private grief to become public.38 By providing an emotional object of identifi cation, such representations allow one to work through feelings within a wider community of mourning. Private emotions are in this way collectively anchored. Representations of trauma can also help to distinguish whom one fails to feel emotionally connected with.

Emotions mobilised in response to experiencing and witnessing trauma may further set apart communities, rather than bring previously divided communities together. Important here is that emotions are part of the perceptive processes individuals use to perceive and situate themselves in the world. They are socio-culturally constituted modes of appraisal that help to bind (or fail to bind) individuals together Emerging studies from political theory and international relations help to clarify the role emotions play in both forming and interpreting representations of trauma. William Connolly, for instance, stresses that politics cannot be compartmentalised into a reason-fi lled, a-emotional sphere.

Much can be learnt from recognising that visceral and corporal feelings – ‘gut feelings’ – ubiquitously fi lter through the political decision-making process, he contends.40 Andrew Ross and Paul Saurette forward similar theses, suggesting that scholars need to engage the social potential of what have long been considered ‘private emotions’.41 Ross goes so far as to argue that an appreciation of emotion is a vital step towards more holistic theorising of international politics. Unravelling how individual emotions are interwoven with social structures of knowledge and belief may facilitate a deeper understanding of how identities and collectives can be constructed. Examining what he calls ‘affective connections’ can, Ross suggests, help to ‘illuminate how political identities are reproduced and how people become intensely committed to them’.42 Important to such a study is an investigation of how such ‘affective energies’43 can be both purposefully cultivated and inscribed into representational and narrative structures that shape social and political realities. Examining trauma through an emotionally sensitive lens is thus crucial to considering the cultural (and collectivising) dynamics of trauma’s various representations. Important here is an understanding of how emotions help to shape the interpretative processes through which trauma gains social meaning, and, in some cases, infl uences boundaries of identity and community. A wider community is often depicted as feeling the disorientating effects of those who witness – and suffer from – a trauma directly.

Trauma thus touches not simply direct victims but also those witnessing it at ‘home’, in a far off and safe place. Claudia Aradau comments that it is in this way that individuals may be ‘emotionally affected and experience solidarity with victims’.44 A kind of social connection between victim and witness can be summoned. Feelings of sympathy, or even shared shock and fear, may emerge between witness and victim, and processes of reckoning with and mourning trauma can foster solidarity and solidify communal connections.

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