Monday, August 27, 2007

A Semiotics of Empathy?

Is empathy grounded in the play of signs? I'm putting the question to Jesper Hoffmeyer even though others (Donald Favareau, for instance) have already expanded on his work and reformulated the problem. Hoffmeyer remains, however, an exemplar of the semiotic point of view on empathy. He sees empathy as a therapeutic response to a uniquely human existential terror stemming from the thought that one could be replaced, a thought that creates a split between an emotionally whole self and an emotionally neutral player who is free to contemplate his or her mortality (Signs of Meaning in the Universe, p. 132). He says:

The interchangability of the players implies an emotional and cognitive relationship between them. Human beings could never have learned to put themselves in someone else's psychological place if they had not already learned to see themselves reflected in that other person, to see the other person as a creature just like them.

The terror and the empathy go hand in hand and language is their medium. In actual fact it was not humanity, much less erectus, who engendered them. It was a little child. Lacan's reflection theory holds the key: the mutual empathy between mother and child provided the protection necessary to cope with the unleashing of the awful isolation inherent in the idea of "not."

(pp. 132-133)

Phenomena like atruism in chimpanzees suggest that either chimpanzees are more intellectually capable than Hoffmeyer gives them credit for (calling into question the uniqueness of the existential terror of imagining oneself as interchangable), even though they lack language. Such phenomena might also call into question the notion that empathy emerges as response to a kind of cognition. We needn't turn to the behavioural studies of primates however in order to philosophically question this premise. Kojima, for instance, talks about the ontic meaning of the other being present to us immanently prior to any perspective that would allow for an exchange of viewpoints, and he speaks of an ontological anticipation of alterity that precedes any introjection of one's own being into other bodies. Favareau might tell us that such ontological anticipations are also a kind of neurological interpretation (and therefore also "cognitive"), but I wonder if instead we might question the semiotic nature of empathy.

If empathy is semiotic in anything like a Peircean sense, it would seem to involve multiple interpretants. The stubbed toe affects its owner and any empathetic witnesses at once. I can't say whether Peirce ever provided a satisfactory account of empathy or compassion, but the very idea of com-passion challenges my understanding of the idea that sign relations are purely triadic. Sign relations in empathy appear to be tetrahedral, at the least. I see meaning in the relationship between interpretants, but I don't know what semiotic model would be capable of exploring it.

I've quoted Jean-Luc Nancy before as saying:

Meaning is the exhibition of the foundation without foundation, which is not an abyss but simply the with of things that are, insofar as they are. Logos is dialogue, but the end of dialogue is not to overcome itself in "consensus"; its reason is to offer, and only to offer (giving it tone and intensity), the cum-, the with of meaning, the plurality of its springing forth.

(Being Singular Plural, pp. 86-87).

Now I want to ask whether meaning is always meaning towards something, or more simply meaning something. (A secondary question concerns whether meaning is always for somebody–I'll leave that aside for the moment.) Is meaning towards a thing qualitatively the same as meaning towards another person? Nancy invites us to roam in a region of meaning between singularities. Can this meaning of the with also be thought of as a meaning towards, or would that necessarily imply a kind of foundation that Nancy rejects? I'm not sure.

All told the semiotic depiction of empathy feels a little cold to me. Perhaps there are senses in which empathy is grounded in the play of signs, but I'm having a hard time envisaging a semiotic approach that doesn't obliterate the meaning of the other or, alternatively, the meaning of being with others. What sense of meaning, if any, does the phenomenon of empathy call for?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:32 AM.


Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page