Sunday, February 2, 2014

These Essays: The Language of Empathy

So whatever fruit Scripture bears it is going to bear through its vines, its medium: language. Like any book, Scripture comes to us in tongues. If the New Testament, or any Scripture, invokes, it invokes through language; if it imagines, it imagines through words; if it encourages empathy, it does so through the world occasioned by the text. How, exactly, does it do so? What is it that words actually do?

These question, though a fascination of modernity and postmodernity, are not novel; we have explored Augustine’s notion of signa and res in some depth. But our contemporary innovation has been, for the most part, to emphasize two things: on one hand, that the link between sign and signified is neither fixed nor essential, and on the other, that we change signa and res alike by referring through to and through them. We have acknowledged , in short, that we are quite a bit more involved in language than we once wanted to be.

This realization, that we are bound to the languages in which we are also immersed, once occasioned a considerable amount of cultural anxiety. And it has subsequently occasioned an even greater amount of complex philosophical, psychological, and theoretical work. Naturally, such varied and sophisticated work has proven to be of varying degrees of usefulness to Christians reading Scripture.

But, for our purposes, the work of three scholars who suggest, despite their differences, that language is tensive or unstable as a result of a surplus or saturation of meaning may be most helpful. If they are correct, then the linguistic form of Scripture coincides with the wise content of Scripture to describe humans and their psyches in a complex, tensive, and holistic manner.          

And if they are correct, words properly do serve as empathic, holistic connection to others, and the interpretation of words remains essential to healing transformation. Christians will not only have community because of a book. Christians will have, though the guidance of the Holy Spirit, something like communion with a book.

So Christians who read the Bible would be fortunate if our understanding through language was not itself accidental, if language had not just happened to be a primary way in which humans engage the world and one another. Indeed, if God has had any hand in it, either within its structures or by its very nature, language would seek and foster human understanding.      

Far from betraying our objectivity, if words actually tied us to one another, if other people were the res toward which all our prolixity signaed, language would be boon rather than bane. If this were so, Sausuure’s famed split between signifier and signified would address not the inherent failure of language to mean what we have always thought it meant, but would refer instead to the search for communication, connection, and understanding that we share for simply being human. Empathy would find is very voice in language.

A number of theorists interested in psychology and language alike have gestured profoundly in this direction. The Freudian feminist Julia Kristeva has suggested that “our souls have been flattened and emptied by the rhythms and images of our culture.” She has written of the pragmatic break between affect and cognition, emotional drive and cerebral signification that the theoretical breach between sign and signifier symptomizes.

Naming cognitive understanding as the symbolic, and physical drive or yearning as the semiotic, Kristeva recommends their reconciliation through therapy. Such healing will look less like fusion and more like tensive balance as the flattened self of modernity uses words intentionally to articulate its desires and satisfactions in healthy, holistic relation.

So it is certainly fascinating, to we who have read Augustine, that Kristeva would articulate the moment of individuation as the “thetic” break. This refers to the alienation between the self and the other when the self realizes that it does not have what it desires and is different from it.

Surely, if we are going to find an empathy that moves in more than one direction, we will not find it here. Indeed, in some ways the Kristevan interpreter is still more alone than the Augustinian one, for there is no mimesis here, no imitation of the other, only self-expression in healthy or pathological ways. Language in Kristeva’s scheme always reaches for the other, but seeks mostly to ensure that the self is fully understood.

While we would certainly applaud such holism of identity, language in this sense does not seem empathic as much as the yearning for empathy. Christians who seek to love their neighbors as themselves, especially as they read, explain, and hear proclaimed the Christians scriptures, would rightly feel a disjoint here. Kristeva, it might seem, has only gone halfway to the neighbor, or to love.

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