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garnering empathy part II

I've been thinking about this for a while - ever since this post about empathy. i tried to find some proper academic literature on empathy, to try and understand it in terms of science, but failed to find anything. granted, i didn't look all that hard, really, just the manchester city library. but i promise i will in the future.

firstly, i've been thinking about how empathy with your audience (as an artist, musician, creative, whatever) is even more important than i originally thought, because it's actually a two way-thing. if you aim for your work to empathise with your audience, your audience will empathise with your work. now, that sounds both obvious and esoteric at the same time. but bear with me.

in spending time in galleries, as i do*, i've realised that when i like a work, i empathise with it, the artist, and what the artist is trying to convey. a good piece of art is something i have a relationship with, communication happens (which is more than being visually spat on) and for that to happen, there has to be a reciprocation of understanding, and empathy.

and in trying to figure out a little bit more about how to cultivate that empathetic flow, i've been thinking about language as the main conduit of communication. bring on roland barthes, levi-strauss and the other linguist/structuralist/deconstructionist theorists!

lately i've been hanging out with a few kids whose first language is not english and on one evening in particular, oehmchen mentioned that he thought that poofter sounded nice, rather than an insult. after our initial quizzical looks and then hilarious laughter, i realised the basis for this was actually because in his german pronunciation, it was spelled puffter, and puff is kind of nice, really.

and the reason i made this connection, was because i studied german in school, have a bit of understanding of their diction, grammar, etc, and could follow seb's reasoning.

which brings me to a realisation that i had, which may or may not be founded in anything other than bollocks, but i'm interested in the idea anyway. that learning a foreign language is a way to learn empathy. when you learn a language other than your own, you have to learn how to think in that language, using that particular language's structure, habits and pronunciation (codes, signs, etc). you need to develop a context for the language and in doing that, you begin to understand and empathise with others who speak that language... 'when in rome, do as the romans do' - to translate one experience into another.

these skills are all used when you empathise with others, and communicate using empathy - you think about how another may think, you concern yourself with the context they are in, you translate that to your own experience and (hopefully) make a choice based on that understanding.

like i said, it's based on nothing but a bit of thinking/imagination and trajectory, but i'm going to give it a whirl. please discuss.

*gallery per day is going through some conceptual difficulties at the moment, but i'll post some reviews here soon


At 19 August, 2007 00:13, Blogger Charles Edward Frith said...

Ah language language language language. Poofter if I'm not mistaken isn't as harsh as faggot. Although my homo chums would always call themselves faggots when lamenting the challenges of being homosexual.

Not that anyone really cares too much these days apart from the meat heads from the charity who chastised me for not calling the unfortunates 'vulnerable' in my presentation last week.

I always thought 'not the smartest tools in the box' was quite a light metaphor.

At 19 August, 2007 02:26, Blogger Stanley Johnson said...

Bloody hell Lauren!

After kicking off with my favourite turn-off, "proper academic literature", you quickly name drop a couple of always name dropable "linguist/structuralist/deconstructionist theorists!" before debating the merits of "poofter."

I'm exhausted just reading this stuff. Must be because I'm not one of "the smartest tools in the box."

Stan x

At 19 August, 2007 18:14, Blogger lauren said...

charles - i think faggot is easily more derogatory than poofter, which is probably why it's used by my homosexual chums too in that whole reclamation process. in the same way that i call me and my gal pals 'chicks', but it just sounds nâsty coming from a bloke..

and 'unfortunates'? is there anything more patronising than that?.

'dumb as a box of hammers' or 'not the brightest penny in the fountain' is my preferred euphemism.

stan - i'm sure you aren't as dumb as a box of hammers and there's nothing like name dropping ol' rolly or levi to really get the party started :)..

and i was hoping that 'visually spat on' would be more repulsive than academic literature.

At 20 August, 2007 13:40, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might enjoy Kendall Walton's Mimesis and Make-believe... it's all about empathy within the representational arts - and can be applied quite nicely here.

At 20 August, 2007 14:27, Blogger Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

What a topic. Being absolutely obsessed with music ever since I can remember, I find the two way empathy and communication of bands fascinating.

Also interesting on a linguistic level is your appreciation of other languages in terms of empathy.

I found out a really interesting fact, people who speak Chinese as a first language and then learn English often "sing" English. Its a sign of a less than natural speaker; as Chinese requires different pitches and tones, so when they learn English they carry on almost singing the tones.

Maybe a little OT, but fascinating to me nonetheless.

At 20 August, 2007 21:54, Blogger lauren said...

hi collyn - welcome to this nutty blog too! that book sounds really interesting - i'll check it out! cheers.

rob - ialso think empathy is absolutely crucial with music/lyrics/poetry, any words-based form of communication and perhaps we create those things as a conduit for empathy.

funnily enough i'm reading about chinese history at the moment and the lure of learning cantonese is growing for exactly that reason - different pitches and tones.

At 24 August, 2007 16:47, Blogger Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

Its a difficult but fascinating language.

I only know about 4 words... two of which mean "you are a pain"!!

At 28 August, 2007 08:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always seen learning a language as acting, which has definitely helped me with accents. Some people may think I'm taking the piss, but I will now forever justify myself as empathising, thank you Lauren.

At 29 August, 2007 04:19, Blogger Skanky Jane said...

Hey Ms Red,

This is a great post (I'm not exhausted!) I love 'visually spat on'!! Ha!

You are very thoughtful and this is a very thought provoking post for me. Language is just about everything aint it? And so you've really hit on something me thinks.

Still, I think it is the qualities or processes (such as being patient, being interested, caring enough in the first place to inform yourself - of cultural/societal mores/context, walking a mile in another's shoes so to speak) that are key in developing or maintaining empathy. So that, in this sense, learning a new language could be described as just one 'tool'?

Your consideration of empathy when it comes to art making/viewing are particularly interesting to me...I need to think more about that. Thanks for the post!

SJ xx

At 29 August, 2007 22:29, Blogger lauren said...

hey SJ - i think language IS everything... but that's just me :) i also think empathy is absolutely all of those qualities. but seeing as i (obviously) don't believe you're born with empathy, i think the development of those qualities requires a 'tool' as you put it, or 'pathway' and perhaps a foreign language is a pathway for empathy. like a foreign bacteria in the immune system is a catalyst for renewal and repair.

glad you liked the post!

At 31 August, 2007 01:41, Blogger Skanky Jane said...

My comment disappeared - it went green then went away - it must've got the skank.

Anyhoo, that is an interesting analogy Lauren and I definitely prefer "pathway".

Going back to thoughts on empathy and art making, it is not a guarantee though is it that "if you aim for your work to empathise with your audience, your audience will empathise with your work"?

I'm thinking about recent work of my own, exhibited in a little known, council run, gallery. Now I think the work is empathic to its audience and subject (local "community" members) but they think it's a load of old cobblers, definitely not what they recognise as "art". So was I really empathetic? Or, would a more empathic artist have exhibited 2D realist images in frames? Or am I talking about something other than empathy now?

SJ xx


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