JH Phrydas
Empathetics: A Somatic Approach

Originally published in Jacket2

In 2016, poet and teacher Divya Victor invited me to join a roundtable discussion regarding Conceptual Writing. Her project is described as thus:

This feature on Conceptual writing collects thirty-five responses from a wide group of practitioners and critics of diverse method, intent, and position, who responded to Divya Victor’s 2015 call for writing: 1) To expand the field of critical influences and frame its discourses through the lenses of anti-imperialism, postcolonialism, spirituality studies, disability studies, ecocriticism, and critical race theory; 2) To create records of aesthetic and political genealogies which resonate as true and lived for practitioners; and 3) To articulate the critique of dominant and hegemonic genealogies or histories associated with contemporary conceptual and conceptual-like writing.

My frought relationship with Conceptual Writing (and writers) inspired me to sidestep the common debates over Conceptual v. Non-Conceptual writing and focus instead on a more daunting divide in contemporary experimental writing: that between Empathic and Apathetic art.

These are notes towards locating a spectrum within US-based writing, art, and performance that points towards what’s at stake in creative practice. My hope is that by attending to the affectivity of formal qualities in texts, we might not only spotlight insensitivity and bigotry in art but also move on to the urgency of other types of work, arising from embodied rage, empowerment, visibility, recuperation, healing, and awe.

Note: I conflate art with its maker—I do not believe in separating an artist and her work—the psychology of a piece of art and the psychology of the artist are linked, entertwined, and both deserving of appreciation and critique. You may disagree with me, and that’s OK. This list may feel hard for you. Feel free to email me to rant or explore further the implications I’m cursorily exploring here.

1. Apathetic art is art, but with an ulterior motive: to seem smart.

2. Empathetic art is art, but with an ulterior motive: to feel real.

3. Apathetic art prioritizes the mind during a bodywide blackout; forgets where language begins; pushes aside what language extends; assumes a whitewash as proving grounds for intellect: mastery, expertise, power, career, , , ,

4. Empathetic art adores ways of knowing outside of logic and reason-based discourses; recognizes the body as the center of affect; the body as marked: racialized, queered, classed, gendered, [dis]abled, [un]sexed, [non]citizened, , , , 

5. Apathetic art relies on gimmick as a crutch to hold up its anemic and neglected body.

6. Empathetic art uses prosody, rhythm, and cadence to invigorate the body, especially those weakened by centuries of cultural malnutrition and disease.

7. Apathetic art self-aggrandizes in institutionally sanctioned spaces and calls this apolitical.

8. Empathetic art looks to communal action like Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo as a way forward: revitalized and hopeful to break through ossified and domineering structures, bearing the brunt of substantial affective labor, even if unpaid and utterly exhausted.

9. Apathetic art dodges accountability by claiming its language is “not its own.”

10. Empathetic art knows we’re all born into language and must choose how to wield it.

11. Apathetic art cowers behind a political economy with blood on its hands.

12. Empathetic art bleeds and keeps bleeding: even if nobody tweets to make it famous.

13. Apathetic art creates a hideous community and blames the community for its hideousness.

14. Empathetic art is not afraid to be alone, communing with the dead, intuition, and body memory to incubate the work to its utmost strength.

15. Apathetic art forgets who the enemy is, and in self-induced aphasia, becomes complicit with it.

16. Empathetic art hangs a portrait of the enemy on its wall, memorizing its features as a daily exercise.

17. Apathetic art turns sexism/racism/homophobia into “art” and says, “the Internet made me do it!”

18. Empathetic art engages with critical race theory, immigrant/non-Western writing circles, writing workshops for prisoners, people working in community art centers with adults and children with disabilities, writing used to help veterans with wartime PTSD, writing workshops for LGBTQ youth, and art centers and projects and parties that promote alternate spaces for those forgotten or sidelined by society.

19. Apathetic art does not take into consideration the very real destruction of the earth and all its life-sustaining efforts, utilizing natural resources disrespectfully, unnecessarily, and exorbitantly as a form of colonizing self-entitlement.

20. Empathetic art acknowledges and reveres the earth via rituals of respect and recuperation.

21. Apathetic art looks to Andy Warhol for precedence: a way to proceed, seeing his use and subsequent discard of queer, trans, colored, and female bodies as permission to do likewise.

22. Empathetic art looks to James Baldwin for precedence: a way to proceed, insisting on re-negotiating dominant forms of discourse, implicating the body of the artist as the site of that negotiation: not afraid to bring up anathema notions of “integrity” and “hope.”

23. Apathetic art always wants the last word, concomitantly ignorant of atavistic flows.

24. Empathetic art knows there is no last word. It will always ask for help as well as defer to another who has said it better — in humility to our elders: