Posted by: mackenzielibbey | September 18, 2014

“I have thought of this. I have not dismissed the thing”: Visuality and Poverty in On Duty with Inspector Field and The Empathy Exams

During our discussion of Dickens’s short story, On Duty with Inspector Field, yesterday, Professor Martin repeatedly suggested that Field’s detective work was somewhat reminiscent of tourism. To be sure, Field entering the squalid boarding houses and temporarily shining his “flaming eye” onto the heaps of poverty-stricken Irish families evokes memories of haunted house tours and historical reenactments I saw as a child; “look at this horror, but just for a minute,” the flaming eye swings on to the next room (12). More disturbing, however, is that Field’s desire to expose the squalor in which these people live (even for his own professional purposes) and the attendant questions regarding accountability, are not limited to fake haunted houses and reenactments. The story raises a number of concerns for the modern reader, including but not limited to: the media’s saturation with disturbing images that reveal the plight of peoples all over the world, service work that functions more as “poverty tourism” than real service, and the physical boundaries erected between those who are suffering and those who would prefer not to be inconvenienced by witnessing it.

A book of essays I read recently comes to mind. In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison explores what it means to care, the role of affect and saccharine prose in a culture hell-bent on rationality, and whether empathy can truly be felt and measured (among many other themes). In one of her essays, “Indigenous to the Hood,” Jamison describes her experience participating in an LA Gang Tour. The tour, founded by a former member of the Florencia 13 gang, promises to allow tourists to “experience areas that were forbidden until now.” Jamison, a Santa Monica native, is in awe of the treacherous landscape that she always knew intellectually was right at her doorstep but never saw until that day (see: Mr. Snagsby scouring the area surrounding Tom-All-Alone’s for Joe). She is particularly preoccupied by a story one of the tour leaders tells about a shoot-out between 7th graders at a local school. “How many . . . would believe that they breathe THIS air?” writes Dickens (7). Jamison rides through the Los Angeles neighborhood, long disputed territory that has resulted in years of brutal violence, wondering the same. The guide points out significant sites and tells his own story, relating to the group how he finally managed to escape the nearly-inescapable world of gang control and violence.

Critiques of the existence of such a tour (of which there are many) aside, I think the most important part of Jamison’s essay comes in the final paragraph. She writes: “What good is this tour except that it offers an afterward? You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head; until you take it home with you–across a freeway, or a country, or an ocean. No bail to post: everything lingers. Puppet [a tour guide] lingers. Those clapping seventh graders linger. Your own embarrassment lingers. Maybe moral outrage is just the culmination of an insoluble lingering. So prepare yourself to live in it for a while. Hydrate for the ride. The great shame of your privilege is a hot blush the whole time. The truth of this place is infinite and irreducible, and self-reflexive anguish might feel like the only thing you can offer in return. It might be hard to hear anything above the clattering machinery of your guilt. Try to listen anyway.” *

Similarly, the narrator of On Duty with Inspector Field begins the story by acknowledging the importance of this “self-reflexive anguish,” asking, “How much Red Tape my be there . . . and say, ‘I have thought of this. I have not dismissed this thing. I have neither blustered it away, nor frozen it away, nor tied it up and put it away, nor smoothly said pooh, pooh! to it when it has been shown to me?” (7).

Comparing these two texts even briefly has left me with many more questions than answers. The narrator of On Duty with Inspector Field is ultimately empathetic, noting that “The wicked cease from troubling sometimes, even in this life,” but is Inspector Field, with his flaming eye, an empathetic character (25)? To what extent can the acts of showing and seeing suffering be understood as empathy (or even significant social action)? Is practicing and writing about this kind of empathy a cop-out from taking real “action” or is it the most appropriate form of “action” for a person as far-removed from the suffering as Field is from the boarding houses and Jamison is from the streets of L.A.? If you’ve somehow made it all the way through this post, I’d be interested to hear your opinions!

*I don’t have a page number for this quote because I don’t have the book with me here but will add it ASAP.

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