EMPATHY BY ANOTHER NAME
This Essay was written by Jackie Sibblies Drury (We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 which was produced by the Bush in February 2014).
I heard this great theory about why cop shows are so popular…
Now when I say cop shows, I mean all those investigative/procedural/forensic/whodunit type of television shows; your CSIs, your Law & Orders, Monk if you like it quirky, Prime Suspect if you like it no-nonsense, or The Bridge is you like it Scandinavian.
Even though I really like this Cop Show Theory, I can’t remember if it was originally uttered by a journalist or perhaps a cultural theorist, but the theory is so essentially true it must have been thought up by a comedian. The theory is:
Cop shows are popular because everyone wants to believe that someone is going to care about them after they’re gone.
This Philosopher-Comedian would tell us that we all imagine that after we die a team of serious professionals – maybe charmingly gruff detectives, or impossibly beautiful scientists, or at least general but earnest and hardworking intelligent human beings – will work tirelessly, passionately, to find out What Happened to Us. To unravel the story of How We Lived and How We Died. Now this someone, perhaps in a lab coat, will at some point, in the midst of trying desperately to solve our untimely demise, will bang a table and cry out:
She was a human being, dammit! She matters!
(Sob. Then quivering, yet steely)
I imagine this impulse pre-dates the format of the television crime drama. I imagine that the impulse to be remembered, to make a mark, to matter, might be a criterion toward proving the evolution of a human consciousness. I think that this impulse’s mate, the impulse to remember, to observe, to be affected, can be traced back to a the-chicken-or-the-egg-ishly similar genesis. For me, the artistic expression of these reciprocal impulses is theatre, and the elemental expression of these impulses is human-ness — empathy, by another name.
I think that this ancient impulse to remember and be remembered is a fierce and beautiful thing. It is why I am so drawn to history, to remembering, to studying how people have been remembered by other people, to wondering how people would like to be remembered, to imagining how other people may have remembered. This study helps me to feel my most human.
To study history is also, of course, to study death. While death is often considered a tragedy instead of an inevitability, when I am in the midst of feeling my most human, when I am remembering and wondering and imagining, I sometimes think that the most tragic death is the death that is elided over as history is canonized. That elided death doesn’t participate in the process of metaphysical care that creates culture. It is not remembered, studied, imagined. That death is stripped of its humanity, which seems to be, if not a fate worse than death, perhaps a death worse than death. And perhaps, in turn, allowing that elided death to remain unimagined makes us a bit less human.