Affective (self-) transformations: Empathy, neoliberalism and international development

Feminist Theory 13 (2):163-179 (2012)
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Affective self-transformation premised on empathy has been understood within feminist and anti-racist literatures as central to achieving social justice. Through juxtaposing debates about empathy within feminist and anti-racist theory with rhetorics of empathy in international development, and particularly writing about ‘immersions’, this article explores how the workings of empathy might be reconceptualised when relations of postcoloniality and neoliberalism are placed in the foreground. I argue that in the neoliberal economy in which the international aid apparatus operates, empathetic self-transformation can become commodified in ways that fix unequal affective subjects. Empathy may function here less to produce more intersubjective relations and ways of knowing than it does to augment the moral and affective capacities of development professionals. Yet, I suggest, it is in the ambivalences, tensions and contradictions of both emotion and neoliberalism that spaces for thinking and feeling transnational encounters differently might be cultivated.



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