The Luxury of Making Sense

— Claire Fontaine

This text was recently published in the anthology by Claire Fontaine, Human Strike, and the Art of Creating Freedom, trad. Robert Hurley (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2020).

One day he told me and Gallese: “I know a group of researchers in Marseille who are studying the way smells provoke emotions. This work could make it possible to prove the existence of mirror neurons for empathy.” “How?” we asked. “By using smells that provoke certain emotions and showing at the same time faces that express similar emotions. At this point we can check if in both cases the same areas are activated.” [] We discovered then that the same voxels, meaning the same points in the maps of the brain’s magnetic resonance, were activated whilst the emotion was evoked by natural stimulations (for example the smell of rotten eggs) as when the subjects were seeing—in fact reading—the same emotion, disgust, in another’s face. We saw immediately that [] other people’s emotions weren’t “cognitively” understood but they were felt “directly” as one’s own.

—Giacomo Rizzolatti and Antonio Gnoli, In te mi specchio, 2016

While the physical consequences of starvation are known, and we are all familiar with the permanent or ephemeral damage that lack of food causes to the body, we are less informed about the ways in which other deprivations mutilate and irreparably transform us. Living in debt, for example, cripples the soul. Anxiety kills empathy. Fear destroys dignity. Poverty means, above all, that people cannot be certain things, cannot know what life could be if they weren’t economically deprived of their ability to exist. Ultimately people in need, by withdrawing their freedom and their emotional intelligence from the world, dilapidate the heritage of humanity, erode our capacity to understand each other. And in the desert of their absence, racism, cruelty, and indifference grow.

Over fifty years ago, in many Western countries a revolt of young workers and students exploded to reclaim a different life, where love and the exploration of the body would be an important part of everyone’s existence. This meant untying subjectivities from the debt to society, detaching them from the limiting position of being pure workforce or a workforce-to-be, from having to fight a war or obey their oppressors.

Feminism began to say then—and it’s still saying today—that all we know about love is a patriarchal fairy tale, told over and over again with the sole intention of enchanting an unacceptable state of things. Love is yet to be invented: the simple fact that poverty still exists proves it.

After several episodes, the knight, who has been received in the castle where his lady is, declares his love to her and is rebuffed. During a long colloquy [] the knight [] succeeds in placing a ring on her finger. When, later, she becomes aware of the ruse, she angrily sends for the knight and demands that he take back the ring. [] Taking it back, he said: “Many thanks; / Surely the gold has not tarnished, / if it returns from that lovely hand.” / She smiled, for the thought that / he would replace the ring on his; / but instead he did a shrewd thing / that later brought him great joy. / He leaned over the pool, / which was but a span and a half / in depth, so he did not fail / to see in the clear water / the reflection of that lady / whom he loved more than anything / in the world. “Know then,” he said, / “in a word, I will not take it back, / but my sweet friend will have it, whom / I love best after yourself.” / “God!” she answered, “we are alone here, / where will you find her so quickly?” / “I swear it, soon you will be shown / the valorous and noble one who will have it.” / “Where is she?” “By God, see her there, look / at your beautiful reflection that awaits. / For you,” he said, “my sweet friend!” / As my lady does not wish it, / You will take it—do not refuse.” / The water was a bit troubled, / as the ring fell into it; / and, when the reflection was dissolved: / “Behold,” he said, “lady, now she has it.”

—Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, 1992

In Le Lai de l’Ombre, the most admired poem by the Norman trouvère Jean Renart, a knight, who is courting a lady, seeks her spiritual love and nevertheless idolizes her physical image. The lady’s reflection on a water’s surface finally accepts the ring and the engagement, which the woman in the flesh had refused: they live happily ever after. When Renart was writing these lines, the streets of French cities were littered with bodies of homeless people, the muddy roads of the countryside were infested with vagrants fleeing their empty houses and sterile fields to seek survival. The crackdown on contraception and infanticide at that point was so severe that the number of poor, vagabonds, and beggars had swollen to unprecedented proportions. In 1179, in his speech at the third Lateran council, Pope Alexander III condemned the parasitical system of loans then in place: the mortgage, which caused people to lose not only their property but the usage and the gains of their business, leaving them with no hope of ever regaining self-sufficiency. But the loan sharks kept strangling the population, causing epidemics and endemic misery. Illness and food shortage hit Anjou in 1124, famine decimated Aquitaine between 1161 and 1162, and starvation created an army of deracinated peasants between the Seine and the Escaut in 1197. Michel Mollat writes in Les Pauvres au Moyen Age: “Many were forced by such cruel necessity that they took a path contrary to their habits, became criminals and died hung.” The very same people who were then perishing of sickness and hunger, being taken to the scaffold or burnt as witches—often without anyone remembering their name or shedding a tear—could have displayed, if put in the knight’s shoes, the same delicate sensibility and, after a passionate discussion, offered their love to a trembling reflection on the surface of a clear pond.

I have experienced a real regret for the original integrity from which I’ve felt I had taken my distances: in the disorientation of desiring the resonance of another lost woman, I became aware of myself.

—Carla Lonzi, È già politica, 1977

The latest research has proven it: mirror neurons are responsible not only for our empathy but for our capacity of feeling things that we watch as if they were happening to us, or as if we were the ones doing them. We don’t need to be told that people are in pain to feel the urge to help them when we see them suffering. The reason that prevents us from doing so is the same one that discourages us from thinking, experimenting, being courageous: we can’t afford it. The luxury of making sense belongs to radical feminists, prison abolitionists, incorruptible philanthropists, war doctors, and fearless reporters. Otherwise economy always wins, small calculations are integrated into our selective capacity of recognizing ourselves in others, and we live in denial of the evidence of communism. In her diary, Lonzi writes a disturbing tale about the social fabric that connects us all: “The person she was before couldn’t have helped me, but in the group that I formed she’d found a way of becoming herself and of pushing me to do the same. So I’ve come to understand why I had to become feminist in order to make Sara exist, so that she could make me exist.” We can continue to ignore what ties our destiny to that of others, refuse to see them as our mirrors and neglect what we have in common, but in doing so we will lose our only possibility of giving meaning to life. And making sense will then become the ultimate luxury, the one nobody can afford.