A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Digital Empathy: A Practice-Based Experiment

Trisha Nicole Campbell, Salisbury University

Published May 3, 2017

“The Young Woman on the bus with a ravaged face and the intense eyes of some beautiful species of monkey . . . turned to me and said, ‘I think I am getting a sore throat. Can you feel it?’”
--Robert Hass, “Images”

“Voice commands before all mimicry and verbal expression . . . it commands me not to remain indifferent to this death, to not let the other die alone.”
--Emmanuel Levinas, Time and The Other

“Rhetoric, in practice and performance, is a continuous exercise of tendencies of inventional media or writing body that produce new capacities of relating within an ecology of practice.”
--Casey Boyle, “Writing and Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice”

This article began, long before these words were written, as a digital-theoretical experiment and provocation in what it might mean and how it might sound if I were to speak with the digitally recorded voice of another—and not just any other, not my family or friends, but someone whose experience lies far outside of my own. At first thought, this could be the recorded voice of a mother or father, or a religious grandmother. Or, still further, this could be the voice of someone who feels alienated: Police chiefs, Muslim leaders, gang leaders, domestic violence survivors,1 differently raced lives,2 and so on. I began by wondering how we could—as digital rhetoricians—cross boundaries and divisions of all kinds using archives of voices (voices dead and alive,3 past and future,4 old and young, those with dissimilar affective states, and so on), and I wondered what digital tools and affordances we could use to extend our own positionalities and affects or to imagine new relations altogether. 

What I was really interested in was an intentional attempt to cultivate empathy through and with digital modalities. As Leslie Jameson lyrically puts it, “empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion” (23). This is precisely what makes empathy so complicated. It does not come easily, and according to empathy scholar Jodi Halpern it takes work and training that many scholars are unsure how to pursue. This is in part because empathy is not based simply on shared feeling states or similar people, like sympathy. Sympathy is understood as the “affinity between certain things by virtue of which they are similarly or correspondingly affected” (“Sympathy”). In sympathy, one shares the feelings of another person by focusing on oneself, on how he/she would feel in the other’s situation. Empathy, on the other hand, requires “one to imagine the other’s situation and what it might feel like, while simultaneously recognizing one’s difference” (Landsberg, “Memory, Empathy, and” 223). Empathy is the intentional attempt to feel with or think with someone who may have no relation to you, where affective states, discourses, and experiences are dissimilar. It proceeds on a sentiment of non-similarity. In empathy, there has to be some kind of “leap or projection” into the life of another (Landsberg, “Memory, Empathy, and” 223). Because of this, empathy requires what’s called an “imaginative inquiry” (Halpern 568) or imaginative leap into the individuality or particularity of another person’s story, affective state, or situation. One must leave oneself and attempt to imagine another. 

Empathy often invites a profound act of imagination on both the affective and intellectual level, and it bespeaks a long and difficult process, which begins primarily with the intentional labor of feeling with and thinking with someone who is not necessarily a friend or loved one but with those who have “no relation to us, whose circumstances lie far outside of our own” (Landsberg, “Memory, Empathy, and” 223). The question for many scholars has been how? How can one feel with or think with another? Empathy is truly difficult to experience or exercise; it requires a kind of commitment and intention. Being a digital maker and rhetorician, I wondered what would happen if I enlisted my body, my voice, and its vibrations in an intentional attempt to speak (and record) with the voice of someone I may not understand or who may be different than me. Could I begin a process of empathy or at least understand the difficulty around empathy? Could I perhaps speculatively imagine new lines around two or more voices through digital recording and editing? Could I acknowledge and see those differences in a new way? In what follows, I tell the story of my own experimental digital practice of speaking with the voice of another and the theoretical outgrowth from this practice. I argue that what happened in the repeated practice of listening, recording, and re-recording my own voice with the voice of another can be described as an intense affective relationship and an opening toward what I call digital empathy. I make the case that intentional digital practices like the one I detail here can offer students, citizens, and scholars a digital, practice-based model for beginning the process of a radical kind of empathy, which may feedback and add to reality in ethical and political contexts.5

Archives and Our Ability to Respond

Before going into the actual practice of digital empathy, however, I want to foreground an exigence for experimental practice(s) and “new responses” (Arroyo 92) like this one while also scaffolding my initial inquiry with its theoretical impetus. It’s not difficult to look around the world right now and see/hear/feel all the latent divisions between us—the seeming inability to speak to, let alone with, another human who has no apparent relation to us. This can be as simple as noting the divisions between Trump voters, Hilary voters, and those in-between. There are, of course, more fraught divisions like those of the wars between Palestine and Israel, the different terrorist sects, and the arguments about who or what caused which war or which violent event. In response to such divisiveness, Jane Bennett pleads that what is needed is not only a “distributive understanding of agency,” but also the ability to detach “ethics from moralism, and to produce guides to action appropriate” to our interconnected world (464). This is a move away from the question of who to blame or who to hate and a move toward the question of responsibility--not responsibility as in who is responsible for this or that event, this or that horrific act, but responsibility as in our “increased ability to respond to the other, as well as others” (Vitanza 173).  “Response-ability,” as Karen Barad calls it, is what happens when you understand the world to be made up of entangled agencies and power imbalances. To understand one’s own response-ability is to move toward the “possibilities of mutual response” through embodied and human/post-human practices. Barad explains that to be more responsive to others is to do experimental “collaborative research” that puts us materially “in touch” in human and posthuman ways, enabling an increased reponse-ability through these new modes. Barad explains it this way: “In an important sense, in a breathtakingly intimate sense, touching, sensing, is what matter does, or rather, what matter is: matter is condensations of response-ability. Touching is a matter of response. Each of ‘us’ is constituted in response-ability. Each of ‘us’ is constituted as responsible for the other, as being in touch with the other” (Meeting the Universe 208).

One way of exercising this increased ability to respond is through digital video and digital video culture. In Participatory Composition Sarah Arroyo argues that the increased ability to respond is in part because of 1) our vast video archives like Youtube and 2) remix, reappropriation, and reuse. In video culture, we have the rare opportunity to listen in on unusual discourses at new levels of both intimacy and distance. We can bear witness and become deeply unsettled, but we can also go one critical step further and “create responses, which spawn more responses” to the lives we are confronted with (92). This “culture of response” is important because it offers a multi-voiced environment and model for the competing life of many ideas, realities, and perspectives (92). It is in contradistinction to merely viewing alone or bearing witness solely. It invites, instead, some kind of active response. Quoting Cynthia Haynes’s response to the 2002 Youtube video of the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, we can get a sense of how video allows this engagement. It took Haynes seven years and multiple writing projects to come up with a way NOT to do what rhetoric principally did.6 She had to resist trying to “write an argument on Danny’s behalf . . . but [instead] to bear witness to such cruelty by confronting the mediation of his murder—to confront its discourse and style” through her own digital response (emphasis added, qtd. in Arroyo 98). The challenge, Haynes says, is “how to find a postconflict means of argument in a post-9/11 world” (qtd. in Arroyo 98). What Arroyo concludes from this is that rhetoricians should continue edging closer to postconflict thinking and pedagogy by “remaining open, listening, and generating responses as a listener” (100). What she asks us to consider is, how can “one speak as a listener and not as an author” through digital production contexts like video, archives, and voice (qtd. in Arroyo 77)?  

This response ethos follows on work already being produced on digital archives and digital collections. As Jussi Parikka argues, “perhaps the whole idea of caring [for our collections] is translated into a question of use” (74). How are archives used in amateur re-appropriations and remixes toward new productive and inventive making? Can they help us redraw rhetorical relations? In our own field, the experimental video projects of Jody Shipka ask us to honor, preserve, digitize and inhabit found artifacts as a material and affective intervention into archives. Shipka’s work begs us to think about who and what gets archived, saved, recorded, and who decides. Yet she also invites us to feel an intimacy with those artifacts and in some cases (as in, “Past, Present, Presence: Inhabiting Dorothy”) to come up with our own responses to those artifacts. Erin Anderson is forthright about what this means in her own experimental practice with digital voice. She writes, “this possibility has wide-reaching implications for digital composing practice, opening up vast archives of recorded voices to practices of manipulation and invention and encouraging us to approach these materials with a new appreciation for their role—indeed, their shared agency—in producing the effects of our work” (para. 41). 

Taking Arroyo’s, Parikka’s, Shipka’s and Anderson’s cues, I move to relate, describe, and extend my own practice of working with digital voice. I argue that intentional digital practices and experiments through modalities like performance, mimesis, and repetition via audio editing in platforms like Audacity and Adobe Audition might invite us into affectively charged, new rhetorical and empathetic relationships with voices that are both our own and not our own. This is in part a move away from an analysis of the thing made—the digital object received—and toward the very act of making itself, which in turn shifts from the audience’s reception to the maker’s experience. It is the particular practice of making digital audio projects with the voices of others—the long hours, the real-time recording, the minutiae of audio editing—that I want to posit more specifically as the unforeseen implications in what I have come to call the practice of digital empathy.   

As I proceed, I want to underline the practice and theory relationship of this work. There was and is a crucial interaction between the practice of working with and inhabiting digital archives through digital media production and the subsequent theory of digital empathy that developed and emerged out of that practice. I see this practice-theory relationship, or “practiced-based theory” as Mark Amerika calls it (xiii), as both a method for producing a new kind of scholarship in relation to digital media and archives and as an emergence of how theory can be practiced and extended through the test case of empathy. What is happening to theory, asserts Amerika, can be found in the “efflorescence of innovative, practice-based research projects” conducted in the digital arts and humanities (xiii). I have tried to take seriously the idea that the hybrid between theorizing and practicing can expand our concepts of what it means to produce scholarship in our digital culture. This expansion includes a rethinking of how we practice ethics itself—in this case, empathy—and how the digital might extend an invitation to ethically respond to others.

Test Case

As part of my initially inquiry, I chose to work with digital voice archives I had already collected in a larger project of my own, called “The Murder Networks,” which is an online archive of the digital remnants, social media, and audio stories of those involved in or affected by inner-city murder. The goal of this archive is to trace and listen in on these networks—on precisely what has been excluded in our current cultural understanding of inner-city murder. In that project, I make the argument that murder happens in and because of networked agency—both digital and analog actor networks. In short, murder is distributed through many material actors that come together in a murder act. In this framework, people are not murderers but rather one agential force among many in a murder. This means, more radically, that many people are capable of murder given the right material-agential assemblage. The murder project and the murder networks began in 2011 with the impetus that there was a complete lack of awareness and care among the media for the murdered lives and the murderers.  Living in Pittsburgh at the time, I noticed an intentional effort to ignore the violence of some of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. Initially, I was interested not only in raising awareness but also in trying to understand the violence as not outside of the city or the system but inside, a part of all of us. Often, if the murders were given any attention by the press, it was to administer hateful comments about the murderer. He or she was generally treated as an erroneous interruption to an otherwise smoothly operating system. The act of violence was seen as outside of cultural norms and appropriate behavior. Many citizens responded with their own hate, value judgements, and angry sentiments. The murderer was often without public empathy on many levels. Very few appeared to feel with or for the accused murderer. For this reason, for the complete lack of public empathy, I chose to try to feel differently, to try to cultivate some other relationship to the accused murderer. In this way, I used the recorded confessions as my own radical test cases. Could one feel with, think with, or voice with a named murderer? Or: what might happen if I recorded myself speaking murder along with a convicted murderer?  

The Practice

Because I didn’t quite know where I’d end up when I began, I began very simply just by listening to the audio confessions and voices over and over again. I didn’t listen for blame, an underlying meaning, or a logical reason that someone committed murder. I listened, instead, as a rhetorician, for the potential to reimagine the latent divisions and relations between us through another’s voice and my own. As Krista Ratcliffe asks, “why is it so hard to listen to one another?” (19). Part of the difficulty stems from cultural and material distance. There are “particular ways of being in the world foreclosed to people who have not first had access to similar such experiences in the context of their own lives” and which thus work to draw lines of division around us (qtd. in Ratcliffe 19 ). What Ratcliffe makes possible is a listening that is oriented to openness. Putting her theory into practice, I began by trying to consider how digital technologies might be uniquely able to invite listening “openly.” So I listened for hours. I listened as one person began his interview sounding callous and hardened, and I listened later on in the interview as he seemed to soften, as he asked to tell his “mama” he loved her.7 I listened for so long that I began to hear his voice echo in my head and his rhythm inflect my own.  I put these acts of listening into four overlapping categories of practice: performative mimesis, digital performance, artist-mediums, and post-human practice. 

Performative Mimesis

While this listening is passive, it began to inhabit me. As I moved forward in this experiment, I started to feel myself speaking with the different voices, anticipating their words, and mouthing them as they enunciated. I began to listen for the potential to create something through our voices. As such, I began with a kind of performative mimesis by recording myself voicing along with one of the confessions. Hunched over my computer with my headphones stuffed in my ears—another’s voice ringing loudly—and my microphone next to me picking up my own hesitations and enunciations, I stated my name as he stated his, spelling my name as he spells his, using or attempting to adopt his intonation. I tried to breathe when and as he did, sigh with him, wince, stammer, and even—most difficult of all—admit to shooting someone with the same beat, pause, and breath that he takes. The embodied experience and transmission of the confession into and through my own voice is an interaction between voices that might otherwise not interact. While I was performing, I also strategically used mimesis as a particular technique of digital performance. Mimesis has typically been, according to affect scholars and cinema scholars, the transmission of affect from the face on the screen to the face of the spectator through the strategic use of the close-up: “with the camera trained on another’s face we are afforded intimate contact with that person’s emotional life” (Landsberg, “Memory, Empathy, and”  224). As her face registers pain, the audience feels a response in kind. In this practice, however, mimesis can be transformed from the screen’s capability into a more intimate version that uses the maker’s own body as the medium. The user attempts to breathe with and sigh with another as a literal attempt to feel with another through the intensities that can pass body-to-body. I then recorded each of my attempts. This use of performative mimesis attempts to “get a hold of something by means of copying and imitation, not just of words, but of sighs, and other recorded bodily outputs for a sensuous and palpable connection” (Taussig 224). Jennifer Bean further explains that mimesis has the ability to stress the reflexive, not the reflection, because it brings the subject into “intimate contact with the object, or other, in a tactile, performative and sensuous form of perception, the result of which is an experience that transcends the traditional subject-object dichotomy” (225).  

The nature of using audio editing to perform mimesis required I spend long hours with another’s words, barely audible sighs, and the cracking in a voice. I can, because of how long I spent with one of the confessions, tell the moment a voice begins to break in the interview, a moment that was not perceptible to me upon even the 3rd passive listening of this interview but is now undeniable. In one case, it breaks when he asks about his family; it breaks again when he sings a popular rap song: “I know this game is crazy, it’s crazier than it’s ever been . . .” What follows from the editing and performing is an immersion in and among another’s obstinacies and rhythms, “refusals as much as his invitations” (Seigworth and Greg 1). This part of the process was long and difficult, and at times it even felt painfully impossible. It made me uncomfortable. I felt my own differences pulsing in my ears, but I continued relentlessly after something I could feel but not say. I recorded myself speaking with several recorded voices over 30 full times in total. I often spent hours listening to one sigh, recording my own sigh in rhythm to another’s, and then re-recording again. 

Digital Performance 

While listening openly, then, is an important start to the practice, so is a capacity and desire to interact with another’s voice as a digital maker and rhetorician. It is listening with the intention to create new relations with digital voices; it is listening oriented toward our potential to speak to each other in this imaginative medium. I was interested in what could be done with voices beyond capture. I saw a potential to enter into a new form of relationality with their voices through my own voice-as-performance. Performance has become a productive method for working with digital technology. As Paul D. Miller suggests, digital technologies invite us into relationships of live performance and on-the-fly improvisation enlisting our own bodies with the capacities of technology. Miller describes a practice of the “poetics of presence” (32), where the potential of the “digital opens a space in which the researcher becomes artist becomes performer becomes processor to recontextualize, remix, and sample the past into something new and present through the digitally recorded outputs of her own body” (Campbell para. 4). Performance, in the words of Della Pollock: 

[I]s a promissory act . . . not because it can only promise possible change but because it catches its participants—often by surprise—in a contract with possibility: “with imagining what might be, could be, should be . . . performance is one way of practicing the interdependence of human selves and of seeing through the past into an as-yet unspoken future.” (2) 

Exploring performance as an embodied and promissory act; I employed digital technology as a conceptual attempt to redraw lines of intentionality, individuality, and community through our voices and the collusion of our soundwave outputs. Part of what performance allows me to do is take seriously the idea that in including my body and my voice as part of the practice, I can know my subject differently—perhaps even more intimately. Performance, in this way, becomes a critical methodology for reusing archives and re-inhabiting archives. It presents as another way to know and as a way to discover how voices might speak to one another. It points me toward new forms of relationality, creativity, and care (Taylor xix).  It is through this new notion of digital performance that I imagine a contemporary relationship to archival materials—one of reuse—where archival materials can be re-animated and performed for different futures. 


Mark Amerika discusses this new function of performance through what he terms the tendency of the digital to create an “artist-medium” where the artist both works with media and becomes the medium by taking on different materials—media, archives, voices, film fragments, and images—using their own body performatively, and “reprocessing” those materials through and with digital recording and editing devices (xii).8 The artist may inhabit and perform through her own voice or body to see what output or thinking might emerge from this practice. Going back to my test case, for instance, as I said, I stated my name as my interlocutor stated his. I did not state his name nor pretend to be him. Instead, I very consciously attempted a kind of “reprocessing” through my own vocal outputs, gestures, and intonations (Miller 26). Whatever might happen in this process happens in-between our voices, so the goal was not necessarily to speak exactly as another does but rather to reprocess it as an act of invention. E.L. Doctorow reminds us that we write “to find out what we are writing” (qtd. in Amerika xii). Similarly, we digitally perform to find out not only what we are making but also who we are becoming. In this practice, the artist-medium chooses a person or character—using the same logic of cinema or novels—and inhabits parts of their language, images, video, or text as an improvisational performative practice while recording or otherwise capturing the resulting inhabitation. In-between the “transliminal space” of inhabiting the character, the artist herself might spill out, and the result is the inventive importance of that in-between space. This process is fluid. The producer might move in and out of identifications, forging some kind of creative act through the interstices. 

Posthuman Practice

Of course, in addition to the humans behind the voices with which I am working in this practice, there is also a complex constellation of nonhuman entities that co-create the relations between us. Casey Boyle has discussed the importance of “posthuman practice,” which is distributed across human and nonhuman actors (551). By “practice” here I mean to imply a network of thinkers that includes not only Bruno Latour, Andrew Pickering but also Theodore Schatzki who can be summarized as thinking about the human body as the nexus of an “array of activities” (i.e., practices) that agents perform around, in, with, and through.9 Here, the idea of the habitus or habitual comes into focus as we consider how habitual practicing with the body can have larger ethical and political effects. Consider what Debra Hawhee has articulated as the way in which athletic training overlaps with rhetorical training. Repetition and rhythm work to train and condition the body. Performing moves hand-in-hand with learning by compounding the mind with body (Hawhee 6). “The body's centrality in learning and performance is something the ancients knew so well as to almost take for granted. Ancient rhetoricians and orators gleaned this lesson from athletic training and performance, after which they fashioned their art,” which then came to have pedagogical and cultural value (195). Building off of Hawhee’s bodily arts, Boyle articulates a theory and framework for “posthuman practice” from which to begin thinking about how our rhetorical practices merge with nonhuman agents of this rhetorical tradition. As he puts it, this kind of practice is an “ongoing, serial engagement with different relations” where repetition is the key to practice, but a repetition that never equals an exact copy (Boyle 534). It is a repetition that is “fundamentally productive” (Boyle 534). As in the ancient rhetorical case of Demosthenes and Thucydides: “According to rumor, Demosthenes copies Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war eight times” (Muckelbauer 77).  Yet as Muckelbauer asks, “what has happened here? What form of relation has been formed in the movement between Thucydides’ writing (the model) and the body of Demosthenes (the copy)? Has Demosthenes internalized certain stylistic or ethical virtues of the work? Has this copy provoked him in a fashion that overcomes distinctions between the imitator and his models and inspires in him a capacity to respond?” ( 77). Practice is, then, the intentional repetition which can activate new relationships as an “ongoing habit” where rhetoric becomes this intentional “exercise of movements” (Boyle 534). 

What I am interested in adding to this conversation around practice is the way in which new digital effects like performance, mimesis, and artist-mediums render practice even more palpable and current. Digital recording technology enlists our bodies in speaking, but also listening, and in speaking and listening simultaneously. Having said this, I also want to underline particular qualities of digital production technologies and how they allow for duration, rhythm, and repetition in practice. In part, it is the recording, re-recording, hours of listening, editing, zooming in and out for a particular breath or sound wave, exigency of repeated listening, and so on, that works together to situate the producer in a particular position in relation to a subject’s story. To listen for hours to the same voices and to then speak back with these voices is to condition the body to a possibility of openness. It is to allow the rhythm and mediated voice of another to temporarily and temporally inhabit one’s own rhythms as intentional practice.  As Miller puts it, in this new digital environment, “the voice we speak with may not be our own” (26). In other words, while digital technologies themselves can be employed in multiple ways and towards multiple goals, it is still the case that digital recording and editing, along with the vast amount of audio-visual public archives, create a particular embodied vantage point from which not only to see the world, but also to momentarily and partially experience different perspectives in the world through continuous practice and performance. The result of this durational digital practice may be a speaking voice we do not fully recognize. This relationship to our media is a kind of a posthuman, hybrid “reprocessing” with the world to the point that the voice uttered may literally not be our own or it may sound like someone else or something else—a collaboration between media archive, human, and digital editing (Miller 26). 

Digital Empathy

What this practice helped to develop—through minute divestments in making and thinking— is what I have been calling digital empathy, which asks, how can one feel with and think with another through the strategic rhetorical and pedagogical use of digital recording, production, and digital affordabilities? Before answering this question more fully, I want to highlight the different ways other mediums, genres, and fields (Film and Literature, mainly) have previously tried to think about the ethical act of empathy.

Cinema scholars have pursued the imaginative leap empathy requires through technological advancements in the last half-century. Alison Landsberg has written extensively on the value of “prosthetic memories” made possible through mediated representations like film and experiential museums. These mediums can offer viewers an experience they did not live through and thus invite them to take on a prosthetic memory, which becomes like an “artificial limb worn on the body” and can work to effectively produce empathic connections through those memories (“Memory, Empathy and” 222). In Landsberg’s formulation, there are two chief reasons why film is a more useful experiential medium for pursuing this imaginative aspect than museums or literary novels. First, film is as a more commodified form that makes the experiences widely available to those who may live far outside the characters or lives being portrayed. Film thus offers a memory or viewing experience of another that may otherwise not have entered the viewer’s imagination. Second is the element of cinematic identification, where a film can ask a viewer to identify with someone through the “point-of-view” shot, which is actually two shots taken together. The first shot shows what the character is looking at, and the second shot positions the camera inside the character’s eyes, so we see exactly as she sees. “Point-of-view” shots force us to look at the world through someone else’s eyes, from their literal perspective, thus pulling us into the action of the film and into the mental and emotional life of the protagonist” (225). In doing so, film, for Landsberg, gives viewers access to another’s mind and motivation.

Of course, literary theorists have similarly argued that the act of reading trains empathetic, ethical thinking as well. Martha Nussbaum asserts that the act of reading a novel can also be a mediated representation in the training of ethical thinking. Pointing to Dickens as the best example of this, she claims he takes us into “the lives of those who are different in circumstances from ourselves and enables us to understand how similar hopes and fears are differently realized in different social circumstances” (66). Both Landsberg and Nussbaum posit that the act of ethical thinking and empathy lies in the audience’s reception of the filmic or literary piece. Nussbaum further extends this ethical experience into one that can be first felt by the writer or producer. This nuance is useful as a model for the argument of this article because it emphasizes the producer’s relationship to empathy. She says of Henry James, “The artist can assist us by cutting through the blur of habit and the self-deceptions habit ebets; his conduct [the artist’s] is ethical conduct because it strives to come to terms with reality in a world that drinks from reality” (59). The artist, writer, or digital producer develops the relations through the durational time spent with characters. And even while I find this nugget important, I want to distinguish digital practice from cinema and literature, both at the production and reception level.

Without underplaying their importance for inviting and eliciting empathy and ethical thinking, I want to assert that emergent digital practice can offer a different quality of experience and perhaps a more powerful empathetic intervention. While watching a film or reading a book can allow us the experience of seeing from someone else’s eyes, the experience of composing with digital technologies, another’s voice, and our own self (voice and body) can make that experience even more acute through both a theory and practice of digital empathy. What makes amateur digital production and practice so fecund for both ethical thinking and its relationship to empathy is its broad access (we have more and more amateur or DIY makers) and its capacity to turn those makers into “artist-mediums” (Amerika 4).  Understanding how DIY producers position themselves and how they have the potential to enter into relationships with different fictional or non-fictional characters and voices is crucial to a larger understanding of how digital production might shape individual subjectivity, social interconnection, and a larger practice of ethical thinking. 

Rhetoric and Digital Empathy

This particular digital practice, then, helps to open into a new concept of rhetoric and digital empathy. I call this practice of digital empathy rhetorical because I mean it as more than just the ability to feel with another alone, but as a rhetorical practice of both feeling and thinking with another through and with the strategic use of digital technologies. What I think this new practice of digital empathy can do is open another pathway into how scholars can imagine the practice of digital rhetoric. For instance, digital empathy can be productively considered through Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical identification, which happens, in this case, as a result of long hours spent with the voice of another. As Burke explains, alongside divisive rhetoric there must also be a rhetoric of cooperation and union—what Burke called a “rhetoric of identification” which comes from, in his view, the possibility of the word—or, in this case, the voice—as a counter to the world. Amplifying and updating Burke’s framework, identification shifts from what cinema scholars refer to as seeing from the same point of view as a character, and thus identifying, to voicing with another and thus literally practicing their world through our own voice. This new kind of identification is made possible precisely because of the “imaginary closeness of [amplified] voices, [which] makes possible not only an intimate encounter with the body of another, but also a kind of visceral identification with that other, such that such voices feel as if ‘they could be our own’” (Anderson para. 20). Rhetorical identification has already been the strategic rhetorical act of “identifying with” in order that one can become “consubstantial;” that is to say, to remain as two substances—me and another—but conjoined, separated, as two and yet still joined, here, quite literally through the digital composing of voices. To begin the practice of rhetorical identification, remarks Burke, is to “confront the implication of division in the first place” (22).  It is to think of rhetoric, and specifically, in this case, digital rhetoric, as the work of confronting division, and through means both creative and critical, to try to create unity out of division.

Of course, rhetorical identification is delicate. It rests in part on a recognition of the profound differences between oneself and another, and so, part of the rhetorical identification in the practice of digital empathy also has to do with the limits of identification. Referring back to my own test case, the ethical call comes as I try to make the empathetic imaginative leap to think with another whom I perhaps don’t readily identify with; in attempting the leap, I can recognize more clearly both the distance and the difference between her body and my own. What confronting that division has meant for me, in my practice, is realizing a sharp implication between us, our voices, and our lives. If we must confront the division, as Burke asks, then we must do so by admitting, underlining, or even practicing our own implication and involvement. Confronting division is to recognize, as Barad and Bennett suggest, all the ways we are in fact intimately intertwined. To be implicated, Latour remarks, is to take the first step in un-doing bifurcation. Implication is a “folding into” of one into another (6). It is to say that there is no longer a split into two. This does not mean that the researcher tries to get beneath the problem, to only look at the mechanics of the rhetoric of murder, for instance; rather, it means that the researcher, the producer, the artist, me, and you, might allow the subject at hand another interpretation through the role of digital practice. Latour argues that this is what the poet allows—to look for what in violence (or any subject of inquiry) responds when “interrogated in another way” (Latour 6). That is to say, one is in the other, or at the least, one must cause one to be implicated with the other. As I voice with another, I risk being an accomplice; I risk being terrifyingly implicated in their life and their acts. “For genuine peace today,” writes Burke, “we must risk contamination with the enemy, or rather, we must give full expression to the voice of the enemy, not excluding it, but seeking to assign it an active place in an ultimate order” (emphasis added 263). 

Ethical Openings

Finally, I’ll end by discussing what I think are the ethical possibilities bound up in this practice and others like it. As I said about my process in working with another’s voice: it was difficult and at times impossible to voice with him, but to stay with him in his (post) humanity, no matter how difficult, is part of the intervention. To recognize both the distance and the difference, while maintaining a responsibility and commitment to another. Emmanuel Levinas invites and illuminates this kind of ethical response through his philosophy of how to live with the Other. He writes, “The I is responsible not only to know the other, or to share an understanding of the world which the Other also shares, but is responsible to respond to the very alterity of the Other” (Levinas 18). Digital practice can help amplify and extend this philosophy through not only its potential to implicate its audience and viewers but also, more strongly, through the close and intimate act of production—making—which offers a literal space for not only hearing the voices of the Other but also picturing and imagining a “response” to alterity. The practice itself can implicate the producer, the researcher, through this intimacy, or what Levinas calls the “invitation to proximity,” which can be attained via the many modes of digital practice and production. Another’s voice, for instance, is in my ear, a voice that would usually not be heard by the public, a confession and public archival recording that might otherwise go unnoticed or dismissed. Instead, I invite and enact a closeness and proximity that could otherwise not be achieved. 

This practiced intimacy is what works to foster the commitment and responsibility I felt toward the voices in my test case. Yet, I want to also maintain that empathy itself is often thought to be a near impossible attribute. How can we feel with another whose experience is so vastly different than our own? How can we make and foster that necessary imaginative leap? While I am arguing that digital practices such as this can begin the process toward empathy and can more intimately foster that imaginative leap, I also want to maintain that this is only one step in a long process. Digital empathy is merely an exercise, an opening, a kind of training that begins the emotional and intellectual practice of feeling with another. 

What it does invite, however, is a relationship to media and digital practice as both ethical and pedagogical. By thinking of rhetoric both as a practice and as part of a collaboration between our human and nonhuman counterparts—in this case the digital audio and digital recording—I echo Boyle to offer “rhetoric a return to many of the inventive ethical and pedagogical opportunities that rhetoric engaged in the tradition’s early emphasis on practice and bodily exercise” (Boyle 551). And it is precisely in this formulation of rhetoric as practice that “we repeatedly exercise the humble, open-ended claim: we do not yet know what a (writing) body can do” (552). The digital practices I have activated here serve as a model for one way to begin intentionally practicing digital empathy and digital intimacy toward pedagogical functions, and here I mean pedagogy as what can be taught to citizens and as citizens. New digital practices and methods have the capacity to teach producers how to begin the process of empathy especially in the face of discursive and cultural distance. One can literally begin speaking with and recording with the voice of another in classrooms, community outreach, and after school workshops where the goal is the intentional act of rethinking our ethical and rhetorical concerns through a digital practice-based model of learning.  Digital practices deployed pedagogically might invite us to reimagine them as both ethics-as-practice and rhetoric-as-practice, and these practices may open up more rhetorical relations “that produce new capacities of relating within an ecology of practice” (551).  

As I end, I want to take up this experiment—of repeated, responsive, performative, embodied digital practice—and consider the serious ethical consequences that it might have for our work.  I want to suggest, as others have, that even (and especially) when I am not sure of the product or outcome of this work, the work is worth pursuing nonetheless, that there are ethical consequences to the practice of making itself. This is an attempt to take on Rajchmann’s call for an “experimental relation to the future” where our practices and pedagogies are not foreclosed givens or even outcomes, but experiments and anomalies toward the unknown and unforeseen (14). As he puts it, what we need are processes and practices “as yet unmade, that provoke us to think or imagine in new ways” (15). What I think remains important then is the way in which the practice itself—the drafting, the experimenting, the scripting, the hours of active listening, the recording, the editing, and the composing—the digital habituation, in short, feeds back into ethics and my own inquiry here. Resounding Anderson, might we consider this an experiment that could fail, to be sure, but also an invitation to consider what it might mean—and how it might sound—for writers, rhetoricians, and artists to take up recorded voice and digital affordabilities as a part of our practice.

  • 1. See Jenny Andrus’ book Entextualizing Domestic Violence, where she mentions our lack of understanding and empathy for domestic violence survivors.
  • 2. Many empathy scholars report on the “racial empathy gap”. See: “Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others’ Pain” by Sophie Trawalter, Kelly M. Hoffman, and Adam Waytz.
  • 3. As Erin Anderson articulates in “What Hadn’t Happened: A Multimedia Memoir,” Provocations 1, Computers and Composition Digital Press (2016).
  • 4. As Trisha Campbell articulates in “I am Josephine Miles,” Provocations 1, Computers and Composition Digital Press (2016).
  • 5. In the forthcoming (2016) edited collection, Making the Humanities Matter, Erin Anderson and Trisha Campbell have written about how practice-based digital making such as this can create new ethical relationships. Their chapter “Ethics in the Making” foregrounds some of the arguments found here.
  • 6. In her 2013 Western States Rhetoric and Literacy Conference keynote, Marilyn Cooper argued that rhetoric has inherited a pattern of response as positioning one argument over another. She asked, what else can rhetoric do? Can it listen? Can it invent a new pattern of response?
  • 7. I reference three of the confessions in this article but always anonymously and vaguely. In part, this is because I want to emphasize the practice itself and not the particular subject or content.
  • 8. “Reprocess” is the word Paul D. Miller uses in Rhythm Science to describe how we live in a saturated digital culture. We become mediums and reprocess the world around us, through us, trying things on and spitting them back out.
  • 9. For more on this, see Theorizing Media and Practice edited by Birgit Brauchler and John Postill.
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