2012 volume 30(2) pages 280 – 297
doi:10.1068/d22710

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Pedwell C, 2012, "Economies of empathy: Obama, neoliberalism, and social justice" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(2) 280 – 297

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Economies of empathy: Obama, neoliberalism, and social justice

Carolyn Pedwell

Received 3 December 2010; in revised form 2 June 2011

Abstract. This paper asks how we might theorise the politics of empathy in a context in which visions of social justice premised on empathetic engagement need to be situated within prevailing neoliberal frameworks. Through reading the ambivalent grammar of President Obama’s emotional rhetoric, I examine how it resonates in different ways both with feminist and antiracist debates about empathy and social justice and with the neoliberal discourse of the ‘empathy economy’ expressed within popular business literatures. I argue that, in framing empathy as a competency to be developed by individuals alongside imperatives to become more risk-taking and self-enterprising, Obama’s rhetoric reveals its centrist neoliberal underpinnings and risks (re)producing social and geopolitical exclusions and hierarchies. Yet, I suggest that seeing the phenomenon of ‘Obama-mania’ as produced not only within discourses of neoliberal governmentality but also through more radical intersections of empathy, hope, and imagination illustrates how empathy might be conceptualised as an affective portal to different spaces and times of social justice.

Keywords: affect, empathy, hope, imagination, neoliberalism, Obama, social justice

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