In the introductory pages of Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Bronisław Malinowski, who sojourned with the Trobrianders of New Guinea on numerous occasions, celebrated the power of ethnography in these terms: “What is then this ethnographer’s magic, by which he is able to evoke the real spirit of the natives, the true picture of tribal life?”1 1 - Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London: Routledge,1978), 5. This magical art capable of penetrating the deepest layers of Indigenous existence, this supposed superpower of the ethnographer — in this case, Malinowski himself — recalls, in many respects, the figure of the empath, popular in contemporary science fiction; this “empathic” being, gifted with hypersensitivity, slips telepathically into people’s private spheres to reveal the most intimate of truths.2 2 - The protagonist in the film Code 46 (2003), by Michael Winterbottom, offers a good example. Beyond science fiction, some individuals identify as “empaths,” demanding significant sums for their consultation services, similar to those of a medium. For more on this subject, see Richard Godwin, “‘It’s a Superpower’: Meet the Empaths Paid to Read Your Mind,” The Guardian, June 24, 2017, www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/24/superpower-empaths-paid-read-mind-empathy. This fundamental and widespread acceptation of empathy as the fantasy of having direct access to other people’s states of mind persists, not without the risk of potential abuses, including those of outright projection and the illusion of transparency.
This article also appears in the issue 95 - EmpathyDiscover