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Introduction Compassion (and Withholding)

There is nothing clear about compassion except that it implies a so­ cial relation between spectators and sufferers, with the emphasis on the spectator’s experience of feeling compassion and its subsequent relation to material practice. To open the investigations of compas­ sion that follow, I would like to propose a counterintuitive view. You will see that these essays cannot help but be histories of the present: not just because knowledge always shapes and is shaped by the scene of its emergence, but because in the context of the United States where these essays are written, the word compassion carries the weight of ongoing debates about the ethics of privilege-in particular about the state as an economic, military, and moral actor that represents and establishes collective norms of obligation, and about individual and collective obligations to read a scene of distress not as a judgment against the distressed but as a claim on the spectator to become an ameliorative actor.