More reflections on “Enjoy Poverty”, and a Screening at Toad Lane

I recently saw and commented on the film “Enjoy Poverty”. My general reaction was being-underwhelmed, given how many of my friends had emphasized how affective the film was, and how they felt awful after seeing it. The collective experience seems to have been this: while they knew the critiques of charity work and of the representations of poverty, the film took these intellectual critiques and made them available emotionally, affectively.

Perhaps due to my philosophical training, which as phenomenological is largely aimed at integrating different manners in which the body understands phenomena (and two major ways of understanding are intellectual and emotional), I had already integrated my affective with cognitive understandings of charity work. In fact, that is what my “Charity Song” is about. Citing from its chorus,

Is it right to make it right, or alright?

When it’s too big

When it’s too big

This might be the most difficult part of the song. It means: is it morally right to undertake an action which I survey as morally required of me, or, which puts me at ease with the troubled situation in which I find myself. The “or” is an or that pushes aside the original question, somewhat dismissing it as impossible or impractical. For an analogy, consider the expression “Can you drive me to the train soon, or at least not so late that I miss it?” – the “or” functions to bracket the question that comes before it, and provisionally replace that with the question which comes after. This is the situation of charity – it is impossible, or at least impractical, to undertake the action that would make the situation right. Whether it is impossible or impractical depends on how you understand right action: if you define it subjectively in terms of what is possible for a subject, then the right action might be something very impractical like giving 80% of your income to charity, ala Peter Singer. If you understand “make it right” as actually redeem the objective catastrophe, then it is physically impossible for a single person to accomplish because it is “too big”.

This situation is not merely intellectual. It is an attempt to conceptually describe the objective situation of being put under a moral demand which you can’t meet, and in which doing “what you can” to make yourself feel as if you have met the moral demand is primarily an exercise in self-pacification and feelgoodery. Anyone who takes Zizek’s critique of charity seriously and applies it to the concrete situations in which they themselves are caught in this paradox will experience emotional strife.

The strength of “Enjoy Poverty” might be, however, in its ability to represent the hypocricy in charity work without moving through an intellectual structure. Rather than describing the situation, he enacts it in such a way that the situation is revealed to you emotionally. This revelation will be nothing new if you have already experienced the unity of the intellectual critique and emotional affect of the paradox of charity, but if for you the intellectual critique of charity was just so many abstract concepts, then this work will shock and awe you.

In the interest of sharing perspectives on this work, I am hosting a screening at Toad Lane on tuesday at 8pm. You can see the details here on the facebook page.


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