Session Abstract: Empathy and affect have proven rich seams for study in the humanities in recent years. Literary texts in particular aim to provoke empathic engagement among readers and often include models of empathy in terms of character interaction. At the same time, the real-world effects of empathy have been the subject of controversy among philosophers and cognitive scientists: thinkers such as Martha C. Nussbaum invests in the notion of pro-social action and transformative change resulting from exposure to ‘great literature’; whereas Paul Bloom and Fritz Breithaupt caution that empathy is a poor substitute for rational calculation and can lead to the entrenchment of existing biases.
This latter concern also characterises postcolonial engagements with empathy. What does it mean to empathise with another across cultural differences? Is there always an inequitable power dynamic at work in giving and receiving empathy? How do ethnicity, gender, class, and other factors impact on the sharing of the emotional experiences of literature? Our panel will look at texts from and of South Asia to consider how narratives trigger empathic responses around issues of nationalism, citizenship and sexuality. Topics include: how sympathy is deployed to generate empathy in a series of petitions in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century India; the pitfalls of securing readerly empathy for refugees in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West; and student reading experiences of Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy in a London classroom. In what ways do these stories complicate flows of emotional and social empathy?
Paper Presenter: Amina Yaqin – SOAS, University of London
Paper Presenter: Geeta Patel – University of Virginia
Paper Presenter: Peter G. Morey – University of Birmingham