Archive for January, 2013

Call For Papers: Narrative Empathy for “the Other” (2014 MLA in Chicago)

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Call For Papers

Narrative Empathy for “the Other”

International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN) panel

MLA 2014, Chicago, IL

January 9-12, 2014

Over the last two decades, scholars in a variety of disciplines ranging from cognitive psychology to neurobiology to child psychiatry have made exciting advances in understanding the nature and importance of empathy. Studies of autism have revealed the mechanisms of “theory of mind” cognitive processing, in which humans interpret the mental states of other humans by “reading” facial expressions, postures, gestures, and other forms of non-verbal communication. Neuro-scientists have discovered that “mirror neurons” cause the human brain to undergo a “shared activation” when observing another individual performing an action. This “embodied simulation,” which occurs automatically and unconsciously in the human brain, may provide the “fundamental functional mechanism for empathy and, more generally, for understanding another’s mind” (Gallese et al 2007, p. 132). Child psychiatrists and developmental psychologists have gained an increasingly nuanced understanding of how humans learn empathy during infancy and early childhood, primarily through the ability to recognize and identify emotions in specific faces. Most social scientists now understand empathy as a complex relation consisting of both affective and cognitive dimensions, which enables humans’ ability to experience love and mediates the “fight-or-flight” instinct to fear or attack the unknown and the unfamiliar.

This panel will investigate the relationship between narrative and empathy. Suzanne Keen’s groundbreaking 2007 work Empathy and the Novel argues persuasively that empathy is central to the experience of reading fiction as well as the act of writing fiction. Fritz Breithaupt suggests that narrative empathy “operates like a nutcracker to crack open the [reader’s] hard shell of selfhood in order to reveal the soft flesh that all [human] beings share” (“How” 407). Lisa Zunshine explains narrative empathy as an evolutionary adaptation that “pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates theory of mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people…. As a sustained representation of numerous interacting minds, the novel feeds the powerful, representation-hungry complex of cognitive adaptations whose very condition of being is a constant social stimulation” (Why 10). In light of this inherently social context, Dominick LaCapra proposes that “empathy should be understood in terms of an affective relation, rapport, or bond with the other recognized as other” (Writing 212).

Submissions may consider diegetic empathy—the imaginative identification by a narrator or character with other characters in the text; readerly empathy—identification by a reader with narrators or characters; authorial empathy—the author’s own identification with his or her narrators or characters; or the complex relationships between these three elements of narrative empathy, defined broadly. Papers may discuss the role of narrative empathy in reconsidering figures of categorical difference—those marked as “Other,” based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, language, or any other category—as fellow humans. Panelists may wish to draw upon the emergent fields of cognitive literary studies or affect theory. All submissions will be carefully considered, but priority will be given to studies that focus on narrative structures and strategies that are especially likely to elicit readerly empathy, or those that tend to squelch or discourage readerly empathy. Discussions of non-fictional narratives or of other media, such as film or the graphic novel, are also welcome.

Please email abstracts of 500 words or less to Patrick Horn ( by March 1, 2013.