Rereading Empathy

deadline for submissions: 
September 1, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Emily Johansen and Alissa G. Karl
contact email: 

The call to empathize has become truly inescapable over the last decade.  Feeling with others, so the claim goes, is an ever more necessary counterbalance to economic and political systems that appear to no longer attempt to obscure their inexorable cruelty. According to philosopher Jesse Prinz, more books have been published with the word “empathy” in their titles since 2010 than in all of the 20th century. Prinz’s metric reveals a cultural fascination with empathy in educational, therapeutic, media, and scholarly circles—a trend that we might call the “empathetic imperative.” Indeed, empathy is often presented as a panacea for the world’s woes, offered as both diagnostic tool and subsequent cure. In diagnosing the “empathy deficit” of contemporary life, Barack Obama perpetuated the widespread assumption that more empathy yields better outcomes; empathy is likewise offered as a purely positive value that might save the crisis-ridden humanities, which supposedly know how to foster it best. As Carolyn Pedwell writes, empathy has become “a Euro-American political obsession.”

Literary studies has been long invested in the empathetic imperative, with Martha Nussbaum and others arguing for literature’s potential to make readers more empathetic. Yet Suzanne Keen, whose Empathy and the Novel provides a rich formalist analysis of what she calls “narrative empathy,” laments that there is no hard, scientific evidence that reading increases empathy. Moreover, Paul Bloom’s recent book Against Empathy shows how empathy might generate exclusive and negative group dynamics, or have the tendency to lead to irrational and harmful decision-making. At the same time, today’s neoliberal world has accelerated capitalism’s drive to commodify economies of affect, emotion, and empathy, offering only hollow or compromised versions of them.

We propose an essay collection that interrogates the ways in which contemporary literary and cultural texts respond to liberal humanist discourses of empathy; recast empathy in light of other cultural systems and contexts; or propose other modes of feeling and acting. We are looking for essays that open up alternative lines of inquiry into the empathetic imperative of the present moment. Contributions might take up one or more of the following topics:

  • Empathy in affective economies of race and gender;
  • Empathy and the human or the non-human; empathy and the humanist; 
  • Empathy in the Anthropocene; empathy in the era of climate change; 
  • Empathy and sentimentality; can empathy be unsentimental?
  • Empathy as a model of collectivity; alternative modes of collectivity;
  • Empathy, individuation, and entrepreneurship;
  • Analogies or alternatives to empathy in non-Western cultural practices;
  • The role of literary and cultural form in generating alternative affective economies. 

Our aim is to produce a collection that opens up thinking on empathy—and, by extension, possibilities for collectivity—beyond the tracks established by humanist discourses of the 21stcentury. 

Please submit a brief 300-word abstract and bio by September 1, 2019 to Emily Johansen (ejohansen@tamu.edu) and Alissa G. Karl (akarl@brockport.edu).  Full drafts of 7000-8000 due by September 1, 2020.