Literature as an 'empathy machine'?

The phrase ’empathy machine’ was first used to describe the way that watching films can give the viewer an understanding of what it is like to be someone different (different age, gender, nationality, etc.). More recently, it has been used in reference to virtual reality technologies and their ability to allow users to ’embody’ someone else. The claims of both of these mediums as empathy machines rests upon their alleged ability to allow the viewer/player to understand and feel what others feel. This empathy is, of course, something they cannot get from their own life as they do not have the same shared experiences that the machine is allowing them to have. Thus, these tools as empathy machines are profound.

But, to what extent can literature be seen as a so-called empathy machine? Using a selection of texts, discuss how they can provide the reader with the knowledge necessary to empathise with those depicted in the texts. This could include fiction, where the reader is learning about the life of someone unreal. Or, it could be non-fiction, where the reader is learning of the life of a real person. Ensure that the specific empathetic qualities of literature are discussed. This might include literature’s reliance on imagination, or the way that written texts allow for lengthy and in-depth first-hand accounts.

The potential writer of this topic could provide an overall assessment; is literature more or less effective than film or V.R. in creating empathy? Why/why not?

  • Excellent topic. The writer may also may want to look into the potentialities of visual novels in creating this form of empathy. – Sathyajith Shaji Manthanth 1 year ago
  • Very interesting, indeed. Gary Saul Morson has written a lot about this topic, insofar as he centers empathetic engagement as the core of his pedagogy (see especially: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9781618116758-011/html ). If we want to dig a little deeper, something that I'm curious about is necessity to frame it as a "machine," per se. This is understandable in the realms of film and VR, which undeniably have a "mechanical" component to their narrative transmission, but literature is significantly more analog -- especially if we're thinking of it in terms of the "text" itself, as opposed to the materiality of print media. Though I suppose a case can certainly be made that literature is a "technology" (if we trace the etymology back the the original Greek "teche"; Foucault's "Technologies of the Self" come to mind, if a reference point for more abstract uses of such terms is needed). I dunno, perhaps I'm being too literal, and should probably be ignored. – ProtoCanon 1 year ago
  • Excellent topic. Within it, the author might also consider the different types of empathy. That is, there's a type of empathy that sounds like, "I have not been through this, but I can relate to something you are feeling." There's also a type that sounds like, "I have been through exactly this or something very similar, so I am relating strongly to your emotions and experiences, and may talk about them in relation to what we are both feeling." However, a lot of people only think of empathy as one kind or the other, so they either accuse others of having no empathy, or assume that empathy can't be found unless you have related personally to a given experience. – Stephanie M. 1 year ago
  • Different types of art, believe it literature, cinema, etc., are endowed with a defamiliarizing potentiality, meaning, they can help the viewers observe the world and the issues at hand through a different perspective. I believe that this research can be used to analyze the recent films that portray a certain group of people as the social others. Simply put, how films help us observe the world through the eyes of the marginalized and "othered". – mahdisafari76 8 months ago
  • If someone tackles this topic, you have to look at Mattie Brice's piece, empathy machine: http://www.mattiebrice.com/empathy-machine/ – ProfRichards 8 months ago
  • Literature is definitely more effective in creating empathy than other mediums. While we do get certain perspectives through movie characters, we don't get the full in-depth take on their thoughts and actions. For example, someone who only watched the Harry Potter movies probably think that Harry is a brat who never listens and is always angry for no reason. But after reading the books, we see what he's thinking, why he reacts to certain situations the way he does, and what his perspective is during all the conflicts he endures. The "omniscient" aspect in literature is what really lets readers step into the characters' role, something we don't get in film or VR. The book that immediately came into mind while thinking through the lense of empathy is "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr. We get the perspective of a young French girl during the German seize of France, a young German boy who joins Hitler's army, a Nazi party official, a veteran with PTSD from the first world war, a French locksmith who gets sent to a "work camp", and many many more. We see the innermost thoughts of these vastly different characters which makes readers feel for everyone involved-- even those we thought were inherently evil have some good in them. The ability to see why these characters stand for what they stand for, what they're thinking through all these events, and how they respond/react humanizes even the most hard-core officer. Readers don't just get scenes with these characters interacting while the plot unfolds, they get the perspective of each character in each individual chapter. As a result, we can empathize with everyone whether we want to or not. Now, I have not seen the movie adaptation of this book, but I can almost guarantee we don't get insight into the fear Wearner feels when he's around German officers, even though he's "one of them." We don't get to see how angry Marie-Laure is all through out the book, because we don't get her *thoughts*. That's what is so important for empathy in literature-- without getting in the characters' head and seeing their thoughts, we only get half the story like in movies/shows. – allysonkadas 4 months ago

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