Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Narrative Empathy


Narrative Empathy

The concept of slow violence addresses the perceptual and communication challenges associated with phenomena that seem to exceed human scale in their size and pace (too small, too large, too rapid, too gradual to be perceived through human sensory capabilities). A related issue is that of emotional attachment or compassion. Even if we are guided to notice and comprehend on some level the physical and biological processes involved in anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction that exceed the “background extinction rate” (Kolbert, 15), it is extremely difficult for human beings to summon enough emotional sensitivity to care about these and other phenomena. This is true in the environmental context, just as it is in the context of mass suffering among human beings. When writers like Elizabeth Kolbert use storytelling techniques that offer vivid settings, characters, and scenes as a way of representing complex, abstract phenomena such as “the sixth extinction,” they are counting on the power of narrative to evoke empathy among readers. The same process of producing empathy through story occurs when stories are shared in person or through film, personal testimony, and other media.
In her 2007 book Empathy and the Novel, theorist Suzanne Keen cites the idea of “mirror neurons” developed by cognitive scientists as the reason why “readers feel empathy with (and sympathy for) fictional characters” (vii). Lisa Zunshine quotes social neuroscientists Tania Singer, Daniel Wolpert, and Christopher D. Frith in her Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies (2010): “[Mirror] neurons provide a neural mechanism that may be a critical component of imitation and our ability to represent the goals and intentions of others. . . . The growing interest in the phenomenon of empathy has led to the recent emergence of imaging studies investigating sympathetic or empathetic reactions in response to others making emotional facial expressions or telling sad versus neutral stories” (181). Zunshine emphasizes here that “our neural circuits are powerfully attuned to the presence, behavior, and emotional display of other members of our species” (118).
Ecocritics such as Erin James and Alexa Weik von Mossner have broadened this claim to suggest, in various “econarratological” studies, that humans are also capable of feeling empathy for characters that are not human—that is, we can care about animals and even plants or other beings when moved by the language of story. This process results from our tendency to inhabit an imaginative space called a “storyworld” by narratologist David Herman (“Storyworld,” 569). As James explains in The Storyworld Accord (2015), imagining a storyworld “is an inherently environmental process, in which readers come to know what it is like to experience a space and time different than that of their reading environment” (xi). The work of Herman and James highlights the human imaginative capacity to inhabit realities well beyond the quotidian lives of readers, listeners, and viewers. Weik von Mossner tests the possibilities of “inhabiting nonhuman minds” (125) and feeling “trans-human empathy” in Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative (2017), determining on the basis of recent work in cognitive ethology and affective science that “we do not only respond empathetically to heavily anthropomorphized animals, as we find them in Disney animation and related forms of fiction, but . . . our biological makeup also allows us to empathize with actual and un-anthropomorphized animals” (132). Markku Lehtimäki offers a foundational introduction to econarratology in his 2019 article “Narrative Communication in Environmental Fiction: Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches.”
In her overview of narrative empathy for the living handbook of narratology (2013), Suzanne Keen defines this cognitive phenomenon broadly enough to include the possibility that audiences can be moved by narrative discourse to attach themselves to any phenomenon or phenomena that might be depicted effectively through story. She defines narrative empathy as “the shared feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition” (living handbook). Thus when Elizabeth Kolbert aspires to drive home the emotional meaning of extinction in the opening chapter of The Sixth Extinction (2014), she does so by telling the story of a scientist named Edgardo Griffith in the jungle of central Panama, who brings “two tiny blue-bellied poison frogs” back to the lab after a nighttime expedition, and it occurs to the author “that the frogs and their progeny, if they had any, would never again touch the floor of the rainforest but would live out their days in disinfected glass tanks” (22). The poignancy of a vanishingly rare species existing only in the exilic realm of a disinfected laboratory touches us in a way that that might not happen if we merely heard one of Kolbert’s expert informants state that a mass extinction is a process that will kill off a “significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geologically insignificant amount of time” (16). Other writers have sought to evoke empathy, through story-like language, for inanimate phenomena and, by extension, to attach emotional meaning even to slowly violent processes (or hyperobjects) such as a changing, warming planet, as Marybeth Holleman does in her poem “How to Grieve a Glacier,” beginning her 2018 work with the lines: “It’s not something you can hold in your arms. / You can’t rock with its image in a blanket / and keen away the nearing pain” (441).
Recent studies of empathy and emotion in the context of the environmental humanities include Jennifer Ladino’s monograph Memorials Matter: Emotion, Environment, and Public Memory at American Historical Sites (2019) and her coedited volume, with Kyle Bladow, Affective Ecocriticism: Emotion, Embodiment, Environment (2018).
Storytellers, narratologists, and others working in the environmental humanities and similar branches of cultural studies find themselves asking questions such as the following: What kinds of stories are particularly effective in evoking an audience’s compassion? Are all stories equally effective? Is it possible to represent a large-scale issue by way of a particularized story? Can narrative discourse be pliable to demonstrate trans-scalar thinking and can exposure to a trans-scalar narrative teach audiences to apply such thinking to information routinely received through the media?
Works Cited
Bladow, Kyle, and Jennifer Ladino, eds. Affective Ecocriticism: Emotion, Embodiment, Environment. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
Herman, David. “Storyworld.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, edited by David Herman, Manfred John, and Marie-Laure Ryan. Routledge, 2005. 569-70.
Holleman, Marybeth. “How to Grieve a Glacier.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 25.2 (Spring 2018): 441-42.
James, Erin. The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives. University of Nebraska Press, 2015.
Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford University Press, 2007.
---. “Narrative Empathy.” In The Living Handbook of Narratology, edited by Peter Hühn et al. Hamberg University, 8 March 2013. https://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Picador, 2014.
Ladino, Jennifer. Memorials Matter: Emotion, Environment, and Public Memory at American Historical Sites. University of Nevada Press, 2019.
Lehtimäki, Markku. “Narrative Communication in Environmental Fiction: Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches.” In The Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication, edited by Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran. Routledge, 2019. 84–97.
Singer, Tania, Daniel Wolpert, and Christopher D. Frith. “Introduction: The Study of Social Interactions.” In The Neuroscience of Social Interactions: Decoding, Imitating, and Influencing the Actions of Others, edited by Christopher D. Frith and Daniel Wolpert. Oxford University Press, 2004. xiii-xxvii.
Weik von Mossner, Alexa. Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative. Ohio State University Press, 2017.
Zunshine, Lisa. Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Empirical Ecocriticsm

The questions presented at the end of the previous section on narrative empathy seem to hang abstractly in the air, like hypothetical ponderings or armchair projects. Traditionally, humanities scholars might have wondered such things to themselves, then proceeded to produce answers based on experimental samples of N = 1. The singular experimental subject would have been the scholar herself, extrapolating from her own experience to describe readers’ likely reactions to various kinds of texts. This is what’s known as “literary criticism.”
In the environmental humanities, there has long been a yearning to understand the “efficacy” of various forms of environmental expression. One of the earliest examples of such work is M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer’s Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America (1992), which studies “the rhetoric of scientific activism,” “scientific discourse in the news media,” and “the rhetoric of sustainability,” among other practical issues related to the persuasive effectiveness of language. Carl G. Herndl and Stuart C. Brown’s Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America (1996) also helped chart the potential for rhetorical and ecocritical approaches to analyze and describe audiences’ (especially readers’) responses to particular types of environmental discourse. The Routledge Handbook of Environment and Communication (2015), edited by Anders Hansen and Robert Cox, provides an especially comprehensive introduction to the current state of environmental communication studies; the articles published there ask such practical questions as “What effects do different environmental sources (e.g., media) as well as specific communication practices have on audiences?” and “What are the relationships between or among communication, individuals’ values and beliefs, and their environmental behavior?” (Hansen and Cox, “Major Research Questions”). More recently, these and other questions have been pursued in a variety of media and diverse cultural contexts in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication (2019), compiled by Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran.
With the advent of “cognitive narratology” in the 1990s (the term seems to have been used first by Manfred Jahn in the 1997 article “Frames, Preferences, and the Reading of Third-Person Narratives: Toward a Cognitive Narratology”), a new trend emerged in textual studies that brought together empirically researched theories of human cognition and the examination of specific kinds of language with an eye toward understanding how the structures of language might influence the thought patterns of audiences. In the contexts of humanitarian and environmental crises, Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic similarly began to apply empirically tested psychological theories concerning sensitivity and insensitivity to information—such as psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect—in their commentaries on communication strategies presented in Numbers and Nerves (2015). Erin James and Alexa Weik von Mossner similarly transferred cognitive theories to the examination of specific works of literature and film in their books The Storyworld Accord (2015) and Affective Ecologies (2017).
In 2018, Weik von Mossner joined Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Wojciech Malecki in coordinating a new “empirical ecocriticism” initiative in the environmental humanities, building on existing work in cognitive narratology and econarratology and also extending the foundational work in environmental rhetoric and communication studies that began in the 1990s. This rapidly evolving branch of ecocriticism is described on the website empiricalecocriticism.com. The central goal of this work, as described on the website, is “to put to empirical test claims made within ecocriticism, and the environmental humanities more generally, about the impact of environmental narratives.” Researchers are currently developing various methodologies—many of them showcased for the first time at a December 2018 workshop hosted by the Rachel Carson Center at the University of Munich, Germany—that combine experimental design from the social sciences and textual analysis and description from the humanities. Recent works in this avant-garde field include such articles as Wojciech Malecki, Boguslaw Pawlowski, Piotr Sorokowski, and Anna Oleszkiewicz’s article “Feeling for Textual Animals: Narrative Empathy Across Species Lines” (November 2018) and Matthew Schneider-Mayerson’s “The Influence of Climate Fiction: An Empirical Survey of Readers” (2018).
Given the humanitarian and ecological challenges we face in the world today, the work of social scientists and humanists, artists and activists, has taken on a new urgency. The empirical focus in ecocriticism and the environmental humanities more broadly emerges from this sense of urgency and the hope to offer practical contributions to the perceptual and communication challenges described elsewhere on the Arithmetic of Compassion website.
Works Cited
Hansen, Anders, and Robert Cox, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Environment and Communication. Routledge, 2015.
Herndl, Carl G., and Stuart C. Brown, eds. Green Culture:Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America. University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
Jahn, Manfred. “Frames, Preferences, and the Reading of Third-Person Narratives: Toward a Cognitive Narratology.” Poetics Today 18 (1997): 441-68.
James, Erin. The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives. University of Nebraska Press, 2015.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie, and Jacqueline S. Palmer. Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America. Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
Malecki, Wojciech, Boguslaw Pawlowski, Piotr Sorokowski, and Anna Oleszkiewicz. “Feeling for Textual Animals: Narrative Empathy Across Species Lines.” Poetics (November 2018). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2018.11.003
Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew. “The Influence of Climate Fiction: An Empirical Survey of Readers.” Environmental Humanities 10.2 (2018).
Slovic, Scott, and Paul Slovic, eds. Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data. Oregon State University Press, 2015.
Slovic, Scott, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, and Vidya Sarveswaran, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication. Routledge, 2019 
Weik von Mossner, Alexa. Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative. Ohio State University Press, 2017.

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