Empathy and Memory Studies (CFP, Conference, Birkbeck, June 2012)

Conference on Empathy and Memory Studies
23 June 2012, Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HX (room B04)

The concept of empathy has become central to the transdisciplinary field of memory studies with the rise of interest in witnessing and trauma. Trauma studies has raised the question of primary witnessing’s relations with the unrepresentable and the problems this poses for empathy. More recently with the growing attention to mediated memory and its travels a focus has emerged on the possibilities for empathy in ‘postmemory’ (Hirsch), ‘secondary witnessing’ (Apel) and ‘prosthetic memory’ (Landsberg).

This one-day conference will provide a much needed interdisciplinary forum for memory studies to engage explicitly with the question of empathy. To date, empathy has been pitted against sympathy or over-identification with victims of past injustice and violence. On this account, sympathy leads to the appropriation or colonisation of the identities of those remembered by those who remember them, whereas empathy preserves a sense of alterity (Silvermann). Indeed, for LaCapra, empathy may not just be a means of respecting difference but also the way in which those who remember can be ‘unsettled’ and remembrance provoked.

However, in the theory and practice of cultural memory, what do we really mean when we speak of empathy? Rather than simply define empathy as the antithesis of sympathy, how might memory studies move beyond extant definitions of empathy to open up the field of affect, identification, memory and witnessing.

Themes for the symposium will include:

  • Aesthetics, identification and the imagination
  • Gender, empathy and witnessing
  • Specific media and the transmission of empathy
  • The historicity of empathy
  • The politics of empathy
  • Empathy and the transnational/transcultural

The day will be divided into three sessions, each including a keynote from Stef Craps (Department of English Literature, Ghent University), plus generous time for discussion and responses from the floor.

Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words to Silke Arnold-de Simine by 29 February 2012. Conference organisers: Silke Arnold-de Simine (ECL, Birkbeck, University of London); Richard Crownshaw (English, Goldsmiths); Susannah Radstone (Arts and Digital Industries, UEL)

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