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Empathy and the Critic
October 21, 2010
Ann Jurecic, Rutgers
(4 p.m. reception; 4:30 p.m. lecture)
Casual readers report that reading is most satisfying when they identify with the characters, fictional or real, who are depicted in prose. While such empathic reading practices rarely have currency in literature departments, in medical schools, a new wave of courses in clinical practice are designed to encourage identification. Students read literature and write narratives that have the explicit goal of engendering empathy, compassion, ethical behavior, and fulfillment in future physicians. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this didactic use of literature and writing; critics of readerly empathy have long drawn attention to the risks that accompany the act of identification-projection, appropriation, and oppression. But do critics go too far in disavowing empathy? This lecture addresses recent efforts to define affectively positive critical practices that acknowledge and complicate empathic understanding.