The Ethics of Emotion: The Dialectic of Estrangement and Empathy in Postmodern German Literature and Film
Why do we bother reading fiction? After all, it’s not “useful” to us. And yet there is something about fiction that is undeniably fascinating, that keeps us coming back for more. We can’t get enough of novels, movies, TV shows. We can’t get enough of the lives of characters who aren’t real, who will never be real, and about whom we really shouldn’t care.
The field of cognitive cultural studies allows us to address questions like these about the reader’s (or watcher’s) experience of a text. I have always loved fiction in all its forms, and cognitive cultural studies lets me explain, at least to myself, why that is.
But my dissertation actually takes a somewhat different approach from much of the field. Most of the work that has been done on literature by cognitive cultural theorists such as Lisa Zunshine and Blakey Vermeule has been on realist literature. Realist literature (and other forms that are its successors, such as most mainstream cinema and TV) appeal to us, it seems, because of the empathetic connection that is formed between the reader or viewer and the characters, particularly the protagonist or the protagonist-narrator. We “hook” our minds into those of the characters, and simulate their emotions as our own. We are addicted to this sort of experience, and that is why we are so hungry for fiction.
However, not all fiction does this. Some fiction, especially postmodern fiction of the 20th century, denies us this empathetic experience altogether. This is the fiction that is the subject of my dissertation: The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, the novels of W.G. Sebald, and the films of Michael Haneke, to name only the few texts that I will focus on, induce an experience of estrangement in the viewer. But that does not mean that empathy is entirely absent in such texts. On the contrary, such texts often invite a great deal of empathy on the part of the viewer - and then complicate that experience in a variety of ways.
My dissertation, co-supervised by Professors Amir Eshel and Blakey Vermeule, takes as its subject this relationship between estrangement and empathy in postmodern German literature and film. How and where does empathy exist when a text goes out of its way to estrange us from itself? What is the reader’s emotional experience of such texts? What techniques of estrangement do different writers and directors use, and how do they affect us differently? And, finally, why are these sorts of texts so prevalent in the late 20th century?
The answer to the final question lies, I believe, in a debate that is happening currently, about the limits of empathy as a way of interpreting the world and making moral decisions. But if empathy is not the best way - or always the best way - to do that, then what is? What alternate system of ethics is offered by the texts that I consider, which render glaring the shortcomings of empathy? I don't necessarily have the answer to that yet. But I think that it's an important one, and I look forward to exploring it further.