Workshop 1: thoughts and recap

Last Saturday (17/9/2016) we held out first workshop for Ethics, Affect and Responsibility: Global Citizenship and the Act of Reading, focusing on national and regional issues and frameworks. It was a long and tiring day, but also a thought-provoking and stimulating one. Huge thanks to everyone to gave up a sunny Saturday to travel to Bristol and share their ideas.

We opened the day with a plenary talk by Dr Keon West. Keon is a social psychologist who works on intergroup empathy and intergroup prejudice. We started with a practical exercise that reminded me a little bit of the Harvard Implicit Association Test. It was surprisingly difficult, and I felt that it really helped reinforce Keon’s message about the ways in which we are programmed, through upbringing and social interaction, to see the world in a certain way. Keon then took us through a whistle stop tour of his own research, introducing us to concepts such as intergroup conflict and prejudice, contact, and, finally, his own model of imagined contact as a way of increasing empathy. The talk ended by looking at the few studies which look at literature and the act of reading as an imagined contact zone, showing pretty solid evidence that reading can, and seemingly does, increasing empathic abilities and reduce intergroup anxieties in statistically significant ways.

I was surprised at how conclusive the results Keon showed us were, preliminary though they may be. In the discussion period, however, a number of questions came up. If it is indeed true (as it seems to be) that reading a fictional text can increase intergroup empathy, what happens next? To what use is this empathy put? Some of the reading I have been doing (which, unlike Keon’s work, is not empirical in its nature) looks at the ways in which empathy, on the surface a good thing, might actually re-enforce global hierarchies of power. Marta Caminero-Santangelo’s essay ‘Documenting the Undocumented: Life Narratives of Unauthorized Immigrants’ is particularly interesting in this respect. When considering this, isn’t it important that the next step be to see what actually happens with this newly increased empathy? Why, if there is measurable proof that reading can increase empathy, are we so sceptical of this claim? We also wondered whether inhabiting another mind, as often happens in fiction, is quite the same as imagining contact with another individual. Important questions were also raised about narrative, voice, and form. I hope that we’ll be able to explore these issues more throughout this project.

In the afternoon, the group divided up for four workshops: Samuel Durrant took participants through the bibliotherapy model he has developed up in Leeds; Nicola Abram talked about her experience teaching race through literature; Tom Sperlinger discussed his recent work trying to co-create literary criticism with the Bristol-based IDEAL project; and Louisa Egbunike talked about how she uses literature and the creative arts to empower diasporic communities through the annual Igbo conference. Participants reported positively from each workshop, talking about the practical and theoretical debates that each brought up.

We ended the day at Bristol’s Watershed media arts centre, where Nikesh Shukla gave us a reading and discussion around The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by BAME authors exploring the experience of migrancy in the UK today (podcast up soon!). My favourite part of the discussion was his insistence, as an author, not on empathy but on discomfort as a way of effecting change, however small.

The next workshop will be in January 2017 and we will shift focus from the national/regional to thinking about literature, affect and global conflict. Check back on the events page for details in November!

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