Affect and Empathy in Select Postmodern Works by Dick, Rushdie, Hosseini and Edson




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My dissertation examines the social construction of affect and empathy in postmodern literature from 1968 to 2003. I explore the ways in which Philip K. Dick, Salman Rushdie, Khaled Hosseini, and Margaret Edson construct characters’ affects as individual in nature but social in origin through their focus on characters’ expression of flat affect, anxiety, paranoia and guilt. Frederic Jameson has labelled postmodern works as “waning in affect” by which he means that characters in these texts lack emotional depth and are tonally cold. On the contrary, the postmodern works that I examine represent the social construction of affect through different ideologies like nationalism, racism, and intellectualism that each create affective disorders and a resultant lack of empathy in the fictionalcharacters. My study focuses on two aspects of this representation: the social construction of affect and the development of characters’ empathy. I explore the social construction of affect by utilizing the current affect theory according to which individual affects are regarded as physiological in nature but influenced by the social environment. Such theory distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy affects, with unhealthy affects being associated with several different psychological disorders. Irrespective of their genre, through the works included in my study (science fiction, postcolonial fiction, or dramatic play), each author represents empathy as central to their characters’ moral well-being. By incorporating the latest research in neuroscience, this dissertation also exposes a myth about the literary representation of empathy, namely: that it functions through the sharing of affect and perspective-taking among characters alone. This selection of postmodern authors depicts empathy as an ethical trait that works by characters’ regulation of negative affect and the development of concern for others who do not belong to their in-group identifications. Ultimately, the representation of empathy in these literary texts relates to both characters’ moral compass and their redemption. These works may serve to teach empathy to theirreaders as such literary narratives may help audiences reduce biases.



Literature, General, Literature, American, Literature, Comparative