A Blog about Literature, Culture and the Environment

Summary of the 16th EASLCE Webinar: Cognition, Emotion, and the Impact of Environmental Narratives

Webinar Summaries

Host: Dr. Alexa Weik von Mossner

Coordinators: Nikoleta Zampaki, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (Greece) & Julia Ditter, Northumbria University (UK)

Participants (10 October)

Roberto Interdonato, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia (Italy)

Lenka Filipova, Freie Universität Berlin (Germany)

Abdelhabid Jabri, Mohammed 1st University (Morocco)

Stefano Rozzoni, University of Bergamo (Italy)

Raffaele Russo, University of Innsbruck (Austria)

Paula Wieczorek, University of Rzeszów (Poland)

Participants (5 November 2020)

Maria Isabel Perez Ramos, University of Oviedo (Spain)

Jessica Maufort, Université libre de Bruxelles (Belgium)

Hannah Nelson-Teutsch, University of Würzburg (Germany)

Leonardo Nolé, City University of New York (USA)

Melina Lieb, University of Mainz (Germany)

Timo Maran, University of Tartu (Estonia)

The topic of this autumn’s webinars has sparked such a huge interest among the scholarly community of EASLCE that our host, Alexa Weik von Mossner, has offered to give her webinar not just once but twice so that all those interested in affective ecocriticism and the new interdisciplinary research field of empirical ecocriticism which Weik von Mossner is crucially involved in developing, could profit from her expertise and gain inspiration for their own work through the discussions. This summary draws on insights and discussions from both webinars.

The webinar began with an introduction into three of the main concepts around which this webinar was structured: cognitive narratology, (liberated) embodied simulation, and (authorial) strategic empathy. Weik von Mossner explained to us the interdisciplinary challenges of opportunities of econarratology, a cognitive ecocritical approach to narrative emotion, and the important role of cognition in simulating social experience and moral understanding. Moving on to Vittorio Gallese’s theoretisation of the embodied mechanisms which simulate actions, emotions and corporeal sensations, we gained further insights into how we understand other human ad nonhuman beings through our own bodies. Following these more scientific understandings, we were introduced to Suzanne Keen’s theory of ‘strategic empathy’ which describes how authors deliberately employ empathy in their fictional texts for political purposes.

Drawing on Keen’s scepticism towards the empathy-altruism hypothesis which states that certain kinds of literature make us better persons who behave more ethically (supported by critics like Martha Nussbaum and commonly assumed by many ecocritical and cultural studies scholars), Weik von Mossner pointed out the lack of empirical research that would support such statements. Rather than relying on common assumptions, Weik von Mossner suggests, it would be more productive if we open our research up to interdisciplinary methods and set out to test our assumptions through qualitative and quantitative studies to gather evidence on the actual impact environmental narratives have on ethical behaviour, empathy, and altruism.

Weik von Mossner then provided us with an overview over key studies in empirical ecocriticism, including a study about the impact of Alice Walker’s “Am I Blue” (1988) and various manipulations of the original on fostering trans-species empathy.

The presentation was followed by a wide-ranging and enthusiastic discussion which included the following themes:

  • the challenges and opportunities of empirical research for ecocritical scholars
  • the effectiveness of didactic & ‘preachy’ literature and the instrumentalisation of literature for activist purposes
  • the need for empirical evidence to confirm our assumptions about the role of literature in changing attitudes for more environmental justice, and the effectiveness of various narrative strategies in achieving this
  • the narrative strategies of a variety of texts and genres, including nature writing, clifi, essays and popular literature – can texts that rely on simple formulas and a clear message in some cases be more successful in changing readers’ attitudes than more complex texts?

Further Reading

Weik von Mossner, Alexa. 2017. “Introduction: Environmental Narrative, Embodiment and Emotion.” In Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion and Environmental Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Keen, Suzanne. 2010. “Narrative Empathy.” In Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts, edited by Frederick Louis Aldama, 61-94. Austin: University of Texas Press.Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew, Alexa Weik von Mossner, and W.P. Małecki. 2020. “Empirical Ecocriticism: Environmental Texts and Empirical Methods.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 27 (2): 327-36.

Małecki, WP, Alexa Weik von Mossner, and Małgorzata Dobrowolska. 2020. “Narrating Human and Animal Oppression: Strategic Empathy and Intersectionalism in Alice Walker’s ‘Am I Blue?’” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 27 (2): 365-84.

Walker, Alice. 1988. “Am I Blue?”

Announcements of our next webinars will be published on the EASLCE Website and their Twitter account. Please also consider following us on @ArcadianaE so that you don’t miss our announcements of the webinars or any other events we are organising.