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The concept of empathy has become central to the transdisciplinary field of memory studies with the rise of interest in witnessing and trauma. Trauma studies has raised the question of primary witnessing’s relations with the unrepresentable and the problems this poses for empathy. More recently with the growing attention to mediated memory and its travels a focus has emerged on the possibilities for empathy in ‘postmemory’ (Hirsch), ‘secondary witnessing’ (Apel) and ‘prosthetic memory’ (Landsberg).
This one-day conference will provide a much needed interdisciplinary forum for memory studies to engage explicitly with the question of empathy. To date, empathy has been pitted against sympathy or over-identification with victims of past injustice and violence. On this account, sympathy leads to the appropriation or colonisation of the identities of those remembered by those who remember them, whereas empathy preserves a sense of alterity (Silvermann). Indeed, for LaCapra, empathy may not just be a means of respecting difference but also the way in which those who remember can be ‘unsettled’ and remembrance provoked.
However, in the theory and practice of cultural memory, what do we really mean when we speak of empathy? Rather than simply define empathy as the antithesis of sympathy, how might memory studies move beyond extant definitions of empathy to open up the field of affect, identification, memory and witnessing.