Conference Report: Empathies

‘Empathies: 11th Conference of the European Society for Literature and the Arts’, Basel University, 20-25th June 2017

By Anna McFarlane

The ESLA conferences have been growing for a number of years, working alongside their sister organisation in America, the Society for Literature and the Arts to promote interdisciplinary communication through wide-ranging conferences that take one term as a starting point, deconstructing and recontructing it across disciplines and through varied media. The organising team for this year’s conference was headed up by Manuela Rossini, a posthumanism scholar with a deep interest in the medical humanities, and an advocate for Basel, her home city, which provided a beautiful sunny backdrop for the conference with plenty of opportunities to swim in the Rhine. Her stewardship showed a programme that engaged with its subject deeply, firstly through the varied keynote speakers; neuroscientist Jean Decety, bioethicist and disabilities scholar Jackie Leach Scully, and philosopher Jesse Prinz, each of whom offered a very different epistemology for what ’empathy’ means, and whether it can be considered a basis for ethical behaviour, both in medicine and throughout society. Across the conference, much attention was paid to the arguments made in Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion and other critical engagements with empathy, such as invited speaker Carolyn Pedwell’s Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy.

As well as exploring empathy through the body of the conference, Basel University offered a number of workshops for early career researchers, one of which focused on medical humanities specifically and included guest speakers Anne Hudson Jones (co-founder of the journal Literature and Medicine), Seamus O’Mahony (medical doctor and author of The Way We Die Now), Ivan Callus (professor of literature and cultural studies at the University of Malta), and Marion Coutts (author of the memoir The Iceberg which tells the story of her husband’s death from a brain tumour). The workshops were not the only extras on offer; a series of entertainments were integrated into the conference programme, including a reading from the English poet and philosopher Denise Riley.

‘Empathies’ was a dense and fascinating discussion that ranged from medical humanities to theories of mind, and the ethics of artistic practice. The next ESLA conference is entitled ‘Green’ and will be held at the University of Copenhagen in June 2018.