The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Empathy and Enlightenment: A Cognitive Approach to the Problems of Historical Representation

  Perry Mitchell

Introduction: Empathic Enlightenment

In his groundbreaking lecture, “21st Century Enlightenment,” Matthew Taylor addresses the unique global perspective of our times and how this calls for a reevaluation of the classic and historic values that constitute our core ideals. He argues that these past values were formed to achieve goals no longer relevant to our current needs and desires, yet they continue to influence our modern human consciousness. Conscious thought is only part of what drives behavior, so our current goals can be blocked by the psychological remnants of past ideals formed to achieve our previous goals. Therefore, in order “to live differently, we must think differently.” It is necessary not only to decide what we want as a population, but also evaluate historic ideals and how they apply to these modern goals. He points out, however, that while the process of reevaluation should be based on current times, we must also acknowledge human nature itself. This can be achieved through science, which gives us insight into our nature and shows contradictions in ideology; then political discourse can show us “how we need to be,” and philosophical discourse can show us “who we might aspire to become.” His ideas rely on the basic brain function of empathy that causes us to form the interpersonal and communal connections that make us the intensely social creatures we are and have always been. The major issue then concerns empathy itself and how it too can be blocked by past ideologies.

I will begin this essay by assuming the significance empathy has in the progression of a 21st century society linked by global communication as identified by Taylor. Using recent insights gained from cognitive research, I will define empathy and identify the ways in which it is limited by social and neurological systems of thought. This will become the basis of a cognitive model of ideological systematization that can be applied to cultural and literary examples in order to demonstrate how ideology originates and is then perpetuated through fiction and history. These demonstrations will support my argument that certain aspects of postmodern narrative techniques can be used toward the formation of a method of historical representation that promotes rather than impedes the empathic capacity of society.

 Empathy and the “Other”

The word empathy is used to describe the ability to perceive and share the emotions of another person. It develops in early childhood when the child becomes self-aware and consequently aware of the existence of others. This allows the child to make the connection that other people are capable of the same feelings it has already experienced. The empathic capacity increases with the discovery of mortality when the child sees that life is fragile, that it wants life, and wants to share life with those around them (Rifkin). Empathy can then be seen as the primary function of sociality because it allows an individual to connect to other individuals and become invested in a larger group.

In his lecture, “The Empathic Civilization,” Jeremy Rifkin argues for empathy’s position as the primary human attribute able to connect the world as a global community rather than a set of communities struggling for power. He shows how the range of empathy has increased in a direct correlation to the development of communication. Early humans empathized via blood ties with their tribe members, but were limited in their connection to other tribes by geographical features. When civilizations and writing formed, people could unite under a common religion. The most recent advancement  was the ability to empathize with one’s country through a national identity. Rifkin’s anthropological demonstration suggests that empathy acts as a function to allow an individual to connect with a larger group for the benefit of that group as a whole, but this function seems unable to allow an individual to connect with another group until the borders between them dissolve.

Modern empathy studies have taken advantage of the ability to monitor brain activity through fMRI machines. These studies have shown that “witnessing or imagining another in an emotional state activates automatic representations  of that same state in the onlooker, including responses in the nervous system or body” (Keen 66). This shows that empathy is not the conscious attempt to understand what another is feeling, but rather an involuntary activation of “mirror neurons” that mimic the feelings of an observed individual. It is helpful to the observing individual because it helps to “predict emotional stimuli in ourselves” (67), but also to the group because it creates solidarity through “contagious” emotional experiences. This ability to perceive the feelings of others, however, has its limitations. Keen says that we “tend to express empathy most readily and accurately for those who seem like us…We may find ourselves regarding those outside the tribe with a range of emotions, but without empathy” (69). This observation connects with Rifkin’s proposal that increased communication will lead to increased empathy, but communication alone is not enough to counteract aspects of society and brain function that act as a barrier to the empathic process.

These developments in the understanding of the neurological process of empathy illuminate how the process works and why it is essential to society, but they ultimately suggest a paradox. Assume group A is a geographically secluded group; empathy will allow the population of that group to communicate shared desires and consolidate a system of values that apply to that group, creating the identity that is group A. Group B is a population in a different location that created a different system of values based on their unique circumstances and desires, thus the creations of an identity that is group B. If group A and group B meet, there will be an initial conflict between their different systems of ideals. Empathy is the necessary function to mediate this conflict and create an AB system of ideals, but it is also the factor that strengthens each individual group identity and the perception that the identity is fixed and essential. The illusion of fixed identity increases the perceived difference between groups A and B, and this difference limits the empathic connection between them. The paradox is that while empathy is the tool to create connections and identity, identity creates difference which limits empathy. The developments in communication give groups all over the world the potential to meet, but that expands the conflict from group A and group B to millions of groups struggling to maintain their original system of values. The point in this process that proves to be problematic is not empathy itself, but rather the groups’ insistence on maintaining the original system of ideals resulting in the resistance of change. Cognitive research can be used yet again to explain the process behind this detrimental emphasis on structure through the analysis of left and right brain systems of thought.

Left/ Right Brain

Iain McGilchrist summarizes the opposing ways in which we absorb and process information in his article, “The Battle Between the Brain’s Left and Right Hemispheres.”

The neuropsychological evidence shows that the right hemisphere pays wide-open attention to the world, seeing the whole, whereas the left hemisphere is adept at focusing on a detail. New experience, whatever its kind, is better apprehended by the right hemisphere, whereas the predictable is better dealt with by the left.

The basic operation of information processing can be summarized by saying that the right brain is used to absorb new information by identifying the connections between abstract ideas and recognizing implicit information conveyed by communication. These broad thoughts are transferred to the authority of the left hemisphere which organizes them into patterns and concrete systems. A balance between these two sides of the brain is necessary for learning, language, and almost any cognitive operation. The issues in empathy occur when these forces become unbalanced.

“Without the right hemisphere, we are socially and emotionally insensitive, and have an impaired understanding of beauty, art and religion. Effectively autistic, we have no sense of the broader context of experience. Meanwhile, without the left hemisphere, we struggle to bring detail into focus” (McGilchrist). The issue I have identified previously concerning the empathic struggle between groups focuses on the overuse of the left hemisphere. Empathy is a right brain function, so as group A forms, it relies on this hemisphere to identify the interconnected nature of the population. The left brain is then used to organize these connections into the system of values that lead toward a group identity. This organization is made possible by the brain’s frontal lobe, which limits the function of the right hemisphere so that the left can take control. As I will show in following sections, it is human nature to create systems in order to relieve the anxiety felt from the presence of ambiguity. Because the frontal lobe is limiting the right brain, empathy is stopped, and when groups A and B meet, their ideological systems resist mediation or compromise. “Where the right hemisphere’s world responds to negative feedback, the left hemisphere gets locked ever further into its own point of view” (McGilchrist), causing the groups to strengthen their convictions of the individual value systems they have created. In order to demonstrate the inclination for the strict adherence to a previously constructed structure, I will analyze Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw through the lens of unchecked left brain function.

Cognitive Analysis of Unchecked Left Brain Systematization in The Turn of the Screw

The nature of James’ story and its rampant contradictions makes the “reality” of the narrative impossible to order or conclude. This did not stop hundreds of essays, journals, and books to be written that attempt to explain, through one lens or another, the existence of the ghosts, the motives of the governess, and the death of Miles. What all of the attempts that come to a definitive conclusion have in common is the emphasis on certain pieces of evidence over others and the omission of certain aspects altogether. In her analysis of the story, Sheila Teahan combines perspectives to conclude that James created the story to highlight the problem of attempting to read, or perhaps even search, for definitive answers. She suggests that the governess and her attempts to order the confusing events of her time at Bly are intended to mimic the process of the reader. She say that the novella’s “thematic readings–its sustained dramatization about what it means to read–mirrors our own confrontation with the elusive story” (393). She uses the points at which the governess manipulates evidence (consciously and unconsciously) in order to support her thesis that Miles and Flora are becoming corrupted by ghosts. The reader and the governess simultaneously ignore and emphasize aspects of the story to discover the “reality” of events taking place. This model demonstrates the effects of an unbalanced left brain thought process.

The governess, from the moment she sees the ghosts, decides on their malicious intentions. The initial sighting of Quint triggers the right brain formation of connections between his description by Mrs. Gross, the mystery of Miles’ expulsion, and the unexplained death of Quint and Ms. Jessel. The governess feels the anxiety of ambiguity upon the identification of these mysteries, and her left brain takes over to create a system to solve them. “Because the right hemisphere sees things in context, as inseparably interconnected, it recognizes the vast extent of what remains implicit. By contrast, because of its narrow focus, the left hemisphere isolates what it sees, and is relatively blind to things that can be conveyed only indirectly” (McGilchrist). The rest of the story then becomes the search for evidence that supports the system she has already created–that is, her hypothesis that the ghosts have returned to corrupt the children. While the governess thinks she is identifying the delicate and implicit truth of the ghosts through the children’s reactions, her predisposition to believe in the children’s ensnarement causes her to connect every observation back to her original hypothesis. The frame of the novella suggests that she wrote the account herself, which accounts for the contradictions in plot that confuse the reader in the same way they confuse her. “James’ story is an allegory of (mis)reading because every reader, not just the present one, is condemned to repeat the governess’ impossible but necessary effort to master a text that can never be mastered” (405). Not only does James’ story demonstrate the phenomenon of left brain activity, it also instills the process in his readers.

Obviously James had no knowledge of the left and right brain operations, but his portrayal of the governess shows his psychoanalytic identification of the phenomenon. The governess shows how the left brain can form ideology in an individual, but cognitive science serves to reveal the neurological process behind this type of observed behavior, allowing us to connect it to larger forms of left brain systematization. To draw back upon the model of group formations: if groups A and B are confronted with one another and both groups are of equal power and resources, then either the mediation of their ideals or the complete destruction of both groups is inevitable. The mutual instincts of survival should lead toward the former scenario, allowing empathy to dissolve the borders of difference between the groups. This necessity for mediation can be ignored, however, in the case of one group holding a greater amount of resources and power such that they can dominate the other group and force their own system of values upon it. Instead of melding into one equal population of people with a shared empathic connection, a societal structure composed of many disjointed groups forms that unequally disperses power among them. This is the basis for societal ideological formation that creates the ultimate occurrence of empathic blocking: Otherness.

Differance and Ideology: The Creation of the Other

The structure of ideology has its roots in Saussure’s system of semiology that shows how an object (the signified) is described with an utterance or word (the signifier). The breakthrough of this system comes from the realization that the signifier has no inherent connection to the signified. The relationship between the two is arbitrary, and meaning is only conveyed because of an unconscious social agreement that a certain utterance of noises will represent a certain object. The radical idea that meaning is arbitrary leads to the realization that essence does not, in fact, precede reality. An object exists outside of language’s attempt to signify it. (Saussure 59). Derrida takes the idea further with his term differance, which represents his theory that meaning is only created through difference. A word is only understood because it sounds different than all other sounds. This creates a system where everything is defined by its temporal and spatial positioning relative to everything else, therefore truth itself has no meaning except in the way it differs from all other truth, and all truths are then dependent on all other truths. This shatters any possibility of stability because one change in any part of the system inherently changes all other parts, and essence itself becomes provisional:

There is no essence of differance; not only can it not allow itself to be taken up into the as such of its name or of its appearing, but it threatens the authority of the as such in general, the thing’s presence is in its essence. That there is no essence of differance at this point also implies that there is neither Being nor truth to the playing of writing, insofar as it involves differance” (Derrida 297)

The major points that these literary theories provide for the existence of Otherness are the instability of structure, the provisionality of truth, and the nonexistence of essence.

The term the Other comes from the system of power set up by Derrida’s work. Just as language is an arbitrary system of rules set up by society to convey meaning, so too is social structure itself. Society is composed of a center, which is made up of the dominant power. Since there is no essence and no person is inherently of more or less value than any other, the provisionality of truth must be ignored in order to keep the system intact. Society becomes a binary system based on race, class, gender, and sexuality where the attributes of the center are defined as normal and the others are defined based on how they differ from the normal. If a group is not in the center, it is an Other. In order to justify the dominance of the center, an ideology is formed where the Other is given an essence or identity with lesser value than the center.

Keen said differences limit empathy, and the concept of Otherness directly stems from and perpetuates this difference. This shows that not only does ideology fracture the center from the others, but it also fractures each formed identity from the others on a cognitive level that stops the basic human social function of empathy from occurring. The immediate solution to this problem is the recognition of the instability of structure and truth which results in the destruction of ideology. Just as Taylor warned, however, progress involves consideration of the past just as much as does the present. Past ideologies influenced past ideals and must be reconsidered to fit our modern desires and needs. Therefore, I will address the specific methods of past ideologies in order to identify their lingering effects in contemporary times.

To demonstrate how past systems of ideologies formed and were perpetuated, I will focus on the model of the American institution of slavery. In this scenario, group A is composed of white Americans, and group B is composed of black Africans. Since group A has the resources to force group B into submission, group A absorbs group B into its societal structure as a marginalized entity. To apply the model of left brain systematization: when confronted with the conflicting forces of the desire for the financial benefits of slavery and the human inclination toward empathy, the left brains of slaveholding whites began to unconsciously create a system of reason that justified the entire institution. These justifications ultimately serve to block empathy and dehumanize blacks in two different ways: the active and passive perpetuation of Otherness.

Active Perpetuation of Otherness

The first process of justification I will discuss involves the direct debasement of the black people based on “evidence” of their natural weaknesses. This method purposefully dehumanizes them and explains why they should and need to be slaves. Frederick Douglas recognized this process of rationalization in his remark, “wherever men oppress their fellows, wherever they enslave them, they will endeavor to find the needed apology for such enslavement and oppression in the character of the people oppressed and enslaved.” As a secondary result of this argument, the Otherness of the black people is increased and white empathy toward them is limited. In this way, the institution is strengthened consciously and unconsciously. As an example of this method, I will use “The Pro-Slavery Arguments of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright.”

James Denny Guillory describes the medical articles manufactured and used by Dr. Cartwright to argue that the black people’s position as slaves was supported by physiological characteristics. He begins with a list of physical differences identified in his research, including sizes of certain organs, darkness of internal and external tissues, and the increased performance of the sensory nervous system (213). The identification of these differences alone aids in the creation of Otherness, but he takes his findings further to show how they reflect upon the black’s disposition toward slavery. He argues that the differences account for their “debasement of mind” and inclination toward “indolence and apathy” (214). Ultimately, their lack of intellect and proclivity for sensuous activity could be balanced by forced labor. Furthermore, their inability to correctly fuel their brain with clean air could be corrected with the violent application of a leather strip, which Guillory points out to be an implicit rationalization for whipping. While this active method is the most direct form of systematization, it is easily refutable because most of the evidence gathered is simply untrue. The passive form, however, mimics the process of empathy while actually perpetuating its diminishment.

Passive Perpetuation of Otherness

Unlike the active, the passive form of perpetuation does not openly attempt to dehumanize the black race. Instead, it advocates for the fair treatment of the black people while in the institution of slavery. This method is perhaps more dangerous than the previous because it implies that it is possible for slavery to be a humane system. For example, Maria Edgeworth’s, “The Grateful Negro,” offers the idea that slaves can live a happy and functional life under the reign of a benevolent owner.

Edgeworth juxtaposes the plantation of a cruel owner, Mr. Jefferies, and a kind owner, Mr. Edwards. Because of his kind behavior toward a slave, Caesar, Mr. Edwards is saved from a slave rebellion that destroyed the plantation of Jefferies. While the message of the story seems empathic and well intended–that whites should treat blacks with kindness–it ultimately acts as a pro-slavery argument that defends the institution so long as the slaves are treated fairly. The slave character, Caesar, seems to agree with this sentiment as he is the “grateful negro” from the title. As well intended as Edwards is shown to be, his discontent with slavery does not extend far enough to refuse to participate in the institution.

When told that there is nothing the planters can do for the blacks, Edwards states, “Yes, we can do something; we can endeavour to make our negroes as happy as possible.” He does not consider the possibility of paying his slaves or setting them free because, “he was convinced, by the arguments of those who have the best means of obtaining information, that the sudden emancipation of the negroes would rather increase than diminish their miseries.” His defeatist submission to the state of affairs and attempt to rectify the situation through fair treatment fails to address the main detriments of slavery. Besides the lack of freedom, even a “well run” plantation subscribes to the ideology that whites are dominant over blacks. Edwards is not operating through empathy, he is operating through sympathy. Sympathy differs from empathy because it does not trigger the mirror-effect of empathy–that is, one is not placed in the position of another, rather one feels pity for another’s emotional state. Edwards can assuage the guilt felt from sympathy through kindness because he is not forced to feel the emotional state of his slaves. His method continues to support the blocking of empathy because it supports a societal system of ideology that inherently results in Otherness.

A translation of these examples into theoretical terms is as follows: Groups A and B are separate populations with separate systems of value. When confronted with one another, two options surface: empathic mediation, which necessitates the reevaluation of goals and desires to encompass the collective population of the two groups; or rationalized absorption, where the group holding the most power (A) retains its original system of values and absorbs the other group (B) into its societal structure as a separate and defined entity. The perception of group A’s inherent dominance must be maintained to justify the continuation of its original ideological system, so it diminishes the perceived value of group B by assigning an identity rationalizing its marginalized position in society. This position is maintained by the perpetuation of otherness, which limits the ability of empathy to reveal the illusion of inherent or essential difference between humans.

The attempts of perpetuation prove to be the most problematic actions of ideological systematization because their efforts have the ability to pervade subsequent periods of time even after the collapse of the original ideology. These remnant effects become a part of the collective unconscious of a society. I will define the collective unconscious as the recorded historical and fictional texts that exist at the time to which the term is applied. This equates the collective unconscious to the composition of all past and present recorded ideas. To reiterate yet again the warning of Taylor’s concept of enlightenment: to reevaluate our desires and values, we must examine the ways in which past ideologies affect our present perceptions. To reflect upon these effects and propose a solution, I will examine how language transmits information in order to demonstrate the strengths and limits of fiction and history in attempting an accurate depiction of reality.

Oppositional Methods of Communication in Historical and Fictional Narrative Styles

Steven Pinker examines the nature of communication through language in his lecture, “Language as a Window into Human Nature.” Pinker begins by identifying the two primary objectives of language: the conveyance of content, and the “negotia[tion] of a relationship type.” In the context of a proposition, the speaker conveys a literal meaning while assuming the listener to understand an implicit meaning behind the speech act. The use of implicit expression allows for a relationship type to develop organically between the two. These relationship types are identified by Alan Fiske as “dominance, communality, and reciprocity” (Pinker). McGilchrist’s left and right brain functionality comes into play because of the dual operations of language, where the left brain understands the explicit message and the right brain understands the implicit. This duality of speech acts comes into play with dual nature of knowledge in the context of sociality, which Pinker identifies as “mutual” and “individual knowledge.”  Individual knowledge can shared among the entire population of a group, but none of the individuals in that group are aware or certain as to whether or not the rest of the population also holds that knowledge. Mutual knowledge excludes this uncertainty, and exists when the entire population holds said knowledge and is aware that this knowledge is shared. I will use these terms from Pinker’s lecture to describe the different ways in which knowledge in conveyed by historical and fictional texts.

In order to effectively compare and contrast fiction and history, I will define the primary function of both as a method of conveying the contemporaneous human condition and perception of “reality.” Fiction will operate as a method of implicit  communication that predominantly focuses on right brain function, thus leaving it open to subjective interpretation. Conversely, historical representation will communicate reality explicitly in an attempt at objectivity that targets the left hemisphere, deterring interpretation. These definitions place the mediums on the extreme ends of the communication spectrum for the purposes of highlighting their differences. Pinker’s terms are used to describe verbal communication between two people, but by transcribing them to textual communication, we can define attempted relationship types between an author and an audience. I will define historical representation as a Dominance relationship because the author uses explicit language to convey his meaning in an objective manner that commands the reader to accept it as fact. Fiction will be defined as a Reciprocity relationship because its intended meaning is expressed implicitly under the veil of the narrative, requiring the reader to interpret the meaning in order to finalize the act of communication. This generalization reveals the potential strengths and limitations of each genre: history can clearly and directly convey meaning, but this meaning is static and claims to be completely objective (this absolute objectivity is impossible considering the provisionality of truth); fiction allows the reader to create broad connections between the possibilities of meaning posited by the author and knowledge outside of text, but it fails to communicate a point which can be concretely pinned down by the left brain. McGilchrist’s research into the balance of left and right brain systems over time led to the conclusion that “over the past 2,500 years, there has been a kind of battle going on in our brains, the result of which has been, despite swings of the pendulum, an ever greater reliance on the left hemisphere.” This claim supports my idea that the major societal issues of binary inequality stem from an aberrant lack of empathy, and it is for this reason that I will focus on historical representation as the major component in perpetuating this decreased empathic capacity. In an attempt to support a method of textual communication that functions as a Communality relationship type (or the ideal combination of explicit and implicit communication), I will suggest the use of the narrative techniques of fiction–specifically those that stimulate right hemispheric activity–as a corrective for the inadvertent detriments historical representation has on empathy. I will begin with historicist criticism to identify how traditional methods of historical representation subvert contemporary literary ideals.

The Ghost of Ideologies Past: The Issues of Historical Representation

The emergence of Poststructuralism has challenged the popular ideals of Formalism by denying the existence of inherent truth or absolute meanings that the New Critics attempted to uncover in literary texts. Historicism opposed these ideals further by emphasizing the importance of historical context–a factor that had been explicitly disregarded. Nancy Armstrong begins her essay, “Some Call it Fiction: on the Politics of Domesticity,” by highlighting the tendency for historical representation to focus on economic and political events. She argues that this convention “brush[es] aside most of the activities composing everyday life and so shrinks the category of ‘the political’ down to a very limited set of cultural practices” (567). She calls this practice “unconsciously sexist.” Indeed, considering that the majority of history was written by the hand of the the dominant center, a reliance on and continued usage of this method ignores the vast majority of the female perspective. This subverts contemporary theoretical attempts at equality because it ignores the amazingly significant influences of cultural and social movements.

Armstrong focuses on gender-inflicted writing, and shows that even as the emergence of middle-class fiction writing correlates to the rise of the middle-class, history ignores that middle-class women had the greatest increase in publications. Female readership in this emerging class exploded due to the increasing opportunities for education. Furthermore, the economic significance of the rise of factory production gives little reference to the revolution in the home that placed women in those factory positions. It is now acknowledged that women had a severely limited voice and agency in the past, but we continue to work from historical accounts without questioning the bias of those who recorded the history and favored the male activity over the female. To extrapolate from her specific context of gender inequality, it becomes clear that to ignore the limitations of past representations is to perpetuate the ideologies of those times and subvert current attempts to move past these structures.

“The power of the system depends upon the production of a particular form of consciousness that is at once unique and standardizing” (570). By treating the history written under an ideological reign as the objective account it claims to be, objectivity becomes linked with the representation’s contemporaneous human consciousness. Thus, we become forced to adopt the past consciousness in order to understand the sequence of a past “reality.” In conclusion to her essay, she writes, “Literary historians continue to remain aloof from yet firmly anchored in a narrow masculinist notion of politics as more and more areas within literary studies have given ground to the thematics of sexuality promoted by academic feminism” (580). This suggests that, in the fashion of fixating on constructed systems, the focus of literary and political discussions  remains fixated on subjects known to be influenced by ideologies of masculine dominance–or more generally: influenced by ideologies of the past.

Armstrong observes that contemporary theorists focus on historical events that were predominantly centered around male activity, and this is, perhaps, a reflection of the available sources from which to gain a perspective of past realities. It is only logical that a society dominated by white males will record their contemporaneous reality from their dominant perspective. The representation of American history in the time of slavery, for example, can be theoretically described as follows. The dominant group of white males (group A) perpetuate the illusion of their inherently greater value over the white women (group B), then the black slaves (group C), and then any other minority groups. The majority of writers granted the authority of publication will come from group A, then a lesser number from group B, then C, etc., all in proportion to distance from the center. Therefore the quantitative amount of perspectives we have available for use in contemporary times is a direct result of the previous ideology, and the illusion of groups A’s authority is carried on to influence modern theorists. This illusion of authority is also continued through the narrative style of these historical accounts.

To define the traditional narrative style of historical text, I will again draw upon my extreme, generalized definition, which is characterized by a Dominance relationship where the author uses explicit language to convey his meaning in an objective manner that commands the reader to accept it as fact. These texts typically  avoid the first person perspective in favor of the passive voice. “Taking out the [first person] focuses the reader’s attention on the phenomenon (object) being observed, not the observer taking the readings (subject)” (Maddalena 181). This technique creates a Dominance relationship because it compels the reader to ignore the inherent subjectivity of the (or any) author, and trust in the implied omniscience of the narrator in order to treat the conveyed information as absolute truth. In order to communicate in this manner, the author must systematize the events of the described history into a linear sequence, which denies the provisionality of truth, and causes the reader to simultaneously systematize the given information through left brain function. The author essentially forces the reader’s brain to copy the given system, resulting in the limitation of the reader’s empathy. With diminished empathy (or diminished right brain function), the reader is unable to recognize the possible ideological influences on the author and possible (mis)treatment of marginalized groups connected to the communicated historical event. Thus a traditional historical narrative technique confuses ideological authority with true objective authority. The skewed perception of contemporaneous historical accounts transfers to the contemporary historian, who uses them to compile a modern representation of the past that, as Armstrong argues, continues to perpetuate the imbalance of power that existed when the original sources were written. Therefore, my argument stands that the application of modern narrative techniques can mediate this imbalance of representational authority.

The Shift in Narrative Ideals

Modernism marked the radical shift from previous narrative styles of fiction–namely Realism–that posed similar issues to those created by narratives of historical representation as previously demonstrated. It stressed content over form–asserting that form should be molded around the intended meaning to create a unique method of communication conducive to the specific purpose of a text. This change in narrative priorities was a major step in removing traditional literary techniques that were used simply for the sake of tradition. H. Porter Abbott identifies the modernist movement as an attempt to change the technique of representation itself. He focuses on the “garden-path sentence” to illustrate this idea.

His initial example of a garden-path sentence is “fat people eat accumulates” (206). Upon a first reading, the reader attempts to treat “fat” as an adjective, and the sentence is incoherent. He says, “that is only through a recursive effort (going back to find the right syntactical path) that we find its meaning.” The “recursive effort” reveals that “fat” is meant to be a noun, and the meaning of the sentence becomes “[The] fat [that] people eat accumulates.” These garden-path sentences parallel the need to search for multiple interpretations of an idea to find the intended meaning; something which historical texts resist. The modernist approach, however, drifts too far toward the extreme definition of fictional communications (a Reciprocity relationship where intended meaning is expressed implicitly under the veil of the narrative, requiring the reader to interpret the meaning in order to finalize the act of communication) in its attempt to convey meaning to the reader. The application of this method of narration would convey meaning in such a way that would be too open to interpretation; that is, the reader would be unable to pin down the author’s intentions because all interpretations hold equal value. Abbott identifies this weakness by recognizing that “Narratives, like sentences, can be intolerable when they can’t be parsed. Our biological and cultural evolution did not give us the cognitive engineering to accommodate them with ease” (224). To reiterate McGilchrist’s fundamental assertion, “There is a reason we have two hemispheres: We need both versions of the world.” An unbalanced right brain can be just as dangerous as an unbalanced left, and the modernist approach disallows the left brain to create an understandable order. If modernism is diametrically opposed to realism (as the left brain is to the right), then postmodernism exists as a mediation between the two extremes.

Postmodernism addresses some of the major issues I have identified is historical representation. The major significance of the ideal is that it hinges on Derrida’s idea that truth and systems are provisional. Postmodern authors are careful to uphold this idea even in their fictional narratives that do not claim to portray historical or truthful events. Common methods of achieving the representation of provisionality are to de-linearize the sequence of the narrative events, and to employ an ethics of authorship that denies the omniscience of the narrator through a focus on multiple perspectives. Through de-linearization, authors are able to convey plot without the insinuation that each event inherently leads to the next. Linear plots set up the structure of events in such a way that implies an initial event causing the next, which in the realm of possibilities could only have led to the next event. Thomas Hardy–in a theory well ahead of his time–critiques the historical narrative and its misleading portrayal of history as sequence of cause and effect.

Concerning history, Hardy wrote, “there is nothing organic in its shape, nothing systematic in its development” (Hardy, Florence 176). The idea that history lacks developmental structure is at odds with the majority of historical writings–the narrative (which is the standard medium for the subject) starts with an event which is then used as a cause for another event, which is in turn used as a cause for another, and so on. The historian who uses this method “attempts to impose order on the chaos of human events which goes under the sign of ‘fact’ or ‘necessity’” (Armstrong 39). The reason for an event’s occurrence cannot simply be explained by describing other events that sequentially lead up to it. This is because it is impossible to “estimate the intrinsic value of ideas, acts, [and] material things” (Hardy, Florence 177). The historian who attempts to do so makes the assumption that he can identify every source–every action and every desire of those involved–and differentiate them by value. This system of evaluation creates a mass of arbitrary importance that claims human knowledge as the ultimate authority–all this without any consideration to the factor of “human blindness” and coincidence.

Linearity’s inherent emphasis on cause and effect directly opposes Hardy’s statement that history “flows on like a thunderstorm-rill by a road side; now a straw turns it this way, now a tiny barrier of sand that” (176). This highlights the futility of the narrative because attempting to explain why history happens linearly is like trying to explain the purpose of the those objects blocking the flow of water when they really just happened to be at a certain place and time. The historical narrative is limited by its adherence to time, which suggests to the reader a unifying significance in time and thus a causal connection between all events. While Hardy ultimately gave up on on the narrative as a valid form of historical representation (and eventually switched exclusively to lyric poetry as an alternative), postmodernism’s destruction of linearity corrects the issues with which he was concerned. In addition, the postmodern ideal stresses the ethics of authorship which denies objective authority to the author.

The postmodern narrator is not an omniscient, free-floating entity that implicitly claims to objectively portray the events of the novel. The narrator is given some sort of context that allows the reader to identify how that context could affect the stance of that particular perspective. A simple way to achieve context is through the use of the first person. Scientific reports have moved away from the passive voice in favor of first person because the first person accounts for the possibility of “the observer effect.” “While observing or experimenting with a social or even physical system, the scientist watching can affect the system’s behavior” (Maddalena 182), so the implementation of the first person acknowledges the potential influence the observer has on the system. In literary terms, first person allows for the reader to evaluate the potential bias or unreliability of the narrator. Postmodernism takes this a step further by introducing an emphasis on multiple perspectives. The perspectives allow the reader to interpret the “reality” of the narrative based on the play between the influences each narrator has on the events of story. Garden-path narratives are also employed in a way that forces a recursive interpretation of a narrative; that is, the end of the novel can reveal a discrepancy in the narrator’s context that requires the reader to completely reevaluate the initial perception of the author’s intended meaning.

Besides the attempt to accurately portray real past events, the historical narrative differs from fiction because it lacks the frame of a narrator. Rather, the author of the historical narrative is the narrator. Therefore the context of the author of history becomes equally important to the context of the narrator of a fiction. If the context of the author is available to the reader, it becomes possible to identify possible bias or unconscious adherence to contemporaneous ideologies. This allows the historical narrative to be seen as a particular perspective of certain historical events that can be compared through right brain function to other particular perspectives of the same event. Not only does the multiplicity of view points adhere to the provisionality of truth, but it also deters the perpetuation of Otherness. This deterrence is possible because when the illusion of objective authority is dispelled, the historical perspective of group A becomes equal to B, which is equal to C, etc. The author and the reader form a Communality relationship where the narrative can explicitly state its meaning without the danger of domination, while still leaving room for the reader’s own interpretation. Thus contemporary audiences can use their recognition of the group equality without the subversive perpetuation of contemporaneous Otherness.

Contemporary Symptoms of Ideology and Postmodern Remedies

To summarize my given system concerning the competing dynamics of ideology and empathy: Human nature imposes a desire for order, without which there is anxiety. This prompts a group to assimilate a social structure and to tier the structure based on the only method of creating meaning: through difference. Because the act of systematization requires the limitation of right brain function, human interaction and empathy is also limited, causing the groups outside the center to become dehumanized by the center. This instills otherness both between the center and the Other and between the others themselves, strengthening the social structure by the population dividing groups and limiting empathy between them. The writing of the society becomes influenced by the power dynamic and carries with it an unconscious act of marginalization through the omission of Other voices. This writing carries authority from the “objective” and linear narrative style indicative of historical representation, thus perpetuating otherness beyond the survival of the system itself.

In order to demonstrate this model, I will use Ian McEwan’s Atonement along with a parallel analysis by Brian Finney. Atonement works as an exceptional example because it demonstrates ideological structure on an individual, communal, and global scale. Furthermore, McEwan implements Postmodern narrative techniques that carry implications toward a solution to the representational issues I have posed that concern the need to acknowledge and find comfort in the instability of truth in order to embrace the importance for empathic capacity.

Finney’s “Briony’s Stand against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement,” opposes negative criticism that calls the novel’s ending “post-modern gimmickry” in order to establish a point from which to start an extensive analysis of the author’s use of narrative style. This style reveals the intention of Briony in her own act of novel writing that becomes a structure around which McEwan incorporates his own moral stance on the reading and writing of fiction. Finney shows how the setting of pre-war Britain acts as a foil to demonstrate the provisionality of truth and the subsequent danger of ideology that reveals to the reader the importance of empathy and its role in approaching the reality of continuous human suffering.

Part One is marked by a theme of misinterpretation. By using a metaphysical process of narration, this theme shows the provisionality of reality and history. Briony misinterprets the relationship between Cecilia and Robbie, and the need to create order forces her to create her own fiction out of her contorted view of reality. Because her frontal lobe shuts down empathic capacity, she is able to accuse Robbie and ignore her previous perceptions of him (which would interfere with his role as a maniac) in order to place him into her system. This systematization highlights McEwan’s assertion that an imposition of the artistic aesthetic on the real world can have drastic consequences.

These consequences are demonstrated on different levels throughout the novel. Part One serves as a microcosm to the second section by showing how Briony’s actions disrupt the lives of individual people and the stability of the entire Tallis household. The scope then broadens in Part Two when the stability of the entire world order is shattered with the start of World War II. Private self-deception is juxtaposed to global self-deception. This part shows the consequences of imposing aesthetics on reality with a global scale by comparing Briony’s actions to the intentions of Fascism and Nazi Germany. Solidity in structure is shattered and truth in general is called to question.

The theme of truth’s provisionality is also revealed in Robbie and Cecilia’s misinterpretations of each other which stem from class and economic ideology. Because the structure of their society has placed them in different groups, the are Others to each other and empathy is limited. This would account for why their time at school–where ideology is strengthened–distanced their childhood friendship. Their simultaneous disgust with the Tallis’ class-centered condemnation of Robbie and their own same-centered condemnation of Danny Hardman (instead of Marshall) shows the hypocritical biases indicative of early 20th century Britain. By depicting these specific temporal aspects of society, McEwan opens the broader argument concerning the role of fiction in fighting ideology and human cruelty through empathy.

Like the title implies, Briony seeks to atone for her crime, and this search for forgiveness takes the form of the attempt to project herself into the lives of those her actions affected. This attempt takes place later in her when her empathic capacity has increased after her delayed process of self-awareness [which Rifkin shows is necessary for empathy].

Conclusion: Britain and McEwan’s Step Toward Recovery

Pre and post WWII Britain shows a unique point in world history that demonstrates the need for historical reform. Previous to the war, Britain’s dominant ideology of the Empire infiltrated almost every aspect of culture. The Empire was second only to God, and it was under this construction that the social system took root. All given roles and identities were justified by a collective mantra, “for the Empire.” This system shattered, however, when the instability of the purportedly infinite structure collapsed, bringing with it a questioning of the entire ideology as a whole. It also increased a capacity for empathy among surrounding nations because citizens were connected by a shared experience that distinguished, to some degree, the sense of otherness. McEwan utilizes this setting for his portrayal of the ideological effects and narrative techniques to remove them. The “comfort in ambiguity” that Finney describes can be translated into the recognition of the provisionality of truth; it is a call to abandon the practice of creating absolutes at the expense of empathy. Empathy itself is given its significance by implying how the events would have taken place if Briony had utilized the emotion, and also in her quest for atonement that unfolded through a reevaluation of her past and attempt to enter the lives of those around her. His mode of narration itself demonstrates the provisionality of truth, the necessity for contextual authorship, and the importance of perspectives in the representation of history.


My essay used cognitive science to support the argument that the application of postmodern narrative techniques to historical representations can block the inadvertent perpetuation of Otherness left over from previous version of our collective unconscious. The continued usage of cognitive insights as mere support for presupposed literary theories, however, would result in the same overuse of left brain operation that my essay attempts to admonish. As Abbott demonstrates in his own essay backed by neurological research, “the development of a cognitive approach would fill a special need in dealing with texts that have relocated the central action to what happens in the mind of the reader or viewer: from what it is about to what it cognitively is” (224). This is a suggestion that the continued exploration of the link between cognition and literature (or art in general) will lead us toward a method of narrative communication that can more effectively access human brain functions. Keen hypothesizes that this process  will begin with research into the effects the act of reading has on the brain, allowing for the identification of narrative techniques that most efficiently trigger empathic response. Overall, cognitive science allows us to dispel the myths of ideologies that claim an inherent difference between people because the mapping of the brain reveals that the methods in which we all think, feel, and interact are inherently the same. The combination of the increase in global communication and a reformed historical narrative style not only allows for the dissolving of Otherness, but also the end of ideological perpetuation, allowing empathy to connect the separated groupings of earth’s population and create a global system of ideals.

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