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Cinema and Media Studies Lecture by Dr. Abraham Geil: Empathy @ Scale

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  • H.J. Patterson Hall
Empathy @ Scale

“Empathy at scale” has become a tagline for the promise of AI to facilitate an online experience of emotional reciprocity for customers of large companies—"empathy being the best driver of brand loyalty.” Rather than merely dismissing this as yet another cynical deployment of a moral buzzword by digital capitalism, it is worth asking how the concept of empathy enables such a deployment in the first place. In what sense is empathy scalable? This talk takes up that question by approaching scale as a problem of abstraction—and empathy as a privileged term for the mediation of that problem in discourses of and about the ethics of media. If the abstractions of scale produced by mass and digital media are thought to attenuate the moral responsiveness of empathy, the presumed solution is often more empathy. Since at least Worringer’s Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1908), empathy and abstraction have been caught in this dialectic. Empathy is both abstraction’s opposite and its cure. Beginning with the recent variation of this dynamic in AI, I then turn to an examination of how it animates two opposing models of empathic spectatorship in film theory: cognitive narratology (“character alignment”) and post-phenomenology (“kinaesthetic empathy”). Finally, I argue, these film-theoretical debates, like the contradictions involved in the AI scalability of empathy, are overdetermined by the mutations the concept has undergone since its origins in 19th century German aesthetics. What was initially a concept for the aesthetic experience of objects became a moral relation to other people; what first described an unconscious projection of self into things came to designate the conscious effort to restrain the self in order to see another’s perspective. This history of inversion haunts the contemporary discourse of empathy with the threat of reduction: of people to things, of other to self, of heterogeneity to sameness.


H.J. Patterson Hall

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School of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures

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