This short commentary accompanies (IM/E)Migration, a piece of digital fiction by the same author. Combined, they are the output of a critical making project that interrogates literary and social empathy through fiction.
(IM/E)Migration is a collection of 7.9 billion multimodal migration narratives generated through the random selection of multiple variables. Its creation was motivated by the author’s research into empathy but also a desire to reflect on and engage with their own family history of migration. It is suggested that readers engage with (IM/E)Migration first, before reading the commentary.
(IM/E)Migration can be accessed here.
This commentary introduces some of the theoretical background to the project (section 2), before discussing the critical making process (section 3). Then follows an overview of the piece of digital fiction, with discussion of each element selected for randomisation (section 4). Full code for (IM/E)Migration can be found as an appendix.
According to the UK refugee council (2021), there were 29.6 million refugees globally at the end of 2019.Footnotes:(This figure does not include the 45.7 million people internally displaced within their own countries.) Of this figure, approximately 1% have arrived in the UK, roughly 296,000 people. While representing a small fraction of the whole, this is still a number most people would struggle to conceptualise, especially in terms of individual lives and stories. How then should a creative piece begin to respond to this ongoing crisis, and, particularly, afford understanding while not co-opting real experiences and potential trauma?
This project attempts to do so through the creation of a digital text. (IM/E)Migration, through the random combination of elements that form a set of narratives beyond the ability for anyone to read, both modulates empathic responses to the individual while forcing the reader to consider the limits of their capacity to empathise. To underpin this interpretation, I provide a short consideration of empathy as it pertains to migration, literature and this project.
Empathy is understood as an umbrella term for multiple affective and cognitive processes that contribute to an ability to understand others based on similarity but across difference. (For a fuller discussion see Laffer (2021).) However, the empathic response to large scale humanitarian crises is complex and influenced by a number of factors (Seu, 2010, 2016), with some critics of empathy (as a moral, ethical or altruistic force) emphasising the fact that we are limited by our capacity to empathise on an individual basis, subject to subject, and not with groups of people (Bloom, 2016; Slovic, 2007).
Literature provides a potential means for overcoming or at least circumventing the dyspathicFootnotes:(Dyspathy is the dynamic complement of empathy (Cameron, 2012). Essentially, it is anything that has an inverse effect on the capacity to empathise. ) effect of multiple potential empathetic subjects. This might be achieved stylistically – for example, through the presentation of intermental thought, where ‘thinking is joint, group, shared or collective’ (Palmer, 2005, p. 427), providing a unified point of connection to multiple (fictional) minds – or as an affordance of literary empathy itself. Keen (2007), in her seminal work Empathy and the Novel, presents multiple hypotheses that introduce the concept of strategic empathy where empathy is cultivated for members of a group through literature that potentially leads to changes in attitude towards the group.Footnotes:(It is important to note that there is a complicated and unreliable relationship between literary empathy and pro-social behaviour and altruistic action (cf. Keen 2007). )
More recently scholars have begun to suggest literary empathic processes that contribute to our understanding of how fiction has the potential to help create connections between individuals and the groups to which they belong. For example, Harrison’s concepts of synechdocal interpretation (2008), where the fictional character becomes a representative of the social group, and statistical empathy (2014, p. 136), where individualised experience is used as a means to engage with social groups that ‘would otherwise be understood as an undifferentiated mass’ (p.136). Further, Kim’s discussion of structural empathy, where readers are encouraged to view the other as ‘located in complex, racialised systems and histories of power’ (2017, p. 144) rather than through a universalisation of experience, demonstrates how literature can be used to challenge conventionalised understandings of empathy based on identification and similarity, what Bakhtin describes as ‘mere empathy’ (Morson & Emerson, 1990).
(IM/E)Migration draws on this understanding of different empathic processes to critically engage with the subject of migration: the randomisation used to generate narratives (discussed in more detail below) explicitly modulates empathy to the fictional subject, while the re-iteration and variation encourages the reader to reflect on their own capacities to empathise and how they negotiate between the specific and universal. By presenting these narratives within a total text that is beyond the ability of any reader to complete, the piece further problematises the connection between literary empathy and social empathy. Rather than attempt to individually empathise with each character, readers are pushed to consider the wider systems that drive migration.
This critical making project explores the use of coding, digital technology, and multimodality to create a piece of e-literature. As a piece of critical making, it differs slightly from the approach as envisaged by Ratto and Hoekema (2009) with their focus on materiality. As the output was a piece of electronic literature, understood as ‘“digital born,” a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer’ (Hayles, 2007), there was no physical manufacture process. However, I would argue this does not preclude the project’s potential to combine the processes of critical thinking and making that underpin critical making. I used the design and coding process as a means to explore and interrogate literary empathy and engage with the topic of migration.
I am also following Ratto and Hoekema’s three-stage process of critical making:
Through the critical making process, I was able to develop my technical skills, challenge my own conceptions of writing fiction, and critically reflect on the possibilities inherent in digital fiction.
By critically engaging with coding as a practice, rather than just using digital writing tools, I was able to contemplate the creation of something that would otherwise be impossible. This allowed me to interrogate the concept of literary empathy in a way not possible with a traditional linear narrative and gesture towards the potentials of digital fiction.Footnotes:(One might see this as small contribution to the tradition of the endless or infinite book.) Ultimately, despite the challenges, this was the only medium through which the project could be actualised.
When first encountered, (IM/E)MIGRATION presents as a simplistic short story, akin to flash fiction in its length, detailing the journey of a nameless individual (or group) from one location to another. However, it is through its potential for re-iteration and re-reading, a key aspect of digital fiction (Ensslin et al., 2010), that the piece begins to engage with the previously discussed concerns: our ability to empathise at large scales and the relationship between literary and social empathy.
The piece is composed of the random combination of three components: background image (setting), portrait (character) and text (action). These form a semiotic aggregate (Scollon, 2005) in which each element influences the understanding and interpretation of the other components and the piece as a whole. The text element is itself a combination of a fixed structure and randomised components, each a linguistic element that interacts with the affordance for empathy. (Each element is discussed briefly below.)
The selection of portrait and location images is designed to subvert expected tropes around migration and migrants. In doing so, it is hoped that it will encourage readers to reflect on their own propensity to empathise based on perceived similarity between self and other. Conversely, while each narrative affords empathy, the randomisation and repetition of components in the generated narratives forces the reader to engage with the constructed nature of literary and digital texts and the connection between the text-world and real world. Digital fiction becomes a means to transcend subject-to-subject empathy to consider both the literary and socio-cultural components that dictate our empathic practices.Footnotes:(Initially, there was some thought of randomizing the structure of the narrative itself, but this detracted from the overall effect of repetition.)
In total, there are 7,972,473,600 different iterations of the text, reflecting the approximate current global population. This was chosen for a number of reasons: firstly, to engage with the universalising aspect of empathy that draws on a shared humanity as a point of connection; secondly, to interrogate our capacity for empathy at macro-scales by providing the largest potential population; thirdly, to problematise the “us” and “them” distinction between migrant and native (as well as gesture to the migratory history of the human species); fourthly, to avoid co-opting the voice of a specific diaspora or community.
The volume of potential narratives encourages readers to negotiate between empathy on a micro and macro scale and consider the limitations of both. It also foregrounds, alongside the repetition, the fictionality of the subject and so affords opportunity for critical reflection on how we respond to characters and their relationship to wider social groups. This reflection might potentially lead to structural empathy, if readers draw on their own awareness of the global systems, localized contexts and individual experiences that underpin the (forced) movement of people. This may be triggered by the identity markers inherent in the selected portrait images as well as through readers’ capacity to enhance and extend character details by drawing on their own real world knowledge (Laffer, 2021).
The randomisation and number of available narratives will lead to a range of empathic responses, with two suggested extremes: 1) dyspathy resulting from loss of interest, blocking literary empathy and social connection; 2) the story forces readers to extend empathy beyond the individual characters, with the fictional subjects becoming ciphers or synecdoches for different populations experiencing migration. I now provide brief commentary on each of the randomised elements:
Header: the header for each story is randomised between three lexical items (‘migration’, ‘immigration’, and ‘emigration’). These items modulate the direction of travel and the subsequent spatial and social relationship between reader and character. It also engages the wider, often negative discourse (see Khosravinik, 2009), around immigration and the readers’ connotations of the words.
Visual elements: A selection of images were used to represent a range of demographic backgrounds (gender, ethnicity, and age) providing different degrees of similarity and difference for readers. This was a basic way to modulate reader empathy (see Xu et al. (2009)). The provision of subjects from differing demographic categories might also prompt readers to critically reflect on their prototypical conceptualisation of a migrant.
In collecting these portraits, a potential bias of representation became apparent, with far fewer images of middle-aged women, particularly of colour, and transgender subjects available.
Drawing on Kress and van Leeuwen’s discussion of visual grammar (1996), I provided variation in direction of gaze (direct and averted). However, I recognise that these do not encode particular meanings and readers are expected to respond differently based on their interpretation of gaze and the image more generally.
A note on layout: initially the elements were positioned: text, portrait, location. However, this gave undue prominence to the portrait to the detriment of reading the text. It was decided to place the text centrally.
Pronouns have been found to be hugely important in modulating empathy in discourse, for example in the construction of in- and out-groups (consider ‘us’ versus ‘them’). Further, they influence perspective taking (a component of empathy) and literary immersion (Hartung et al., 2016) and so situate the reader in terms of the fictional character and text as a whole. The variation in pronoun use in combination with the visual elements, particularly when contradictory to readers’ gender expectations, lead the reader to question the identity of the narrator.
Direction: This is a nod to early interactive fiction and the use of cardinal directions to move between locations. In this context, it connects to discourses of migration that focus on movement from the Global South to North and East to West, which are often mapped onto judgements on disparities in wealth and prosperity.
Modes of transport: These variables interact with perceptions of location (e.g., ‘boat’ or ‘plane’), as well as affluence (e.g., ‘ship’ or ‘container’) and agency ( e.g., going by foot might suggest a lack of time for planning, even forced migration).
Location markers: the aim with these variables was to provide a range of different locations (environmental, rural and urban) to problematise notions of migration being from rural and deprived to urban and developed.
Metaphoric/literal descriptions of home. A cline of figurative items are included, from the explicitly metaphorical (e.g., sharkFootnotes:(IThis is itself a reference to a line from Warsan Shire’s (2011, p. 24) poem Conversations About Home: ‘No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.’)) to the literal (e.g., dangerous place) as well as items that afford both literal and metaphoric interpretation (e.g., trap). The influence of metaphor on empathy is well researched (Cameron, 2011; Laffer, 2016) providing an avenue for connection across difference through the articulation of subjective experience and shared imaginative conceptualisations.
Emotion word: different negative emotions (e.g., ‘sad’, ‘angry’) are provided for the reader alongside magnitude of feeling (e.g., ‘irritated’ → ‘furious’). Emotions are often seen as a trigger or the basis of empathy, for example through the process of emotional contagion (Hatfield et al., 2009), and different levels of perceived emotion influence potential for empathy. (It is important to note that full understandings of empathy acknowledge the role of affective and cognitive processes (Laffer, 2021).)
Binary reception: the piece ends with a statement of whether the migrant felt ‘welcome’ or ‘unwelcome’ as a potential comparison point for readers’ attitudes.
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Download and view (IM/E)MIGRATION code (right click > Save Link As): Download Code
is a lecturer in linguistics whose research combines discourse analysis and stylistics. He is currently exploring the interaction between digital fiction and empathy. He is a research officer at Bangor University on a project examining how people can live well with Emotional AI. He teaches across linguistics, digital media and literature and is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham. As a consultant, he has delivered research for Southbank Centre, the UK’s largest arts institution, and received Santander Universities funding to design and manage student consultancies. His creative practice encompasses print and digital media.