Dr Alexandra Kurmann recently gave a keynote presentation for the Women in French (Australia) Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher International Symposium: The Immersive Potential of Literature and Hybrid Media in the 20th and 21st Centuries (Jan. 13-15, 2022). Alex’s presentation was titled “Immersion in Literature as Other: The Sartrean Gaze and the Production of Empathetic Reader-Consciousness.”
Abstract: Walter Benjamin holds not that ‘books come alive in’ the reader, but that the reader ‘lives in them’ (‘Unpacking My library’, p. 9). In the context of worldly as opposed to textual existence, in Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre theorizes a dyadic structure of human relations through ‘the Look’ (pp. 252-302). While effecting objectification when one is held in the other’s gaze, the Look consequently prevents us from being both known subjectively by, and knowing the subjective experience of, another. I propose that the imaginative displacement inherent in the act of reading evades this end; for reading a first-person fiction narrative allows us to say ‘I’ and yet mean another. Transposing Sartrean phenomenological ontology to the textual world produces what I call a reader-consciousness, which allows the reader to occupy the space of the narrating Other, thus explaining why fiction readers present an enhanced Theory of Mind or empathy (Mar et al.). Evincing Benjamin’s conviction that we live in literature, this paper makes a phenomenological analysis of the act of fiction reading and its corresponding potential for offering immersive experiences of otherness. In a final theoretical application, I read through the Sartrean Look texts voiced by a doubly othered Algerian-French lesbian narrator in the work of Nina Bouraoui. Such an engagement tests the limitations of a theory of empathetic reader-consciousness in relation to an intersectional autobiographical narrative.