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Representing empathy : speaking for vulnerable bodies in Victorian medicine and culture

By Kathryn Miele


The project of defending vulnerable bodies, whose interior experience could only be known\ud through empathy, helped to develop nineteenth-century epistemologies of selfhood and otherness.\ud The struggles of authors who wished to represent the sufferings and experiences of others in texts\ud were influenced by changes in the understanding of perception and evidence (which have lately\ud received much attention as subjects of historical inquiry). In this project I explore the attempts\ud that were made by individuals and groups of individuals in the nineteenth century to ‘speak for’\ud individuals who were perceived as vulnerable: unable or less able, for some reason, to speak for\ud themselves. I examine the strategies by which these authors attempted to achieve a kind of\ud knowledge that amounted to sameness in difference with regard to the subjects for whom they\ud tried to speak. These strategies can be understood as attempts to negotiate the invisible (the\ud interiority of another individual) through the unseen, using sight in ‘non-sight’ to overcome\ud empirical barriers to knowledge of the ‘other’. I argue that in the nineteenth century, empathy\ud became a way of knowing, and a form of knowledge, and that the texts produced surrounding\ud nineteenth-century ethical and social reform movements are characterized by empathic discourse

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