Can you identify with a terrorist? Literature brings a perspective to terrorism excluded from other kinds of discussion

Professor of Comparative Literature Kai Mikkonen studies 19th century literature, which can contribute to public discussion in the 2020s.

What are your research topics? 

I am a literary scholar specialising in English- and French-language literature of the 19th century and early 20th century, picture books, comics and other works that combine words and images, the relationship between travel literature and fiction, as well as narrative theory and theories of literary interpretation.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact? 

Recently, I have been investigating the relationship between literature and terrorism from the 19th century to the present day. My particular focus is on works where terrorists are also depicted from understanding and sympathetic perspectives, and where readers are offered the opportunity for empathy and sympathy. Empathy means the capacity to imagine another person’s feelings, while sympathy is the ability to feel something on behalf of or for another person. My research focuses on the moral and political dimensions of compassion directed at terrorists, with the aim of establishing connections between literature and the broader public discussion on terrorism.

The central premise is that when literature describes the potential for morally questionable compassion, it reflects and explores perspectives excluded from other kinds of discussion. This does not directly benefit the fight against terrorism, but my research describes the multidimensionality of empathy and sympathy associated with acts of terror differently from other research on political violence.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now? 

I am interested in new ways of investigating the history of narrative techniques and practices in the 19th century and in earlier European literature. I am also excited about new approaches that focus on fictional characters using a multidimensional approach, taking into account their realism and their various roles and functions as part of literary works.

The theory of transmedia storytelling has recently evolved so that we are able to pose increasingly meaningful questions on the relationship between narratives and the media used to convey them, as well on what happens when narratives are adapted from one medium to another. For instance, how are novels turned into films, how do comics adapt literary works, or what happens to storytelling in audiobooks?

It is also inspiring to see how data produced through corpus analysis on extensive historical literary datasets is changing the questions in traditional research and framing the models for potential explanations.

Kai Mikkonen is a professor of comparative literature at the Faculty of Arts.

Watch Kai Mikkonen’s inaugural lecture as a new professor on 25.5.2021 on YouTube.

Read about the other newly appointed professors.