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This essay defines the notion of the “empathetic imperative” and interrogates how that imperative is staged in a number of contemporary literary and cultural texts. The essay argues that the recent fascination with empathy in academic and popular discourses is a function of prevailing regimes of individuation and affective labor. Through attention to a reality television show, film, and novels from Joseph O’Neill and Ali Smith, the essay demonstrates how empathy today is a device for managing and ultimately obscuring economic precarity in our uneven world system; the essay reads the novelistic example from Smith offering an alternative form of empathy that is based upon solidarity and systemic awareness.