Ethical Criticism, Contemporary Fiction and Digital Communication

This is the text of a short talk I gave at Critical Studies Research Group Work In-Progress session on 26th January 2016.

The central question of my work currently is “to what extent can reading contemporary fiction help us to understand ethical questions surrounding the human being and technology?”.  It is a question which is concerned with the ethics of digital interaction and the technological object as represented in contemporary fiction, focused on a corpus of American writers, working between 2007 and 2014. Jenni Egan, Joshua Ferris, William Gibson, Dave Eggers, Tao Lin and Ben Lerner.

What I intend to do today is give a brief outline of the concept of ethical criticism, with a focus on the approach of moral philosopher/ethical critic Martha Nussbaum. Then explain some of the challenges to this approach from literary and cultural critic Robert Eaglestone. This will make reference to the thought of Emmaneul Levinas. At which point I’ll address how my project looks to develop an ethical critical approach, in order to examine the ethics of technology in contemporary American fiction.

Put very basically, ethical criticism is a form of reading which assumes a text – more often than not, a narrative, literary text – can help us to understand what it means to be a human being, and that this should be the focus of how we responsibly read as critics. We can access this understanding through carefully close reading the surface of the text, as opposed to seeing the most significant or important elements of the text as hidden or beneath the surface . An ethical critic does not treat the text as a “suspicious” object, but as something which is “open”, or an example of “alterity” with which to be engaged. A text, has a message that should be “done justice to” by the critic. It’s a perspective which has undergone a resurgence in last thirty years or so, and can be seen as a reaction to a perceived lack of ethical responsibility in the approaches of critical theory. This has seen the practice of different forms of criticism labelled “ethical”, for instance, humanist, deconstructive, or most recently narrative ethics.

This is referred to as ”turn to ethics” in literary criticism can be clearly seen today in the numerous critics calling themselves ethical or referring to the ethics of an author or text. It’s present too at undergraduate level: a 2013 undergraduate research seminar at University of California, Berkeley, focused on the debate between what it referred to as “suspicious” and “surface” reading, the latter being described as a reading practice that is willing to look at rather than through surfaces. The description quotes Rita Felski, Professor of English at University of Virginia, who has written at length about the practice of reading in the academy, that the job of the literary critic is to “respect rather than reject what is in plain view,”

I will give here the full quotation from Felski’s book Uses of Literature (2008), to help frame the contemporary ethical critic’s project overall:

…We are called on to honor our implication and involvement in the words we read, rather than serving as shame-faced bystanders to our own aesthetic response. Here my argument links up with a recent ethical turn in literary studies, an exhortation to look at, rather than through, the literary work, to attend to the act of saying rather than only the substance of what is said. [that’s a reference to Levinas, which we’ll get to later]. The act of reading enacts an ethics and a politics in its own right, rather than being a displacement of something more essential that is taking place elsewhere […]the discourse of [literary] value is neither intrinsic to the object nor forged single-handedly by the subject, but arises out of a complex interplay between institutional structures, interpretive communities, and the idiosyncrasies of individual taste.


Ethical criticism intersects with philosophy of ethics, and I’ll here give a brief sense of the philosophical element of this, before moving on to Nussbaum, Eaglestone and Levinas. We begin with Bernard William’s invocation of the Socrates question “how should I live?” as the basis for any ethical inquiry, in his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, published in 1985. Whatever version of ethical criticism we are talking about, this question, is somewhere near the centre of its purposes, in some form.

Both Williams and Alisdair MacIntyre contend that our understanding of what it means to be a human being, to live ethically, adhering to a relevant moral code, is conditioned by what is now an outdated moral language – that the complexity of contemporary society is not adequately accommodated by the moral language relied on by the tradition of moral philosophy. Williams, for instance, suggests that we should understand ethical concepts as “thick”, that is being both simultaneously descriptive and evaluative (i.e. courage). MacIntyre, working from a Neo-Aristotelian foundation of the good being located in social action and human relations, suggests that it is through social “practices” that we understand how best to live. Social relations and situations are the currency of our ethical understanding – not concepts reducible to big abstract nouns like “justice”, “divinity”, or even “good”. This is summed up by MacIntyre’s focus on the single unit of that currency: “Conversation” he says “is the form of human transactions in general […] conversations in particular and human action in general” are “enacted narratives.”

This extremely brief outline of some of the important ideas surrounding contemporary morality points towards what has been called the “turn to narrative” in the philosophy of ethics (see Galen Strawson (2004), Martin Warner (2009), Michael Eskin (2004)). So there is a double turn, of moral philosophy to the concept of narrative and of literary criticism to reading texts as ethical documents.

Martha Nussbaum is a major proponent of a humanist form of ethical criticism, a seminal moment of which came with the special edition of the journal New Literary History in 1983, edited by Ralph Cohen. Nussbaum’s paper entitled ‘Flawed Crystals’ on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl was published there, which carried out a reading of the relationships between characters undergoing ethical conflicts: Maggie’s desire to marry her husband the prince, balanced with her need not to abandon her father; her desire to maintain a coherent friendship and relationship with Charlotte, who is having an affair with her husband the Prince.

Writing in a slightly later essay from 1987, Nussbaum sees “an absence, from literary theory, of the organizing questions of moral philosophy, and of moral philosophy’s sense of urgency about these questions”. She turns to a narrow canon of narrative literary texts, on the premise that they can present unique forms of moral confrontation and resolution, drawing mainly on the novels of Henry James, although later looks at Beckett and Greek Tragedy. For the moral philosopher Nussbaum, literary texts, coupled with the clarifying voice of the ethical critic, can provide an account of social relations and complex situations, one which helps us to understand ethical conflicts in a way which is far more relevant to living than the philosophical text: “the very qualities that make novels so unlike dogmatic abstract treatises are, for us, the source of their philosophical interest.” Reading a text enriches our understanding of a particular ethical conflict, by giving us access to the thoughts and feelings of a character with whom the reader aligns. The aim of the critic, then, should be to “connect [..] observations [about the text] to an evolving conception of […] the sense of life it expresses.” In other words, the text can tell us about how to live our lives – how to consider ethical decisions, what kind of human being it is possible to be – in a way that abstract moral philosophising can’t. Nussbaum’s is a Neo-Aristotelian ethics, taking the question “what is the good life for a human being?” as its main focus, to look at and comment on the “moral imagination” of the characters a writer like Henry James presents us with. The novel “gestures toward the limits of ethical consciousness” through its narrative mode and stylistic choices.

There is something attractive about the clarity of Nussbaum’s project – that is, asking what sense of life a text provides us with, and casting light on that through a mechanism of close reading. We may think of it as what we’ve always done with literary texts – at school, at sixth form, in undergraduate literature essays. It is, at heart, a humanist approach. As such, it comes with some significant problems, especially for the critic of contemporary texts. Firstly, let us recall Rita Felski – “[t]he act of reading enacts an ethics and a politics in its own right”. Any ethical critic’s project purporting to attend to the surface of a text, to the ethical worlds we find there, privileges the ethical perspective of some authors over others. Nussbaum does acknowledge –

it is reasonable to suppose that the full and precise investigation of such issues would require turning, as well, to texts from other origins […] we will need to maintain as much self-consciousness as possible about our method and our implicit ends, asking what evaluative content they themselves express.

The main problem with an approach like Nussbaum’s, which looks to focus on “the shape of the sentences themselves, by images and cadences and pauses themselves, by the forms of the traditional genres, by narrativity, themselves” – the surfaces of the text – is one of taking too much for granted, in terms of seeing the text as something that reliably reflects situations of ethical conflict and anxiety, and in assuming that a text can reliably mean in a way that is fixed and ready to be turned into ethical commentary by just the right literary-critic-cum-philosopher.

Robert Eaglestone in Ethical Criticism: Reading After Levinas (1998) challenges Nussbaum’s very practice of reading. Eaglestone’s perspective is that critical theory doesn’t eschew ethics, but instead is essentially ethical in the way that it looks to demonstrate the ideological structures which shape human communication. He suggests that Nussbaum’s reading of texts like The Golden Bowl lacks an awareness of the “text as language”. For example, her reading of a character interaction in The Golden Bowl assumes that a particular event happens in one way, that two character definitely commit an act of adultery, when the text is unclear about this event. Eaglestone suggests that Nussbaum appears not to allow for the indeterminacy of meanings within a text and takes for granted a stable narrative truth. (Eaglestone here refers to J. Hillis Miller’s deconstructive ethics of reading.)

So how do we read the ‘surface’ of a text, but without undermining the multiplicity of a text? This leads us to a strand of ethical criticism which can be labelled post-structuralist, one that is influenced by the thought of Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Eaglestone uses Levinas’s ideas to elaborate on the nature of criticism which maintains an awareness of the indeterminacy of the text. He states that ethical criticism must understand its responsibility as a temporary “interruption” rather than a fixed final word, in an echo of Levinas’ conception of the “saying” and the “said”.

To carry out criticism in light of a Levinasian ethical appeal is to engage in, or remain aware of, the process of “saying”, over the “said” – that is, the idea of communicating with an Other, interrupting a fixed or totalizing idea, rather than focusing on the totality of identifiable meaning. It involves viewing the literary text as a version of the Other, to be read responsibly, and with an awareness that readings constantly shift and change. Garber et al articulate this influence on ethical criticism in The Turn to Ethics as “a process of formulation and self-questioning that continually rearticulates boundaries, norms, selves and ‘others.’” (See also, Butler in Garber et. al, 2000).
How to proceed, then, in light of this “double turn” (Eskin, 2004) in philosophy and literature? How might a contemporary critic do justice to Levinas’s appeal in their way of reading? My project looks to produce ethical readings of a corpus of American novels, examining the ways they represent the human within digital technology, reading them in light of Levinas’s appeal toward ‘saying’ – of how criticism should not fix an ethics, but interrupt.

I see the novels in the recent part of the twenty-first century helping to articulate a new ethical-critical viewpoint, helping to understand a new ethical environment that has been brought about by the development of Web 2.0 digital communication, where social relations are in-part characterised by an absence of face, instantaneous messaging means that people are permanently connected and accessible, and embodied action is constantly represented symbolically as virtual action. By looking at the ethics of technology, or as I have been concerned recently, the phenomenology of the technological object, we can better understand too the political dimensions of digital interaction and behaviour.

This follows Eaglestone’s appeal regarding the practice of literary studies that “criticism in the future must embrace new questions, and only by doing so can it maintain its necessary commitment to the ethical – only then can it be ethical criticism.” The project will thus contribute an ethical reading, focused on the “new questions”. I will look at how the following questions are addressed by this corpus of novels:

  • What do we mean when we say we are losing “genuine” human connection when conversations are mediated through digital forms?
  • How is the traditional conception of a liberal-humanist subject being shaped and altered by digital structures?
  • In what ways are digital devices altering our understanding of conversations and social relationships?
  • How can critique of this help to highlight broader ethical and political concerns?

The wider and more challenging objections to what I see as an imperative to read the digital are important if the inquiry is to be aware enough to make a valuable comment on the changing nature of the human. For instance:

  • What biases are evident in a reading that privileges digital culture?
  • Do such readings lean towards a political impotence or a privileging of Western cultural norms?
  • Is any reading of digital structures in literature doomed to be a reading of an isolated self, behind a screen, rather than a new way of thinking about intersubjectivity and the Other?

I’d like to finish by quoting one of the writer’s I’m currently interested in, Tao Lin, who in 2011 contributed his own perspective on what the contemporary novel is, and the ethical knowledge he sees as part of its remit. He emphasises first of all the importance in focusing, directly, on what is happening now, and secondly on another set of questions, ones which echo a Levinasian preoccupation with the Other, and with a constant saying:

I currently feel most interested in reading/writing novels that aren’t improvements on or innovations of other novels. I want to view each potential novel as already definitively and unavoidably unique, improvable only in comparison to itself and then only from its creator’s singular perspective. I want to learn about another human’s unique experience from reports they’ve made themselves […] I do, sometimes–rarely, I think–want to know, “What do you think other people are going to be thinking about in 20 years?” or “How do you feel humankind, generally, is going to feel like in 50 or 100 years?” But mostly I want to know, “What are you thinking about?” and “How do you feel?”


It is perhaps, in some form, these final two questions which the ethical critic asks, first of the text, then perhaps of the author, then perhaps of the reader themselves. It is an openness of critical thought that fits with the nature of contemporary study, a discipline that is constantly shifting, altering and changing – a constant need to be interrupting our ethical understanding with different forms of saying.