Reading to understand limits – on Dorothy J. Hale

I’m starting to plan my first chapter – equal parts scary and exciting, like a roller coaster, or eating a live crab. This means I have to work out how my reading(s) of Levinas fits with my way of approaching novels – or, at least, the I think one can productively and usefully read and critique twenty-first century American fiction, works that attempt to make sense of the digital condition of language.

Technology is the main *thing* I’m interested in in contemporary fiction, but before I get to that, it’s important to consider the status of literary criticism as a discipline. If I want to use Levinas to inform a reading of texts, then I need to engage critically and actively with the recent history of ethical criticism (for a brief primer about this, see the text from my talk from earlier on this year, or, you know, someone much more experienced.)

To this end, I’ve recently read Dorothy J Hale’s consummate paper Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel. Hale writes regarding the nature of current ethical criticism, and the different ways that critics attempt to posit the idea that literature has some form of ethical value. She makes clear that this isn’t only about deciding what ethics is, but about deciding what the nature of literature is:

For many post-structuralist literary critics, the return to ethics is not just the attempt to recuperate the agency of the individual reader or author for positive political action but also an attempt to theorize for our contemporary moment the positive social value of literature and literary study.

What one means by “ethics” in this context rather depends on who you’re talking to. If you were talking to me, I’d suggest that literature helps us to understand ethics in a Levinasian sense. That is, Literature doesn’t provide us with moral rules or codes, and, indeed, might not even get anywhere near a representation of an ideal, or a good life. It’s not about learning directly from literature about how to act morally – that’s not really how we read, understand and talk about books. What I mean by a Levinasian sense here, is that literary works can calibrate our awareness of the other – they can challenge or question our understanding of ourselves, and remind us of the presence of the Other. (The problem with this, I think, is that in order to understand this challenge, we often have to resort to a literary critical language, or at least have a sense of the methods we use in reading a literary work – that’s where literary criticism comes in.)

Hale put me in mind of Levinas a lot while I was reading her articles, but she explicitly separates herself from critics like Newton who use Levinas to inform a theory of narrative ethics. In this piece, Hale outlines what ethics means for a number of writers, as well as for ethical critics of the novel – Eliot, Dickens and Trilling sit alongside Nussbaum, Harper and Spivak – but ultimately sees similarities in each ethical approach , to do with the centrality of the novel (as opposed to, say, poetry) and “agreement about the novel’s function as an agent of the reader’s ethical education”. Hale suggests that ethical critics working today are concerned with the reader as a “self-binding” figure – that is, a reader who is able to embrace and respect the alterity of the text through their commitment to limiting their powers of reading, remaining aware both as their place as judge (i.e. able to create the text) and of their limitations as a reader in being able to make ethical judgments about a text.

Through detailed reference to the arguments of Judith Butler (specifically Butler’s reading of Henry James’ Washington Square), Hale identifies the common concept of ethical criticism as centred around understanding the limitations of reading. That, if we read, we experience what it is like to have limited ethical powers, to be put into a position of not having the clarity of a moral code or set of ethical values. She articulates this as the peculiar power of the novel, that,  “[t]he novel is produced as the most independent, the most elastic, the most prodigious of literary forms precisely because it does not solve in advance the problem of its own regulation.” She sums up her perspective on 21st century ethics thus:

what distinguishes this new theory of ethical choice from an older theory of the autonomous liberal subject is the self-consciously unverifiable status of the alterity that the ethical subject seeks to produce—an unverifiability that retains the post-structuralist’s skepticism about knowledge as a tool of hegemony while bestowing upon epistemological uncertainty a positive ethical content.

There are questions about what we mean by an ethical subject – and whether those ethical subjects are also literary critics – but certainly here there is a sense that reading informs an ethics that is defined by limits, by self-abnegation, rather than a self positing a right or wrong.

Dorothy J. Hale, ‘Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel’, NARRATIVE, Vol. 15, No. 2 (May 2007)

“in flesh and bone”

I’ve been reading Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. It was published in 1974 and is seen as the main text in the development of Levinas’s philosophy.

It’s a very different thing from his earlier work, Totality and Infinity. I’m not going to jump into a big exegesis of terms and arguments, because it’s Monday. What I’m going to do is discuss just one quotation that came out of my reading today, because the thought it gives rise to is politically prescient.

Here’s the extract. It’s defining the idea of proximity. This doesn’t mean spatial proximity, but rather, it labels a kind of affective or existential proximity. Put another way, it describes your primordial relation to the other, the other person, another human being, to whom Levinas says we have an ultimate responsibility. Levinas uses “humanity” as a synonym for proximity, which might help to clarify that it’s not really to do with space, or degrees of closeness, but in fact amounts to a way of talking about something that is foundational to the way we structure our relations with people. Proximity means respecting the importance of the other before anything else. This is not because you have reasoned your way to a position of caring about the other, or because it might be good for some other ethical reasons, but because it is the defining element of our sensibility:

The proximity of beings of flesh and blood is not their presence “in flesh and bone”, is not the face that they take form for a look, present an exterior, quiddities, forms, give images, which the eye absorbs […] Nor are material beings reducible to the resistance they oppose to the effort they solicit. Their relationship with a mouth is not an adventure of knowledge or of action. Subjectivity of flesh and blood in matter – the signifyingness of sensibility, the-one-for-the-other itself – is the preoriginal signifyingness that gives sense, because it gives. 

The first thing to understand is that Levinas is writing against philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger, who in phenomenology were focused heavily on vision as the mode through which the self understood phenomena (Levinas instead says that “saying” is far more important). Levinas, though, is much more interested in the phenomenon of the other. The other is not just a self we think  of as like us (i.e. another self on the same level), or a self for whom we feel responsibility for through empathy – because, hey, if they’re a bit like me, then I can totally imagine what it’s like to be them. For Levinas, the other is an entity with which with have an asymmetrical relationship. This means the other is, in a metaphorical sense, bigger than us (he does actually use the metaphor of height). We have a responsibility to them. We must, as a primordial or preoriginary state, give to them. Levinas repeatedly emphasizes the sacrificial nature of this idea through the image of removing bread from one’s own mouth to feed the other (which partly explains the reference to the mouth above).

Put another way, our relation with another person, the person different to us, is not based on knowledge about that person or actions to do with that person. We don’t have to see their faces, their “flesh and bone”, to have the sense that we must act with an innate hospitality towards them.

This hospitality, this “alienation” of the self by the other, is described as follows:

[b]eing torn from oneself for another in giving to the other the bread from one’s mouth is being able to give up one’s soul for another.

The phrase Levinas uses to complete this reversal of subjectivity is the-one-for-the-other. To start from the self as the progenitor of all being is to create a false foundation for a code of ethics, a way of life, one that can only ever subordinate itself to the will of selves. In the very title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, we can see Levinas’s appeal against this conception of the self as having an isolated essence or experiencing Being. We should understand being otherwise; there is a better humanity beyond my own essence.

I’m still thinking about how Levinas’s inversion of the traditional ontological construction of subjectivity might inform a politics. But here’s a short idea. A way of being in the world based in a preoriginary hospitality, a being which gives, which respects automatically the alterity of the other as an essential component of any humanity, is more ethically coherent than one which assumes solely the sovereign self as a mode of constituting being.This is because the former installs an ethical component before anything else – before cognition, before any idea of politics as we know it from day to day. And  if that component is there -if we follow that modality of being which is taking the bread from one’s own mouth, rather than doing the inverse which is violence – we are less likely to cause the destruction of others in the face of your cosmically dangerous selfhood.