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)


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