On Narrative Ethics

Selves are constituted in, or by, their answerability before others; they acquire meaning only through intersubjective horizons, horizons which surround textual as well as human encounter. 

I’ve been reading Adam Newton’s Narrative Ethics (1995), another important text in modern ethical criticism. I’ve been thinking about this kind of criticism more recently as that which concerns itself explicitly by what it means to read critically . It usually tries to connect literariness to lived experience in some way, and will often have to define what it means by “ethics” in the first place.

Narrative Ethics comes after the Neo-Aristotelian work of critics like Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and attempts to work from a different meta-ethical foundation, one which faces the text, performing ethics through the act of reading, which involves the dual movement of “resisting” as well as “recognizing” the text, without recourse to “the totalizing pretensions of literary theory”.

To carry out his critical act of facing the text, Newton uses a combination of concepts from Levinas, Cavell and Bakhtin to support what we might call his variation on deconstruction. As you might guess, it becomes rather dense with allusion and is littered with the fragments of quite difficult concepts. There are still moments of real clarity, though, and by putting all of the ingredients in the pot, as it were, Newton has at least tried to rethink how we might conceive of the relationship between reading, writing, criticism and ethics. I’m just not sure it’s ultimately different from a deconstructive position.

Newton’s is at pains to separate his perspective from Paul de Man’s suspended ignorance, claiming that de Man’s ultimate skepticism regarding the capacity of language to provide stable meaning doesn’t account for the potential in reading to perform an ethics, accusing him of a kind of “cowardice” which stops “woefully short”. Narrative ethics “faces” a text, because it acts, whereas deconstruction “stares at” it; “[t]he question, in other words, is whether one names a problem, or substitutes for it the undertaking or assuming or enacting of one.”

Newton’s ethics, then, is defined in a truly Levinasian spirit:

[i]n the special, but by no means unusual, sense I intend it […] “ethics” refers to the radicality and uniqueness of the moral situation itself, a binding claim exercised upon the self by a concrete and singular other, whose moral appeal precedes both decision and understanding.

He also – as the title of his book might suggest – has a thing for narrative texts, especially the novel, although there is an excellent analysis of some short stories, including Henry James’ In The Cage. “Narrative situations” are privileged because they:

create an immediacy and force, framing relations of provocation, call, and response that bind narrator and listener, author and character, or reader and text […] prose fiction translates the interactive problematic of ethics into literary forms. Stories, like persons, originate alogically. As ethical performance, in Levinas’ sense, they are concussive: they shock and linger as “traumatisms of astonishment”. [My emphasis]

So if prose fiction “translates” the “interactive problematic”, Newton begins to sound more like Nussbaum than De Man – that literary texts can provide a “laboratory” for ethical encounters. This, perhaps, in spite of his explicit quoting of Levinas, and his desire to posit the critical reading experience as something which begins “alogically”. Certainly  Newton’s perspective is not that we “refine” or “enrich” our ethical understanding through reading the right texts, as Nussbaum says, but that it is through understanding the limitations of narrative, of our difference from the text,* that texts effect their ethical force. Reading – in the “ethical drama it rehearses”:

stages a “command performance,” the legislative power here belonging not to author or to text but to the critical and responsive act. The very act of reading, in other words, like prayer or casual looking, permits things to happen.

Although Newton does state that the “structure of fiction” is “not the structure of the personal encounter”, there is a sense that the critic attempts to walk a tightrope between  different influences, rather than wholly embracing one or the other. This is perhaps summed up by a further attempt to clarify the distinction between literature and persons, between text and face, one which leaves us wondering which camp Newton is really in:

The profoundest meaning of narrative ethics, then, may be just this sheer fact of limit, of separateness, of boundary. It engages us, it places claims upon us, not exactly as life and persons do, but similarly, and with similar ethical consequences.

Although I do think the idea of texts demonstrating limits is important (see Butler in this previous post) the rest feels a bit limp. The “profoundest meaning” of Narrative Ethics is an idea that, in the end, is “not exactly” but “similar to” life. We probably needn’t have read that far to understand that literary texts are “similar to life”. This lack of critical thrust might be down to an ambiguity at the heart of the project, which “hope[d] to invest ethics with the kind of interpretive force exercised by the sharpest of contemporary ideological modes of literary analysis.” This puzzled me initially. Is it that Newton tries to “do” ethics without “doing” ideology? Or by suggesting that ideology doesn’t do ethics correctly? Although the statement does, I think, get at one of the problems of ethical criticism, the sense that it’s almost always too concerned with itself. I keep feeling that ethical critics could be more concerned with saying something that returns the import of the literary text to the world in which it was produced – to do politics rather than talking about it. There is an excellent discussion of the role of blackness in Stephen Crane, for instance, using Levinas’s concept of face as skin. Newton makes insightful and intelligent comment in his readings. It made me wonder – I’m not sure of the import of distinguishing between ideological – or the political – and the ethical. Are critics able to make politically prescient comments about texts that relate to the political and ethical conflicts we recognise as important? Or do we always have to worry about our system of critique over and above that?

When we decide to do ethico-politics is when critics start saying things that matter, that are not just “similar to” but are directly the experience of life and persons. This, to me, is what constitutes the “response” to the textual “call” of alterity that Newton ultimately posits:

ethically poised philosophy probably serves literature best […] when it allows texts first to speak, to tell their whole stories, before it responds. Such a response needs tactfully to mediate between knowledge and silence, between bestowing a critical surplus that literature cannot provide itself and simply registering the fact of literature’s alterity […] an equilibrium of call and response, not blindness and insight.

But there is a difference, of course, between saying and doing.


Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 1997

*Newton does admit the similarities to Derrida later in the work. His mode of “[e]thical self-understanding” of texts “begin[s] to look not unlike differance” . He says that this “cannot help surfacing in readings which attempt to correlate Levinasian concepts with a theory of literary interpretation.”


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