Digitally Mediated Communication as Caliban’s Face In The Mirror* (*or ‘On The Screen’ if you want a tidy pun, but it feels wrong and naff -ah –OR “All readings are cacophony until they are quieted”

Strikes me that the anxiety about digitally mediated communication that is explained as “someone just being able to switch off the conversation at any time” is a dissimulation of a truth of what is appealed to as liberal discourse when said discourse happens in physical proximity (i.e. as dialogue, or conversation). What I mean is, worrying that people can control online discourse and end conversations if they don’t like them is really a worry about who has access to behaviours which express power in discourse. Because in online spaces, (often only temporarily, mind) voices can exist in equal magnitude, or volume. The sound metaphor makes more sense  I think.

Politicians, for example, have always committed a rhetorical “switching off” of engagement in sanctioned speech whenever they don’t want to answer a question. It is mocked sometimes, perhaps ridiculed or laughed at. But it’s still, arguably, accepted, and still performs a similar social role to the closing of a chat window.  Insert your favourite example: Men talk over women – it is sanctioned by whatever can be squeezed under the umbrella of rational debate. If it happens the other way round the woman is labelled otherwise (“You’re an agitator! A feminazi! Bossy! Nasty!”) Managers ignore the voices of workers, because in their ears the obvious pulse of capital keeps going. It comes down to what you choose to label as noise. I know none of this is new, I’m just saying it again, I was thinking it all again just now – ways of thinking never complete though do they?? they have to keep-

I’d suggest that the notion that technologies of digital mediation create novel conditions for denying discourse, that lots of people are readily using their positions online to create spaces which are hermetically sealed from conflict, opposing views etc is an argument used to fog up the actual conditions of discourse in the liberal state. It’s not like any online space is a playground of joyful agreement, even those which are supposed ideologically homogeneous. And anyway, people looking to find a form of political/ideological agreement in their everyday encounters is hardly a new thing – you do it every fucking day and always did, especially in physical/material/this person in front of me ways. If you don’t like what somebody’s saying and you’re more powerful or privileged, it is in fact very easy to find ways of silencing those people, either literally or by questioning the validity of their speech. And this especially in ssspoken disccourssse! The notion that a prelapsarian world of well-informed citizens and equal and honest debate existed “before the Internet came along” is not only a laughable idea but a dangerous one, because it is used to implicitly validate the silencing of voices (“Don’t listen to anything you read online”; the obstructions and insults directed at any proponent of third wave feminism; “discourse online is uncivil”; online communities are weird; “you can’t have friends you’ve never met in person that’s weird”; “we need to have a proper face-to-face conversation about this” etc etc –  – I know I know there are problems with this position as a total one, we have to have to challenge the voice which does violence, I’m not trying to suggest some hierarchy of communicative practices. Quite the opposite.)

Modes of digital mediation shows Caliban his face in the mirror –(on the fourth draft read though I feel weird about this loaded/clichéd image but don’t want to take it out for fear of disturbing the sound of the whole thing) -anyway anway- digital mediation shows calibanhisfaceinthemirror by granting some measure of equality (in a micro sense, facebook messenger is not communism) in the control of the on/off status of discourse, the ability to sanction or reject speech, to those who would be otherwise marginalised. When this new (albeit limited) power is lived, performed or acted upon by those in a less powerful position, it upsets those who are better able to perform the physical, spoken on/off discourse. (See: the gendered reaction to a woman opening up challenging or radical positions on Twitter) So the claim starts off that digitally mediated discourse is somehow invalid discourse, because of the uncertainty involved in communication, that lots of people involved in discourse have some ability to perform speech with an equal voice which makes it… cacophonous. Or it goes further, and the very idea of its invalidity is used to further justify a mediated silencing (deleting comments or posts) or what might be called switching-off behaviours (derailing arguments/abuse/long comments designed to finalize and make certain i.e. to indicate by magnitude what kind of speech matters or is allowed).

Aside, can it be said that cacophony exists to be critically thought through or with? All readings are cacophony until they are quieted. When and where do you choose to plug your ears and does your body allow you to plug your ears? Good for you.

The latest example of the naked attempt by power to silence, Trump’s banning of selected news organisations from the White House press briefing, could be read in the context of the above. It is a grab for the power-over-discourse where it can still be unambiguously  enacted: a physical location.

If somebody is uncomfortable with the ambiguity of discourse on the internet, or looks to establish a particular form of order on a particular form of mediated speech, it is not due to the novel conditions of speech allowed by those digital technologies. It is due to the person who desires to sanction or silence the speech of others – others whose equality with their voice disturbs them.

The function of the click and Virtual/Virtue Ethics

I can… click away from a friend’s blog, without the price that must be paid for physically turning away from a face-to-face conversation.

This quote is from Shannon Vallor’s work on social networking and ethics (see Social Networking Technology and the Virtues, Ethics and Information Technology, 12 (2): 157-70 . Vallor  has written the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for this subject – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-social-networking/). Charles Ess refers to it in Digital Media Ethics (2014), which is a textbook I’ve been reading the last couple of days. The context is a discussion of how virtue ethics provides a relevant ethical framework for thinking about moral actions in digitally-mediated encounters. It’s got me thinking about the click as a mechanism, but also as a symbol. It is one of the concepts which works as a shorthand for activity online, and as such deserves a bit of deconstruction.

The “click” is constantly referred to in works which ask what the ethical significance of digital interaction is. There is a sense in the reference to the “click” that online activity is bounded by it, defined by it, and that to “click” is often a careless, or ethically weightless, action. To privilege the ‘click’ in descriptions of the ethics of online activity I think does two things. Firstly, it establishes a digital dualism, the notion that online or immaterial activity is experientially and morally separate from offline or material activity. In emphasizing this particular interface effect (we need to click to work the ubiquitous interface of the computer operating system) the ethical discussion focuses not on the relational nature of the encounter between a user and the interface, but only on the mechanism which allows us to navigate it. In reality, online activity has become extremely complex, and is not easily disentangled from the rest of lived experience; indeed, it is a huge portion of everyday activity in many societies. Focusing on only one albeit significant element of that activity, the mouse, means that the description of such complex textual activities as reading, replying, messaging, typing and retyping, composing, is reduced. Language and relationality is erased in an ethical discussion which puts the “click” in the foreground. The function of the click has become simultaneously the motif of instantaneity and of the apparent ethical ephemerality of digital interaction.

To say a click is not the same as turning your face to another person is perhaps not too hard to argue. But if so, at the same time it must be acknowledged that “clicking away” is not the same as turning your face away from someone. The click is a function of intention, which has to be seen as just one element of the mediated encounters between people via digital interfaces. Just because the function which allows me to traverse the interface is near-instantaneous, and relies on an embodied movement which is getting more effortless (we now tap, swipe, even look at the interface to create action) does not mean that the textual ends of that function are defined by the same apparent lack of friction. The reading of the click as a somehow ethically hollowed-out function or an a-ethical procedure relies on the notion that online activity is somehow divorced from offline activity. To put this in the context of the initial quotation, my friend will know if I have not read their blog post (or if I disagree with it) when they ask me next time we meet, or when they message me asking what I thought. There are questions here about how people pay attention to other people online, and how friendship is similar-but-different in mediation via and interface. But the answers to these should understand that the click is a surface element, a nexus in which disparate elements temporarily merge: the affordances provided by the interface, the intentions of the person(s) interacting via the interface, and the variety of embodied actions which communicates such intention (typing, looking, navigating and re-navigating, linking, posting, sharing). If the click is to be thought of as an ethical act, it must be considered in the context of the interface before the context of the face-to-face. In other words, it must be viewed as a component of virtual ethics before it is considered a practice for virtue ethics.

“The Nation-state deals in bodies”: Blood Sacrifice, (Digital) Textuality, and memes

I’ve been reading Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technology by Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas. It’s a collection from 2004 which contains a really diverse set of work on technology, politics and society. The piece in it that has really stayed with me, and kept cropping up in my thinking this week, is Carolyn Marvin’s Peaceable Kingdoms and New Information Technologies. Marvin’s main argument is that digital forms of communication don’t have the power to reconfigure borders, or to challenge the basis of institutionalized power, because they are bloodless. Nation-states have always been founded on the sacrifice of blood – war – in order to establish communities. The imagined communities of nationhood, she states, citing Benedict Anderson, need some bond to imagine before they can start imagining, thinking and writing about it. Marvin views the essential catalyst of national community as the letting of blood from the body, the death of citizens in defense of the nation, because it is this which is the foundation of a national bond.

Marvin has written extensively on this concept before (see her and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifice and The Nation) but here the discussion is focused on the relation of digital forms to the nation state.  Marvin focuses on the difference between textuality and embodiment, with the later being constructed as the hallowed face-to-face that is seen as a tangibly different mode of communicating. “At the level of lived existence, social structure is visibly anchored by conventions of proper social distance in face-to-face exchanges between persons of similar or different statuses.” The face is the thing which keeps people together, and also the thing which establishes the “proper” distance of social behaviour. I won’t go into the Face as a theoretical/theological concept here, but certainly it’s at the foundation of Marvin’s argument about nation states – that proximity to blood sacrifice is the embodied situation which makes the imagining of nation-state by the citizen possible:

Nation-states are not simply well-coordinated daydreams of language and information. They are communities of moral obligation whose members’ bodies are committed to mutual common defense
[…]
Where connections are attenuated by distance and mediated through texts – in the sprawling industrialized nations where readers of this essay are likely to live – ties of compelling psychological and social power must be generated in the absence of physically intimate bonds that unite members of face-to-face communities.

That “moral obligation” is manifest in contrasting ways: see the UK in these recent weeks after the EU referendum. Hate crimes are forms of extremely reductive “mutual common defense”, based on a crude moral obligation that is about justifying the sacrifice of the nation: You’re not allowed to share in our sacrifice, because it’s impossible that you spill your blood for the nation – because it’s the wrong blood – so fuck off back to your own national sacrificial altar. In reality, it is refugees and stateless peoples who are the sacrificial fodder upon which nation-states subsist.

The second part of the above quotation is what refutes the power of the digital text, the text which is defined by the distances between those who read it and the mediation of the platforms through which it is experienced. There’s an assumption by Marvin, I think, about the efficacy of texts through their sharing, in that the text which is digital can be shared, but such a mechanism doesn’t automatically come with the presence of the face. The giving of a book, or leaflet, or pamphlet, in-person, comes with the face always there.

For Marvin, digital communities can’t challenge the imagined communities of nation-states, because “digital texts are abstracted from the bodies that produce and receive them […] they are endlessly duplicated and effortlessly distributed.” The body, the site of power for the nation state, is “the real treasure of the community”. “Texts can recall stuff” but don’t have “real bodies to back them, as gold backs currency”. Taking Marvin’s argument further, she seems to suggest there is an effortlessness, a lack of friction, in the digital (we have to ask what the nature of that “abstraction” is). I would suggest this is not a lack of embodiment, because all digital acts are first of all embodied acts, but currently could be seen as a lack of the trace or signifier of embodiment? Which means that digital acts lack the ethical weight of the body? My thinking isn’t clear here. I’m just not sure it’s as easy as saying textual/digital = abstract, body/blood = real, but by this I don’t necessarily mean to refute the idea the nation state deals in bodies.

Toward the end of the essay, Marvin suggests that digital networks, or other forms of textuality, might one day challenge the nation-state, but only when there is a path from abstracted digital texts to the body, one which will be established through violence:

The more citizens are strangers, the more dramatic and compelling – the more violent – must be the rituals that elicit their willingness to sacrifice despite (and frequently in defiance of) family, religion, and other body-based affiliations that compete for moral supremacy and have the capacity to derail or destroy national purpose.

I’m not going to think through the above in detail here, because I’m running out of time and this is already a bit long, but Marvin’s thoughts made me think of a recent piece by Aria Dean. It examines memes and blackness, and was published in a new magazine dealing with the nature of digital forms, Real Life. Discussing the bodiless nature of memes, Dean refers to the artist Hannah Black’s comments about modernity and embodiment:

We use words like modern and contemporary to signal changes in the arrangement of meaning of images. But I wonder if we could put more pressure on these apparent novelties if we could situate the present in this long history of circulating bodies.

This circulation of bodies is linked by Dean to the Middle Passage: “From the Middle Passage onward, we have been in circulation — shipped as goods to the new world, circulated throughout the Americas as labor, circulating ourselves as fugitives.”

Memes, though – perhaps the ultimate digital text – are posited in this piece as engines of movement which create a network which is beyond the state: “[t]he meme moves so quickly and unpredictably as to establish a state(lessness?)”. This boundlessness, this metaphysical rejection of the border, means that “[f]or blackness, the meme could be a way of further figuring an existence that spills over the bounds of the body, a homecoming into our homelessness.” You’ll have to go read the piece, but it seems that some digital forms, such as the meme, are no longer as abstracted from the nature of the body, and bodily sacrifice, as might initially be the case.

“Fantasmic Digital Insularity” – Jonathan Crary’s 24/7

While zipping up to Lincoln and back last week for What Happens Now, I’ve been getting in a bit of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 (thank Gari). It’s a book that’s been on my “must get round to reading that” list for months. I’m talking mainly about the second chapter here, although there are some general comments about the work as a whole.

Crary’s main thesis is that the concept of 24/7 is the dominant aspect of present-day capitalism, and that this should be central to critical thought about the control structures of the twenty-first century. It’s an emotional and intelligent polemic, given to poetic and arresting claims: “[a]n illuminated 24/7 world” is one “without shadows” – “the final capitalist mirage of post-history, of an exorcism of the otherness that is the motor of historical change.”  Crary’s reading is politically-driven and motivated by a desire to emphasize the ideological violence at the heart of a 24/7 world.

The main issues defining contemporary living are contained in the fact that present-day capitalism must ultimately see sleep as an affront to its ideological workings. The 24/7 society is, as it were, always on, and as such temporal boundaries become blurred. It undermines distinctions “between action and repose” creating “a zone of insensibility, of amnesia, of what defeats the possibility of experience “. This reminded me of Paul Virilio, and certainly there’s a lot of overlap here in thinking about his concept of “accelerated reality” or “electronic optics”. Beware, says Crary, it is not the tech devices themselves, but the structures of experience which they permit that contain the substance of control:

The idea of technological change as quasi-autonomous, driven by some process of auto-poesis or self-organization, allows many aspects of contemporary social reality to be accepted as necessary, unalterable circumstances, akin to facts of nature [as well as the] [c]oncealment of the most important techniques invented in the last 150 years: the various systems for the management and control of human beings.

Certainly this kind of critical perspective is important during a period where there is an incessant digitizing throughout post-industrial – or in Bernard Stiegler’s words, quoted by Crary, hyperindustrial – society. He emphasizes that digital products are given a constantly regenerating veneer of novelty, in order to promote a form of “self-administration” which ultimately results in the individual becoming an application for processes and controls. There is a lot to nod along to when reading this appraisal of digital products, although we might want to remove the word “exclusive” from the following:

There is an ever closer linking of individual needs with the functional and ideological programs in which each new product is embedded. “Products” are hardly just devices or physical apparatuses, but various services and interconnections that quickly become the dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality.

This does bring us to one of the problems with Crary’s argumentation. He suggests that one of the central problems with writing about new media is that it puts its focus in the wrong place, on the devices and products themselves, “the particular operation and effects of specific new machines or networks”. More important for him are questions about “how the rhythms, speeds, and formats of accelerated and intensified consumption are reshaping experience and perception.” This lapse into generality causes some problems later in the chapter, as well as pointing clearly away from the more convincing political reading of technological structures towards something like Heidegger’s essence of technology.

The main issue is that Crary then makes reference to specific concepts of digital experience – internet pornography, online gambling and video gaming – which arguably require a focus on the specific devices of consumption in order to understand the way their “rhythms” have changed. His dismissive tone when discussing how writing on new media goes out of date doesn’t acknowledge the role that thinking about hardware plays in larger questions about technological structures. Crary focuses, after all, on “products” earlier on in the text, and makes explicit references to the current giants of tech Google and Microsoft throughout.

The obvious counter-argument  here is that the “rhythms” and “speeds” of digital consumption cannot be thought separately from the very materiality of the devices that condition such consumption. Crary’s apparent desire for separation turns, then, into a question about form and content, one which he doesn’t satisfactorily address. Perhaps this is part of the bigger picture though, pointing as it does towards a form of difficult liminality, a condition which is related to sleep in the closing chapter of the book.

I would take further issue, though, with the  closing comments at the end of Chapter 2, which seem to shift Crary’s otherwise interesting polemic onto a more tired side of the debate about new technologies. There is, it seems to me, a further difficulty in drawing boundaries. After denigrating the “intellectually spurious” work of technophilic writers such as Esther Dyson, Nicholas Negroponte and Kevin Kelly, Crary argues for the kind of anti-technology stance which feels reactionary and unthinking:

Real-life activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or cease to be relevant. There is an insurmountable asymmetry that degrades any local event or exchange. Because of the infinity of content accessible 24/7, there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances. It is now a given that a limitless availability of information or images can trump or override any human scale communication or exploration of ideas.

This assertion – for it is an assertion – relies on the same logic of the apparently intellectually spurious authors of technophilic persuasion that Crary dismisses. Any interrogation of the rather cloudy noun phrase “human scale communication” leads down the path to a suspiciously safe liberal-humanism. It also relies on the notion that the relationship between “life” and the “digital” is a dualistic one, a perspective convincingly challenged by contemporary writers on tech (see Nathan Jurgenson here). The above is a totalizing statement about online activity which is reductive of the ways in which social media supplements or influences behaviour, as opposed to replacing it. More critically interesting would be to consider the way that activities which don’t take place online are discussed and represented online. Far from the idea that these activities either do or don’t “have an online correlate” a more nuanced and accurate critical perspective would be to view “online” behaviours as working in combination with “offline” behaviours. The line is blurred. We do not find limitation on the inside of the screen and exploration on the outside. Crary here is actually not far from the technophilic writers he calls the “academic watchdogs”, those which he says police views critical of the technopoly. I don’t disagree that pro-tech writing is often lacking in critical reflection, I just don’t think the way to challenge it is to write polemic which does the same.

Although Crary seems to be one of the most politically-engaged and in many ways clear-sighted writers on the subject, here he throws his lot in with Sherry Turkle et al, those other watchdogs of the human subject. As we find later in the text, being against the problems of twenty-first century capitalism means, apparently, being against the entire concept of digitality, because within digital forms “a sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted, and the interhuman basis of public space is made irrelevant to one’s fantasmic digital insularity.” I fear that Crary’s view of the digital spaces we inhabit is too limited, and the arguments here would be improved by some acknowledgement of the possibilities for digital communities to augment and support unity between individuals. The problem for Crary seems to be that the very boundary he makes firm – between “real life” and the world of digital capitalism – is too rigid.

Problems with Digital Liberal-Humanism or Why Jaron Lanier Is Wrong

Having just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, I’m left with the same questions I’ve had when finishing similar books – those slightly pop-culture ones that say “tech bad”. These questions are about ethics: why doesn’t the author fully acknowledge and interrogate the ethical values which serve as the foundation to their arguments about technology? What do they actually mean by the loss of “humanity”?

This is not to say that Lanier doesn’t make some apposite observations about the way that digital technology has developed since the 1980s. The idea of software being ‘locked-in’, fixed in place, and thus shaping the way that human beings behave and relate through digital forms, is an important one to understand, not least because it highlights how certain kinds of information technologies are shaped by capital (it isn’t hard to argue that this is the case for all digital networks – consider the idea of data centres and cloud computing, something which is a footnote for Lanier). In highlighting the idea of software lockdown, he identifies that the ubiquitous software at the heart of personal computing, UNIX,  “doesn’t accommodate the rhythms of the body” because it relies on a command line interface – basically an automatic keyboard input, which on hitting the ‘return’ key will trigger an event. This disconnect between the mechanisms of a software that shapes many of the tools that lubricate modern society and the idea of human embodiment or an everyday understanding of presence in time needs further discussion and investigation. We need to better understand the cultural logic that digitality conveys, and how that is used to alter and shape experience. What is less useful is an essentialist humanism, saying that digitality is a one-dimensional thing, reducing some kind of overarching humanity.

The main problem with Lanier is that he much prefers individuals to groups of people. He sees a “reduction” in what it means to be human, due to a loss of what is mystical about human connection and creativity – that is, a challenge to the sovereignty of the individual. His perspective abstracts us from concrete experiences of digital networks and communication. Groups connected by the internet become mobs or dumb crowds, at the expense of the intellectual individual:

Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviours. This leads not only to empowered trolls, but to a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world.

In this, we can see what really drives his critique of a computerised-ideology, or what he terms cybernetic totalism, is the perceived challenge to liberal-humanism. Viewing humans in terms of computers, or contemplating the possibility of the Singularity, is a challenge to the modernist project of the powerful sovereign individual. While there are obvious concerns to be recorded about the totalizing potential of an anti-human, cloud-based repository for all information, I feel like the focus on the Singularity is misplaced, and masks a political insecurity. While there are people pushing for a new way of thinking about the human being (call it whatever you want) it means the group of human beings who have had the most power, respect and control – Gutenberg white male individuals – see a threat.

This kind of reading might explain why, for Lanier, groups of people, digital communities, are not as important as cultured, intellectual individuals. Early in the text, he contrasts “pack mentality” with “the phenomenon of individual intelligence”. The digital instances of the former mean that “[t]he deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits” – whatever that “deep meaning” might be. The problem with Lanier’s observations is that, while he quite effectively articulates part of the problem of society being shaped, enframed, by technological forces, referring to concrete and useful examples, often he lacks a tangible political engagement with the problems of life as conditioned by digital networks. Take the fact, for instance, that social media networks implicitly sanction violence against  women because mechanisms of reporting and dealing with such violence are not a priority of companies making money. There is not a concern with this kind of inequality for Lanier – he makes some points about advertising as the foundation of digital networks, but goes no further than saying that digital networks are capitalist, and lead to monopolies. Instead, he is more concerned with the “reduced” notion of friendship by a system like Facebook, and the somewhat bland concept of people making meaning. I would gently suggest that meaning hasn’t disappeared; that digital networks, even in forms that work from a commodified version of a social face, can facilitate genuine community power that results in tangible action, creation and collaboration.  In another example, an early section entitled “How Politics Influences Information Technology” has no politics – Lanier actually identifies a moral rather than a political dilemma about the influence of tech engineers on the structures that “change how you conceive of yourself and the world”. 

The closing sentence of the book reveals the Gutenberg ideology that underpins Lanier’s challenge to communities in technological spaces. A deepening of meaning is the most intense potential kind of adventure available to us.” Here, a shift in understanding about the way digital networks shape our society is political only in so far as it grants the sovereign individual a version of liberal-humanist “freedom” – freedom to know, to indulge in an adventure, rather than freedom to acknowledge and challenge inequality.

If someone feels the need to write the statement “[o]nly the people were ever meaningful”, they see abstraction where they should see politics.

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.

Reference:

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.”

A weak form of respect

Over the last two days I’ve been looking at Jeffrey Karnicky’s Contemporary Fiction and the Ethics of Modern Culture (2007). It’s a work of criticism which has irritated me, but that’s probably more my own fault than Karnicky’s.

First of all, the title promises some kind of engagement with  “modern culture”. But what this really means in this instance is “postmodern literary culture” or “classroom culture”. David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Susan Daitch and Irvine Welsh are all presented as postmodern writers worthy of Karnicky’s ethical criticism, but the choices seem disparate, and indicative of a general (perhaps designed) lack of cohesion surrounding Karnicky’s project here.

The readings themselves are original and compelling, using each text to consider different concepts of reading and writing, meaning that the critical method is not using terms set by the critic, necessarily, but by the text themselves. This demonstrates Karnicky’s commitment to the singularity of the reading experience, something that Derek Attridge rather got to first in his book The Singularity of Literature (2004).

Not to say this isn’t all well and good. We have a range of interesting texts, read in a way which is keenly aware of the boundaries and pitfalls of literary criticism. Karnicky bases his philosophy of reading on a combination of Deleuze, Guttari and Blanchot, creating a kind of collage about how to read ethically, how to defeat the totalizing perspective of literary criticism whilst doing literary criticism.

The main problem I have is that the end result of Karnicky’s philosophy of reading is politically impotent, and actually I think reinscribes an all-powerful literariness, rather than breaking out of the confines of the debates around postmodernism which he rails against. At the start of the work, he sensibly recasts the question around reading:

Rather than endless debate over what should be read, a focus on reading asks what I would call a more important question: How does the practice of reading create actual effects in the world? […] The works of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Maurice Blanchot can point to other ways of formulating the solitary encounter between literature and life that happens with every act of reading.

But the “actual” effects we get to by the end are rather vague and, it seems, supportive of the kind of subjectivity which is being railed against through the use of a thinker like Deleuze. Here’s a flavour of the conclusion, which uses the image of the classroom as a way to articulate the effects of ethical reading:

for me, teaching an ethics of reading involves a seemingly paradoxical double movement: cultivating a space of fascination cut off from the wider world while at the same time arguing that literature, particularly contemporary literature, is relevant to everyday life […] Fiction, in a sense, provides a critical distance from the rest of the world […] [but] must return to the world and must always bring something with it.

Fascination with the literary work is one of the poles which criticism reaches, existing between this and “everyday life”. The use of the term fascination in any critical endeavour – even on focusing on the singularity  of the experience of reading literature – seems to me to be depowering, a removal of agency – literary works are fascinating, and part of being a good reader is be bewitched by the text. If we’ve got the time and inclination to be bewitched, then yeah, sure. But I’m not sure that doesn’t undermine those modes of reading which would address those who are under-represented, marginalized  in the literary academy. The “return to the world” which Karnicky posits as a path for thinking about fiction doesn’t save us from this apparent lack of political understanding:

An ethical reading practice will not necessarily provide a student with a “truth” about the world, but it might encourage students to engage other ways of living, other logics that can be lived by […] An ethical reading practice must strive to make the goalless space of literature relevant to a wider world […] reading without a goal of saying what a text means is a key component of an ethics of reading.

The pale “encouragement” of students to “engage other ways of living”, “other logics”, feels to me like a very weak version of respect for alterity. We are to be fascinated by the literary work, and then make the “goalless” space of literature relevant. There is no firm acknowledgement that even if literature is goalless, it is still an integral part of living life – and that the latter is surely not goalless, but politically prescient. To be fascinated by one’s own life is perhaps a motto for the liberal-humanist subject. It all feels like it stops short of anything significant – but perhaps I’m betraying my recent reading of Levinas here.

While, as Karnicky admits, “the inability to construct a basic model or to make a general claim about how an ethics of reading works can be considered a key component of an ethics of reading”, it seems that his books demonstrates how we cannot escape the need to establish a model, or at least resort to some grounding, universalizing metaphors, when describing our methods of reading and their effects. What is interesting here is the actual criticism borne out by Karnicky’s approach is good work, but the framework surrounding it feels collaged, smoothed over, so that the only appearance of the “wider world” is through “other logics”, glanced at but not addressed.