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.”

“These readings are close, Dougal. Those readings are far away.”

For academics, teachers and students of English Literature, I think questioning the nature of their main activity – reading texts – is pretty central to the practice itself. I don’t raise this in order to restate the notion that the humanities are in ‘crisis’ (see Paul Jay’s book or this Times Higher Ed piece) but rather to articulate the strange “wood for the trees” moment provided by Barbara Hernstein Smith’s excellent talk-turned-paper “What Was Close Reading? A Century of Method in Literary Studies”. It helps us to consider how we might be said to take close reading for granted as a practice, especially in the secondary school classroom, seeing it as a kind of a priori thing to do, without really understanding the ideological – and pedagogical – drives behind this particular method.

‘Method’ is a word that’s been knocking around my head a lot lately. I’ve been trying to think about clarifying the methodology for my PhD. I’m not a social scientist, nor am I gathering any data as such – I read. I’m tempted to put down that I’m adhering to the obvious practice of reading the texts and then writing about them (this kind of petulant response might be a version of RTFM) but this isn’t doesn’t demonstrate an understanding that every reading has an ethical or ideological structure to it, which drives the type of interpretation we come to. Even the choice to close read something stems from a particular way of thinking about the value of a literary text.

Smith’s piece outlines the context from which close reading evolved, that being the classrooms of New Criticism. What’s interesting is that it stems from a pedagogical needs to establish a mode of viewing a literary text which will enable students to interact with it productively. Experienced English teachers will know the feeling of trying to get students to view a text in the right way, and might be a little affronted by the idea there are other ways to support interpretation which aren’t simply close readings. But is this all we do as part of our varied levels of criticism? Smith identifies that part of the problem with viewing this method in isolation is that it ignores a lot of the other cultural material we make use of when writing criticism. It also suggests a kind of automatic aestheticism, a “reverse engineering” as it is referred to in the paper, although arguably this method can always be put the service of any kind of reading.

Part of the need to readdress the issue of close reading is, as Smith suggests, to do with the phenomenon of distant reading in the digital humanities. This suggests that examining patterns in large number of texts using computational or algorithmic methods can demonstrate things which a traditional close reading can’t, and that to stick with the former method is maintain a practice that is outdated. While the example from Franco Morreti is certainly interesting, the idea that distant reading should replace or usurp close reading misunderstands the nature of literary criticism, and subordinates the object of study itself.

I can see the use of a digital approach to literary scholarship – we use networks, search tools and digital archives as ways of making our research a smoother process, as well as allowing us the capacity to make new connections. But Smith hits the nail on the head when she identifies that any question around the value of close reading is a question about the essential value of literary criticism:

the grounding in personal observation and experience opens the possibility of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences, which—largely, if not wholly–is what motivates our interest in a literary interpretation as such. And, along with connections to broader intellectual issues and other concerns, that grounding and that attendant possibility—of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences—are also what sustain the value of much historical and theoretical research in the humanities as such.

Arguably, the notion of “shareable insights” relies on the kind of personal interaction with the text that close reading promotes – without close reading, we limit ourselves to the sole position of digital historians of literary texts. Why not augment close reading through the synthesis of ‘big data’ approaches with personal interpretation? I don’t doubt that this is happening already.

Further to this, Smith confirms the idea that close reading defines the discipline, because of the desire for this kind of reading to be carried out which is found in all those involved with the practice reading and writing:

[the] ability and disposition also remains more generally crucial. The hope of receiving such reading is what keeps most of us scholars and researchers as well as poets and novelists writing.

Although there are firm arguments for the value of close reading, Smith’s paper does demonstrate that it is important to critically evaluate the modes of inquiry we use to interpret – even those which seem to be utterly at the heart of the practice in the first place.