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.

References:
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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Reading with Levinas #3: The Face – and the Literary Work

Today I’ve been reading Jill Robbins on Levinas and literature in her work “Altered Reading” (1999). It’s helping me to think through the way Levinasian philosophy links to literary criticism, and focuses in part on a concept which I’m going to briefly outline here, one that is central to Levinas’s philosophy: the face.

For Levinas, the face is what “calls to us”. Its an ethical event, an epiphany, which shapes anything beyond ourselves (it is central to Levinas’s idea of transcendence). The face – a nudity, a thing that doesn’t signify in the same way a sign does – establishes the first point of humanity, our responsibility for the other. The description of this might be called preontological. It just happens. If infinity is exterior to totality, then, in Levinas’s word “this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face.”

This takes us back to the concept of infinity, and the face is the site of this infinity, this exteriority – infinity because it is not within the bounds of a dialectic or an opposition (the other is not merely the other because of its difference from the same). The face is where we find the foundational ethical impulse – the one that says we should not murder:

This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, is his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: “you shall not commit murder.”

Robbins describes the face as the ultimate “disturbance”, a “shaking up of the mundane”, “an active surplus over the plastic image that would enclose it”. It is not just a form, but something that is constantly “overflowing”. As such, we cannot ignore it – it is already and essentially there, and thus we have a responsibility to it. “[B]ecause of presence before the face of the Other,” Levinas states, clarifying the relation between the self and Other “man does not permit himself to be deceived by his glorious triumph as a living being”. That is, we are not left merely to the “enjoyment” of our own selves, our own consumption of things; our urges for “possession” and “power” are essentially and necessarily brought into question by the presence of the other in the face.

Levinas constantly redescribes and restates a lot of his ideas, and the notion of the face is no different. There are problems with whether this just refers to a physical face in reality, or whether this is a metaphor for a form of vulnerability Levinas is trying to get at. One point of interesting clarification we are given is about the face being necessarily “alive”. The face of the person who is dead becomes a form, an image, a mask, lacking the epiphanic quality of the alive face:

In this epiphany the face is not resplendent as a form clothing a content, as an image, but as the nudity of the principle, behind which there is nothing further. The dead face becomes a form, a mortuary mask; it is shown instead of letting see – but precisely thus no longer appears as a face.

To continue questioning what Levinas really means by face, we can return to Robbins. Robbins raises the question about whether the face is actually made a metaphorical concept at points in Levinas’s work, referencing Totality and Infinity:

But what is Levinas’s reader to make of the obvious metaphoricity of “The face is a hand, an open hand,” or, “The whole body – a hand or a curve of the shoulder – can express as a face” (TI, 212), which even suggest a transfer between synecdochic figures for the human?

This is part of Robbins’s larger line of questioning around whether the rhetorical figure (i.e. that which we find in the literary text) can be a face. Is our encounter with a literary work like that of our encounter with the other? Is the literary work a ‘face’ in a Levinasian sense? Ultimately, she suggests that applying Levinasian philosophy to literary texts directly is not the way to go, because Levinas’s discussion of literature doesn’t really allow it:

There is an incommensurability between the more originary level of Levinas’s ethical discourse and the discourse of literary criticism. This means that an extrinsic approach to the topic will lead nowhere, for it is not a matter in any case of applying Levinas’s philosophy to the interpretation of literary texts.

The “incommensurability” comes mainly from the fact that Levinas takes a rather Platonic view of the literary text – saying it’s rhetorical, and thus deceptive, and not indicative of the other. This is in spite of the fact that an engagement with literary texts as demonstrative or descriptive of ethical concepts is spread throughout his work.

If the literary text doesn’t quite fit with the “originary level” of Levinasian thought, then, it surely must fit at some level. The literary text has always been cited as a source of alterity, of access to otherness – it’s a form of exteriority, of seeing things other. I don’t fully accept Robbins’s declaration that we can’t apply Levinasian philosophy to a literary text, although I do agree that it’s certainly not straightforward, and that Levinas’s relationship with literature is ambiguous at best.

When we talk about terms such as “responsibility”, “gift”, “alterity”, they are all terms which are readily applied to the literary work anyway. Furthermore, the works that we call literary are those which are most other – they are challenging, make us question our conception of the self, provoke us to consider our responsibilities. And they do this, perhaps not in an automatic way, such as the face, but they do so through the mediation of the reading process. This undeveloped perspective may well be doing violence to the complex metaphysics of Levinas’s relation between the same and the other, but there has to be some way of accounting for the literary work within a Levinasian ethical framework. Otherwise, how do we understand the fact that Levinas himself was led to philosophy by his encounters with Dostoevsky? That the Russian writer was his “preparation for philosophy”?

 

Work Cited:

Emmanuel Levinas – Totality and Infinity trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985)

Jill Robbins – Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: CUP, 1999)

Reading with Levinas

Last week, I finally finished Emmanuel Levinas’s first significant work Totality and Infinity (1961). I’m trying to work out how to use Levinasian philosophy to read contemporary texts, how the issues and concepts addressed in his writing can shape and inform how I examine contemporary American novels.

Totality and Infinity is a kind of rhetorical, ethical appeal. It is highly repetitive, with central concepts and ideas constantly recurring, like leitmotif, slightly varied, reasserted in different ways. This makes it pretty difficult to pin down the priorities of Levinas’s arguments – there’s just so much he refers to, uses and reuses.

In order to help me make sense of some of the central elements, I’m going to try and do some basic glossing of what the concepts are and how they are referred to. Doing this will also help me to think through how I might use some of these ideas as tools for critique.

Ethics as First Philosophy – The Same and The Other in Totality and Infinity

I’ll start with the relationship between what we might (for now) call the same and the Other. The same is what already know, what we might call our personal experience, that which we comfortably understand and have assimilated into our own perspective. The Other is the exterior person, that which is not same, and thus can challenge my sameness, my fixed perspective. Levinas says that this relation, the one between the subject and the person who is exterior, is the most essential element of experience – “the relationship between the same and the other…is the ultimate fact”.

Before anything else, we must understand ourselves as constituted not by our isolated individual experiences but by our commitment to and responsibility for the Other. This is “ethics as first philosophy”, or “ethics as optics”. It is a new vision of the human being which challenges traditional ontologies of the self and Being following Heidegger and Husserl. Levinas states:

it is a “vision” without image, bereft of the synoptic and totalizing objectifying virtues of vision, a relation or an intentionality or a wholly different type


This vision is not merely a call to maintain awareness of other people, but rather an appeal to recalibrate our ideas about how we are constituted in the world. That is, our Being cannot be seen as simply of and for ourselves, but instead must be understood as being-for-the-Other. The Other is essential to existence; we are not solely egoist entities but social beings. It is this relation, the acknowledgement of the presence of the Other, which Levinas labels as “ethics”:

A calling into question of the same – which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same – is brought about by the other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics.

The Other cannot be made the same, without destroying the very thing which makes them Other. They are “irreducible”, because they call into question the I. This is the most basic relation of human beings, and thus it is the foundation of ethics. It is important to note that Levinas doesn’t set out any kind of rules for how to live, and rather than providing any kind of moral code, seems to give an ultimate meta-ethical document – an ethics about ethics.

 

Literary Criticism – Literary Text as Other?

There is obviously lots more to say about the above, and many more concepts to bring into the discussion, but I’d like to move in to thinking about the dialogue here between this kind of Philosophy and Literary criticism.

I think this kind of relation – understanding the Other as integral – provides interesting ways of thinking about literary texts. Can texts be viewed as Other, in that their value stems from the way they “call into question” fixed understanding? And might the literary critic shape their critique (their representation of the value of this Other) not by fixing what they say in place by their authority as interpreter – by making it the same – but by responding to its particular messages, those which are relevant to the human being as social being, its status as Other?

These are the sort of questions I’m thinking about, and I’ll continue to address them both below the line and in future posts about how Levinasian philosophy influences contemporary literary criticism.

Ethical Criticism, Contemporary Fiction and Digital Communication

This is the text of a short talk I gave at Critical Studies Research Group Work In-Progress session on 26th January 2016.

The central question of my work currently is “to what extent can reading contemporary fiction help us to understand ethical questions surrounding the human being and technology?”.  It is a question which is concerned with the ethics of digital interaction and the technological object as represented in contemporary fiction, focused on a corpus of American writers, working between 2007 and 2014. Jenni Egan, Joshua Ferris, William Gibson, Dave Eggers, Tao Lin and Ben Lerner.

What I intend to do today is give a brief outline of the concept of ethical criticism, with a focus on the approach of moral philosopher/ethical critic Martha Nussbaum. Then explain some of the challenges to this approach from literary and cultural critic Robert Eaglestone. This will make reference to the thought of Emmaneul Levinas. At which point I’ll address how my project looks to develop an ethical critical approach, in order to examine the ethics of technology in contemporary American fiction.

Put very basically, ethical criticism is a form of reading which assumes a text – more often than not, a narrative, literary text – can help us to understand what it means to be a human being, and that this should be the focus of how we responsibly read as critics. We can access this understanding through carefully close reading the surface of the text, as opposed to seeing the most significant or important elements of the text as hidden or beneath the surface . An ethical critic does not treat the text as a “suspicious” object, but as something which is “open”, or an example of “alterity” with which to be engaged. A text, has a message that should be “done justice to” by the critic. It’s a perspective which has undergone a resurgence in last thirty years or so, and can be seen as a reaction to a perceived lack of ethical responsibility in the approaches of critical theory. This has seen the practice of different forms of criticism labelled “ethical”, for instance, humanist, deconstructive, or most recently narrative ethics.

This is referred to as ”turn to ethics” in literary criticism can be clearly seen today in the numerous critics calling themselves ethical or referring to the ethics of an author or text. It’s present too at undergraduate level: a 2013 undergraduate research seminar at University of California, Berkeley, focused on the debate between what it referred to as “suspicious” and “surface” reading, the latter being described as a reading practice that is willing to look at rather than through surfaces. The description quotes Rita Felski, Professor of English at University of Virginia, who has written at length about the practice of reading in the academy, that the job of the literary critic is to “respect rather than reject what is in plain view,”

I will give here the full quotation from Felski’s book Uses of Literature (2008), to help frame the contemporary ethical critic’s project overall:

…We are called on to honor our implication and involvement in the words we read, rather than serving as shame-faced bystanders to our own aesthetic response. Here my argument links up with a recent ethical turn in literary studies, an exhortation to look at, rather than through, the literary work, to attend to the act of saying rather than only the substance of what is said. [that’s a reference to Levinas, which we’ll get to later]. The act of reading enacts an ethics and a politics in its own right, rather than being a displacement of something more essential that is taking place elsewhere […]the discourse of [literary] value is neither intrinsic to the object nor forged single-handedly by the subject, but arises out of a complex interplay between institutional structures, interpretive communities, and the idiosyncrasies of individual taste.

 

Ethical criticism intersects with philosophy of ethics, and I’ll here give a brief sense of the philosophical element of this, before moving on to Nussbaum, Eaglestone and Levinas. We begin with Bernard William’s invocation of the Socrates question “how should I live?” as the basis for any ethical inquiry, in his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, published in 1985. Whatever version of ethical criticism we are talking about, this question, is somewhere near the centre of its purposes, in some form.

Both Williams and Alisdair MacIntyre contend that our understanding of what it means to be a human being, to live ethically, adhering to a relevant moral code, is conditioned by what is now an outdated moral language – that the complexity of contemporary society is not adequately accommodated by the moral language relied on by the tradition of moral philosophy. Williams, for instance, suggests that we should understand ethical concepts as “thick”, that is being both simultaneously descriptive and evaluative (i.e. courage). MacIntyre, working from a Neo-Aristotelian foundation of the good being located in social action and human relations, suggests that it is through social “practices” that we understand how best to live. Social relations and situations are the currency of our ethical understanding – not concepts reducible to big abstract nouns like “justice”, “divinity”, or even “good”. This is summed up by MacIntyre’s focus on the single unit of that currency: “Conversation” he says “is the form of human transactions in general […] conversations in particular and human action in general” are “enacted narratives.”

This extremely brief outline of some of the important ideas surrounding contemporary morality points towards what has been called the “turn to narrative” in the philosophy of ethics (see Galen Strawson (2004), Martin Warner (2009), Michael Eskin (2004)). So there is a double turn, of moral philosophy to the concept of narrative and of literary criticism to reading texts as ethical documents.

Martha Nussbaum is a major proponent of a humanist form of ethical criticism, a seminal moment of which came with the special edition of the journal New Literary History in 1983, edited by Ralph Cohen. Nussbaum’s paper entitled ‘Flawed Crystals’ on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl was published there, which carried out a reading of the relationships between characters undergoing ethical conflicts: Maggie’s desire to marry her husband the prince, balanced with her need not to abandon her father; her desire to maintain a coherent friendship and relationship with Charlotte, who is having an affair with her husband the Prince.

Writing in a slightly later essay from 1987, Nussbaum sees “an absence, from literary theory, of the organizing questions of moral philosophy, and of moral philosophy’s sense of urgency about these questions”. She turns to a narrow canon of narrative literary texts, on the premise that they can present unique forms of moral confrontation and resolution, drawing mainly on the novels of Henry James, although later looks at Beckett and Greek Tragedy. For the moral philosopher Nussbaum, literary texts, coupled with the clarifying voice of the ethical critic, can provide an account of social relations and complex situations, one which helps us to understand ethical conflicts in a way which is far more relevant to living than the philosophical text: “the very qualities that make novels so unlike dogmatic abstract treatises are, for us, the source of their philosophical interest.” Reading a text enriches our understanding of a particular ethical conflict, by giving us access to the thoughts and feelings of a character with whom the reader aligns. The aim of the critic, then, should be to “connect [..] observations [about the text] to an evolving conception of […] the sense of life it expresses.” In other words, the text can tell us about how to live our lives – how to consider ethical decisions, what kind of human being it is possible to be – in a way that abstract moral philosophising can’t. Nussbaum’s is a Neo-Aristotelian ethics, taking the question “what is the good life for a human being?” as its main focus, to look at and comment on the “moral imagination” of the characters a writer like Henry James presents us with. The novel “gestures toward the limits of ethical consciousness” through its narrative mode and stylistic choices.

There is something attractive about the clarity of Nussbaum’s project – that is, asking what sense of life a text provides us with, and casting light on that through a mechanism of close reading. We may think of it as what we’ve always done with literary texts – at school, at sixth form, in undergraduate literature essays. It is, at heart, a humanist approach. As such, it comes with some significant problems, especially for the critic of contemporary texts. Firstly, let us recall Rita Felski – “[t]he act of reading enacts an ethics and a politics in its own right”. Any ethical critic’s project purporting to attend to the surface of a text, to the ethical worlds we find there, privileges the ethical perspective of some authors over others. Nussbaum does acknowledge –

it is reasonable to suppose that the full and precise investigation of such issues would require turning, as well, to texts from other origins […] we will need to maintain as much self-consciousness as possible about our method and our implicit ends, asking what evaluative content they themselves express.

The main problem with an approach like Nussbaum’s, which looks to focus on “the shape of the sentences themselves, by images and cadences and pauses themselves, by the forms of the traditional genres, by narrativity, themselves” – the surfaces of the text – is one of taking too much for granted, in terms of seeing the text as something that reliably reflects situations of ethical conflict and anxiety, and in assuming that a text can reliably mean in a way that is fixed and ready to be turned into ethical commentary by just the right literary-critic-cum-philosopher.

Robert Eaglestone in Ethical Criticism: Reading After Levinas (1998) challenges Nussbaum’s very practice of reading. Eaglestone’s perspective is that critical theory doesn’t eschew ethics, but instead is essentially ethical in the way that it looks to demonstrate the ideological structures which shape human communication. He suggests that Nussbaum’s reading of texts like The Golden Bowl lacks an awareness of the “text as language”. For example, her reading of a character interaction in The Golden Bowl assumes that a particular event happens in one way, that two character definitely commit an act of adultery, when the text is unclear about this event. Eaglestone suggests that Nussbaum appears not to allow for the indeterminacy of meanings within a text and takes for granted a stable narrative truth. (Eaglestone here refers to J. Hillis Miller’s deconstructive ethics of reading.)

So how do we read the ‘surface’ of a text, but without undermining the multiplicity of a text? This leads us to a strand of ethical criticism which can be labelled post-structuralist, one that is influenced by the thought of Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Eaglestone uses Levinas’s ideas to elaborate on the nature of criticism which maintains an awareness of the indeterminacy of the text. He states that ethical criticism must understand its responsibility as a temporary “interruption” rather than a fixed final word, in an echo of Levinas’ conception of the “saying” and the “said”.

To carry out criticism in light of a Levinasian ethical appeal is to engage in, or remain aware of, the process of “saying”, over the “said” – that is, the idea of communicating with an Other, interrupting a fixed or totalizing idea, rather than focusing on the totality of identifiable meaning. It involves viewing the literary text as a version of the Other, to be read responsibly, and with an awareness that readings constantly shift and change. Garber et al articulate this influence on ethical criticism in The Turn to Ethics as “a process of formulation and self-questioning that continually rearticulates boundaries, norms, selves and ‘others.’” (See also, Butler in Garber et. al, 2000).
How to proceed, then, in light of this “double turn” (Eskin, 2004) in philosophy and literature? How might a contemporary critic do justice to Levinas’s appeal in their way of reading? My project looks to produce ethical readings of a corpus of American novels, examining the ways they represent the human within digital technology, reading them in light of Levinas’s appeal toward ‘saying’ – of how criticism should not fix an ethics, but interrupt.

I see the novels in the recent part of the twenty-first century helping to articulate a new ethical-critical viewpoint, helping to understand a new ethical environment that has been brought about by the development of Web 2.0 digital communication, where social relations are in-part characterised by an absence of face, instantaneous messaging means that people are permanently connected and accessible, and embodied action is constantly represented symbolically as virtual action. By looking at the ethics of technology, or as I have been concerned recently, the phenomenology of the technological object, we can better understand too the political dimensions of digital interaction and behaviour.

This follows Eaglestone’s appeal regarding the practice of literary studies that “criticism in the future must embrace new questions, and only by doing so can it maintain its necessary commitment to the ethical – only then can it be ethical criticism.” The project will thus contribute an ethical reading, focused on the “new questions”. I will look at how the following questions are addressed by this corpus of novels:

  • What do we mean when we say we are losing “genuine” human connection when conversations are mediated through digital forms?
  • How is the traditional conception of a liberal-humanist subject being shaped and altered by digital structures?
  • In what ways are digital devices altering our understanding of conversations and social relationships?
  • How can critique of this help to highlight broader ethical and political concerns?

The wider and more challenging objections to what I see as an imperative to read the digital are important if the inquiry is to be aware enough to make a valuable comment on the changing nature of the human. For instance:

  • What biases are evident in a reading that privileges digital culture?
  • Do such readings lean towards a political impotence or a privileging of Western cultural norms?
  • Is any reading of digital structures in literature doomed to be a reading of an isolated self, behind a screen, rather than a new way of thinking about intersubjectivity and the Other?

I’d like to finish by quoting one of the writer’s I’m currently interested in, Tao Lin, who in 2011 contributed his own perspective on what the contemporary novel is, and the ethical knowledge he sees as part of its remit. He emphasises first of all the importance in focusing, directly, on what is happening now, and secondly on another set of questions, ones which echo a Levinasian preoccupation with the Other, and with a constant saying:

I currently feel most interested in reading/writing novels that aren’t improvements on or innovations of other novels. I want to view each potential novel as already definitively and unavoidably unique, improvable only in comparison to itself and then only from its creator’s singular perspective. I want to learn about another human’s unique experience from reports they’ve made themselves […] I do, sometimes–rarely, I think–want to know, “What do you think other people are going to be thinking about in 20 years?” or “How do you feel humankind, generally, is going to feel like in 50 or 100 years?” But mostly I want to know, “What are you thinking about?” and “How do you feel?”

 

It is perhaps, in some form, these final two questions which the ethical critic asks, first of the text, then perhaps of the author, then perhaps of the reader themselves. It is an openness of critical thought that fits with the nature of contemporary study, a discipline that is constantly shifting, altering and changing – a constant need to be interrupting our ethical understanding with different forms of saying.