Close Reading Digital Mediation: Why Use Levinas? Why Use the Literary Text?

I’ve been thinking more about the problems of disinhibition in Laurie Johnson’s work. See his face/interface paper here, but, long story short, the digital interface can enjoin us in ethical responsibility, because we understand that there’s an Other there. The main challenge to this idea might be to say that mediated communication – or any kind of mediation – automatically creates disinhibition, which results in the diminished sense of responsibility to others.

Johnson accepts that communication online appears to present “freedom” before “responsibility”, and that this can lead to a diminished responsibility, if (and that’s a big if) it is understood that anti-social communication is the result of such diminished responsibility. This is partly predicated, by Johnson, on the notion of anonymity. This, I would suggest, is a less significant concept now, given the fact that online acts are generally constitutive of identity, or at least closer to the material/embodied idea a user might have of their identity, rather than a consciously altered version of it. I would tentatively use the example of IP addresses being used to trace and charge individuals who use hate speech online as a way of demonstrating how the idea of the internet as an unregulated libertarian realm is changing, that anonymity in a basic sense isn’t necessarily an option (very recently in the UK, the CPS updated their guidelines on prosecution of people engaging in abuse/bullying online).

Johnson seems to want to use Levinas as a corrective to this, to demonstrate the potential for the Levinasian ethical encounter in mediation. As I’ve said before, I agree with the nature of this appeal and think Levinas is useful here because it provides a way of thinking responsibility without physical presence – i.e. that my perceived freedom online is still only possible because of the other. The more implicit argument from Johnson is of a Levinasian stripe too; that there’s no reason that such disinhibition should lead to anti-social behaviour – or rather that it is not *simply* the act of its mediation which necessarily explains that anti-social behaviour.

Johnson’s second paper on this specific subject – ‘GUI Faces and “Sticky” Ethics’ – takes on a thorough review of sociological/psychological work on the issue of computer-mediated-communication (CMC)/face-to-face communication (FTF) (am wary of wandering in fields I have very little experience of, although interestingly Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature). Johnson makes a strong claim for the fact that this dichotomy – this digital dualism which leads to deficit-models of mediated communication – is breaking down. He then asks why we might keep using Levinas to talk about this stuff:

For this reason, a contingent phenomenological imperative is still in play as an adjunct to the ethical imperative: there is no single definition of CMC from which a complete ethics of CMC could be constituted, so we retain the need to engage in phenomenological inquiry into the differences between the various forms of CMC, and to investigate each use of CMC anew.

It is useful, along such lines, to cling to something like the Levinasian “face” not just for the sake of distinguishing something like a face within CMC; rather, the Levinasian face is useful for the very reason that it asks us to always ask anew in each act of interlocution what it is that enjoins a user to respond in the manner of a “bringing forth” into language.

So Johnson says that Levinas’s concept of the face is useful in this kind of work, not only because of how it might re-calibrate ideas of responsibility – or the *possibility* of responsibility – but because it suggests that each mediated interaction is a unique act of interlocution which needs to be constantly examined as such.

And I want to say in my research that this contingency Levinas provides us with, as identified by Johnson, the “always asking anew” is what the literary text accommodates. Because not only do new literary works themselves act as an “asking anew” – ideally the novel, predisposed as it is to the conveying the problem of subjectivity – but also the act of reading itself  “asks anew” (this is a huge concept and idea to unpack obviously).

I’m not sure this isn’t just saying “well because literature’s good innit”. But if literature didn’t some significant relation to ethical life, then Levinas probably wouldn’t have said that it was literature which brought him to philosophy, and wouldn’t quote Dostoevsky and reference Shakespeare.

This has got me thinking about what kind of mediated communication appears to be privileged by the novels I’m looking at. It is often private communications, which appear to highlight the complication of public and private identity. In Zadie Smith’s NW , for instance, Keisha’s language in the chat transcript bears the trace of a political resistance, a restatement of the sociolect of associated with her black identity. But it isn’t simply that the mediated communication allows this in some kind of falsely empowering way – Keisha herself is concerned by the fantasy construction of herself as exotic – but rather that it provides a way of acknowledging the problem of it. Perhaps the distinction then between Felix/Nathan and Keisha is that the latter has a chance to resort to forms of textuality which are not conditioned by their immediate social/economic conditions (Nathan and Felix engage in mobile, vulnerable, mediated communication in order to engage in precarious economic transactions). This could be a way of looking more closely at mediated communication in the context of social status – that the process of mediation highlights the problem of social status by apparently providing the potential for it to be temporarily erased.

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.”

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.