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.”

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.

The Techno-Ethical: On Dave Eggers and The Circle

There’s a certain critical hype which surrounds novels that arrive at just the right moment. Dave Eggers’ The Circle managed to become the novel of the moment in 2013, a timely satire on a Google/Apple-like company and a young girl who begins working for them, Mae. It was just the thing to puncture selfie culture, to rebuild the wall between public and private, a “chilling dystopia”, as important as “Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World“. While I agree with a lot of this judgement, the really significant theme of the novel for me is the nature of the ethical questions addressed by it. Eggers presents  a scenario of how the pursuit of technological enhancement leads to ethical totality, where privacy of any kind is made at odds with the aims of a progressive society. The driving force of the novel is not the technological structures themselves, but rather the insecurity these structures help to foster in society – the way interaction is structured.

Central to Eggers’ satire is the status of knowledge in the modern world, and how it contributes to decisions around what to do and how it should be done. The ethics of the world Eggers imagines develops into a form of techno-utilitarianism, whereby incredible-yet-familiar hardware combines with algorithmic advances to nullify threats to the social fabric. Crime, murder, abduction of children – all are brought under control through the constant surveillance of the SeeChange system of ultra-portable, ultra-powerful cameras. Many of these ills are understood in utilitarian terms, such as not incurring the costs of incarceration by stopping crime through major surveillance, or the better quality of life provided to another by allowing someone them to access a video stream of your holiday experience.

Mae becomes enveloped in the world of The Circle when she gets a low-level job there. Eventually, the advances she is made part of, often through large company presentations and cult-like audience events, lead to questions around whether a human being has the right to any form of privacy, outside of parameters which society – or, rather, the company – set. One of the ‘Three Wise Men’ who run The Circle, Bailey, is at his most evangelical when decrying the loss of “any knowledge”, whether “human, emotional, scientific”. Mae herself comes up with the neo-Ingsoc slogan “Privacy Is Theft” after being confronted by Bailey on the ethics of secrecy, sharing and privacy and how it might lead, in tandem with a neo-liberal focus on market growth and the monetisation of experience, to a better society.

The real debate comes down to the rights of the self in relation to the Other – but in this case, the ‘Other’ is online society as a mass, individuated by their online profiles specifically, but deindividualised by the form of those profiles. Everyone is a set of information searchable by algorithm, which means that the Other turns into a tool, an object. The final images of the novel, where Mae posits that we should, and could, have access to the human mind itself, to make open all of human thought in the interests of safety and security – to know no evil lurked within – is the ultimate manifestation of the desire to objectify the Other, the natural extension of social ethical system which has lost the time-lag needed to recalibrate its moral understanding in the face of technological advances.

The idea of getting into consciousness, of wanting to know the Other, and of that being the ultimate goal of human interaction, put me in mind of an older metaphor for the self or social identity – that of the ‘cage’. It is an image that recurs in the novels of Henry James and communicates the inability of the human being to be able to enter into the consciousness of another – we’re all in cages, looking out at others, attempting to communicate whilst trapped within. The Circle transforms the desire to know, to break into the cage, the desire to be less lonely, into a parable about the loss of humanity. We’re in these cages for a reason, it says, and whatever is contained within, whether it has the potential to mend or destroy lives must stay there. Ty, the head of The Circle and the man who created the entire system, states they must regain “balance” towards the end of the novel, between the systems of surveillance and the ability to keep secret information which will hurt others. This balance is central to how we understand the ethics of technological interaction, and it is one that Eggers shows is disrupted by a futurist ideological drive, the drive for progress. The problem is that our cages are no longer fixed in position, they constantly shift and alter with the social environment, and we can reach so much further past the bars than we used to be able to.

Although Eggers’ satire is a powerful one, he does acknowledge the deeply human desires this kind of technological interaction might satisfy. Mae, at one point, when she can’t get in touch with anyone she knows, feels lonely and despairs. She quickly seeks human contact. The hollowness, the black “tear” she feels rip inside at points is allayed by different forms of human interaction, even the technological. The problematic ethical concerns of the novel are exposed and augmented by technological forms and structures, but they are not created by those structures. These are problems that were already there. The technological structures used to explore them allow us new ways of understanding them – and new ways of being scared of them.

In this sense, The Circle follows Brave New World in that it is a dystopia that becomes, from a canted angle, a utopia. The end is reminiscent of Huxley, but Mae chooses to stay as part of this world, where she is an influential member of the new wave of understanding and democracy. She continues to pursue, with the other two wise men, Bailey and Stenton – the “info-Communist” and the “ruthless Capitalist” – a utopian totalising of the world brought about by the control of knowledge. The political implications of this are dangerous, but one utopia is only ever challenged with another idealised notion. The counter arguments about going off grid and isolating themselves from Mercer or Ty are not convincingly put. The novel essentially dismisses the nebulous ethical statements of these two male characters. Do we have to completely disregard the narrative of success for a young woman who has risen to the top? Who sees a “perpetual light” in the future of civilisation? The Circle is disturbing in the tradition of the very best dystopian fiction, but our ways of reading dystopian fiction need to develop to encompass the networked world. It is easy to say “What a disturbing picture! Isn’t technology awful!”. The harder and more important task is to consider carefully how to explain and define what we mean by the “messiness of humanity”, those “uncertainties” of the world which will always remain. We might now be reconditioned by technologised world, but we’re still asking how to be good, how to learn about what it means to live in connection to Other human beings.