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Ethical Criticism
Questions, Concerns
The term “ethical criticism” does not refer to a school or critical approach, but rather to an upsurge of interest in the relationship between ethics, literature, criticism, and theory since the late 1990s, often called the “turn to ethics.”There is a worry that criticism has shied away from value judgments, whether ethical or aesthetic and severed the millennia-long connection between criticism of literature and the arts and morality.Worries that in schools like post-colonial studies or feminism, politics has replaced ethics and that deconstruction is altogether nihilistic.
2 ways
1) a turn towards the ethics of narratives, esp.philosophers, like AlasdairMacIntyre, PaulRicoeur, and MarthaNussbaum,but also by literary critics, like Wayne Booth >>> Aristotle.2) a turn towards the ethical core of the then leading critical schools: one adopts the political agendas for ethical reasons; even deconstruction has an ethics, exemplified by Derrida’s lifelong interest inLévinasand his claim that “Deconstruction is Justice”.
Literature and Human Possibilities
“[Literature] speaks about us, ... As Aristotle observed, it is deep and conducive to our inquiry about how to live because it does not simply ... record that this or that event happened; it searches for patterns of possibility… that turn up in human lives with such a persistence that they must be regarded as our possibilities.” (Nussbaum)Readers identify with the characters in fiction and in doing so enact their stories and it is this imaginative re-enactment which generates an understanding of other people’s points of view, and often suffering, and of the moral demands placed on us. The text is an “adventure of the reader”, almost as if it were an educational or therapeutic role-playing exercise and it is this that makes us better and more responsive people.This sort of claim is one often made for classic realist texts (Eliot or Dickens). Part of the work of the novelist – and especially the realist novelist – is the education of sympathy. This idea too underlines much work in the “medical humanities,” where a sense that, for example, doctors who read widely in fiction may understand better the experience of being a sick patient, and so may become a better and more insightful doctor.
Aristotle
“The real difference [between history and poetry] is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts. By a′general truth’I mean the sort of thing that a certain type of man will do or say either probably or necessarily.” (Poetics1451b).“Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude—by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.” (Poetics1449b)
EmmanuelLevinas(1906-1995)
A Lithuanian-born (his mother tongue was Russian) French philosopher and scholar of Judaism and the Talmud.Studied philosophy and sociology in Strasburg, then in Freiburg with Husserl, attends Heidegger’s lectures.1939. Naturalized French; enlists in the French officer corps. 1940. Captured by the Nazis; imprisoned inFallingsbotel, a labour camp for officers. His Lithuanian family is murdered. His wifeRaïssa, and daughter, Simone, are hidden inOrléans.
Ethics as first philosophy
First philosophy is neither metaphysics or logic as traditionally understood and ethics is NOT rationalist self-legislation and freedom (deontology), the calculation of happiness (utilitarianism), or the cultivation of virtues (virtue ethics).It is an interpretive, phenomenological description of the rise and repetition of the face-to-face encounter, or the intersubjective relation at its precognitive core (experienced as sensibility and affectivity); viz., being called by another and responding to that other.
An encounter
That encounter evinces a particular feature: the other impacts me unlike any worldly object or force. I can constitute the other person cognitively, on the basis of vision, as analter ego. I can see that another human being is “like me,” acts like me, appears to be the master of her conscious life.Theother person addresses me, calls to me. He does not even have to utter words in order for me tofeelthe summons implicit in his approach.Beyond any other philosophical concerns, the fundamental intuition ofLevinas'sphilosophy is the non-reciprocal relation of responsibility.
Dialogue
No event is as affectively disruptive for a consciousness holding sway in its world than the encounter with another person. In this encounter (even if it later becomes competitive or instrumental), the ‘I’ first experiences itself as called and liable to account for itself.With the response comes the beginning of language as dialogue. The origin of language, forLevinas, is always response.Intersubjectivityis lived immediacy.Responsibilityis the affective, immediate experience of “transcendence” and “fraternity.”
The Face
The primacy of relation explains why it is that human beings are interested in the questions of ethics atall.To situate first philosophy in the face-to-face encounter is to choose to begin philosophy not with the world, not with God, but with what will be argued to be the prime condition for human communication.The encounterpreceedsthe subject-object divide.An ‘I’ discovers its own particularity when it is singled out by the gaze of the other. This gaze is interrogative and imperative. It says “do not kill me.” It also implores the ‘I’, who eludes it only with difficulty, although this request may have actually no discursive content. This command and supplication occurs because human faces impact us as affective moments or, whatLevinascalls ‘interruptions’.
PaulRicoueur(1913–2005)
Time and Narrative, 1984–88.Narrativeidentity: This has to do not just with the identity of the characters in a story or history, but with the larger claim that personal identity in every case can be considered in terms of a narrative identity: what story does a person tell about his or her life, or what story do others tell about it?This was a person capable of attesting to his or her own existence and acting in the world, a self that both acted and was acted upon who could recount and take responsibility for its actions.[Half-way between Cartesian assurance and post-modern flux.]
Ricoeur’s“little ethics”
Ethical intention [teleology]: “aiming at a good life lived with and for others in just institutions”.At the level of relations between a self and nearby or intimate others, the ideal of reciprocity entailed here is best expressed as solicitude that enables both self-esteem and self-respect on the parts of those involved. At the level of the distant other or others, the question of justice arises and with it new notions of respect and of institutions such as the rule of law.Beyond every institutionalized system of rules lies the transformative possibility of love which transcends the fragile and provisory practical mediations established by every ethical system through reinterpreting the golden rule. Love is a way of responding not just to the limits of any such system but to the tragic dimensionRicoeursees as inherent in all human action, which never fully achieves what it intends, another reminder that human freedom is always a finite freedom.
Singularity
DerekAttridge,The Singularity of Literature(2004), who argues that using literature for a particular purpose – to further a political cause, or to illuminate, as evidence, a historical period – is to pass over its distinctiveness, and, while part of what “defines” literature is its impossibility of definition, we can see three key interwoven characteristics of the literary, all of which both evoke the ethical. 1) Singularity: an artwork is a unique event…just as forLevinaseach encounter is not an example of meeting an example of a person, but a unique encounter with a unique “face.” 2) Alterity: an artwork, like another person, is profoundly other: there are no rules for it and to work to understand it is hard and demanding. 3) Inventiveness: the act of creation is both an openness to newness but also an awareness of what has gone before.The special ethical force of literature lies not in the world a work invents, but in the singular and inventive use of language in which that world is invented.
Ethics of Reading
J. HillisMillerTheEthicsof Reading,1987.Here, Miller, suggeststhat“withoutstorytelling there is no theoryofethics”“not becausestoriescontainthe thematic dramatizationofethicalsituations, judgments and choices”butbecause an ethical rule (such as “donotlie”)canbemadetomakesenseonlyinparticularsituations which arethemselvespresentedinandasnarrative.Thismeansthat “ethics is not just a formoflanguagebut a running orsequentialmodeof language, in short a story.”. ThisleadsMiller to conclude that, in makinganethicaljudgment,oneis“unable...toknowwhether... I am subject to alinguisticnecessityor to an ontological one”.
Deconstruction and Trauma
Again, influenced by deconstruction, the new interest in “trauma” is also one form of interest in ethics.CathyCaruth’sUnclaimed Experience(1996) argues that deconstruction’s more subtle understanding of reference means it is suited to better approach the events and responses to atrocity and traumatic events which “break the frame” between event, language, and representation, and so express a concern with ethics more profoundly.
Trauma
An exceptional form of memory; not a memory formed through symbols and narratives but one closer to the nature of an injury, a fact that is further supported by the Greek etymology of the termtrauma, which meanswound: a painful mark of the past that haunts and overwhelms the present. It is the analogical physicality of the traces left by the past in traumatic memory that complicates attempts to understand trauma in terms of cultural representation.Trauma became a key concept in clinical psychology, particularly in Freudian psychoanalysis, as it analogically described a psychological injury produced by the experience of an external event that damaged the individual's sense of self, and continued to produce belated negative effects that manifested themselves in the form of involuntary symptoms, for example, as disturbing nightmares and flashbacks. Trauma causes dissociation between the subject and its present, conscious experience, due to the pervasive, involuntary irruption of disturbing, incomprehensible memories.
Trauma and Memory Studies
Growthin interest and popularity,particularlysincethe early 1990s.Traumacanbeconsideredinthiscontextasapathological form of remembering.Theofficial recognition ofposttraumaticstressdisorder (PTSD) bytheAmericanPsychiatric Association intheDiagnosticand Statistical Manual of1980.Thiswasconnectedinturntotheaftermathofthe Vietnam War, as returningsoldierscampaignedfor recognition of theirtraumaticsymptomatology.CathyCaruthedited thevolumeTrauma: Explorations in Memory(1995),whichis notable for a definition oftraumathat makesitapplicableacrossawiderangeofevents.Caruthprovides aninfluentialstructuralmodel of trauma, in whichtheveryimmediacyoftheexperienceprecludesitsregistration so that it exceedstheindividual’scapacity forunderstanding.Thetraumatic experience can only beregisteredbelatedlyand so is characterizedbyatemporal latency or delay.
Testimony
Interest in trauma at Yale centred particularly on theFortunoffVideo Archive Project, led by psychoanalyst DoriLauband literary critic Geoffrey Hartman, which recorded the video testimonies of Holocaust survivors.Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History(1992), co-authored byLauband literary scholar ShoshanaFelman. Intertwining of trauma studies and Holocauststudies.Historian DominickLaCapra(2004) the study of trauma had become too encompassing. He made a case for distinguishing between what he termed “historical trauma,” which referred to specific natural or human-made historical catastrophes, and “structural trauma,” which encompassed suchoriginarylosses as entry into language or separation from the mother.
Memory Studies
Reflecting a broader cultural interest – an obsession some may say – in memory as a phenomenon at once neuronal, psychological, cultural, and socio-political, the academic study of memory has seen scholars from diverse disciplines attempt to understand a subject that constantly challenges the traditional disciplinary boundaries on which academic research is based.
The Cultural Aspects of Memory
British historian Frances Yates ,The Art of Memory(1966), a study of early-modern memory practices that were, in turn, inherited from ancient Greek and Roman sources. Remembering was concerned not so much with reviving personal recollections but with the efficient storage and retrieval of information. “Place system” of remembering, in which a specific location, typically a building with many rooms, was internalized in the mind; the objects to be remembered were placed in the different rooms and were recalled by the individual mentally walking through the building.Literary scholar Mary Carruthers,The Book of Memory(1990) on the medieval period. The rise of the book at this time did not fundamentally transform memory practices inherited from the ancient world. Reading was thus regarded as an activity of memory and the medieval book was designed to facilitate memory.American literary scholar James Young published the highly influentialThe Texture of Memory(1993), which studied a range of Holocaust memorials across Germany, Israel, Poland, and the United States. Young concluded that the memorials, like the memory of the events they commemorated, were contingent on the time and place in which they were created. Every nation remembers the Holocaust according to its own traditions, ideals and experiences.
Communities and Places
TheCollectiveMemory(1950)bytheFrench-JewishsociologistMauriceHalbwachs. Memoryisnotanindividualactbutisframedbysocialstructures of remembering. Incontrasttohistory,whichHalbwachsregardsasuniversal, memory is morecontingentandmultiple, and requires the supportofagroup which is delimited in spaceandtime.Memorygroups:thefamily, the workplace,andreligious communities,Pierre Nora’smultivolumecollaborativeproject on the nationalmemoryofFrance,LesLieuxdemémoire(1984–92),lookingspecifically at theFrenchnationas a collective and identifyingthe“sitesof memory” that wereparticularlyimportantin this context; theseincludedplacessuch as Versailles, the Louvre ortheEiffelTower, but also events, forexampleBastilleDay or the Tour de France,andobjectsor symbols like the Frenchflagand“liberty, equality, fraternity.”Apronounced nostalgictendency.“Sitesof memory”representdeliberaterather thanspontaneousactsof commemoration andcharacterizetheindustrialized and secularizedmodernworld.Weinhabita“fallen”andamnesiac modernity, whichcontrastsunfavorablywithanidealizedbutlostpeasantculturein which memorialactivitiesoccurrednaturally.

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