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The ethical turn

May 16, 2012

I’ve heard a lot recently about a so-called “ethical turn” in literary theory. Recently I was investigating “ethics in modernist studies” for a class (i.e. skimming numerous articles that include the word “ethics”); since my findings are relevant to my readership (such as it is), I present them here.

First off–as far as I can tell, “the ethical turn” is a bad phrase, since (as some articles point out) people aren’t using the word “ethics” in the same way, and some of the uses have nothing to do with one another. There are, at the least, three broad camps: we might call them “practical ethics,” “theoretical ethics,” and “poetic ethics.”

In its practical sense, “ethics” refers to the way writers respond to a given social/political situation, often one involving class- or race-based conflicts, and seems related to an attempt by the writer to teach, or at least show, the reader how to behave. In its theoretical sense, it has to do with efforts to describe the preconditions for there being such a thing as ethics, and is often associated with Deconstruction and the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida; the answer comes down to the effect on us of such things as (paraphrasing) “an encounter with radical alterity” and “the impossibility of achieving a rational totality.”

These two meanings sometimes seem unrelated (the theoretical ethics people say that practical ethics isn’t ethics at all, but morality). Sometimes, though, they’re in conflict; for example, a critic might side with Hannah Arendt’s focus on politics against Levinas’ failure to confront concrete social situations. Dangerous abstraction, tending towards incoherence, is the usual criticism of the “theoretical ethics” approach, while the “practical ethics” approach is accused of naïve humanism and a reduction of the literary work to a political tract.

“Poetic ethics” seems like a third kind of thing altogether. It has to do with the reader’s obligations to the text and the relation of ethics to aesthetics. A lot of this comes down to art bursting free of ethics, or replacing it, or offering a new kind of ethics; and often what art “does,” ethically, can be summarized as giving us an opportunity to ‘look’ attentively, taking in details that can unsettle preconceptions. Reading ethically, then, is reading in such as way that the text is allowed to do its anti-prejudicial work on us.

The anti-philosophical prejudices of this approach are somewhat troubling; apparently people are still hung up on how Plato kicked poets out of his ideal city. The poetic ethics approach does, however, avoid the biggest flaws of the other two, avoiding over-abstraction by sticking to the act of reading and its effect on the reader, and avoiding simplistic politicization by focusing on the text’s aesthetic effect not on its moral prescriptions. My question, then, is how to take this kind of approach without embracing the “art as replacement for religion and rival of philosophy” paradigm. That way of seeing it doesn’t just seem wrong to me, it seems stale with over-use.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Ezmerelda Honeytoast permalink
    May 18, 2012 10:04 am

    Fascinating stuff, Joey. One small quibble: Need one “choose” among the three? Would it not be possible to execute all three at once? Ah, that might be what you’re saying, so, right. Anyway, one concern: Does any writer worth his salt actually intend his text as a moralizing reagent? Yeah, yeah, Johnson, Plato, Franzen, whatever. But I imagine that even Dante, who has a more dynamic relationship with the reader than most living humans have with each other, just sort of gave birth to the Comedia without a thought to educating his readership.

    What I mean is this: If you were to go about trying to civilize your audience, you’d have to walk an imaginary reader through a specific thought process towards some desirable state or realization. But, in reality, doesn’t the text take over pretty quickly? Can you imagine a writer leaning back and asking, “Now, I should write something that makes people more brave!” I thought a good writer is sort of forced to tell the truth as best he can? Isn’t that what the whole “Muse” schtick is about? They all talk about how novels fight their way out of the writer violently, demanding to be born.

    TL;DR version: Writers can’t possibly be that sly with the reader, and they don’t seem to write for any agenda anyway. Esoteric people excepted, obviously.

  2. Michael Healy permalink
    May 18, 2012 7:21 pm

    “It has to do with…the relation of ethics to aesthetics.”

    “My question, then, is how to take this kind of approach without embracing the “art as replacement for religion and rival of philosophy” paradigm. That way of seeing it doesn’t just seem wrong to me, it seems stale with over-use.”

    I wonder if Kant’s *Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime* could help sort this out. I’m not sure, it’s just an initial reaction, but he does link aesthetics, ethics, psychology, and cultural geography together in that book.

    Granted, it was from his “pre-critical” phase, and some of what he said in it got revised in the Critiques, but maybe something there could help with this question.

  3. May 19, 2012 11:14 am

    Ezmerelda:
    The writer must “tell the truth,” of course, but as we’ve discussed previously, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”. It’s not that the author has specific agenda and then figures out a way to trick the reader into accepting it, but more that, if he’s a good author, there will be truth in his work, but it won’t be stated directly, because that’s not how literature works. The critic can’t tell us the moral of the story, he can just show us how to read the text so as to understand the truth it contains, or, rather, allows us to experience. (Truth as phenomenon, not as content of a proposition.)

    A key premise of the poetic-ethical model of criticism is that reading can be good for you, but it can also be bad for you, and this depends as much on how you approach the book as on the book itself. It’s not that the author intends his work as a moralizing reagent, but more that books DO have a moral effect on us (just as do friendships), and we need a way to describe the effect without reducing it to “if virtue is rewarded, the book is virtuous” or “if the characters act badly, the book is bad,” because there are easy counterexamples to both, AND without reducing it to “if you read without prejudice, the book can work its cleansing magic on you” or “if you read suspiciously, the book can’t corrupt you,” because those both fail when confronted with bad and good books, respectively.

    So maybe criticism is about reverse engineering. Author feels compelled to convey a self-ironizing crushing despair at one’s own triviality, but instead of writing “I’m so unhappy because my life doesn’t matter and even my being unhappy doesn’t matter,” he’s T.S. Eliot and writes Prufrock. Then critic comes along and tries to understand how Prufrock has its effect on the reader, and tries to evaluate whether Prufrock is a “good” thing to read, and tries to teach the reader how to do so well.

  4. May 19, 2012 11:17 am

    Michael:
    I think I read some excerpts from “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime” a few years ago, but I should return to it, and read the whole thing this time. The problem is, this applies to Kant in general–so much Kant still to read. Ugh.

    But I don’t know how useful Kant will be for the problems I’m talking about, because from what I remember he’s mostly concerned with our aesthetic reactions to nature, while I’m concerned with our reactions to works of art, which is a much trickier business, because (as noted in my reply to Nathan–I mean Ezmerelda–) not all books are good books.

    • Michael Healy permalink
      May 19, 2012 11:40 am

      You do have a point about Kant’s *Observations.* He does use more examples drawn from nature in that work. I think the Critique of Judgment is where he talks about art more specifically, and that one I haven’t read.

      I thought your reply to Ezmerelda was quite good. It is certainly true that one’s ability to be formed, for better or for worse, by a work of art depends partly on how you relate to it. Literature cannot force the reader to drink, it can only lead him to water.

      Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, did you know some work has actually been done on the Imperial Era this year? I’m not as involved with the Wesnoth forums as I once was, but I do keep tabs on it. Last year, Unwise Owl updated IE for Wesnoth 1.9/1.10, and then some voices started calling for the Orcei Gladiatores to get an upgrade. So I made some revisions to the Samnis tree and the Retiatius and River Lizard lines and posted them in the Imperial Era thread on the Wesnoth forums. So believe it or not, our old project isn’t quite dead after all. Thought you might be interested, if you haven’t already seen it.

      • Michael Healy permalink
        May 19, 2012 11:41 am

        Whoops, I meant “Retiarius.”

  5. May 19, 2012 6:59 pm

    I haven’t read Critique of Judgment at all. it’s on reading list but that list is… rather long.

    Cool about the IE. I’ve moved on to other things but it’s good to see people are still interested.

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