The ethical turn
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.