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The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age.

Palumbo-Liu, David. 2012. The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. $84.95 hc. $23.95 sc. xiv + 226pp.

In the context of human rights and literary form it is worth recalling an idea common in interdisciplinary human rights studies: that literature matters to the historical development and contemporary expansion of human rights because it allows readers to empathize with those considered to be 'others.' As Lynn Hunt puts it in Inventing Human Rights: A History (2007), "in the eighteenth century, readers of novels learned to extend their purview of empathy. In reading, they empathized across traditional social boundaries. ... As a consequence, they came to see others ... as like them, as having the same kinds of inner emotions. Without this learning, 'equality' could have no deep meaning and in particular no political consequence" (40). Even more schematically, she notes that "new kinds of reading (and viewing and listening) created new individual experiences (empathy), which in turn made possible new social and political concepts (human rights)" (Hunt 2007, 33-4). Expressed here is a twofold faith: first, that reading literature makes its readers more tolerant by allowing them to identify with others; and second, that this tolerance leads to improved political relations with these others.

Such ideas are precisely what David Palumbo-Liu, in his carefully argued monograph The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age, seeks to update for a new global era, though his frame is ethics in general rather than human rights in particular. He points to the problematic of empathy in works by Aristotle, Adam Smith, and David Hume and to the conviction (expressed in regard to contemporary literature perhaps most fully by Martha Nussbaum, but underpinning the approaches of many current teachers and scholars) that literature enriches its readers precisely by bringing otherness to us, by giving us a way to connect with what seems distant or foreign. Without rejecting such beliefs, he shows how they are complicated by postmodernity and its ever-increasing burden of grappling with "otherness": "The notion that literature should mobilize (or even instantiate) empathy for others and enhance our ethical capabilities is rooted in the early modern period, wherein 'otherness,' while certainly increasingly present, was not nearly as immediately, insistently, and intensely pressing itself into the here and now of everyday social, cultural, and political life. This voluminous influx, quantitatively and qualitatively new, is a distinct feature of the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first century age of globalization" (2). It is in this contemporary context, of futures trading in terrorism, global agribusiness, and transnational organ theft, that he poses the central questions of the book: How much otherness is enriching and how much is disruptive to our lives? What shapes our imaginations of sameness and difference? And finally, what is the role of contemporary literature in helping us understand our relationship to people in very different circumstances than our own? (2, 4-15).

Palumbo-Liu approaches these questions--set out most generally in the preface and introduction--by exploring a series of "delivery systems," discourses through which we come to understand human sameness (or, as Palumbo-Liu defines it, "the media and discourses by which others are delivered to us as like (180), as they have been represented and problematized in recent philosophy and fiction. These delivery systems include rationality, the family, the body, and emotion or affect. Notions that human beings are alike because we all share the capacity to reason, because we all have bodies that should be inviolable, or because we all feel common emotions (I leave aside here the question of family, to which I will return below) are widespread. The Deliverance of Others skillfully destabilizes these assumptions by showing, in a series of linked chapters, each centered on a single novel, their complexities and limits in our current context of globalization. The book insists on the need to recognize the historical and material conditions--what Palumbo-Liu, after Jean-Luc Nancy, calls "slots of technological possibilities" (25)--in which such ideas of sameness grow and circulate. The point is not to disallow human connection or the role literature can play in helping us to imagine it; as Palumbo-Liu writes, "ethically and politically we can imagine--indeed, we must imagine--that the lessening of otherness can be and is often not only desirable but also necessary ... and that encountering difficult things can be crippling, again, not only spiritually but politically as well" (14). The point is rather to suggest that literature, as a "metasystem" of delivery able to help us reflect on the complex, changing, and contradictory ways we imagine self and other (184), may generate more ethical visions of connection and responsibility than the delivery systems noted above.

With his exemplary first chapter, "When Otherness Overcomes Reason," Palumbo-Liu takes on the question of rationality and its supposed ability to connect humankind through a reading of J. M. Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello. Linking reason and rational choice theory to the literary genre of realism in response to provocations by Coetzee's narrator and title character, Palumbo-Liu traces how the novel charts the breakdown of both reason and realism in the face of too much otherness (in this case, the invasion of the category of "the human" by the non-human animal). Doing so, Palumbo-Liu recasts a novel often approached narrowly through the lens of animal rights as one that "rearticulates the ardent hope that literature can deliver others to us, and us to others, in an unreasonable, irrational, and eminently total manner" at the same time that it reveals "behind the dissolution of distance ... a maddening slide beyond the ken of the mind" (59). He further locates this paradox at a particular historical juncture: the moment we are asked to give up reason as the bright line dividing man from animal is the moment that "technology has allowed for mass extermination of both the human and non-human animal" (61). In such a situation, Palumbo-Liu notes, "everything has to be renegotiated. And that is precisely the work Coetzee sets out for us" (62). This work of renegotiation is at the heart of each of the chapters that follow, including "Art: A Foreign Exchange" and "Pacific Oceanic Feeling: Affect, Otherness, Mediation." The former brings scrutiny to the idea that humans are united by virtue of our common bodies. It looks at the limit case of organ transplants, first through an analysis of Nancy's concept of "inoperable communities" and writings about his own heart transplant, and then through a supple engagement with Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go. The latter chapter examines the way transnational media networks and the global advertising industry attempt to universalize feeling, to make us all share similar desires for consumption, through an analysis of Ruth Ozeki's films and her novel My Year of Meats.

The second chapter, "Whose Story is it?," which centers on Nadine Gordimer's My Son's Story, does not fit as neatly into the book's larger framework. Family certainly is a "delivery system" of the kind mentioned above, but its role as such is not fully explained or centered. It is also perplexing that, with his important call to bear precise attention to the historical and material conditions in which sameness and difference are manufactured, Palumbo-Liu would not engage with the racial classification of the protagonists of Gordimer's novel as "Coloured" rather than "black" and the difficulties that this legal terminology presented for the construction of commonality at the beginning of South Africa's democratic transition. This topic receives only the barest mention, with no explanation, in response to a passage cited from My Son's Story about "real blacks" (82). Such an omission leads to a more general question aimed not so much at Palumbo-Liu as at the broader community of literary scholars: how much sameness and difference can be tackled in books about "world literature," which, owing to their breadth, must sacrifice a certain amount of local specificity? Nevertheless, in other ways this chapter is crucial to Palumbo-Liu's argument. Along with marking My Son's Story's trenchant analysis of the personal losses as well as the gains that come with commitment to political liberation, it presents one of the fullest theorizations of the way the fiction writer comes to "know" or imagine the lives of others and the responsibilities embedded in this task (72-76; 92-96). In doing so, the analysis deepens the reflexive strand of thought running through each chapter and the epilogue, in which the investigation moves beyond how literature represents other delivery systems to how culture, art, and literature as its own kind of delivery system confront the problem of difference and the task of "deliverance" (142).

The question of the ethical work of art or literature brings us back to the topics of empathy and human rights with which I began. Palumbo-Liu argues that literature is important not because it creates empathy, but because through its formal qualities it can help us to become aware of and reflect on the very narratives and historical contexts through which such attachments to others are formed. Albeit without a pre-mapped route or secure outcome, such a process of reflection may allow for a more accountable political and ethical connection between self and other. I would note that this ethical process is obviously not what all texts we call "literature" do; it is a perspective offered up by certain authors and a challenge taken up by those concerned with reading as an ethical practice. But the kind of critical reading practice explored and modeled by Palumbo-Liu is crucial in fields such as human rights, where progress is often measured in the expansion of those considered to be human "like us" while acknowledging that such abstract recognition may lead to a dangerous evacuation of the material inequalities that continue to separate people. More broadly, Palumbo-Liu's remarkable book goes some way toward answering a question we must take seriously and debate vigorously in the very specific conditions of the twenty-first-century attack on the humanities that also forms part of our current global age: that of why we should read literature at all.


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Author:Bystrom, Kerry
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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