Towards an Ethical Literary Criticism: The Lessons of Levinas.
The ethics of critical practice are, after all, a large part of what we teach our students, albeit often implicitly or unexpectedly. And I do not refer here to those mandatory chats about academic integrity and honesty; what I mean, rather, are our responses to the innocuous questions or comments that pop up in the midst of a class and manage, for all their artlessness, to open up the ground beneath the instructor's feet. In the study of English literature, these questions go directly to the heart of what we do and why we do it: "Why do I have to read the text like that? It doesn't make any sense to me." "Why are we spending so much time on a single line?" " I thought I understood the text when I read it at home but now I'm lost." "I think we're looking too hard for a meaning." And finally, what is perhaps the most demoralizing comment of all: "I used to love this book but after picking it apart in class, I'm never going to read it again."
The classroom, like the public colloquium, is a wonderful place for holding scholars to account. There we cannot inure ourselves to the very questions that we ourselves asked (or perhaps dared not ask) as undergraduates. However, where that other aspect of our critical practice is concerned, I mean here that which most dependably secures and signals academic success--namely, research and publication--the probing questions about what we do and why we do it tend rather less frequently to stop us in mid-sentence. Or more likely, the finished work skillfully disguises the fact that such questions have ever arisen. And yet they do arise and beset us with worries--worries that what we labour to produce after countless hours of research, grant applications and social isolation will only ever be read by a handful of specialists and the occasional harassed student, worries that the non-academic public is really not interested (or shall we say implicated) in these texts, does not seek them out, and would in all likelihood be confused, bored or irritated if invited to read them. Still more troubling is the thought that even academics do not invariably enjoy reading the texts produced by other specialists, colleagues or students; we are not, or at least not often enough, moved by them or bettered in any appreciable way. Indeed, as Chris Baldick has recently observed, institutionalized literary study may "[a]t its worst ... proliferate impenetrable jargon, produce gluts of unwanted articles, jump aboard theoretical bandwagons, or disappear into arcane specialization" (94). In the hands of a skilled practitioner, all four are possible at once and the rewards--promotion, tenure--are by no means paltry.
Of all the ways this issue has been addressed, by both critics and apologists, perhaps none is quite so succinctly and movingly rendered as Emmanuel Levinas's reflection on his own critical practice in Ethics and Infinity, a textual account of the author's ten interviews with Phillipe Nemo, originally recorded and broadcast by Radio France Culture in the spring of 1981. The context of its production makes the book more accessible and also more personal than Levinas's other works and it is that personal tone which leads Nemo, early in their conversation, to ask Levinas what he had intended to do in philosophy upon the completion of his doctorate in 1930 at the University of Freiburg. Levinas's reply, fittingly framed in the form of a question--bounced back, that is, to his auditors for self-reflection--registers a profound skepticism about the critical practice, indeed the very industry, of academic publication: "To be sure, I wanted to 'work in philosophy,' but what could that mean outside of a purely pedagogical activity or the vanity of fabricating books?" (28). That phrase, "the vanity of fabricating books," a double-edged condemnation of the motivations behind academic production and of the substance or efficacy of the works themselves, is arguably even more applicable today than it was in the 1980s or the 1930s.
And why? Well, the reasons are necessarily complex and, if carefully teased out, far beyond the scope of this paper, but, as Derek Attridge suggests in The Singularity of Literature, they have clearly much to do with the market pressures of reduced post-secondary funding and increased competition, which he lays squarely at the feet of the Thatcher and Reagan administrations and their legacy of "self-promotion and material accumulation" (9). Modern criticism is not immune to these pressures and they reveal themselves most notably in its unspoken values and goals. Where a specifically literary criticism is concerned, one of those goals, as Ken M. Newton has recently pointed out in a compelling essay entitled "Performing Literary Interpretation," is the production of readings whose central preoccupation is interpretive innovation or distinctiveness. Distinctiveness is seen as ensuring survival in a competitive market. The result, as Newton suggests, is that "[i]f one reads an interpretation of a literary text in a critical journal [today], one will generally find only minimal reference to previous readings of that text, usually in the footnotes; the emphasis will be on attempting a reading significantly different from previous readings" (481). Driven, therefore, by the pressure of competition ("publishing or perishing") and the consequent desire for innovation, a desire that manifests itself in an endlessly sustainable process of interpretation and reinterpretation, contemporary literary criticism becomes "more [of a] performance [of a critical practice] than a search for truth or validity" (Newton 481). And as Newton himself goes on to suggest, there are ethical consequences to such performative criticism. Insofar as it is not interested in notions of "truth" or "validity" (however complexly these may be framed, articulated or positioned for debate) and in fact makes its object the perpetual deferment of these more traditional goals in order to ensure untrammeled interpretive freedom, such criticism begins to take on the fictive, or shall we say "fabricated," character of literature itself. It becomes, in the language of Jacques Derrida, "irresponsible" and thus free of conventional ethical constraints. For Derrida, notably, such "irresponsible" writing is aligned with "the highest form of responsibility" because it implies a refusal "to [answer] for one's thought or writing to constituted powers" (38). However, as he himself concedes in Acts of Literature, not all writers use this vaunted "freedom to say everything" responsibly; some allow the power of that freedom to be "neutralized as a fiction" (38) and others just dabble with it for the same sorts of reasons that Levinas mentions, academic vanity--that is, the lure of professional stability and status--being chief among them. In such cases, irresponsible criticism risks a return to the mire of its adjective's more conventional meaning, the mire of fabrication, of mere shiftlessness and unreliability, of simply producing work because that is what one is asked to do, to publish regardless of need, regardless of audience.
And that, I believe, is the central issue here, the question of audience and how literary critics conceive of it and position themselves in relation to it. Indeed, while much has been written lately about the critic's responsibility to the text (Attridge's book on the ethics of reading J.M. Coetzee is a fine example), troublingly little attention has been devoted to what, if anything, the critic might owe to the consumers of his/her words. The vanity and fabrications of what I have been alternately calling "innovative," "performative" and "irresponsible" criticism are directly related to that most curious relationship between the modern critic and the reader. It would surely not be overstating things to suggest that irresponsibility is abetted by critics' regrettably diffuse and insignificant expectations of audience. Not only do we write (at the best of times) for a numerically limited readership and one, moreover, that is in some sense complicit in the economy of vanity and fabrication, but we do so without a clear sense of, or appreciable regard for, that audience's needs and interests. Literary criticism is, after all, driven primarily by authorial and institutional needs, not by the needs of its anticipated (and unanticipated) readership. At best, we endeavour to persuade ourselves that the audience's needs are already accounted for in our critical practice and methodology, that what we satisfy in the reader is what we have, through publication, satisfied in ourselves, namely the desire to interpret and reinterpret, to keep the performance of innovation alive. The economy of vanity and fabrication is nothing if not relentlessly self-perpetuating; it works tirelessly to justify and maintain the practice of criticism as it is, without giving itself over to the greater challenge of thinking about what criticism might become.
The title of this paper represents an attempt to grapple with this idea of becoming, to outline a critical perspective that reconnects the critic as writer in a meaningful way with his/her audience. If criticism has any hope of becoming, it must reconsider, or rather, reconfigure this fundamental relationship. A meaningful reconfiguration, as I would like to suggest, must begin by refining and narrowing the idea of audience even more radically than it is constituted at present, not in terms of an expected readership over time but rather in terms of how the book will be read at any given moment in time--what in the language of Georges Poulet is called the phenomenology of reading. Put simply, the audience of a work of literary criticism does not consist of prospective publishers, editorial boards or a coterie of subject specialists; it consists, fundamentally, of a single individual who, whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself, sits down and opens the book. Notwithstanding the innovations and interventions of technology, that is still the irreducible experience of reading; it is an intimate, albeit entirely impersonal, meeting of an author's words and a reading subject, what Poulet, adopting the language of the French rationalists, refers to as the cogito. If critics were to boil their diffuse and vague notions of readership down to this--the audience as cogito--then something might very well change in how they engage that audience. For with this radical reconfiguration of the writer-reader relationship, this distillation to intimacy, one is ineluctably pulled from critical irresponsibility to what, in Levinas' s terms, is the very core of ethical responsibility: the relationship not merely between writer and reader, but between Self and Other. As he suggests in Ethics and Infinity, "[t]he irreducible and ultimate experience of relationship appears to me...in the face to face of humans, in sociality, in its moral signification" (77). The fact that he offers this reflection in the context of a face-to-face encounter with his interviewer, Phillipe Nemo, might well lead one to contend that reading is a rather more isolating and solipsistic process than an interview, that, if anything, it perpetually defers the face-to-face of writer and reader through the very medium of language. Yet as Levinas's work elsewhere on the subject of the ethical exigency of the face-to-face makes clear, particularly in Totality and Infinity, the face is properly conceived not as a visual construct but as a discursive one. It is through discourse, not vision, that one establishes a relation with the Other that preserves his/her otherness. Vision envelops and subsumes, but language, as Levinas reminds us, is at all times "a relation between separated terms" (Totality 195). The ethical relationship with the Other is therefore founded on discourse and experienced as "response or responsibility" (Levinas 88).
The effect of this paradigm on our understanding of the writer-reader relationship is necessarily profound. While Levinas does not go as far as Poulet in claiming that the reader enters into a "community of feeling" (1325) with the author, he clearly establishes the written text as a site of the face-to-face, a site that draws the writer into an ethical relationship with, and confers on him/her responsibilities for, the (reading) Other. As critics, we may of course feel inclined to reject this idea by pointing out that we do not (cannot) know this single cogito any more precisely than that vague and shifting mass of unknown editors, colleagues, specialists and students who make up our wider readership, so what exactly are our ethical responsibilities to him or her? It is, admittedly, a rather large question, but one to which Levinas's work, in its inimitable fashion, provides a strikingly direct response: we owe this Other everything. Indeed, our lack of knowledge or unfamiliarity with the reading cogito is far from an obstacle to an ethical response; it is the very foundation of that response insofar as it preserves the separateness of the face-to-face, the unknowableness of the Other which I cannot assimilate and thus subdue within myself. The true relationship between self and Other is "not," as Levinas suggests, "a togetherness of synthesis, but a togetherness of the face to face" (77). And when that togetherness is established, what remains is simply this, this which is by no means simple at all: "To do something for the Other. To give ... whether accepted or refused, whether knowing or not knowing how to assume [responsibility], whether able or unable to do something concrete" (97).
Many reservations, objections and questions spring immediately to mind, not the least of which is to wonder if this is indeed the role of criticism. To say nothing of whether it could be done with words, should it be done? Have we as critics any business "do[ing] something for the reader"? Dare we think about his or her needs? Dare we even imagine a reader with needs other than those that relate to the validation of performative criticism?
These are the sorts of questions that, were we to keep them steadily before us in the midst of our research and writing, would surely complicate those processes, would slow them down, modulate their focus, perhaps open up the ground beneath our own feet. We may, however, take some comfort in the fact that criticism's becoming--I mean here the methodologies of becoming--lies not only before us yet unseen but also behind us; so-called new directions in critical practice come into being not by jettisoning the past but by refashioning it (Attridge 128). The debates over criticism's ethical function are, after all, an indelible part of the genre's history, perhaps a part of its very beginning if one considers Aristotle's emphasis on delectare and prodesse, pleasure and instruction, as an ethical injunction that applies as readily to non-literary as to literary texts. In order to come to grips with such a voluminous and labyrinthine history, I would like to highlight one particularly significant expression of criticism's ethical responsibility to the reader, one that registers a striking sympathy with Levinas's ideas, both as to the abject state of criticism and its tremendous potential "to do something for the Other." The work in question first appeared in 1757 as that most humble of writerly tasks, the book review, and its author was one who also knew a thing or two about the market pressures of publication; indeed, the phrase "publish or perish" had what can only be described as a literal urgency at this time. The subject of the review was a treatise very boldly entitled Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, and its author, one Soame Jenyns, had as a Member of Parliament and a Commissioner of the British Board of Trade both social and political clout to recommend him to the reader of his day. Today, of course, he is merely a footnote in the illustrious career of Samuel Johnson, whose withering review of Jenyns's text ends with the following remark:
Many of the books which now crowd the world, may be justly suspected to be written for the sake of some invisible order of beings, for surely they are of no use to any of the corporeal inhabitants of the world. Of the productions of the last bounteous year, how many can be said to serve any purpose of use or pleasure! The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.... (Johnson 536)
While the narrow scope of Johnson's injunction, not to mention its instrumentalist rhetoric of "purpose" and "use," may give modern critics some cause for satisfaction with the present state of things, we dismiss at our peril Johnson's urgent reminder that our writing, at some point and in some fashion, must take into account the very real needs of its readers. To proceed as though those needs were utterly inconsequential to us and beyond, or rather beneath, our notice, to proceed as though criticism had no connection to the exigencies of human life, no means or role in addressing them--to do this is to perpetuate the economy of vanity and fabrication, to perpetuate a critical practice that is regularly as unsatisfying for the critic as it is for the reader.
How, then, might this proposed shift of critical focus to a single reader, a cogito, affect critical practice, for that is clearly the most significant sign of criticism's becoming? What might it mean to read and write about a literary work so as to do something for the reader? What might one look for in a text and how might one theorize it, how might one teach it? Enormous questions they are and potentially paralyzing in scope, but by no means new, by no means undeserving of our best efforts to re-engage them. One such effort, albeit a relatively isolated example, shapes a book I have already mentioned, Attridge's J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading. In laying out in the opening pages the theoretical perspectives that would allow scholars to do justice to a literary work--the focus, in this case, being on the critic's ethical responsibility to the text, not necessarily to the reader--Attridge offers a characterization of literature that begins to address the questions I have just asked. He writes, "[t]he inventive literary work ... should be thought of as an ethically charged event, one that befalls individual readers and...the culture within which, and through which, they read" (xii). The verb "befalls" quite clearly recovers Poulet's rhetoric of a "phenomenology of reading"--reading, in other words, as a direct engagement with something outside of ourselves, an otherness that may render us vulnerable, that may surprise and overwhelm, leave a mark, raise a question that cannot be ignored, take us where we do not want to go. And the "us" here is not simply a plurality of readers but an entire culture whose assumptions are likewise befallen by the "event" of a text. As critics, then, our focus is divided but also potentially balanced: we are invited to examine, on one hand, the various, layered and entangled triggers of the ethical event as (literary) text, maintaining a sense of its unassimilable alterity, while, on the other hand, considering its impact on "individual readers," readers as cogitos for whom something can be done. Perhaps in this way a phenomenology of reading can begin to re-enliven a phenomenology of (critical) writing.
Attridge, Derek. J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
--. The Singularity of Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Baldick, Chris. "Literature and the Academy." Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Patricia Waugh. Oxford UP, 2006. 85-95.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. Routledge, 1992.
Johnson, Samuel. "Review of [Soame Jenyns], A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil." The Oxford Authors.. Samuel Johnson. Ed. Donald Greene. Oxford University Press, 1990. 522-543.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Duquesne UP, 1985.
--. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne UP, 1969.
Newton, K.M. "Performing Literary Interpretation." Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Patricia Waugh. Oxford UP, 2006. 475-485.
Poulet, Georges. "Phenomenology of Reading." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent Leitch et al. W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. 1320-1333.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Emmanuel Levinas|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|