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June 30, 2005

why moral positions should be explicit in literary criticism

During a conversation with a friend on Wednesday, I realized why most contemporary literary criticism bothers me--from a moral perspective. (I use the word "moral" broadly, to mean any issue about how we should live or how our institutions should function.) Although there are some exceptions, whom I admire, most critics have moral agendas that they keep implicit.

They look in fiction for themes of race and gender, politics, or markets because they have views about those topics themselves. For instance, to identify an authorial voice with "imperialism" is to criticize the author; to say that he "subverted" a "patriarchal order" is to praise him. Yet literary critics rarely make their own moral positions explicit. Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum have explained critics' resistance to explicit moralizing as a result of several assumptions. Critics tend to believe that moral opinions are arbitrary, that openly moral evaluation of fiction might justify censorship, that moral criticism must be reductive, and so on. Yet implicit moral evaluation remains very widespread.

I don't believe that literary critics should supply elaborate philosophical arguments in favor of their moral views. I'm a "particularist," someone who believes that moral judgments are about concrete cases, not about general categories. Therefore, I'm not a big fan of abstract philosophical arguments, even when they appear in philosophy books written by professionals. It would be even stranger--and less valuable--if abstract moral argumentation started to appear in works of literary criticism. For example, imagine that a critic had to prove that imperialism is bad, before he or she could use the word "imperialism" with a negative connotation in an interpretation of Shakespeare's Tempest or A Passage to India. This would not be helpful.

Nevertheless, I do believe that critics should explicitly state the moral views that are implied by their literary interpretations. Making explicit one's own moral position forces one to confront the possibility of exceptions, tradeoffs, and limits. For example, "imperialism" has a bad ring to it. But what are we against, if we oppose the imperialism that can be found, for instance, in The Tempest? (Whether Shakespeare approves of that imperialism is a different question.) If forced to express a moral view explicitly, instead of merely using "imperialism" as an epithet, a critic would have to adopt a position like one of these:

  • Imperialism is a form of coercion, and coercion is bad. (But what is the alternative to some form of political authority? Are literary critics who always take the side of weak individuals against states and big institutions willing to endorse anarchism?)Or ...

  • It's always wrong to build a large, centralized nation by force. (That verdict would apply to ancient Rome and China, or to the creation of the Spanish and French nation-states.) Or ...

  • Empires may be good or bad, but the British imperialism that began in Shakespeare's day was immoral. (Why? Was the fact that white people conquered non-white people the essential problem? Or was the problem economic exploitation, which also occurs within nations?) Or ...

  • Imperialism has bad aspects and effects under certain circumstances, including the circumstances on Caliban's Island. (Then one would have to explain what precisely is wrong with the invaders' behavior).
  • Fundamentally, I believe it's irresponsible not to state one's own moral positions clearly enough that their scope and implications are evident. I suspect that many literary critics are willing to be "irresponsible" because they see themselves as outsiders, as adversaries of mainstream culture and the social order. It's not their job to plan or manage societies; they just identify bad things like imperialism and violence. But this stance strikes me as bad faith, since professors in rich countries are actually quite powerful. Irresponsibility is also a recipe for the alienation that I described here recently.

    Posted by peterlevine at June 30, 2005 02:18 PM

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