March 25, 2008
the "general turn to ethics" in literary criticism
I need to revise my book manuscript about Dante, which is under consideration by a publishing house. In the book, I argue that interpreting literature has moral or ethical value. Literary critics, I claim, almost always take implicit positions about goodness or justice. They should make those positions explicit because explicit argumentation contributes more usefully to the public debate. Also, the need to state one's positions openly is a valuable discipline. (Some positions look untenable once they are boldly stated.)
I had taken the stance that contemporary literary theorists and academic critics were generally hostile to explicit ethical argument. My book was therefore very polemical and critical of the discipline. But I was out of date. In Amanda Anderson’s brilliant and influential book The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (Princeton, 2006), she announces: "We must keep in mind that the question. How should I live? is the most basic one" (p. 112).
This bold premise associates her with what she rightly calls the "general turn to ethics" that's visible in her profession today (p. 6). This turn marks a departure from "theory," meaning literary or cultural theory as practiced in the humanities from the 1960s into the 1990s. "Theory" meant the use of (p. 4) "poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and queer theory" in interpreting texts and discussing methods and goals within the humanities.
"Theory" tended to deprecate human agency. Poststructuralism "limit[ed] individual agency" by insisting that we could not overcome (or even understand) various features of our language, psychology, and culture. Multiculturalism added another argument against human agency by insisting "on the primacy of ascribed group identity." Anderson, in contrast, believes in human agency, in the specific sense that we can think morally about, and influence, the development of our own characters. We don’t just "don styles [of thinking and writing], … as evanescent and superficial as fashion" (p. 127). Instead, we are responsible for how we develop ourselves.
Focusing on character does not imply a faith in untrammeled free will or individualism. "Such an exercise can (and, in my view, ideally should) include a recognition of the historical conditions out of which beliefs and values emerge (psychological, social, and political) that can thwart, undermine, or delay the achievement of such virtues and goods" (p. 122).
Anderson takes the side of liberals, Enlightenment thinkers, and proponents of deliberation in the public sphere, theorists like Jurgen Habermas (p. 5). But she emphasizes that a rational, critical, analytical stance--sometimes seen as the liberal ideal--is just one kind of character. Like other character types or identities, it must be cultivated in oneself and in others before it can flourish. Thus a Kantian or Habermasian stance is not an abstract ideal, but a way of being in the world that requires education, institutional support, and "on ongoing process of self-cultivation" (p. 127). Like other character types, the critical rationalist and the civic deliberator must be assessed morally. The primary question is how should one live. Living as a critical rationalist is just one response, to be morally examined like the others (p. 112).
For all that they seem to reject deliberation about how to live, postmodernist theorists also have views about ethos (character). For example, Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty have presented the ironist as an ideal character type. “With varying degrees of explicitness and self-awareness, I argue, contemporary theories present themselves as ways of living, as practical philosophies with both individualist and collective aspirations” (p. 3) Most of The Way We Argue Now is devoted to close, often sympathetic, but also critical readings of theoretical texts. Anderson is very insightful about character, form, irony, ambiguity, and development in these works--elements that we usually associate with literature, not with literary theory. She defends several postmodernist and multicultural authors by showing that they embody moral stances or characters that have value. She is a pluralist, in contrast to a liberal or deliberative democrat who would see the only valuable theory as one that embodied the character traits of reasonableness or tolerance. She believes that the question, "How should I live?" opens a broad discussion in which the radical theoretical movements of the 1960s to 1990s have a place.
To investigate the link between each theory and the character of those who endorse and live by it would broaden the discussion beyond "identity politics, performativity, and confessionalism," which "have exercised a certain dominance" (p. 122). Identity politics reduces the choice to either the "espousal" or the "subversion of various ascriptive and power-laden identities (gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality); such enactments are imagined, moreover, as directly and predominantly political in meaning and consequence." There is more to be discussed than how we relate to ascribed identities in political contexts. "Ultimately, a whole range of possible dimensions of individuality and personality, temperament and character, is bracketed, as is the capacity to discuss what might count as intellectual or political virtue or, just as importantly, to ever distinguish between the two" (pp. 122-3)