. . .

No Better than We Should Be

JEFF MARKHAM: "We owe it all to José Rodriguez. I wonder if he'll ever know what a bad guide he really was."

Two Anglo-American academic disciplines recently took their aesthetics on an "ethical turn," although their turns share little other than fondness for Henry James and a professionally useful handle. (As Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell once put it, "You mean we could have our pictures taken together?")

Literary criticism's "cognitive turn" and "evolutionary turn" have introduced oversimplifications, misunderstandings, and the most puerile of observations. The ethical turn operates at a higher level entirely. Close reading, introspection, historical and biographical tidbits, the canonical vocabulary of Theory, and consumer studies from surveys or labs all the proven tools of the critical trade remain at reach within a sturdy and compelling perhaps even compulsory frame.

Why do I so loathe the trend, then? Why does bile choke even the expression of my loathing?

And why should you care?

Ethically-turned critics promise inestimable rewards if you'll take time to closely attend the articulation of a spiritual struggle, no matter how privileged the protagonist or how idiosyncratic the circumstance. They describe it almost as your duty.

Friends, I fight for your right to ignore me.

... to be continued ...

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 2

Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James by J. Hillis Miller

Working at the top of his game, Miller explicates "beautifully," to use the Master's own term for such blends of caution and engagement. (Which is to say "carefully," if, unlike the Master, one prefers ambiguity to vagueness.) I happily recommend Miller's celebration to any non-Jamesians in the mood to understand what they're missing and to any Jamesians in the mood for intelligent companionship.

Even in our contested territory, Miller behaves with probity. When Martha Nussbaum delineates the ideal James reader (and by extension the ideal to which all citizens should aspire), she seems unaware how neatly her terms fit Fanny Assingham and The Sacred Fount's Nameless One. Miller meets both head-on:

We are not all that much better off than Maggie or than the narrator-participant of The Sacred Fount, except that we are permitted by the narrative voice to juxtapose several different perspectives. We have several different acts of reading the signs elaborately presented to us, most notably Fanny's and Maggie's. The Sacred Fount, however, focuses primarily on what is problematic and dismayingly unverifiable about the passive/active event of reading signs, making a global interpretation of a presented social scene, and then establishing a law of interpersonal exchange on that basis. The Golden Bowl focuses more on the way a reading of social signs can be performatively felicitous if others can be got to believe it or to act as if they believe it.

The book achieves its goals and cannot step outside them without rupturing genre boundaries. Miller must leave one strand dangling:

When her husband asks what will be his punishment, Fanny answers, somewhat contradictorily: "Nothing you're not worthy of any. One's punishment is in what one feels, and what will make ours effective is that we shall feel." ... If we are unimaginative readers, we can escape responsibility, but only by being grossly irresponsible. Either way we have had it, in a painful double bind that might lead one to conclude it would be better not to read The Golden Bowl at all.

I believe that conclusion should be taken seriously. For one thing, it reflects social reality: most people have not read The Golden Bowl at all. Even literate English-speakers of James's own time tended to leave James's novels unread; some did so with great vehemence. Is there anything to be said for someone (not our dear selves, I hasten to add) who refuses to become "the thoughtful reader of The Golden Bowl. I mean the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it, that is, as a particularly exigent and responsible part of 'the conduct of life'"?

Testimony isn't lacking should the unthoughtful reader seek it. James is dithering; James is timid; James would rather risk incoherence than risk coming to the point. James is a grotesquely pompous peeping-tom, unwilling to assume the responsibility of physical contact and unable to stop nosing around others' sex lives. James is an un-American sissy.

(That last would be Theodore Roosevelt's critique, and yes, I find it offensive. But given his offensive starting point, I can't argue with it any more than I can with the tastes of a later Roosevelt. Henry James and the Roosevelts aimed at different lives and different afterlives. They also serve who don't just stand and wait.)

Having admitted the possibility of refusal, let's tot up the benefits accruing to our own more enlightened status. We can begin with James himself; although he lacked Harlan Ellison reflexes, occasionally an attack did sting him into the indignity of self-defense. I've already had the pleasure of transcribing two examples; here's a very brief third, to his brother:

I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won't you seem to me so constitutionally unable to ‘enjoy’ it, and so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it, and to the conditions out of which, as mine, it has inevitably sprung.... And yet I can read you with rapture

Written to three very different skeptics, they all follow the same course: James points to his absolute certainty that he, Henry James, experiences life in a certain way and had no choice but to write what he wrote, that the only way for him to not do these things would be to not be Henry James, but that, as Henry James, he's not restricted to a diet of Henry James but delights even in the work of naysayers. Henry James was often sad and often disappointed, but Henry-James-ism was enough to provide inexhaustible and inextinguishable comfort:

If one acts from desire quite as one would from belief, it signifies little what name one gives to one's motive. By which term action I mean action of the mind, mean that I can encourage my consciousness to acquire that interest, to live in that elasticity and that affluence, which affect me as symptomatic and auspicious. I can't do less if I desire, but I shouldn't be able to do more if I believed. Just so I shouldn't be able to do more than cultivate belief; and it is exactly to cultivation that I subject my hopeful sense of the auspicious; with such success or at least with such intensity as to give me the splendid illusion of doing something myself for my prospect, or at all events for my own possibility, of immortality.

Which is to say that your objections would vanish if you could become "that queer monster," Henry James.

Well! This is an admirably modest argument which establishes an enviable position. But it has one flaw: most of us will not become Henry James. And that may be just as well. A world full of Henry Jameses, or even a summer house full of Henry Jameses, sounds a bit stifling. As Paul Kerschen once said, you need at least one dangerously naive young lady as leaven.

Henry James himself, of course, had no choice but to speak exclusively for himself; he was too polite to subpoena character witnesses. The curious thing is that Miller's defense also occasionally relies on muddling just who's doing what: "the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it" will surely be disappointed by her royalty statements.

We'll encounter this muddle again, but for now let us instead assume that reading Henry James will not make us Henry James. How else might we be influenced?

We cannot successfully "be one of the people on whom nothing is lost" because there will always be something going on outside our focal range, and a good thing too. Instead, James suggests trying to be such a person; that is, attempting to lose nothing of our particular small slice of existence. As role models, Henry James's late protagonists do almost nothing but look at and think about occasions which have been carefully selected and arranged for their benefit. As role players who are reading Henry James, we will look at and think about James's pages, carefully selected and arranged for our benefit. Monkey see, monkey sit.

And so to the extent that an ethics is directly derivable from Henry James, it happens to be the ethics of academic criticism and academic philosophy. His novels lend the characteristic activity of scholarship the glamor of narrative. But when his reader is "put on trial," it's merely play. The ethical difficulties of fiction are to the ethical difficulties of life as Tabasco sauce is to firefighting.

Let's look up from our book and imagine a common everyday example of inaction like ignoring a crying child. We may be exhausted, resentful, and drunk. We may be an Objectivist who knows that indulging our sentimentality would bring disaster upon the adult-to-be and perhaps the world! We may be a devout Christian who believes it up to the Lord to decide the little angel's fate. We may be a novelist, finishing our thousand words for the day. Or we may be a critical pedagogue intent on settling questions like "Did Maggie do right? Did she act justly? Was her perjury an efficacious speech act? Was it 'felicitous'?"

Should one consider "conduct" not merely a matter of interpretive protocols but also a matter of how one behaves, one should go on to consider that the loudest champion of James's late work was Ezra Pound.


Josh Lukin writes:

"the indignity of self-defense" -- you mean, writing stuff like "Limited Inc a b c"? Derrida certainly had "Harlan Ellison reflexes," thanks no doubt to a similar background . . .

The translator must've left out the part about breaking Searle's kneecaps.

To misquote a prof of aesthetics, "Beware of ethicists, they always want to bend at the knee."

Wendy Walker writes:

I have always remembered the injunction "Try to be...." as "A writer is someone upon whom nothing is wasted." Either James wrote that somewhere else, or I have amended it in my very creative memory. I do remember his saying this in conjunction to the relation of a a scene from his childhood-- He was playing with a little girl who was a friend and her father came to get her and tell her it was time to go. She started to fuss and cry, because she wanted to keep on playing with little Henry. Her father admonished her strictly, "Lizzie (or whatever her name was), don't make a scene!" James dates his understanding of what "a scene" is from that moment.

The importance of this in the context of your essay rests upon the nuance of the word "lost"-- "wasted" implies recycling, whereas "lost" does not, and I do wonder if James didn't mean "lost" in the sense of "wasted" rather than in the sense in which you interpret it. It is one thing to use a book or experience to become a "better person" but quite another to use it to make another book. I have always assumed that he meant the latter.

Although my prose hopelessly obscures the point, I agree with you as to James's intent: he explicitly addressed the novice writer rather than the general public. My quarrel is not with James's words but with Nussbaum's and Miller's interpretations, which erase any such distinction.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 3

Ethical Joyce by Marian Eide

With the aid of Levinas, Derrida, and Irigaray, Eide tidies the Feminist Joyce, the Post-Colonial Joyce, and other Joyces beside into a unified Ethical Joyce. Psychoanalytic theory, l'écriture féminine, smirks about homosexuality, expressions of solidarity with racial stereotypes, genetic textual studies, family biography, puns, coincidences, misunderstandings all, all engage alterity.

As one might expect, Eide cites Joyce as often to illustrate summaries of French theorists as she cites French theorists to prompt explications of Joyce; she handles both tasks splendidly. (I'm particularly grateful for her analysis of Mr. Deasy's coin collection and her correlation of Finnegans Wake revisions to changes in Lucia Joyce's condition.) Neither will the experienced reader be shocked by an occasional hint of partisanship, as in this note on the structure of Exiles:

Joyce refuses an audience's scopophilia, the possibly prurient interest that might be satisfied by witnessing the love scene or failed love scene between Bertha and Robert in the cottage. As in so many of his other works, Joyce draws a curtain before a woman's body and her love (readers never, for example, directly witness Molly Bloom's assignation with Blazes Boylan), granting women characters a privacy that resists the prurience of mimesis and its claims to full revelation.

Few would agree that the last chapter of Ulysses respects Molly Bloom's privacy, and surely Joyce's reason for avoiding the Bloom home was to reserve Mrs. Bloom for his big finale. Similarly, the "moral dilemma" presented to the Exiles audience might be taken as a (generally unsuccessful) attempt to maneuver us into an attitude not far from Richard's scab-picking jealousy.

Special pleading and bardolatry are hardly new to the Joyce industry, and Eide is far from being the worst offender. But with "Ethical Joyce" she explicitly intends to raise the stakes even if she must also hedge her bet: "Ethics, as I am defining it... is an engagement with radical alterity or difference within the context of ultimate responsibility (in the sense of responsiveness) to the other."

Having gone against Levinas in applying his intrapersonal ethics to the production and consumption of artifacts, Eide goes further by treating dead texts as stand-ins for human subjects: "Rather than testing moral vision through ethical dilemmas within the text, I argue that the interpretive facility, that relation between text and reader, itself provides both an ethical dilemma and opportunity." "Perhaps the least obvious, though most immediate, example of this paradigm is the relation between text and reader." (Although I understand the impulse, it does remind me of the court decisions which granted American corporations legal personhood.)

Since Joyce lived before Levinas et al, Eide explains how he achieved his signature values without their aid:

For example, his realization that his mother had provided him with his first habitat and sustained his life through adolescence and yet fell victim to the very system that nurtured his own success, altered Joyce's understanding of his obligation to women both in his literary representations and in his private relations with Nora Barnacle and later with his daughter, Lucia.

This smooth pass between the general and the personal amounts almost to (unintended) sleight of hand. It's hardly rare to find sexists who except their daughters or their wives from condemnation. Moreover, heterosexual male masochism doesn't guarantee feminist sympathies: dominatrices work in a clearly prescribed role, sometimes not of their own volition. Around the time of Exiles, Nora Joyce complained that her husband pushed her to "go with other men so that he would have something to write about," and Joyce's conversation bristled with a misogyny which anticipates that later skinny obsessive, Robert Crumb. Here's an unusually good-humored example:

His lips tightened, he moved in his chair with annoyance and said, "I hate women who know anything." But Mary Colum, not to be put down, said, "No, Joyce, you don't. You like them, and I am going to contradict you about this in print when I get the chance." He fumed silently for a few moments, then abruptly detached himself from his anger and let a half-smile show on his face. Mrs. Colum thought she had converted him, but the poem he recited to her a few days later about his women friends was scarcely corroborative evidence:
As I was going to Joyce Saint James'
I met with seven extravagant dames;
Every dame had a bee in her bonnet,
With bats from the belfrey roosting upon it.
And Ah, I said, poor Joyce Saint James,
What can he do with these terrible dames?
Poor Saint James Joyce.
- Richard Ellman, James Joyce, New & Revised Edition

Eide's Viennese-schooled treatment of incest ignores the very germane use of Aquinas in Joyce's own fable of artistic development:

Saint Thomas, Stephen smiling said, whose gorbellied works I enjoy reading in the original, writing of incest from a standpoint different from that of the new Viennese school Mr Magee spoke of, likens it in his wise and curious way to an avarice of the emotions. He means that the love so given to one near in blood is covetously withheld from some stranger who, it may be, hungers for it.

Joyce rarely welcomed fresh company or confrontation; by his own admission (and by others' critiques) he boasted neither broad experience nor power of invention as conventionally understood: "my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I'm in need of." Instead, he took the risk of assuming that his sexuality could stand in for any man's sexuality, that (a caricature of) his wife could stand in for the whole of womankind, and finally that his own clutch of singularities could stand in for all the world through all history. He plotted the heavens through a microscope. His risk paid off, but not without losses along the way. It does us and his work no harm to acknowledge them.

To the pay-off, then. How, exactly, does Joyce perform his ethics?

"For Joyce the first ethical consideration is the experience and expression of sympathy within the preservation of difference. In other words, ethical response makes possible a communion that does not obscure necessary separation." "Ethical representation cannot unambiguously endeavor to mirror or shadow one's own consciousness; rather, an ethical representation carefully delineates a sense of one's difference from an other while at the same time registering sympathy and responsiveness to the other, in other words, partial identification."

In the literary realm, such performative ethics have been discussed under other names: "negative capability," "free indirect discourse," "rounded characterization," or simply "realism." "Locating his ethics in the interpretive space between opposites, Joyce would of necessity, to paraphrase Derrida, oppose racism, nationalism, and xenophobias of various kinds." And similarly, by locating his ethics in dramatic dialogue, Shakespeare would of necessity oppose anti-Semitism. But insofar as both chose ethics of art-making, such "opposition" became unlikely to influence personal habit or communal action. One can say "Joyce labored to recognize multiple subjectivities in his fiction" without indexing the statement as "ethical." "Artisanal Joyce" works just as well, I think.

If I'm correct that the book's chosen epithet is unnecessary, why should I treat it as undesirable?

Although Eide wishes to avoid intentional and biographical fallacies, I think we can call "Red light!" at the point when our interpretation of a seventy-year-old novel depends on weighing the pros and cons of a long-dead couple's treatment of their daughter. It seems impossible to mount an ad hominem defense without admitting the validity of ad hominem attacks. And Eide's assertion that "ethics" must be taken as technical jargon convinces me no more than a soft-Lacanian's insistence that the Phallus mustn't be confused with a penis: if you wave a huge pink sex toy around while you talk, it's disingenuous to tell listeners not to look at it. I fear the chemical reaction which would be set up in our critical discourse by a false homage to an abstraction behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration:

The Objection from Creepiness asks us to imagine an artwork whose aesthetic value is only available to ethically flawed people or, as I shall call them for brevity's sake, creeps. [...] The problem is not just the work's limited appeal to a highly specific audience. The artistic value of James Joyce's Ulysses, for instance, is only fully accessible to those who can read Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, and who are well versed in Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, to name only a few, but the novel is not thereby aesthetically defective. This is perhaps because doing whatever it takes to get inside the novel would be good for us; it would help us realize our potential as human beings. What's special about the creepy case is that we have to do something that's bad for us in order to get inside the work; we would have to become creeps, even for just the moments that we spend with the work, and this is contrary to our flourishing.
- A. W. Eaton, "Where Ethics and Aesthetics Meet: Titian's Rape of Europa"

With apologies to Eaton, Greek and Latin are scarcely the major stumbling blocks of Ulysses, and "creepiness" was precisely the objection of Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and many other early readers yea, unto some of my own undergraduate faculty.

As it happens, I do believe Joyce's books are distinctively and genuinely good in both senses of the word. And although third-party corroboration may be limited, I feel I become a better person when I read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

This sense, however, has little to do with some unique "engagement with radical alterity," nothing to do with avoiding "creepiness" I also feel I become a better person when I watch George Romero movies and much to do with humor, honesty, technical chops, and formal innovation. While the reductionism of "What else were they invented for?" cannot be redeemed, it is in some sense balanced by the open self-pity and self-loathing of "Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?" And Joyce's mortar-and-pestling of Flaubert's determinist realism, Flaubert's spectacular phantasmagoria, and Flaubert's idiot burlesque sets up a most un-Flaubert-like chemical reaction in some sore souls.

Writers aim to create something which is better at least more persistently articulate than they themselves; readers aim to have some experience otherwise unavailable to them, which may well include the experience of an ethics which remains within reading. If in some sense it's true that a Europe which took Finnegans Wake to performative-heart would have experienced a very different sort of 1939, it's just as true that a James Joyce who took his own work "seriously" would never have cut off friends, threatened law suits, drank to excess, sponged or possibly written at all. If I took my Joyce reading "seriously," my life would be something better than a quotidian wreck (Prius, pass by!) I might even limp through it without the balm of re-reading Joyce. Sadly, happily, and all other sensations besides, life cannot be a book.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 4

Poetic Obligation: Ethics in Experimental American Poetry after 1945 by G. Matthew Jenkins

Jenkins has successfully brooded that rara avis, a serious university-published critical study of interesting late-twentieth-century poets: George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Susan Howe, and Lyn Hejinian. The book conveys enthusiasm without hysteria, and Jenkins's interpretations are marred only (and maybe unavoidably) by a blanket stodginess which sometimes muffles the untoward goings-on beneath.

Again, however, I resolutely turn from the hard-won virtues of a recommended book and towards my bad temper. When summing up, Jenkins asks:

Can this experience of alterity, to which we are obligated to respond in the poem, transfer to our daily lives outside of poetic activity? That question is, of course, impossible to answer definitively because it would require us to assert a Logos once again and to therefore assume we know the Other. However, it is not unfair to conclude that if one becomes accustom [sic] to encountering alterity in the reading/writing of a poem, then one would be less likely to respond to alterity in other contexts with the same disdain for, distrust of, and discrimination against the Other that has marked the history of Western thought and civilization.

Granting the premise (and ignoring that collapse of "reading/writing"), the conclusion may be in some sense fair. But if we've truly learned a healthy distrust of subjectivity, we must seek external validation of Jenkins's intuition, and we will fail to find any. Reactions to particular artifacts vary wildly by age, by background, by individual. Attempts to measure their effects drastically alter those effects. It's true that in one unusually clear study, playing Bob Sinclair's "Love Generation" in the background led to more charitable donations than playing Bob Sinclair's "Rock This Party" in the background. But compare Sinclair's lyrics to those of Jenkins's (and my) preferred poets:

Why must the children play in the streets?
Broken hearts and faded dreams, ease up to everyone that you meet
Don't you worry, it could be so sweet
Just look to the rainbow, you will see
The sun will shine till eternity
I've got so much love in my heart
No one can tear it apart

Feel the love generation
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Feel the love generation
C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, yeah

Does a 33% possibility that this will sway me to donate two dollars to some non-profit organization make it a good song? Or to put it in active that is, ethical terms does it make me choose to hear it? What's the likelihood that listening to it ninety-nine more times will trigger a donation of two hundred dollars? What excuse can I offer for instead choosing to hear Iggy and the Stooges' "Cock in My Pocket"? This does not demonstrate the efficacy of contemporary experimental poetry; it confirms the efficacy of propaganda, advertising, and Muzak.

Myself, I'm an unusually bookish person, and so novels have perhaps two or three times triggered or reinforced changes in my behavior, or at least my intentions and interpretations. Which, while impressive in the abstract, compares poorly to the shapings wrought by ridicule, praise, welcome, rejection, an empty belly, a dizzy head, firings, promotions, desertions, caresses, illnesses, and deaths. Drastic changes in my poetic taste have followed drastic changes in my practical ethics notably, my stomach-turn against confessional formalism but never, to my knowledge, the other way round.

Having argued against Jenkins's conclusion, I must now argue against his premise. It seems doubtful that any human beings, "Western" or not, actually would accustom themselves to alterity by reading or writing contemporary experimental poems. What would drive them to do so? A choir can be heard only by the congregation who's gathered. Even an "adventurous" reader like myself won't continue to plug away at a thoroughly unrewarding volume. It's too easy to close and put down.

Unless, of course, I'm going to be judged on my reading in a classroom, for example.

In such a pedagogical context, Jenkins's approach is valuable, and familiar: students will naturally wonder what the hell these people think they're doing and why anyone should care, and the instructor will naturally ascribe sensible and compelling motives to these people, replacing irritable bewilderment with lecture-by-proxy, the unyielding painting with an accessible wall-text.

But now any encounter with alterity takes place at a twice-over remove: like all reading, it occurs between a reading subject and a textual object rather than between human equals; that reading in turn occurs within a formal social context imposed by authority. And all available evidence tells us that the ethical effects of a flesh-and-blood-and-dollars interaction will easily swamp the minute and highly variable effects of assigned reading.

Given the familiarity of Jenkins's methods, motives, and probable surroundings, what then calls for the use of Levinian vocabulary? The special needs of this particular material? Apparently not:

... each one of these poets has led an "ethical" life, being for others and making the world a better place with their actions and words. But that does not mean that they intentionally "craft" an ethics through their poetic art. Yes, all of the poets I include in this study deal with ethical issues thematically, but that is true of almost all poetry dating back to Homer. But these poets write in such a way that the demand of the Other obliges them and us through language. Since their poetry does not depend on the poets' intentions or on history or politics or action, then one could argue that this ethics can be found in any type of poetry or in any manifestation of language. And that would be true.

And I would agree. Which is why, when Jenkins begins his final chapter:

"As W. H. Auden famously quipped, poetry makes nothing happen..."

he behaves unethically. An elegy written for Yeats and in 1939 was no place for quips. Auden's statement meant not that poetry doesn't act, but that poetry specifically acts to make nothing happen. "It survives in the valley of its making," far from the motivating-somethings busily thrown and stacked up and knocked to the ground by executives and politicians and army corps; "it survives, a way of happening, a mouth."

Oppen's reputation as an ethically motivated poet derived from his blatant choice to leave the poetic context for several decades. When dedicated to Communism, Oppen naturally (like any human being) also attempted to behave ethically to family, strangers, enemies, and comrades, continuously negotiating those not-always-beautifully-coinciding demands. And his return to a poetic context was an equally blatant choice, at least partly justified by the knowledge that people tend to lead less frustrating lives when they do what they feel impelled to do. It didn't eradicate the border between political service and lip service.


Copy Editor Bear wants to know if the outfit responsible for "one becomes accustom" also got Lyn Hejinian's name wrong... he's a pest, that bear. On the Stooges: surely they recorded that song because they weren't supposed to, and surely you aren't supposed to listen to it, and it all goes to show that if alterity matters, autonomy matters even more. Which is one sad thing about classrooms.

No, a different outfit was responsible for adding an "n" to "Lyn" (and not for the first time, neither). Thank you, Copy Editor Bear!

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 5

And on a bright fall Saturday there we all were, sipping coffee, bitching under our collective breath, and ready to be indoctrinated in the company's much-vaunted QCEL managerial philosophy Quality, Creativity, Ethics and Leadership.... Several hundred phuds, most in the engineering and science fields and some with international reputations, marched through "creativity" sessions in which a trainer with a master's degree in creativity (no shit) inculcated them in the beauty of "convergent and divergent thinking." Or in which they were asked to work in teams to create that "best" paper airplane (i.e., Quality through teamwork, teamwork through Leadership). Or in which they were instructed in the importance of sound (business) ethics without being asked to consider (e.g.) the ethical impact of divorcing ethics from more bracing issues of morality or politics.
- Joe Amato, "Technical Ex-Communication"

Most people would probably agree that ethical judgments should take actions into account, and few witnesses mistake the actions of writing and reading. Mixing them sacrifices any chance to distinguish good-guy contextual "ethics" from bad-guy universalizing "morality": an artwork can be condemned as equally immoral in deed and in effect, but an artwork can only be referred to as unethical in its making. To say that an act of embezzling is unethical is to say "In these circumstances, you shouldn't have embezzled"; if after seeing a movie, I unethically embezzle, the shame is wholly mine. To say that a movie is unethical is not to say "I shouldn't have watched that movie" but "You shouldn't have made or distributed that movie." And it's hard to picture a good humble Derridean saying such a thing.

So why have we seen such consistent fusing of the two roles?

It could that a mere reader, listener, or viewer who sought to promote mere reading or listening or viewing as a powerfully "ethical" practice might sound a bit swell-headed. Replacing the finished artifact with a personal name allows for a narrative of continuous directed action "Ethical Joyce" and "Ethical James" rather than "Ethical Chants de Maldoror" or "Ethical 'Rape of the Lock.'" And replacing the audience with the artist downplays the none-too-heroic security of transient consumption in favor of drive and risk.

Despite its suspicious convenience, though, I doubt this superimposition was instigated by the ethical turn. It's more likely a matter of habit. Purely formal analysis is generally confined to the workshop; insofar as criticism is a conversation held outside the realm of practice, it includes ethical suppositions, judgments, and re-enactments, and "ethical criticism" so defined would include most of my own scroungy corpus, including the dump around us. ("Bless my soul! I've been writing ethical criticism for over forty years without knowing it, and I'm ever so grateful to you for teaching me that.")

This doesn't mean that artists ignore form or that our critical inventions are always supported by evidence. As we've mentioned before, very few writers or directors or musicians under oath would describe anything resembling the intentions we ascribe to "the author." No, it merely means that justification depends on the vocabulary of intent. I am (it seems to me) fully capable of feeling satisfaction, delight, sorrow, or disgust as self-sufficient experiences. But when my reactions are challenged by a skeptic, I grasp for and wield the intentions and effects of imagined creators, the intentions and effects of an imagined audience, my own intended effects....

* * *

Such analyses (except, of course, done much, much better) would find their proper home in an ethics of literary criticism.

In the stack of books and journals that fed this essay, my most pleasant surprise was "Jazz Improvisation and Ethical Interaction: A Sketch of the Connections" by philosopher-musician Garry Hagberg. Hagberg describes his experience of behaviors encouraged and discouraged within collaborative jazz performance, and then goes on to acknowledge some widely held ethical guidelines which do not apply in this particular sphere.

Pieces similar to Hagberg's could be written about any collaborative venture: migrant farming, garbage collection, a political campaign, whale hunting, a meal, a ballgame, a fuck, an execution. Each area of human endeavor holds characteristic blind spots and expectations. Studying its ethics isn't a matter of proving how much better it is than alternative endeavors but of understanding how it works.

Collaborative jazz performance is one fairly clearly delineated subcategory of artistic production. Is there anything that can be said about the ethics of artistic consumption, or of literature, in general?

As a self-described aesthete, I must suppose so. But after setting my blur-filter to maximum, I see only a message of gray relativism. Social context swamps all:

And so I immediately felt sympathetic to Derrida's appropriation of Levinas. No aesthete could hear a hail-alterity-well-met without thinking of our own oh-so-flexible oh-so-fascinatingly-varied pseudo-relations to artifacts.

But recognition is not identity wasn't that the point? and artifacts are not friends, family, tribe, or strangers: I may pointedly ignore a book for years at a time, lend it out, or hurl it across the room without damaging our relationship in the least. A proven utility of representation is to distance oneself from the thing represented. Last year around this time, the Panglossian researchers at OnFiction summarized and spun some other relevant results:

Djikic et al. (2009a) asked people to read either a Chekhov short story, or a version of the story in a non-fiction format, which was the same length, the same reading difficulty, and just as interesting. Readers of Chekhov's story (as compared with the version in non-fiction format) experienced changes in personality. These changes were small, and in different directions, particular to each reader. In a companion study, Djikic et al. (2009b) found that people who routinely avoid emotions in ordinary life experienced larger emotion changes as a result of reading the Chekhov story than those who did not usually avoid their emotions. We interpret these studies as indicating that fiction can be an occasion for transforming the self, albeit in small ways, and can also be a way of reaching those who tend to cut themselves off from their emotions.

Alternatively, it can be a way to help us continue cutting ourselves off from our emotions: I might prefer reading fiction and poetry and watching films to reading newspapers and watching TV because the former applies a cool damp cloth along my forehead while the latter makes me flush and sputter. It's been posited that sleep evolved as a way to keep mammals out of trouble, and art may anti-serve similar non-ends. The primal proponent of aestheticism in the Victorian imagination was "Mr. Rose," a bugaboo of harmlessness.

To cite a social practice treated with similar piety by practitioners, it's been shown that pet owning can teach responsibility, provide a safe route for caring impulses, and reduce loneliness. Nevertheless, maintaining six yapping dogs or twenty yowling cats has proven no guarantor of fairness, empathy, or even politeness towards members of our own species.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, concluded

The trouble with great literature is that any asshole can identify with it.
- Peter Handke, The Weight of the World, via ads

Do I exhibit the moral indignation of minor differences? Is this only a question of labeling?

Probably, and what does a label do? It indicates cost, signals intent, calls for reaction. A label transforms (for example) a shaped bit of cloth into a social activity. It's a matter of word choice, but choosing words is our business. And what are we ourselves to be labeled if we do our business in a slipshod fashion?

Considered as speech act, then, an "ethical" label performs what?

Just as the most parsimonious explanation for Christian tycoons would be the universal prevalence of greedy hypocrites, what's at work here is likely the widely-held mission statement, "Whatever I do must be right; let us determine how." The Marine Corps builds men and a few women; football builds character; unfettered capitalism builds a better tomorrow; hunting adds to our appreciation of nature; chess sharpens the wits.... Although "the ethical turn" doesn't sabotage critical habits as "the cognitive turn" does, neither does it add more than a bit of smug virtue to our usual smug cleverness.

Virtue is, however, a special case.

Dorothy J. Hale asks "Is there an anti-humanist or post-humanist way of conceptualizing the emotions of the engaged novel reader as a non-colonizing translation of social difference into a positive basis of community and political reform?" Which suggests another question: Is there any way to turn a quest for an anti-humanist or post-humanist way of conceptualizing the emotions of the engaged novel reader as a non-colonizing translation of social difference into something anyone outside Hale's discipline would characterize as ethical action? Such a turn is a new twist on an old mat, a "responsibility to the text" which indefinitely defers responsibility to human beings. It makes me feel something akin, I think, to the loathing some Quakers felt toward Nixon. Like we're pissing away what's important in the name of what's important.

Even to myself, this reaction seems unjust but then I don't pretend to be an arbiter of justice in this essay. I pretend the contrary.

Artists shouldn't get a free pass; it would sometimes be better if they lost all ID whatsoever. (It's difficult to enjoy a whimsical tale of romantic haplessness from a spoiled brat who's screwed you over, or to accept a clothes-tearing breast-beating elegy from a poet who avoided and belittled its subject.) What offends in the ethical turn's conflation of author and work is that it obscures the signature clarity with which authorship distinguishes achievement from biography, worthwhile ends from a role model's means. Not the hypocrisy of "Do what I say" but the generosity of "Take what I make... or not."

Similarly, assigning ethical value to art-in-general sabotages whatever ethical value art-in-general brings about. As Nabokov wrote, writing with "a deliberate moral purpose largely defeats [the writing's] purpose, killing the inherent morality of uninhibited art." True it is that Beckett annotated Ethics on a time, but we know he would not let the filthy word contaminate his cleanroom of cunt and fucklife and allballs and boil and fizzle. It would be a crime against taste.

The crime is not necessarily victimless. Contemplate the tenured Marxist-feminist professor who threatens denial of financial aid to extort an unwelcome dissertation topic from an impoverished graduate student, and who then goes on to enjoy a $200 dinner with Greil Marcus. While the professor has possibly read Dickens's account of Mrs. Jellyby and understood its intent, further scholarly labor secured his ability to lock Dickens's manipulative and subject-reinforcing pathos away in its proper ideological context. As critics, the ethically-turned fare far better than evolutionary psychologists. But as ethical critics, they share a position of unshakeable authority.

Well, please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that would grant exclusive benefits to people like me.

Wasn't that the founding rule of this club?


Atem is breathtakingly generous.

. . .

Good Enough

I'm reluctant to call anything a "cultural universal," even something that pretty much decides whether an archaeologist announces the discovery of "culture," but art-making is certainly more universal than the justifications offered for art-making. Which is not to say that art is best when motivated least but merely to confess that, as with other cultural near-universals (marriage, say), any particular motivation won't suffice for the general case. Or even for the particular.

Thus the let-down. Thanks to the Republican furloughs I finally disgorged the "ethical criticism" essay that lodged between brain and trachea for a year and a half, and to quote Lord Bullingdon "I have not received satisfaction." Not that I could receive satisfaction, I know that much by now. Cross-posting to the Valve would've bought me at most a day or two, and appearing in a print organ would've sickened me for months instead of weeks. The least miserable producers I know avoid hangovers by making sure a new project's underway by the time the old one's facing the public. With this dayjob, though, the best I can manage is hair of the dog.

Of course I am obscure; I am not offering myself but my hospitality. Nor do I hawk my hospitality abroad. I give out indications of my willingness to dispense hospitality on a basis that protects my integrity as a host.
- Laura Riding, letter to the Times Literary Supplement, March 3 1932,
six years before closing her quaint-curiosity-shoppe-with-New-York-deli-service

Given my mood, I wondered why our beloved metameat didn't flourish das Gift, but upon reflection in someone else's mirror I realized that probably once you've learned German and read Finnegans Wake and a shitload of critical theory you'd get a little tired of that particular false friend, even if no false friend was ever better named.

Or was it? Maybe we can't trust it even that far. A perfect false friend, like a perfect rhyme or perfect pun, should be the product of miraculous chance. Whereas Gift is poison because poison is something given:

[Com. Teut.: OE. ghift str. fem. (recorded only in the sense 'payment for a wife', and in the plural with the sense 'wedding') corresponds to OFris. jeft fem., gift, MDu. gift(e) (Du. gift fem., gift, gift neut., now more commonly gif, poison), OHG. gift fem., gift, poison (MHG., mod.G. gift fem., gift, neut., poison), ON. gift, usually written gipt gift (Sw., Da. -gift in compounds), pl. giptar a wedding, Goth. -gifts in compounds.... The two words 'gift/Gift' in English and German both have the common germanic ancestor geban 'to give'. The rest is separate development through many centuries. The word for 'to poison' used to be 'vergeben'', but it went out of use because of its homophone meaning 'to forgive', and became 'vergiften'.]

It's a gift a present rather than a presentation because, like it or not, no matter how loudly we protest our detachment, in a (falsely?) friendly act the giver is there, is implicated. The detective calls his suspects to dismiss them: the victim was poisoned by herself, in a single dose from a table service blunder, or absorbed over a lifetime of serial killing.

Speaking of etymology:

[< Anglo-Norman poisoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French poisun, puisun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French poison, puison, puisson, Old French poisson, pouson, Middle French poyson (French poison) drink, draught (end of the 11th cent.), poisonous drink (1155), potion, medicinal drink (c1165), poisonous substance (1342) < classical Latin potion-, potio (see POTION n.). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan poison drink, draught (c1150), potion (c1200), poison (early 13th cent.).]

So maybe "Name your poison" isn't such an impressive joke either.

SCOTTIE: "Here, Judy. Drink this straight down, just like medicine."
JUDY: "Why are you doing this? What good will it do?"
SCOTTIE: "I don't know. No good, I guess. I don't know."


you sayin it ought to be the gifted Mr Ripley?

Now there was an artist without regrets!

Jonathan Mayhew kindly writes:

I love that idea that "art-making is certainly more universal than the justifiications for art-making." That encapsulates something I've been trying to get my head around for awhile.


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.