«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
In Black‘s view, this once relevant critical line has by now solidified into a critical meta-narrative, a set of widespread critical givens that should be replaced. In her view, ethics as a form of responsibility to one‘s object of inquiry—a responsibility opposed to hegemonic domination and representational violence—offers a feasible ―interpretative lens‖ for the examination of social difference. She further characterizes ethics ―as an open field of possible emancipatory alternatives whose contours are continually being imagined‖ (3). Ghosh‘s works fit nicely into her delineation of ―border-crossing fiction,‖ which is defined by its representation of the dissonance between subject and object of representation on the one hand and the drive to transcend this difference on the other. Due to this latter aspiration, border-crossing fiction in Black‘s view ―embraces the challenge of representation with an intensity that surpasses the general concern with alterity at large‖ (4). She sets up three criteria for the ethical representation of social difference within her model. First, the novels have to show a recognition of the self and discourses as socially shaped. Further, they must acknowledge that the act of imagining the other demands the active reimagining one‘s own social location.
Consequently, the significant contribution of her book to ethical literary criticism lies perhaps not so much in methodological innovativeness, as in the fact that she limits the scope of her study to a certain brand of border-crossing fiction defined on account of its approach to the representation of social difference. Furthermore, her chosen writers all work within postcolonial, feminist, and ethnic-minority traditions. Amitav Ghosh‘s work belongs to this brand of writing on account of the socio-cultural circumstances from which it springs, and also through its attempts to secure the features of the other and to transcend the borders of social difference while acknowledging their existence. Accordingly, Black examines The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide as parts of her argument (2010, 167-183 & 183respectively). Her interpretation of the latter moves along the same line as mine in III.1.2. & the article (IV.6.) As became evident in the beginning of section II.5., in the context of The Glass Palace she concentrates on Ghosh‘s method of representing others who would not in reality be speaking English, seeing this earlier novel as the starting point for the more radical driving of language to its limit apparent in The Hungy Tide. I touch on Ghosh‘s treatment of language in my article on the novel (IV.5.).
In her review of Black‘s book, Chambers claims that she ―makes too little effort to define her terms or trace their histories‖ (Chambers 2010). She acknowledges the validity of Black‘s approach to border crossing, but finds it regrettable that for instance national border crossing is barely mentioned, although many of the writers have a migrant status. Chude-Sokei (2010) observes that Black‘s attempt to include a variety of representational strategies represented by the chosen writers within a notion of ethics defined as a "planetary" results in structural weaknesses. He claims that the particular political differences and the refusal to be contained by ideological categories of the writers/novels examined become silenced under this overarching planetary model. In general, these writers become too forcefully appropriated into Black's new scholarly metanarrative for the cultural study of border crossing. However, although suspicious of the book‘s overarching theoretical model, both Chambers and Chude-Sokei applaude Black‘s treatment of individual novels.
Black‘s goal is to examine how her chosen novels attempt to deal with the unresolvable political and philosophical problems involved in the representation of the other. In an ethical manner, these novels acknowledge the unsolvable nature of these problems. Nonetheless, they manifest an ethical responsibility towards solving them—a responsibility different writers realize in different manner. Instead of the influential meta-narratives in postcolonial, feminist, and ethnic-minority theories that have presented representations of alterity as forms of discursive domination, Black goes on to delineate an approach based on ―crowded selves‖ and ―crowded styles‖ indicating ―images of subjectivity and literary form that work agains familiar forms of invasive imagination in their encounters of difference‖ (14).
Although Black, whose book was published as recently as 2010, presents her model as new, it shares many philosophical and methodological aspects with the varied versions of ethical criticism that were developed in the late 1990s. To anticipate the kind of criticism levelled at Black on account of her failure ―to define her terms or trace their histories‖ (Chambers 2010), I shall now turn to the various ways in which the use of ‗the ethical interpretative lens‘ has been conceived within what is now commonly called the ethical turn in the study of literature. This turn became gradually discernible during the 1990s, had its heyday around the turn of the Millennium and is still with us as a pervasive undercurrent informing various approaches to the study of literature.
The current field of ethical study of literature brings together many varying strands. The first and most prolonged of these is the legacy conveyed by the critical traditions that have emphasized the moral thematics and basic value commitments of literary texts and their implied authors. Of the more recent contributions to studies on literary ethics, David Parker‘s Ethics, Theory and the Novel (1994) represents a well-informed upgrade of an Arnoldian-Leavisite idea of literature as a form of ethical reflection. A corresponding tradition in the United States can be found in the presence of moral thought from Puritanism to transcendentalism and on to pragmatism and beyond. Especially the works of transcendentalists such as Emerson or Melville provide particularly fruitful ground for more recent currents in the ethical study of literature, occupied as they are with the search for the unreachable truth beyond different versions apparent in the everyday world. Of the longterm ethical approaches to literature, quite as pervasive as the vein concentrating on the moral thematics and value commitments of texts and their authors has been the branch centering on the rhetoric of genre. The oeuvre of Wayne Booth, reaching through decades and focussing on narrative rhetoric as moral imagination, continues to be a frequent point of reference for negative and symphatetic critique alike.
The gradual turning of some philosophers to literature as the privileged site for moral and ethical discourse during the 1980s represents a development that is more recent and more pertinent to the contemporary state of affairs within ethical literary studies. Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre are probably the most obvious representatives of this line. In what is usually considered her major work, Love’s Knowledge. Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990) Nussbaum argues that the rich contextualization of moral reflection found in novels (notably in those of Henry James, but in others, too) presents an indispensable supplement to the study of moral philosophy (125-219). She also notes that ethically aware criticism, or ―the organizing questions of moral philosophy‖ (169), have been absent from the field of literary studies for several decades, pushed aside by the ‗linguistic turn‘ with its structuralist and poststructuralist emphasis on language and discursivity. Nussbaum voices a call for a kind of Aristotelian close relationship between literature and philosophy.7 Rorty has characterized philosophy as a form of writing (1982, 90-109). More recently, he has outlined works of fiction as model embodiments of social value (1989, 141-188). In the context of arguing for Proust‘s ethical superiority over philosophers like Nietszche or Heidegger, Rorty explains that ―novels are a safer medium than theory for expressing one‘s recognition of the relativity and contingency of authority figures:‖ For novels are usually about people – things which are, unlike general ideas and final vocabularies, quite evidently time-bound, embedded in a web of contingencies. Since the characters in novels age and die – since they obviously share the finitude of the books in which they occur – we are not tempted to think that by adopting an attitude toward them we have adopted an attitude toward every possible sort of person. By contrast, books which are about ideas, even when written by historicists like Hegel and Nietzsche, look like descriptions of eternal relations between eternal objects. (1989, 107-108) For Rorty, particular practices in particular circumstances are the important thing in ethics, instead of universal principles. This
view of ethical action is apparent in the practices of novelists:
A similar call for the importance of novels for moral philosophy and the significance of Aristotelian tradition has been put forward by MacIntyre in connection with Jane Austen‘s novels (1981).
The novelist‘s substitute for the appearance-reality distinction is a display of diversity of viewpoints, a plurality of descriptions of the same event. What the novelist finds especially comic is the attempt to privilege one of these descriptions [...]. What he finds most heroic is not the ability sternly to reject all descriptions save one, but rather the ability to move back and forth between them (1991, 74) This is highly significant for the purposes of this study, as the narrative strategies of Ghosh include a heightened awareness of the existence of multiple versions of same events (see section IV.1 on The Circle of Reason). In short, fictive narration ―presents us with individuality and diversity alike without any attempt to reduce either to the terms of a singular scheme of totality.‖ (Gibson 1999, 8). This point is central to my interpretation of Ghosh‘s novels: in his writing, novels turn into expressions of the ethics of pluralism by intertwining the particular characteristics of individual subjects with the characteristics of the surrounding society, thereby creating heterogeneous wholes.
All in all, the contribution of the likes of Nussbaum, MacIntyre and Rorty lies not so much in any originality of method, as in their turning back to a moral and social valueoriented approach to literature. From the point of view of literary theory, their approach seems dated in its pre-structuralist form.
The turn to literature may make the philosophers feel that they are gaining new ground. But this not so for most literary critics and theorists. It is only when the above views on literature and ethics are intertwined with post-structuralist views on discourse, narration and language in general that a more substantial change in ethically aware study of literature takes place. The starting points for this coming together of humanism and poststructuralism (or, more accurately, of ethics and deconstruction) in the 1990s is largely due to certain influential shifts in the later thinking of the key figures of post-structuralist literary theory, Michel Foucault and, more importantly, Jacques Derrida.
Through this incorporation of ethics into the study of discursive constructions and questions of power inherent in them the approach adopted in this dissertation also begins to take form more clearly. The rise of the ethics of deconstruction is, by coincidence, marked by the ‗fall‘ of the reputation of one of the leading deconstructionists, Paul de Man, with the posthumous publication of his Wartime Journalism in 1987. Letters in the publication included passages indicating Nazi-collaborationist activity. The publication of the letters resulted in a heated controversy over the moral and ethical emptiness and evasiveness of deconstruction. The Derridean idea of ‗nothing outside the text‘ began to be considered ethically void and problematic. Perhaps symptomatically, Derrida himself became increasingly engaged in social, political and ethical issues during the 1990s.
However, there were two pre-existing ethical currents within the deconstructionist camp even before the unfortunate de Man controversy. One of these was put forward chiefly by J.
Hillis Miller in his The Ethics of Reading in 1987 as a defence of the rigorous unreliability in critical reading as itself an ethics.
According to Miller, there is an ethical moment in deconstructive reading. In practice this means that the reader necessarily fails to read the text correctly (the necessity of the failure is what constitutes the rigorousness of the unreliability), because he/she cannot see into the hidden workings of the language. So the text retains its unreachable alterity, its otherness, and the reader is left with a ‗false‘ interpretation for which he/she is responsible. For Miller, however, ethics is still conceived as a branch of philosophy, rather than a pre-philosophical standpoint as it is in Levinas.
The other ethical undercurrent within deconstruction was formed by the close dialogue between Derrida and Levinas that lasted for decades. In practice, it seems that it was largely Derrida who called the attention of literary scholars to Levinas‘s work, notably through his critique of Levinas‘s first major work, Totality and Infinity (1961), in his essay ―Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas‖. The essay is mainly known from the collection Writing and Difference from the year 1978, but it was originally written and published shortly after the publication of Totality and Infinity. This critique by Derrida arguably had an effect on the way Levinas further complicated and developed his thinking into the form it takes in Otherwise than Being, or, Beyond Essence (1974), as an argument for ethics as first philosophy – formulating the priority of ethical obligation for the other to ontology and being itself. Levinas reciprocally published criticism on Derrida‘s work, albeit in a much more veiled guise. According to some commentators, the ambivalence between praise and critique in the writings of the two on one another betrays the fact that they were ultimately working on similar themes and concerns (see e.g. Davis 1996, 69).