«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
As Lawrence Buell anticipated in 1999 (9), Levinas has become the foremost theorist of the post-poststructuralist literary-ethical research. The road to the new millennium of Levinas‘s thinking was paved by such theorists as Simon Critchley (1992), who ingenuously brings together the theories of Derrida and Levinas to arrive at a conglomeration of ethics and politics; Adam Newton (1995), who draws the literary study of ethics closer to Levinasian thinking, while still arguing for the distinctiveness of the ethical and the political and rather combining Levinas with Bakhtin to develop a kind of dialogical conception of ethics; and Andrew Gibson (1999), who, l i k e Critchley, defends an ethical theory renewed by the insights of deconstruction. Through his extensive use of both modernist and postmodernist novels, Gibson also posits Levinas in dialogue with theories and theorists that contradict him. He interrogates the blind spots of Levinas‘s thinking, such as the latter‘s lack of treatment of gender and sexual difference, his alleged Eurocentrism, and his position in relationship to a kind of ethics of marginality, exemplified by Gibson through queer studies.
Whatever the combination of internal and external influences, the shift within deconstruction towards the contemplation of the ethical responsibility for the other became quite evident during the 1990s. The simultaneous increase in the attention given to the concepts of subjectivity and agency, intensified by the change of emphasis in the later work of Michel Foucault, is especially important in the context of Amitav Ghosh (see e.g. the fourth article on The Calcutta Chromosome). While writing History of Sexuality, Foucault shifted from his previous emphasis on the power-knowledge issues and the social construction of subjects by discursively functioning institutions to the care of the self realized as an ethical endeavour. He came to realise ethics as a semiautonomous area that was ―not related to any social -- or at least to any legal—institutional system,‖ (1997,
255) and to conceive of imagined power-relations as open to instability and reversal. His attention moved from structures of domination to practices of self-actualization. From the point of view of ethics, Foucault can be seen as shifting from the examination of the Christian tradition of self-renunciation and submission to external law (the discursive constructedness) to the Aristotelian tradition where people practised personal ethical virtue so that it became a permanent habit. This radical change of emphasis (the idea of the self taking itself as a work to be accomplished) also anticipates, and most probably has had influence on, the attention later given to the critical writing on ethics as the rival of politics in the examination of social engagement.
Foucault further started to criticize his own earlier view of the notion of ‗truth‘ as a mere discursive tool utilized by the epistemic will to power. The strain of recent theory that has sprung from this recalibration is targeted at the avoidance of the reductionisms and moral perils of the cognitive scepticism of poststructuralism, while simultaneously avoiding the dangers of mimetic realism. The beginnings of the coming together of political/discursive and ethical/humanist strands, which is quite evident in Ghosh‘s narratives as well as in the theory of e.g.
Radhakrishnan (see the next sub-section & the first of the articles, on The Circle of Reason), are visible here. In the words of Satya Mohanty, especially in the case of postcolonial writing, or writing of authors coming from oppressed peoples, there is the need to ―explore the possibility of a theoretical understanding of social and cultural identity in terms of objective social location‖ (1997, 216). But the actual basis for those who examine the problematic of whether truthful or reliable representation can be produced discursively is Derridean. The general idea behind much of postcolonial and other ‗minority‘ scholarship has been that truth and authenticity, even some kind of historical factity, are lying somewhere behind, or amidst, hegemonic discourses that are opaque and elliptical. The use of, for instance, strategic essentialism à la Spivak (see the first article in this dissertation) in narrative representations by minority, or postcolonial, writers has been seen as an ethico-political way of resisting, or opening up, these discourses that tend to eclipse the other and the subaltern.
One significant trend in current ethical study of literature that is not adopted in this dissertation is the rejuvenation of reader response ethics through the treatment of the reader-text relationship as the equivalent of that of the self to the other.
Instead of regarding this relationship as one of appropriation or reinvention as Barthes did, the ethical response theory stresses the conscienceful listening and opening-up to the otherness of the text as the basis for readers‘ relationship with texts, thereby not treating this relationship as the assertion of power.
Contemporary literary works are seen as making an ethically based call for solidarity to the reader through their resistance of standard generic expectations, thereby demanding that the reader hear subaltern voices and faces without, however, fully grasping or cognitively processing them. See e.g. Sara Ahmed (2000) for an ethically informed feminist reader response approach.
The text-reader relationship is also evident in the three-fold writer-text-reader relationship as delineated by Derek Attridge.
In an effort combining the recuperation of authorial agency in the production of texts on the one hand and reader response ethics on the other, Attridge (2004a & 2004b) describes the literary text as the product of an act of creation inspired by otherness. The role of the writer is here emphasized as an additional force beside, even alternative to, the social constructedness of texts. In Attridge‘s view, literary texts emanate from the experience in which the writer, who is located in culture's familiar modes of understanding, encounters something strange (strange in that it does not yet exist within the cognitive framework that culture provides for thinking and experiencing). Through the encounter with this strangeness, the writer is required to resist the mind's tendency to reduce new things by understanding them by way of the familiar. Accordingly, the act of writing involves treating language in a way that lets otherness to influence the individual‘s mental world and, eventually, the cultural field it embodies. In a sense, then, the literary work is inspired by otherness. Attridge describes writing as consisting of both passivity and action. On the one hand, an encounter with otherness that replaces settled forms of thinking requires passivity, a surrender of intellectual control to the other; on the other hand, through its destabilization of the field of the familiar, this encounter with the other inspires the writer to remould familiar patterns of thought. And the reader goes through a similar process when encountering the otherness of the text.
In this vein, Amitav Ghosh the writer can be seen as destabilizing the familiar knowledge-production strategies of such discourses as modernism, postmodernism (plus the concomitant, but socio-culturally distinct colonialisms and postcolonialisms,) and the Indian version of secular nationalism;
sciences like historiography, ethnography and medicine; and the various narrative strategies springing from these discourses. He does this by producing texts that cause an ethical defamiliarization of established ways of conceiving of various aspects of the world. However, regardless of the fact that fiction is always written by someone, this dissertation concentrates on the texts, not the writer. In other words, whatever the nature of the otherness that inspired Ghosh to remould familiar patterns of thought, it is not in focus here, but the outcome of this process (i.e. fiction written by him) is.
According to Attridge, then, the act of reading can be active and passive at the same time just like writing is. If the reader succeeds in opening him/herself to that which cannot be expected and therefore known in advance, reading becomes not only a willed action, but also something that happens to the reader's consciousness. Given that any relationship to alterity inevitably does away with settled forms of thought, a form of reading that responds to the otherness of the text will have an effect on the familiar. The reader's loss of control over the other will inspire him or her creatively to alter the field of the familiar in an attempt to accommodate the other. This way, the reader becomes responsible for the other. This idea of the literary text's relationship with otherness, the writer and the reader informs both Attridge's discussion of Coetzee's novels (2004a) and his more poetry-centered work on literature as a kind of ethical performance (2004b).
At this point, a detour examining my own position as both a reader and a writer is perhaps in order. In the case of this dissertation, I am both the reader of Ghosh novels and the writer of the presently unfolding text. As I am also a researcher, the otherness of Ghosh‘s texts is not revealed to me directly. The theoretical ideas I have chosen to adopt here filter the novels to me in a certain way. In a sense, this text is designed to block out both Amitav Ghosh and myself, revealing just the the novels and the theoretical ideas through which they are shown. Although this independent existence is ultimately a fallacy, it nonethess represents a methodological decision that limits the scope and argumentation of this dissertation to a reasonable scale and focus.
I am here clearly responsible for Ghosh‘s novels, and I would even say I have opened myself up to their otherness to the extent the parameters of dissertation writing make possible. This, I think, is evident in the present text‘s lack of a neat and consistent theoretical framework. Instead of such a totalizing and distorting device, I have attempted to let the novels define how they should be approached. Therefore, I approach them through a selection of theoretical and methodological ideas, instead of attempting to construct a comprehensive theoretical model, or adopting an already existing one. If I were concerned with several different novels written by a number of writers, such a model would clearly be a feasible way of focusing the research, but as I am concentrating on the thematically consistent oeuvre of one writer, this ‗open‘ way of going about it seems more appropriate. Instead of a theoretical model, this dissertation then has as its basis the guidelines of the ethical encountering and representation of otherness. And I am presently going through the manifold outcomes of the adoption of these guidelines during the ‘ethical turn‘.
To return from the methodological self-reflections above to the debates of current literary-ethical criticism, another important feature within the field that is of significance in the context of Ghosh‘s novels and this dissertation in general, is the interest in narrative devices and strategies. This entails discerning incipient or already evident ethical aspirations in the application and intertwining of various genres, representative strategies, or discourse modes in individual works of literature, or in the larger output of individual authors. Throughout the present study, it is my contention that Ghosh‘s novels transform the discourses of Western modernity (whether scientific or novelistic) by producing ethically informed narrative constructions that have a subversive relationship to the discursive knowledge production strategies that originally produced them. This view of literary texts as media for ethical reflection enabled by their generic and formal idiosyncracies has developed through the generic studies of Wayne Booth, the genre-related scholarship of Martha Nussbaum, and the combination of Levinasian ethics and poststructuralist discursivity in the work of e.g. Adam Newton (1995) and Geoffrey Harpham (1992).
Yet another important issue running through the field is the controversy on the relationship between the personal/ethics and politics/morality. This polarity as well as the need to transcend it already comes to the fore in the first article of this dissertation and I examine this topic further in relation to Ghosh‘s writing in the latter sub-section of the concluding remarks. This relationship, characterized as one of ―semiantagonistic interdependence‖ by Buell (14), remains open and heated. The most satisfying solution, from the point of view of this study, comes from Simon Critchley in his excellent Ethics of Deconstruction (1992), to which I shall return in the next subsection, as well as towards the end of the present study (section V.2.). This problematic of ethics vs. politics permeates the field of ethics-literature studies: It is evident in Booth‘s attempts to argue for multiple reader responses without becoming guilty of critical relativism (1982), Nussbaum‘s view of James‘ rhetoric as a ―dialogue between perception and rule‖ (1990, 157), Harpham‘s statement that discourse issues rules without, however, determining situation-specefic obligations (1992, 5), and, most importantly, Levinas‘s idea of the responsibility for the other as meaning ―not the disclosure of a given and its reception, but the exposure of me to the other, prior to every decision (1998, 141).
This basic endeavour ―to adjudicate the relationship between disposition and normativity‖ (Buell 199, 14) remains the same whether examined from the standpoint of the author, reader, language, or human relationships. The problematic of the relationship between the personal and the socio-political is closely related to the ethical-political discussion. ‗Ethics‘ is an ambivalent word, referring to both private and public domains (this ambivalence comes through in the articles, and is specifically looked at in the final subsection). Ethical acts can only be carried out in specific socio-cultural circumstances: the ‗being with‘ is an integral part of the ethical relationship to the other/s.
However, it seems that there are grounds for concern over the possible privatization of human relations that bypasses the social and the political.