«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
The emphasis on the area of interpersonality and interhumanity as the critique of the 1970s textuality and 1980s historicism is probably the most lasting contribution of the ethical turn that actualized in the late 1990s. Regrettably, it seems that this lively period of ethical awareness quite quickly degenerated into a haphazard and unfounded use of the word ‗ethics‘. In the literary criticism of the 2000s, there appears to be an unfortunate tendency to regard any action or representative strategy that can be deemed subversive as unproblematically ethical. As the use of the word ethics has become more fashionable, it has also become more ductile and misleading, if not outright confusing. No specific model, or theoretical framework, for ethical examination of literary works managed to emerge with any force out of the cacophony of general ethical interestedness, and many practitioners of outspokenly ―ethical‖ criticism today fail to connect their mode of examination to antecedent traditions or to alternative brands of contemporary ethical study (Shameem Black‘s excellent Literature Across Borders (2010) is an outstanding exception to this tendency). This might be viewed as not surprising for an emergent discourse (or a bundle of discourses) searching for self-definition. But it does create confusion.
A more optimistic stance on the vicissitudes of ethical literary studies in the new millennium has been put forward by Bárbara Arizti and Silvia Martínez-Falquina in their edition on the ethical turn: they ―revel in the polyphonic nature of the turn to ethics. The advantages of the ―crossover‖ among disciplines, interests, discourses and practices, brought about by the phenomenon, amply make up for the putative loss of critical edge‖ (2007, xiv). Disciplinary crossovers in ethical vein are presented also by Astrid Eril, Herbert Grabes & Ansgar Nünning in their volume on the dissemination of ethical values in literature and media (2008). Recent more ‗neutral‘ voices include Russell Smith, who sees the ethical turn ―variously as an attempt to give ethico-political substance to what was perceived as the empty linguistic formalism of deconstruction […], or as a retreat from the conflictual space of the political in search of a consensual realm of the ethical‖ (2009, 2-3), and David Cunningham, who in line with Smith characterizes the ethical turn as the phenomenological fleshing out of the formalist tenets of deconstruction with Levinasian substance. Cunningham further notes that As such, the ‗ethical turn‘ is a ‗turn‘ that has largely taken place, not in fact against, but within what are understood to be the ‗philosophical‘ terms of mainstream ‗deconstructive‘ literary criticism itself. In this they have broadly followed developments in the theoretical interests of Anglophone ‗deconstruction‘ more generally: developments which have sought to ‗add moral weight‘ […] to deconstruction‘s definitive ‗preoccupation‘ with alterity (2009, 25).
See e.g. Attridge (2004) and Leist & Singer (2010) on ethical approaches to Coetzee, and Smith (2009) on Beckett.
Perhaps the most sombre recapitulation of the outcome of the late 1990s ethical project comes from one its own proponents, Andrew Gibson who, in 2006, after a ‗personal turn‘ towards the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, and with the benefit of
hindsight, characterized the ethical turn as follows:
Its underlying impetus is in fact pragmatic compromise.
Badiou is surely right: what was initially a sophisticated and theoretically demanding conception of ethics swiftly became a mixture of a bland ethics of the other and a doctrine of human rights whose essence is a reconstituted and basically sentimental brand of liberal humanism. (2006, 91) Gibson further claims that there is an underlying religious
ontology behind Levinas‘s thinking:
What requires our self-abnegation in the encounter with the other? If it is not a principle or an imperative that exists prior to the encounter itself—and it cannot be that, in postmodern ethics—the command can only stem from the presence of the Great Other within the other, from God.
(2006, 91-92) Gibson also announces that Levinasian ethics cannot separate itself of theology without becoming inconsistent.
Levinas does acknowledge that for him philosophy derives from religion (1990, 182). But this does not imply that philosophy is subordinate to religion, or that religion needs philosophy to give it intellectual respectability. Rather, religion and philosophy represent two parallel but distinct spheres which are both part of the same spiritual process of the approach of the transcendental.
Whether this religious component in Levinas‘s thought is considered intrinsic and indispensable or not, my interpretation of his view of God, as well as the significance of the idea of God in his thinking differs from that put forward by Gibson (and Badiou) in that I find it more useful to interpret the notion of God in Levinas as signifying a metaphor for the encounter with the other. The presence of God in the very core of subjectivity serves to prove that the subject is not its own origin, and that there is something alien and unreachable inside it. This alien is the other.
The subject only comes into being when it encounters the alien alterity of the other, be that God or another human being (see the fourth article in this dissertation for more thorough analysis of God in Levinas). In short, Levinas is trying to explicate his idea of the other and its significance for the self through using the metaphor of God. So, our ―self-abnegation‖ that Gibson is referring to in the above quotation is required in the first place by the other, which is needed for the self‘s coming into existence in the first place.
Nonetheless, after reading Badiou, Gibson appears quite vehement towards the theorists of the 1990s ethical turn, his
former self included:
Those, like Simon Critchley—and myself, in the past—who have argued for a Levinasian ethics in the mode of ‗atheist transcendence‘, to adopt Critchley‘s phrase, have failed to recognize that, without the theological sanction, Levinas‘s ethics simply falls apart. (2006, 92) Gibson‘s turn of mind is not wholly inconsistent, given the fact that he was searching for ―blind spots‖ in Levinas‘s thinking already in 1999 (17), although he at that time was basically of the opinion that the combination of Levinas and Derrida was just what was needed in the literary theory of that time.
Given my view that Gibson‘s recent outburst against the theological basis of Levinas‘s theory is perhaps based on a too literal a reading of the latter‘s immensely metaphorical and, admittedly, religiously charged language, I myself tend to agree with the Gibson of 1999. As will become evident in the articles, I see Ghosh‘s writing as the coming together of poststructuralist (or Derridean/deconstructive) tenets to dismantle pre-existing discursive models (e.g. of modernism and colonialism) and humanist ethics promoting the use of imagination to transcend discourse as such in a pre-ontological and pre-linguistic plane of relationships. I am also of the view that ethical and political are intertwined in Ghosh‘s writing into a properly ethico-political discourse (see V.2.). On the level of genre, I view Ghosh‘s generic mixtures as ethically aware in that they break and re-construct pre-existing generic formations, thereby changing their political implications. The self-other relationship is also narrated ethically as a reciprocal relationship, in which neither of the two is reduced into a passive target of scrutiny, but both appear as active agents in the relationship with a voice of their own. This serves to avoid appropriation and to create agency for the discourses and subjectivities that are being narrated into existence.
Above I have tried to chart the fractured map of ethically informed literary criticism and locate my study within it as best I can. However, because of the general methodological and theoretical confusion within ethical studies of literature, no clearcut theoretical framework can be discerned in this dissertation.
And even if there did exist relatively standardized models for ethical study of literature, I feel that the very basis for an ethical relationship between a text and its examiner negates the possibility of the use of a ready-made framework in the examination of specific literary works. As I have already indicated, I would rather let Ghosh‘s novels ´speak´ for themselves and participate in the process of interpreting them than distort them by applying a certain theoretical model into which they would become appropriated. Filtering the texts through a certain framework with its idiosyncratic knowledge production strategies would diminish their alterity, i.e. their otherness, by eclipsing aspects of them and making them part of the familiar.
At the risk of repeating myself, I once again state that, in order to avoid too obvious discursive appropriation, I build my arguments on certain (mainly Levinasian and deconstructionist) philosophical ideas and starting points, not so much on comprehensive theories or pre-existing theoretical models. This may be deemed eclectic, even opportunistic, but to my mind it is a way of attempting to ascertain the alterity and independence of the object of study to the extent this is possible. What is more, this reflects the general modus operandi within the ethical turn: the critics choose varying theoretical and methodological threads out of a myriad of philosophical and theoretical influences to form their own approach to the chosen objects of study. I try to let the texts bring forth the thematic concerns inherent in them and choose my tools accordingly. And in doing so, I try to avoid forcing them into a preconceived framework. This, I hope, will prevent ―what was initially a sophisticated and theoretically demanding conception of ethics‖ turning into ―a mixture of a bland ethics of the other and a doctrine of human rights whose essence is a reconstituted and basically sentimental brand of liberal humanism‖ (Gibson 2006, 91).
In the following, I shall introduce some of the key concepts in Levinas‘s thinking in connection with Ghosh‘s novels and their central themes, in an attempt to create a kind of ethically informed athmosphere for the later sub-chapters on representation of violence and the treatment of narration and silence. The main thrust of my argument here revolves around the relationship of ethics and language, the resources that language and narration have for bringing forth the ethical in interhuman relationships. Towards the end of the section I shall tentatively bring ethics into connection with deconstruction.
III.1.2. Ethics, language and the writing of Amitav Ghosh
To point out an issue I shall be returning to repeatedly in the course of this dissertation, there is an increasing emphasis on the inadequacy of language to represent the movements of the mind and the encounter with the other in the writing of Ghosh. A tension between post-structuralist emphasis on textuality and difference on the one hand and a humanism transcending discourse on the other has been found in his fiction. In one of the first thorough articles on Ghosh's work, Robert Dixon characterizes his writing as exhibiting a ―fluid and at times confusing deployment of the lexicons of both liberal humanism and post-structuralism, though without allowing his writing to be affiliated with either‖ (1996, 16) and as flickering between ―suggesting a metaphysics of presence and a Derridean trace‖ (1996, 17). In Mondal‘s view, Ghosh is ―seeking a syncretism that is an anti-humanist, postmodern recognition of difference and is also at the same time a humanist secular ideal‖ (2007, 30, orig.
emphasis). My aim here is to imply that this supposed tension is a product of the simultaneous application of approaches very close to Levinasian ethics and deconstruction. This view will be strengthened through the article section and the concluding remarks. At this point, my approach follows the general outlines
detailed by Adam Newton in his Narrative Ethics:
Ethical answerability here is not a flattened prescription for action; it is not a moral recipe book. Nor is deconstruction an indifference to answerability; it is at its best a scrupulous hesitation, an extreme care occasioned by the treachery of words and the danger of easy answers (1995, 37).
According to Levinas, communication has two dimensions, which he refers to as Saying and the Said. The Said represents the surface level where we use language to communicate themes, ideas and observations to one another via discourse. Saying is the ethical dimension where the genuine encounter with the other ideally takes place. Saying is pre-discursive, and although it leaves a trace in the Said, it has its own significance that cannot be represented within the Said: ―Saying states and thematizes the Said, but signifies it to the other, a neighbor, with a signification that has to be distinguished from that born by words in the Said‖ (Levinas 1998, 46). Saying, then, cannot be grasped within the Said, which is the dimension of linguistic ‗knowing‘ and ontology. In the words of Simon Critchley, Saying represents ―the non-thematizable ethical residue of language that escapes comprehension, interrupts philosophy, and is the very enactment of the ethical movement from the Same to the other‖ (Critchley 1999, 7).
Levinas tries to find ways of using language that would transcend the totalizing effects of representation and preserve the self and the other as independent and self-sufficient, but still in a genuine relationship with each other. Throughout this dissertation, I suggest that this kind of relationship between the self and the other is very close to Ghosh‘s goal as a writer of fiction. Where the outcome of Levinas‘s experiment within the parameters of philosophic argumentation is, to say the least, perplexing and self-contradictory, Ghosh has more success within the multiple narrative modes of his fictive representations.
In fiction, the contrasting views on language and the mystical experiences which transcend discourse can be approached more easily.