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Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 941-948

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No Consensus on Ethics: New Work in Ethical Criticism

Jessica Berman

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. xiv + 263 pp.

Jeffrey T. Nealon. Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. xiii + 172.

Ethics, it seems, is all the rage. Since the mid-eighties, when books like J. Hillis Miller's The Ethics of Reading (1987) and Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep (1988) were often met with a sort of embarrassed surprise (Booth's introduction, we may recall, began with the title "Ethical Criticism: A Banned Discipline?"), the question of ethics has become increasingly central to criticism. Yet the source of this interest is varied, flowing alternatively from the renewed debate about ethics and community within political philosophy, the aftermath of the de Man affair, the "discovery" of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, the critique of identity politics, and the rise of a politically oriented cultural studies.

It comes as no surprise, then, that there is no consensus on ethics--a statement that in itself raises the key questions of two recent books from Duke University Press. Literary criticism's range of current approaches to ethics could hardly be better presented than by these two diametrically opposed books: Geoffrey Galt Harpham's Shadows of [End Page 941] Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society and Jeffrey T. Nealon's Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity. Both take inspiration from poststructuralist critiques of Kant and ground their readings in reassessments of Derrida, Levinas, and Fredric Jameson. There, however, the similarity ends. While Nealon argues for ethics as a performative response to alterity, calling for a "site-specific 'drift' that is necessary to the outward, affirmative movement of responsibility," Harpham claims that the "intimate and dynamic engagement with otherness" which is "the key to the kingdom of ethics" ultimately demands that we also "learn to imagine the center."

Harpham begins with two lucid theoretical chapters (one of which reprints his well-known article on "Ethics" from Lentricchia and MacLaughlin's Critical Terms For Literary Study), before moving on to situate his claims within the intellectual terrain of the last several decades. In answer to the core question "what special relation might literature have to ethics?" he proposes that we see literature as the "shadow" cast by ethics, the accessible form of that which we normally cannot see. This concept is similar to the scientific treatment of atoms: we see only the shadows of atoms, yet can still recognize them. Ethics, to follow this argument, exerts its presence well beyond its own domain, which will always remain inaccessible to direct view. For Harpham ethics emerges as almost inherently out of place, exerting itself in such ways that it will "adhere to, affiliate with, bury itself in, provoke, or dislodge other discourses." Thus the attention Harpham pays to ethics as it relates to the work of Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, Chomsky, Hartman, and Nussbaum or as it appears in the critical debates surrounding the Enlightenment, rationality, aesthetics, and history, become his version of direct attention. The ethical relation is most interesting to him when it is seen sideways, in chiaroscuro, or in the potential intersections between is and ought, literature and theory, Chomsky and Jameson.

Harpham is masterful in his command of this intellectual terrain, and his arguments claim our attention and admiration if not always our agreement. The chapter on Derrida explores the question of the politics of deconstruction in an even-handed manner, pointing out a certain formalism in Derrida's work that wants to shelter itself from questions of "commitment and principle," yet recognizing the subtlety of Derrida's refusal of easy political positions and his claim for an almost "ethical [End Page 942] imperative to read in a particular way." While the chapter on Foucault's focus on the question of enlightenment diverges from the question of ethics per se, it does point out that Foucault's rapprochement with Kant can help us see the interrelations not only between power and...


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