- J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading
One of Derek Attridge's principal concerns in J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading is the relationship that is established with alterity in the writing and reading of literary works. As is evident from the fact that some of the chapters in the book date back more than a decade, this is an abiding concern. Indeed, The Singularity of Literature, which also appeared in 2004, theorizes this relationship at great length. In it, Attridge describes the literary text as the emanation of an act of creation, that is, that mysterious experience in which the writer, who is located in culture's familiar modes of understanding, encounters something strange (in that it does not yet exist within the horizon that culture provides for thinking and feeling) and is required to resist the mind's tendency to reduce novelty by understanding it in terms of the familiar. Hence, verbal creation involves treating language in a way that enables otherness to affect the individual subject's mental world and, in the process, the cultural field it embodies. In fact, one could even claim that the literary work is inspired by otherness. This is probably why Attridge describes writing as both something that happens to an individual and an action that is undertaken by that individual—in being acted on, the writer acts. On the one hand, an encounter with that which unsettles settled forms of thinking requires passivity, a surrender of intellectual control; on the other hand, through its destabilization of the field of the familiar, this encounter inspires the writer to refashion familiar patterns of thought.
According to Attridge, the act of reading can be similarly ambivalent. If the reader succeeds in opening himself or 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 unsettles settled forms of thought, a form of reading that responds to otherness will have some or other effect on the lifeworld. 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. In reading, the reader therefore becomes responsible for the other.
This, then, is the understanding of the literary text's relationship to otherness and the reader that informs Attridge's discussion of Coetzee's fiction in J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading. Accordingly, his approach to Coetzee's writing departs radically from the instrumental nature of much criticism of South African literature that, during the apartheid years, emphasized the importance of political engagement and often found Coetzee's writing wanting. Unlike [End Page 910] those of Coetzee's supporters who try to show that his writing of the apartheid period was in fact politically engaged, Attridge, however, makes no attempt whatsoever to defend Coetzee's writing against the charge of political inconsequentiality. Instead, he maintains that we need "no Coetzee to tell us that the white world's subjection of other races has been brutal and dehumanizing, for both its victims and itself" (30). For Attridge, what is of interest in Coetzee's texts is "what they do, how they happen . . . how otherness is engaged, staged, distanced, embraced, how it is manifested in the rupturing of narrative discourse, in the lasting uncertainties of reference, in the simultaneous exhibiting and doubting of the novelist's authority," rather than "their critique of colonialism and its various avatars" (30–31). As Attridge here intimates, instead of leading to an aestheticizing withdrawal from history, this form of reading's concern with otherness ensures that the literary work (which he understands as "something that comes into being only in the process of understanding and responding" ) cannot be divorced from the lifeworld. After all, reading, in his understanding, enables an irruption of otherness into the domain of the familiar that, potentially at least, could change the face of society. Nevertheless...