Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn
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Close but not Deep:
Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn

There is perhaps no term that carries more value in the humanities than “rich.” In literary studies especially, richness is an undisputed—if largely uninterrogated—good; it signifies qualities associated with the complexity and polyvalence of texts and with the warmth and depth of experience. There is, to be sure, no necessary connection between the intricacy of texts and the intricacy of human feeling and cognition. Nor is there a necessary connection between the capacity to interpret such texts and the ability to respond justly and empathetically to the ethical dilemmas represented in them. Even so, this is a busy intersection. The link between the richness of human experience and processes of textual interpretation can be understood, on the one hand, through the origin of philosophical hermeneutics in practices of divination and, on the other, through the significance of the communicative situation in defining hermeneutics. The text, in its singularity, is both an access to otherness and a message or call to attention. A belief in the aesthetic and ethical force of literature is evident in the work of midcentury critics like Cleanth Brooks (“The poet . . . must return to us the unity of experience itself as man knows it in his own experience”) and Lionel Trilling (“literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”).1 It also appears in the work of Marxist critic Raymond Williams, for whom literature signals the inexhaustibility of human potential.2 It appears as well in recent arguments against theory and on behalf of New Formalism (“literature could pose the largest issues of social and personal destiny in a vividly human context”) and in the recent turn to ethics, which, as Dorothy J. Hale writes, “has been accompanied by a new celebration of literature.”3 If the encounter with a divine and inscrutable message was progressively secularized in the twentieth century, the opacity and ineffability of the text and the ethical demand to attend to it remain central to practices of literary interpretation today. [End Page 371]

Given the subsumption of many aspects of religion into the concept of culture after the Enlightenment, it is not surprising that these sacred aspects of hermeneutics should survive into the era of secular modernity. What is more surprising is that its humanist aspects have such a continued presence in supposedly anti- or posthumanist literary studies. The rise of interpretive practices borrowed from Marxism and psychoanalysis, structuralism and poststructuralism, and semiotics and deconstruction has displaced the individual and consciousness from the center of inquiry, shifting attention to structures of language, desire, or economic capital. At the same time, political forms of criticism such as feminism, postcolonial studies, African-American studies, diaspora studies, and queer studies have critiqued humanism by pointing to its founding exclusions. Common to the rise of these theoretical and political fields is a disavowal of earlier critical movements—particularly the New Criticism—that are understood to embody the shortcomings of humanist philosophy. In critiques of the canon, the text, organicism, the nation, culture, and tradition—as well as the very concept of the human—the anchors of humanistic criticism have come under sustained and powerful attack in the past several decades. Still, despite widespread rumors of the death of humanism, key humanist values remain alive and well in literary studies.

What to make of this persistence of humanist values in the context of a disciplinary milieu that often sees them as outmoded? It might be explained as a typical contradiction between intellectual conviction and lived practice—there are no doubt de facto humanists among posthumanists, just as there are Marxist heroes of consumption.4 More persuasive accounts of the persistence of humanism in contemporary literary studies can be found in histories of the discipline. While critics like Gerald Graff and John Guillory focus on the stabilizing role of universities, departments, and syllabi, Ian Hunter turns his attention to the role of teaching.5 In his essay “The History of Theory,” Hunter traces the persistence of humanist ethics in literary studies, suggesting that both “the New Criticism and the literary theory that displaced...