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The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age by Palumbo-Liu, David (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 176-179 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0036

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In the context of human rights and literary form it is worth recalling an idea common in interdisciplinary human rights studies: that literature matters to the historical development and contemporary expansion of human rights because it allows readers to empathize with those considered to be ‘others.’ As Lynn Hunt puts it in Inventing Human Rights: A History (2007), “in the eighteenth century, readers of novels learned to extend their purview of empathy. In reading, they empathized across traditional social boundaries…. As a consequence, they came to see others … as like them, as having the same kinds of inner emotions. Without this learning, ‘equality’ could have no deep meaning and in particular no political consequence” (40). Even more schematically, she notes that “new kinds of reading (and viewing and listening) created new individual experiences (empathy), which in turn made possible new social and political concepts (human rights)” (Hunt 2007, 33-4). Expressed here is a twofold faith: first, that reading literature makes its readers more tolerant by allowing them to identify with others; and second, that this tolerance leads to improved political relations with these others.

Such ideas are precisely what David Palumbo-Liu, in his carefully argued monograph The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age, seeks to update for a new global era, though his frame is ethics in general rather than human rights in particular. He points to the problematic of empathy in works by Aristotle, Adam Smith, and David Hume and to the conviction (expressed in regard to contemporary literature perhaps most fully by Martha Nussbaum, but underpinning the approaches of many current teachers and scholars) that literature enriches its readers precisely by bringing otherness to us, by giving us a way to connect with what seems distant or foreign. Without rejecting such beliefs, he shows how they are complicated by postmodernity and its ever-increasing burden of grappling with “otherness”: “The notion that literature should mobilize (or even instantiate) empathy for others and enhance our ethical capabilities is rooted in the early modern period, wherein ‘otherness,’ while certainly increasingly present, was not nearly as immediately, insistently, and intensely pressing itself into the here and now of everyday social, cultural, and political life. This voluminous influx, quantitatively and qualitatively new, is a distinct feature of the late-twentieth-and early-twenty-first century age of globalization” (2). It is in this contemporary context, of futures trading in terrorism, global agribusiness, and transnational organ theft, that he poses the central questions of the book: How much otherness is enriching and how much is disruptive to our lives? What shapes our imaginations of sameness and difference? And finally, what is the role of contemporary literature in helping us understand our relationship to people in very different circumstances than our own? (2, 14-15).

Palumbo-Liu approaches these questions—set out most generally in the preface and introduction—by exploring a series of “delivery systems,” discourses through which we come to understand human sameness (or, as Palumbo-Liu defines it, “the media and discourses by which others are delivered to us as like ‘us’” [180]), as they have been represented and problematized in recent philosophy and fiction. These delivery systems include rationality, the family, the body, and emotion or affect. Notions that human beings are alike because we all share the capacity to reason, because we all have bodies that should be inviolable, or because we all feel common emotions (I leave aside here the question of family, to which I will return below) are widespread. The Deliverance of Others skillfully destabilizes these assumptions by showing, in a series of linked chapters, each centered on a single novel, their complexities and limits in our current context of globalization. The book insists on the need to recognize the historical and material conditions—what Palumbo-Liu, after Jean-Luc Nancy, calls “slots of technological possibilities” (25)—in which such ideas of sameness grow and circulate. The point is not to disallow human connection or the role literature can play in helping us to imagine it; as Palumbo-Liu writes, “ethically and politically we can imagine—indeed, we must imagine—that the lessening of otherness can be and is often not...



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