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Recovering Morality: Pragmatic Sociology and Literary Studies

From: New Literary History
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2010
pp. 351-369 | 10.1353/nlh.2010.0004

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Recent decades have witnessed the rediscovery of the moral and ethical dimensions of literary texts. Under the impetus of the growing interest in the works of Emmanuel Lévinas and the criticism promoted by philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty—who conceive of literature as a site for the formulation of ethical dilemmas1—literary scholarship has turned towards ethics. This movement, which first gained prominence in the mid-1980s, was undoubtedly a response to the formalism of structuralism and post-structuralism. Questions of otherness, of singularity, of the relation of ethics and aesthetics, of universalism and responsibility became increasingly pertinent for literary scholars as different as Wayne C. Booth and J. Hillis Miller, leading the discipline towards a new concern with the moral dimensions of texts and of reading.2

A turn towards morality has also been evident in various branches of contemporary sociology. Departing from the dominant paradigms of rational choice theory, on the one hand, and critical theory on the other, sociologists have elaborated new and insightful ways of accounting for the moral dimension of social life. Through his interpretation and revitalization of Émile Durkheim, sociologist Jeffrey Alexander has unraveled the fundamental role of social “goods” and “evils” in modern societies, demonstrating the centrality of morality in the eruption and management of public scandals, in practices of inclusion and exclusion, and in the very underpinnings of democratic life.3 A different perspective on morality was developed by Michèle Lamont, who demonstrates the ways in which social groups construct moral boundaries between themselves and others and view their morality as a valuable resource with which they preserve their uniqueness and self-worth.4 Further endeavors in the sociology of morality include examples from fields as diverse as urban sociology and economic sociology.5 These sociologists, of course, do not share a single, uniform understanding of morality, yet what is common to all these approaches is a recognition that the moral dimension of social life is irreducible to other categories.

Despite their parallel concerns, there has been very little dialogue between the two disciplines of sociology and literary studies on the role of texts in articulating moral points of view. This is apparent in the different uses of the terms “morality” and “ethics,” conventionally contrasted in standard philosophical accounts, the first referring to universal imperatives, while the second addresses more culture-specific questions of the formation of the good character and the good life. Despite the obvious affinity of sociology with culture, sociologists, who belong to the discipline christened by Durkheim as “la science de la morale,” have tended to use the terms “moral” or “morality” to designate the normative constraints on behavior. But the question of terminology and the debate between universalists and ethics-oriented philosophers should not obscure the fact that both share an attempt to move away from standard theories of power and oppression and from totalizing concepts such as “ideology,” “habitus,” or “discourse,” while retaining an exemplary concern with the moral dimensions of texts, what texts say about what we owe to each other. While the various offshoots of Marxian, Gramscian, and feminist approaches to texts and culture have been immensely useful in highlighting the social underpinnings of literature and its role in relaying formations of power, these perspectives now threaten to paralyze cultural inquiry by relying on mechanistic distinctions between the powerful and the oppressed.

The purpose of this article is to offer tools for studying the ways in which literature as a social practice enacts and performs moral evaluation. A novel which exposes the reader to a sense of injustice or to a dilemma and which imbues these dilemmas and injustices with emotional value is not only a work of fiction but what we may call a critique, a discourse denouncing the violation of common norms and values. Similarly, responses to a novel voiced by scholars, reviewers, and “lay” readers are often imbued with a concern for morality and should not be “deconstructed” but rather studied at face value as moral claims about social arrangements. When debating the inclusion of a controversial novel in high-school curricula, when championing or deploring the proliferation of works of one popular genre or...

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