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  • Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (bio)

It is practically persuasive that the eruption of the ethical interrupts and postpones the epistemological—the undertaking to construct the other as object of knowledge, an undertaking never to be given up. Lévinas is the generic name associated with such a position. A beautiful passage from Otherwise than Being lays it out, although neither interruption nor postponement is mentioned. That connection is made by Derrida [Adieu 51-59].

Here, then, is Lévinas, for whom Kant's critical perspectivization of the subject and the rigorous limits of pure theoretical reason seem to have been displaced by the structuralist hermeneutics of suspicion. For Lévinas, structuralism did not attend to what in Kant was the mechanism that interrupted the constrained and rigorous workings of pure reason: "The interests that Kant discovered in theoretical reason itself, he subordinated to practical reason, become mere reason. It is just these interests that are contested by structuralism, which is perhaps to be defined by the primacy of theoretical reason" [Otherwise than Being 58; trans. modified].

The relationship between the postponement of the epistemological in Lévinas and the subordination of pure reason in Kant is a rich theme, beyond the scope of this essay. Let us return to what Lévinas will perceive as a general contemporary hermeneutics of suspicion, related to the primacy of theoretical reason: "The suspicions engendered by psychoanalysis, sociology and politics weigh on human identity such that we never know to whom we are speaking and what we are dealing with when we build our ideas on the basis of the human fact."1 The political calculus thematizes this suspicion into an entire code of strategy defined as varieties of game theory and rational choice. This can be verified across cultural difference, backwards through history, and in today's global academic discourse. Over against this Lévinas posits the ethical with astonishing humility: "but we do not need this knowledge in the relationship in which the other is the one next to me [le prochain]" [Otherwise 59].

Kant thought that the ethical commonality of being (gemeines Wesen—repeatedly mistranslated as "the ethical state") cannot form the basis of a state. Surprisingly, there is a clear line from the face-to-face of the ethical to the state in Lévinas.2 It has long [End Page 17] been my habit to scavenge and tinker in the field of practical philosophy. I will conserve from Kant the discontinuity between the ethical and the political, from Lévinas the discontinuity between the ethical and the epistemological. I will suggest that the discontinuities between the ethical and the epistemological and political fields are tamed in the nestling of logic and rhetoric in fiction.3

Enabled by such a suggestion, I can move to another bit of prose on that page in Lévinas: "for reasons not at all transcendental but purely logical, the object-man must figure at the beginning of all knowing."

The figure of the "I" as object: this representation of the holy man in Lévinas does not match our colloquial and literal expectations. My general suggestion, that the protocol of fiction gives us a practical simulacrum of the graver discontinuities inhabiting (and operating?) the ethico-epistemic and the ethico-political, can, however, take such a figure on board. I will continue to want to say that fiction offers us an experience of the discontinuities that remain in place "in real life." That would be a description of fiction as an event—an indeterminate "sharing" between writer and reader, where the effort of reading is to taste the impossible status of being figured as object in the web of the other. Reading, in this special sense, is sacred.

In this essay I consider not only fiction as event but also fiction as task. I locate in Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and J. M. Coetzee (1940-) representations of what may be read as versions of the "I" figured as object and weave the representations together as a warning text for postcolonial political ambitions.4 I am obviously using "text" as "web," coming from Latin texere—"to...