- L as Language:Love and Ethics
[T]he plot, characters are part of my effort to create a language in which I can posit philosophical questions. I want the reader to ponder those questions not because I put them in an essay, but because they are part of a narrative.—Toni Morrison, Interview with Claudia Dreifus (1994)
Barbara Christian argued in her 1987 essay “The Race for Theory” that “a take-over in the literary world by Western philosophers” (51) was “coopt[ing]” the more beautiful and concrete theorizing of marginalized writers and scholars. She insisted that “people of color have always theorized … often in narrative form” (52), and she pointed out that just as “minority” literature was finally moving into “the center,” its political power was diminished by rising theories that emphasized textuality and questioned reality (55, 57). In making these claims, Christian articulated not only some of the key tensions in the late twentieth-century academy, but also some of the key terms in what many scholars have called the “ethical turn” in literary criticism, which at that point was still in its very early stages.1 In this essay I consider Toni Morrison’s 2003 novel Love in concert with her Nobel lecture and I demonstrate how Love addresses these tensions, forwarding a far more robust literary ethics than the disciplinary debates acknowledge.
Many have discussed, and tried to trace, the so-called ethical turn, attributing it variously to myriad Continental theorists’ later-life reconsiderations of questions of value, the political climate of the 1980s, and the rising philosophical interest in narrative.2 More recently, several critics have emphasized the longer history of moral or ethical categories in literary studies, arguing that perhaps (re)turn, “revival,” or “resurgence” (Eskin 562) are better figures for the thirty-year upsurge of conferences, journal articles, and books overtly engaging with ethics and literature. However we explain it, the fact is that, while through much of the (relatively short) history of the discipline of literary studies formalisms reigned and exiled considerations of ethics as such, so that even in value-laden discourses of feminist and race theory the term “ethics” was seldom used, the 1980s brought a new openness to explicit ethical considerations.3
One might expect that Christian’s 1987 complaint was resolved by a theoretical turn to questions of ethics. The rising philosophical awareness that theory, especially moral theory, may be more adequately performed in narrative (Nussbaum, MacIntyre, Rorty) seconds Christian’s claim that “her people” have already been doing theory in their narratives, and poststructuralist turns to ethics (most famously, Derrida’s) would seem to at least begin to close the gap between inaccessible theories of reading and real-life problems, as in Derrida’s famous antiapartheid piece included by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in the famous 1985 Critical Inquiry special issue. Instead, Christian’s essay predicts the structure of a division in ethical literary criticism that continues to this day. On the one hand there are those who assume the mimetic or representational function of literature, so that literature is ethical insofar as it introduces its readers to the complexity of moral situations through narrative, providing an ethical schoolroom for readers by confronting them with cultural differences. On the other hand there are those for whom a turn to ethics is a (re)turn to textuality, more rigorous (and endless) reading practices, a radical interrogation of the relation of language to [End Page 375] the “real world.” These theories claim as their heritage the Western philosophical tradition Christian criticizes: rather than turning away from practices such as deconstruction, many of their practitioners argue that poststructuralist modes of reading were ethical all along (Miller, Johnson, Attridge). Andrew Gibson labels the first mode of ethical criticism “Moral Criticism” and the second “The New Ethical Criticism,” and Robert Eaglestone critiques the first mode for its tendency to underread, and the second for its tendency to overread.
Christian’s argument—with its unproblematized appeal to personal experience and its concern that the literature of marginalized peoples be heard for its political import (especially contra the earlier formalist claim that politics or ethics were not the important features...