- Plotting Justice: Narrative Ethics and Literary Culture After 9/11 by Georgiana Banita
Banita’s ambitious project surveys a constellation of interrelated discourses—trauma, exceptionalism, transnationalism, alterity, and surveillance, to name a few—orbiting around “narrative ethics” in post-9/11 fiction. The theoretical frame that orders these disparate discourses rests on figures like Emmanuel Levinas, Martha Nussbaum, and J. Hillis Miller: ethicists who explore the intersection of Self and Other. Her refreshing choice of texts expands 9/11 fiction beyond the now-ossifying canon—she only foregrounds two canonical texts: Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers—and moves her project toward a coverage model without sacrificing analytical depth. For better or worse, the engagement with so many different—and often competing—discourses undercuts a unified thesis. As she puts it, “The specific concerns that structure this book . . . seek to encode the broad cultural reach of post-9/11 literature and its granularly sophisticated ethical questions” (5). This “broad cultural reach” promotes dialogue about what post-9/11 ethics might look like rather than arguing for a particular ethical valence. For instance, in an introductory survey of the field, Banita alternately describes post-9/11 narrative ethics in terms “of deriving ethical norms from the representations of evil” in Jess Walter’s The Zero (6), preserving a “paralytic condition” in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (7), and demonstrating “that forgetfulness is, in fact, the ultimate ethical act” in Ward Just’s Forgetfulness (9), among others. Each claim offers new possibilities for a post-9/11 narrative ethic but represents red herrings in the overall schema of Banita’s argument, which focuses on five specific concerns: “ethical spectatorship, psychoanalysis, race, transnationalism, and surveillance” (5). These five concepts structure the subsequent chapters.
The first chapter on ethical spectatorship addresses how the protagonists in DeLillo, Spiegelman, and Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach confront the visual spectacle of the 9/11 trauma and how this might lead to more informed connections with the world. For Banita, DeLillo provides multiple modes of ethical spectatorship, from the Giorgio Morandi paintings that “cauterize [the wound] and reinstate a sense of coherence through the tidy arrangement of things in space” (70) to the performance artist who “opens up a space of connection and facilitates an encounter with the traumatic event that allows it to be worked through by means of collective mourning” (71). In very different ways—but perhaps in her most stunning close reading of the monograph—Banita beautifully weaves an analysis of [End Page 162] Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers with a reading of Maus. Here, the images of suicide and smoking that invoke Spiegelman’s mother’s death and the smokestacks at Auschwitz are appropriated in the post-9/11 moment to comment on the ethics of “silence, representation, and historical commemoration” (76). For instance, the absence of Spiegelman’s mother’s narrative in Maus reflects the absent narratives of the anonymous jumpers with whom Spiegelman has difficulty connecting. The visual “ventriloquism” of placing himself in the position of the falling man is a “first step toward performing ethical identification and responsiveness to the suffering of others” (84). Witnessing necessitates the accommodation of the tragedy in our own lives. Balancing these two perspectives is Schulman’s A Day at the Beach, in which the jumpers outside the protagonist’s window are juxtaposed against the simultaneous televisual images. “The tension between these two forms of visual experience” demands trauma be “anchor[ed] firmly in daily life” (93). Between DeLillo’s artistic sensibility and Spiegelman’s personalized historicization of the tragedy, Schulman promotes “not the recovery of a complete, harmonious self, but the acknowledgment of Otherness and of [the protagonist’s] responsibility to it” (107).
The subsequent chapters follow a similar structural mode: one or two texts are used to demonstrate a difficult ethical perspective before the chapter culminates in some middle ground and a representative text. But each chapter provides a unique...