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  • Reading by Example
  • Brian O’Keeffe (bio)
Zahi Zalloua, Reading Unruly: Interpretation and its Ethical Demands, Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 2014. 216 pp.

Reading certain literary texts—Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew (1769), for example—often induces (in me) a frazzled sense that the meaning of the text just can’t be nailed down. Some texts are maddeningly elusive, Protean as they twist out of the interpretive grasp. Slippery and insubordinate, they frustrate and solicit the reader. Sure enough, we can call such texts unruly, and it is tempting to lay down the law, get out the schoolmaster’s ruler (like Diderot’s rather teacherly Moi), and hector them into submission. But another approach involves responding with a similar unruliness—a sort of hermeneutic freestyle, where no holds are barred.

Not quite. For in Zalloua’s book, there is one rule that remains intact: it is the rule, or law that commands readers to take responsibility for their interpretations. So doing, we become ethical readers. But what exactly does it mean to take responsibility for our readings? Who says that we should? What would be the measure of such responsibility anyway? Accounts of “ethical reading” that attempt to incorporate Levinas, for instance, measure responsibility against the benchmark of our respect for the otherness of the text. But what is “otherness”? And if, in Levinas, it is the Other who calls the Self, how does a literary text summon us to such respect? It’s one thing to say that literary texts can be interpretively demanding, but it’s quite another to say that texts make a specifically ethical demand upon readers.

Zalloua’s book takes these matters head on. That shift, from one kind of demand to the other, comes about in his description of the reading scenario as an encounter with examples. For to speak in terms of examples, is to have already entered into the vicinity of the law. Now one can speak of rules, injunctions, obedience and disobedience, duties and responsibilities, because examples must exemplify some law or rule. It is simply the law of “exemplarity” itself. The pitch for a certain ethics of reading is made here: in light of [End Page 485] the respect an example pays to its rule, we readers might sense the possibility that there is a corresponding respect we ought to pay those examples.

But examples are slippery creatures, especially when it comes time to propose the general rule they are supposed to exemplify. It becomes especially difficult if the rule in question is the rule of the unruly. Certainly, one can hardly predict in advance what unruliness will occur as each example comes along, and so Zalloua’s introduction, which precedes his textual readings with a theoretical entrée en matières, has to be delicately weighted. “There is no theory of the unruly, the unruly cannot be determined in advance. It can only be grasped, or better yet, encountered through examples” (18). This sentence, concerned with examples, but also with something designated as “the unruly,” is almost couched as a statement of law: a sententia which posits in advance (by saying, from the outset, “there is”) what his subsequent examples will dutifully exemplify (that there is no theory of the unruly). Zalloua’s examples will predictably obey that law, if one can call it that, but what his examples will turn out to exemplify is their disobedience to any rule at all, and this is why they can be deemed unruly: this is the paradoxical duty of (dis)obedience. Zalloua can foresee that (dis)obedience to come, and is therefore confident in legislating to his texts a law that begins on a moment of positing or presupposing: “there is (no).” Zalloua’s examples do obey the rule of the unruly, but that obedience can only occur when all of his examples, without exception, are in fact disobedient. Such infinite disobedience makes it exquisitely hard to then specify what that “rule” might be, since none of Zalloua’s examples ever betray it. There is no ruly example that Zalloua’s law can foresee, no one example that might, perchance, furnish us with the exception that proves the...


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pp. 485-498
Launched on MUSE
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