- Haunting Encounters: The Ethics of Reading Across Boundaries of Difference by Joanne Lipson Freed
In Haunting Encounters: The Ethics of Reading Across Boundaries of Difference, Joanne Lipson Freed invites us to consider from a new vantage point questions of perennial interest to the study of ethnic literature:
What role, if any, can literature play in bringing us into ethical relation with one another? How do we approach those works that challenge us with paradoxical demands to both recognize difference and force meaningful connections across it? How do we respond to the residues of power that inhere in these textual encounters?(3–4)
From this beginning—signaling Freed's investment in the relationship between texts' formal properties and the ethical dimensions of readerly experience—Haunting Encounters offers a fresh theoretical approach to canonical texts alongside intriguing reflections on lesser-known works.
For Freed, "haunting" has two intertwined meanings. It points, first, to the dominant thematic presence in works like Toni Morrison's Beloved, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, and Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. It also refers to this literature's capacity to work in haunting ways on its audiences by facilitating unlikely, often cross-cultural contact between readers and subjects while simultaneously underscoring the limits to knowing another. As Freed convincingly demonstrates, a theoretical model attending to readerly experience with "intense, temporary, and transformative encounters across difference" is thus not only desirable for the texts she addresses but required by their content and form (4). [End Page 1431]
Freed understands her commitment to such a model as part of a new politics for the study of ethnic literature. As she notes, ethnic and postcolonial criticism has long been preoccupied by issues of representation. Freed marks the importance of such inquiry and the foundational scholarship it has inspired, but reminds us that representational critique draws its power from the presumption that literature can have potent effects on its readers. For this reason, she makes a case for allocating at least some critical attention toward the nature of that readerly engagement. In particular, she urges us to consider how rhetorical strategies that "shape the reader's relationship to the depicted world" might in fact be considered both "site and source" of the ethical lessons offered by the works in her study (8).
Such consideration, broadly speaking, is the project of rhetorical narrative theory. As defined by James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012), rhetorical narrative theory understands narrative as a rhetorical act with intentional, although not prescriptive, consequences. Attractive to Freed are his theory's investments in what Phelan and Rabinowitz call the "affective, ethical, and aesthetic" impact of narrative, and "the feedback loop among authorial agency, textual phenomena[,] and reader response" (Phelan and Rabinowitz 3, 5). Freed expands the purview of their method by revealing its special purchase on the subset of contemporary ethnic literature that deliberately addresses itself to outsider audiences. Although Freed does not suggest that rhetorical narrative theory can fully anticipate the diverse and individual responses of actual audiences, she proposes that its mode of analysis allows us "to recognize the complex maneuvers these texts carry out to manage the imaginative engagements of readers at a distance" (26).
Into what imaginative engagements might readers enter with baby ghosts, anachronistic pterodactyls, murdered friends, and unrealized futures, all of which haunt the fiction of Freed's study? The potential for creating ethical relationships across difference is, of course, one long attributed to fiction, particularly works by or featuring minoritarian subjects. Within literary studies, one consistently popular account of this prospect highlights literature's purported ability to build bonds of empathy based on some underlying experience of sameness (as argued, for instance, in various veins by Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Lynn Hunt, and others). Another account, deriving from poststructuralist theory, identifies difference or singularity as key to fiction's ethical influence (see, for example, the work of Gayatri Spivak and Emily Apter). Freed acknowledges the persuasiveness of the latter investment. But in placing such valorizing emphasis on difference, she...