Literature and Ethics: Questions of Responsibility in Literary Studies

by Daniel Jernigan, Neil Murphy, Brendan Quigley, and Tamara Wagner

Description

Literature and Ethics covers a wide gamut of literary periods and genres, including essays on Victorian literature and modernism, as well as several studies on narrative, but the central ethos emerges from considerations of issues of responsibility and irresponsibility as they find expression in literary study, and in ethics. Essays by J. Hillis Miller and Eugene O’Brien among others, for example, explore the deeply felt inheritance of Derrida, while several essays––including those by Shirley Chew and Suzie Gibson––interpret the question of responsibility via a close exploration of contemporary novels. Several other essays offer careful analyses of the intersection between formal matters and authorial responsibility, or lack thereof, while others probe the state of the discipline of literary studies itself. Despite a diversity of approaches and objectives, many of the essays in one way or another express an anxiety about the continued viability of general theories of ethics and responsibility in an age almost universally given over to the rejection of universal principles.

Students and academics who are interested in literary theory, ethics, narrative form, and issues of authorial responsibility, and how such matters inform the reading of literary texts, will find that this collection offers a wide array of approaches and viewpoints by major figures from the relevant sub-disciplines in literary studies. The collection offers much-timely critical observation on a variety of contemporary authors but also provides critically adventurous commentaries on Victorian literature, and on Indian, African, Irish, and Australian literature. The volume assembles a collection of essays that would illustrate the great diversity of methods by which considerations of responsibility can and do offer insight into a range of literary texts, and theoretical discourses, while also making a contribution to the philosophical question of responsibility (and irresponsibility) in the contemporary world.

The collection as a whole testifies to the human fascination with issues of responsibility, just as it testifies to the necessity of posing questions of responsibility as questions of ethics and literature, the necessity of recognizing, in other words, that “responsibility” names a concept whose only ground is the history of those fictional narratives of responsibility and irresponsibility that modern civilization would do well to continue inventing and reflecting upon critically. So whether ethical discourses find expression in theoretical debate––or in and through the sophisticated fictions that constitute an imaginative culture––what is clear, both from wider discussions related to the value of literary texts that are such a central part of contemporary literary studies, and from the varied and nuanced arguments that are made in this collection, is that questions of responsibility are central to literature, philosophy, and the arts, just as they are to the social realities that spawned them in the first place.

From this perspective, this collection owes much to what amounts to a veritable renaissance in ethical theory, the consequences of which can be seen now beyond the bounds of philosophy in literary and cultural studies. Hence, the so-called “ethical turn” in criticism, indebted to a renewed interest in the legacy of Levinas, to the more proximate engagement in Jacques Derrida’s late work with religious, ethical, and political themes, and to a number of crucial interventions in literary studies, beginning with J. Hillis Miller’s The Ethics of Reading, whose enduring influence is reconfirmed by the several invocations of that work in this book. The essays collected here, to be sure, do not all grow organically from the soil of this “turn,” but they do necessarily become a part of the continuing project of literary studies’ contribution to ethical criticism.

Literature and Ethics is an important book for all literature and literary theory collections. It has specific resonance for students and teachers who are interested in the value of literary study, and in questions of ethics and narrative.



 

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