The Impossibility of Ethics

Derek Attridge is Emeritus Professor at the University of York. He has written extensively on topics including literary ethics, poetic form and the work of authors including James Joyce and J. M. Coetzee among many others. Maya Caspari spoke to him about reading, responsibility and the difference of ethics. 

MC: You have written extensively on the relationship between ethics and literature. Which books and/or experiences first sparked your interest in this area and why is it important to you? Have you ever encountered a work that made you radically change your own views?

DA: My early training was in an English department heavily influenced, as so many in the colonies were, by the work of F. R. Leavis, so the assumption that literary criticism had an ethical task was one I absorbed early on. Growing up in apartheid South Africa I also learned that the political was an aspect of everyday life, and there was no reason why one’s activity as a critic should be exempt. At the same time, my inclination as a reader and critic has always been towards the formal achievements of successful literary works and the philosophical arguments around the distinctiveness of literature as a discourse and a cultural practice. I found most of the arguments around the political role of literature unconvincing as ways of talking about what is distinctive about literature as an art-form, and purely formalist accounts as failing to take into account the value of literature in the socio-political world. So what I needed was a way to combine my sense of the ethical importance of literature with a recognition of the role of form, and to do so with an awareness of the relevant philosophical traditions.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa I learnt that the political was an aspect of everyday life.

Discovering the work of Emmanuel Levinas, through my reading of his great admirer and rigorous critic, Jacques Derrida, was something of a breakthrough. Levinas sliced through the Gordian knot by insisting that ethical obligation is primary, philosophy (and a lot of other things) secondary: it’s not a matter of proving that one has a responsibility to one’s neighbour, because as a human being one is responsible. It’s part of what being human means. Questions of proof and logical argument come afterwards. Although Levinas did not rate works of art very highly, it seemed to me that there were important implications for our thinking about what it means to create a work of art in a given socio-cultural context, and equally what it means to read a work of art in a different context: both involve a kind of responsibility, and a responsibility which is met in part through the sensitivity to the operations of form.

As a human being one is responsible. It’s part of what being human means. Questions of proof and logical argument come afterwards.

I wouldn’t say I “radically changed my views” on getting to know Levinas’s work, but it did give me a way to talk about the things I see as mattering most in literature – which I did in The Singularity of Literature.

MC: In your 2015 book The Work of Literature, you refer to a quotation from J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, where the eponymous main character is discussing her life’s work as a writer: “What good has it done me, all this beauty? Is beauty not just another consumable, like wine? One drinks it in, one drinks it down, it gives one a brief, pleasing, heady feeling, but what does it leave behind?” This question might perhaps also be applied to the activity of the critic and their consumption of literature. How do you see the critic’s role today, and the ‘good’ it might do? Is what you term ‘successful’ criticism necessarily also ethical?

DA: One of the important functions of the critic is to affirm the singularity and inventiveness of the literary work – what Derrida calls “countersigning” the work’s signature. This affirmation is part of what keeps literary works alive and gives them a particular force within a culture. Simply by registering that the work is worth the attention of the critic is helping to keep it alive, however inadequate the response, but the best criticism is fully attentive both to the work and to the culture within which it is being read. It is thus that it exercises its responsibilities: the responsibility to do justice to the work (which is also doing justice to the author or authors, even if the reader has no particular knowledge on this score) and the responsibility to place the work in the context of the here and now. So yes, successful criticism is necessarily ethical.

The good that criticism does shouldn’t be overestimated: as a response to a literary work it isn’t going to make us better people (though the critic will often stray into other kinds of discourse which could potentially do so). But in sustaining literature as a viable presence in the culture, and in enhancing the appreciation and understanding of readers of literature, it is performing an important service that has wide repercussions.


MC: You suggest that the way in which ‘literature’ comes into being as such is through the encounter between reader and work – and the necessary ‘openness’ that this encounter demands from the reader. What differentiates this encounter, if anything, from our encounters with other art forms?

DA: This is a topic I want to explore in a future work, but my hunch is that, in spite of the many differences among the various art forms, the encounter is fundamentally the same. I see every response to an art work – when it is treated as an art work, and not as a source of information, moral wisdom, etc – as an event; although some forms determine the event more fully than others (we have to listen to, or play, a piece of music from beginning to end, and we usually read poems in the same way), it is always something that happens to the individual, an experience that introduces something new into the mental and emotional world of the reader, viewer, or listener.

Being open to newness or otherness is key to the responsible response

Being open to that newness or otherness is key to the responsible response – which doesn’t mean discarding all the knowledge and know-how one has gained from all one’s other reading and wider experiences. (Bertolt Brecht objected, quite rightly, to audiences who “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom”.) On the contrary, in fact; a responsible reading, viewing, or listening brings to bear on the work the fullest possible array of information and skills, along with a readiness to have these challenged.

MC: You have previously said that: “living ethically is a constant negotiation between ethics and justice.” You were referring here specifically to Levinas’s conception of ethics as an infinite obligation towards the other. Do the two have to be at odds? What can be the relevance of ethics if it is defined so as to preclude a commitment to political justice?

DA: It’s not a matter of ethics precluding a commitment to political justice, but of a relationship that’s not transparent or easy. Ethics, in the sense that I’m using it, following Levinas and Derrida (as elaborated in The Gift of Death, for example), is, in the strictest sense of the word, impossible: there is no way any of us could fulfil all the ethical obligations we face from all the world’s inhabitants (human, animal, and perhaps more; living and dead and to come), and their products and habitats and ways of life. Moreover, in making a selection out of all these obligations as we have to do in order to be ethically effective at all, there is no logical procedure we can rely on; there will always be a non-rational remainder. If Levinas is right, even our obligation to a single other is infinite and therefore impossible to fulfil. And yet none of this is a reason for not attempting to be ethical; I am responsible, and I must continue to do what I can to meet my obligations in the full awareness of the impossibility of the task.

Politics is the art of the possible: acting, and getting others to act, in a manner which will produce social justice.

Politics, on the other hand, is the art of the possible: acting, and getting others to act, in a manner which will produce social justice. Effective programmes, rational justifications, believable manifestos are all at the heart of the political. Constructing a politics that will allow for the fullest expression of the ethical is therefore not a simple task. It would mean finding a way to eliminate, or at least reduce, the fears that limit the openness of many people to otherness – which would include, of course, an economic programme that did away with the resentment arising from poverty. It would mean an educational programme that encouraged an understanding of the responsibilities of this life and challenging the religious message of an afterlife (see Martin Hägglund’s forthcoming book, This Life). It would mean a cultural programme that supported real creativity in the arts.

MC: Over the past year, we’ve seen many major political changes, including an increase in support for the far-right, the ongoing refugee crisis and a rise in anti-immigration rhetoric in political discourse and the media. What does an ethical life – or indeed a critical life – mean for you in this context?  

DA: One way of approaching this question is through the idea of hospitality, an idea very much at stake in the shifts you mention. In a chapter in The Work of Literature I examine Derrida’s many engagements with this idea, which I see as central to his ethical thought. As in his writing on other topics such as the gift, forgiveness, and justice, Derrida posits two versions of hospitality that he calls unconditional and conditional. We’re back to the question of the impossibility of ethics and the necessity of ethical action. Unconditional ethics is openness to the other without any strings attached: if it could be put into practice in state policies it would mean welcoming all refugees and immigrants without question. But such complete openness is impossible; in the real world, there are always conditions.

The challenge today is to find a way to meet the obligations of hospitality in a practical way while at the same time honouring the idea of unconditional hospitality.

So the challenge today is to find a way to meet the obligations of hospitality in a practical way while at the same time honouring the idea of unconditional hospitality. This is not just a matter of being as hospitable as possible under the circumstances (though that’s a good thing to do); I see it as undertaking one’s hospitable actions in the spirit of unconditional hospitality, and of therefore treating the limitations one might have to impose as damaging and, if possible, as temporary.

Derek Attridge is Emeritus Professor at the University of York. He has authored 21 books on topics including literary ethics, poetic form, South African fiction and the work of James Joyce. 

The Routledge Classics edition of The Singularity of Literature is now available with a new preface by the author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s