The Impossibility of Ethics: An Interview with Derek Attridge

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 forced you to radically change your own views?

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 also learned 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.

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