Responsible responding: the ethics of a literary criticism of the Other

Master Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

Derek Attridge’s insight that, ‘Coetzee’s works both stage, and are, irruptions of otherness into our familiar worlds, and they pose the question: what is our responsibility towards the Other?’ (Attridge 2005: JM Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event, xii), is conceptually rooted in Attridge’s tour de force on the theory of literary invention, The Singularity of Literature. In it he spins a complex, nuanced and powerful idea about the nature of literature as event in which the notion of otherness, or alterity, plays a primordial part in the advent of the literary. In this thesis, I develop a critique of the way in which a particular strand of literary criticism, which has blossomed in the field of Coetzee Studies, appropriates the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas in its creation of an ethics-based, theme-reliant interpretive framework. While Derek Attridge, Mike Marais and Stefan Helgesson have each contributed greatly to this critical outlook, which I abbreviate as the ‘Levinasian Approach’, I choose to focus my research on the work produced by Attridge. My argument unfolds across two main sections. Section 1 contains a disquisition on pertinent aspects of Levinas’s ethical philosophy to literary aesthetics (Chapter 1). Section 2 consists of two chapters where the first (Chapter 2) is a study of the interface of Levinasian ethics with Attridge’s theory of literature in the event. There, I begin with an exposition of Attridge’s theory of literature, exploring its conceptual bearing on Levinas’s ethics. I make apparent the extent of his indebtedness to Levinas’s ethics by closely examining how and where, in the gestation of his theory, he borrows from Levinas’s ethical writings to develop a discourse on the nature of literature. This I follow up with a look at the nodes of divergence, unveiling the ways in which Attridge departs from Levinasian conceptions in his deployment of Levinasian terms. In conscripting the pseudo-phenomenological and transcendental ethics developed by Levinas into a hermeneutics of aesthetic evaluation and literary judgment, Attridge’s position diverges with undesirable consequence from Levinasian ethics. In the second chapter of Section 2 (Chapter 3) I reveal how Attridge’s method of textual analysis in J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading goes against the grain of the theory of literary invention he elucidates in The Singularity of Literature. Furthermore, I argue that, in converting ethics into an applicative analytic for the audit of texts, with a view to exploring their literariness, he responds irresponsibly in Levinasian terms to Levinasian ethics. If his position is regarded as Levinasian, certain conceptual problems arise for his critical method. Should Levinas’s ethics be regarded as the source of Attridges’s notion of otherness and alterity, then Attridge’s selective appropriation is methodologically at odds with the source of its possibility, with Levinasian ethics.