Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ethics and the Tragic Face of Literature in a Post-9/11 World

Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative. –Don DeLillo, Mao II

In between various other projects--finishing my book manuscript, finishing a Woody Allen article, prepping for my German cinema course, creating my new voice over career (Oh, come on--those of you who know me, know how fond I am of incorporating strange voices into every narrative I tell.)--I've started a new project that I'm really excited about.

It's not a form of procrastination. I had to start it because I was thinking through the possibilities for my presentation at the 2011 North American Levinas Society conference in May, trying to write a proposal. I had just finished reading Don DeLillo's Mao II, and was blown away (I know, I'm a bit late on this one.). And it came to me that everything these days--literature, daily conversations, political rhetoric--is either about destruction and violence or it employs violent rhetoric. I just saw an article online today, for example, about how political rhetoric in particular is charged with violent language (political opponents are "demolished," a bill is "killed," "crash and burn," etc.).

But what I really care about is literature--how it looks and feels, what role it plays in our efforts to come to terms with the world around us.

What, I began to wonder, is the new “face” of literature? In an era dominated by senseless brutalities, collective atrocities, and threats of terrorism, how has the face of literature changed both to reflect and respond to these phenomena?

This isn't so different from my book project, which examines the role of non-representational thinking in the context of responses (literary and film) to the Holocaust. But something in the past decade has changed. In a post-9/11 period, it seems that American novelists have begun to forge a path into new ethical terrain. While it may be that the pervasiveness of discussions of violence and terror since 9/11 have colored all of our discourse--social, political, philosophical, religious, etc.--it also might be that the catastrophes of 9/11 gave novelists a new language—a rhetoric through which to address the question of the ethical in our era.

DeLillo’s Mao II in particular highlights the writer’s own anxieties about the place of the artist/novelist in a world dominated by the spectacles of terrorism. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” says one character in Mao II. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

And, later on, “the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art” (157).

Hmph. Art vs Terror? What?

So my question, then, is what role do terror and terrorism play in navigating what we might call the new ethical terrain, particularly as it is mapped out in the space of the literary? How can an understanding of the Levinasian “face” open up the kind of discourse necessary (the “discourse whose first word is obligation”) for an understanding of the ethical in the context of the literary (Totality and Infinity 201)? But more importantly, why is such an understanding important, and how might it spur us on to action?

This is what I'm thinking about. I'm really excited.


J. Douglas said...

It seems to me that Levinas would argue that all discourse is inherently violent; that is, it sclerocizes and crystalizes the saying in the said (OTB, 9). Discourse, understood as thought represented in a system of signs, is always and already violent - totalizing. Specific words may evoke violent images, but it is important to recognize the violence of discourse itself.

The ethical project of the artist, it seems to me, is to find an exilic discourse - discourse in the mode of passivity, dis-location, and susceptibility to the other. I'm not sure what that kind of art would be, but that seems to be the project.

That's my two cents. :)

Carin said...

i am going to have to think on this for awhile because i don't have a good response. you always write such smart and profound things.

and did you really write a book? i'll buy it AND read it.