Part 1 of a multipart post.
For newbies: this is part one of a summary of a paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association annual meeting in April 2010, with some additional commentary.
I. In what ways can an artwork be ethically evaluated? There are several ways:
- i. in its mode of production (for example, the business of publishing, or ethics of writing)
ii. the ethical views or attitudes it endorses or rejects
iii. in the quality of its exploration of ethical issues
iv. in its consequences (for example, causing readers to accept morally salutary or problematic attitudes)
I am interested in iii and ii
I spent a lot of time in this presentation defending the general idea of ethical criticism, because I was talking to a roomful of romance scholars and readers. Romance readers are used to iv above. The majority of public discourse about the romance novel does not treat it as literature or even as subliterature but as a commercial pop cultural product. More specifically, it has focused on the romance novel as a potentially harmful, singular product (and even my locution there — “the romance novel” — evidences that). As a romance reader, I am aware that this is a sensitive issue, for good reason, so I wanted to take time to explain exactly what I propose to do when I propose to engage in the ethical criticism of romance novels.
For me, as a moral philosopher, ethical criticism of the romance novel is the tiny part I can contribute to taking romance novels seriously as novels. It is also the tiny part I can contribute to broadening the very narrow focus among ethical critics on certain set of literary works.
II. Assuming we also evaluate literature aesthetically, what is the relationship between ethical and aesthetic evaluation?
I am only interested in this question to the extent of ruling out any answer that forecloses the possibility of ethical criticism per se.
a. Autonomism –Ex. Richard Posner, Oscar Wilde: art and morality are entirely separate, irrelevant to one another. No art is subject to moral assessment. Moral value or disvalue has no impact on value of art work. Art is valuable because it is “absorbing” or “singular” or more generally “beautiful”, or some other aesthetic quality.
b. Platonism – all art is morally suspect (this has to do with Plato’s onotlogy. Just its distance from the really real, i.e. the Forms, makes art ontologically suspect.)
c. Utopianism – Ex. Herbert Marcuse — all art is morally uplifting (for example, because it shows the world as it might be, supports praxis); Ex. Sartre, who write that there could be no good novel endorsing slavery (like Plato, Sartre has complicated ontological reasons of this view)
III. Problems with these:
As Noel Carroll has pointed out, all of these theories hold a “common denominator thesis”, namely that all art has same relationship to morality (whatever that relationship is). It seems more likely that different instances and kinds of art have different relationships to ethics. For example, while Marcuse may be right that some art has a utopian moment, few would agree that Triumph of the Will, despite its excellent aesthetic qualities, shares that. To say, as Posner and Wilde do, that there is no relationship also seems false, when so much art has been produced explicitly for religious, political and ethical reasons. Art is of the world and the world is political, religious, ethical.
Posner is right that art doesn’t have to have a moral dimension to succeed as art. Nor is art an instrument of morality. Moral edification is just not the function of most good art.
Also, looking at art ethically doesn’t foreclose or distort appreciating its aesthetic qualities, unless we let it. For one thing, aesthetic and ethical qualities are often hard to separate, in part because one of the things that can make a work of art absorbing, asethetically, is the way it engages the moral life of the audience. Can you really say you understand Beloved or Huckleberry Finnif you don’t have a handle on ii and iii above? No one, or at least no one I take seriously, is endorsing reading a book only for its moral message (extracting nuggets of moral wisdom), construed in very blunt nonaesthetic terms. Doing so would not be to read it as art, but as some kind of pedagogical tool, distorting its aesthetic qualities in the process.
When many people hear “ethical criticism of fiction”, they think immediately of looking at fiction’s effects on readers. Although there are certainly folks who do that (on both sides of the fence, i.e., some who say books are great for you morally and some who say they are bad for you morally, as we saw in Plato and Marcuse, respectively), that activity does not describe what many people are doing when they engage in ethical criticism of art. Or at least not what I am doing, and here’s why:
For one thing, what tools would you need to investigate the “effects of art”? Many of us can recall a book that seemed to affect us profoundly, changing our world view. I think it is fair to generalize this personal observation from our armchairs, as a sort of common sense grounding for ethical criticism or indeed any art criticism, but it is a long way from that to having any data on the effects of books on readers in general, let alone the effect of a specific book on a specific reader.
How would you gather that data, if you wanted to? Not from sitting in your office thinking about it. One way would be using the tools of social sciences like psychology and sociology, including surveys and ethnography. More newfangled ways would include using noninvasive brain imaging technologies (I can talk more about such studies if anyone wants), to see what parts of readers’ brains do what when they read. I don’t see any “ethical critics” gathering the kind of data they would need to support claims about the effects of books on readers. That is not a suggestion that they do so, but evidence for my contention that iv above is not what ethical critics are doing (or at least not what we should be doing).
Let’s suppose for a minute that our friends in neuropsychology or sociology gathered this data. And let’s suppose it showed that Something Bad Happens when certain people read certain books. Then what? Do we immediately have a case for censorship? No. The fact that “something is bad for some people” rarely, if ever, prompts regulation. I need only point to the example of tobacco products. At any rate, we need a new set of tools to consider this very different question, tools that literary critics and philosophers do not, generally, possess. We need our legal scholars, our political scientists, our public policy experts. So, even if someone filled the huge empirical hole where the data should be about the effects of literature on readers, we would find ourselves in another hole, that it would take lot of work to fill in.
My point is that (a) most ethical critics, at least today, are doing ii and iii, not iv above, and (b) even if we wanted to do iv above we would have a long long way to go, and a damnable time getting there.
A couple more points on this topic. I realize that, in one sense, talk about the effects of books has always been part of literary discourse, staring with talking about the effects on the reader herself. But it is one thing to talk about how a book made you feel while reading it, and another to talk about permanent or even long term effects. It is still another thing to talk about permanent or long term effects on other readers, i.e. readers who are not you.
Romance readers talk a lot about the good effects of romance reading on their beliefs, attitudes and desires. They might say reading romance has helped them to be better communicators, to understand men, to demand their due from their partners, to get in touch with their sexuality, etc. That’s cool. But if we are going to do that, we also need to consider whether romances have had any negative effects. In other words, if you are going to play the “effects on readers game” you cannot rule out a priori (for example, by saying things like “Women are not just passive readers, i.e. dopes. We know the difference between fantasy and reality. Don’t infantalize and patronize us.”) any and all claims about negative effects on readers of romance novels.
Consider: how could it be that you only learned good or positive things from romance novels?
There are two options, as far as I can see. (1) Romance novels, the entire genre, only endorse good positive healthy attitudes towards gender, romance, love, sex, and everything else they take as their subjects (however those good attitudes are defined). That seems manifestly unbelievable to me, given my own experience as a romance reader, and given how large and diverse the genre is. That comes close to saying there is only one romance novel — one very morally good romance novel — and it has been written over and over.
Or (2) you know quite well that there is a lot of stuff you wouldn’t endorse in a romance novel, some of it apparently endorsed by the (implied — more on that later) author, but either (a) you don’t read those books, or (b) if you do, you don’t “learn anything” from them, because you filter the bad stuff out. Ok, but then, you aren’t “learning” anything fromromance novels. Rather, you are applying a moral framework you already possess to your selection of texts, or to your reading of texts, only letting what you have already decided are “good” messages in. In that case, it would be more accurate to say that your reading of romance novels reinforces or deepens or lends specification to moral beliefs you already hold. I think that is much closer to what is really happening, personally. But if it is, then we have to accept that if a reader holds pernicious moral beliefs, she can find some warrant, some deepening, reinforcing or specifying, of those bad moral beliefs in romance novels, too.
Ok, so this post has been all about saying what I am NOT doing when I do ethical criticism. The next post will say more about what I AM doing.