Introduction to Literary Theory: The Ethical Subject
The rise of the individual may be dated from the publication of Jacob Burckhardt‟s influential study of the Italian Renaissance in 1860. A close reading of Burckhardt‟s individual, who would later evolve into the modern “subject,” provides the opening gamut in our own review of contemporary literary theory as an enterprise with distinctly ethical implications. Ethics without subjectivity is, in the modern context, unthinkable. But so is subjectivity without ethics. A brief encounter with Machiavelli is convincing on this point. The moral depravity of Machiavelli's prince is only recognizable because we reasonably expect something more from our leaders, a sentiment that Burckhardt clearly shared.
In a purely literary context, the questions are modified somewhat, but the underlying issues are largely the same. Taking as our point of departure the Aristotelian emphasis on “action,” we will explore our interest in knowing “what happens next” in any literary text as a symptom of our engagement with that text as an ethical act. The question of what happens next, by definition, imputes to the actor motivations, desires, feelings, in effect, an imagined subjectivity, whether that actor is a character in a novel, an on-stage personality, or our next-door neighbor. The fluid movement between reality and the imagination in this respect highlights the representational nature of the subject, the fact that a representation of the subject is finally all there is.
To theorize the subject—which, as we shall see, is the essential goal of much of contemporary literary theory—is necessarily to create a paradigm for understanding the limits of the subject's ability to act. From psychoanalytical theories, to Marxism, Structuralism, and finally post-Structuralism, “theory” has had a powerful influence on our understanding of subjective self-determination, or to put it perhaps more crudely, on our concept of freedom.
Freedom is a precondition of ethical action. Thus, in the same way that theory constrains the subject‟s freedom, it also inevitably complicates the idea of ethical action. There is, in this sense, no one ethical subject, but rather a variety of ethical consequences that may be said to arise out of the modern discovery—or invention—of subjectivity. To explore the range of these ethical predicaments will be the main focus of this class.