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The Ethics of Reading: Levinas and Gadamer on encountering the other in literature

This dissertation explores the question ‘can we encounter the Other through the mediation of literature?’ The question reflects an increasing interest in ethics by literary theorists and particularly in the application of Emmanuel Levinas’s work to the field of literary studies. I identify a major concern with this trend that has been largely overlooked: Levinas states that the Other cannot be encountered through the mediation of literature. With questions of justice towards texts and the necessity to respect alterity at the forefront, I argue that Levinas’s concerns cannot be overlooked. To explore a possible solution to the problem I first consider Levinas’s concerns with literature and argue that his adamant stance on the Other and literature stems not so much from the arguments he puts forward but a human conviction that the ethical is limited to the immediate face-to-face encounter. I suggest that this desire which cannot be fully accounted for by his philosophical account finds its origin in the Holocaust but, more than this, can be seen as the ethical saying interrupting and disturbing his writing. The answer to the question of the thesis hinges on the interpretation of both who the Other is and what exactly the encounter with the Other means for Levinas. Unlike most literary theorists, I do not look for ways in which Levinas’s ethical work is portrayed in literary texts; I am interested in the text as Other and the reader’s responsibility towards it rather than situations or characters that fit the face-to-face model. I draw upon Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics to both consider the relation one has with regard to a text and to clarify who exactly the Other might be. I conclude by trying to rehabilitate the idea of author but couch this in Gadamerian terms, it is the world view or horizon of the text that we encounter as other and I name this ‘author’. My consideration of Gadamer confirms that we feel that we encounter alterity in literature and he suggests a way to say something about this that does not annihilate otherness. I then return to the problem of literature for Levinas and find that I can answer the question of the thesis affirmatively, with some qualification. I argue that the Levinasian encounter is best understood by analogy to the Kantian sublime. We cannot encounter the Other at all except through experiences that signify or remind us of this primordial encounter. Lived encounters with the other are structurally similar to and signify the encounter with the Other which in turn gives the everyday encounters their meaning. I combine this interpretation with Jean Baudrillard’s argument regarding representation in photography which posits a view of a productive presentation of the fiction of reality rather than a hollow representation of an absent reality. With a positive answer to the question of the thesis in hand, I read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Purloined Letter’ to explore the implications of my research in a concrete example.
Type of thesis
Dougan, M. J. (2016). The Ethics of Reading: Levinas and Gadamer on encountering the other in literature (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10686
University of Waikato
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