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American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions$
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Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780231156172

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231156172.001.0001

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Aesthetics and the New Ethics

Aesthetics and the New Ethics

Theorizing the Novel in the Twenty-First Century

Chapter:
(p.313) [14] Aesthetics and the New Ethics
Source:
American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions
Author(s):

Dorothy J. Hale

Publisher:
Columbia University Press
DOI:10.7312/columbia/9780231156172.003.0014

This chapter argues that modern novel that Henry James helped to invent and the tradition of novel theory that he inaugurated provide a foundational aesthetics for the novel that underlies both Martha Nussbaum's ethical philosophy and the new ethical theory that has emerged, especially in the past decade, in the attempt to articulate a positive social value of literature for our postmodern age. To mention J. Hillis Miller, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, Derek Attridge, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, and Michael André Bernstein is to invoke some of the most influential contributors to the new ethical defense of literary value. And while these theorists do indeed derive their ethics from diverse political theorists (Foucault, Agamben, Adorno, Benjamin, Levinas, and Derrida), the heterogeneity of these political influences has coalesced in a surprisingly unified account of literary value. For these new ethicists, the ethical value of literature lies in the felt encounter with alterity that it brings to its reader. It is the untheorized understanding of the form of the novel as inherently politicized that establishes a bridge between the poststructuralist ethicists and the “pre-Barthesian” Nussbaum. The development in the twentieth century of a novelistic aesthetics of alterity cannot be adequately explained (away) by the ideological notion of disavowal since the avowal of disavowal is part of what defines it as an aesthetics. The chapter shows how the achievement of alterity is, for both ethical camps, not only taken for granted as the novel's distinctive generic purpose, but understood to be accomplished through novelistic form. It suggests how the aesthetics of alterity derives from James' own acute awareness that the politicized struggle between art and its ideological instrumentality is constitutive of novelistic aesthetics itself.

Keywords:   Henry James, novel theory, Martha Nussbaum, ethical philosophy, ethical theory, literary value, alterity, aesthetics

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