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Short Response to Derek Attridge's "Innovation, Literature, Ethics..."

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   Dmitri Kaminiar
   Prof. Naomi Morgenstern


   To ignore ethics in the world of literature is to ignore them in real life (for literature is life's reflection), and that is not a sign of a proper or an ethical person. Professor Attridge's essay "Innovation, Literature, Ethics..." aims to deal with this situation, and it managed to explain, to show, and to prove.
   Still, while ethics are important in literature in general, there is one matter where they are especially prominent - in the matter of `the other' (`the otherness' or `alterity', according to professor Attridge). Professor Attridge starts talking about his concern regarding `the other' straight away, as he points out in the following quotation:
   What exactly am I doing? [...] Let me suggest three possibilities. I could say that I am creating, or at least attempting to create; [...] I could say that I am inventing, trying to be inventive, hoping to bring into the culture to which I belong a text that will have the status of an invention. [...] Finally, I could say that I am attempting to respond to the new ideas whose potential existence I intuit [...]
   (Attridge, pg. 20-21)
   The quotation above introduces three possibilities (according to Attridge) regarding literature: when one is writing down something new, that author is either creating or inventing that newness or he is responding to something different, something that Attridge generally identifies as `the other'. That `other', as described in the greater part of the essay, is a literary stand-in for something that "is created by the other" (Attridge, 21), something that was created or invented by a different person, the other in question, put otherwise.
   Here it is when the ethics appear; for is it ethical to use another person's property, whether in real life or in literature, without asking permission? Since the modern society had invented the copyright laws, obviously not. Moreover, since sometimes the literary `creation' (as suggested in the quotation above) includes people, (`the other' in a more common sense of the term), then ethics grow even more in importance in relation to literature.
   After all, if `the other' is an invention of the author in question as opposed to something that the author had "borrowed" (to follow on the quotation mentioned above), then it is up to the author to decide just how much `the other' will be different, for `the other' can be reduced to a stereotype of anything, of any member or representative of human society, whether national or not. Many authors had implemented that approach with varying degrees of success.
   Thus, the `otherness' of `the other' depends not only on the literary skill of an author, but on his or her own character and own ethical code. That, however, can be hard to do, for there is "no moral or pragmatic ground for responsibility, there is also no philosophical ground" (Attridge, 28). "What is the ethical ground for attention to an affirmation of otherness, when the result of this effort may be without any humanly recognizable merit or indeed may serve inhuman ends?" Without such usual reasons for taking responsibility it is truly up to the author to decide just how much `the other' will be alien or strange or inhuman... a state of affairs that brings back the ethics once again. This time `ethics' stand largely for personal judgement of character, both literary and the author's.
   "Responsibility is an ethical term; it implies an ought", Attridge wrote, driving his point directly home. "To be responsible for the as yet nonexistent other is to be under an obligation" (pg. 28), i.e. imaginary or literary characters have rights too, or at least, they are supposed to, for `the other' is a manifestation of the author's personality. To deny `the other' any rights is somewhat similar to self-denial, and it is unethical to reduce your - or your main character's - literary opponent to a mere stereotype, as mentioned before, they need to be developed as well as the protagonist character gets to be developed.
   Conversely, if that `other' is not an imaginary or literary character outright, but more of a literary response to someone else (hence `the other'), then they are even more likely to have rights, not only in the literary, but also in the real world, and to deny them such rights is even more incorrect or unethical - a situation that must be fixed.
   That, then, is the matter of literary ethics, this is why we study them, and this is why Professor Attridge's paper is so important to these studies, for he confronts such issues directly, and without using any specific examples manages to get his message across just as well.
   Works cited:
   Attridge, Derek: "Innovation, Literature, Ethics: Relating to the Other." PMLA 114 (1999): 20-31
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