Christopher Fenwick

Ethical Criticism and the Postmodern Novel: Problems of Construing Ethical Life in Late Modernity (General and Comparative Literature)

Doctoral Candidate

Email chris.fenwick@fu-berlin.de

Christopher Fenwick was born in 1986 in Birmingham, England. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2007 with a BA in English and subsequently entered the École normale supérieure in Paris via the Sélection international programme. During his time at the ENS he studied for an MA in Comparative Literature at the Université Paris 8 and spent a year at the Freie Universität Berlin as a DAAD scholarship holder. His first Master’s thesis, Le roman pensant: Une étude herméneutique de l'essayisme chez Proust, Mann et Musil, explored the relations between literature and philosophy in the "essayistic" novels of early Modernism, with particular reference to the aesthetic theories of Adorno and Gadamer. His second thesis, La communauté invisible: Les enjeux éthiques de la modernité tardive chez Baudelaire, Benjamin et Sebald, read Sebald as coming to terms with ethical problems incipient in Baudelaire’s work, whilst also looking at how "ethical" literary criticism is itself symptomatic of late modernity. As of October 2011 he is completing his PhD at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School for Literary Studies. He also maintains a blog about cultural and philosophical topics at http://lexipenia.wordpress.com/.

My project, Ethical criticism and the postmodern novel: Problems of construing ethical life in late modernity, explores the relationship that 'ethical' theories of literary criticism have to theories of postmodernity, and to the aesthetics of a number of postmodern novels. It is animated by the tension between the traditionally humanistic impulses of ethical criticism and the anti-humanism implicit in theories of the postmodern, a tension that is in turn manifested in the two principle contemporary approaches to ethical criticism: neo-Aristotelianism and deconstruction. My introductory chapter attempts to account for this tension within a neo-Hegelian framework that emphasizes the modern problem of legitimation. This exposes both the necessity of a shared normative order to any form of successful moral judgement, whilst at the same time entailing the self-questioning of that order. My thesis will thus attempt to read postmodern texts in the light of this dialectic, understanding their ethical interest as a reflection upon the possibility of ethical life. I do not, however, mean to claim that all postmodern novels are radically sceptical about ethics. Rather, after reviewing various approaches to 'ethical' criticism – in particular, those of Martha Nussbaum, Derek Attridge, Robert Pippin, Cora Diamond and Stanley Cavell, all of whom subscribe to versions of aesthetic cognitivism – I mean to establish a Wittgenstein-influenced account of literary "conceptual exploration" that is compatible with both deconstructive and neo-Aristotelian tendencies. With this in mind, each of my subsequent chapters will examine the interrogative dialectic of postmodernity as it applies to a problem pertinent to ethical criticism. The first of these chapters will consider early American "systems novels" (Pynchon and Gaddis) alongside Umberto Eco, concentrating upon their representations of coherence and incoherence, which affect both the semiotic and social orders. I read these novels as interrogating the Hegelian notion of ethical life (Sittlichkeit), which we might also consider in the light of the communitarian theories of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. My second analytical chapter turns to the European avant garde and examines the way in which elliptical narratives by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget and Thomas Bernhard deconstruct the categories employed by practical philosophy in describing and judging action. This allows us to see how the epistemological problems inherent in moral judgement, emphasized in particular by the numerous 'ethical' readings of Henry James, are radicalized by postmodernism as ontological problems. My final chapter will consider the role that empathy and affect play in our ethical understanding of literature, and the way in which these elements interact with postmodern aesthetics. Whilst avant garde texts largely disallow traditional notions of character, there has nonetheless been a contemporary resurgence of "postmodern" writing that is based upon a narrative poetic of character and moral dilemma: witness David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. I hope to examine this contemporary tendency in the light of the role played by affect in post-humanist philosophies, incorporating texts in English, French and German.