The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction
London: Routledge, 2015
Hardback. 179 p. ISBN 978-113890722. Ł90
e-book. ISBN 978-1315696690. Ł21.53
Reviewed by Catherine Bernard
Université Paris Diderot
In this new monograph, Jean-Michel Ganteau brings together many of the skeins of his more recent research, from the philosophy of care to trauma literature, but The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction is not only a cogent recapitulation of his elected themes. It offers no less than an original poetics through which we may be able to map out a vast tract of the fiction being currently produced in Britain. One of its many strengths lies in the way the essay places itself at the precise junction of the ethics and the aesthetics of reading. In that sense, rarely has the pairing of the two notions—an epoch-defining conceptual pair—been more aptly elaborated upon. While programmatic, the ethical reading of form does not in the least imply that textuality is blindy harnessed to a process of ontologising. On the contrary, Jean-Michel Ganteau never loses sight of the agency of form and of the way literary form itself generates a specific experience of ethics.
The ethical turn of literary theory has generated heated debates and has, in that sense, been one of the most productive recent “turns” of criticism. Where Jean-Michel Ganteau’s is an original voice is in the way he is always wary of placing his interpretation in the wake of one single, stable vision of such ethics of form and is on the contrary anxious to test the various traditions—some of them relatively nascent ones—and bring them into fruitful tension. In that respect, one should from the start be grateful to him for offering such a wide-ranging and exhaustive map of the research done on the ethics of writing. Drawing from comprehensive readings on the topic, he succeeds in tracing a path of his own in what has become a fairly intense field of research. The introduction offers in that sense an impeccable synthesis not only of the main themes and paradigms of that specific critical area, but also of the possible dialectical correlations to be established between theoretical strands whose differences need to be heeded correctly for them to be truly productive. A well-known specialist of trauma literature and of the ethics of reading—he has co-edited two volumes on trauma fiction, with Susana Onega, also published by Routledge (Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature  and Contemporary Trauma Narrative. Liminality and the Ethics of Form )—Ganteau is careful for instance to clearly distinguish between the ethics of reception and the philosophy of care, and establishes, for example, strategic links between the politics of gender as explored and performed by fiction and the politics of affect.
In order to achieve this, the essay draws not only from British and American theorists of the ethics of literature—Martha Nussbaum among others—or of the philosophy of care—among whom Judith Butler—but also from the French school of the philosophy of vulnerability, from Sandra Laugier and Marie Gaille, to Guillaume Le Blanc and Corinne Pelluchon. As often, one is struck here by a form of Zeitgeist logic, similar paradigms emerging in the anglophone world and in France, although belatedly, while failing to fully cohere. The present monograph may help thus to bridge the gap between the variants of vulnerability studies, once again not so much with a view to producing a coherent system but rather a productive dialogue between complementary understandings of vulnerability as praxis. What the essay is intent on showing is precisely how certain fictions leave text and reader susceptible to a process of alteration that profoundly destabilises meaning all the better to reactivate it as a form of enlightening without certainties. One may read here some of the staple tenets of post-structuralism; where Jean-Michel Ganteau truly innovates is in the way he succeeds in rearming meaning as relationality, a relationality best performed and experienced by / through fiction.
In order to do so, each of the four chapters focuses on two core texts and authors offering strategic instanciations of the four main paradigms of the ethics and aesthetics at stake. Each time, the analysis builds first on a thorough understanding of the generic determinations at the heart of narrative ethics. Thus ethical agency is shown to be produced by the text, rather then the text being conceived as determined by some external program. The first chapter—“Romance strategies”— turns to Jeanette Winterson’s The.PowerBook (2000) and Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton (1987). Romance, an overlooked mode when it comes to understanding the power of contemporary fiction, is shown to destabilise “the dominant idiom of the novel” . Even more so, romance is here brought into very fruitful conjunction with both a poetics of the frail body and a poetics of the fragment, so that dislocation and experience enter into a complex dialectics. In Ackroyd’s case the conventional critical emphasis on the “anxiety of influence” opens on a radical rethinking of intertextuality as “vulnerability to other texts”  which is interactive, “open” and “ruinous” ) at the same time, in keeping with the experience of loss that informs his novel.
Chapter two—“Elegy”—turns to two relatively under-researched novelists: Anne Enright with The Gathering (2007) and Nicholas Royle with Quilt (2010). The central paradigm is that of mourning and melancholy. Once again the analysis goes against the grain of accepted conceptions of melancholy to show how vulnerability to loss may in fact prove to be a force. The analysis of Royle’s novel is the occasion for the definition of writing as “excarnation” , i.e. as the performance of loss. That performance does not aim at producing any sublation of grief, but on the contrary allows the texts to exist as ongoing performance and thus as “pure relation” . Relationality is one of the key paradigms of the entire essay; it very effectively weaves the main threads of the aesthetics of vulnerability into a coherent fabric. The text’s relation to other texts as well as the characters’ own relation to experience, whether of love, grief or the collective, is in turn reworked in the text’s relation to / with the reader. As already noted in relation to Winterson and Ackroyd, such relationality yields no cathartic experience but leaves us endlessly susceptible, vulnerable to the othering produced by the text.
Chapter three—“Ghost Texts”—carries the exploration of loss over into a reading of Pat Barker’s Another World (1998) and Nina Allan’s short-story collection The Silver Wind (2011). The choice of these two texts in itself testifies to a desire to turn to less canonical fiction. Where one might have expected Jean-Michel Ganteau to include a reading of Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, he chose rather to focus on one of Barker’s more tentative fictions. In both Another World and The Silver Wind, realism and romance are conflated in such a way that “the narrative punctures and breaks open the dominating idiom of realism” . The risk-taking is here great as both Barker and Allan deliberately eschew the reassuring norms of realism to lay their texts open to the possibility of failure. Risk-taking and failure are two other important notions to understand how the present essay sublates the more conventional conceptions of the ethics of alterity. For Jean-Michel Ganteau, a text’s capacity to take the risk of failure is also a way to truly, radically undo the hegemony of coherence. Thus vulnerability works against the ideology of the autonomous, self-enclosed text to delineate what is defined, after Levinas, as “positive vulnerability”.
This is particularly clear in the last chapter of the essay—“State of the Nation”—in which, one may argue, the ethics and aesthetics of vulnerability prove ultimately to produce a politics of vulnerability. Once again, the analysis fruitfully turns to texts which have not attracted yet the critical interest they deserve: Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (2010) and Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). Although the focus is on the unravelling of the collective fabric of contemporary Britain, the two texts are read against the memory of Forster’s imperative in Howards End to “only connect”. In McGregor’s case, the sense of connectedness is achieved in the choral structure of the novel which creates a sense of powerful, if diffuse agency. Each narrator carries the ethical task of bearing witness to a process of disenfranchisement that concerns us all. Both Even the Dogs and Saturday are novels for “post-utopian times” , but their paradoxical agency lies in their capacity to gesture to the possibility of a sense of ethics in spite of the demise of utopia. That sense of ethics lies in the relationality and commonality of affect as well as the acceptance that reading also means being vulnerable to the affective power of a shared imagination.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction takes the risk of being thought-provoking and of engaging not only with the most recent critical propositions on the ethics of literature, but also with reading as an experience of othering. It succeeds in reworking some of the most pressing issues in the field of critical theory, from the dialectics of engagement and autonomy to the aesthetics of democratic relationality, while making us hear anew some of the strongest voices in contemporary British fiction; and one must add that the analysis includes forays into many other novels. Its vast mastery of contemporary critical debates, its capacity to push back the frontiers of literary ethics, its sheer love of fiction and what it does to our sense of a shared world, make for an enticing and illuminating reading experience. Its theoretical ambition reaches beyond the sphere of contemporary British fiction, while also renewing our understanding of its specific poetics. It will provide important keys to explore the works of writers as diverse as Cormac McCarthy, W.G. Sebald, Sarah Kane or Simon McBurney, and many others still, and to understand the ethical relevance of literature to our sense of historicity, here and now.
Jean-Michel Ganteau, The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction (London: Routledge, 2015)—Reviewed by Catherine Bernard, Université Paris Diderot
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