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Discussion Post | Towards the Ethical Critique of Textual Experience

In an effort to revitalize ethical criticism of literature, Wayne Booth argues that there is no need to believe that “an interest in form precludes an interest in the ethical powers of form" (7). That is, we need not read a text only to evaluate its technical excellence, maintaining a certain detachment from the ethical implications of the text and its features. Good criticism does not entail ethical agnosticism. Indeed, where Mike Duncan and Star Medzerian Vanguri argue in The Centrality of Style that “style is composition enacted” (xii), it becomes clear that content (and its ideological motives) is not wholly detachable from form: it is through form, through the style of the text, that content is enacted. We don’t get to the content but through the language on the page (or in the air); thus, if we are going to take texts seriously, we should first take the quality of their style into account.

Booth writes:

Each work of art or artifice, even the simplest wordless melody, determines to some degree how at least this one moment will be lived. The quality of life in the moment of our 'listening' is not what it would have been if we had not listened. We can even say that the proffered work shows us how our moments should be lived. If the maker of the art work did not believe that simply experiencing constitutes a superior form of life, why was the work created and presented to us in the first place? (17)

At its most essential, the experience of a text is an experience of surface features. Our experience of a piece of music is determined by the quality of each note (consider the same sonata played in the squeaks and squawks of a novice or in the resonant tones of the virtuoso)—and the quality of the musical performance determines the quality of the life we live while listening. Booth acknowledges the effects that artistic experiences can have on us, asking “What kind of company are we keeping as we read or listen?” (10). If we are the average of the people we spend the most time around, who are we spending time with—artists who nourish our souls or hacks who exploit us for their own ends? We may not always have the benefit of artists or hacks announcing themselves outright (in the content of their compositions), but we can be sure that they will betray themselves in the quality of the experiences they create for us—in the qualities of their styles. Therefore, attention to style becomes our most fundamental means of evaluating the ethical value of texts as we ask whether the style of a text offers us an experience worth having.

In their contribution to The Centrality of Style, Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth identify style as performance, calling it “a vehicle by which writers not only present a self, but also orchestrate relationships with readers, subject matters, and contexts” (124). Such performance does not happen in a vacuum: writers and readers are embedded in their respective contexts and meet through texts, which are, in turn, products of their contexts. The author’s stylistic performance in a text is not purely improvisational—it is grounded in the author’s world, the author’s experience. Thus, the invitation extended to readers is not to read something new but to experience some aspect of the world in a new way. Rhetoric, per Thomas Rickert’s definition, is “a responsive way of revealing the world for others, responding to and put forth through affective, symbolic, and material means, so as to (at least potentially) reattune or otherwise transform how others inhabit the world to an extent that calls for some action” (162). Rhetorical texts arise from the author’s experience of the world, and they invite readers to experience the world in a particular way, even if only for the duration of their reading. To take Booth’s ethical criticism seriously, we must begin to ask whether the author’s attempts to reattune our experience of the world are worth spending time with.

Further, as we spend time with a text and its style, we are not just experiencing content through language, we are coming to know the authors and characters in the text, the very company we keep. Examining the connections between language and music in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy, Rhonda Siu writes: “The distinctiveness of one’s style of speaking, writing, composing, or playing…reflects…the distinctiveness of one’s wider ‘style of being’ or the way that one experiences the world” (1105). Through a writer’s writing style, we can discern the writer’s lifestyle—and we can thus ask whether this is company we wish to keep. As Rickert puts it, “[L]anguage runs deeper than mediation. Language is enmeshed within a style of being” (184 – 185).

Thus, content springs inevitably from its context and is communicated through the style of its performance. With such an understanding, we must, alongside Charles L. Briggs and Richard Bauman, reject “the premise that meaning essentially springs from context-free propositional content, which is then modified or clarified by ‘the context’” (68). As Booth and Rickert acknowledge, it is through ongoing interactions and negotiations between writers, readers, the environment, and more that rhetorical meaning comes into being. We cannot evaluate just the ideas, as though they exist independent of their generating contexts or expressive medium. As Siu reminds us, “the…idea cannot be completely divorced from the sensible realm because it discloses itself through one’s lived experience of…the sounds [or letterforms] that are necessarily perceived through the senses” (110). So our first clue to what a text is really saying is the way in which it does its saying: our judgments of texts, therefore, must begin with—and are inseparable from—our primary sensory experience of the text and the ways in which it attunes us to the world we inhabit.


Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. University of California Press, 1988

Briggs, Charles L., and Richard Bauman. “Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 2, no. 2, Dec. 1992, pp. 131–72. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1525/jlin.1992.2.2.131.

Duncan, Mike, and Star Medzerian Vanguri, editors. The Centrality of Style. The WAC Clearinghouse, 2013.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Siu, Rhonda. “Expression and Silence: Music and Language in Merleau-Ponty’s Existential Phenomenology.” Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, vol. 74, no. 4, Dec. 2018, pp. 1093–116. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.17990/RPF/2018_74_4_1093.

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