Narrative Ethics and Incommensurable Discourses: Lyotard's the Differend and Fowles's the Collector

By Marcus, Amit | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2008 | Go to article overview

Narrative Ethics and Incommensurable Discourses: Lyotard's the Differend and Fowles's the Collector


Marcus, Amit, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The turn toward ethics within literary studies during the last two decades has been so widespread that contemporary scholars can no longer be said to ignore the ethical assumptions and implications of literary and critical texts. (1) Some scholars (e.g. Buell 9-10; Eskin, "Introduction"; Parker 33-34) have pointed out that this turn corresponds to a literary turn in ethics. However, this (double) turn--even if it has established the ethical importance of literature in itself and of reading literature, thereby contributing to the revaluation of certain works (Gibson 1; Eskin, Ethics)--has engendered more disagreement than consent. Scholars who endorse an ethical approach to literature share neither assumptions about literary theory and interpretation nor conceptions about the essence or the meaning of ethics. These heterogeneous, conflicting, and often incommensurable approaches confirm Jean-Francois Lyotard's point of departure in his book The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. In this essay, I attempt first to outline some of the significant differences among the leading approaches to ethical criticism in literary studies and to point out the possible contribution of Lyotard to these ongoing disputes. This preliminary section is followed by an interpretation of John Fowles's The Collector in light of Lyotard's thesis and its ethical implications. Finally, I contend that Fowles's novel illuminates and challenges Lyotard's conception of differend, especially in its relation to narrative.

Lyotard's thesis in The Differend is significant to ethical literary criticism, particularly concerning novels, for three main reasons: first, because it is based on a linguistic model of communication that highlights the connections between terms extensively discussed in literary studies, such as addressor, addressee, referent, sense, and, of course, discourse. Second, despite Lyotard's reductive conception of narrative (which will be dealt with toward the end of this essay), his insights regarding the perpetual competition between discourses that generate irreconcilable conflicts can contribute to the understanding of the structure of narrative discourse. Indeed, the novel has been recognized by some leading literary scholars, for example Mikhail Bakhtin and Martha Nussbaum, to extend our all-too-limited experience and to intensify the encounters between conflicting voices or world-views that occur in ordinary language by intentionally and consciously intersecting various discourses, including ones that do not usually interrelate (Nussbaum 47-48; Bakhtin 298). The third reason for the importance of Lyotard to literary ethics, which deserves a separate discussion in another essay, is his belief that ethics cannot be separated from politics, nor can justice be from goodness. This conception allows literary critics to link the political (as well as the social and the historical) to the ethical, instead of regarding them untenably as mutually exclusive (see Parker 194). (2)

For the sake of clarity, I focus on two of the main approaches to ethics within literary studies: the (neo-)humanist and the Levinasian. In suggesting this division, I claim neither that all scholars of Levinas's work hold to a single view nor that all (neo-)humanists do. Instead, I point out some of the presuppositions and views that some prominent scholars of each approach share with each other despite significant differences between them. Furthermore, humanism and Levinasianism do not exhaust the approaches to ethical literary criticism (see Buell; Eskin, "Introduction" and "Literature").

Humanists and Levinasians have starkly different premises regarding the essence of both ethics and literary texts. Although Lyotard's views are closer to those typical of Levinasians, I shall demonstrate that the moral thesis implied by his differend can be neither identified with nor subsumed under the Levinasian conception of the radical Other.

The point of departure of humanist literary criticism, represented most prominently in the work of scholars like Cora Diamond, Samuel Goldberg, Alisdair MacIntyre, Colin McGinn, Martha Nussbaum, David Parker, James Phelan, D. …

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