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The Deliverance of Others
Reading Literature in a Global Age
By David Palumbo-Liu
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One When Otherness Overcomes Reason
Realism is an issue not only for literature; it is a major political, philosophical and practical issue that must be handled and explained as such—as a matter of general human interest.—BERTOLT BRECHT, "On the Formalistic Character of the Theory of Realism," 1938
There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.—J. M. COETZEE, Elizabeth Costello
Precisely by drawing together the issues of literary realism and rationality we can get at the issues that Brecht notes: realism is attached to notions of how things work, or don't, how decisions to act in certain ways are motivated by particular forces and have specific effects that are of "general" human interest; it involves, as Coetzee says, not only getting from A to B, but also situating ourselves "some place" in the first place, to occupy a position from which to act. If we are successful, and do move from A to B, we are then enabled and encouraged to "move on" in life, dealing with the world according to those assumptions. Analysis of literary realism allows us to diagnose the reputed commonality of behavior, how different people might act in concert with others, but also, this literature, as literature, contains a critical, self-reflective element. If literature has been charged with delivering the lives of others to us for our enrichment and betterment, how, if at all, does this new otherness change our assumptions about what is realistic, about what is common to all human beings in their behaviors, choices, actions, judgments? Finally, does otherness challenge not only our assumptions about how people act in common, in accordance with the protocols of rationality and realism to get from A to B, but also our ability to represent the real world?
Martha Nussbaum is one of the most prominent contemporary advocates of the idea that literature should present us with the lives of others unlike ourselves in order that we may have a fuller understanding of both ourselves and our world. It is no coincidence that the literary examples that she uses are exclusively drawn from realist literature, and this choice of literary genre is indeed shared by most of the proponents of the movement that we can call "ethics in literature." For them, realist literature attempts to describe a world directly, and to describe not only the lives of others in details that we can recognize as part of that larger, shared world, but also how they think, feel, and act in it. The choices they make are reflections of values, capacities, desires, needs. The questions then become whether these needs are shared, whether the choices "they" make are the ones "we" would have. Realist literature, for these critics, is the genre most concerned with the issues of representing otherness accurately, as set within worlds that ground others in our world. The other is delivered to us on that common ground.
In contrast, J. M. Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello declares itself as part of a postrealist era: things no longer lead inevitably to certain effects; people do not behave in ways that reflect a common rationality that can be transferred from one situation to the other. Just to get by in life seems more difficult precisely because those sequences, those causes and effects, no longer seem to work in tandem. "Bridges" are now fragile things, if they exist at all. Issues of reason, of judgment, of values and their achievement—things intimately attached to the genre of realist literature—now seem impossible to deal with, once the scaffolding of "realism" is found to be unreliable. The political, philosophical, and practical issues of which Brecht speaks are all now stalled, if not destroyed. Why has this happened? What has brought about this inability to successfully plot future action?
Elizabeth Costello is an example of what happens when, ironically, language is too common, shared by too many undifferentiated people and things, when reason and rationality are flawed and irregular. Otherness, the very thing that we look to realist literature to deliver to us, causes this paralysis. More precisely, it is otherness of a degree that is fatal to the realist project, and possibly to the project of ethics and literature. However, I do not advocate a move to postmodern literature. That may, or may not, solve the problem. Rather, I want to see if any literary narrative can be read in such a way as to both recognize the problem of too much otherness, which instantiates a difference that goes beyond a single, binding realism, and offer insight to an uncommonality that is understood through the uneven effects of what I have named global "delivery systems." In this way, the fraying of the fabric of reality and reason brought about by an overload of otherness lays bare the inadequacy of these delivery systems, which count on commonality and the suppression of difference to function. How have their attempts to make the heterogeneous homogeneous failed, unable to constrain and neutralize that difference, and what are some of the consequences of this implosion?
Before turning to realist literature, I briefly consider rational choice theory, for this theory is premised on a highly influential formula that informs the ways many in the fields of economics, political science, psychology, and sociology think about human behavior, and can be seen as an illuminating project outside literature. Those who subscribe to rational choice theory believe that in it we have a tool for understanding how all human beings, regardless of race, culture, gender, age, make choices: rational choice theory posits a human commonality based on reason and its deployment. According to this theory, people will not only build bridges from here to there in a similar fashion, but will also, in fact, see the need for bridges similarly and use them in similar ways. They will, in short, see the world of choice and action, and behave in it in accord with the same formula. Their stories, therefore, may be understood as logically adhering to, or departing from, this basic formula of rational choice-making. The connection between rational choice theory and notions of storytelling, of accounting for behavior, is not hard to see, and I will touch briefly on the nexus of these two subjects as they appear in the work of Reid Hastie and Jon Elster.
I then discuss how storytelling attempts to "bridge" the distance between self and other via the particular language of literary realism. After a longer discussion of what, exactly, literary realism is with specific regard to otherness, I turn to the novel itself for what I will call the disruption of literary realism by excessive otherness. In Elizabeth Costello the nostalgia for realism and the diagnosis of its aftermath is brought on by too high a degree of otherness, which invades and overcomes the novel and the bounds of literary realism. I locate the crisis of representation brought about by the overflow of otherness at a precise historical moment created by technological and industrial change that exerts great pressure on the line of otherness between the human and nonhuman in critical manners. I conclude by examining the political and historical ramifications of this crisis of representation, tracing that problematic in another novel by Coetzee, Disgrace.
Rational Choice and the Imagination
If by "globalization" we mean a newly extensive and intensive connectedness between formerly remote or disconnected peoples, then certainly notions of such things as a "global economy," "world culture," and "human interaction" have to be newly assessed. Our customary tools for comprehending and representing human behavior, both in the social sciences and the humanities, no longer have the luxury of focusing only on discrete and separate objects, phenomena, and behaviors, since these are now mingling and cross-referencing each other in unprecedented and sometimes discrepant manners. Ironically, knowledge of others appears to have become only more problematic in an age when the distance between others is continually shrinking.
Yet for some, especially those social scientists predisposed toward rational choice theory, the matter seems uncomplicated. For instance, Gary Becker writes,
The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach.... I have come to the position that the economic approach is a comprehensive one that is applicable to all human behavior, be it behavior involving money prices or imputed shadow prices, repeated or infrequent decisions, large or minor decisions, emotional or mechanical ends, rich or poor persons, men or women, adults or children, brilliant or stupid persons, patients or therapists, businessmen or politicians, teachers or students.
In short, the "economic approach" would seem to overcome the unruliness of difference, subordinating it to a universally applicable analytic.
Peter Abell presents a useful sketch of rational choice theory in relation to sociology. As he describes it, rational choice theory strives "to understand individual actors (which in specified circumstances may be collectivities of one sort or another) as acting, or more likely interacting, in a manner such that they can be deemed to be doing the best they can for themselves, given their objectives, resources, and circumstances, as they see them." Jon Elster argues,
Ideally, a fully satisfactory rational-choice explanation of an action would have the following structure. It would show that the action is the (unique) best way of satisfying the full set of the agent's desires, given the (uniquely) best beliefs the agent could form, relatively to the (uniquely determined) optimal amount of evidence. We may refer to this as the optimality part of the explanation. In addition the explanation would show that the action was caused (in the right way) by the desires and beliefs, and the beliefs caused (in the right way) by consideration of the evidence. We may refer to this as the causal part of the explanation. These two parts together yield a first-best rational-choice explanation of the action.
He continues, however, by saying that "the optimality part by itself yields a second-best explanation, which, however, for practical purposes may have to suffice, given the difficulty of access to the psychic causality of the agent." This qualification is important, for my purpose is not to test out rational choice theory as a particular delivery system, but rather to examine the overlap between notions of rational behavior and choice-making, and the imagination and fiction.
While Barthes portrays realist literature as certainly partaking of this formula for moving forward, emphasizing the action- and decision-driven motion of narrative, he notes as well: "The general structure of narrative, at least as this has been analyzed at one time or another up to the present, appears essentially predictive.... It can be said that, at each juncture of the narrative syntax, someone says to the hero (or to the reader, it does not matter which): if you act this way, if you choose this alternative, then this is what will happen," it is precisely the "psychic causality of the agent," so opaque within the operations of rational choice theory, that, "exogeneously," literature may be able to explore in its complexity and dimensionality. Otherwise, if "economic behavior" is shared by all humans in all endeavors, then how can literature do anything but record the ceaseless rehearsal of the same formula, perhaps with minor variations? It is in what is necessarily absented from the calculations of rational choice theory that a literary account takes over, in the realm of the psychology of the other, in her or his reasons for different kinds of choices, based on perhaps different sorts of rationality and imagination.
In the process of choice-making, one of the main elements is information. We need a certain amount of information on which to base our choices. But from where do we derive this information? Aside from objective sources of information, we also draw on our memory and imagination. And our imagination is of course not completely unanchored from reality; we cannot simply imagine any kind of information as being valuable. In fact too much information (like too much otherness) clouds the vision. On the other hand, having too narrow a scope of imagination can also be detrimental—we cannot make an "informed" choice. Thus information (data) and the imagination (which data are visible, viable) are joined together in rational choice-making.
If this is inevitable, Hastie notes that therein lie some serious problems: "Availability to the imagination influences the estimates of frequency. The problem that arises, just as with the availability of actual instances in our experience or availability of vicarious instances, is that this availability is determined by many factors other than actual frequency. It is quite clear that sometimes the thinking is 'easier' than others and some ideas 'come to mind' more readily than others." In other words, as we attempt to make our choices, we may well draw on information in very particular and perhaps unreasonable ways. What do we imagine can happen (predictably) if we choose this course of action? What are the chances our choice will yield this or that result? This is not an idle speculation—it is a basic risk that informs choice-making. Right or wrong, we tend to be swayed by what seems a plausible narrative, what is "available" to our imagination about the world around us.
Critically, Hastie notes, "Scenarios are even more believable if the components form a good gestalt because they fit into or exemplify some familiar narrative schema." Indeed, in choice-making we access our capacity to sort the world into categories: "Many judgments are concerned with the proper category into which to classify an object or event." We sift through data, slot it into categories, and act with regard to our assumptions about how these categories name things, and indeed how they "behave" in conjunction with each other. Hastie points to "the common tendency to make judgments and decisions about category membership based on similarity between our conception of the category and our impression of the to-be-classified object, situation, or event." In sum, overreliance on what is available to our imagination in certain inherited or predisposed ways causes problems: "The primary behavioral signature of relying on similarity is that people miss the critical statistical or logical structure of the situation and ignore relevant information." This echoes Elster's designated weak point in rational choice theory: the psychic disposition of the agent. This disposition, going back to Aristotle, is produced at least in part by an intersubjective encounter mediated by language—we are induced, through language to act on "rational" desires.
To connect this explicitly to narrative, we can say that key constituent elements of choice-making can often draw on biased or skewed data and ignore salient information because of imperfect imaginations. We ignore or discount information that falls outside our categorical schemata, or what we are "induced" to want, to choose. In sorting out the world into similar and dissimilar phenomena, we tend to shape our world to fit our needs. To make the connection to otherness clear: by siphoning off the dissimilar, the different, the other, we risk making essentially bad choices. On the other hand, if we entertain too much information, we will never be able to make a choice—we'll be paralyzed. This is one facet of cognitive dissonance theory, as Elster explains it: "Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that when one motivation is slightly stronger than another, it will try to recruit allies so that the reasons on one side become decisively stronger. The unconscious mind shops around, as it were, for additional arguments in favor of the tentative conclusion reached by the conscious mind." He adds, "The theory states that when a person experiences an internal inconsistency or dissonance among her beliefs and values, we can expect some kind of mental adjustment that will eliminate or reduce the dissonance. Typically, the adjustment will choose the path of least resistance." In short, we can unconsciously see and shape choices in certain ways, according to our imagined needs, categories, beliefs about causes and effects, objects and subjects. We are predisposed, or "induced," to see the world in certain ways. This seems noncontroversial. What interests me here is how literary narrative may perform this induction to rational desire and how that fact colors the way we behave toward and with others who are "placed" into our sense of what is "real" or "realistic" differently. Do we let them in, wary of the narrowness of our imaginations? Or do we hold them at bay, wary of the crippling effect too many choices might have on us?
Excerpted from The Deliverance of Others by David Palumbo-Liu Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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