English 460:  The Ethics of Reading

MWF 10:40-11:50    Goldspohn 36    WI 2003

Dr. Jennifer Jackson                                                             102 Student Services Center

E-mail:  jejackso@noctrl.edu                                                                 Phone:  637-5278

Office hours:  MWF 12:45-1:45 & by appointment


“The heart of ethics is the desire for community.”

~ Tobin Siebers, The Ethics of Criticism


Required texts

Davis, Todd F. and Keith Womack, eds.  Mapping the Ethical Turn:  A Reader in Ethics, Culture,

and Literary Theory.  University of Virginia Press, 2001.

Dillard, Annie.  For the Time Being.  Vintage, 2000.

Dunn, Katherine.  Geek Love.  Vintage, rpt. 2002. 

Morrison, Toni.  Beloved.  Plume Books, 1988.

Powers, Richard.  Operation Wandering Soul.  HarperPerennial, rpt. 1994.

Xeroxed readings throughout term (modest charge, collected Week Four).



In this seminar we will study some of the most persistent and perplexing human concerns:  how do we live?  How ought we to live?  What do we value and believe?  Why, and with what sense that any one position we might take is just or good or fair?  By what means do we pass judgment among conflicting values when a decision must be made or some perspective supported?  With what degree of certainty do we affirm or reject a given claim?  Might certainty itself be suspect in the face of “the other’s” exorbitant needs?  What are the uses of narrative (in the academy, in everyday life) to help us sort through these questions?  


English 460 will encourage reflective, deliberative thinking along with close reading and well-articulated interpretations or arguments.  We will pay special attention to defining terms and imagining critical approaches, describing what, for example, ethics, politics, rhetoric, and cultural analyses entail.  Our aim is not to argue what’s “right or wrong” in simple, moralistic pronouncements; certainty and entrenchment, as we will see, are rarely effective positions, though pragmatic alternatives may also prove troublesome.  Nor will we be concerned with making simple prescriptions.  Rather, our purpose will be to recognize and account for the complexity of ethics, to discover what is at stake in current dialogues over ethics in the humanities, and to wonder what might make possible a more just and sustainable community without (and here is the difficulty!) forcing consensus or erasing difference, sometimes in the name of an innocent-seeming pluralism.  These are complicated matters. The ultimate aim is to convince you that despite the muddle we are obliged to delve into it.    


In this course, we’ll investigate the “ethics of reading” through selected works of literature, critical theory, philosophy and other discursive practices.  We will concentrate on “ethics,” circumscribing its application somewhat (not much!) by connecting the term to reading.  We will map the intersections of ethics, reading, responding from ethical positions, examining such linkages to learn what might be of value (for whom, and toward what ends, each of us will have to specify).  A cooperative endeavor, reading and interpretation function as a kind of making, a technology, immersing us in desire and the possibility of ethics.  We’ll make much of the between. 

Work and Assessment

460 is an upper-level seminar, so we will use discussion, frequent writing, and group interaction to study these issues.  Participation is expected in a 400-level course, though points will not be awarded for what should be a given.  Short lectures will clarify problems and suggest further research.  I vary activities when possible to accommodate different learning styles.  However, there is no substitute for attentive reading; thoughtful, informed, relevant comments; interesting, focused, and convincing writing; wakeful critique.  Students who demonstrate these strengths (assuming other requirements are met) and whose reading stretches beyond obligatory texts will earn an A.  


Work at a glance                     scope                                    due dates                     points

Response essays                      (1-2 pp.)           as assigned, in-class & out              50           

Exploratory essay                    (5-7 pp.)                          F 1/31                          100     Research paper                  (15-18 pp.)                        W 3/12                             200                        

Group presentation       questions, tasks, handout      as assigned                         75

Comprehensive test       IDs/short answer/essays           F 3/14                            75                                                                                                                                          500

All assignments must be typed, double-spaced, and submitted on time; if you’re absent and miss an in-class response, there will be no make-up.  See policies for late papers.


Response essays:  writing should explore a question coherently and thoughtfully.


The exploratory essay should take up a question discussed in class and explore its facets:  how should we approach the problem?  why?  with what or whose interests at stake?  “A” papers will define terms and develop inquiry with persistence and a keen sense of possibility.


The research paper should be proposed by Monday of Week Seven (2/17) and will demonstrate your ability to situate yourself among arguments concerning a particular aspect of the ethics of reading.  You must avail yourself of a minimum of four (4) scholarly articles from peer reviewed journals and a minimum of five (5) scholarly books.  The best papers will set a narrow but complex problem in the context of conversations about the ethics of reading, drawing on a particular literary or other cultural text (film, phenomenon, democratic movement, and so on) for close reading and examples.  There will be several prior due dates (the proposal, an annotated bibliography 3/3, a draft 3/5), and I will hope to meet with each of you individually or in small groups to discuss your plans and progress.  We will share potential topics prior to Week Seven, though you may propose your own. 


The group presentation will be demanding, but, if the past is indicative, great fun.  Your group will form early and meet often to devise strategies for presenting a critical text (see list, below) to the class for review and critique.  Groups must provide a minimum of three (3) questions in advance of the presentation date; a thoughtful handout on the day of the presentation; and a pedagogical task for peers to carry out in class.


A comprehensive test asks you to stay tuned-in all term, because (no news here, folks) cramming during Week Ten cannot substitute for conscientious reflection during the previous nine weeks.  Comprehensives make for joyful, exuberant writing, in part because by March you will be fairly bursting with information and need an outlet for liberating your considerable knowledge.  A comprehensive offers provocation and release.  Sweet!

Using literature and other cultural productions

Ethical knowledge is in part aesthetically mediated.  To evaluate someone ethically, we need to be able to analyze his or her character, and fiction arguably provides the best conceptual apparatus for doing that.  The strength of an ethical idea lies in its applications, in how it plays out.  In fiction, we can put an ethical idea through its paces, testing its ability to gain our assent.  We can also check out its alignments, limitations, repercussions.  We can face moral reality in all its complexity and drama.  Representation itself—the effort to re-present—is teeming with ethical and political dilemmas.  This term, the ethics of reading will come into focus through three novels:


Beloved:  What if you were born to be sold and flayed, degraded and raped, treated as less than human while carrying on your scarred and hurting back the weight of the consuming world?  What if, tonight, rather than affording yourself the cheap or costly pleasures of America’s bounty you were tied to a stake, crazed or just broken, with no hope of knowing the shape and weight of your little child’s hand ten year’s hence?  What if race and its bloody legacy skew any and all claims to moral or ethical readings of U.S. history, literature, the canon, our vacuous present, or our still uncertain future?  What if you were asked to become “the other” as an ethical imperative, become a re-memory, become enslaved? 


Operation Wandering Soul:  What if you were a child, with no one to comfort you, no assurance that tomorrow would offer respite from danger and hurt?  What if you were an adult in such a world (you are) and yet responding to its myriad injustices, particularly the cruelty waged against the world’s children, seemed beyond your gifts?  What help for this (our) world?  What bromide that isn’t in advance a cliché, an already determined defeat?


Geek Love:  What if you were a freak, labeled and dismissed as abnormal, diseased, different, threatening, or just repugnant?  What if you tried to imagine cobbling a life of dignity or joy despite—no, because of—these differences?  What if you were a monster?  Who got to place the name on your head?  How will you carry on under the sign?  How are the normal deformed in your wake?  Difference and disability may be the prime categories of postmodernity because they redefine the body in relation to concepts of normalcy, which underlie the very foundations of democracy and humanistic ideas about the body.  Disability, difference, or freakery may become the new prism through which we examine and define ourselves, supplanting categories of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, but perhaps not.   


We will also deliberate philosophical worries in For the Time Being, which wonders aloud about nothing less than the meaning of life; and, finally, throughout the term we will critique essays in Mapping the Ethical Turn along with a number of xeroxed essays, to be distributed regularly, which take up in conflicting ways why anyone would choose to study the ethics of reading in the humanities in these arguably post-human times.








English 460 Syllabus

Week One:      Ethics of reading?  Ethics and reading?  ethics?  reading?

M 1/6              Introduction to course; syllabus review; in-class writing.

W 1/8              Groups formed; introduction to terms and issues; essays (handouts). 

F  1/10             Xeroxed essays. 


Week Two:       “Rough choices”       

M 1/13             Beloved  

W 1/15             Beloved  

F 1/17              Beloved                                                              


Week Three:    Notes for now, or family and ‘other’ values in America                     

M1/20              Beloved to end.                                       

W 1/22             Geek Love         

F 1/24              Geek Love         


Week Four:      The ethics of reading in the vortex of the “normal”   

M 1/27                         Geek Love                     

W 1/29             Geek Love         

F 1/31              For the Time Being; exploratory essay due.                      


Week Five:       How can one person matter?  How to live?  What can we understand?

M 2/3              For the Time Being           

W 2/5              For the Time Being           

F  2/7               For the Time Being


Week Six:        Vanishing narratives of childhood

M  2/10                        Operation Wandering Soul              

W 2/12             Operation Wandering Soul  

F  2/14             Operation Wandering Soul                                      


Week Seven:     Story cures for the hopelessness of here      

M  2/17                        Operation Wandering Soul; proposal for research paper due.          

W 2/19             Operation Wandering Soul to end.   

F  2/21             Peer review of proposals; xeroxed essays.                                    


Week Eight:    The ethics of/and reading; presentations begin

M 2/24             Xeroxed essays. 

W 2/26             Xeroxed essays.

F  2/28             Group presentation; sample research paper drafts for discussion.   


Week Nine:     Presentations; conferences

M 3/3              Group presentations; annotated bibliography of research paper due;                

W 3/5              Group presentations; drafts (intro, outline, 4-5 pp.) of research paper due.

F  3/7               Group presentations; meet with Professor Jackson to discuss final paper      


Week Ten        Reading and response for a waiting world

M 3/10                         Group presentations continue.    

W 3/12             Research paper due; group presentation as needed; review for test.

F  3/14                         Review for comprehensive test; course summary; course evaluations.  


Exam Week     Monday, March 17, 10:30 (G 36) comprehensive test    

Critical Sources for Group Presentations and Final Paper


The following list of secondary texts is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather suggestive of the references you might draw on for your group presentation and your final paper.  As a group, meet to discuss your interests and to share information on the texts below.  Then, meet with me locate the most likely text for your presentation.  Consult this list as a starting point for relevant arguments to include in your annotated bibliography and final paper.  


Aristotle.  The Nicomachean Ethics.  Oxford U P, rpt. 1998.


Attridge, Derek.  “Innovation, Literature, Ethics:  Relating to the Other.”  PMLA v. 114, 1

       1999, 20-31.


Bauman, Zygmunt.  Postmodern Ethics.  Blackwell, 1993.


Bernasconi, Robert, and Simon Critchley, eds.  Re-Reading Levinas.  Indiana UP, 1991.


Bérubé, Michael.  Public Access.  Verso, 1996.


---.  Life as We Know It:  A Father, A Family, and An Exceptional Child.  Vintage, 1998.


Booth, Wayne.  The Company We Keep:  An Ethics of Fiction.  U. of Chicago Press, 1988.


Bostock, David.  Aristotle’s Ethics.  Oxford UP, 2001.


Cavell, Stanley.  Must We Mean What We Say?  A Book of Essays.  Cambridge, 2002.


---.  The Claims of Reason:  Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy.  Oxford UP, 1999.


Chalier, Catherine.  “Ethics and the Feminine.”  Bernasconi and Critchley 119-29.


Chow, Rey.  Ethics After Idealism:  Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading.  Indiana UP, 1998.


Cornell, Drucilla.  Beyond Accomodation:  Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law.

       Routledge, 1991.


Critchley, Simon.  The Ethics of Deconstruction:  Derrida and Levinas.  Blackwell, 1992.


Derrida, Jacques and Gianni Vattimo, eds.  Religion.  Stanford UP, 1999.


---.  “Adieu.”  Critical Inquiry 23 (1996):  1-10.


---.  The Gift of Death.  Trans. David Wills.  U. of Chicago Press, 1995.


---.  “Violence and Metaphysics:  An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas.”  Writing

       and Difference.  Trans. Alan Bass.  U. of Chicago Press, 1978.  79-153.


Dimock, Wai Chee.  Residues of Justice:  Literature, Law, Philosphy.  U. of California Press, 1996.


Eaglestone, Robert.  Ethical Criticism:  Reading After Levinas.  Edinburgh U. Press, 1997.


Eagleton, Terry.  The Ideology of the Aesthetic.  Blackwell, 1990.


---.  Sweet Violence:  The Idea of the Tragic.  Blackwell, 2002.


---.  The Function of Criticism.  Verso, 1996.


Ebert, Teresa.  Ludic Feminism and After:  Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism.  

       U. of Michigan Press, 1996.


Fish, Stanley.  “Rhetoric.” Critical Terms for Literary Study.  2nd Ed.  Ed. Frank Lentricchia

       and Thomas McLaughlin.  U. of Chicago Press, 1995.  203-222.


Foucault, Michel.  The Care of the Self.  Trans. Robert Hurley.  Random, 1996.


---.  Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth.  Trans Robert Hurley et. al.  Ed. Paul Rabinow.  New

       Press, 1994.


Gaard, Greta and Patrick D, Murphy, eds..  Ecofeminist Literary Criticism.  University of Illinois

       Press, 1999.


Garber, Marjorie.  The Turn to Ethics.  Routledge, 2000.


Guillory, John.  Cultural Capital:  The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. U. of Chicago

       Press, 1993.


Harpham, Geoffrey.  “Ethics.”  Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2nd Ed.  Ed. Frank Lentricchia

       and Thomas McLaughlin.  U. of Chicago Press, 1995.  387-405.


---.  Getting it Right:  Language, Literature, and Ethics.  U. of Chicago Press, 1992.


---.  Shadows of Ethics:  Criticism and the Just Society.  Duke UP, 1999.


---.  Language Alone:  The Critical Fetish of Modernity.  Routledge, 2002.


Hitchcock, Peter.  Oscillate Wildly:  Space, Body, and Spirit of Millenial Materialism.  U of

       Minnesota Press, 1999.


Irigary, Luce.  “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas:  On the Divinity of Love.”  Bernasconi 

       and Critchley 109-18.


Jagger, Alison.  Living with Contradictions:  Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics.  Westview

       Press, 1994.


Korsgaard, Christine.  Creating the Kingdom of Ends.  Cambridge, 1996.


Levinas, Emmanuel.  “Ethics of the Infinite.”  Interview with Richard Kearney.  States of

       Mind:  Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers.  Kearney.  New York UP, 1995, 177-99.


---.  Otherwise than Being; or, Beyond Essence.  Trans. Alphonso Lingis.  Kluwer, 1991.


---.  Totality and Infinity.  Trans. Alphonso Lingis.  Duqesne Up, 1969.


---.  Entre-Nous:  Thinking-of-the-Other.  Trans. Michael B. Smith.  Columbia, 1998.


Merod, Jim.  The Political Responsibility of the Critic.  Cornell UP, 1987.


Miller, J. Hillis.  On Literature.  Routledge, 2002.


---.  The Ethics of Reading.  Columbia UP, 1986.


Mohanty, Satya P.  Literary Theory and the Claims of History:  Postmodernism, Objectivity,

       Multicultural Politics.  Cornell UP, 1997. 


Nealon, Jeffrey.  Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity.  Duke, 1998.


---, and Caren Irr.  Rethinking the Frankfurt School:  Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique. 

       SUNY Press, 2002. 


Newton, Adam Zachary.  “Versions of Ethics:  Or, the SARL of Criticism:  Sonority,

       Arrogation, Letting-Be.”  ALH v. 13.3 Fall 2001.


---.  Narrative Ethics.  Harvard UP, 1995.


Norris, Christopher.  Truth and the Ethics of Criticism.  Manchester UP, 1994.


Nussbaum, Martha.  Love’s Knowledge:  Essays on Philosophy and Literature.  Oxford, 1990.


---.  Poetic Justice:  The Literary Imagination and Public Life.  Beacon, 1995.


Olson, Gary.  Stanley Fish and the Work of Rhetoric.  SUNY Press, 2002.


Parker, David.  Ethics, Theory, and the Novel.  Cambridge UP, 1994.


Phelan, James.  Narrative as Rhetoric:  Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology.  Ohio State UP, 1996.


Robbins, Jill.  Altered Readings:  Levinas and Literature.  U. of Chicago Press, 1999.


Rorty, Richard.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  Harvard UP, 1989.


Said, Edward.  Culture and Imperialism.  Vintage, 1994.


Siebers, Tobin.  The Ethics of Criticism.  Cornell UP, 1988.


Smith, Barbara Herrnstein.  Contingencies of Value:  Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. 

       Harvard UP, 1988.


Steele, Meili.  Theorizing Textual Subjects:  Agency and Oppression.  Cambridge UP, 1997.


Class List for ENG 460 (Winter, 2003)


Name                                                   phone                                      e-mail


Professor Jackson                             637-5278                                 jejackso@noctrl.edu