Aesthetics & Ethics: Moral Imagination From Aristotle to Levinas and From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to House Made of Dawn. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2008.
In recent years, American Studies have taken a turn toward the political. However, although poststructuralism and deconstruction have undermined numerous of the moral-philosophical dogmas of the Western metaphysical tradition, many of the political claims that the revisionist turn in American Studies has voiced still rest, if tacitly, on these moral and ethical assumptions. As the latter often collide with the theoretical axioms that inform these revisionist works, some resort to what one could call the “pathos of marginality” and rather vague concepts of “otherness.” Moreover, these political-ideological readings often completely blot out aesthetic aspects, as these are suspected to be carriers of implicit and hegemonic strategies of representation.
In the first part, this study analyses what role “otherness” plays in the most influential moral-philosophical approaches to date - from Aristotle and the Neo-Aristotelians (Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum) via Kantianism and its deconstructors (Jean-François Lyotard, J. Hillis Miller) to the works of Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas - and sheds light on its highly problematic status in Western notions of justice. Moreover, on the background of these analyses it examines the role that aesthetics plays not only for, but within these approaches, with a special focus on what task literature is accorded to dramatize the clash of sameness and otherness.
Starting from a revised notion of the sublime, the second part “applies” the different approaches to four American novels: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, and examines how far the moral-philosophical systems carry to elucidate these texts. What becomes clear is that none of these works can be captured in their complexity by either one moral philosophy or one political agenda, in that every literary “exemplification” of such theory inevitably falls prey to the treacherous dynamics of the example - a dynamics that inhabits literature and haunts ethics, and that defies literature’s instrumentalization by either ethics or ideologies.
Claviez’s book is a notable contribution to the field of ethics and aesthetics. The author moves with ease between the leading representatives of the two main trends within the ethical turn, spelling out their theories on alterity and analysing with rigour their different stances on the particular otherness of the fictional text… a must for scholars and advanced students of ethics, aesthetics and American studies, interested in exploring the synergies between ethics and literature.
Aesthetics and Ethics avoids sketchy presentations and provides the reader with a thorough and highly elaborated exposition of the theories… Claviez has produced an excellent book, impressive in its scope and a perfect blend of theory and analysis. His mastery at unravelling dense theories is patent throughout. He guides the reader smoothly through the intricacies of ethics and aesthetics, from Aristotle to Paul Ricoeur. The most refreshing aspect of the book is Claviez’s wit, a rarity in academic writing.
Bárbara Arizti, Atlantis
Through his spirited confrontations with major thinkers like Nussbaum, McIntyre, Ricoeur and Levinas, Claviez provides insightful answers to complex moral conundrums and at the same time explores and highlights literature’s openness to a wide range of modern ethicophilosophical interpretations. Aesthetics & Ethics is a notable read that will appeal not only to scholars with an interest in the field of Ethics and Literature, but to all those interested in the current status of literary theory and/or moral philosophy.
Lefteris Kalospyros, European journal of American Studies