Reading the other: Ethics of encounter

Educational Philosophy and Theory 40 (7):888-899 (2008)
Most scholarly fields, at least in the humanities, have been asking the same questions about the politics of encounter for hundreds of years: Should we try to find a way to encounter an other without appropriating it, without imposing ourselves on it? Is encountering-without-appropriating even possible? These questions are profuse and taken up with intense interest in scholarship about the personal essay, specifically, which has often been credited as a philosophical form. Within debates about the ethics of the personal essay, the most significant concern is about the traditionally accepted relationship of the writer-represented-on-the-page. For example, the notable rhetoric and composition scholar, David Bartholomae, argues that students of what he calls '"creative nonfiction" or "literary nonfiction"' (1995, p. 68) write '... as though they [are] not the products of their time, politics and culture, as though they could be free, elegant, smart, independent, the owners of all that they saw' (p. 70). In other words, the personal essay, as a subgenre of creative or literary nonfiction, allows for the perpetuation of the fallacy that a writer can be 'free' of social influences, 'independent' of a society and of its politics, and 'owners' of their own perspectives and experiences—of those the writer expresses on the page, specifically. Consequently, if the writer is not conscious and critical of the social influences acting on him/her, if s/he believes the text to be the singular and uninfluenced production of his/her own self, then the topic taken up in the essay is tyrannized by the self-centered (and dangerously un-critically-conscious) perspective of the writer. However, the personal essay also has its strengths as a philosophical form: in its privileging of skepticism; in its attention to complexity and complication; and even in its existence-as-evidence of some quality of its writer. Too, very often essays pay homage to works of other essayists, as in the case of Gass's 'Emerson and the Essay', instead of mowing down other works in order to establish its own reign. Despite these ethically responsible characteristics, though, I show, using Gass's essay about Emerson's work, that the personal essay continues to be devalued because of its reliance on and celebration of its transparent relationship to its author. In general, essayists don't complain in their work about the belief in this transparent relationship; they advocate it. Thus, my purpose is not to suggest that there is no relationship between the essayist and the essay. Rather, I will, in the latter half of the article, turn to the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, which describes and enacts an approach to an other (writer/text) that does not hinge on the assumption that writer and text are in a transparent relationship to each other. I hope that in presenting this possibility for re-thinking the essay (and its relationship to its writer), writers, scholars, and teachers of the essay—and even its opposition—will give it new attention and explore further the possibilities that it may provide for engagement, for encounter.
Keywords William Gass  subjectivity  personal essay  ethics  Levinas
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DOI 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00468.x
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