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Monthly Archives: April 2008

I wrote a post some time ago called A Prologue to Other Things, in which I began a history of what the question of ethical responsibility has meant to me, in order to provide the context for an idea that I have recently encountered in Jean-Luc Marion’s Prolegomena to Charity. I proposed to unify this history by relating its various stages to the story of the Good Samaritan, and I suggested that the history would begin with a discussion of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, which this post intends to do.

I first read King Lear in highschool, during a stage when I took the school library’s copy of the Norton Shakespeare and read all of the tragedies, many of the comedies, and a few of the histories before I ran out of motivation (or until rugby season began, actually, if I recall correctly). I did enjoy King Lear at the time, but it made no more impression on me than some of my other favourites like Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus. During my MA, however, I took a course on Shakespearean Adaptations and found myself writing a paper on an adaptation of King Lear, which forced me to reread the play, or at least to reread the first act. In my second reading, struggling as I was at the time with the question of how to be ethically responsible in the world, I was seized by the significance of the love test, in which Lear demands that his daughters publicly proclaim their love for him in return for a third of his kingdom. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to participate in the test, basically claiming that Lear is asking more than is right for a father to ask, which provokes Lear to disinherit and exile her.

This scene caused me suddenly to recognize something very simple: that ethical responsibility is not a matter of absolutes to be applied in every situation, but is a product of a particular moment, a particlar place, and, most of all, a particular relationship with another person. Lear’s demand is not absolutely wrong. It is only wrong because it demands something that is not his to demand. Cordelia’s refusal to recognize his demand is not absolutely right. It is only right because it answers what Lear truly needs from her, the need that is appropriate to the relationship between father and daughter, the need that is beyond his explicit demand.

In the more positive terms of the Good Samaritan, my recognition was that the story is intended, not to indicate the kind of ethical responsibility that I bear in every case, but the kind of ethical responsibility that I bear precisely as a neighbour. I do not owe the man beside the road the duties that I would owe my father, which involves a different respect, or my brother, which involves a different affection, or my spouse, which involves a different commitment. I owe to the man beside the road precisely the duties of the neighbour.

This implies that it is possible for the man beside the road to ask, like Lear asks, for something that I can not rightly give, because it is not according to the bond of the neighbour. If the man were to ask me to pass by and let him die, for example, or if he were to ask me to find and kill his assailants, these may not be requests that I can grant as a neighbour in good conscience. My ethical responsibility, then, is not to what the man explicitly requests, but to what he needs from me precisely according to the bond of the neighbour that is between us.

Now, it might be objected that this understanding of ethical responsibility might permit me to rationalize away my duties as a neighbour, but this is in no way the case. The duty that I owe to the neighbour remains infinite in magnitude, though it may be limited in scope. It still remains that I owe my duty to my neighbour like an infinite debt that I can not repay. Indeed, my debt is now more difficult to repay, since there are some gifts that I may no longer give. What I can give, however, I must still give absolutely, without calculation and without reservation, because the debt is one that falls to me alone and no other. What is calculated and reserved are only things that are not proper to my place as a neighbour, or as a son, or as a brother, or as a husband.

There are some implications of this understanding of ethical responsibility. First, I cannot have this kind of responsibility to someone that I have not myself encountered. Though I do not know if it is necessary that this encounter be face to face, as some thinkers have argued, it is always necessary that I encounter the other, or, more exactly, that I become encountered by the other, that the other’s need as a neighbour or a father or a friend or a lover weigh upon me. In other words, the Good Samaritan owes nothing to the many men who lie beaten by the side of countless other roads, but owes infinitely to this one man who encounters him as beaten by the side of this one road. This encounter is the absolute prerequisite to ethical responsibility.

Second, though there remains the question of what duties I might owe the other in any given situation, I cannot owe duties that do not arise from the weight of the other as a neighbour or a brother or a lover, from the weight of the particular bond that exists between us. Only the singular, irreducible relation that is between us can hold me responsible, can reveal the nature of the infinite debt that I owe this other person. If the Good Samaritan had encountered his own spouse by the side of the road, it would not have been proper to leave her at the nearest inn, for he would have been acting like a neighbour toward her rather than a spouse. The nature of the duties that I owe according to my bond with the other may not always be clear, but they are always defined by this bond and by nothing else.

Third, the universal ethical imperative becomes not any particular act, but an openness to recognize the particular bond that exists between myself and the other, an openness to the weight of the other and of the singular relationship that binds us. It is for this reason that the Good Samaritan was a neighbour: not because he aided the beaten man, but because he approached the beaten man as a neighbour and opened himself to the responsibility that the bond of the neighbour might impose on him. In the same way, the Priest and the Levite failed to be neighbours: not because they failed to aid the beaten man, but because they failed even to approach him as neighbours, failed even to open the possibility that this kind of bond could exist and could impose a responsibility on them.

Where King Lear left me, then, was with a more satisfactory understanding of how I might bear ethical responsibility in the world by allowing each encounter with the other to determine this responsibility for me according to the bond that exists between us in that moment. Where it left me unsatisfied still, was in how exactly to determine what my bond with a particular other might demand of me in any given moment. How was I to determine what my real responsibilities to the other were? How was I to distinguish between requests that were proper to a bond and those that were not? These kinds of questions would wait several years for a reading of Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future before finding the beginning of an answer.

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The events of this past weekend have reinforced a kind of personal principle that is becoming increasingly important to me, the principle of the open home. Bill and Sharon, friends of ours who have moved to Collingwood, came on Friday evening and stayed the night. The next morning they joined our whole extended family, my wife, my two kids, my mother-in-law, and myself, for our ritual Saturday walk to the Guelph Farmers Market. When we returned home, we had breakfast together and chatted over coffee for several hours. For the latter part of this time we were joined by Steve and Christine, other friends of ours who have moved to Rockwood. We had met them by chance at the market earlier in the morning and invited them over to introduce their sixth child and to meet our second. They knew Bill and Sharon a little and stayed to chat with them for a while also. Then, just as everyone was leaving, Laura, a friend who has moved to Toronto, came by unexpectedly for a few minutes to have some tea and to catch us up with her life. There were a few hours of lull after Laura left, but that evening we hosted several couples and their children for a monthly meal that we have together, each couple taking turns to bring some element of the meal or to host the gathering. The food was good, and the conversation was good also. All of these things together, these comings and goings, sometimes planned and sometimes spontaneous, sometimes overnight and sometimes only for a few minutes, sometimes for a meal and sometimes just for tea but always for food, these passings to and from our house, fulfill the ideal of what I call the open home.

The open home is different from the open house for me in that it is not a specified range of time during which others can come to our place, but a way of living that is always open to having others come, and eat, and talk, and stay, and go. It is an invitation to share our home with us, not necessarily a house that is cleaned and prepared for company, but a home that at any moment may be filled with children’s toys or renovations or jam making. It is an invitation to eat with us, not necessarily a meal that has been specially planned and prepared, but whatever we happen to be eating at the time, whether it be the tea my wife is constantly making or the stew that has been simmering all day or the misshapen cookies that my three year old son has just made. It is an invitation to join with us, not necessarily to sit and be entertained, but to be a part of whatever we happen to be doing, whether going to the market or digging in the garden or cooking a meal.

The open home is one that understands others to be welcome always, not as visitors to be entertained and impressed, though sometimes this is fun also, but to be included in the activities and the rhythms of the home, as the Athelnys include Philip Carey in theirs (Somerset Maugham Of Human Bondage London: Pan Books, 1975) or as rat includes mole in his (Kenneth Grahame The Wind in the Willows Sydney: Rigby Publishers, 1983). It says, “Come and join us. You are always welcome here, just as you are and just as we are. Have a glass of what there is to drink and a bite of what there is to eat. Talk with me as I do what needs to be done today. Oh, and there is a bed for you if you want to stay the night. You are more than welcome to it.”

The open home is not, of course, always able to welcome everyone at every time. It is not possible to be always at home, and there are some matters of the home in which others can not or should not be included, but the open home is a way of living that welcomes the coming of others and asks that others come again, even if they cannot enter now, at this moment, for one reason or another. It is a way of living that always welcomes the arrival of others, even if this arrival cannot be received in this instant. It says, “I am so glad that you came. I am disappointed that we cannot receive you now. Please, come again, whenever you can.”

To live like this is to resist the understanding that a house is primarily a possession, a castle, a sanctuary, something to be held and defended as primarily my own. It is to resist the assumption that others need to be welcome only on my own terms, when I am at my best, when I have had the time to cook and clean and make myself presentable. It is to resist the idea that welcoming others is primarily a matter of entertaining them. It is to affirm that my house is primarily a place where people can be at home.

This does not always look the same from person to person and from moment to moment. Some people have stayed with us for several months, some just for a night. Some have shared a meal with us, some just a cup of tea. Some have joined us in kneading the bread dough, others have just watched from a safe distance. In every case, however, it has been good, not merely with the goodness of pleasure but with the goodness of what is good. Beyond any attempt at a theological or philosophical defence, I feel and know a rightness about a home that is open in this way. When I encounter it, I know it to be true in a way that very little else can be.

Dave Humphrey has recently posted an interesting and thoughtful response to my discussion of Writing for the Web and Echographies of Television, arguing that what I perceive to be the speed and brevity of writing for the web is actually a kind of incompletion that is itself a request for others to join the discussion. I do not like to disagree with Dave, so I am glad that in this case I am in agreement with him. I would affirm that what is best about teletechnologies is their capacity to invite and accommodate the response of others. They enable dialogue and interactivity in ways that traditional media does not, and this is the very reason why I do choose to write through the medium, even though I write in ways that sometimes run counter to some of its tendencies.

When I argue that writing for the web is characterized by speed, brevity, and utility, I am not precluding the possibility that it is also characterized by openness and invitation, and Dave does well to make me recall these aspects of the medium. I am only suggesting that good writing on the web must find ways to disrupt the medium’s obsession with speed and currency, must affirm its possibilities for hospitality, because it is these possibilities, as Dave argues, that enable the web to be such an effective disruption of traditional print media, putting in question traditional ideas of authorship, scholarship, ownership, disciplinarity, etcetera.

The possibility that the web enables, and that Dave rightly affirms, is that we might write and think differently in a public space, without the restrictions of the academic institution or the publishing industry or the physical page. The danger is that the loss of these restrictions will encourage us to stop writing and thinking at all in disciplined ways, in ways that take whatever time and space is required to do their subjects justice.

This afternoon I met with a friend of mine, Don Moore, who has just defended his PhD in English Literature and has just completed his teaching for the semester so is now available to come and entertain me. In preparation for a course he will be teaching in the fall, we have decided to read Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler’s Echographies of Television (Malden: Polity Press, 2002), which means that I may well be writing on this text off and on over the next few months.

Our conversation today only brushed on the text itself, focusing more on the course that Don is preparing, but we did discuss briefly one of the ideas in the first section of the volume, “Artifactualities”, which is an interview with Derrida. The idea relates to one of my recent posts, “Writing for the Web“, where I suggest that writing for the web is driven primarily by the need for speed and currency. Derrida, speaking more broadly of technological media, which he calls teletechnologies, makes a similar suggestion. He says, “The least acceptable thing on television, on the radio, or in the newspapers today is for intellectuals to take their time, or to waste other people’s time there.” This demand for haste, he argues, “can reduce certain intellectuals to silence,” as they “refuse to adapt the complexity of things to the conditions imposed on their discussion.” In other words, the choice before the intellectual is to simplify the complexities of thought to the speed, the brevity, and the utility that teletechnologies require, or to be silent.

I would affirm Derrida’s analysis here, and also his solution, which involves, in part, a decision not to be of this present time, to be anachronistic, untimely, and disadjusted, in order to “not necessarily miss what is most present today.” This mode of writing and thinking in ways that are out of their time and place in order to reveal the question’s that their time and place conceal is exactly what I want to accomplish in this space that is not a blog. I want to write in ways that, while certainly not escaping the teletechnologies that structure and enable it, call attention precisely to the question of how these technologies impose a certain structure and rhythm on public discourse. I want to write slowly and lengthily, so that what I write requests that you read slowly and lengthily, so that perhaps together we can begin to ask what we have lost by acceding to the demand that writing be always in haste, in brief, and in utility.

I am unsure whether to recommend Robert Graves’ Watch the Northwind Rise. It is an interesting story in some respects, and it is written with the same intelligent humour that I found in Goodbye to All That, but it sometimes reads like an erotic fantasy with all the juicy bits removed. At one point, the protagonist describes erotic dreams that he used to have in his youth, where he would be a Sultan choosing a woman from his harem, only he would wake just as he had made his choice, before he could actually touch her. This moment could stand as the novel in miniature. It is continually leading up to an eroticism that it never actually consummates.

For example, the protagonist encounters a beautiful young woman when he is summoned into a Utopian future. The woman falls in love with him on the first night; her friend makes plain their mutual attraction through dialogue that would not be out of place in a porn film; and they end up in bed together. So much, so patently and erotically fantastic. However, it seems that the traditions of this future Utopia permit sex only in very particular situations, so our leading man and his new lady merely lay together in a sort of spiritual union, a union which is later sublimated, suddenly and without much narrative logic, into a father’s love for a daughter as he brings her back with him to his own time and introduces her to his wife. I have not bothered to find how much criticism has been written on this text, but there is enough material here to make the careers of a University full of Freudian critics with enough left for a small college of feminist critics also.

As a Utopian narrative, however, it does provide an interesting commentary on Graves’ contemporary culture, and much of this commentary remains relevant to our own culture today. Graves also uses the fantastic nature of his Utopia to speculate more directly on certain moral and ethical issues than he could perhaps in a more realist novel. Some of this feels like preaching, and some of it is a little trite, but there are a few places where he is almost profound, like when he says that “evil is the means by which the supreme good is contrasted with the merely normal,” an idea that accords very well with my own understanding of the nature of evil.

So, by all means read the book, enjoy Graves’ subtle ironies, and search out his scattered little profundities, but be forewarned that this book’s seeming eroticism will need you to fill in all the racy bits.

I was at my friend Dave Humphrey’s house on Saturday night, sitting on his screened porch, drinking coffee, and listening to a nearby tractor drown out the sound of the wildlife: a lovely evening. In the course of the conversation, Dave mentioned the way that I use email to send letters rather than messages and use this blog to write essays rather than posts. “Luke,” he said, “you need to learn to write for the web,” though he knows that this cause is lost. Because our conversation was not focused on this topic directly, and because our wives put up with too much pseudo-intellectual discussion from the two of us already, I did not respond much to Dave’s remark, but I was struck by the indefinition, at least for me, of what it means “to write for the web.” What characteristics distinguish this mode of writing from other modes? What is gained and lost by this kind of writing?

I have no intention of trying to address these questions fully in this format. A book would probably be required, and I have neither the degree of interest required to finish it nor any degree of hope that someone would publish it. However, several ideas have occurred to me since our conversation, and perhaps they may serve as the basis for a more serious thinking of the topic.

1. Writing for the web seems to imply first of all speed. It is written quickly, published immediately, received by its readers almost instantly. Its value is in its currency. The email’s advantage over the letter is that it can be sent immediately from where I sit at my desk and be received instantly by its intended audience. The advantage of the blog over the newspaper column is that I can update it, edit it, and syndicate it in real time. The characteristic of speed is so central to writing for the web that it is almost definitive of the mode.

2. Because writing for the web finds its value in its currency, it also tends to be characterized by brevity. Emails are generally shorter than letters. Messaging is shorter yet. Twitter even shorter. All of this, of course, is to facilitate speed. Writing for the web must be brief in order that it be current.

3. Because writing for the web is driven by both speed and brevity, it is also characterized by functionality. It is hardly writing in this respect. It is communication. It tends toward the shortform, the acronym, the image, the list, and the phrase. It values functionality over literary interest. This is not always bad, of course. There are times when speed and clarity of communication are to be valued over literary style, but functionality in writing for the web has almost entirely displaced the literary.

4. Because writing for the web is concerned with speed, and therefore brevity, and therefore functionality, it is also concerned mostly with the present, rarely with the future or the past, with preservation and archivization. While the web is certainly used to archive many things, and while certain functions of the web are focused exclusively on archiving knowledge, writing that is for the web is not often preserved, is not often intended to be preserved. It is possible but not likely that a famous figure’s collected emails will ever be published in the way that collected letters were published in the past. Not only would the contents of these emails probably be of much lesser literary interest because they have lost their currency, but there is every chance that they would not even exist, having been deleted as soon as they were written and received. Messaging and twittering would never even be of interest to posterity at all, dealing entirely with the trivial and the transitory. In this respect, blogs are perhaps different, because one of their central functions is to archive, but there still remains the question of how much of this sort of writing will be worth reading once it has lost its currency.

In any case, it is for these reasons and othes that I choose to write the web differently. I choose to write letters as well as messages, to archive the letters I send, and to archive the letters that people actually write me in return. I choose to write essays rather than posts, to be as concerned with the words that I use as I am with the ideas that I communicate. I choose to write slowly in a medium that demands speed. I choose to write lengthily in a medium that demands brevity. I do so, not only because it pleases me to do so, but because I want to raise for others the question of how writing for the web has perhaps prevented us from being writers at all.

I came to read William Golding’s Pincher Martin (San Diego: Harvest Brace Jovanovich, 1956) yesterday in rather a strange way. My first opportunity to read Golding was in Grade 7 or 8, when we were supposed to read Lord of the Flies, which curriculum writers always suppose will be interesting to young readers because of the age of the antagonists, but which is too psychologically complex for most preteens to understand and enjoy. I was a constant reader at that age, but I was bored enough by the first few pages that I left the rest of it unread, bluffing my way through test as I almost always did.

It was not until after I had graduated from my second literature degree and was reading more or less promiscuously for my own enjoyment that I ever read one of Golding’s novels, The Spire, which I liked so much that I went back to read Lord of the Flies, Darkness Visible, and The Pyramid, in that order. By that time I had exhausted my appetite for Golding and moved on to something else without having read Pincher Martin, and I might never have read it if a friend had not lent me a book, called something like The 100 Best Fantasy Novels, just before I was to teach an offering of my Fantasy Literature course last year. As I usually do when I cannot find enough time to read something thoroughly, I just photocopied the table of contents and the bibliography, which listed all of the books in any case.

Making this photocopy was one of those seemingly insignificant actions that produces entirely unexpected results. I started reading some of the novels from the list, avoiding those that seemed simple sword and sorcery novels, selecting those with authors I had enjoyed previously and those with copies readily available in my local used bookstores. Some failed to impress me very much, but some of them have become favourites: Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell (Frogmore: Panther Books, 1972), Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (London: Sphere Books, 1986), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), and several others. Pincher Martin was also on the list, and I had even added it to my list of books to purchase on LibraryThing, but I had never had the chance to buy it.

On Thursday evening, however, my regular ballhockey night was cancelled, and since I was already at that end of town, I stopped by Sunrise Books. There, sitting atop the first stack of books I saw, was Pincher Martin. I bought it, read a few pages at a local coffee shop, then spent most of yesterday finding space to read it between parenting and cooking and raking the yard.

It is one of those books that has an ending that should not be spoilt, so I will refrain from spoiling it, but it begins as an account of a sailor whose ship is torpedoed and who finds himself on what is little more than a rock in the middle of the Atlantic. The novel describes his efforts to survive on the island and intersperses this account with flashbacks to his previous life, but its primary narrative is clearly the progression in the sailor’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual condition. Confronted with his past life, his current situation, and the decision that connects the two, he comes to see himself as the last maggot in a tin box, the one who has eaten all the others to become the biggest and the fattest. He begins to see the rocks of his miniature archipelago as teeth in a mouth that is somehow his own. He begins to project various figures from his life, real and imagined, onto the statue he has constructed. In short, he begins to go mad, or perhaps to believe that he is mad, or perhaps to be lead into the belief that he is mad.

The writing is typical of Golding: intense and imagistic, surreal and troubling, but also beautiful. His sentences are often long, full of clauses and subclauses, rhythmic. I found myself wanting to read the prose aloud, so that I would not rush through the linguistic quality of it in my eagerness to follow the sense of the narrative. I think a reading of the book is benefited greatly from this kind of slowness, is able to immerse itself in the richness and the intensity of the prose, in the sense of reasoned madness that pervades the story.

What impresses me most about the novel, however, is a quality of Golding’s that I have never really been able to articulate. When I finish one of his novels, I am certainly stimulated intellectually and narratively, but many novels provide this same kind of stimulation for me. With Golding, I also come away feeling what might best be described as spiritually troubled, or conflicted, or disquieted. I am always less able to look into myself with equanimity. I am always forced to confront possibilities in myself that I would rather leave unconfronted. Pincher Martin does this unnervingly well. It confronts us, or it does me, with our own possibilities, and it is this, I think, that recommends it more powerfully than any other quality.