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date: 27 January 2021

Ethics of Readinglocked

  • Matthew GarrettMatthew GarrettDepartment of English, Wesleyan University


The ethics of reading connects with but is not identical to the field of ethical criticism. Often pursued as a normative inquiry into morality, ethics may be better understood in historical terms. From this point of view, the inquiry into ethics is not a matter of good and evil (or universal moral correctness) but rather of understanding historically variable and socially conditioned regimes of subjective self-construction (ethics). Thus, moral thought may be taken to be one specific modality of the ethical, not its essential feature. A social and historical inquiry into the ethics of reading must then examine the ethical impulse itself, the recurring attraction of ethical questions, normative moral claims, and the search for moral models in literary and cultural texts. Various strands of ethical criticism have treated literary characters as approximations of persons or have considered the way reading itself may be a morally healthful act. Understanding these approaches and their limitations helps one recognize an alternative ethics of reading, focused on the social and historical reconstruction of the category of the ethical, as well as a more specifically literary-critical style of reading, focused on a single ethical injunction: fidelity to the object of critical attention.

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