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- "Am I my other's keeper?" : alterity, dialogic representation and polyphonic ethical discourse in later antebellum American fiction
- Gaertner, Stephen Andrew
- Electronic Theses & Dissertations
Hayden White argues that to create a narrative is to “moralize.” As historicists assert, the moral content of a narrative reflects the social, cultural and political discourses in which it is constructed as well as the ethical value systems that such discourses contain. However, context does not reveal the entire story. Mikhail Bakhtin holds that narratives are polyphonic, that is, they contain multiple, competing discourses, at times represented through singular idiolects. But what are these...
Show moreHayden White argues that to create a narrative is to “moralize.” As historicists assert, the moral content of a narrative reflects the social, cultural and political discourses in which it is constructed as well as the ethical value systems that such discourses contain. However, context does not reveal the entire story. Mikhail Bakhtin holds that narratives are polyphonic, that is, they contain multiple, competing discourses, at times represented through singular idiolects. But what are these various voices talking about, and to whom? Polyphonic or “carnivalesque” narratives rehearse and contest contrasting ethical paradigms, exposing their discursive limits as well as their transcendent possibilities in a given milieu. Thus, the text manifests the emergence of a dialogic exchange between ethical discourses, the yield of which is a creative destabilization that that resists the archaeological confinement of time, place and ideology. Therefore, I engage an ethical formalist rereading of a selection of antebellum narrative fictions in order to probe the discursive possibilities latent within the texts’ moral imaginaries. In addition to deploying Bakhtin’s work on polyphonic narrative, I use Emmanuel Levinas’ ethical theory of alterity that stresses the moral agent’s duty to respond on behalf of an individualized subject otherwise totalized by an oppressive, thematizing discourse. Whereas Levinas describes the moment of this ethical demand as the face-to-face encounter, I argue that the responsive duty suggested by the instance of inter-subjective recognition is represented within fiction as dialogue, in addition to the more subtle discourses that the narrator adds. Beyond exposing the text’s ethical tensions, these dialogic moments reflect the discursive polyphony theorized by Bakhtin, multi-vocal eruptions often signaled by a perichoresis of distinct idiolects. The works I discuss—James Fenimore Cooper’s Littlepage Trilogy, Herman Melville’s Israel Potter and “Benito Cereno,” Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall and Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig—all contain ethical discourses elaborated through idiolectical dialogic structures and polyphony. Furthermore, the context of their production—the late-antebellum United States—situates them within ethical conversations on totalization and interpersonal duty for the Other in that the modernizing republic was struggling with the moral implications of Indian removal, African slavery, urban labor, poverty and gender oppression. Yet, a Levinasian reading of antebellum U.S. literature invites looking beyond ideological power discourses. In addition to reflecting how American republicanism and capitalism of the mid-1800’s totalized, confined and dehumanized disempowered Others, these texts evidence rhetorical ambivalence respecting the status of the differentiated Other and the moral subject’s duty to the Other in a capitalist republic obsessed with categorical ordering and uncomfortable with ambiguity. Despite their concerns with political, social and ethical regulation, though, these polyphonic works contain transcendent ethical counter-discourses on duty and Otherness that expose a symbiosis between radical Others, peoples otherwise divided by contrasting ethical, political, cultural, racial or socioeconomic alignments.