Too Much Otherness?: The Ethics of Reading in the Global Age

By Casey ShoopDecember 12, 2012

Too Much Otherness?: The Ethics of Reading in the Global Age

The Deliverance of Others by David Palumbo-Liu

IT IS AN ARTICLE OF FAITH in the humanities that reading literature, insofar as it brings us into contact with other worlds beyond our own, is an ethical activity. Most famously, perhaps, George Eliot insisted that:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded upon generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

But can there be too much of a good thing? Do the processes of globalization, especially as they have compressed time and space and brought us into exponentially greater contact with once-distant peoples and places, demand that we consider, instead, how we might set limits on the flow of otherness into our lives? In his challenging new book, The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age, literary critic and Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu is keen to take the measure of the global encounter between a reader and the “other,” that stranger who comes importuning upon his or her sympathies.

The Deliverance of Others is organized around close readings of works by J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ruth Ozeki, yet its orientation is expansive and outward. The literary imagination displayed by these writers offers a powerful mode of reflection upon the various cultural, political, economic forces that bring us into contact with one another in the global age. Palumbo-Liu is especially interested in how we are “slotted” into new situations by what he calls “delivery systems” — standards of rationality, patterns of consumption, advertising, the global market as a whole. These “delivery systems” package and manage the encounter between self and other, but reading global literature, Palumbo-Liu argues, can give us significant new critical purchase upon such processes. What global literature has to tell us about this or that culture has less to do with making some foreign experience easily accessible — literature as armchair tourism, in other words — than it does with making us reconsider the very relation between “self” and “other,” or “here” and “there.”

The Deliverance of Others thus carries forward the exemplary critical attention that Palumbo-Liu has always paid to cross-cultural relationality in his scholarship. In Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999), he troubled the all-too-unilateral narrative of Asian assimilation into American society by offering a nuanced account of the ways cultures interpenetrate in dynamic and often unstable ways. More recently, he has focused on the work of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein and world systems analysis, a macroscopic and long-historical view of the global political economy, one that challenges the parameters of the modern nation-state as well as the boundaries of academic disciplinarity. Palumbo-Liu acknowledges the power of this synthetic account, while arguing that humanistic scholarship, with its emphasis on cultural particularity, can fruitfully complicate Wallerstein’s global perspective.

In The Deliverance of Others, Palumbo-Liu is again concerned with relationality, but also with what we “get” in this delivery of otherness through literature — if not “meaning,” then its surcharge in the form of unintelligible otherness. The question of sustainability has become imperative in the era of globalization, and The Deliverance of Others can be seen as an attempt to extend that to the ethics of reading: “The adjudication of how much otherness we need to encounter and grapple with in order to be better people,” he writes, “and how much will prove to be our undoing is, again, both a logistical one and a political problem.” This should obviously not be taken as advocacy for cultural gatekeeping of some kind — the very idea would no doubt be anathema to Palumbo-Liu — but rather as an experiential matter to be examined through readings of such “adjudication” in specific texts.

The Deliverance of Others focuses on a group of novels of encounter, novels in which breakdown and failure constitute not only a threat for the characters, but a challenge to the novel as a form. They offer a fascinating range of encounters with otherness: from those who lack human reason (animals in Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello) to those who do but still are not recognized as “human” (clones in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go); and from literary forms which are imagined as the products of an encounter with otherness (Coetzee writing as a woman, Gordimer writing as a young black man in My Son’s Story) to forms that imagine themselves as complicit in the very products they aim to critique (as in Ozeki’s My Year of Meats).

Even so, it is just here that a certain tension appears in Palumbo-Liu’s project. He understands “otherness” as relational, as literary imagination intervenes in global delivery systems, revealing them to us, enlarging our sense of how they are constituted, and calling into question the way they are regulated. But this relational conception of “otherness” is complicated by “otherness” defined as a “thing”: “I am thus interested in otherness as both a ‘thing,’ manifested in various forms,” he writes, “and as a relation.” Yet thinking about literature as a space in which to interrogate the relation between self and other — here few readers are likely to disagree — is not so easily made commensurable with the idea of otherness as a thing. This definitional vacillation, between otherness as thing and otherness as relation, reveals a kind of uncertainty principle at work in his book. In spite of what Palumbo-Liu admits to be an “abysmal task and a question impossible to resolve,” he nonetheless insists on the need to seek and weigh the “necessary balance” between the two.

Especially since the book imagines itself as a “kind of primer” for the ethics of reading global literature, these theoretical issues remain paramount. The Deliverance of Others suggests there might be a rational calculus by which “same” and “other” could be quantified and adjusted in the interest of a more equitable global exchange. The most pressing question, in my view, is why we ought to consider “otherness” to be a kind of value-quotient in the first place. What is the “cost-benefit” of story telling? If there is something discomfiting about the idea of the “other” as something to be “delivered,” Palumbo-Liu is keen to demonstrate — particularly through his careful reading of organ donation in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go alongside the work of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy — that this delivery is far from simple. And yet the word “delivery” suggests that otherness arrives from elsewhere to do its work: either to extend the ethical sympathies of reasonable readers, or to paralyze them with a threatening “too muchness.” It is thus before the bar of readerly rationality that the value of otherness is finally to be determined: “How much otherness is required,” he asks, “for this lesson to be learned, for value to be added, and how much ‘excessive’ otherness has to be jettisoned?” What exactly is this otherness-as-thing here? If what Palumbo-Liu means by “otherness” is cultural difference, then the question of what can be “jettisoned” from the encounter seems more than a little disconcerting.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s theoretical discussions about the ethics of reading literature were largely framed by the notion of alterity: an otherness that could not (and should not) be subsumed by the domain of reason. French philosopher Jacques Derrida enjoined us to “respect the otherness of the other,” denying any easy sympathy or identification, radically questioning the encounter with the other. Readings of literary texts sought to demonstrate that far from any “delivery” of an other, what the reader experienced was rather ethics as impasse, a scene so singular and “unverifiable” that standard modes of knowing were disrupted. While Palumbo-Liu acknowledges a debt to this legacy, he wants to resituate reason as the place where the impact and meaning of this problematic encounter will be determined. Alterity, or the “otherness of the other,” is no longer valued in and of itself as a way to interrupt readerly reason:

Notions of radical alterity are herein considered just as tentative as notions of universalism and unproblematic commonality. Ethically and politically we can imagine — indeed, we must imagine — that the lessening of otherness can be and is often not only desirable but also necessary […] and that encountering difficult things can be crippling, again, not only spiritually but politically as well.

“Otherness” probably does not mean cultural difference here: if it did, we would be unlikely to assent to the desirability or necessity of lessening it. The referent nonetheless remains slippery. If scholarship in the wake of Derrida insisted on the unassimilability of the encounter with otherness, how did we arrive at the well-nigh antithetical point of concern for poor reason faced with “too much otherness”? It is a striking reversal, and it would have been instructive to see Palumbo-Liu engage with this genealogy more thoroughly.

In the book’s first and, to my mind, central chapter, “When Otherness Overcomes Reason,” Palumbo-Liu provides a powerful reading of Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, one that attends closely to the titular protagonist’s sometimes wavering belief in our capacity to engage and know others through rationality, art, and religion; the novel thus demonstrates both the promissory and paralyzing extremes of literature’s capacity to bring us into encounter with otherness. The novel nests within its narrative a series of lectures on ethics and aesthetics in which Costello reflects on the faculty of reason itself. Far from a source of transcendent truths or pure ethics, reason regularly colludes in acts of barbarism and inhumanity. She is especially haunted by the monstrous injustice done to the lives of animals by industrialized farm production. Palumbo-Liu connects the consequences, for a reasoning mind, of opening itself up to “embracing otherness absolutely,” to the breakdown of the realist novel itself:

Dissatisfied with the rational because of its hegemonic dominance of mental activity, its monopoly on the definition of what it is that separates humans from humans and humans from animals, and the cruelty that follows in the wake of such a separation, Elizabeth Costello nonetheless draws no conclusion, ultimately only a wall, and in so doing forces on us, the readers, a choice of rationality enabled by linguistic fixity and “realism,” or madness brought about by too much otherness.

This is a compelling and elegant case for the novel’s ethical charge, even if a reader may bristle at the starkness of the alternatives presented here. Does the reader necessarily face the same ethical quandary as Costello herself, namely either the preservation of reason or “the overflow of otherness”? And is Palumbo-Liu (via Coetzee’s Costello) certain that the “otherness” embodied by animals is radically different from the forms of otherness (sex? race?) that have appeared in the guise of “too much” from a certain ostensibly “reasonable” point of view? We should perhaps be wary of the ruse of history whereby our own present is taken to coincide with the ultimate crisis of reason. Does the otherness of the “global age” really constitute a world in which “rational choices are made impossible when placed in an intersubjective realm populated by too much otherness”?

I’m not so sure. There is something a bit grandiose in all of this, whether we attribute that sensibility to Costello, Coetzee, or Palumbo-Liu. At least since philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer published their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) rationality has been shown to subjugate itself by the power of its own concepts, and neither of these thinkers were paralyzed in thought or driven mad. Likewise, pegging the end of realism to the advent of the global age seems problematic when postmodern literature, in many ways defined precisely by its radical skepticism about the conventions of realism, is generally thought to precede the era of globalization. Palumbo-Liu is, of course, aware of this difficulty:

I do not advocate a move to postmodern literature. That may, or may not, solve the problem. Rather, I want to see if any literary narrative can be read in such a way as to both recognize the problem of too much otherness, which instantiates a difference that goes beyond a single, binding realism, and offer insight to an uncommonality that is understood through the uneven effects of [...] global “delivery systems.”

It’s not entirely clear, however, why a canonical postmodern novel such as, say, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) wouldn’t fit the bill: the novel is not only obsessed with how otherness overrides subjectivity in a global context but also, in Palumbo-Liu’s words, “how the weakening of the realist claim does not take place in isolation from the critique of the systems of delivery that it draws on.” The claim joining the end of realism to the “global age” would seem to necessitate this fuller treatment.

A further caveat regarding the notion of an “otherness” to be “delivered” via the literary text involves the issue of translation. Given how attentive Palumbo-Liu is to the delivery systems of the global age (the various modes of production, transmission and reception that traffic between self and other), translation seems essential to any discussion of what exactly it is that is delivered in the global context. How any properly “global” literature is “delivered” remains inseparable from the business of translation, where that phrase indicates not only the creative intermediation of the translator between reader and textual “other,” but, by extension, the whole nexus of publishing industry forces that select, package, and distribute those works, as well as the various institutions that help to set and monitor their value as cultural capital.

It may seem that Palumbo-Liu’s focus on four authors who write in English — the lingua franca of global cultural commerce — makes this discussion of translation moot; on the contrary, his decision underscores how crucial thinking about the politics of translation has become for any discussion of literature in the global age. In choosing to discuss two Nobel laureates (Coetzee and Gordimer) as well as one author, Ishiguro, who attributes at least some of the flatness of his English prose style to his desire to facilitate the translation of his work into other languages, Palumbo-Liu is certainly not ranging far for his specimens of literary otherness. In fact, his selections — with the notable exception of lesser-known novelist and filmmaker Ozeki — fall close to what literary scholar Pascale Casanova calls the “Greenwich meridian of literature,” the imagined common standard by which it is “possible to estimate the relative aesthetic distance from the center of the world of letters of all those who belong to it.” Casanova’s term, far from attempting to provide a universal description of literature, seeks rather to draw our attention to how “global literature” has been constituted. What, historically, have been its centers and peripheries? What have been the politics of inclusion and exclusion in the “world republic of letters”? What is the logic by which literature from “elsewhere” gets recognized and assimilated into that “republic”?

The Deliverance of Others also poses what we might call phenomenological questions. Insofar as Palumbo-Liu desires to fix the proper ratio of “sameness” and “otherness,” he risks losing sight of their dynamic relational movement within the literary imagination. The question that Palumbo-Liu asks repeatedly about the experience of reading — “How ‘different’ can their ‘lot’ be from ours before it recedes into unintelligibility?” — depends on some level upon the stability and uniformity of those terms. Of course, he often (if selectively) places such words as “we” and “they,” “self” and “other,” in quotation marks to signal his skepticism about their coverage, but this same critical distrust does not extend to the desirability of formulating the question in the first place. Surely one of the tasks of global literature is to trouble the very terms of this opposition between “self” and “other,” to turn the static entities of a cultural encounter into a scene of dialectical discovery in which they are shown to be mutually constituting.

In an age when postcolonial criticism has fundamentally reoriented the way we think about the politics of cultural production and reception, it’s a bit hard to see why we should — even as a thought experiment — leave the putatively first-world reader (“we”) in all of his or her self-possession waiting for an “import” copy of “otherness” from somewhere out there in the world. For who, after all, is this ideal set of readers, who is the “we” threatened by “the overflow of otherness”? The only actual community of readers that the text offers are Palumbo-Liu’s undergraduate students, who were put off by the work of a Haitian writer, finding they could not sympathize. However capably they may be said to disclose the general problem of reading global literature empathetically, a classroom of students at one of the most affluent universities in the United States may not be the best place to gauge how a generalized “we” responds to the effects of cultural otherness. But even if “we” accede to the unified “we” of global reading, the claim for a collective experience of “too much otherness” remains a problematic one. Contemporary debates about globalization as often argue precisely the opposite of what Palumbo-Liu assumes here; namely, that rather than a globalized world producing too much difference, it has on the contrary produced too much sameness, an increasingly homogenized world (imagine the household names of several mega-corporations scrolling across your screen at this point).

To this often overheated rhetoric about globalization as the production of market-driven uniformity, Palumbo-Liu’s fourth chapter on Ozeki’s My Year of Meats (1998) offers a more nuanced critical path, by way of affect, reflecting on how feelings, at once psychological and social, come not only to be shared, but also manufactured and distributed in myriad forms in the global “atmosphere.” Ozeki’s novel follows an advertising campaign that hopes to instill a sense of the “American Heartland” into potential Japanese buyers of American beef and the passage of bovine growth hormone into the bodies of those consumers. The advertising campaign works through affective manipulation, the effects of the growth hormone are felt, and thus affect registers the body's implication in and subjugation by these global systems.

This insightful account nevertheless rests on a rather large assumption: 

It is in the late 20th century and in our contemporary age that increased and intensified globalization produces the historical situation wherein affect is of such volume and mass that it threatens to overflow the boundaries of acceptable and manageable otherness.

Palumbo-Liu does not stop to observe that this contention fully reverses literary theorist Fredric Jameson’s influential argument that the postmodern experience leads to a diminution of affect. But since neither claim seems provable — no one has, to my knowledge, developed a reliable affect meter — it may stand just as seasonably for our “global age.” I remain less certain than Palumbio-Liu about what he calls the “contagious power of affect, its tremendous ability to attract us and yet also its ability to overflow the boundaries of self and other.” Global information networks seem to streamline relations as much as they “overflow” them: take, for example, the uncanny power of web-browser cookies to point commodifiers at our own preferences. But perhaps these feedback loops of information, which give us back unsolicited and distorted images of ourselves, constitute yet another variety of what Palumbo-Liu means by “overflow.” In any case, his chapter offers a rich, new discursive framework for thinking about these issues.

It is still too early to tell what Karl Marx’s famous description of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto — “all that is solid melts into air” — means for life in the global age: will the self be swept away on the floodtide of otherness delivered in dynamic new forms, or does that erosion of all solidity secure for the self a peaceable indifference to the very notion of otherness? Although Palumbo-Liu’s discussion remains preoccupied with the former concern, The Deliverance of Others is finally less interested in attempting to answer such immodest questions than it is in exploring how literature gives us the means to reimagine and renegotiate the very terms of our global experience. This is the book’s provocative strength: exploring the ethics of literature in the global age is not separable from a consideration of the many ways the literary imagination slots itself into many of the delivery systems that organize and manage our contemporary world. Palumbo-Liu makes a persuasive case that the novel — as a self-conscious delivery system in its own right — offers a critical means for registering both the effects and the “affects” of the new global delivery systems that connect us. In posing this ethical power as a problem for the global age, The Deliverance of Others renews our sense of literature’s profound importance for how we come to know others and ourselves.


LARB Contributor

Casey Shoop is a visiting assistant professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. His essays have appeared in Contemporary Literature and Cultural Critique. He is currently working on two projects: a book on literature in the Reagan era, and another on global detective fiction.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!