Shadows of Ethics

Criticism and the Just Society

Shadows of Ethics

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: Published: May 1999

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Religious Studies, Theory and Philosophy

In this volume Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues for a deeply original view of the relations among ethics, literary study, and critical theory. In thirteen lucid, provocative and often witty essays, Harpham rejects both the optimism of those who see ethics as a way of solving problems about values or principles and the pessimism of those who regard ethics as primarily a cover story for politics.
Ethics, he claims, has been seen by its most powerful theorists as a discourse of “shadows,” a characteristic disturbance of thought in the presence of the other, a source of doubts rather than certainty. At the same time, however, ethics includes an element of violence, even blindness and “fundamentalism,” a crushing drive to clarity and resolution. Contemporary thinkers, Harpham argues, have been unwilling to accept this account of ethics and the obligations it would impose, and have, as a consequence, cultivated social and intellectual marginality as the only site of virtue, the only position in which critical intelligence is at home. They have, he contends, failed to “imagine the center,” to take up the true intellectual and worldly challenge of ethics.
Tracking these issues and energies in debates about enlightenment, the politics of the aesthetic, the nature of rationality, and the worldly contexts of theory, Harpham demonstrates in compelling detail the ubiquity and true difficulty of ethics. Shadows of Ethics also revives a neglected genre, the intellectual portrait, with extended meditations on Jacques Derrida, Martha Nussbaum, Fredric Jameson, Geoffrey Hartman, and Noam Chomsky.
The book will interest literary critics, philosophers, cultural critics, and all those interested in the ethical character of intellectual work.


Shadows of Ethics is a rich, elegant work with a skeptical sensibility and a remarkable sense of proportion. . . . Perhaps it is the measure of this long and stimulating book that my only serious criticism is that I would like to see more. . . . Shadows of Ethics is a book whose value goes beyond the particulars of its separate, often brilliant, analyses. For my money, Harpham is our best contemporary theorist of ethics.” — Criticism

“[A]n important contribution to literature and ethics . . . . [Shadows of Ethics] is engagingly written and helps to bring fresh, intelligent attention to enduring questions. Harpham’s handling of interdisciplinary materials is deft and convincing. . . . [T]he book combines the suppleness of theoretical self-questioning with the jagged edges of unflinching critique.” — James Dawes , American Literature

“[T]his wonderfully provocative collection of thematically linked essays explores the intersection of ethics, literature, and literary criticism. . . . Harpham writes cogently, knows well the texts of modernity, and invites theory-bound contemporaries to emerge from the shadows and engage in all life’s messy details. Highly recommended.” — H. I. Einsohn , Choice

“The book ends not with a whimper but with a bang, in the shape of a daring and thought-provoking essay on the role of the contemporary intellectual in public life. At the heart of Harpham’s inquiry is a highly original view of ethics, which resonates through the various essays and confers consistency on the book as a whole. . . . [A] challenging and stimulating volume, which represents another valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on the ethics of literature and criticism.” — Stef Craps , English

Shadows of Ethics is sure to provoke surprise, debate, and constructive indignation in many of its readers.” — Dominic Rainsford, University of Aarhus

Shadows of Ethics is a brilliantly original book that calls everyone’s bluff and takes the debate over the place of ethics in the humanities to a new level of seriousness.” — Catherine Gallagher, University of California, Berkeley

“Harpham is one of the finest, most intelligent, and original of the new generation of U.S. literary critics and cultural historians, and this book is a first-rate contribution to current debates in criticism, theory, and the human sciences.“ — Christopher Norris, University of Wales


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Geoffrey Galt Harpham is Professor of English at Tulane University. His books include Getting It Right: Language, Literature, and Ethics; The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism; and One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface and Acknowledgments ix

1 The Inertial Paradox: Thoughts Anterior to an Ethics of Literature 1

2 Ethics and Literary Study 18

3 Ethics and the Double Standard of Criticism 38

4 Derrida and the Ethics of Criticism 50

5 So ... What Is Englightenment? An Inquisition into Modernity 67

6 Of Rats and Men; or, Reason in Our Time 99

7 Aesthetics and the Fundamentals of Modernity 120

8 History and the Limits of Interpretation 145

9 Late Jameson 16

10 Chomsky and the Rest of Us 180

11 Once Again: Geoffrey Hartman on Culture 203

12 Philosophy Looking for Love 220

13 Conclusion: Imagining the Center 243

References 265

Index 277
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2320-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2300-6
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