Ethics and ethnicity in the Literature of the United States
Ethics has been defined as the relation with the other, the obligatory response to an other that precedes any specific norms of moral conduct, a primordial ethical relationship which is the basis of any particular ethical or moral code. When the other is particularized as an ethnic other, how is this conception of ethics affected in its very articulation? Does ethnicity as a concept have an ethical slant? Is there an ethics of ethnicity? On the contrary, is ethics ethnic? Does the ethnic colouring of ethics narrow in some way the scope of the ethical? In a culture such as that of the United States founded upon a paradoxically universalizing individualist ethics that constantly founders in view of the constrictions encountered by the ethnic singularity of its many others, such questions seem especially pertinent. The essays in this volume reveal implicitly that such questions do not have definitive answers given that one is dealing with terms whose conceptual domain encompasses the singular and the different, the stubbornly non-generalizable singularities of the other. The contested terrain of United States literature provides us with an ideal textual field for this conjunction of the ethnic and the ethical. As the transhistorical range of these essays demonstrates, this resistance to totalization is intrinsic to literature itself with its foregrounding of otherness and, simultaneously, its role in the domestication of this otherness. The literature of the United States, with its historically determined demands for discursive plurality and its generalizing, transcendental proclamations, reveals itself to be a corpus that highlights the articulation of this double movement. The conjunction of the ethnic and the ethical prevents the closure of the opening of the ethical itself, for a focus on the ethnic questions the temptation of ethics towards abstraction while the ethical impulse maintains critical wariness with respect to the stereotyped, universalizing constitution of ethnic identities.