Between Politics and Ethics: Toward a Vocative History of English Studies

Between Politics and Ethics: Toward a Vocative History of English Studies is published by Southern Illinois University Press (Apr 2006). This page contains a brief overview as well as sketches of each chapter.

Image of Greek chorus

For 25 years, English Studies has shaped itself around two terms: politics and, more recently, ethics. Yet, in spite of the influence of these terms, little effort has been spent examining the institutional conditions of their emergence, development, and relationship. Between Ethics and Politics fills this gap by (1) tracing the development of these terms in contemporary English Studies, (2) examining the difficulties of defining both terms, and (3) rethinking the history of English Studies based on the interrelations of political and ethical dimensions within critical discourse.

Through a series of interrelated studies of key texts and events, I argue that contemporary English Studies has been marked not by a political, but hyperpolitical turn which paradoxically impedes further understanding of "the political." By examining work by Wayne Booth, Geoffrey Harpham, and J. Hillis Miller, I also show that the more recent "ethical turn" has resulted in contradictory approaches to an ethics of criticism. In response to these conditions, I call for a more open, "vocative" relation to the past, based on the theories of Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, as well as the examples of Georges Bataille and Kenneth Burke.


Looking at a range of texts (from Sophokles' Antigone to a controversy over the politics of New Criticism and academic freedom), this chapter introduces the problem of being caught between political and ethical demands.


Chapter 1: A Turn of the Political Screw This chapter analyzes "the political turn" of contemporary English Studies, first by a close reading of military metaphors in Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn's Introduction to the MLA's Redrawing the Boundaries, then by locating the pivotal event in its development - "The Politics of Interpretation" symposium at the University of Chicago (1981).

Chapter 2: The Theoretical Canon This chapter introduces the idea of a "theoretical canon" and proposes the study of its history as the basis for a better understanding of the political dimension of English Studies, using the reception of Frye's Anatomy of Criticism as a case study.


Chapter 3: The Institutional Locus of Ethics This chapter examines the recent emergence of "ethics" in English Studies through close readings of Geoffrey Harpham, Wayne Booth, and J. Hillis Miller on the ethics of criticism.

Chapter 4: Ethics, Ethos, Habitation In an attempt to better understand the difficulties of conceptualizing "the ethical" and its relationship with "the political," this chapter turns to the oeuvre of Kenneth Burke and examines the contradiction between his professed desire to write an "ethics" and his constant deferral of this project.

Using an ethical conception of the "vocative," adapted from the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, the concluding chapter establishes the philosophical basis for a "vocative" historiography and applies it to Georges Bataille's wartime writings and to the early critical writings of Kenneth Burke.

Last update: 28-Aug-2006

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The contents of this page do not reflect an official position of Middle Tennessee State University. The sole responsibility for these contents lies with the author:

James Comas (
Middle Tennessee State University
English Dept., Box 70
Murfreesboro, TN 37132

Some pages on this site contain material from my classes taught in The Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University.

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