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Jean-Michel Ganteau & Christine Reynier (eds.), Ethics of Alterity, Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- to 21st-Century British Arts

Montpellier : Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2015. ISBN-13 : 978-2-36781-176-5. 24 €
Jean-Christophe MURAT
Bibliographical reference

Jean-Michel Ganteau & Christine Reynier (eds.), Ethics of Alterity, Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- to 21st-Century British Arts. Montpellier : Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2015. ISBN-13 : 978-2-36781-176-5. 24 €.

Full text

1Since 2005, the series “Present Perfect”, published by the Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, has been consistently focusing its research area on 19th- to 21st-century British literature, culture and arts. In 2013, a collection of articles entitled Ethics of Alterity, Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- 21st-Century British Literature came out, co-edited by Jean-Michel Ganteau and Christine Reynier, Professors of English Literature at the University Paul-Valéry (Montpellier 3). Ethics of Alterity, Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- 21st-Century British Arts, published in late 2015, takes its cue from the previous volume, thereby confirming the tendency of “Present Perfect” to approach a theme from a rather restricted epistemological angle (British literature), then to widen its scope to include other aesthetic fields such as music, painting, cinema, sculpture, photography, performance and visual arts. The philosophical thinking of Emmanuel Levinas takes pride of place in a book whose central concern is the interaction between the self and the other. More often than not, artistic representations of otherness cannot be content to deal with alterity in a strictly aesthetic way. As the co-editors put it in the introduction, “what the works under review are indexed on is a recurrent opening to alterity as an entity to be encountered non-violently, according to the basic rules of the Levinasian ethical relation” (12). The encounter with the other, in most of the works of art discussed in the volume, is informed by “the ethical imperative”. The other figure whose influence looms large among the articles of this volume is the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose chief contribution to the debate on alterity lies in the issue of testimony ‑ how is the artist to account for the traumatic events and images he or she has witnessed, at first or at second hand ‑ as well as in the issue of state intervention, which assigns to the often depoliticised subjects roles the artist chooses to subvert or derail. As has already been the case in the past, this review will not, for lack of space, analyse each of the volume’s fifteen articles, but single out a handful of them in order to bring out the outstanding features of an ethics of alterity, confrontation and responsibility in 19th- to 21st-century British arts.

2This three-part collection of articles begins with an investigation into ethics and the horrors of war. The opening article, by Catherine Lanone, offers an analysis of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Itself a transposition of Melville’s novella, Britten's opera, composed in the wake of World War Two, raises the question of ethics in a world at war, and dramatises the incompatibility between law and justice. Military law demands that Billy be sentenced to death for accidentally killing a bellicose Master-at-arms, but justice keeps pointing at the unfairness of Billy’s predicament and the malevolence of his accuser. Lanone’s reading, as beautifully insightful as it is aware of every nuance of musical language, manages to impart the idea, borrowed from both Agamben and J. Rancière, that Billy “achieves a striking act of dis-identification with the function ascribed to him by the police order” (33), while his unwilling executioner, the ship’s captain, is left “to perform his own trial endlessly, negotiating guilt (...) in the eternal spiral of the sensation of error” (35-36). The article by Bénédicte Coste, also in part one, discusses Lee Miller and the Ethics of war photography, with special reference to the American photographer’s pictures of liberated Nazi death camps. The forte of Coste’s demonstration lies in the fact that, rather than focussing on the death camp victims, she shifts her argument ‑ as Miller herself did ‑ onto photographs of the bruised faces of Nazi guards after they were being severely beaten up by their former prisoners. Acting as a witness to the consequences of Nazism, Miller suggested that those who were “de-subjectified” by the implementation of the final solution were not only the concentration camp inmates themselves, but those in charge of that implementation. She literally gave the former torturers a face in a Levinasian sense, i.e. insofar as the other ought not to be perceived as a mere antagonist, however unfavourable the circumstances, but as one with a face which testifies to his unconditional dignity.

3The next part interrogates the dialectic of national and non-national standpoints, or the quest for an ethics of alterity within a national context. Laura Marcus’s article, entitled “The Optic of Mass-Observation”, analyses the aesthetic, political and ethical agenda of a movement that defined itself as an “anthropology of ourselves”. The methods of Mass-Observation’s founders were based on questionnaires in which highly subjective, free-associative responses were encouraged, thereby fostering a return to an eminently democratic project. But simultaneously, the central role of visual media and technologies in the recording of everyday life in the late 1930s and early 1940s meant that fleeting moments became “great knots in a great net of tangled time and space ­ the moments at which the situation of humanity is clear” (Charles Madge, quoted by Marcus 123). Luc Bouvard’s article shows how several film adaptations of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities in the 1920s and 1930s operate shifts in national sensibilities (Griffith was an American filmmaker, Eiseinstein was Soviet), and how their totally opposed ideological perspectives are conveyed by differences in cinematic language. Upon translating one artistic medium into another, Griffith and his Hollywood follower Jack Conway distort revolutionary ethics and turn the otherness of the uprising masses into an ethics of destructive alterity which complies with the demands of capitalism in times of danger (the Great Depression). Conversely, Eisenstein uses the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin to reaffirm his allegiance to the rebels.

4Part three of the volume, entitled “Writing Alterity, Debating (Un)ethical Questions”, is mostly concerned with the physicality of otherness as conveyed in writing, style and artistic materials. Ben Hutchinson’s article on “Stone, Style and Sculpture in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill” argues that “Hill’s interrogation of form must be understood as both an artistic and an ethical construct, and that its ultimate aim is to repress the ego in order to effect a genuine interaction with the other” (165). Hill’s poems criticise the use of stone, marble and metal when these materials merely serve as conventional tributes to the past, but vindicate sculpture when it serves to reconcile physical creation with metaphysical decreation. In Hutchinson’s terms, “where the memorialist encases the past in marble, the poet seeks to carve it free” (203).

5The final part is perhaps the most original, insofar as alterity is now analysed from the perspective of the “othered” (italics mine). The last contributions examine forms of alterity whereby otherness is not merely synonymous with an encounter with other people, other nations or other media, but with living beings that are non-human or beyond the pale of human society. Thus Valérie Morisson’s article, “Kira O’Reilly’s Inter-Species Arts: Interrogating Man’s Animality”, turns to an artist whose disturbing installations and performances keep challenging anthropocentrism. Reminding readers that interspecies art is a recent trend in contemporary art, Morisson closely analyses O’Reilly’s performances, which never fail to arouse a mixture of disgust and empathy, mostly through the weird proximity of her naked body with those of the live or dead creatures – pigs mainly ‑ she may be lying, or “dancing” with. Her artistic projects constantly challenge the spatial divide between species and are therefore conducive to a meditation upon “a becoming-animal” (259). Catherine Bernard’s article, “Deller, Wallinger, Wearing: Towards an Ethics of Visual Interpellation”, displays an impressive theoretical apparatus, which the author uses to demonstrate how many contemporary artists find themselves in a critical double bind: they may still believe that the formal experimentation they claim will radically interact with political involvement, while remaining aware of their precarious status – a precariousness that questions the very subversiveness of contemporary art. The installations and photographs of Jeremy Deller, Mark Wallinger and Gillian Wearing all testify to the return of the other in this sphere. The three British artists under scrutiny have “moved beyond the pale of aesthetics” and “bring us face to face with the other, the unheard, the unseen, the untold and thus leaves us altered” (270). By contravening a 2005 Police Act, the in-your-face physicality of Wallinger’s State Britain (2007), to take but one example, constitutes a major political re-empowerment even as it deliberately de-aestheticises itself.

6To conclude this inevitably subjective and incomplete synopsis, the present reviewer wants to praise the impressive quality of most of the contributions in this volume, and the expertise of all the authors. Only one criticism will be spelled out: it is a pity that a book devoted to alterity, confrontation and responsibility in the British arts should offer so few illustrations. Some of the articles do contain reproductions and photographs, but others do not, in a way that leaves one sadly frustrated. One wishes for instance that Gulshan Taneja’s discussion of Kevin Carter’s controversial photograph of a starving Sudanese girl crouching by a vulture waiting for her to die had been included in the article; the argument would have been more concrete and the reader would have had no need to look up that picture on the internet. The same reproach may be addressed apropos of Liliane Louvel’s article on British painter Stanley Spencer – not one of his paintings has been provided. Is the paucity of the iconography to be put down to the cost of copyrights? Aside from this criticism, the present reviewer wishes once again to express his very high opinion of Ethics of Alterity… and hopes that “Present Perfect” will continue to offer such outstanding contributions to the development of English Studies.

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Electronic reference

Jean-Christophe MURAT, « Jean-Michel Ganteau & Christine Reynier (eds.), Ethics of Alterity, Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- to 21st-Century British Arts », E-rea [Online], 14.2 | 2017, Online since 15 June 2017, connection on 21 July 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/5797

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About the author

Jean-Christophe MURAT

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

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