A Time for Ethics: Janet Frame and W. G. Sebald
'A Time for Ethics: Janet Frame and W. G. Sebald' identifies how literary texts which both respond to a traumatic past and adopt an openness towards the future enact an ethical stance. The recent "ethical turn" in a range of disciplines, among them literary studies, has led to a renewed interest in the ethical dimension of literature. The recent readings suggest, however, that a traditional humanist ethics continues to rely on a metaphysics of presence that forecloses an encounter of the human subject with alterity: the Other's time as well as the very otherness of time itself. Responding to the time-bound limitations of a humanist model of ethics, where ethical regard is only extended to those whom the subject encounters in its own time, Emmanuel Levinas proposes a form of ethics which originates in a model of subjectivity where the ego cannot claim exclusive control over time but, instead, is subject to a time that is beyond its self: the time of the Other. Using Levinas's philosophy as a theoretical framework, I examine how literary texts which foreground a time that both thematically and structurally undermines presence—the presence of characters and of language—can demonstrate an ethical response to the Other's plight. More specifically, I focus on the ways in which Janet Frame's and W. G. Sebald's works produce an ethical response to key traumatic events of the twentieth-century: colonialism and the Holocaust. Both writers demonstrate that a deconstruction of presence, the time of the self, not only enacts an ethical response to the Other of the past but also ensures a more just future. As such, their work undermines the primary premise of a metaphysics of presence—the sovereign subject—and produces a form of ethical responsibility which can encompass past and future generations. Foregrounding in language the violence that attends the self's subjection to the Other's time, Frame and Sebald gesture to the way in which a time that is unforeseeable and even traumatising produces a more just self. Such a self is mandatory if literature's ethical turn is to speak to a time beyond its own.
Advisor: Parkins, Wendy; Drichel, Simone
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: English
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Time; Ethics; Frame; Sebald; Levinas
Research Type: Thesis