Engaging Violence
Civility and the Reach of Literature
David Simpson


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

Violence, civility and literature are common words, but their interactions have been complex and often confusing. Civility and literature evolved together to inhibit violence but can also be deployed coercively by small-group interests. Urgent appeals to civility now occur at a time when we are seeing a diminishing investment in the very same literary pedagogy that evolved as a vehicle for civility training itself.

1 Civility and Literature and Their Discontents
chapter abstract

This chapter discusses the ambiguities surrounding the concept of civility in relation to literature and violence, from the early modern period to the present. Civility has been claimed as constructively nonviolent but also as repressive and coercive. It sets out questions about the 'aesthetic alibi,' the permission often extended to literary writing to stage positions and events of which it does not simply approve but nonetheless represents. It explores the alliance between literature and civility as parallel and conjoined efforts at providing space and time for the rehearsal and resolution of conflict without recourse to irreversible violence. It goes on to lay out the case against postromantic aesthetics as implacably racialized and asks whether there might yet be a positive potential for aesthetic freedom latent in the paradigm set forth by Kant and Schiller.

2 Civil Beginnings
chapter abstract

This chapter establishes the historical foundations of the alliance between literature and civility theory as tools for the nurturing of a nonviolent public sphere, an ambition rendered viable by the proliferation of print culture for a nonelite readership in the eighteenth century. Richardson's Pamela is a central text: a novel that represents small-group culture being more widely circulated as a model for acceptable social behavior. While offering a role for women and ordinary-language speakers and employing writing to restrain sexual violence, it also endorses a national-patriotic ethos that limits foreign access to its ideal community. Later, Chesterfield's Letters extends the civility debate into a more cosmopolitan sphere while raising radical questions about the relation of polite behavior to sincerity and hypocrisy.

3 Philosophy Polite and Politic
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the common protocols shared by fiction, philosophy, history writing and belles lettres, which together constitute a general 'literary' form of inquiry founded in conversability, dialogue and detachment and governed by what Shaftesbury calls the "inmate controller" and Smith the "impartial spectator," the inner voice that slows down any imminent action and evaluates its likely effects before they become irreversible. While the moderation of behavior is a desirable outcome of literary and civil experience, it must not suppress the disruptive energies required by entrepreneurial culture and its myth of historical 'progress.' In a global context, this creative energy is increasingly recognized as a necessary (and racialized) violence. Political economists find themselves defending and questioning civility as a national-patriotic rather than a universal practice: one 'naturally' feels stronger affiliations with those most like oneself, those with whom one shares culture and kinship.

4 The Displacement of Civility: Violence in a Widening World
chapter abstract

After Chesterfield's dramatization and Wollstonecraft's critique of the protocols of civility, and Wollstonecraft's negative analysis of their place in literature, writers and critics in the nineteenth century tend to look more skeptically at civility as a preferred term for contesting violence. British writers turn increasingly toward adaptations of the German Bildung (culture) as the desirable paradigm for modeling a human life capable of deliberative reflection and the achieving of personal equilibrium. Matthew Arnold anglicizes Kant and Schiller and begins to direct their recommendations toward the demands of a popular education founded in literary experiences that teach the values of free play and disinterest, a task carried on into the next century by the likes of I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis. The implications of global empire can be seen addressed in British literature but are often sidelined in favor of devising a national-anglophone education founded in reflective detachment.

5 Civility after 1989: Romancing Small Groups
chapter abstract

This chapter discusses the efflorescence of civility and civil society theories in the wake of the imploded Soviet Empire after 1989 and their affiliations with literature and literary theory in the 1990s. Small-group ideals inform the European 'round table' models for social organization and the American preoccupation with communitarian and 'town hall' politics. These are both open to critique as exclusionary and utopian. The European Union struggles to cope with its own expansion, with immigration and with the breakup of Yugoslavia. For a brief time theorists like Derrida and Habermas are proposing a new idea of Europe as an alternative to the Washington consensus and its politics of violence: a Europe that must be imagined as other to itself and non-identitarian.

6 The Reach of Literature
chapter abstract

How do aesthetic theory and literature respond to what Balibar has called "inconvertible violence"? How can the conventions of the aesthetic alibi (literature's non-referential claim) coexist with the moral demands generated by a literature of witnessing? The imperative to engage with violence becomes stronger than ever in the light of the historical record accrued through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Balibar offers a refigured civility, of which literature is an example, as one available recourse. Others, following Barthes, opt for the category of the neutral in hopes of minimizing the damage they might do by modeling an activist agenda. Some wonder whether there is a violence inevitable in language itself, in the imposition of order, identity and difference.