Methodological and critical perspectives

Building notably on the outstanding scholarship of several prize-winners, among which 3 Laureates of the Institut Universitaire de France’s five-years grant (B. Marquer, E. Zanin, M. Manolescu), 3 Laureates of the “Hope of the University of Strasbourg Prize” (V. Perdichizzi, E. Zanin, G. Sintès), 3 fellows at the University of Strasbourg Institute of Advanced Studies (B. Guion, A. Mangeon, A. Lomo), 1 USIAS Chair (D. Le Breton), 1 Marie Curie Seal of Excellence (V. Feuillebois), 2 Laureates of the Guy Ourisson Prize (E. Zanin, V. Feuillebois), as well as on many previous or ongoing scientific collaborations, which lead to important symposiums and joint publications, LETHICA also aims to gather research units and Master or doctoral programs through four methodological and critical perspectives steered by renowned scholars.

Historical Perspective

The historical perspective is supervised by Dr. E. Zanin (comparative literature, IUF laureate, Ourisson Prize 2019), in order to explore how many issues concerning ethics, literature and the arts can get a better understanding with an in-depth analysis of their original context and historical evolution. Indeed, in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, the arts in Europe and in the Middle East were considered as a part of ethics, providing pleasure and ethical profit. Moreover, ethics was not a deontological discipline but rather an eudemonic practice: instead of giving moral rules, it aimed at explaining how to live a good life. Since narrative and paintings were practical examples of human deeds, displaying how to succeed (and how to fail) in private and public actions, reading a narrative, observing a painting or a play were considered useful ethical strategies. In the same way, rhetoric provided useful tools to live and to act in the public arena. Since the main goal of ethics was common happiness, harmonious music, beautiful objects and skillful speeches highly contributed to the ethical life. However, this early modern conception of arts and ethics progressively changed in the 17th and 18th centuries, giving way to new ethical and literary patterns. The exemplary value of literature was criticized as well as the casuistic approach to ethical issues; Aristotelian ethics was discarded at the same time that Aristotelian poetics was adopted, and the rise of Kantian ethics separated narrative from ethics, since the former describes particular situations while the latter prescribes abstract rules. If the history of literature and the history of ethics have received a large critical attention (see, for example, the 12 volumes collection of the Oxford English Literary History, 2004-2017, and the 3 volumes-set of The Development of Ethics, 2008-2009), the joint analysis of their evolution, relations and hierarchies have not yet been the object of a thorough study. Thanks to the contribution of art specialists (K. Gattinger), of specialists of the history of literature (M. Ott, E. Sempère), of drama (S. Berregard, E. Béhague, T. Victoroff, G. Ducrey) and of film (P. Werly, B. Thomas) in Europe (A. Bandry, V. Perdichizzi, F. Moghaddassi), in Africa (A. Mangeon, N. Chavoz), in the Arabic culture (A. Sakkal) and in Japan (A. Bechler, E. Lesigne-Audoly), as well as of scholars researching the history of ethics and literature (E. Zanin) and on moral writings (B. Guion), Lethica aims at reconstructing the evolving connection between ethics and the arts, and to confront its European forms to the various issues raised by ethical problems in non-European art, fiction and poetry.
This historical perspective will focus on some specific issues concerning the history of ethics, literature and the arts, namely:

a. Exemplarity: ancient apologues, medieval exempla, as well as Renaissance short stories and 18th century philosophical tales can indeed be read as narrative “cases”, thus contributing to the ethical debate. Conversely, the ethical relevance of narrative forms has been highly discussed by those who condemned casuistry, blamed fiction, or supported to the contrary its moral autonomy, sometimes on the ground of unethical concerns such as the end of 19th century Decadence artists and writers. We therefore aim to trace the history of the debate on the exemplar value of fiction considering its narrative and visual forms. Indeed, not only narratives but also medieval illuminations, Renaissance emblems, as well as 18th century allegorical paintings and 19th century caricatures or novels question the ethical value of stories and characters.

b. Deliberation: The form Aristotle has given to the pattern of deliberation is used in ethics, politics and rhetoric. This pattern encountered the Christian theology of the free will and holds a cardinal position in classical European drama and novels. It also served in modernity as a structural basis for decision-making in economics and politics, since “decision theory”, “games theory”, “public choice”, etc., often adopted the shape of an arborescence to figure a process of deliberation guided through the calculus of probabilities (such as in Pascal) or the form of a crossroads, as an allegory for choice. Both these forms have been used as topoi in numerous arts, especially in painting (see Carracci’s Hercules at the Crossroads), in the opera (such as Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione), or later in cinema.

c. Emotional responses: visual art, drama, fiction arouse emotions such as pity, fear, compassion or sympathy that tackle ethical issues. On the one side, arts and literature use ethical strategies to touch their audience: the reliability of the orator (ethos), the quality of the character (good, or bad), the issue of his or her actions (happiness or failure) set a frame of ethical expectations. On the other side, the audience emotionally responds to images and narratives. We would like to study how the ethical strategies and the emotional responses change over time and to examine how artistic, theatrical and narrative strategies aimed at touching the audience have evolved over the past centuries.

d. Censorship: the ethical value of the arts has been violently discussed by those who fear that fictionalization would degrade or subvert moral truth. This fear is still relevant today, when theatrical performance and fictional narrative are strongly censored on ideological or religious grounds. We aim to consider the history of censorship and its impact over artistic production, thus defining the boundaries between politics, ethics, and arts and their changing over time, in order to better understand how censorship has shaped literature (Darnton, 2014), pushing writers to invent new literary forms.


The second methodological perspective, supervised by Pr E. Behague, deals with interculturality, which encompasses a wide scope of phenomena, all linked by the common thread of “living together” and shared representations of the collectivity – cultural transfers, literary hybridity, Multilingualism, circulations of knowledge, sociology of migrations, history of representations. All of the listed topics require an ethical approach. Though not new, they have undergone major transformations in the recent years. The globalization of exchanges and the accelerated circulation of information – particularly in the field of visual mediums – have connected remote populations and cultures. In the present day, political crises, economic disruptions and natural disasters generate consequent international migratory flows, thus creating major ethical challenges. Encounters occur not only between cultures and languages but also between potentially dissenting value systems. It therefore seems obvious that the four topics selected by Lethica should be handled in an intercultural perspective. In this regard, two main orientations have been identified:

a. Intercultural ethics. The value system structuring a society is not generated by a “given culture”: Drawing from various influences, it emerges through the confrontation with other conceptions and representations of what social life should be. An intercultural approach of ethical changes – coined as “moral revolutions” – will demonstrate how facing otherness ushers a transformation of the common social representations, which may sometimes happen outside and notwithstanding the political and jurisdictional institutions. More specifically, Lethica will determine to what extent literary and artistic works have been able to trigger those evolutions throughout history: in which periods did the artistic production play such a decisive role? Which were then the favored aesthetical options?
These questions are particularly relevant today, as intercultural encounters tend to be consistently interpreted as conflicting ones – as it has been the case recently, when consequent migratory flows have been directed towards Europe. This form of intercultural encounter occurs on different levels, ranging from the meeting of a refugee with his interlocutor in a dedicated hosting structure or on the Refugee Board (Laacher, 2018) to the discussion of integration politics at an international level. In this context, what would be the outline of genuine “welcoming ethics”? How can we conceive a common ethical perspective in a shared space (Ethica, 23/2019)? How can it be rendered in artistic and literary productions?

Eventually, the intercultural dimension of ethics – which could be defined as the place we grant to the representation of otherness in our conception of common good – meets numerous paradoxes. For example, postcolonial theories and the subsequent critique of an Eurocentric vision of the world undoubtedly appear as an ethical progress, but they also foster identity-conveying discourses and victimhood feelings (Dubreuil, 2019). Those statements can develop into actual blacklisting phenomena, which tend to restrain creative freedom. Examples include Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”(2014), a performance that “reenacted” the scenographical display of former human zoos and colonial exhibitions: whereas the South-African artist intended to reveal the persistent presence of ancient ideological tropes in the contemporary world, some people considered his performance as racist.

b. The ethics of interculturality. The latter example demonstrates that the intercultural dimension of ethical thinking is closely related to the ethical issues raised by artistic productions in their dealings with interculturality. As soon as it reflects upon our relationship to the Other, the artistic work assumes an ethical dimension, which needs to be taken into account. Throughout European history, the acknowledgement of Otherness has inspired many thinkers to reconsider literature and to abstract it from an exclusively national narrative. The concept of Weltliteratur elaborated by Goethe or, more recently, the perspective of a “world-literature” inspired by Édouard Glissant and made known by Michel Le Bris, are both driven by a blatant ethical purpose. Works of art stage a symbolical encounter between people and cultures, thus promoting intercultural mingling in a didactical perspective. They should be considered as heterotopic spaces, allowing to overcome cultural antagonisms and to challenge the common framing of the Other. How do works of art prevent the stigmatizing generalization of individual features to a whole group (“case making”)? Politics and devices introduced by state administrations regarding migration-related issues rely on selective procedures (“triage”), which need to be questioned. How can one conceive interculturality at times when nationalisms foster a fantasized “conflict of cultures”? What are the relevant artistic and literary strategies? In so doing, how can one escape the “functionalization” trap, which places creative productions in the mere service of ethical thinking?

Ethics in artistic research

The third methodological perspective deals with ethics in artistic research. Since the end of the 20th century, knowledge originating in artistic practices has contributed to the definition of a new paradigm among academic institutions (Borgdoff, 2012). Disciplinary approaches have been developed in accordance with specific artistic practices, and ethical issues are now considered as an intrinsic part of the aesthetic experience (Dewey, 1987). Research-creation in art and literature actually originated in Québec in the 1970s, and then flourished in the English speaking world (Borgdorff 2008, 2010 ; Candy, 2006 ; McLeod et Holdridge, 2006 ; Smith et Dean, 2009), but it now emerges in France, where it has earned the support of several research programs (SACre; Réseau interuniversitaire création arts médias to which the Unistra Doctoral school of Humanities ED520 is affiliated).
As a field of scholarship, the “artistic research” label focuses on artistic creation (arts, literature, design) and on artistic practitioners, who themselves produce a reflexive discourse and a theoretical knowledge about and through their creative processes, thus providing new critical and methodological tools. By endorsing a heuristic approach, the researcher-creator stands between exploration (experimental subjectivity, theorization in action) and comprehension (conceptual objectivation). Research-creation also encompasses pedagogical prospects, regarding particularly the various ways of transmitting creative practices and research methodologies (Giacco, 2018). Research-creation nowadays displays a polysemous nature, defining both research originating in artistic practices (Bruneau, Villeneuve & Burns, 2007 ; Gosselin & Le Coguiec, 2006 ; Manning & Massumi, 2015) and original creations taking the features of a work of research (Chapman & Sawchuk, 2012). On a broader level, research-creation embraces every intersection between arts and sciences (Fourmentraux, 2012 ; Peilloux, 2019).

a. Creation processes at the crossroads of ethics and aesthetics. The epistemological space of artistic and literary creation conceives creative processes performatively, as making actions, perceiving actions (Spampinato, 2015) and thinking in action (Manning & Massumi, 2014) which results in the building of new meanings and knowledge. Combining both dimensions (aesthetics and ethics) into one single “aesth-ethical” approach, P. Audi (2010) argues that the creator’s thinking in action rests not only on aesthetical purposes, but also on ethical motives, which he considers as vital ones for any human being. Following the change of paradigm coined by J. Rancière (2011) as “aisthesis”, boundaries between arts and life have blurred, thus allowing the experience of ethical issues inside and through creative processes. By combining “professional ethics (dance, theatre, design, teaching…)” with the “personal ethics” of a researcher (Bruneau & Burns, 2007), artistic research also tackles questions concerning the creative process in itself and the position of the researcher-creator/researcher-interpreter: how does one accommodate ethics and aesthetics? What kind of relationship to oneself, to the others and to the world is favored by literary and artistic creation? What modes of reception can it elicit? What are the applied methods and materials, and in which economical patterns are they integrated? Where lies the boundary between plagiarism and literary borrowing? What is the actual value of auctoriality? What is the status of copyrights and of archives of creative productions? What is ethically allowed in works that relate to bio-art and bioethics, art and science, fictional representation and manipulation of living organisms? How to transfer artistic practices in non-artistic contexts (such as medical, carceral or crisis situations) that require an ethical assessment?

b. Research-creation and transmission. Ethics in research-creation also relates to transmission, specifically to artistic creation teaching (Greenwood, 2012; Morin, 1998, 1999; Morin, Motta & Ciurana, 2003; Road Map for Arts Education, UNESCO, 2006). Highlighting the ethical scope of the artistic work increases awareness about the intellectual and emotional development of the human being, about his/her capacities to generate new transdisciplinary insights and to experience aesthetical, cultural and artistic experiences, be it in an institutional context or outside the institution (various socio-cultural environments).
Eventually, research in art and artistic research offer a methodological think-tank to handle the four topics selected by Lethica by reflecting on the following questions: how does the literary and artistic creation handle the topic of “triage” and how, in return, is it affected by selecting procedures? How does it take part in “moral revolutions”, by anticipating or by triggering a crisis, by acting from within a culture or by favouring circulations between cultures to implement change?
How does it tackle the practices of “transparency and secrecy” by deciding to elucidate social processes of occultation and invisibilization, or by revealing its own creating processes? Alternatively, how does it contribute to the concealment of those processes? Should one say and show everything? Finally, how does artistic and literary creation “make case”, by standing out from other practices, by becoming a model to follow and by producing therapeutical effects?

Ethics-therapeutics joint

The fourth methodological perspective, supervised by Pr B. Marquer (French literature, IUF laureate, Head of European Literary Cultures Erasmus Mundus Master Program), will focus on the place of ethics in therapy, in order to identify the specific role of arts in such a context.
The antique theory of poetic furor has durably imposed a conception of creative activity as an inevitable disturbance, to the point of transforming into a commonplace the idea of an intimate, even natural kinship between madness and creation (Cape, 2011). The normative perspective against which the idea of “modernity” has been constructed, with a new emphasis on originality, rupture, and avant-garde, has also greatly contributed to define the artistic “innovation” by its disruptive power and its ability to put established representations or codes into crisis. However, the research perspective of “Medical Humanities” allows us to explore another equally established path, by insisting on the common capacity of literary and medical practices to “provide care” (Pröll, Lüsebrink, Madry, 2018). Embodied by catharsis since antiquity, the therapeutic virtue of fictional work even constitutes one of the characteristics of contemporary literature, whose primary vocation would henceforth be to “save, heal or at least to make feel good” (Gefen, 2017). In parallel, the development of art therapy forms testifies to the attention granted to creative practices in the field of care ethics. It also invites us to consider the role played by purely artistic innovations in therapeutic progress.This ethics-therapeutics approach will therefore first bind together the history of artistic practices and the history of care medicine, in order to better understand the role played by aesthetic innovation in therapeutic progress. It will explore the modeling of care practices by different forms of artistic expression (bibliotherapy, cinematherapy, art-therapy, musicotherapy…), and question their possible historical convergences, or the links between technological revolutions in art and moral revolutions in society. Finally, the history of artistic practices will be reassessed through art's alleged therapeutic vocation, so as to measure the evolution and fluctuations of such a conception: For example, the Decadence aesthetics stood up against the willingness to “provide care” through the arts and literature, which now prevails according to some scholars. If medicine and art can actually “provide care”, it is mostly by virtue of a shared ethos which makes their practices converge, and which is reflected in the importance of the poet-doctor figure (Wenger, Knebusch, Diaz, Augais, 2018) or, more broadly, of doctors-writers (Pröll, Lüsebrink, Madry, 2018), producing interesting mirroring effects (Marquer, 2015). As a second goal, this approach will therefore explore this shared ethos, in particular by reassessing the role of sensitivity in therapeutic practice. This role can be an ethical one, which leads for example a doctor to “weigh the words” he/she uses (Danou, 2008), and which makes it possible to counterbalance the influence of technology in the medical relationship. But it can also be a strictly hermeneutical role, insofar as sensitivity, by allowing empathy, can be a vehicle for knowledge. It is in this perspective that doctor and writer Martin Winckler invites us to consider the patient's story as a literary text (Marc Zaffran [Martin Winckler], 2010), because sensitivity is at the heart of the relationship produced by the literary text, and as such constitutes a model for the therapeutic relationship. Sensitivity is precisely what allows the doctor to link different forms of knowledge, from the theoretical characterization of a disease, the practical knowledge of the doctor, and the physical knowledge of the patient experiencing that very disease, and it can be thus considered as a skill that the mastery of narrativ tools can develop. The main objective of this approach will ultimately be to evaluate the ethical and hermeneutical functions of these narrative skills in the therapeutic relationship. By reintroducing a strictly subjective dimension into the case study, narrative medicine has for example shown the role of patients’ narratives in the search for healing: Taking into account this subjective dimension, which involves attention and listening, makes the patient’s speech no longer a source of error (a “fiction” about the disease), but a source of knowledge. The part of fiction specific to any narrative can therefore become an hermeneutical tool, and integrate a curative practice (not restricted to the psychoanalytical relationship). One of the long-term challenges will be to evaluate, from an intercultural perspective, the importance and modalities of these narrative skills in various traditions of care medicine.


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