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Archive for February 19th, 2007

As Charlotte and Templeton, for different reasons to be sure, work together to save Wilbur from the slaughterhouse, what is Wilbur’s role? Is he just the cute pig upon whom Charlotte can focus her selflessness or to whom Templeton can be responsible? I think not. Wilbur floats through the story as the object of response-ability on Charlotte’s part and the reason for responsibility on Templeton’s part, but he does not reciprocate, at least not directly or overtly. Wilbur is the beneficiary of Charlotte’s and Templeton’s goodwill but he does not give directly back. He never acts with either responsibility or as a response-able character. Oh sure, you say, but he was Charlotte’s friend. True enough, but being a friend is hardly enough. One can be a friend without ever being response-able for the friend. What did Wilbur do for Charlotte? One can also be a friend without acting responsibly to one’s friend. Did Wilbur ever do any self-conscious act to Templeton as a friend?

So what exactly is Wilbur’s role? On the one hand, he serves as the focus of the ethical imperative for Charlotte and he stands at the center of Templeton’s self-conscious efforts of responsibility to Wilbur. After all, without such a focal point neither of the two characters would have any reason to exercise their ethical choices. On the other hand, Wilbur must play a role beyond merely being a foil for Charlotte and Templeton. Here we must turn to Derrida. Wilbur is the other to Charlotte and Templeton but he is in the process of becoming, of growing into something new, of discovery through experience. Wilbur is never finished, he never becomes. He is always anticipating, waiting, wondering, seeking. He represents the doubt of Derrida’s aporia as he anticipates what is to come. Wilbur represents the alterity of the other in its fullest otherness–an alterity without bounds yet one that is bounded by the barnyard; an alterity that is only recognized by the likes of Charlotte and Templeton but not Uncle Homer and Lurvy, the true humans of the story. To the humans, Wilbur is just a pig but to Charlotte he is everything that is becoming and to Templeton he represents a reciprocity over which neither Wilbur nor Templeton has any control; it is, however, that reciprocity that drives Templeton’s self-conscious behavior toward Wilbur at Charlotte’s request. As the embodiment of the other, Wilbur need not do more. His anticipation is enough.

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Bakhtin argues that the self is responsible to the other while Levinas argues that the self is responsible for the other. It is the distinction of the to and for that E. B. White presents through two characters in his iconic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, the story of how a spider contributes to saving the life of Wilbur the pig as she becomes responsible for Wilbur as the other. At the same time, Templeton, the rat, in a self-seeking role, also becomes responsible, not for, but to both Wilbur and Charlotte as Charlotte works to save Wilbur’s life.

From the Bakhtinian perspective responsibility to the other is anchored in the notion that my actions are what the other calls to task; what the other requires of me. My choice to act responsibly is one in which the self is satisfied without regard to the outcome for the other to whom the self acts responsibly. For Bakhtin, responsibility is not a selfless act but, quite the contrary, a self-conscious act. Levinas, on the other hand, argues that there is an ethical imperative that originates even before there is a self; this imperative is one in which the self has the absolute responsibility to act for the other; to selflessly care for the other even at the peril of one’s own existence. Understood from this perspective, Bakhtin and Levinas occupy two sides of the same coin. Both require the self to act in a responsible manner toward the other. The fundamental distinction is one between a self-conscious act and a selfless act.

In Charlotte’s Web, Templeton chooses to assist Wilbur at the urging of Charlotte but only when he sees value in the act of assistance for himself. In a self-conscious manner, Templeton comes to the aid of Wilbur if and only if he receives what he understands to be a benefit of equal value for himself, for example when Charlotte convinces him to search for words because if Wilbur is sent to the slaughterhouse Lurvy will no longer bring the slop to the barn, a delicacy Templeton desires. Templeton is acting in a Bakhtinian manner, responsible to both Charlotte and Wilbur. Charlotte, on the other hand, acts in a selfless way toward Wilbur. She is interested in being responsible (response-able may be a better way to re-present the notion of responsibility here) for Wilbur by selflessly spinning webs that urge the humans, especially Uncle Homer, to save Wilbur’s life. In the end, even as she is dying and needs to save her energy, Charlotte spins one final web for Wilbur; Charlotte is a true friend in a Levinasian sense.

As children read Charlotte’s Web it is important that they understand the distinction of being responsible to someone else and being response-able for another person. The ethical imperative of the for is, however, not necessarily easy for 3rd through 5th graders to understand. One suggestion is to create a dialectic in which Templeton’s and Charlotte’s acts with regard to Wilbur are compared and contrasted. Children can then see for themselves the benefits of being response-able, of being selfless regarding the other suggested by Charlotte’s actions as opposed to the self-conscious responsibility to the other suggested by Templeton’s behavior.

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