Friday, February 20, 2015

Escape from Flat Earth: J. Hillis Miller and the evolution of a critic’s mind

I am, of course, speaking metaphorically, when I talk of a flat Earth, and, for that matter, when I talk of escape as well. By flat Earth I mean a set of default assumptions. In this case, the assumptions about the study of English literature in America that were in place at the beginning of J. Hillis Miller’s career.

As many of you know, Miller is one of the most eminent literary critics in the American academy and played a major role in the development of deconstructive and post-structuralism criticism. But that’s not where he started, obviously. When he started, interpretive criticism was relatively rare in academia, and didn’t exist at Harvard, where he did his graduate work. But let’s set that aside.

What interests me now is simply that there were assumptions in place. As Miller states in this passage from a 2003 article in the ADE Bulletin, “My Fifty Years in the Profession” (PDF):
The discipline of English studies was certainly well in place when I entered graduate school in 1948 and when I began full-time teaching in 1952. In those days we knew what we were doing. All sorts of disciplinary rules, boundaries, and taken-for-granted assumptions were firmly in place. We knew what the canon was, what were the main periods of English literary history, and what constituted good scholarship in the field.... In those days “we” were mostly men, all men in the English department at Hopkins, and all the works we studied, with some exceptions, were by men. American literature was pretty marginal. It all made perfect sense.
Whatever those assumptions were, that’s what I’m calling flat earth.

Flat Earth

As for the flat Earth, no doubt that’s how I thought of the earth when I was a child, if I thought about such things at all. I mean, why would I think otherwise? And if there was no reason to think otherwise, then why would I bother to note that the Earth appeared to be flat? The Earth was just the world around me and it was what it was.

At some point, though, I learned that the Earth was round. I don’t remember just when, or how, or what I learned at the same time. No doubt I learned in some time in primary school. But for all I know, I may have learned it first at home. I know at some point we had a globe, but just when we got it, I don’t know.

My point, though, is that it didn’t make much sense to think of the possibility of a flat Earth until I learned that, no, the Earth wasn’t flat. It was round. Then, of course, someone had to explain how it was that the Earth appeared to be flat through it really wasn’t. I figure that explanation would have gotten nowhere if I hadn’t been willing to take it on authority. Because it simply wouldn’t have made sense according to any scheme I was capable to conjuring up at the time.

The Wikipedia entry on Flat Earth tells me that various ancient peoples believed the Earth to be flat under a domed firmament. Some of these peoples further believed the Earth to be floating in an ocean, while others had no such belief. How could they have believed otherwise?

It took a good deal of deliberate observation and analysis to think otherwise. I have little knowledge of how some thinkers began to believe the Earth was round. But the idea seems to have originated with the ancient Greeks and spread from there. And it seems to me that it is only in that context, when another idea about the Earth was in play, that the notion of the Earth as “flat” had any “bite” and, by that time, of course it was on the way out.

J. Hillis Miller: English Lit as Postcolonial Artifact

Miller has been writing and talking about his history in the profession for a while. That article in the ADE Bulletin is one example. More recently he gave an interview to the minnesota review in 2009 where he talked quite a bit about his early years at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and about his early influences, from Kenneth Burke, to Georges Poulet, and Jacques Derrida. But let’s set that aside for a moment (but see this post). I want to look at something else. Early in the interview Miller made the following remarks (emphasis mine, WLB):
If you asked me what I was doing, and what we were doing collectively in the humanities, I would have had an answer to that: we were teaching students the literature they need to establish the ethos necessary to be a good citizen of the United States. And what is that? What is it that you need to know? It took me thirty years before I realized how weird this is as an answer: British literature. Not American literature, but British literature— that is to say, the literature of the country that we had defeated in a war of revolutionary independence, almost two hundred years before. From that point of view the United States was acting like a colony without any self-consciousness about it. That was accepted and institutionalized at Hopkins, and even more at Harvard when I got there as a graduate student.

We hadn’t reflected on how that was really weird. There are people like Gauri Viswanathan at Columbia who have studied the history of the institutionalization of English literature in India, and you could add the United States to that list, as a form of colonialism. In England you would do classics at Oxford or Cambridge. In India they thought it was a good idea that you learned to read Shakespeare or Beowulf.
Why did it take thirty years to notice something so obvious? I don’t know, though I note it’s not so different from thinking one needs to know Greek and Latin in order to be a proper English gentleman, as Miller also mentions. Nor, do I have a clear sense of more or less when this three-decade stretch begins and when it ends. If it begins with his time at Harvard, then it runs from the end of the 1940s to the end of the 1970s and so is likely before he assumed the presidency of the Modern Language Association in the mid-1980s.

What I’d really like to know is something of the circumstances in which that simple realization struck him. And I assume it’s the weirdness that’s important. It was not, after all, any secret that the English Department at Johns Hopkins taught and studied (mostly) British literature. Miller noted that, at Hopkins his “colleague Wasserman would say quite openly that there’s no such thing as American literature.” When I was there in the 1960s I certainly noted that fact, though I don’t recall thinking much about it.

But, at that time, one wouldn’t have noted that, as Miller states, “the United States was acting like a colony without any self-consciousness about it”, for that realization is grounded in the insights of postcolonial studies, which didn’t exist as such at that time. To be sure, some of the foundational texts existed (e.g. Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth), but postcolonialism as a defined mode of inquiry didn’t exist then. By way of calibration, Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978 and a Google Ngram query on “postcolonialism” doesn’t show much action before 1990.

Critical Escape Velocity

What I’m suggesting is that, IF the assumptions that were in place at Harvard and Hopkins in the decade after World War II are like the belief that the Earth is flat, THEN postcolonialism seems to function in the differential role played by the concept of the spherical earth. Just as the sphericity of the earth was no mere proposition, but the conclusion of an argument involving a network of observations and inferences originating with various people at various times and places, so it was with the emergence of postcolonialism and the consequent realization of the weirdness of teaching British literature as the foundation of the American ethos. Postcolonialism wasn’t a thinkable enterprise in, say, 1955, when the use of British literature to instill the American ethos was, in contrast, as natural as night and day.

Getting from one state to the other required not only that Miller develop the wherewithal to interpret British texts, but that he question and contextualize that wherewithal. As he explains elsewhere in the 2009 interview, he started from a position at Harvard where interpreting texts was not part of the critic’s remit. He learned that on the sly, from reading Kenneth Burke (who was not a Ph. D. academic) and others. He then continued that work at Hopkins, learning from the faculty there and figuring out how to interpret the texts he was teaching. First there was Georges Poulet and phenomenological criticism and then Derrida and deconstruction with Fry and myth criticism tossed in there somewhere along the way.

And that, more or less, is it. That does not, of course, get us to postcolonialism. Postcolonialism, for one thing, has an explicitly political edge that’s not there in phenomenology and deconstruction. And Miller does say, in the course of talking about Burke, that
my political awakening — asking myself in a serious way how my own work was related to political situations at the moment—was much delayed. I’m not proud of that. I was against the Vietnam War, violently against it, but I didn’t have the same investment that I have now in the political and in its relation to the institution of literary study.
So let us assume that there is an unspecified political dimension to his recognition of the weirdness of teaching British literature as a way of inculcating the American ethos in undergraduates.

The network of new ideas, then, includes ideas about language, consciousness, and criticism as a social and political institution. No wonder it took thirty years to accumulate those ideas. What started as a desire to interpret (British) literary texts ended up as an intellectual enterprise that explicitly excavated, recovered, and reconstituted the socio-intellectual assumptions “hidden” in the “woodwork” of those originary moments. Is it not interesting that that process, which was a phenomenon of the profession and not merely one of Miller’s personal intellectual history, can be focused on one simple observation: there is something strange about teaching British literature to American undergraduates for the purpose of making them into good American citizens?


What a strange process it is that could thus end up, over the course of decades, swallowing itself whole and then regurgitating itself as critical theory. And it's a process of the human mind, both individually, J. Hillis Miller, and collectively, the study of, well, not British literature, but of literature in general. For the process was not confined to English Departments (in America), but was a much wider one.

Still, there is a boundary this process did not cross. That’s a boundary Lévi-Strauss had no choice but to cross when he undertook the study of myth. The myths he studied were other people’s stories about their own cultures. He studied those stories as an outside, as a stranger.

The literary disciplines did not attempt to study their stories from the outsider, as a stranger. What would have been the point of that, interpreting our own stories as strangers?

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