Thursday, August 27, 2015

J. Hillis Miller on the Profession: “Literature is … made out of words”

Another working paper. Title above, information below.

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Abstract: In three recent pieces, one article and two interviews, J. Hilis Miller looks back over the five decades of his career, affirms the continuing importance of ethical education in literary studies, but also the need to literary studies to change as other media take the role that writing once played. Critics must find patterns in texts and explicate them.

Introduction: “Literature is made of words”
J. Hillis Miller: Bildung and Wissenschaft
The Early Years
Kids These Days
How to Notice Things in Texts
J. Hillis Miller on Burke and Derrida
Scott Eric Kaufman on Freud
Neural Weather (Slight Return)
Escape from Flat Earth: J. Hillis Miller and the evolution of a critic’s mind
Flat Earth
J. Hillis Miller: English Lit as Postcolonial Artifact
Critical Escape Velocity

Introduction: “Literature is made of words”

During my first semester at Johns Hopkins I took a course on the British Novel. I liked to read, loved it, and I had to have some literature to satisfy distribution requirements. So, the British Novel? Why not? It was probably the modern novel, which meant the first half of the 20th Century. Anyhow, that’s how I came to study with J. Hillis Miller in the fall of 1965, a year before the French landed in the (in)famous structuralism conference.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say I was a rube from the country. I wasn’t. I was from the suburbs. Nor was I exactly a rube. But I’d never heard anything like whatever it was that Miller was saying in those lectures. The Secret Agent, A Passage to India – those are the only two books I’m sure were in that course, there must have been others, obviously, but I don’t remember what they were.

That was my introduction to the art of literary interpretation. The year before my high school English teacher had, after class one day, asked me what I thought some poem – Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” perhaps? – meant. Mean, what do you mean what does the poem mean? – I rather doubt that I said that, but it’s what I was thinking. The question baffled me.

And now, at Hopkins, I was listening to lectures given by scholars who weren’t baffled by that question. It’s not that they KNEW what poems and novels meant, or even that they knew what the question meant, all the way through; but they could sure spin interesting and compelling interpretations, “readings” they called them.

It took me several years of learning from such men – they were all men at Hopkins back in those days – before I was comfortable with the process, before I could think for myself rather than be in thrall to the last lecture I’d heard on a text, or the last article. When I went off to Buffalo to get my Ph.D. I had a master’s thesis in hand in which “Kubla Khan” and I had burned through much of what those men had taught me. Even as deconstructive criticism was emerging from the ashes of phenomenology and structuralism I was moving toward the cognitive sciences.

Thus, though J. Hillis Miller had been an important teacher, I’ve never read much of his criticism. It simply hasn’t been relevant to my own pursuits. But I’ve never been dismissive of deconstruction in the way many cognitive literary critics, not to mention the literary Darwinists, have been. It’s not simply that I’d been taught by these men and I knew them to be men of good will, to be sane and not at all frivolous. It’s that I also knew them to be right on one fundamental matter. The meaning of literary texts REALLY is indeterminate, though I prefer the term “elastic.”

If certitude is what you want, then you better look elsewhere than interpretation. Well, certitude would be nice, and so I’ve been looking for it in form, not meaning. That’s what came out of my Buffalo experience, though it’s been a long time coming.

Moreover, in the last few years or so, as I’ve thought about the profession, and about the conceptual mess in which the profession has found itself, I’ve realized that the search for the meaning of literary texts, the art of interpretation, is relatively new. Not eternal. Not written in stone. It was well enough situated at Hopkins by the time I’d arrived that I could take it as the way things are. What I didn’t realize when I was at Hopkins, though I know it now, is that my teachers didn’t have teachers who schooled them in the ways of interpreting literary texts. They had to figure it out more or less for themselves.

Can you imagine that?!

And so I’ve been interested to read some things – an article and two interviews – in which Miller reflects on his career – his years at Harvard where none of his teachers could interpret their way out of a paper bag, and his years at Hopkins and Yale, when he worked his way through phenomenology to deconstruction – and looks to the future, just a bit, affirming the continuing need for humanistic Bildung, albeit in different forms about different texts.

To some extent I’m reading Miller against himself in the posts that follow. If I think it important to know that there was a time before interpretation was the focus of academic literary study, that is in part because I think it is time that we give equal attention to form, and THAT, I fear, will require major changes in the profession.

In his interview for the (now defunct) minnesota review, Miller tells of his suspicions about phenomenology (p. 38 [1]):
Unity is based on the unity of consciousness. I find that a very problematic assumption now. It strikes me as like believing in the occult. Literature is not made out of consciousness, it’s made out of words. And Poulet almost completely ignores the possibility of an unconscious, or that I may be one person today and another person tomorrow.
But we’ve now got a somewhat revised unconsious, the cognitive unconscious, though, unlike many of my cognitive and evolutionary colleagues, I’m not yet ready to toss the psychoanalytic unconsious overboard.

Concerning the current scene in literary criticsm, but without reference to cognitive or evolutionary criticism, which seem not to have appeared on his radar, Miller remarks (p. 43, emphasis mine):
My attitude towards this is double. I hope the idea of close attention to whatever it is that you’re studying doesn’t disappear. I’m made anxious by works in cultural studies that talk about some novel or other and simply tell the plot or describe the characters, in relation to some historical or cultural context. That strikes me as kind of old-fashioned. Now I like the idea that there are techniques for talking about film which are specific to film. In part that’s a very conservative aspect of my attitude, an aspect which is scientific or positivist. I hold that you ought to be able to give evidence for whatever you say. I also think that it’s a bad thing that there is less language training and less knowledge of foreign languages.
Yes, by all means, close attention – something I learned from Miller, but also Earl Wasserman, Dick Macksey, Don Howard, and D. C. Allen. And, positivist!?

More recently Miller has expressed doubts about our ability to imagine ourselves into the past:
Which means that I think reading these old works (say Richardson, or Jane Austen, or whoever) trying to make yourself as though you were an eighteenth-century person, which is what I was taught to do, you learn all about the culture etc. etc. I’m very dubious about that. I want to know what Clarissa would mean for me today, what use it would be today. And I think that’s a rather different question from asking what its role was in its original historical context. (p. 7 [2])
I think that’s right as well. We can’t teleport into the past no matter how much we learn about it, though I suspect I’m willing to give more to the historical imagination that Miller is.

I’m also sympathetic to his brief for the present, his belief that we can and should bring those old texts to bear on the present and even project them into the future. Over the years I’ve become quite fond of a passage from Kenneth Burke – who was important to Miller in his early years. This is from his essay on “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973, but originally collected in 1941 and published in the 30s). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
[…] surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
That is, after all, how we use literature in getting on with life. And any text that helps, contemporary or old, from one’s own culture or from some foreign culture, any text can be so put to use, even if the writer would consider our use to be abuse.

It is quite possible that Miller would judge my usage of him in these posts to be a bit abusive. But that usage is in service to a craft he taught me, the scrupulous attention to literary text and language. The world changes, and so we must revise our understanding of how to pay scrupulous attention to texts.

[1] Jeffrey J. Williams, Bellwether: An Interview with J. Hillis Miller, the minnesota review 2009 Volume 2009, Number 71-72: 25-46. doi: 10.1215/00265667-2009-71-72-25

[2] Miller, J. Hillis. ‘You see you ask an innocent question and you’ve got a long answer’: An Interview with J. Hillis Miller. Australian Humanities Review 56 (2014): 1-24.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. I applaud your use of the term "elastic" rather than "indeterminate" in your mention of the innumerable meanings of literary texts. This neatly avoids (unconscious) assumptions of a fixed place somewhere somehow by which the text will yield an ultimate resonance with the shoulder over which we look for presence in the past.