Friday, September 20, 2013

J. Hillis Miller on the Profession of Literary Criticism

J. Hillis Miller is now one of the Grand Old Men of literary criticsm. When I first saw him, lecturing on, among other texts, The Secret Agent and A Passage to India, in perhaps my very first college literature course, he wasn't old, but he seemed grand enough to me, not quite the proverbial country bumpkin, but close enough. That was a year before the French landed in Baltimore for the structuralist symposium and rummage sale of '66. None of us knew what the future would foist upon us.

We still don't. While I'm not about to predict the future, not in this post, I look back in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, who once observed: "In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery – the further back you are able to draw your longbow, the further ahead you can shoot" (Critical Path, 1981, p. 229).

First I want to present, with commentary, some remarks Miller published in the ADE Bulletin in 2003. Then I want to present some passages, with little commentary, from an interview Miller gave more recently.

Hillis Miller, the Long View

I first published these remarks in The Valve in October, 2008.

I’ve been browsing the archives of the ADE Bulletin, which is full of articles on the nature and state of the profession, more articles than I care to read. I recommend “Days of Future Past," by Michael Bérubé (2002) and “The Situation of the Humanities; or, How English Departments (and Their Chairs) Can Survive into the Twenty-First Century," by Annette Kolodny (2005). But I’d like to quote some passages from J. Hillis Miller, “My Fifty Years in the Profession" (2003).

Why Miller? Well, he is a prominent and honored member of the profession. That is one thing.

There is a more personal reason: his lectures captivated me when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. He was a model of wit and erudition, the very essence of a humanities professor. But also, when he talks about Hopkins, I know what he’s talking about because I was there.

And that sense of connection is important to me as I ponder these issues, the nature of and future of the discipline. The questions are important, but also abstract and remote. As accustomed as I am to abstraction, it also makes me antsy. This business of evaluative criticism, for example. The people who urge it are very earnest; but their talk seems very abstract, quote remote from the fact of doing such criticism time and again. Right now, the evaluative practice that is most meaningful to me concerns my photographs: which ones are worth processing and posting online, and just how do I tweak this or that one? I have some notion of how to talk about such things - after all, I really do make such decisions and I do have terms in which I think about them. Compared the demands of that simple task a list of evaluative criteria strikes me as almost hopelessly remote.

Enough about my photos and judgments. Back to Hillis Miller. My other reason for singling out his essay is that he’s reflecting about his 50 years in the profession. And that’s what interests me.

Concerning the early years:
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.
Not quite a paradise lost, but certainly a comfortable world and, perhaps, a comforting memory. Miller continues:
We also knew the double good of what we were doing. English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. This good depended on the widespread presence in the population of what Simon During calls “literary subjectivity”. Literary subjectivity is a love of so-called literature and a habit of dwelling in the virtual metaworlds that reading literature allows the adept reader to enter. To put this another way, English literature used to be a chief means by which people were interpellated as United States citizens. The teaching of English literature in schools, colleges, and universities was one of the main ways this interpellation took place.

The second good that English professors accomplished was to do research in their field. This meant finding out the facts, even the most recondite or obscure facts, about literary works and their authors. This justification was strongly in place at Johns Hopkins when I first taught there, just as it had been strongly in place for my teachers at Harvard, where I did my graduate work.
That world was still largely in place when I entered Hopkins in the Fall of 1965, though it would start dissipating pretty soon. This was the time of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women’s movement, all of which had implications for citizenship. That was changing. But so was the means of interpellation - a term I know only from one of Bérubé’s “Theory Tuesday” sessions at the first incarnation of his blog. Miller continues:
In the fifty years since I joined the Johns Hopkins English department, we have gradually, and now with increasing rapidity, moved out of the print age into the age of electronic media. Radio, cinema, television, DVDs, MP3 music, and the Internet now play more and more the role literature once played as the chief interpellator of citizens’ ethos and values. During’s literary subjectivity is becoming rarer and rarer among our citizens. They go to movies or watch television. That is what makes them what they are, not reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen, Dickens or Henry James, much less Donne or Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery. I am sure hundreds or thousands of people have seen TV versions of novels by Austen, Dickens, or James for every person who has read the books. One reason that university administrators have stood by and allowed English departments to dismantle themselves is that they, no doubt unconsciously, feel that it does not matter so much any longer what these departments do.

From the other direction, the changes I have named in English departments—the New Criticism; the rise of theory; the development of cultural studies, global English studies, film studies, studies of popular culture, and so on—can be seen as spontaneous attempts to find again the social utility that is being lost for the study of canonical works of English literature.
There you have it, the social utility of the discipline can no longer be lodged in the canonical works. Is that really so? A tricky question. How important was the canon, really, at mid-century? I don’t know. But I do feel that the function Miller attributed to it, the transmmission of ideas and values, the interpellation of citizens, was the justification. What values should we now transmit, and how? That is a serious question.

What does that imply about research? Film, TV, popular culture, yes, on some terms. What about method and theory? I don’t know. But he did find his way to an Emersonian note (John Emerson, that is): “We need to make every effort to defend, in changed circumstances, the tradition that makes the humanities in the university the place especially charged with the combination of Bildung and Wissenschaft, ethical education and pure knowledge.”

How Miller Discovered that Literature is Made of Language

These remarks were published in The Minnesota Review , nos. 71-72, in 2009.

Miller started his graduate work at Harvard in 1948.
The courses in literature at Harvard when I was there [graduate school], I would have to say, were very thin. None of these people, including Douglas Bush, really had any idea about how to talk about a poem, in my opinion.
There was nothing [at Harvard] to encourage me to think there would be any value whatsoever in reading Empson or Richards or Burke or any of those people. But, when I read it, I thought it was amazing. I'd never read anything like it. Here was somebody who looked at the actual texts of poems and tried to explain what was going on in them, which none of my teachers were doing.
Of Burke: "Burke, for that epoch, was the best psychoanalytic critic in the United States, and also the best Marxist critic."

Phenomenology and Georges Poulet:
But why did I find Poulet so useful? For a whole set of assumptions that I would see as problematic now. One of them was the assumption that a given author has a single, unique consciousness that he's born with and that persists throughout his life. That means that everything this author wrote, including letters, notebooks, fragments, and so on, but also poems and essays, form a kind of unity. 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.

Secondly, Geneva School criticism was heuristically attractive because it was a way to put in question Wasserman's deep New Critical assumption about the integrity and unity of individual works. It struck me—though I wasn't able to explain it very well to myself—that this was a deeply suspicious assumption. Why should all great works of literature be organically unified? What does it mean, anyway, to say a good poem is like a flower or a beautiful woman's body? Aren't there some great works that are not organically unified? And one way to put this in question—Poulet's way—is taking a quotation from here and taking a quotation from there and trying to demonstrate a different form of unity, the unity of a dialectical journey that begins with some kind of "Cogito." Poulet even said this would be the Cogito of the gum-chewer: "I chew gum, therefore I am."
Let's pull one sentence out of that and put it in boldface type: Literature is not made out of consciousness, it's made out of words. Yes. But what that means for criticism depends, at least in part, one what the critic knows about words, no?

And Derrida:
What Derrida did for me was free me from assumptions that I would now see as problematic. In the hands of a master critic like Poulet, the criticism of consciousness produced marvelous essays. It did have some resistance to the idea of a single monolithic unity, which was expressed in the dialectical stage-by-stage method of Poulet's essays—those essays make a kind of journey, not simply the description of a spatial organic unity.

Again, my encounter with Derrida was accidental. If I remember correctly, I started reading the parts of Of Grammatology that were published in Critique before it came out as a book.
Accidents are important in one's intellectual life. We all need ways of allowing accidents to happen and of being open to them.

What's a good critic?
Derrida is, among other things, a very great literary critic—essays on Shakespeare, on Blanchot's récits, on Joyce, and many others, even remarks on Proust in a seminar. Derrida is a literary critic of very great distinction. That is one element in his work. My measure of this is that I would attend Derrida's seminars and Paul de Man's seminars and I would try to anticipate what they were going to say. They always said something that I hadn't seen that struck me as plausible or true. That's my measurement of a great literary critic: somebody who tells me something that's right before my eyes but that I haven't seen.
On the '66 structuralism conference and on generosity:
I was not present at Derrida's lecture because I had a class to teach, and I met Georges Poulet after the lecture in the quadrangle at Hopkins. Poulet said, "I have just heard what I'm sure it the most important lecture of the conference. It's against everything I do." Remember who was there—Lacan, Hyppolite, Starobinski, Vernant, who was a very distinguished French classicist, all sorts of bigshots, along with Derrida's first appearance in America. He presented "Structure, Sign, and Play." I always thought it was very generous and perceptive of Poulet to recognize something important was going on in that lecture.

1 comment:

  1. "You just can't put it into words." So people say. Well, you can put into words anything that is of language. The late Seamus Heaney discusses the differences between the craft and technique of poetry. His distinction is crucial: "Craft is the skill of making. . . It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self. It knows how to keep up a capable verbal athletic display. . ." Along with the poet's way with words, "Technique involves the discovery of ways to go out of (his) normal cognitive bounds and raid the inarticulate: a dynamic alertness that mediates between the origins of feeling in memory and experience and the formal ploys that express these in a work of art." He likens the figure that represents pure technique to a water diviner. Yes! Heaney says much more about technique and his comments speak directly to the question of "consciousness." Keeping us in language.
    The poem "Digging" that has been quoted so much since Heaney's passing is the "first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words, or to put it more accurately, where I thought my 'feel' had got into words." The water diviner.