Zhang Jiang and J. Hillis Miller, Exchange of Letters About Literary Theory Between Zhang Jiang and J. Hillis Miller, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 53, No. 3, 2016, pp. 567-610.J. Hillis Miller is UCI Distinguished Research Professor of English and Comparative Literature Emeritus at the University of California at Irvine. Zhang Jiang holds a PhD and is currently professor of literary studies and vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The exchange was initiated by Jiang and is interesting throughout. Except for the very last passage, however, I am quoting from Miller as it is his views that interest me. In his first letter Jiang explained how Miller’s work is being received in China. Miller responds (p. 573):
The “various textbooks on my ideas in China” much overstress the presumed negative side of so-called deconstruction. Your sentences say more or less what the public media in the United States and Europe say about so-called deconstruction, which is a complex and by no means unified entity. A little citation from Derrida or de Man or myself or any of hundreds of other scholars, for example Andrzej Warminski or Gayatri Spivak or Barbara Johnson, would be helpful in characterizing deconstruction. Perhaps the Chinese textbooks you mention do make abundant citation. If I am or ever was a “deconstructionist” (which I never was if that means agreeing with the definitions you give from Chinese textbooks), I nevertheless never rejected reason, nor doubted truth (though I see it as often complex and even contradictory when it is a question of the truth of a given literary work), nor would I think of denying all previous criticism, which is often first-rate and helps me greatly in my own readings. I want to do my own readings with an open mind, however, no doubt with help from previous critics, for example without assuming that because Middlemarch is manifestly a good work it is going necessarily to be “unified.” Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. That remains to be seen and shown in a scrupulous “reading.” I can’t tell without reading the text carefully myself and without making citations that support what I say. I think others should do the same. [...] My procedures are “scientific” or a transposition of the scientific methodology I learned when I was for two years a physics major in my first years in undergraduate school at Oberlin College. I want proof for what I say about a given work, and in the case of literary study that means citations from the work, citations that, at least as I read them (I hope correctly), support what I say about the work. “Always go back to the text” is my motto.
Rhetorical readings vs. deconstructive readings (p. 575):
I should these days much prefer to call what I try to do not “deconstructive readings” (because the word deconstruction” is so often presumed to mean what your textbooks or what mass media in the United States say it means), but “rhetorical readings.” I mean by that, special attention to the implications of figurative language, including irony, in any text I am trying to read, teach, or write about.
“Deconstruction” is one of those many terms, such as “algorithm,” that started as a term of art within some intellectual enterprise and then devolved in meaning as it was borrowed from the original context and put to other uses.
Now Miller has remarks of different kinds of criticism. Notice, by the way, in this remark on hermeneutic criticism that he cites Wikipedia (p. 575):
“Hermeneutic criticism,” at least in the West, though it begins with the Greeks and with Biblical and Talmudic exegesis, descends in its modern form from Schleiermacher, Husserl, Benjamin, Heidegger, Gadamer, that is, from “phenomenology” generally, down to Ricoeur and Levinas. (See the very good entry on “hermeneutics” in Wikipedia, if that is accessible.) Hermeneutics is still active these days particularly in Germany, but was also important in France. “Hermeneutics” concurs more or less with your search for a single widely agreed-upon meaning for a given text. Husserl greatly influenced Derrida at the beginning of his career. He wrote about one of Husserl’s works, The Origin of Geometry, and planned a Husserlian dissertation on “literature as ideal objects,” which he never wrote. So “deconstruction” was, for Derrida at least, to some degree a reaction against hermeneutics.
Reader response criticism is quite different from deconstruction/rhetorical, though Fish is often grouped with the Dons of Deconstruction in various dismissive screeds (pp. 575-6):
Reader response criticism, for example Stanley Fish’s work, does hold, as opposed to deconstruction or rhetorical reading, that a text has no meaning in itself, but that meanings are imposed from outside the text by a “community of readers.” He is hostile to deconstruction. So-called “deconstructionists,” or “rhetorical readers,” would never say any text has no meaning in itself, only that many literary texts have multiple identifiable meanings, sometimes, but not necessarily always, incompatible ones. You must read a given text carefully to find out.
“Complete” literary theory (p. 586):
Literary theories tend to express themselves as universally applicable formulations. Deconstruction is no exception. Just as Aristotle in Poetics said a tragedy must be a whole and that “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end” (1450b), and just as Barthes in S/Z affirms, in the passage you cite, that structuralism is a universal set for systematic criticism, so Paul de Man in “Allegory (Julie)” affirms that “The paradigm for all texts consists of a figure (or a system of figures) and its deconstruction” (Allegories of Reading, 205). The rest of de Man’s paragraph, the classic statement of what a deconstructive reading might be, complicates matters quite a bit, but space in this letter does not allow a full reading of what de Man says. The main point now is that what de Man says is what you call for, that is, “a complete set of systematic criticism that can provide universal guidance to general critical practice.”
But practical criticism exceeds theory (p. 590):
My answer to your questions about whether or not I believe there is “a complete set of systematic criticism that can provide universal guidance to general critical practice” is that in the West a number of such complete sets exist, including the deconstructive one, but that none can provide “universal guidance.” No theoretical paradigms exist that will prepare you for what you find when you do the actual work of reading for yourself as best you can a given work. Theory and reading, I conclude, are incompatible. A given person’s actual reading of literary works, I hold, and then making that reading part of her or his daily life, matter more than any theory about literature. Theory is ancillary to reading. It is a subordinate handmaiden, as the etymology of “ancillary” (Latin “ancilla,” handmaiden) implies.
I agree that practical criticism exceeds the precepts of any theory. But just what does this mean–“making that reading part of her or his daily life”? What about people who aren’t professional literary critics and so do not produce ‘full dress’ readings? Can they make literary works a part of daily life without reading any criticism or without any more than casual interpretive activity?
Whatever’s available, the critic as bricoleur (pp. 597-98):
I’d like to stress, however, that my goal in sixty years of literary studies has not been to construct a general theory applicable to all literary texts at all times and places, but the much more humble and pragmatic goal of accounting for what I call the “strangeness” of certain individual literary texts, including canonical ones, for example Alfred Lord Tennyson’s short poem, “Tears, Idle Tears.” I prefer to call what I do “rhetorical reading” rather than calling it by the now outmoded and widely misused term “deconstruction.” In performing my “accounting” I use whatever material is available, including what the author said in diaries and letters, as well as the historical contexts of the work. That information may all be relevant, though the author may not have done just what he or she says was intended. What the author writes may, moreover, not be related in a straightforward way to history. The so-called “death of the author,” by the way, was, as you say, proposed in a text by Roland Barthes. Barthes was more a structuralist than a so-called “deconstructionist.” The American New Critics also attacked biographical explanations under the name of “the biographical fallacy.” Though I agree that what counts most is the words on the page of a given literary text, I see no reason not to use biographical information as long as one does not assume it is fully explanatory.
Miller then goes on to ask some questions about literary studies in China, and Jiang devotes his last letter to answers. Here’s one paragraph from Jiang’s answer (p. 607):
To view it from another perspective, such a large scale opening-up basically generates more In’s and less Out’s, or huge In’s and almost no Out’s. For example, in the field of literary and art theory in China, you, Mr. Miller is illustrious, Derrida is illustrious, all eminent Western scholars are well known to Chinese scholars, and many of their new books are published in China almost synchronously. But do Western scholars also know many Chinese scholars and their achievements? China should not only offer Chinese versions of Western academic discourse, but also have her own academic discourse and contribute influential theories to the world. I think that you may agree with this point of mine. To take literary theory for example, when faced with the massive influx of European literary theories, scholars in the United States once worried about the loss of their own confidence, and the New Historicism can be said to be the response of the United States to European literary theories. The worry of the US academics at that time is also that of Chinese scholars now. We do not want to be completely separated from Western culture, but we want to have our own academic consciousness after being “pupils” of Western culture for hundred years. Chinese scholars want to articulate their own words from the Chinese perspective, and provide some original theoretical contribution to the development of world literary theory.