Saturday, 2 June 2012

J. Hillis Miller at Lancaster

It has indeed been an honour to have J. Hillis Miller here at Lancaster over the last week, through the good offices of my colleagues Arthur Bradley and John Schad. Still alert and active at the age of 84, Miller represents for many of us the excitement which the literary theory revolution in English studies since the 1980s has promised. I’ve now heard him give a public lecture on ‘Literature Matters Today’, watched Dragan Kujundzic’s film ‘The First Sail: J. Hillis Miller’ (2011), and (as chance would have it) sat next to him all day at our symposium on his writings. Hillis has cracked some good jokes, told fine anecdotes about Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, and consistently returned to the fate of literature in the epoch of postmodern digital technologies and dangerous climate change (“How did this suicidal situation come about?”).

According to which version he tells, it was either reading Lewis Carroll at the age of five or being baffled by Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ poem in his undergraduate years that set Miller off on the literary-critical route he has pursued since. In narrowly disciplinary terms, he remains a Victorianist, but he has not ever written on William Morris in depth, though he told me he does own a Morris Collected Works. So it is curious that ‘First Sail’ opens with what one might regard as a Morrisian allusion. For no sooner does News from Nowhere get under way than William Guest is being rowed out into the Thames for a swim; and no sooner does the Hillis Miller film open than our hero is being rowed out into the waters off his Maine home, though to board his yacht rather than swim. Yachting, it appears, being Miller’s own personal utopian space.

So intense was Miller’s concern with the new ‘tele-technological’ media that I found myself wondering if he wasn’t veering towards technological determinism. For surely it is the neo-liberalism of the last thirty years which has been the epochal political, economic and ideological project in which such new media have had their effects (though they are certainly not just reducible to that project). And when he speculated that a literary-theoretical training in tropes and semantic self-undoing might carry over into informed suspicion of advertising and contemporary political discourse I felt I could detect the lineaments of that old Leavisite social position: minority culture versus mass civilisation.

But you can’t generate a politics out of literary theory itself any more than Scrutiny could conjure one up out of criticism, so let us hope that J. Hillis Miller, at the ripe old age of 84, might now really start working on Morris, one of the forlornly few Victorian figures who does show how literary culture can cross ‘a river of fire’ to engage a wider transformative politics.