J’Lyn Chapman with J. Hillis Miller

J. Hillis Miller
J. Hillis Miller

This spring, my Jack Kerouac School undergraduate Introduction to Critical Theory class read Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights through various critical approaches, including that of J. Hillis Miller’s “Wuthering Heights: Repetition and the ‘Uncanny,'” which I supplemented with selections from On Literature. On February 28, 2013, the class conducted an interview with him. Miller happens to be the first critic who I saw speak in person. This was 2004 at Colorado College. I admit that I was offended when the audience, including the friend who invited me to the talk, deigned to ask him questions. I don’t know what that was about—probably church memories. I was even more stunned by Miller’s open and genial responses. Of course, when I contacted Miller out of the blue this spring, he agreed to address our questions, some of which, frankly, could be answered by simply reading his very cogent writing. This warmth and graciousness is really the ethos of his critical method: As a critic, he forestalls neat conclusions, in part to sustain the pleasure of reading (or performing) the “strange” text but also to decenter the definitive reading, that is, his own authority. We are incredibly grateful to have engaged with one of this period’s most important critics. 

The students in the Introduction to Critical Theory class who conducted this interview are Alexandria Bull, David Chrem, Jacob Cohen, Lauren DeGaine, Charlie Epstein, David Hall, Elizabeth Kolenda, Anna Meiners, Jade Cruz Quinn, Chey Watson, Indigo Weller and Matt Robertson.

The Class: In your book, On Literature, you speak about the relationship between technology and literature. In a world where the printed word is dying out, do you believe physical books still play an important role to literature?

J. Hillis Miller: Printed books, including printed books of literature, will be around a long time yet and will play an important role in the cultural diffusion of literature. I still read most of the literature I do read in printed books. Nevertheless, we are in the midst of an extremely rapid and world-wide change in media technology. This means that literature will more and more be available in electronic form for those who want to read it that way.

TC: Concerning electronic text, do you feel that the reader’s ability to comment and annotate using social media will have an influence on the critical reading of literature? For example, Kindle books show passages other readers have underlined and may eventually allow readers to comment socially within that environment.

JHM: Yes, I agree that electronic versions of literature will have a big effect on readers’ ability to interact via social media in expressing their opinions and reactions to a given literary work, that is, telling others how they read the work in question.

TC: In On Literature, you claim that “virtual reality” is more than mere imitation and that this is why Plato’s abhorrence for poetry was misguided. Do you believe that repetition—in other words, more instances of subjective virtual realities—causes the virtual reality of poetic landscape to become more concrete over time?

JHM: I suppose that may well happen, if readers describe vividly enough via social media the “virtual reality” they imagine when they read a given work. Films based on literary works also help with that by giving a large cinema audience a shared “concretizing” of a given literary work. A given reader’s imaginative response to a literary work, however, still remains to some degree private and difficult to communicate, as you can prove by trying to tell another reader just what you see in your “mind’s eye” when you read, say, Wuthering Heights.

TC: You write in the essay, “Wuthering Heights: Repetition and the ‘Uncanny,'” for Heathcliff, “[T]he entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda,” through which his love for Catherine haunts him. Is holding fantasy more “real” than reality also a detriment for the common reader?

JHM: I suppose holding fantasy “more ‘real’ than reality” might be a detriment all right, but a full-scale hallucination like Heathcliff’s probably happens pretty rarely, though adults in the West used to fear it would happen for young novel readers. More likely to happen is expecting reality to be somehow like what you have read about in novels. Lots of novels are about that: Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Conrad’s Lord Jim, etc. In general, doing that (expecting reality will be like novels) would be a big mistake, just as believing everything you hear and see on television would be a mistake.

TC: What is the role of the critic when or if language fails to locate an object? For example, the inherent gap between the signifier/signified-sign/referent?

JHM: In presumably literal language, for example, newspaper stories or politicians’ statements, one expects to find a referent. They implicitly or explicitly claim a referent exists, as in the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. When the referent doesn’t appear (no WMDs to be found), bringing this to light is a form of criticism or “cultural critique.” The situation is different with literature. Though literature often names things that really exist or existed such as the city of London or St. Paul’s cathedral, the characters in novels, for the most part, exist only as generated in the imaginations of readers by the words on the page. You can encounter Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, only by reading the novel, not anywhere in the “real world.”

TC: How has your process changed since your early stages of literary criticism? Is literary criticism a living entity that transforms and expands as society changes? If so, how have you witnessed this throughout your career?

JHM: Yes, I have gone through various stages in my methodology of criticism, but not directly because “society changes,” though that may be part of it. More, though, because I have been teaching and writing about different texts and have needed different strategies of interpretation. Though I find reading criticism and theory of great interest, my main focus has remained accounting in teaching and writing for what I still find the intrinsic “strangeness” of literary texts. I need only as much “theory” as will help in that accounting. Since I have written recently about the changes over my career in my ways of accounting for literature, I shall dare to insert here part of that essay, in case any of you want to read it.

[At this point in the interview, Miller includes nearly four pages of an essay titled, “What Humanist’s Ought to Do,” in which he references Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears,” a song from Tennyson’s long narrative poem, The Princess. Miller pasted the song in the interview, explaining,”I have, by the way, downloaded Tennyson’s song from Wikipedia, to save the bother of typing it out and to hint at the way the Internet has transformed literary study.” “What Humanist’s Ought to Do,” is forthcoming in the “What Humanist’s Do” issue of Daedalus 142:3, Summer 2013.]

TC: In academia, what or who determines whether a text receives critical attention, and why is it that there is an emphasis on older texts as opposed to contemporary literature of the past two decades?

JHM: To some degree it is just accidental what works receive critical attention. Someone with some degree of authority and expertise reads a book and then decides to write about it or to teach it, and that interest then spreads. Nevertheless, cultural factors and the nature and quality of the text are important. If Coetzee’s novels were not really good and really interesting, they would not be read and taught world-wide, but their appeal is surely in part their themes (South Africa under Apartheid, for example, in Disgrace, or even a re-writing of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in Foe). As an American, I find the assertion, “There is an emphasis on older texts as opposed to contemporary literature of the past two decades,” just a little puzzling. In the United States, literature departments’ offer many courses in recent literature, while fewer and fewer courses are on older texts. Of course departments differ, and many Departments of English in the United States still offer a more traditional (and now problematic) curriculum, going from Beowulf through Chaucer and then Shakespeare and Milton up to Wordsworth, Keats, the Victorian novelists, followed by Conrad, Yeats and Woolf. That was what I was taught at Oberlin and Harvard in the 1940s. I suppose the argument for that is the somewhat problematic idea that English literature follows a historical development, and that it is good for students (even American students) to know that development. It may also be assumed (again problematically) that students will be reading contemporary literature of the past two decades on their own anyway and don’t need any critical help in doing that. In the United States it is assumed that everyone ought to read Shakespeare in school (he’s a universal writer in world literature). I’m not absolutely sure that is the case for all students of literature in English all over the world. It was only a few years ago that I realized there is something wrong about basing, in the United States, training in the American national ethos on British literature, that is, on the literature of a foreign country that we defeated in the late 18th century in a war of independence. We were still in the 20th century acting like a colony, in that regard at least. Little American literature was read or taught in English Departments. I think the recent development toward studying global literature in English is a good thing.

TC: Do you have any personal rituals or exercises that you do in conjunction with reading a text critically or writing a critical response? Do you have any contemplative exercises you feel inform your work?

JHM: Interesting question. No, I don’t do contemplation, though I do daily exercises that are a version of yoga. I have never thought of those exercises, however, as preparation for reading or writing about literature, just as good in themselves. Perhaps I should make some connection. All three of my children do some form of exercise plus contemplation of one sort or another.

TC: Was there a specific piece of literature that spurred your interest in critical theory?

JHM: I have mentioned “Tears, Idle Tears,” but later on, when I was first beginning teaching at Johns Hopkins University, I became fascinated by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Trying to understand his poetry, teach it,and write about it led me back to critics I had read, somewhat surreptitiously, in graduate school: Kenneth Burke, William Empson, I. A. Richards, etc. I went on later, over the years, to Georges Poulet, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and other “continental” critics. My PhD dissertation was on Dickens and used Kenneth Burke’s ideas of “poetry as symbolic action,” as an approach to Dickens’ novels, rather to the dismay of my dissertation advisor, Douglas Bush, who did not like Burke, to put it mildly.

TC: If there is no singular “answer” inherent within a text, why do we do criticism? Why is it important?

JHM: I would not say there is “no singular ‘answer’ inherent within a text.” It depends on the text. Some may have a “singular” answer, but many texts have a single but complicated answer, as I have often tried to show with this text or that. Criticism of such works is important because the critic’s job is to report in teaching or writing what she or he finds in a given text. If what the critic finds is complex or even contradictory, then this should be reported. I stressed above that I find literature a “strange” use of language. This is to a considerable degree because of the use of tropes, figures of speech, like Tennyson’s personifying of the autumn fields, in an oxymoron, as “happy.”


J. Hillis Miller is UCI Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Irvine. He has published many books and essays on 19th and 20th-century literature and on literary theory. His recent books include For Derrida, The Medium is the Maker: Browning, Freud, Derrida, and the New Telepathic Ecotechnologies and The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz. A book co-authored with Claire Colebrook and Tom Cohen, Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man On Benjamin, was published in 2011, and his Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch appeared in 2012. Miller is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Society. He received the Modern Language Association Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award in 2005 and was President of the MLA in 1986.

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