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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hillis Miller, the Long View

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/22/08 at 04:04 PM

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 to that, 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 I’m concerned about. 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.”


Bill, let me commend to you the volume from which I first learned about interpellation, Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (I took to reading Delany because in 1988 or so Dick Macksey told me that Delany was “currently the smartest man in American Letters” --talk about evaluative criticism!).

By on 10/28/08 at 02:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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