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Hillis Miller - On Literature


Unas notas tomadas del libro de J. Hillis Miller On Literature (Londres: Routledge 2002):

1. What Is Literature? 2. Literature as Virtual Reality. 3. The Secret of Literature. 4. Why Read Literature? 5. How to Read Literature. 6. How to Read Comparatively, or Playing the Mug's Game.

1. What Is Literature?
Farewell literature? 
"The end of literature is at hand. Literature's time is almost up. It is about time. It is about, that is, the different epochs of different media. Literature, in spite of its approaching end, is nevertheless perennial and universal. It will survive all historical and technological changes. Literature is a feature of any human culture at any time and place. These two contradictory premises must govern all serious reflection on literature" (1)

The definition of literature as artistic writing is recent, mid 18th-c. "Literature is associated with the gradual rise of almost universal literacy in the West." (2)

"Various forms of censorship, in even the freest democracies today, limit the power of the printing press. Nevertheless, no technology has ever been more effective than the printing press in breaking down the class hierarchies of power. The printing press made democratic revolutions like the French Revolution or the American Revolution possible. The Internet is performing a similar function today" (3).

Separate languages, separate departments of literature at universities: "Tremendous resistance exists today to the reconfiguration of those departments that will be necessary if they are not simply to disappear." (4)

Educational function? "Arnold, with some help from the Germans, presided over the transfer from philosophy to literature of the responsibility for Bildung" (4).

"Perhaps the most important feature making literature possible in modern democracies has been freedom of speech." (5) (Includes freedom of the press).

Disclaimer of fictionality in books and films: "This (often false) claim is not only a safeguard against lawsuits. It also coidfies the freedom from referential responsibility that is an essential  feature of literature in the modern sense." (6)

"Literature in our conventional sense has also depended on a new sense of the author and of authorship. This was legalized in modern copyright law. All the salient forms and techniques of literature have, moreover, exploited the new sense of selfhood." (7).

"Printed literature used to be a primary way in which citizens of a given nation state were inculcated with the ideals, ideologies, ways of behavior and judgment that made them good citizens. Now that role is increasingly played, all over the world, for better or for worse, by radio, cinema, television, VCRs, DVDs and the Internet. This is one explanation for the difficulties literature departments have these days in getting funding. Society no longer needs the university as the primary place where the national ethos is inculcated in citizens." (9)

"One of the strongest symptoms of the imminent death of literature is the way younger faculty members, in departments of literature all over the world, are turning in droves from literary study to theory, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, media studies (film, television, etc.), popular culture studies, Women's studies, African-American studies, and so on. They often write and teach in ways that are closer to the social sciences than to the humanities as traditionally conceived. Their writing and teaching often marginalizes or ignores literature. This is so even though many of them are trained in old-fashioned literary history and the close reading of canonical texts" (10)

—(precisely, I would say... one needs to get over one's training and find one's own way of approaching a field of study).

"Departments of classics and modern languages other than English, in United States universities, will go first. Indeed, they are in many universities already going, initially through amalgamation" (11).

But English departments will follow suit if they stick to the canonical approach.

What is literature? What gets taught as literature?  Although "It suggests that literature is whatever is designated as literature. There is some truth to that." (13).

Reading stories as a child: "I resented being told that the name on the title page was that of the 'author' who had made it all up" (15) —"It is not too much to say that this whole book has been written to account for that experience" (15).

"Literature exploits this extraordinary power of words to go on signifying in the total absence of any phenomenal referent" (16). (FICTION, rather? Or literature insofar as it is read as fiction).

(In that sense it fulfils or carries to an extreme one of the most salient abilities of language—the disconnexion from presence, its ability to conjure up "offline" thought or virtual reality).

Modernist or postmodernist works "force the reader to pay attention to the linguistic surface, rather than going through it to some virtual reality to which it gives access" (17). But...

"Moreover, even the most opaque or idiosyncratic literary construction tends to generate the fictive illusion of a a speaking voice" (18). (For instance, Beckett's The Unnamable).

"No way exists from the opening sentence of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove to tell whether or not Kate Croy was a real person: 'She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in...'" (19) —(No: "The Wings of the Dove" is actually the first sentence of "The Wings of the Dove").

"Literature derails or suspends or redirects the normal referentiality of language. Language in literature is derouted so that it refers only to an imaginary world" (20). (NOOO. In FICTION, not in "literature").

On readers seeing or experiencing through literature: "We then act in the real world on the basis of that seeing. Such action is a performative rather than a constative or referential effect of language. Literature is a use of worlds that makes things happen by way of its readers." (20)

Sentences in literature are both constative and performative. They conjure up a world before the reader's mind's eye.

2. Literature as virtual reality
"It seems as though literature not only satisfies a desire for entry into virtual realitites but that those virtual realities tend to enact, however covertly, an approach toward the hyperbolic violences of death, sexuality, and the subversion hidden in the irrationalities of language. At the same time, literature in one way or another protects us from those violences" (28)

(Polibio, en un pasaje de sus Historias, recomienda el estudio de la historia como una manera de adquirir experiencia sin sufrir los daños que la experiencia acarrrea).

Openings of literary works: "One of the main pleasures of reading literary works is the power they give to put aside our real cares and enter another place" (32)

"Literary study hides the peculiarity of literary language by accounting for it, naturalizing it, neutralizing it, turning it into the familiar. This usually means seeing it as in one way or another a representation of the world" (33). "We fear the way each work is incomparable" (33).  "It cannot be denied that literary theory contributes to the death of literature the first sentence of this book announces." (35). Literature is today perceived as problematic, othewise this book might not have been requested by the editors.

"This takes place by an implacable law that says you can see clearly something that is deeply embedded in your culture only when it is in the act of receding into the historical distance" (36).

Literatura is performative utterance (37) although many sentences may look like constatives.
"We can only know of that world what the words tell us. No other place exists where we might go to get further information." (39). "Gaps and omissions in real world testimony can nevertheless often be filled in. Literature, on the contrary, keeps its secrets" (39). (Often... meaning, often not!).

Literature uses figurative languages. Similarities between things is asserted by figures of speech, "This similarity is often generated by words, rather than being a feature of things in themselves" (41).

But calling literature "self-reflexive" is like calling it powerless. Literature refers to things that may have a latent existence, only manifested when it is turned into words.

3. The secret of literature.
Literature as secular dream vision. Dostoevsky's 'Completely new world' seen in a vision: the insubstantiality of the real world, and the alternative worlds of literature. Anthony Trollope's dangerous habit: daydreaming—he turned it into a productive literary career. Other images of creation as discovery of something waiting within things themselves: Henry James's untrodden field of snow, Walter Benjamin's notion of 'pure language' in 'The Task of the Translator', a 'greater language' exceeding both original and translation. Literature as a lie in Proust: a lie which is our only way into discovery and awakening to reality—the only real voyage of discovery would be to see the world through another's eyes.

Maurice Blanchot's sirens' song, intimating something beyond the song itself, the origin of the song. This has some relevance to a theory of retrospection: "The point of origin, in a paradoxical combination of creation and discovery that I have named already, is both brought into being by the words of the récit and, at the same time, it is discovered, uncovered, revealed as something that was always already there". (75).

Derrida and literature as "the wholly other": like HM, he conceives "that a literary work responds to or records a pre-existing perdurable alternative world" (77) —"Those literary objects would exist even if Proust or Dickens had not written down the works in the first place" (79) —"The author of a literary work writes that work in response to an implacable obligation imposed on him or her to turn 'the matter of the tale', in Henry James's phrase, into that other strange non-material materiality: words" (79). (This idea of the pre-existent object guiding is an idealist notion in Hillis Miller and other deconstructivists; see my critique in "Understanding Misreading").

4. Why Read Literature?
Virtual realities are good for you.
Pater on Plato: the new as a palimpsest which contains the classics, "the seemingly new is old also, a palimpsest, a tapestry of which the actual threads have served before" (Pater, HM 83).
"I would hesitate to speak of the Bible as literature. The authority it has been granted as the word of God has far greater force than the authority accorded to accorded to secular literature in our culture, great as the latter has been" (83).
Plato vs. poetry, etc.

"A culture is to be defined as a social group all accepting similar assumptions about value, behavior, and judgment. (This way of putting it probably underestimates the importance of dissent and confrontation within modern cultures). A strong reason for reading literature, it might be argued, is that it is still one of the quickest ways, for better or for worse, to become acculturated, to get inside one's own culture and to belong to it. Children's literature during the print age had that as one of its main functions. That function is now more and more performed, even for small children, by television, cinema, and popular music. Reading literature is also one of the quickest ways to get inside a culture other than one's own, assuming that is possible at all and assuming you happen to want to do it" (90).

"Poetry leads people astray because it encourages the knack human being human bings have to pretend to be something or someone other than they are. Poetry makes all people actors or actresses, and everybody knows what immoral persons actors and actresses are" (91).
"Kant dislikes literature for the very reason I like it, that is, as the invitation to dwell with sympathy in a fictitious world" (94). Moralists tell us to soberly engage in the real world: "I can, to tell the truth, still remember my mother's voice when she exhorted me to stop reading and go outside to play" (96). (Apparently play is more of a real activity, less virtual than reading).
Aristotle's defense of poetry
: he

"makes a claim to a rational mastery of the irrational that is like Oedipus's. In so doing he repeats the pattern of his paradigmatic tragedy, Oedipus the King, with its roots in Dionysiac rituals. Aristotle recognized, more or less in spite of himself, that tragedy is drawn toward that Dionysiac center it ould expel. Aristotle's admission that the pity and fear generated by a tragedy is pleasurable and that such pleasure is a good is not far from Nietzsche's praise of Dionysiac irrational excess as essential not just to tragedy but to art in general" (99-100).

Literature as disguised autobiography (we hold authors resposible for what they imagine). The author as confidence man: "By various 'insiduous proceedings' of word manipulation the author must put together a text that will induce the reader to take on trust a fiction that has no provable correspondence to reality" (110). (HM comments on Henry James, but the reasoning is similar to the argument of Freud's "Creative writers and daydreaming").
Literature as speech act,
basically "a performative use of language artfully begetting in the reader a disposition to take on trust" (111), but "the performative and cognitive functions of language are incompatible" (111) according to the deconstructivists. (I don't follow HM here—the cognitive function is performed by a multiplicity of readers too). "If each work is, as I claim, singular, its performative effect will be singular, not fully authorized by prior convention. It will be a form of speech act not condonedd in standard speech act theory. The performative effect of the work is, moreover, dissociated from authorial intent or knowledge." (112)

(But HM seems to presuppose a unique performative effect, whereas works have a variety of effects on a variety of readers. See more on HM's theory of speech acts and literature here: J. Hillis Miller, Speech Acts in Literature).

Austin on performatives, ambiguous on whether a subjective commitment is necessary or whether the mere words constitute a bond:

"That Austin a few pages later welshes on this commitment and makes sincerity a condition of a felicitous performative is a major crux or contradiction in his speech act theory. He has to have it both ways, but of course he cannot logically have it both ways. What is relevant to my argument here is Austin's first claim, that the words must be seen to work on their own, whatever their utterer intends" (112).

"The work worked", (because of its genre, conventions, etc.) whatever the author happened to think he was doing. "The literary work is self-authorizing" (But look here, a contradiction similar to Austin's:) "Something will happen when a work is read, but just what will happen cannot be fully foreseen, foreknown, or controlled" (113)—subject to the unpredictability of reading.

A passage relevant to a theory of reading, interpretation and retrospection:

"Whether or not the virtual reality we enter when we read a novel by Trollope or by James, or a poem by Yeats, pre-existed and is revealed by the author in an act of response to it or whether it is factitiously created by the words the author has chosen or happened to write, cannot be decided. No evidence exists to adjudicate certainty between these two alternatives. The authority of literature remains poised between these two possibilities. It is impossible to decide between them, though nothing could be more important, both for a definition of literature and for an explanation of why to read literary works, than to know decisively, once and for all." (113-14).

5. How to Read Literature

Teaching how to read is a mug's game. Readers' communities... Reading as Schwärmerei (enthusiasm). Reading transforms the reader. HM pro a childlike abandonment to the act of reading (
!!). Good reading is slow reading.
(enthusiastic vs. critical reading:)
"The difference between the two ways of reading might be compared to the difference between being taken in by the dazzling show of the wizard in The Wizard of Oz and, on the contrary, seeing the shabby showman behind the façade, pulling levers and operating the machinery, creating a factitious illusion.
    This demystification has taken two forms throughout our tangled tradition. These two forms are still dominant today. One is what might be called 'rhetorical reading'. Such reading means a close attention to the linguistic devices by which the magic is wrought (...).
    The other form of critical reading is interrogation of the way a literary work inculcates beliefs about class, race, or gender relations." (123, —ideological analysis, cultural studies).

"Cultural criticism continues and makes more obvious a critical penchant of literature itself within Western print culture. Nevertheless, both these forms of critique—rhetorical reading and cultural criticism—have as one of their effects depriving literary works, for given readers, of the sovereign power they have when they arre read allegro." (123).

The aporia of reading. "It seems like a nasty and destructive thing to do. This book you are now reading, alas, is an exemplification of this destructiveness. Even in its celebration of literature's magic, it suspends that magic by bringing it into the open" (124). Critical reading contributes to the death of literature. "We no longer so much want, or are willing, to be bamboozled by literature" (126).

(HM's allegro reading and lento or critical reading could be compared to friendly / unfriendly criticism, as expounded here: Acritical Criticism, Critical Criticism: Reframing, Topsight, and Critical Dialectics).

6. How to Read Comparatively, or Playing the Mug's Game

as a postmodern reading of Robinsonade stories. Analysis of the Swiss Family Robinson as a critique of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Original ending leaves the family still existing somewhere on an island, a satisfactory ending. The Alice books a deconstruction of The Swiss Family Robinson....  etc. etc. Concluding praise for innocent reading, or It's a neat trick if you can do it.

"I confess that I have a forlorn nostalgia, as for something irrevocably lost, for the innocent credulity I had when I read The Swiss Family Robinson for the first time. Unless one has performed that innocent first reading, nothing much exists to resist and criticize. (...) No doubt these resistances to literature have motives quite different from Satan's envy of Adam and Eve's innocent happiness. And yet, are they so different, after all?" (159)

(An ambiguous ending to a career as a critical reader... Hillis Miller recognizes the "devil's side" in criticism. The Hermeneutics of Trust in the author or the book is thus allied with Edenic innocence, and Critical Criticism is a Satanic endeavour—tasting the Original Apple once again, or recognizing our fallen nature as we leave childhood with those clouds of glory and hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.... in the distance).

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