Ariadne’s Thread: Story Lines
The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy
Thinking Across the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect, and the New Pragmatism
In Hawthorne & History (1991) J. Hillis Miller comments on literary theory and its status in the academy:
I mean by “literary theory” the shift from the hermeneutical process of identifying the meaning of a work of literature to a focus on the question of how that meaning is generated. When there is a general consensus about literary theory, if there ever was such a time (for example in that mythical time at the beginning of the present epoch of literary studies when the “new criticism” was more or less universally accepted in the United States). theory tends to be effaced latent, presupposed. One just goes to work doing or teaching “close reading.” When a multitude of conflicting critical theories call for attention, and when in addition there is confusion over the canons and the curricula of literature, as at the present time, then literary theory, rather than being something that can more or less be taken for granted, becomes overt, exigent, even, some would say, strident. Theory tends to become a primary means of access to the works read.
I agree with those sentences, except the last one, which I would change to read: “Theory tends to become the primary means of postponing, perhaps forever, the labor of reading works of literature; or of ensuring that the reading of a particular work of literature will merely fulfill the theory that precedes it.” Meanwhile concentration on the question of “how that meaning is generated” keeps theorists busy; especially proponents of Marxism, Feminism. Minority Discourse, Cultural Studies, Deconstruction, New Historicism, and other schools of indictment.
I’ll risk distorting the story line of Miller’s career in criticism up to this point by giving a summary account of it. He started his work about thirty-five years ago as a “critic of consciousness.” Much influenced by the “Geneva School” of Georges Poulet, Marcel Raymond, Albert Béguin, Jean Rousset, Jean-Pierre Richard, and Jean Starobinski, he thought that reading a work of literature entailed what he recently called “the happy merger of two minds by way of words that provide transparent cognitive and affective access to the mind of another.” Reading Dickens’s novels, for instance, under that blithe illusion is like entering his house as a guest, moving freely from room to room, getting to know the place from within and to be on familiar terms with the household. The guest is then supposedly in a position to give an intimate account of Dickens’s house of fiction, to articulate its forms and ceremonies not as things seen from the street but as values felt and shared. The discrepancy between Dickens and his guest is reduced. The guest’s imagination differs from Dickens’s, it is assumed, only in degree.
Put like that, the criticism of consciousness seems to be a rush of hubris to the head. Tact requires a critic to assume that the mind of a great writer is transparent only up to a point and opaque thereafter. Guests are welcome …