J. Hillis Miller
Early life and education
Hillis Miller was born in Newport News, Virginia. He is the son of J. Hillis Miller, Sr., a Baptist minister, university professor and administrator who served as the president of the University of Florida. Miller graduated from Oberlin College (B.A. summa cum laude, 1948) and Harvard University (M.A. 1949, Ph.D. 1952). Miller is married and has three children.
J. Hillis Miller has been an important humanities and literature scholar specializing in Victorian and Modernist literature, with a keen interest in the ethics of reading and reading as a cultural act. From 1952 to 1972, Miller taught at Johns Hopkins University. During this time, Miller was heavily influenced by fellow Johns Hopkins professor and Belgian literary critic Georges Poulet and the Geneva School of literary criticism, which Miller characterized as "the consciousness of the consciousness of another, the transposition of the mental universe of an author into the interior space of the critic's mind."
In 1972, he joined the faculty at Yale University where he taught for fourteen years. At Yale, he worked alongside prominent literary critics Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, and Geoffrey Hartman, where they were collectively known as the Yale School of deconstruction. As a prominent American deconstructionist, Miller defines the movement as searching for "the thread in the text in question which will unravel it all," and cites that there are multiple layers to any text, both its clear surface and its deep countervailing subtext:
On the one hand, the "obvious and univocal reading" always contains the "deconstructive reading" as a parasite encrypted within itself as part of itself. ON the other hand, the "deconstructive" reading can by no means free itself from the metaphysical reading it means to contest.
In 1986, Miller left Yale to work at the University of California Irvine, where he was later followed by his Yale colleague Jacques Derrida. During the same year he served as President of Modern Language Association, and was honored by the MLA with a lifetime achievement award in 2005. Both at Yale and UC Irvine, Miller mentored an entire generation of American literary critics including noted queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
The Critic as Host
Miller's "The Critic as Host" could be viewed as a reply to M.H. Abrams, who presented a paper, "The Deconstructive Angel," at a session of the Modern Language Association in December 1976, criticizing deconstruction and the methods of Miller. Miller presented his paper just after Abrams's presentation at the same session.
In his essay "The Deconstructive Angel," Abrams argued that there is a fixed univocal meaning for a text and if we use deconstructive strategies History will become impossibility. Miller replied that univocal and determinate meaning is impossibility and history is also impossibility. Every text is a vocalization of a vocalization.
Miller asks a vital question at the beginning of his essay: when a text contains a citation from another text, is it like a parasite in the main text or is it the main text that surrounds and strangles the citation? Many people tend to see the deconstructionist reading as a parasite on its host, the univocal reading. Miller argues that deconstructionist reading is an essential and thoroughly naturalized ingredient in every reading, such that we cannot identify its presence.
The word 'parasite' evokes the image of an ivy tree, the deconstructive reading that feeds on a mighty masculine oak, the univocal reading, and finally destroys the host. Miller rejects this view and calls this image inappropriate. Deconstructive reading is an essential and naturalized ingredient of every reading that we cannot identify its presence. He undertakes a brilliant etymological investigation of the word 'parasite' to prove his critics wrong.
The word 'parasite' contains within itself its opposite. The prefix 'para' in the word parasite has many contradictory meanings. It simultaneously signifies proximity and distance. The word 'parasite' originated etymologically from the Greek 'parasitos'. The root means 'beside the grain'. 'Para' means beside and 'sitos' means grain or food. Originally 'parasite' was something positive. It simply meant someone who shares food with you, a fellow guest.
The word 'host' has a more complex derivation. It meant a guest and a stranger, a friend with whom you have a reciprocal duty of hospitality, and a stranger and an enemy, and of course the holy Host. Miller shows that each word has a reciprocal, antithetical meaning built in, that these words are all intertwined in their etymology.
The antithetical nature of the words 'host' and 'guest' shows the great complexity and equivocal richness of the apparently obvious and univocal language. The complexity and equivocal richness resides in the fact that language is basically figurative and metaphorical and hence it cannot represent reality directly and immediately. Deconstruction is an investigation of what is implied by this inherence of figure, concept and narrative in one another. Deconstruction is, therefore, a rhetorical discipline.
There is a common view that a poem has a true original univocal reading and the secondary or the deconstructive reading is always parasitical on the first one. Miller, however, claims that there is no difference between both these readings. In his conception there is the poem and its various readings, all of which are equally valid or non-valid. The poem is the food and the two readings, both univocal and equivocal, are fellow guests near the food. Thus we get a triangular relation between the poem and its two readings, or the relation could be like a chain without a beginning or an end.
Miller argues that an obvious univocal reading in the conventional sense is a myth. There is only deconstructive reading and it generates new meanings. The poem invites endless sequence of commentaries, which never arrives at a ‘correct’ or final reading and meaning. Harold Bloom has formed a concept of the anxiety of influence to clarify the indebtedness of poets of a generation to the older generations. No poem can stand on its own, but always in relation to another.
- (1958) Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels
- (1963) The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers
- (1965) Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers
- (1968) The Form of Victorian Fiction: Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Meredith, and Hardy
- (1970) Thomas Hardy, Distance and Desire
- (1971) Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank
- (1982) Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels
- (1985) The Linguistic Moment: from Wordsworth to Stevens
- (1985) The Lesson of Paul de Man
- (1987) The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James, and Benjamin
- (1990) Versions of Pygmalion
- (1990) Victorian Subjects
- (1990) Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on Twentieth Century Literature
- (1991) Theory Now and Then
- (1991) Hawthorne & History: Defacing It
- (1992) Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines
- (1992) Illustration
- (1995) Topographies
- (1998) Reading Narrative
- (1999) Black Holes
- (2001) Others
- (2001) Speech Acts in Literature
- (2002) On Literature
- (2005) The J. Hillis Miller Reader
- (2005) Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James
- (2009) The Medium is the Maker: Browning, Freud, Derrida, and the New Telepathic Ecotechnologies
- (2009) For Derrida
- (2011) The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz
- (2012) Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch Revisited
- Robert Magliola. Appendix ii, in Derrida on the Mend. W. Lafayette: Purdue Univ. Press, 1983; 1984; rpt. 2000. Magliola, pp. 176–187, demonstrates deconstructive literary criticism as it was practiced in the U.S.A. circa 1970s-1980s, but also argues that J. Hillis Miller seems not to exploit the full implications of Derridean deconstruction (see in particular pp. 176–77 and 186-87).
- J. Hillis Miller, Jr., On Literature (Routledge, 2002), p.142.
- Vincent B. Leitch, ed., (2001). The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism. "Georges Poulet." New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 1318–1319.
- Vincent B. Leitch (Ed.). (2001). The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism. "Cleanth Brooks" 1352.
- Synopsis of Miller's "The Critic as Host"
- Deconstruction, by Mitchell Stephens - CJR, Sept/Oct 91
- Today@UCI: Press Releases:
- About J. Hillis Miller
- UCI E&CL Faculty Profile
- Guide to the J. Hillis Miller Papers. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
- Guide to the Barbara Cohen Manuscript Materials. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
- Miller's webpage at the University of California at Irvine
- Recording of interview with Miller at the UCD Humanities Institute
- Interview with Miller about his recent book The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz on "New Books in Critical Theory"