J. Hillis Miller
UCI Distinguished Professor
University of California, Irvine
What I have to say has to do with the relation between theory, reading, research, and history. Those are my four key words. My presupposition is that the function of research in the humanities is not just to gather knowledge. Its goal is rather to facilitate readings in the broadest sense of the word, reading of literary texts, readings of the texts of popular culture, and readings of culture generally. The role of theory, I argue, is to facilitate reading. Theory is therefore praxis, not merely knowledge.
The present situation in the study of literature at least, and in the United States at least, is characterized by what I have elsewhere called the almost universal triumph of theory. This is true in spite of the continued active presence of what Paul de Man called the resistance to theory. I suggest that, paradoxically, the most effective form of the resistance to theory these days, in fact at any time, is a certain form of the triumph of theory, a certain form of institutionalizing it.
But, first, what do I mean by the triumph of theory. I mean what is evident on every side, not only the development of a large number of powerful repeating theoretical discourses, each with its somewhat barbarous code name, hermeneutic, phenomenological, Lecanian, feminist, reader response, Marxist, Foucauldian, structuralist, semiotic, deconstructionist, new historicist, cultural-critical, and so on, but also the accompanying immense proliferation of courses, curricula, books, handbooks, dissertations, essays, lectures, new journals, symposia, study groups, centers, and institutes all overtly concerned with theory or with what are called cultural studies. These taken together form what Ralph Cohen calls the hidden university, a university crossing departmental, disciplinary, and even institutional boundariespeople working together from many different universities on some single problem. Much of the frontier work, in literary studies at least, is taking place today in this hidden university. This is not the place to try to characterize each of the kinds of literary theory I have named. It takes Vincent Leitch a big book of over 400 pages to sketch out the main modes and their presuppositions. What needs to be stressed here is the large number of competing theories and their incoherence. They cannot be synthesized into some one grand all inclusive theory of literature.
The victory of theory has transformed the field of literary study from what it was when I entered it 40 years ago. In those happy days we mostly studied primary works, in the context of literary history, with some overt attention in our teaching to the basic presuppositions of the so-called new criticismthe primacy of metaphor, the universality of the principle of organic unity, and so on. Now it seems to be necessary to be acquainted with a large number of incompatible theories, each claiming exclusive allegiance. I sometimes feel sorry for my students who must read and be tested on all of these things for which I was not held accountable. What was pleasant and productive for me as a graduate student was that I could read theory on my own and make my own use of it. Reading Kenneth Burke or William Simpson was exciting, even slightly surreptitious because it was not something that was wholly approved of, not at least in the Harvard English Department of 19481952. Now it has been pretty thoroughly institutionalized.
Why the triumph of theory at this moment in our history? It is no doubt overdetermined. It has many incompatible causes, or, it might be better to say, concomitant factors, to try to avoid begging the question of priority by slipping in the word causes. Among those factors are those demographic changes that are making the United States more and more a multi-lingual country. This has been especially visible to me since my move from New England to California. The University of California in Irvine has now over one-third Asian-American students. So it makes less and less sense in such a university to base literary study exclusively on canonical works in English literature.
A second factor is the rise of the United States as a major world power, accompanied by a decline in the importance of England. This tends to reduce the cultural role for us of literature written in England, though that to say that is not to deny that Shakespeare is a very great writer. But there is an inevitable change in the way we read Shakespeare because of the political change in the relation of the United States to England. A third factor: the Womens Movement has had and is having enormous effects on American culture, along with the study of what is usually called minority literature. But minority does not seem the right word in a place like Irvine where so many of the students are not Caucasian. Finally, there are technological changes like the jet plane which can bring scholars and critics from all over the world together for a conference like this one. The effect on literary study of computers, tape recorders, and copying machines should not be underestimated. How often we read something now, not after its published, but in xerox form long before its published. Someone sends it to us in the general process of xerox dissemination. Essays are published or circulated in translation before they are even published in the original language. There has been a vast increase in the rapidity of translation in the humanities. These new devices have enormously speeded up the spread of new work from place to place within the United States from Europe and other continents to the United States and from the States out to the world. Since this work is transnational and often part of the work of the hidden university, it is frequently theoretical in orientation.
But one of the most important factors associated with the turn to theory is its function as a response to a need generated by a widespread loss of confidence in the unequivocal value of studying primarily works in the traditional male dominated canon of English literature, plus Homer, Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, and so on, in English translation. That is the way it still was when I started the study of literature in 1944. There was no anxiety about the losses that might be involved in reading Homer, say, in the then archaic Lang, Leaf and Meyers translation, with its cadences and diction from the King James Bible. Also put in doubt has been the traditional justification for the study of the canon, that is, that such study transmits from the old to the young the fundamental values of our culture, the Arnoldian best that has been known and thought in the world. It is not that defenses of the study of the traditional canon on these grounds are not currently being made, far from it, but they are likely being made in a way that makes their ideological motivation evident. Such defenses no longer go without saying. Our consciousnesses have been raised no doubt in large part by the works of theory themselves. We are more likely to feel now that no choice of books for a syllabus, for example, or no choice of ways to read those books, is politically innocent. Such choices are no longer so easily to be justified by appeal to a universal consensus or by appeal to universal standards valid for any time, place, institution, or particular classroom. I think one has to teach the undergraduates at Irvine in a somewhat different way from the way one teaches the undergraduates at Yalewhere I used to teach. The students in each university know different languages for one thing.
At the same time it is important to remember that recent empirical studies made by the Modern Language Association have shown that the traditional canon still overwhelmingly forms the backbone of the curricula of departments of English in most American colleges and universities. Study of canonical works has by no means been as much weakened as some critics of the teaching literature in our colleges and universities claim. Nevertheless, discussion of the justification of the canon is taking place. At the practical, curricular, and pedagogical level, however, the result is more a matter of new works and new approaches to canonical works being added to more traditionally organized courses than anything like a radical overturning of the received canon. A course of that sort that comes to my mind as an example is one taught this past year at Irvine by my colleague John Rowe. In one sense this was a perfectly traditional course in mid-19th century American literature. The students read Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Twain and so on. At the same time they read Harriet Beecher Stowe and other women writers of the time. Along with that was a reading of ancillary theoretical material. It is a radically different kind of course from any available to me at Oberlin or Harvard in the late 1940s or early 1950s. On the other hand it would not be accurate to describe it as a course that has abandoned the canon.
Moreover, in spite of all the attention being paid to the new forms of literary theory, it is still the case, as those studies made by the MLA have found, that an immense number, perhaps the majority, of courses in literature in the United States are still taught according to the methods and assumptions of the new criticism. One can rejoice at this or deplore it, but it seems to be the case.
The triumph of theory, then, is to a considerable degree to be defined as a response to the new social, demographic, and technological situation I have described and as an attempt to think ones way out of it. The teacher wants to be justified in what he or she does. The appeal to theory is one way of seeking that justification. To put this another way, one of the major functions of literary theory is as a critique of ideology, that is, of taking a linguistic reality for a material one. The ideology in question in this case includes the hidden (but ideology is by definition hidden) assumptions of our procedures of teaching literature and of the general institutionalizing of literary study.
The result of this new historical situation has been that more and more in the United States literary theory has become a subject of study for its own sake. The danger is that this may marginalize literary theory by making it simply another object of study like any other. The function of theory, as I began by affirming, is to facilitate readings. In that sense it is connected with research, since new readings are the fundamental products of research in literary study. Readings, in turn, have not simply a cognitive or epistemological function. They have a cultural, productive, or properly performative, function. Our real business as humanists is to make something happen in our culture.
Literary theory, that is to say, is of little or no use unless it is applied, used. Theory must be active, productive. What theory performs is, or ought to be, new readings, in the broadest sense of that word. But these readings in their turn are active, rather than being merely passive or cognitive. They make something happen. The readings in question would of course include new readings of the works of theory. The readings of the works of theory, like those of primary texts, should be readings in a strong sense of that word, that is, critical or rhetorical readings, as opposed to interpretations of the manifest thematic content of the texts read. Theory is of no use unless it is read in this sense. Only then will it facilitate new readings of other texts, readings that are radically inaugural in the sense that they implicitly or explicitly propose a new contract or relation with the university and with the society or the state that university serves. In however minimal a way, a new reading of Moby Dick or of Uncle Toms Cabin changes the culture that reading enters.
But what I mean by new readings must not be misunderstood. I do not mean new in the sense of determined by a new historical situation or political climate, nor do I mean new in the sense of determined by new theoretical presuppositions, nor do I mean new in the sense a certain vulgar form of reader response criticism or vulgar misunderstanding of poststructural criticism generally takes such criticism to presuppose that the reader is free to make the text mean anything he or she wants it to mean. My conviction is that any valid reading is authorized only by the text read, the words on the page. This means that though theory may facilitate genuine reading, there is always a dissymmetry between theory and reading. This might be formulated by saying that reading is more likely to be the disconfirmation or severe modification of theory than its triumphant validation. What happens when we read happens by a necessity that displays the sovereign power of the text read over the reader. That sovereignty lies in the way the text in question gives the reader access to meanings otherwise inaccessible. But these are likely to be almost inexhaustibly complex, even in the case of an apparently short, simple, and straightforward poem, for example Wordworths A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal. This means that each genuine act of reading is to some degree new, inaugural, even if we are reading something we have read, taught, or written about dozens of times before. The new reading uncovers hitherto unidentified aspects of the meanings to which the text in question gives the reader access. The function of literary study in the university, I have been arguing, is to make such new readings effective within our culture.