November 6, 2007

Resistance to Theory, Middlemarch Style

Dorothea: "And then I should know what to do, when I get older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here--now--in England. I don't feel sure about doing good in any way now: everything seems like going on a mission to a people whose language I don't know."

J. Hillis Miller: "The discontinuity of a repetition blasts a detached monad, crystallized into immobility, out of the homogeneous course of history, in order to take possession of of it in a present which is no present. It is the cessation of happening in a metaleptic assumption of the past, preserving and annulling it at the same time. This repetition disarticulates the backbone of logic and frees both history and fiction, for the moment, before the spider-web is re-woven, from the illusory continuities of origin leading to aim leading to end."

Dorothea: "What could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain?"

J. Hillis Miller: "The set of assumptions common to both Western ideas of history and Western ideas of fiction are not--it is a point of importance--a collection of diverse attributes, the distinctive features which happen to be there. They are on the contrary a true system, in the sense that each implies all the others."

Dorothea (putting out her hand entreatingly): "Please not to call it by any name. You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life."

J. Hillis Miller: "Nevertheless, for those who have eyes to see it, Middlemarch is an example of a work of fiction which not only exposes the metaphysical system of history but also proposes an alternative consonant with those of Nietzsche and Benjamin."

Narrator: "There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men."

J. Hillis Miller: "!"
Seriously, though, although Hillis Miller's essay* (which I acknowledge is very smart, taken on its own terms) is more than 30 years old now, I think it illustrates a tendency that continues in some professional criticism to set aside the overt and often pressing social, ethical, political, or aesthetic interests of the text itself in favour of fairly esoteric theoretical and metacritical questions, or questions that seek out a text's 'unconscious' effects or meanings. Without insisting that these questions are unworthy ones for inquiry and scholarship, I would suggest that in some respects they serve the majority of readers (and texts) less well than critical approaches that engage us with what the text actually takes itself to be about (in Denis Donoghue's terms, we don't allow the text to have its theme--though in this case, Middlemarch works well for Hillis Miller's purposes because it is "always already" self-conscious about and thematizing his themes of history, narrative, and (mis)interpretation).** For one thing, the results are likely to preserve the differences between texts more than approaches like Hillis Miller's (any novel that becomes grist for his argument here would end up sounding pretty much the same, deconstructing the oppositions, undoing metaphysics, etc.). In his essay "What We Talk About When We Talk About Ethics," in this collection, Lawrence Buell notes the "longstanding reluctance on the part of many if not most literary scholars to allow the central disciplinary referent or value to be located in anything but language." I think there's some truth in that generalization, and that this reluctance leads us into conversations of the sort I've pasted together above, a "missing of each others' mental tracks," as George Eliot says about Rosamond and Lydgate's marriage, because we talk past, or about, rather than with, our primary sources.

But mostly I just wanted to have a little fun...

*"Narrative and History," ELH 41:3 (Autumn 1974), 455-73.

**I realize that it remains an open and controversial question whether or how professional / academic critics should have the interests of non-specialist readers in mind. Over at Crooked Timber recently there was a long thread in the comments about professional philosophers which seemed to touch on some of the same issues that come up when literary critics think about this. In both cases, of course it's not an either/or question--specialist and non-specialist discourses can and do coexist.


Anonymous said...

What Middlemarch actually takes itself to be about is the electoral reform bill of 1832, English provincial life in the early nineteenth century, an attempt to create a key to all world mythology, the inequities of women's place in the property system, and lots more nineteenth-century social concerns. Unless you're living in the nineteenth century (and maybe you are), those actual concerns are no more relevant to you and your classroom than trees and rocks. Only when you translate them into a critical idiom of your own does it have any relevance. Miller's critical approach is not more detached from the text than any of your classroom approaches. You just have a fantasy that you're commmuning with the text, talking with your primary sources, in a special privileged way.

You're doing something that you seem to do a lot: taking critical practices with which you have no patience (and of which I suspect you have little comprehension), wrenching portions of them out of context and using them to make hazy generalizations that are just unfair. You are engaging in a critical practice that makes a mockery of any notion of ethical criticism. Any ethical criticism at the very least does its object the justice of a full consideration. Shame on you for waving the stick of ethics at others when your own behavior is so thoroughly unethical. Just having a little fun. Hrumph! Pay more attention to your ethics if you consider them important, St. Theresa.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Toast? Is that you? How’s the weather in Vancouver? (If it’s not ‘Toast’, apologies to ‘Toast’; who knew I had a reader who thought just as badly of me and was equally ready to say so to my face, if only from the safety of anonymity?)

Initially I thought I’d simply reject your comment, which does not seem to meet the standard set by my “Comments Policy.” I consider your more personal remarks out of line, offensive, and unfair. I’m under no obligation to air them on my own blog. On the other hand, I think it feeds your evident feelings of moral (and critical, and, for that matter, intellectual) superiority to leave your comments unanswered. Plus, readers of this exchange are free to compare your assessment of my character and critical practice with the examples of both available on this blog and in my book and published articles. All they can know of you is what you’ve posted here anonymously. How do you think you come across?

Obviously my cobbled-together “dialogue” is not a full engagement with Miller’s article. If I had claimed it was and that I had debunked or discredited him in some definitive way, I’d be vulnerable to your complaints of unethical criticism. But I was being flippant; I think that’s clear from the kinds of arch juxtapositions I set up. In my follow-up remarks, I do turn more “seriously” to the question of how different kinds of criticism relate to or illuminate primary texts. I’ve said in a number of different posts that I don’t imagine there is some transparent way to read literature that involves no ‘critical idiom’; I don’t claim any kind of privileged access to the texts’ meaning; I don’t see myself ‘communing’ with the text. Nothing I’ve said here (or elsewhere in my critical writing) promotes any such “fantasies.” I am thinking about some kinds of criticism in comparison to other kinds. They’re all criticism. I get that. This inquiry is itself meta-critical. I know that. Your comment removes all qualifications and nuances from my remarks: how "ethical" is that? Yes, my choice of things to be flippant about comes from my impatience with some forms of criticism. I’ve been studying, teaching, and publishing in this profession for more than 20 years. I’ve been patient, and I’ve reached conclusions about some things that apparently differ from yours. There are certainly forms or examples of criticism I don’t understand very well--though I’m pretty sure the Hillis Miller article is not among them--nor is the book I got peevish about in the post that (I think) first introduced us. One of the first things I said about Hillis Miller’s article was that I thought it was very smart. But reading it this time, I was particularly struck by a sense that its concerns, while clearly (as I also say in the post) working with themes and ideas that are very present in the novel, was very much ‘about’ a different kind of question than the one the novel poses about how to live a moral life. (Your summary of what Middlemarch is about is accurate but kind of reductively literal, isn’t it?) I’m interested in that difference, in the context of other questions I’ve been thinking about regarding the purpose and audience of criticism, so I tried to put the pieces together a bit.

Enough. Once before (in the exchanges about the "Mad as Hell" post) I took enormous pains responding to vehement objections from you (or someone who sounds a lot like you) and I don’t know if it was worth the effort then either. There are lots of other things you can read if you find my blog so objectionable. At the very least, if you send comments, how about refraining from ad hominem attacks?