Saturday, 2 June 2012
J. Hillis Miller at Lancaster
According to which version he tells, it was either reading Lewis Carroll at the age of five or being baffled by Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ poem in his undergraduate years that set Miller off on the literary-critical route he has pursued since. In narrowly disciplinary terms, he remains a Victorianist, but he has not ever written on William Morris in depth, though he told me he does own a Morris Collected Works. So it is curious that ‘First Sail’ opens with what one might regard as a Morrisian allusion. For no sooner does News from Nowhere get under way than William Guest is being rowed out into the Thames for a swim; and no sooner does the Hillis Miller film open than our hero is being rowed out into the waters off his Maine home, though to board his yacht rather than swim. Yachting, it appears, being Miller’s own personal utopian space.
So intense was Miller’s concern with the new ‘tele-technological’ media that I found myself wondering if he wasn’t veering towards technological determinism. For surely it is the neo-liberalism of the last thirty years which has been the epochal political, economic and ideological project in which such new media have had their effects (though they are certainly not just reducible to that project). And when he speculated that a literary-theoretical training in tropes and semantic self-undoing might carry over into informed suspicion of advertising and contemporary political discourse I felt I could detect the lineaments of that old Leavisite social position: minority culture versus mass civilisation.
But you can’t generate a politics out of literary theory itself any more than Scrutiny could conjure one up out of criticism, so let us hope that J. Hillis Miller, at the ripe old age of 84, might now really start working on Morris, one of the forlornly few Victorian figures who does show how literary culture can cross ‘a river of fire’ to engage a wider transformative politics.