This collection of J. Hillis Miller’s essays centres on the question “why and to what end should we read, teach, and spend our time with literary and/or cultural studies?” At a time when electronic media seem to dominate the market completely, and jobs follow the money flows into electronic and technical fields, literary and cultural studies might appear as a decorative addenda but not really necessary for the process of growth and development, neither in business nor in the area of personal development. This question is not really new, it has many facets, requires differentiated answers which depend and mirror the political and cultural climate of a society.
J. Hillis Miller is UCI Distinguished Research Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of many books and articles on literature and literary theory. His recent titles include For Derrida, The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz and, with Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook, Theory and the Disappearing Future.
Cold Heaven, Cold Comfort: Should We Read or Teach Literature Now?
By “we” in my title I mean we students, teachers, and the ordinary citizens of our “global village,” if such a term still means anything. By “read” I mean careful attention to the text at hand, that is, “close reading.” By “literature” I mean printed novels, poems, and plays. By “now” I mean the hot summer of 2010, when I first drafted this essay. That summer was the culmination of the hottest six months on record, clear evidence for those who have bodies to feel of global warming. Now in 2013 the evidence for global warming is even less refutable, with more and more violent storms, droughts, tornadoes, floods, melting ice sheets, and so on. Even the cold winter of 2012-13 is said by scientists to be caused by the destruction, brought about by melting arctic ice, of the atmospheric shield that used to protect us from Arctic cold. I mean also the time of slowly receding global financial crisis and worldwide deep recession. I mean the time of desktop computers, the Internet, iPhones, iPads, DVDs, MP3s, Facebook, Twitter, Google, computer games by the thousand, television, and a global film industry. I mean the time when colleges and universities are, in the United States at least, losing funding and are shifting more and more to a corporate model. As one result of these changes, at least 70% of university teaching in the United States in all fields is now done by adjuncts, that is, by people who not only do not have tenure but who also have no possibility of getting it. They are not “tenure track.” By “now” I mean a time when calls on all sides, from President Obama on down in the government and by the media left and right, are being made for more and better teaching of math, science, and engineering, while hardly anyone calls for more and better teaching in the humanities. The humanities, as a high administrator at Harvard, perhaps its then president, Lawrence Summers, is reported to have said, “are a lost cause.”
Should or ought we to read or teach literature in such a “now”? Is it an ethical obligation to do so? If so, which works? How should these be read, and who should teach them?
During the nineteen years I taught at the Johns Hopkins University, from 1953 to 1972, I would have had ready answers to these questions. These answers would have represented our unquestioned consensus at Hopkins about the nature and mission of the humanities. A (somewhat absurd) ideological defense of literary study, especially study of British literature, was pretty firmly in place at Hopkins during those years. We in the English Department had easy consciences because we thought we were doing two things that were good for the country: a) teaching young citizens the basic American ethos (primarily by way of the literature of a for- eign country [England] we defeated in a revolutionary war of independence; the absurdity of that project only recently got through to me); b) doing research that was like that of our scientific colleagues in that it was finding out the “truth” about the fields covered by our disciplines: languages, literatures, art, history, philosophy. Veritas vos liberabit, the truth shall make you free, is the motto of Hopkins (a quotation from the Bible, by the way, something said by Jesus [ John 8: 32], in which “truth” hardly means scientific truth). Lux et veritas, light and truth, is the motto of Yale. Just plain Veritas is Harvard’s slogan. Truth, we at Hopkins believed, having forgotten the source of our motto, included objective truth of every sort, for example the truth about the early poetry of Alfred Tennyson or about the poetry of Barnaby Googe. Such truth was a good in itself, like knowledge of black holes or of genetics.