Remembering J. Hillis Miller (1928–2021)

Screenshot of Skype interview on July 17, 2013. Bradley J. Fest, Pittsburgh, PA; J. Hillis Miller, Deer Isle, ME.

I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn that J. Hillis Miller, at the age of 92, has died.[1] Though I was never his student and only corresponded with him electronically via Skype and email, Hillis had been a powerful presence in my life since 2013 and over the years showed me unflagging (at time flabbergasting) generosity and support. I owe a great deal of my post-PhD intellectual and professional development to his influence, as I probably learned more about late twentieth-century literary criticism and theory from researching his work and conducting and collaboratively editing an interview with him than anything else I did in graduate school or since. Perhaps most importantly, however, in every exchange, Hillis was simply a model of grace and kindness. He represents for me a way of being gently in the world that I still look to as an aspirational ideal. He was not only an intellectual giant and an unparalleled reader and critic, J. Hillis Miller was a torch-bearer for what our profession—and the life of letters—could be at its best. His passing may very well mark the end of an era in United States intellectual culture and is a huge loss for the uncountable number of people he touched with his life and work.

When I think back to what should have been one of the most important memories of my career—my dissertation defense in April 2013—my primary recollection of that day is how it marked the beginning of my correspondence with Hillis. During the defense, in a discussion of my chapter on William Carlos Williams and its engagement with Hillis’s important 1966 edited collection on Williams’s work, along with that book’s recovery of the prose sections of Spring and All (1923), my dissertation chair, Jonathan Arac, suggested, “Why don’t you interview Miller? Would you be interested in doing that?”[2] My mind on many other things, understandably, I think I stammered out a, “Sure, yeah, um, that’d be great,” but I figured it was just an idea that burst briefly into the air during a public conversation, a possibility never to seriously be pursued, something that would fade imperceptibly away. I didn’t really give the possibility much more thought as I then spent the rest of the day celebrating my successful defense with my partner and brother, who had flown in for the occasion. So, it was with some surprise when, later that day, at a talk by Priscilla Wald in advance of her faculty seminar at the University of Pittsburgh’s Humanities Center, Jonathan came up to me and said, “I emailed Hillis and he already got back to me. He’s up for it. I’ll forward you the email and you can go from there.” (So: thank you Jonathan. See Robert T. Tally Jr.’s recent post on Jonathan Arac’s mentorship on the occasion of his retirement.)

Oh my. I had thought I was done with this huge task—writing a dissertation—and all of a sudden, I had what I felt was an even more daunting one: doing justice to the work of J. Hillis Miller. But I was up for it. Hillis and I corresponded and he, knowingly or not, immediately made me feel like interviewing him was something I could actually, like, do. And then I got to work. I read and read. I went on vacation to Rocky Point in Mexico with my brother and his family and spent the majority of the time reading. During my one day on the beach, I forgot to put sunscreen on my feet and they got very badly burned, which rendered me basically supine inside for the remainder of the trip. Which wasn’t so bad, as I spent it reading Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (1966) and The J. Hillis Miller Reader (ed. Julian Wolfreys, 2005) and Theory Now and Then (1991) and a lot of things surrounding his famous essay “The Critic as Host” (1977).[3] I read more, as much as I could, so much, but, as he had authored well over thirty books at the time, I also realized that I wasn’t going to be able to be exhaustive (as I have strived to be in subsequent interviews) if I had any hope of conducting the interview by July. And then I wrote some questions and figured out how to record a Skype call and Hillis and I talked and then I sat down to do the work of transcription and editing. And then he gave me his real gift: I got to see, just a little bit, what it was like for him to write, as we exchanged a couple drafts back and forth, editing the piece collaboratively. That interview, “Isn’t It a Beautiful Day? An Interview with J. Hillis Miller,” published in 2014 in boundary 2, is probably the publication of which I am the proudest and it’s the one I feel might have the most lasting import. It gives a glimpse on an entire intellectual world and speaks directly to many of the present concerns of that summer (the Snowden revelations, the ongoing crisis in the humanities, et cetera). (The interview was also reprinted in a collection of interviews with Hillis edited by Jonathan Y. Bayot, Reading Inside Out: Interviews and Conversations [2017].)

But that wasn’t the end of our correspondence. Year in and out, he supported me on my seemingly interminable quest to find a tenure-track job and also kept me in the collaborative loop, suggesting me as a respondent for a special two issues of the journal CounterText devoted to his book with Ranjan Ghosh, Thinking Literature across Continents (2016). That essay, “Reading Now and Again: Hyperarchivalism and Democracy in Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller’s Thinking Literature across Continents,” was published in 2018, and it represents for me an opportunity to think through his body of work (somewhat obliquely, admittedly) while also trying to respond directly and specifically to a small moment in that corpus.

And let me be clear: I was not a student, not a colleague at Johns Hopkins or Yale or the University of California Irvine, not a Victorianist nor a modernist; I was just a kind of random person he didn’t really know or have any connection with whom he graciously invited into his working world and kept supporting after the immediate work of the interview was over (and whom he could have reasonably told, at any point, “Alright, thanks, that was great, goodbye,” or even, “Go jump in a lake!”). I can only imagine the impact he has had on so many students, critics, scholars, and writers over the past sixty plus years if he was able to play such a large role in my life. And, as I’m writing this, I am also realizing that I’m in the midst of finalizing my spring 2021 syllabi (the semester is starting a few weeks later than normal because of the global pandemic) and just remembered that I had already, of course, put one of his essays on a draft of my ENGL 190 Introduction to Textual Analysis syllabus. I know that, for as long as I’m writing and reading, I will continue to think with him.[4] COVID-19 has taken so much from so many. I look forward to a time when I can again be in a classroom (without masks) sharing Hillis’s work with a new generation of readers. And I sincerely hope that one day I can look back on this particular moment as another turning point, when life went off in a new, unexpected, positive direction, a direction that, once again, changed everything.


[1] Eric Hayot, in a moving memory of Miller from Hayot’s first year at Yale, reports the cause of death. There has also already been an outpouring of grief, memory, and gratitude on Twitter: see Merve Emre, Harris Feinsod, @V21collective, and many others.

[2] See J. Hillis Miller, ed., William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966).

[3] I still feel a burning, aching pain on the tops of my feet when I think about Hillis’s discussion of Wallace Stevens in Poets of Reality. See J. Hillis Miler, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 217–84.

[4] There are so many of his books that should be required reading, but I have definitely thought on multiple occasions that Reading Narrative (1998) is perhaps criminally under-read.

Summer 2019 Links

I had the privilege of meeting Richard Siken when I was quite young–an undergraduate at the University of Arizona–and he gave me lots of good advice on the poetry world (and life), conversations I still cherish. Please help him out.

Stroke Recovery Fund for Poet Richard Siken.


Nuclear and Environmental

Alenka Zupančič, “The Apocalypse Is (Still) Disappointing.”

James Livingston, “Time, Dread, Apocalypse Now.

Ted Nordhaus, “The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse.”

Jessica Hurley and Dan Sinykin, eds., Apocalypse, special issue of ASAP/Journal.

Frame, Apocalypse.

Brad Plumer, “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace.”

Damian Carrington, “Why The Guardian Is Changing the Language It Uses about the Environment.”

Continue reading

June 2018 Links

Nuclear and Environmental

Joshua Miller, “Ed Markey’s Career-Long Fight against Nuclear Weapons.”

Donald J. Trump’s letter to Kim Jong-un.

Avery Anapol, “Lindsey Graham: War with North Korea Would Be ‘Worth It’ in the Long Run.”

Anton Troianovski, “Putin Claims Russia Is Developing Nuclear Arms Capable of Avoiding Missile Defenses.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, “Empty Half the Earth of Its Humans. It’s the Only Way to Save the Planet.”

Ursula K. Heise, “Climate Stories” and Kate Marshall, “The Readers of the Future Have Become Shitty Literary Critics,” reviews of The Great Derangement, by Amitav Ghosh.

Kate Aronoff, “Denial by a Different Name.”

Continue reading

Special Issues of CounterText on Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller’s Thinking Literature across Continents

I have written an essay, “Reading Now and Again:  Hyperarchivalism and Democracy in Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller’s Thinking Literature across Continents,” which will appear in the spring issue of CounterText: A Journal for the Study of the Post-Literary, the second of two special issues devoted to Thinking Literature across Continents (Duke UP, 2016). I’ll provide more information about this essay at a later date.

In the meantime, the first issue of CounterText addressing Ghosh and Miller‘s book (vol. 3, no. 3) is now available. Additionally, a conversation between Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, and the two authors opening the special issue is available from behind the journal’s paywall.

“Thinking Literature Across . . .,” special issue, CounterText, table of contents:

Marjorie Perloff, J. Hillis Miller, Charles Bernstein. and Ranjan Ghosh, “The CounterText Conversation: Thinking Literature. . . .”

Maria Margaroni, “Dialogics, Diacritics, Diasporics: Ranjan Ghosh, J. Hillis Miller, and the Becoming-Now of Theory.”

Georges Van Den Abbeele, “Literary Intransigence: Between J. Hillis Miller and Ranjan Ghosh.”

Claire Colebrook, “Crossing Continents.”

Steven Yao, “How Many Ways of Thinking Literature across Continents?”

Pramod K. Nayar, “Literature/Ethics/Reading.”

Susana Onega, “Thinking English Literature and Criticism under the Transmodern Paradigm.”

Lene M. Johannessen, “Poetics of Peril.”

Adrian Grima and Ivan Callus, “Irreverent and Inventive Mamo.”

Juann Mamo, Nanna Venut’s Children in America: Two Chapters from the First English Translation,” trans. Albert Gatt.

Ivan Callus, “Literature, Journalism, and the Countertextual: Daphne Caruana Galizia, 1964–2017.”

Mario Aquilina, review of Essayism and the Return of the Essay, by Brian Dillon.

Repackaging the Archive (Part II): Inhabiting Rama

This was an astonishing piece of luck, Norton told himself, though he felt that he had earned it; they could not possibly have made a better choice than this Illustrated Catalog of Raman Artifacts.  And yet, in another way, it could hardly have been more frustrating.  There was nothing actually here except impalpable patterns of light and darkness.  These apparently solid objects did not really exist.

—Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama

Having recently had my project proposal approved,[1] and being faced w/ the slightly daunting task of actually reading (for reals, not for fakes[2]) Being and Time,[3] I’ve been mildly—and I stress only mildly, b/c in my mind right now, everything relates . . . —irresponsible in my reading.  Like some (or perhaps most/all) irresponsible acts, however, it emerged from some other fundamental need, obligation, or responsibility, which is, namely, actually finishing all (of the projected 3, but perhaps more) of the parts of “Repackaging the Archive” which have been so wonderfully neglected these past months.[4] Which is to say that I’ve been on a bit of a SF bender of ridiculously relevant books w/r/t/t notion of “archive” recently: Neal Stephenson’s recent and wonderful Anathem(2008), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye(1974), and Arthur C. Clarke’s opaque Rendezvous with Rama(1972).  Though all probably deserve a lengthy entry here, for the purposes of actually “repackaging this/some archive” I will only mention the absolute centrality and necessity the archive plays in the world/civilization (re)building which occurs in every one to some degree or another—i.e. the archive in each novel is a physical instantiation which presupposes and protects against catastrophic, world-wide collapse, so as to rebuild or repair said world (though it is slightly more ambiguous in Rama).  These are active archives, defined by (perpetual) crisis, which are ultimately the only tools to provide any stability to the functioning of the species in its (cyclical) “project.”[5] (Is this not how archives operate always?)  So, for lack of another kind of “disclosing,” it would have felt irresponsible (heh) to not mention this at the outset of something titled “repackaging the archive part II (!).”

In his ridiculously brief discussion of Rama in Archaeologies of the Future,Frederic Jameson[6] writes: “Clarke’s alien mystery story is somehow uniquely more satisfying than any of those with solutions (including his own later sequels) and suggests that God’s creation is best imitated by the invention of questions rather than answers.”[7] He does so in order to locate what he calls Clarke’s “agnostic . . . representation of alien otherness” as opposed to Stanislaw Lem’s wholly atheistic representation.  What is more surprising about Jameson’s statement, however, is that though the crew members of Endeavor didn’t have time to find any “solution” to the “mystery” of Rama before it rocketed out of the solar system[8]—as seen in the epigraph above—at least the possibility of all those answers were right at their fingertips, something that Jameson more-or-less ignores.[9] It is fairly clear that Rama is, among other things, a giant archive, potentially housing all of Raman culture w/in itself—in the form of a holographic (but ultimately a networked/digital) archive; and furthermore, this archive appears to have the express purpose of “re-seeding” that very culture.  W/r/t Jameson’s discussion, what is esp. relevant here, is the fact that the unknowable, alien, radical (or elsewhere formulated “wholly”) Other, literally appears as archive.  The “South Pole” of cylindrical Rama is one giant checkerboard/patchwork of various “crops” (or something, here the mystery is clear[ly ambiguous]), presumably for use by the “biots”[10] whose role it is to maintain and repair Rama.  Rama’s “sea” contains all the necessary minerals from which to construct these biots.[11] And indeed, Rama’s primary goal for tarrying through “our” solar system is to “store-up” enough energy from the sun by “flying”[12] ridiculously close to it, so as to slingshot out into the void of inter-galactic space.  In other words, everything “mysterious” about Rama, whatever there is to be “solved,” is right there on the surface and close-at-hand.  Whatever detective work there is to be done is merely the act of sifting through and deciphering the rules of the archive.  The “wholly/radically” Other finds itself here under the simple nomenclature: archive.

I point toward Rama here under the heading of “unknowability”[13] b/c it appears that something quite essential about the simple act of “archiving” is in play[14] here, something which, though it hasn’t been “ignored,” forms a certain kind of ground for both understanding archives themselves, and, more importantly for myself, describing my own archival foundations, tracing, as I traced my relationship to baseball cards earlier, the paths and limits of “archival-being” (or perhaps “Archsein”[15]).  For this reason, rather than immediately attempting to formulate, theoretically or otherwise, what this foundational thing may be, I feel a few more anecdotal accounts of my own relationship to archiving(-play) may be quite useful here.

It is difficult for me to remember a time when archival organization was not an essential part of my relationship w/ material objects.  Any guest of my current home will surely be aware of my penchant—bordering on (if not wholly a symptom of) an obsessive compulsive disorder—for putting the objects around me “in their place.”  Every single one of the thousands of books I own are organized by category,[16] alphabetized, and—if they haven’t been removed and placed back on the shelf too often—chronologically ordered if I have more than one work by a particular author.  The same goes for my records, divided into “rock,”[17] “classical,” 7”s, and “other,”[18] as well as my DVDs, vids, files, and clothes.  A notable absence at the moment is my lack of CDs or tapes, as they languish in boxes in my basement, mostly b/c those archives have been wholly absorbed into the digital.  (There is no need for their physical presence when they all exist on my computer and iPod.)  The same goes for my file system on the computer.  I literally still have every single thing I’ve typed since I was in about 7th grade, organized incredibly idiosyncratically, w/ many gradations of “filing.”[19] Perhaps one of the more depressing things, is that all of this fits on a 256mb flash-drive.  Thus I am constantly carrying my entire written archive whenever I go anywhere.  (For the extreme logical extension of all of this, look here.)  Otherwise, my living space is quite spartan.  Beyond a few images on the walls, a couple of strange statues,[20] and the necessary furniture and play-back devices, there are very few objects anywhere.  Furthermore, a couple of visitors to my home have noticed this.  Everything around me is highly functional, geared toward “ease-of-access” and a “lack of clutter.”  I do not hoard.  I am not a packrat.  And I would like to think that there are very few extraneous things around me (though why I’d like to think this is up for debate).  In other words, my dwelling, my home, my space, is one of a highly complex order of technicity, various singularities of pattern emerging from a lifetime of (often times random) accumulation.  Why is this?  Where does it come from?

To suggest that this isn’t precisely the case w/ other people would be completely wrong, but that would also ignore the fact that I am more-often-than-not completely baffled by how other people organize the objects in their space.  To see a bookshelf on which the books are organized hurdy-gurdy—that the bookshelf is simply a container and not a logical system—often gives me the howling fantods.  In my younger days when CDs were still in play, seeing them strewn everywhere, w/o cases, oftentimes incredibly scratched b/c of this, confused the heck out of me.  Operating other people’s computers, and for some reason esp. Macs, always feels unheimlich, as their interface is not completely crafted, prioritized, and organized for efficiency and ease-of-access around me (or seemingly anyone else).  Though there is something very important here regarding individuation, subject construction, and my own relationship with various Others, I don’t feel competent to pursue this at the moment b/c of either the threat of a spiraling narcissism or else b/c the questions involved are too complex to pursue answers in this forum.  Either way, this all suggests something about my own relationship to archiving and objects which must be pursued to provide the necessary framework for this entire project, for attempting to explain why this archival accumulation is happening at all.

It is, of course, one of the most difficult things in the world to explain oneself, either to yourself or to other people, and completely ignores the necessary psychoanalytic presence of the Other in doing so, but, as will anecdotally be seen, this isn’t necessarily a vain pursuit (though it might be self-indulgent, but that’s the whole point of blogs anyway, right?).  In other words, I am interested in giving an account for the precedence in my own life of this archival tendency, of providing the same kind of background around baseball cards w/ other things, if for no other reason than the fact that this precedent exists, and may illuminate the present (project).  Hence this (perhaps necessary) apologia for what follows in subsequent parts.  In other words, I am going to talk about Teenage Ninja Turtles and such.  This entry was meant to discuss that, but has now been sitting here unfinished for too long, and now must be posted.  Hopefully it stands (more-or-less) on its own.

[1] The project is pitt’s version of exams.  I don’t even really wanted to get started on how it relates to The Hyperarchival Parallax.


[2] This is not even to approach jargons of authenticity.

[3] as opposed to starting it, getting about fifty-to-one-hundred pages in or so, and getting distracted, oh . . . about five times.  Though I must say I’ll probably finish it tomorrow.  This is not to mention the other 110 or so books on my list.  If Heidegger has the presence of mind to say: “and that means that Da-sein as such is guilty” (Heidegger, Martin.  Being and Time.  Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.  263.), then I for one feel no compunction at all echoing something an old teacher of mine said w/r/t just this problem of not feeling like one is doing enough because one is irresponsibly doing all this other shit (all while doing a thesis on Nietzsche)(i.e. reading): fuck guilt.  And this is all to really say, that this entire entry is now being finished over two months later for just the same reasons as just mentioned—i.e. I finished B and T in MAY!

[4] And have been further neglected since I wrote this.

[5] I feel like I hear the words “difference and repetition” floating around somewhere.

[6] Who was at pitt about a month ago and gave 3 incredibly lucid and (I feel) important talks on realism.

[7] Jameson, Frederic.  Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.  New York: Verso Press, 2005.  107.

[8] and though I agree with Jameson’s assessment of the novel as “satisfying.”

[9] Presumably because he was talking primarily about Stanislaw Lem rather than Clarke.

[10] Biological Robots.

[11] Freud’s notion of the “oceanic” as archive?

[12] is that the right word for what a cylindrical archive/spaceship/world does in space?

[13] Indeed Jameson’s title for this chapter on Lem/Clarke is “The Unknowability Thesis.”

[14] I use this word quite deliberately here, as will become clear.

[15] And it is perhaps not a coincidence that I realized tonight that “archive” comes from “ark.”  How did I not see this before?

[16] Currently those categories are: SF, Fiction (“Literature”), Poetry, Drama, Essays, Philosophy, Art (History/Crit.), History, Biography, Lit. Crit., Science, and Reference books (much gets placed under this category, including anthologies, dictionaries, thesauri, style guides, almanacs, religious lit. [Bible, Koran, Dead Sea Scrolls, the Rig Veda, etc.], periodicals [less b/c they’re reference books, and more b/c they are closer to “anthologies,”], and “miscellany”).

[17] quite loosely defined.

[18] 10”s, my skull shaped Orchid 8”, Three Mile Pilots propeller-shaped record.

[19] For example, some of the fundamental categories of this particular archive are: “as close to the real world as you’re going to get,” “closer,” “functional important shit,” “useless shit,” “ALL WRITING DOCS,” “a lifetime of petty tragedies,” etc.  I do not envy the person who ever attempts to sort all of this out, but I, of course, know where everything “is.”

[20] One of Jesus teaching a kid how to play golf, but looking more like he’s giving the kid a reach-around.