- Late-Marxist, Post-Poststructuralist Critical Nebulosity
The title of J. Hillis Miller’s Illustration is apt in a way other than the author anticipated: it is a composite illustration of most of what makes so much of contemporary literary and aesthetic criticism unsatisfying if not nugatory. Initial evidence of the lack of cogent conceptualization is the disparateness of the two long essays jammed between the covers of the book. Part One is entitled “The Work of Cultural Criticism in the Age of Digital Reproduction” and Part Two “Word and Image.” Miller explains the relationship by saying what while the first section of the book “will attempt to understand” the shift in literary studies toward theory and especially cultural studies, the second section “will explore the relations of picture to word as one practical and theoretical issue important to cultural studies” (p. 9). But that connection is (fleetingly) asserted in the midst of an argument so fragmented and confused that whole sections must here be passed over without comment.
What is most striking about Part One is the thought-disabling imprecision of many of the key terms and the not unrelated way in which the argument follows well-travelled modes of Marxist and poststructuralist thought. The title of Part One, “The Work of Cultural Criticism in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” is of course intended to [End Page 127] link Miller’s first essay to what is probably the best-known of Walter Benjamin’s essays, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Both seek not only to link changing technological possibilities to the direction of cultural change, but to suggest that such changes should be harnessed to the work of political revolution. Miller might have been warned by the deficiencies of Benjamin’s over-rated essay. Benjamin begins his essay by applauding Marx for so cogently showing “what could be expected of capitalism in the future”: the prophecy Benjamin derives from Marx is “that one could expect [capitalism] not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself” (p. 217). 1 There is still plenty of exploitation to be found in the world, not excluding the most economically (capitalistically) developed countries, but it requires real intellectual contortions to argue that the growth and exploitation of a proletariat has increased where capitalism has most developed; the assertion that the world is moving toward the abolition of capitalism hardly requires comment.
Benjamin’s closing argument, the point toward which his entire essay is presumably driving, substitutes a clever slogan for thought. “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life” (p. 241). But, writes Benjamin in his closing sentence, “Communism responds by politicizing art” (p. 242). Miller attempts to explain the distinction: “To aestheticize politics is to treat the state as though it were a work of art” while the “politicizing of art . . . means affirming the political value and force of art” (p. 10). Well, it is of course possible to assume such a meaning for Benjamin’s words, especially since it is hard to know exactly what they mean, but why make so much of an essay which begins by endorsing a prophecy that has become increasingly dubious, ends in an ambiguous formulation, and in between mixes obvious and trivial observations with a highly questionable argument about the disappearance of the “aura” of a work as a result of mechanical reproduction? As for the latter, the cheap reproduction of, for example, certain of Van Gogh’s paintings can be argued to “debase” them, but if they mean little to those who encounter them only on cheap posters or computer screens, they can scarcely mean less than they did to those unaware of their existence before the age of mechanical reproduction. And after all, if the original paintings have not retained their “aura,” museums could simply fill their rooms with reproductions.
The reason Miller links his essay to that of Benjamin is presumably to demonstrate his allegiance to the form of Marxist thought so frequently...