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Diacritics 31.3 (2001) 57-66
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Literary Study Among the Ruins
J. Hillis Miller
It must be remembered and squarely faced, though it is difficult to do so for a lover of literature like me, that in spite of the lip service paid these days to literature's authority by politicians, the media, and educationists, fewer and fewer people, in Europe and America at least, actually spend much time reading "literature" in the old-fashioned sense of canonical works—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and the rest, in English literature. Literature has been granted enormous authority in our culture, but though that authority may still be tacitly or even explicitly acknowledged, for example by the media, no candid observer can doubt that it is no longer so pragmatically operative. If the books just stay there on the shelves, their authority is only potential. They must be read to be performatively effective. The joke about how George W. Bush's presidential library has been destroyed, both books in it, has an uncannily plausible ring. He has better things to do than read literature.
If you are watching a movie or television or playing a computer game or surfing the Internet, you cannot at the same time be reading Shakespeare. People spend, all the statistical evidence suggests, more and more time doing the former. Poetry, it might be argued, does little legislating these days, unacknowledged or otherwise. Fewer and fewer people are decisively influenced by such reading as they do. Radio, television, cinema, popular music, and now the Internet—these are more decisive in shaping citizens' ethos and values, as well as in filling their minds and feelings with imaginary worlds. It is these virtual realities rather than strictly literary ones that have most performative efficacy these days to generate people's feelings, behavior, and value judgments. To speak of literature's authority is already to speak, to some degree, of an historical epoch that began in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century in Europe with the rise of modern democracies and their concomitant print cultures. That epoch is now perhaps rapidly vanishing, whatever teachers of literature say, write, or do. Nevertheless, if someone happens for some reason to pick up Hamlet, or Middlemarch, or Yeats's poems, these works may still exert their magic power. Literature still has great authority over me and over no doubt many others. Just what effects are the globalization of the university and the new regime of telecommunications having on literary study and on the social role of literature itself?
Jacques Derrida, in a striking passage written by one or another of the protagonists of La carte postale (The Post Card), says the following:
. . . an entire epoch of so-called literature, if not all of it, cannot survive a certain technological regime of telecommunications (in this respect the political regime is secondary). Neither can philosophy, or psychoanalysis. Or love letters. . . .
Refound here the American student with whom we had coffee last Saturday, the one who was looking for a thesis [End Page 57] subject (comparative literature), I suggested to her something on the telephone in the literature of the 20th century (and beyond), starting with, for example, the telephone lady in Proust or the figure of the American operator, and then asking the question of the effects of the most advanced telematics [la télématique la plus avancée] on whatever would still remain of literature. I spoke to her about microprocessors and computer terminals, she seemed somewhat disgusted [avait l'air un peu dégoutée]. She told me that she still loved literature (me too, I answered her, mais si, mais si). Curious to know what she understood by this. [Derrida, La carte postale 212, 219; Derrida Post Card 197, 204]
What Derrida or rather his protagonist in La carte postale says in the citation I have made is truly frightening, at least to a lover of literature like me or like the protagonist's hapless interlocutor, the American graduate student in comparative literature who was looking for a dissertation topic...