- Hillis Malheur, Open Case
Hillis loved secrets — literary secrets like indecipherable messages, cryptonyms and paronomastic puzzles such as the word/thing/name/story he discovers in Odradek, the object of Franz Kafka’s strange little tale, “Die Sorge des Hausvaters” (1919). He also loved what he, following Jacques Derrida, called “literature’s secret” — the secret specific to written language that will always remain “hidden behind the appearances that tell of it.” Another secret, hidden in plain sight, was the book series he clandestinely edited - clandestine because he didn’t have the time for the inevitable flood of submissions that would otherwise débouche onto his desk — for Open Humanities Press.
OHP, acronym of an experiment in freedom, a projection over the academy’s head of a non-rational assemblage delivered over to an unpatrollable highway of textual combinations, was nursed into being by Hillis after its chance conception at a conference in Gent, Belgium. Hillis always was and is OHP — open, headless, (im) proper. Shapeshifting in his multiple roles as our first editorial board member, author, reader, journal advisor, mentor, Hillis cycles through OHP’s letters, spinning them forwards and backwards like an Odradekian top, a spool whose threads both catch and unwind from Hillis’s signature intellectual and personal generosity, each book a serial extension of a reading praxis in different dimensions, ungoverned by the “unstructuring structure” of this giant hill at OHP’s heart.
One can say of OHP, as Hillis did of Odradek in Literature Matters (2016), “I can see how such an apparatus might stand upright, but I do not see how it can move so nimbly up and down the stairs, down the corridors, in the hallway, in the attic.” An “unworking machine,” “techné without technician,” OHP senselessly keeps doing its own thing while inviting multiple performative actions and iterations.
Tom Cohen (OHP’s second Editorial Board member, and co-editor, with Claire Colebrook of our Critical Climate Change/Critical Climate Chaos: Irreversibility series) introduced one to the “bad Hillis,” a “Hillis le mal” in the shape of the amiable uncle whose suitcase contains a ticking time-bomb, a black hole. For OHP, he was Hillis the Miller, tilling the academy’s ground for thought miracles, attentive to the full diversity of projects that flourished, snowballing under his care: “Let a thousand flowers bloom!”
As he asks repeatedly in Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (2016), “what does it really say?” Hillis always haunts in advance of every reading, recalling one to the “unpredictable way” that the work is an event, programming, encoding and encrypting its future readings: “the poem, though not the poet, foretells, foreshadows, foresees, prefigures, or even brings about performatively the meaning and force it comes to have.” Meaning is Nachträglich, retroactive and “the first item,” he reminds, “is not a beginning nor is the last word an end.”
This leads me to rephrase another of his signature questions, “should we read and publish theory now (and if so, how)?” His inevitable response: if the work “urgently calls on one to do so.” We have yet to know what Hillis’s mysterious valise really contained beyond, as Cohen puts it, “the possibility not only of suspending the hermeneutic reflexes but openness to something beyond their perceptual regime and anthropocentric police of it.” An open case, Hillis has left an impenetrable message for humanity in its illest hour, his legacy an “inscription in black ink, exemplifications of the technicity of the letter, written on the nose of someone drowning in black ink.” So yes, work to do. [End Page 16]
Sigi Jöttkandt is an Associate Professor of English at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is author of Acting Beautifully: Henry James and the Ethical Aesthetic (2005), First Love: A Phenomenology of the One (2010) and numerous essays on psychoanalysis, literature, and philosophy. She is also a co-founding Director of Open Humanities Press (www.openhumanitiespress.org).