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  • The Hand and the Dog — Hillis Miller’s Secret Power
  • Tom Cohen (bio)

It was Claire Colebrook’s second Lassiedog that pierced the veil. The dog — but what does that word mean — is an empath, the afterthought added to her family to make Milton, her favored first, company. Young Milton would cry, so Shelley showed up, who immediately took over the sleepcrib. Milton proceeded to become a narcissistic fratboy, while Shelley, smarter and strategic, would play second for him while guiding the show. Whatever you think about Milton or Shelley, this is a story about Shelley the Collie and Hillis Miller, or about Shelley and Hillis’s secret power, I don’t know what else to call it. I had the incalculable honor and fun of knowing Hillis since Yale grad school in Comp Lit and saw him first at the MLA when he went up against M. H. Abrams — who set Hillis up to take down decon. It’s a well-known story: Abrams preceded Hillis and ended by predicting point for point what Hillis would supposedly now say, implying it was predictable, packaged, and dismissable. Abrams was pleased with himself. But what I recall was the undesignable Hillis tone of reply, not defensive, not bothering to play or not play the game, acceding (as if there were no attack underway) that he accurately described the paper he was about to read, which he then did (a version of “The Critic as Host”), and seemed to glide over the whole thing, celebrating the “joy” of unshackled reading modes and their exfoliation. I had never seen Hillis angry, reactive, resentful, or other than curious about everything and genial and generous beyond any humility. And yet utterly unshakeable. At his retirement conference at Irvine, titled merely “J.,” Jacques Derrida addressed and circled the idea of Hillis. He toyed with the furtive “J.,” hiding as if guilty yet evoking Joseph the Interpreter. He would anoint Hillis with a rare honor and moniker, calling him “Hillis the Just.” One understood — though it fed Hillis a bit too much into Derrida’s thematic at the time (with the regrettable overshoot that deconstruction “is” justice, with which Paul de Man would disagree, for one), and I later scribbled an obverse piece titled “Hillis le Mal.” Le Mal in the sense of Baudelaire, but also his role in the critical unfolding of the era as what I elsewhere termed a flaneur of the archive — for whom the “task of the critic” is a transformation preparatory to an event, translation, or bifurcation (to use Stiegler’s term). Derrida also asked, in his unique and astonishing way, what it must be or feel like to even say, “I, Hillis Miller,” reminding everyone what abysses may be spoken from and for with Hillis.

I had not realized until I reflected on it recently, that I’d never asked him about his method for endless and seamless production with his polio stricken-hand, which he’d sometimes sling about in moving about. This seemed an obverse super-power, the prosthetized and not quite living “hand,” figure of writing and technics, of digits and fabrication. One might not notice that the “J.” too, cut-off so, is all but just a line, and the letters of “Hillis” all but continue the sequence or seriality of alternating lines (and spacing), each iterating and dependent on the preceding to cohere, and that this Roman letter conjures a digit or the digital as well. Hillis had the most extraordinary metabolism, relentlessly lowkey, which lead me to think he would make it to centenarian — not counting on COVID. It is quite hard, though, to “mourn” him, since he passed back and forth across the LifeDeath membrane as reader and speaker, and since in a way the timing was good for him (passing weeks after Dorothy). I regret of course not driving up to Maine in September 2020 as planned, concerned I would bring him COVID — and not phoning in before this hit (having moved to Cambodia to escape US metaphysics). But having witnessed Hillis since Yale, even before he took over my dissertation when Paul de Man died of pancreatic cancer (what also took Derrida...


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pp. 13-14
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