- World Without Hillis
Among so many other notable people, values, and ways of being, Hillis was swept away from us, along with Dorothy, his partner of seventy years, during the pandemic that coincided with the Long Night in US culture that still isn’t over. (As of this writing, 2016–21.) My preferred term for this extended period is the “Great Dismissal,” for it bears the particular stamp of Trumpworld’s concerted, quasi-systematic dismissal, on a par with trashing any and all officials who differed with our Great Leader, of intellectual innovation and striving, scientific research and testing, and journalistic objectivity. The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020 and the Democratic senatorial runoff victories in Georgia soon thereafter cannot but be experienced as a corrective to the self-serving prevarications, draconian manipulations, and overall corruption of the Trump regime. But the aftershock of wholesale dismissal upon intellectuals, academics, artists, scientists, and hosts of other researchers and literacy workers will not be quick to abate.
In the company of any mode of criticism with a rigorous address, critical theory and deconstruction lose some of their well-earned cachet over a protracted period of public withdrawal from book culture exacerbated by a wholesale dismissal of intellectual and aesthetic striving. (The setting aside of books, particularly those grounded in and espousing complexity, bespeaks a media revolution; the belligerent indifference to literacy a draconian political and economic ploy.)
J. Hillis Miller’s trajectory, from being a polyglot, home-grown magus and prodigy, whose capability was already evident during his undergraduate years at Oberlin — where he switched from physics to a literature major — to arguably being the most erudite and prescient master programmer in the engine room of contemporary critical theory, was not at all intuitive. Its consummate phase was fueled by a creative rage whose products have yet to be fully assimilated. The particulars of Hillis’s biography and intellectual formation prepared him fully for his initial encounter with Jacques Derrida in October, 1966, at the epochal “Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” conference in Baltimore. It is undoubtedly true that from then on Hillis, in his irreducibly communal way — a condition he will go on, in such works as Communities in Fiction (2015), to theorize in detail — functions as a “first among equal” and not so equal fellow devotés, to de Manian close reading as well as to deconstruction. It is equally true that Hillis, through the vastness of his erudition and in his lifelong commitment to education as public service and political process, did more than any individual, even Derrida himself, to grasp the full gamut of deconstructive ex-tensions, to chart the swerves deconstruction would need to follow in order to sustain its cultural moment and intervention.
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To the degree that “deconstruction,” as academic “property,” however noble and [End Page 10] consciousness-raising its provenance, cannot but be inflected by forces of institutionalization, mediation, and commodification of which Hillis was only too cognizant, its current predicament and prospects become, at the level of cultural politics, a matter of urgent deliberation. Is deconstruction an academic “specialization,” hence party and hostage to all factors (e.g., budgetary, departmental, curricular) involved in either the synchronization or divergence of advanced research with/from public cognizance and informed reception? Viewed first and foremost as an intramural phenomenon, deconstruction, however unwittingly, along with any number of parallel academic innovations, whether “game theory,” “cognitive mapping,” or “narrative economics,” joins in an overall segmentation of expert knowledge and thinking whose ultimate negative fallout could well have been the electoral surprise of 2016. [Trump exacerbated multidimensional class warfare as it happens to meander through US society. As Hillis knew well, he didn’t invent it. In consolidating a majority that defied both the real numbers and demographic trends of the US population, Trump did all he could to destabilize the existing fault-lines: between the urban hubs and the rural and exurban; between the traditional “blue collar” and “white collar” trades and professions, between...