Wednesday, September 26, 2012


On my subway ride to work today, I finished reading my copy of the September 2012 issue of College English.  Among its pages is an article by Kurt Fosso and Jerry Harp, "J. Hillis Miller's Virtual Reality of Reading" (79-94).  I am not familiar with the work of Miller other than as the two discuss it, but even in that discussion, I found much upon which to think.

Fosso and Harp repeatedly assert that Miller works to establish in his own critical work the idea of the literary world--that is, the world described within works of literary art and craft, in which their plots take place and their characters exist--is a virtual world, one which prefigures the text which gives a reader access to it.  They note that, in Miller's conception, "the literary work does not exist only in this or that copy of a text, nor in the mind of the author, nor in the experience of a reader.  Rather, any given piece of literature can be said to exit only in a dynamic interaction of texts, writers, readers, and hermeneutics" (81).  They also go to great lengths to present Miller's ideas as partaking of the tradition of the Platonic Ideal, and they state that art, being necessarily an incomplete presentation or representation, functions best when it acknowledges its own imperfectness.  Fosso and Harp depict Miller as positioning literature as a form of virtual reality long before computer-aided virtual realities gained mainstream acceptance in popular American culture, concluding that Miller's ascription of value to literature specifically because of its ability to immerse readers in an alternate reality is his own overriding, central tenet.  It is perhaps a bit simplistic an assertion with which to conclude, but the article overall does a fair job of relating Miller's major works to an audience perhaps not wholly familiar with them.

Fosso and Harp do situate Miller in a long tradition of literary criticism and one of its parent disciplines, philosophy.  My own biases, developed through my own years-long course of study and strange quirks in my literary tastes, tell me that Miller's assertion that literature at its most successful depicts events that take place in a world that exists before and after the text* is an echo of Tolkien's assertion in "On Fairy-stories."  I will admit that it is entirely likely that Miller has not read that particular bit of Tolkien's corpus; writers of genre fiction of any sort are not terribly highly regarded in a great many academic circles, and those who work in fantasy literature are typically worse off than the rest.  Similarly those old proponents of works by "dead white guys."  But the presentation of Miller as making the argument that there is a literary world for each text that pre-exists the text seems to me to be Tolkien's assertion of storytelling as a sub-Creative act written again.  For the Prince of Fantasists, it is the employment of allusions to remote histories--the reference to a pre-existing reality within the text--that does so much to lend his Middle-earth corpus the sense of being a living world, which sense fosters much of the appreciation of his work.

*This is, of course, according to Fosso and Harp's presentation of them.  I have no reason to actively doubt that they are--I tend to accept the editorial process of College English as being valid and resulting in the publication of good scholarship--although I am certain that there are other ways to interpret Miller.

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