Synopsis of J. Hillis Miller's "The Critic as Host"

This page is a brief synopsis of the main argument (as I see it) of J. Hillis Miller's influential piece "The Critic as Host." The version reported on here is not from Critical Inquiry 3 (1976) but the longer version in Deconstruction and Criticism (1979), as reprinted in Adams and Serles' Critical Theory Since 1965. This is intended as an aid for my students in ENGL 4F70, "Contemporary Literary Theory," at Brock University. -- Professor John Lye


In this essay Miller defines what he takes to be deconstruction; it is a definition -- a word whose oscillating implications one can get lost in for some time -- and a defense. What I want to do is fairly simple, because I am not sure that everyone in late November will read the essay with great attention or detail. I would like to hit some of the main points, in a rough kind of way.

Miller begins by taking the idea that deconstruction is plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading. By now you will be becoming astute enough to realize that a univocal reading is impossible -- it is a vocalization of a vocalization. If the poem has a voice, it is articulated before, and one rearticulates it, reads it with one's own voice, one has a reading which cannot properly be univocal, because it is a voice of a voice: and of course all of the words are spoken before, are voiced in various discourses, and all contextual and intertextual references are voices of voices; a univocal reading would have no imaginative, social or intellectual articulation, and so in fact could not mean at all. Obvious is from ob via, 'in the way'.

But that is not what Miller looks at: he wants to track down the innerness of the senses that the negative and positive of things are inherent in each other, and that meaning is of its nature opening out and implying (from plier, "to fold"). He starts with the idea of the parasite, which of course requires a host -- in fact, no host without a parasite, no parasite without a host. He moves into the etymological complexities of each of the words. It turns out that a parasite was originally a guest; host has a more complex derivation, reflected in its different meanings today: it meant a stranger and a guest, someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality; also a stranger, an enemy; and of course the holy Host. What Miller wants to get to is that each of the words has a reciprocal antithetical meaning built in, that the words have intertwining meanings in their etymology, and that the relation between them is both antithetical and necessary. He moves to the most malevolent of parasites, the virus, the re-programming, with its root gramme, as in grammar; is deconstruction a virus? But it is possible that it is metaphysics, the location of the univocal, that is the virus: are humans programmed to read Plato? If they are not, is Plato re-programming them, as it were? He then remarks that what he has done is show you a deconstructive reading , and provides us with the first "definition" of deconstruction:

This equivocal richness, my discussion of 'parasite' implies, resides in part in the fact that there is no conceptual expression without figure, and no intertwining of concept and figure without an implied narrative, in this case the story ofthe alien guest in the home. Deconstruction is an investigation of what is implied by this inherence in one another of figure, concept, and narrative.
In the next paragraph he cites a "law": that language is not an instrument or tool in man's hands, a submissive means of thinking. Language rather thinks man and his 'world', including poems, if he will allow it to do so. There is another law implicit in the parenthesis of his next sentence: what thought is not figurative? The root of idea is the word for image. To imagine is to image. All figures are not what they figure. Univocality is impossible. Everything always means something else. (As we know, in the structuralist/semiotic tradition no sign can be identical to its referent, there is always a space, a difference.)

Miller's message at the end of this section is that every reading has a deconstructive as well as an obvious reading. This is inherent in the very logic of signs, the very operation of language, the way thought is constructed. As Miller writes,

On the one hand, the "obvious and univocal reading" always contains the "deconstructive reading" as a parasite encrypted within itself as part of itself. ON the other hand, the "deconstructive" reading can by no means free itself from the metaphysical reading it means to contest.
Another aspect or way of being of parasites, of the host/parasite duality, is intertextuality: literature is heavily intertextual, and every former text is a host on which the present text is a parasite or, as it inheres and survives in the present text, every former text is a parasite, the present text a host. The new text lives off of and destroys the previous texts, as it uses and supersedes them, but it requires them at the same time. No previous text, no text; no con-text, no text. The subject text of the essay is Shelley's Triumph of Life, and Miller moves to the issue of nihilism and metaphysics; the logic of presence as opposed to the logic of absence. What he wishes to show is that nihilism, the subject of charges against deconstruction, is inherent in metaphysics, that they have the symbiotic relation of the parasite/host. I will not go through the whole argument; suffice it to say that metaphysics, the science of presence, of the value of being, cannot be metaphysics without absence, the devaluation of being, nihilism: "nihilism is the latent ghost encrypted within any expression of a logocentric system." It is also the case that nihilism is only what metaphysics calls it: metaphysics, that is, thinks nihilism and gives it its danger and its power.

What deconstruction is, says Miller, "is not nihilism nor metaphysics but simply interpretation as such, the untangling of inherence of metaphysics in nihilism and of nihilism in metaphysics by was of the close reading of texts." It enlivens, illumines the alternation, the mutual co-creation and destruction, of the two. Miller contends that wherever we are is really always the in-between of host and parasite, neither inside nor outside, a world of meaning which is also non-meaning, coherence which is also incoherence: the form of interpretation which can show that is deconstruction.

Miller proceeds to a complex and rewarding reading of Shelley's poem, in part of which he unmasks Shelley's idealism, a reading I shall not attempt to report on. At its conclusion however, he turns to the role of the critic. The critic, like any follower or borrower, like Browning, Hardy, Yeats, all 'influenced' by Shelley as Shelley was influenced by writers before him, "is a follower who repeats the pattern once agains and fails to 'get it right,'" just as Shelley repeated both those before him and himself. The critic in attempting to untwist a line of plot, figuration, in one place, twists it in another. all of Western literature is implicated in all writing, and writing is implicated in metaphysics, which is co-inhabited by nihilism. It is this 'unreadability' or 'undecidability' that the critic, if he is canny, will admit, open his own writing to:

Criticism is a human activity which depends for its validity on never being at ease within a fixed "method." It must constantly put its own grounds in question. the critical text and the literary texts are each parsite and host for the other, each feeding on the other and feeding it, destroying and being destroyed.
The position as I understand Miller to be stating is not to, cannot be to, construct a metalanguage which will encompass the play against each other of the parasite and host, rhetoric and grammar, figure and word; we must remain within language and its deep contra-dictions, within the tangle of repetitions, the co-inherence of metaphysics and nihilism -- which are themselves like dialectics, but are also not dialectics (as dialectics are solvable puzzles, images of metaphysics) but undecidabilities (in which closure is rendered impossible and even inconceivable). Interpretation is not an achieved point but a ceaseless movement, and this movement is deconstruction:
The tension between dialectic and undecidability is another way in which this form of criticism remains open, in the ceaseless movement of an "in place of" without resting place.

The word "deconstruction" is in one way a good one to name this movement. The word, like other words in "de," "decrepitude," for example, or "denotation," describes a paradoxical action [the para-doxical is both outside and along side of the doxic, the officially true] which is negative and positive at once....It is a paralysis of thought in the face of what cannot be thought rationally: analysis, paralysis; solution, dissolution; composition, decomposition; mantling, dismantling; canny, uncanny....Deconstructive criticism moves back and forth between the poles of these pairs, proving in its own activity, for example, that ther is no deconstruction which is not at the same time constructive, affirmative.

Deconstruction, Miller seems to be concluding, opens us to the power and the complexities of language, thought, tradition, influence, meaning, to the ambiguities and paradoxes which really constitute what we once mistook for a unified field theory of human knowledge, by providing a form, a way of prceeding, which acknowledges the deep mysteries of meaning and which allows us to free ourselves from the tyrannies of univocal reading.