Here are two statements, slightly redacted by me but nonetheless redolent of the intellectual atmospheres of two books published fifteen years apart, in the late 1980s and early 2000s, respectively. These passages aren’t necessarily programmatic declarations. I'm treating them simply as two core samples, chosen nearly at random, that can show us the elements in a method.
The later one first:
"[While] rituals...make descent through the father visible[,] they also articulate the structure of kinship, and locate the participant in that structure. The most ambitious literary texts take as their objects of representation social and political systems built on patricentric kinship relations, weighing the religious and historical dimensions of social order against its personal costs." (7)
And then the earlier:
"Consciousness—like the modern state—erects its sovereignty at considerable cost." (22)
These observations come from two books by David Lee Miller: The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 Faerie Queene (1988) and Dreams of the Burning Child: Sacrificial Sons and the Father's Witness (2003). As I said in a conference paper on the occasion of Miller's retirement that was the original version of this essay, these statements are artifacts of the first phase of his career. We encounter in them certain habits of thought that speak to Miller's distinctive gifts as a critic, to his network of influences, and to the historical moment in which he was writing. I'd like to devote a few words to three things that show up in both of these passages.
First, in both passages we see an attention to the building of social relations or cultural ideals, a preoccupation of Miller's work at all stages. This constructivist tendency draws him toward certain thinkers such as Nietzsche and Lacan for whom the making of culture—with the emphasis on making— is a primary concern, and away from others who are more idealist or universalist. Values such as Truth, Holiness, and Beauty tend to appear in Miller's arguments in order to be shown in their process of being made and unmade—sometimes as compromised or derelict, sometimes as under negation, but seldom as whole and intact. Edmund Spenser's narrative in The Faerie Queene, for instance, "reconstitutes the absolute values on which it depends"—a statement Miller makes early on in The Poem's Two Bodies, with which probably every reader of Spenser since Harry Berger agrees in principle.
How does that reconstitution happen? The marvelous second chapter of the book narrates the process through a set of "negative moments" (in Petrarch's "Ascent of Mont Ventoux," in the palinodic character of Spenser's Four Hymns, and in Redcross Knight's visit to the House of Holiness) and calls our attention to the irrecuperability of those moments in the dialectical progression that follows from them. The statement I just quoted occurs in a wonderful footnote that is a moment of negation for The Poem's Two Bodies itself: the note, just a couple of pages into the chapter, responds to the article in PMLA in which Gordon Teskey disseminated an early version of what would become his influential ideas about allegory, taking Teskey to task for minimizing the role of negation in the epistemological process of The Faerie Queene. But the footnote comes too early: Miller has mentioned negation once or twice but hasn't yet demonstrated how it works in Petrarch, The Faerie Queene, or anywhere else, and so we are asked to reject Teskey's nondialectical reading of the poem in favor of an as yet undeveloped dialectical reading: forgo one model, Miller asks us, but wait for its replacement—a procedure that means Miller is showing us negation in action before he explains it.
The next thing I want to observe in these two passages is the distinctive way that Miller treats social and political conditions—what in one passage he calls "social and political systems," and in the other he invokes with the metonymy "the modern state." Now my first encounters with Miller's work took place in my private discoveries of his earliest articles, which I examined obsessively when I was a graduate student as the very model of a kind of scholarship I didn't see anywhere around me; but a few years later, the first time I heard his name mentioned by someone, it was in the context of a group of so-called New Historicists in about 1984. My private experience of Miller's work never matched this label that was so popular at the time; perhaps this is a taxonomy that has ceased to matter thirty-plus years later, but in my view he was never a New Historicist but a far more complicated and sui generis critic. (You could make the case that no one was a New Historicist; but my point is that the term fit Miller especially poorly even then, when many scholars of his generation accepted the label.)
Where in Miller's work are the epochal events such as the Reformation or the coronation of Elizabeth, or the institutional practices such as patronage or the royal progress or the masque, or the scenes such as the court that preoccupied most new historicist critics of that era? These things are there in his work, but they are always enveloped in a rich context colored by Miller's own anthropologically informed observations. Look at the discussion of the Reformation in Dreams of the Burning Child. On his way to a startlingly original discussion of Hamlet and The Winter's Tale, Miller treats the Reformation as a "disturbance in the history of witnessing, both as a social practice and as a symbolic economy" (99). The evidence about the pre-Reformation context and then the event itself that Miller adduces is openly instrumental in his hands, lacking the authority and autonomy that is commonly assigned to contextual details in criticism of this era; he rarely shows the fetishistic attention to historical granularity rendered textually that we see so often at the time. Instead, authority resides in the epochal significance of an event, the crisis of witness, that occurs outside of any single work such as Hamlet or The Winter's Tale but informs everything in those texts. This was a time in which the adjective "cultural" came to be applied to many things in our field more or less indiscriminately, as what my colleague Sepp Gumbrecht calls a mandatory qualifier—as in the then-fashionable paired adjectives "literary and cultural."
Miller's work, unlike much of what his contemporaries were doing, needed no such qualifier: it was always cultural in the broadest sense—more than it was national, or even literary. When I say it was cultural, I mean its final frame of reference was culture in the widest sense, with all the argumentative challenges that entails. Then and now, few critics do this kind of work because its risks often outweigh its rewards—as may have been the case with Dreams of a Burning Child, which has never got all of the acclaim it deserves. (By the way, someone should give careful attention to the measures taken in that book to defeat a prospective universalism. What in someone else's hands could easily have become a historically flattened argument—think the less persuasive work of René Girard—remains nuanced and historicist on Miller's own terms, but the work of maintaining that balance between the culturally general and the historically particular is done on every page.)
The third thing I want to notice is the concern for costs: "weighing the religious and historical dimensions of social order against its personal costs" and "Consciousness—like the modern state—erects its sovereignty at considerable cost." What do we learn from a critic attuned to cost?
A criticism of costs recovers for us the Renaissance of incomplete transactions and uneven bargains; it dwells on how the imitations and transmissions that drive the art of the period are attenuated and thwarted; in an age that witnesses enormous gains for some in power, knowledge, and treasure, this is a criticism that tallies up the losses (and "loss" is one of the keywords of Miller's scholarship). One might ask: why do we need such a criticism? The period itself seems amply aware of the costs of its investments in humanism, individualism, absolutism, and empire; even the figures who can be classed as fairly idealist, from Pico to Pascal, tend to register the profits and losses of their programs in a rhetorical minor key, in (at least) ironies, qualifications, and asides. And entire genres come into existence in response to the perceived omissions of others—think of how the picaresque emerges to show the underside of utopia.
If a cost consciousness is already built into the period, what's left for a criticism oriented to costs to offer us? The answer, which might be dictated to us straight out of Miller's work, is largely ethical: in a field that obliges us to handle terms such as love, perfection, and truth that we find inescapably woven into every text, a criticism of costs serves as a prophylactic that protects us against the risk of taking such concepts as natural, inevitable, or given. Scholars such as Miller tend us, cleaning away idealist residues, always incompletely but no less urgently for that; they make us more honest, even though we will always be in part deceived and crooked from the materials that pass through our fingers.
The kind of criticism Miller writes hasn't always been practiced in the field, and even after the decline of critical universalism that comes with the end of World War II (and arrives in Spenser studies with the work of Berger in about 1957), this kind of work has never been easy or inevitable, let alone dominant; it has to be cultivated anew by each generation. From some of Miller's polemical footnotes, one could assemble a roll call of those contemporaneous critics (I'll name only two, Robert Durling and Thomas Roche) who still didn’t get it. But we needed this kind of work then, and we need it just as much now.
Photographs courtesy of David Lee Miller.