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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Wayback Machine: D.A. Miller on Jane Austen

(N.B. these notes first appeared on the Green Romanticism listserv at the University of Colorado, Fall 2002).

A Report on Style – D.A. Miller's “Jane Austen and the Secret of Style”

The Miller talk was as well attended an event as I've ever seen here. I didn't take notes, so what follows is my hazy reconstruction. From my perch in the back of the cavernous, faux-Oxbridge mead hall the backs of peoples' heads appear not as the absence of their faces, but as a second kind of face, albeit one that can't return my gaze, which must be what makes them a bit uncanny.

The gist of what Miller wanted to suggest is that all style results from a queering of language or textual affect. That style is that feminized part of the text that narrates the process of its own production and is concerned solely with that and with nothing else. Substance is associated with the masculine portion of the text, the content, or message. According to this queer logic, style inhabits a kind of aesthetic closet, which the writer must resort to disclosing in order to achieve style, which is otherwise barred from normative discourse. Style is invisible, then, in some ways, but calls attention to itself in others. It can and does appear everywhere, but always in code, never under its own name. A lot like the homosexual in hetero-dominant culture. Hence, the masterfully tranquil and transparent appearance of naturalness to Austen’s highly rigorous and artificial style.

To illustrate, he gave a close reading of a passage from Sense and Sensibility, in which a group of women observe a dandy in a jewelry store go through some preening, overly elaborate arrangements about a toothpick case. The case, itself more important than what it contains, serves as a metaphor for style, as does the performance of the arrangements, a gesture whose expenditure is calculated to inflate the value of the case itself, in effect, making it insignificant. The dandy himself, through a complex exchange of inverted gazes that code him as gay, likewise seeks to re-position himself over the discomfited women as the primary object of visual desire in the store. Again, a metaphor for style. Miller unpacked a wealth of meaning from this finely wrought, but very small, episode. I thought it was a pretty brilliant reading. At the very least, it displayed considerable style.

In response to a question (by an undergrad!), Miller asserted that Barthesian jouissance and Derridean play are not factors that effect Austen’s text since she maintains an “absolute control.” And she gets this control by way of “discipline,” or “repression.” But surely wherever repression is involved, then so is a return of the repressed. Which means that whatever has been excluded comes back into play to destabilize the text. “Absolute control” is an odd sort of retro-move to make this late in the day, a kind of nostalgia for the imperial text.

One area that I wish Miller had expanded on was the notion of style and donation. I didn’t catch all of what he said, much less make sense of what I did hear. But it made me wonder about the idea of style as a gift, as donatus. Style as donation may be the way a writer tries to escape the constraints of the debt incurred to presence by staging writing as a pure gift, a gesture void of content or substance. The “gift” of style tries to displace one presence - the writer’s - and substitute for it another - the authority of the text itself, purged of authoriality, as though it were a spontaneously and organically self-producing form. Such a move alleviates the burden of anxiety the writer carries in facing her text. The move to purify removes or cleanses the text of its polluting elements, which is the imprint of the writer herself. Style gives itself in place of the author. It’s a kind of sacrificial strategy, a formal violence that elides the writer in order to present the text itself to the reader.

The idea that style is generated out of the secret tensions between an expressed masculine and a repressed feminine inside the text makes it appear as though the question of detecting style, or of producing style, will always be a matter of “outing.” This is a very clever argument, but I’m suspicious of arguments that are only clever, as I’m afraid this one may be. Which perhaps is another way of saying that all style and no substance makes me anxious. But my question remains: isn’t this an overdetermined queer reading of the production of style?

1 comment:

  1. Patrick, I remember this talk very well from back in the day. Thanks for posting these notes.