J. Hillis Miller 2005: Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James. New York: Fordham UP. xii + 343 pp.
J. Hillis Miller's nuanced, precise, and detailed elaboration of speech acts in literature has encompassed, in addition to a volume of the same title (2001), at least The Ethics of Literature (1987), Versions of Pygmalion (1990), and Topographies (1995). The longawaited appearance of Literature as Conduct is notable as a current update and consummation of certain theoretical issues into which he has delved over a significant stretch of his remarkably generative career, questions relating to the conceptual, rhetorical, representational, and ethical conditions under which literature is at once possible, felicitous, and impossible.
The volume at the same time orchestrates a meticulous and multi-tiered encounter with Henry James's mature fiction in all the exasperations, rewards, ethical quandaries, communications blackouts, confirmations of existential predicaments, and literary and theoretical educations encrypted in its astute reading. Each reading with which Miller emerges is authoritative. Major novelists, of which James is a particularly daunting and compelling, but by no means exclusive, example, will never again be readable in obliviousness to the play of speech-acts and performatives on which the credibility of their simulated worlds depends. In the wake of Literature as Conduct, the literature on Henry James gains a framework and focus of which it was largely unaware.
Miller explains the persistence of his interest in speech acts and performatives in some of the following introductory phrases:
The author's act of writing is a doing that takes the form of putting things in this way or that.... The narrators and characters in a work of fiction may utter speech acts that are a way of doing things with words--promises, declarations, excuses, denials, acts of bearing witness, lies, decisions publicly attested, and the like. Such speech acts make up crucial moments in the narrator's or in the characters' conduct of life.... The reader, in his or her turn, in acts of reading, criticism, or informal comment, may do things by putting a reading into words. Doing that may have an effect on students, readers, or …