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This article is taken from PN Review 48, Volume 12 Number 4, March - April 1986.

The Task of Criticism J. Hillis Miller

Not long ago Paul de Man could cheerfully say, with how much or how little of irony is impossible to know, that the task of criticism in the coming years would be a kind of imperialistic appropriation of all of literature by the method of rhetorical reading often called 'deconstruction'. 'But there is absolutely no reason why analyses of the kind suggested here for Proust,' said de Man, 'would not be applicable, with proper modifications of technique, to Milton or to Dante or to Hölderlin. This will in fact be the task of literary criticism in the coming years' (Allegories of Reading [1979], pp. 16-17, though the passage was written and first published some years earlier). It can hardly be said that this task has been carried out in the years since 1979 with much systematic rigour. This is true in spite of the widespread influence of 'deconstruction', in spite of the many books and essays written about it, and in spite of the brilliant work of younger critics influenced by de Man. But there has been more talk about deconstruction, as a 'theory' or as a 'method', attempts to applaud it or to deplore it, than there has been an attempt to do it, to show that it is 'applicable' to Milton or to Dante or to Hölderlin or to Trollope and to Norman Mailer.

In fact there has been a massive shift of focus in literary study since 1979 away from the 'intrinsic', rhetorical study ...


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