Hillis Miller’s Concept of Critic as Host

The prominent Yale critic, J. Hillis Miller’s The Critic as host could be viewed as a reply to M.H. Abrams The Deconstructive Angel, which he presented at a session of the Modern Language-Association in December 1976, criticizing deconstruction and the methods of Miller.

In his essay Abrams had argued that there is a fixed univocal meaning for a text and if we use deconstructive strategies History will become an impossibility. Miller replied that univocal and determinate meaning is an impossibility as history also is.

Miller begins the essay with a crucial question: when a text contains a citation from another text, is it like a parasite in the main text or is it the main text that surrounds and strangles the citation? Many people tend to see the deconstructionist reading as a parasite on its host, the univocal reading. Miller argues that deconstructionist reading is an essential and thoroughly naturalized ingredient in every reading, such that we cannot identify its presence.


The word “parasite” evokes the image of an .ivy tree, the deconstructive reading that feeds on a,mighty masculine oak, the univocal reading, and finally destroys the host. Miller rejects this view and calls this image inappropriate. He undertakes a brilliant etymological investigation of the words “parasite” and “host” to show that they contain many contradictory meanings (their opposites) in them. Thus Miller proves that each word has a reciprocal, antithetical meaning built in, and that these words are intertwined in their etymology.

The complexity and equivocal richness of words reside in the fact that language is basically figurative and metaphorical and hence it cannot represent reality directly and immediately. Deconstruction is an investigation of what is implied by this inherence of figure, concept and narrative in one another. Deconstruction is, therefore, a rhetorical discipline.

There is a common view that a poem has a true original univocal reading and the secondary or the reading is always parasitical on the first one. Miller, however, claims that there is no difference between both these readings. In his conception there is the poem and its various readings,  all of which are equally valid or non-valid. The poem is the food and the two readings, both univocal and equivocal, are fellow guests near the food. Thus we get a triangular relation between the poem and its two readings, or the relation could be like a chain without a beginning or an end.

Miller argues that an obvious univocal reading in the conventional sense is a myth. There is only deconstructive reading and it generates new meanings. The poem invites endless sequence of commentaries, which never arrive at a ‘correct’ or final reading and meaning. Like Harold Bloom proposed with the concept of the anxiety of influence, Miller asserts that a poem can never stand on its own, but only in relation to another.

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  1. Deconstruction | Literary Theory and Criticism
  2. Deconstruction Theory | Literary Theory and Criticism

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