Interview with Professor Miller

Stacy Hubbard (Associate Chair) sat down with Associate Professor Steven Miller to find out more about his background, his teaching and his new book.

SH: Where did you go to school?

SM: I went to Brown University, where I majored in Semiotics (which was possible at Brown until 1991, when Semiotics merged with Modern Culture and Media). Between my sophomore and junior years, I spent a year “off” in Paris, learning to speak and to read French—which is potentially the best thing I ever did. When I returned, I studied literary translation with Keith Waldrop and I went on to graduate school in Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine, where I worked on philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature in French, German, and English, studied with Lyotard and Derrida, went back to Paris to begin writing my dissertation, and translated Jean-Luc Nancy’s little book on Hegel.

SH: How did you get interested in literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis?

SM: For the majority of my school years, I was absorbed in the visual arts (drawing, painting, photography), both practically and theoretically, so much so that I had very little passion left for anything else. It wasn’t until the very last moment, during my senior year of high school, that I suddenly became powerfully interested in literature, such that, seemingly overnight, I left the visual arts behind. At Brown University, I was drawn to French Theory (especially Bataille, Barthes, Derrida, and Cixous) because it offered the possibility of combining critical discourse with a certain writerliness. I was most interested in Marxism (Althusser, Macherey, Adorno, Benjamin) and theories of institutions and collective action (Deleuze and Guattari, Bourdieu). I wrote an undergraduate thesis on May ’68 and the politics of the university. Interestingly, it was the politics of the university that led me to study philosophy more intensively than I had before; I was interested in the idea that, beyond the social and political function of the university, it has a strictly philosophical foundation; that, in a sense, the university as such—regardless of its late capitalist transformations—makes a place for the project of philosophy within society. As for psychoanalysis, despite familiarity with the texts, it wasn’t until much later, late in graduate school, that it became the focus of my work. During graduate school, I attended the summer training seminars, for both academics and practicing analysts, offered by GIFRIC (Groupe Interdisciplinaire freudien de recherches et interventions cliniques) in Québec City. My commitment to the work of GIFRIC and to psychoanalysis remained a largely personal matter, which might have implicitly informed my academic work, but remained something that I pursued over and above this work. My dissertation was largely on political philosophy, theology, and literature. There was very little psychoanalysis in it. To a certain extent, it was coming to Buffalo in 2004 that pushed me to situate psychoanalysis at the center of my writing and research.

SH: Your book, War After Death: On Violence and its Limits, has just come out from Fordham U Press. Tell us about the book.

SM: The dark core of the book is simply the observation, for which Goya’s Disasters of War set the stage, that what we call “violence” does not necessarily lead to or end upon the death of its supposed victim; that, in spite of pervasive cultural presuppositions to the contrary, there is no guarantee that the living can be trusted to respect or protect the dead; that, in a political register, we cannot suppose that the “object” of war is limited to the life of the enemy; and that, consequently, we must suppose that violence always exceeds its political function and lays waste to a host of objects (human remains, artworks and architecture, landscapes, natural resources) that are too often categorized as collateral damage because they don’t obviously factor into the official game of war. Readings of art and literature prove to be a particularly fruitful means to elaborate the epistemological and political consequences of this expansion of the field of violence precisely because they often become both the means and the object of such violence, expanding it further, transforming it, and potentially resisting it.

SH: Tell us about your involvement with UB’s Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis & Culture. 

SM: The Center is a unique “institution.” Specifically dedicated Centers for the study of psychoanalysis are few and far between; there are only a handful of such places in the United States. So I feel very lucky to be associated with our Center and its long and fascinating history. At the moment, after the departure of Joan Copjec for Brown University, the Center is going through a moment of transition. Both Tim Dean and I decided that this would also be an appropriate moment to go back to basics. This semester, both of us are offering “fundamental” seminars. I am teaching on psychoanalysis and sexual difference. The syllabus includes essays from a range of psychoanalysts beyond Freud, both disciples and dissidents. The readings are organized chronologically so that we can appreciate the number of analysts reflecting contemporaneously on the same questions and building on each other’s work.

SH: What are your favorite topics to teach? Why?

SM: I absolutely love teaching Freud and Lacan—both to graduate students and to undergraduates. With no other texts do I have the same feeling that they “teach themselves” and that my role as a teacher is simply to act as a “medium” or perhaps as what French psychoanalysts call a passeur. I especially love teaching Freud and Lacan to undergraduates because they are always less concerned with mastery and thus more open to the surprises that these texts have in store. Undergraduates are also not afraid to be scandalized and to say so, which I think is key to understanding anything about  psychoanalysis.

SH: There are a lot of misunderstandings about who Freud was and what he thought. How do you overcome those misunderstandings when teaching undergraduates?

SM: Whenever I teach Freud, I always begin by emphasizing what Freud says—which is a lot—about his clinical practice and process of discovery whereby he happened to invent psychoanalysis. I always want the students to appreciate the problems that Freud himself confronted and how psychoanalytic theory responds to these problems, less by solving them than by making a place for them within modern thought and society. At least initially, in Freud’s clinical practice, the most intransigent problem is that of the symptom. So we usually begin there, as Freud did, and then see where it leads.

SH: You teach some pretty challenging material in your courses, but you have a reputation for making complex materials accessible. What are your strategies for doing that?

SM: My operating assumption is that the most “challenging” texts are those that explore the most “basic” questions. What is poetry? What is representation? What is knowledge? What is death? Despite their inherent complexity, such questions are also very accessible.  I always begin by trying to show how the most bewildering texts respond to questions that everyone can ask without any special training.

SH: You also have a reputation for being funny in the classroom, despite teaching about death and trauma. Have you always been a funny guy?

SM: What I see on my course evaluations is not so much that I am funny but that I like to laugh at my own jokes! But, really, my jokes are not really jokes. In relation to what I was just saying, it can be very funny, out of the blue, to ask a class in all seriousness, “what is death?” Such immense questions almost always make students laugh, as they should. I am certainly always laughing when I pose them. Perhaps I am a Socratic teacher because, in my opinion, such laughter always means that thinking has begun—that “we,” as a class, have begun to think together.