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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Fish Replies to His Critics

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 07:11 AM

Let the games continue, Fish has replied to his critics. Will this post collect as many comments as the first? Will they be provocative enough to stimulate a third post. We’ll see.

Fish opens by giving a small example of the activity he’s defending. He “reads” a line from Herbert. That out of the way, he devotes a good deal of effort to distinguishing between a defense of the arts, which is not what he was doing, and a defense of the humanistic study of those arts, thus:

What is in need of defense is not the existence of Shakespeare, but the existence of the Shakespeare industry (and of the Herbert industry and of the Hemingway industry), with its seminars, journals, symposia, dissertations, libraries. The challenge of utility is not put (except by avowed Philistines ) to literary artists, but to the scholarly machinery that seems to take those operating it further and further away from the primary texts into the reaches of incomprehensible and often corrosive theory. More than one poster decried the impenetrable jargon of literary studies. Why, one wonders, is the same complaint not made against physics or economics or biology or psychology, all disciplines with vocabularies entirely closed to the uninitiated?

The answer is that those disciplines are understood to be up to something and to be promising a payoff that will someday benefit even those who couldn’t read a page of their journals. What benefit do literary studies hold out to those asked to support them? Not much of anything except the (parochial) excitement experienced by those caught up in arcane discussions of the mirror stage, the trace, the subaltern and the performative.

I note only that I believe he misunderestimates the extent to which bogus practical justification is used by those other disciplines promising a “someday benefit.”

As for the idea that humanistic study promotes critical thinking, Fish wonders whether there really is any such thing as uncritical thinking and points out that critical thinking is everywhere, including TV pundits on politics, sports radio call-in shows, and church:

So two cheers for critical thinking, but the fact that you can learn how to do it in any number of contexts means that it cannot be claimed for the humanities as a special benefit only they can supply. Justification requires more than evidence that a consumer can get a desirable commodity in your shop, too; it requires a demonstration that you have the exclusive franchise.


Comments

Well, for me, and I’m sure that everyone here agrees with me on this, literary studies is a way of defictionalizing things that literary artists spent a lot of effort into fictionalizing. Or literary studies can be a work of art which can be put on the booksshelf right next to the book it talks about. A book similiar in every way to the object book, except for its quality of worseness and relative uninterestingness.

Your welcome, folks!

By John Emerson on 01/14/08 at 07:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why, one wonders, is the same complaint not made against physics or economics or biology or psychology, all disciplines with vocabularies entirely closed to the uninitiated?

The answer is that those disciplines are understood to be up to something and to be promising a payoff that will someday benefit even those who couldn’t read a page of their journals.”

No, no, no.  Physics, to take only the field that I’m most familiar with, has all sorts of popularizers who are ready, willing, and eager to take the results of work done using exotic vocabularies and explain it to people in simple terms.  If you can’t explain some kind of physics phenomenon to people using ordinary language, that means that you don’t really understand it.  That doesn’t mean that the people who you explain it to will be capable of doing research in physics.  But nothing about the vocabulary that you use for research should become a barrier to understanding.

By on 01/14/08 at 08:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I do wish some humanities people would not use this line of argument:

“Why, one wonders, is the same complaint not made against physics or economics or biology or psychology, all disciplines with vocabularies entirely closed to the uninitiated?”

First, how many wrongs make a right? It sounds like an admission that the humanities people are adopting a jargon to establish a priesthood, and just saying that the scientists do the same and we want to be given the same esteem as them.

Second, among the reasons the natural sciences have a jargon are two good ones. Natural sciences deal with many objects that are outside our everyday experience (coming from mathematics or from observation) and so (a) need names and (b) have a precise definition. Part (b) is what distinguishes, from what I can see, the jargon of the natural sciences from the jargon of the humanities.

But I enjoyed the piece a lot, other than that.

By tom s. on 01/14/08 at 08:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

A thousand times yes. That’s why it’s useful to read explanations of, say, Habermas or Kristeva along with Habermas or Kristeva themselves. I had a colleague who wrote, imo, a brilliant dissertation, but his committee was worried that it was too easy to understand. He was told to incorporate virtually impenetrable jargon.

Our industry sometimes believes that what is clear is simple, and what is obscure is profound.

By on 01/14/08 at 09:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Comment watch: 39 comments at Fish’s blog so far. There were none when I made my post. Jeffrey Sachs has made two comments, #12 & #14. From 14:

I’d also add that Fish completely misread my original post. I argued that the distinctions between the faculties (and thus of the fields) exist ONLY in faculty phone books and web pages. In the “real world”, scholars mix all the time, where a philosopher of medical ethics (a fast growing field at the moment) might easily find herself in the faculties of law or medicine.

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 09:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In comment 33 we have an objection to his reading of Herbert:

I adore you, Dr. Fish, and revel in your thought process, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Your creative interpretation of “sunbeam” in Herbert’s “Matins” is intriguing, however convoluted, but whenever I see the magnificent display of an actual sunbeam I have no doubt of the existence of God, and if I could, I would indeed climb the sunbeam to Heaven. Could it be the poet meant simply this, and you have projected onto “Matins” your own angst?

Anne Russell PhD
Professor of Liberal Studies, University of North Carolina-Wilmington

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 09:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A scientist weighs in, *39:

The situation in some sciences is not so different. As an astrophysicist, I’m occasionally asked about the instrumental value of what I do, and I’ve learned a cheerful “None Whatsoever!” is really the only honest response that suits cocktail-party chitchat grade conversation.

However, were I to essay something longer, I could probably do worse than echo physicist Robert W. Wilson, who, when testifying before Congress on the construction of the Fermilab particle accelerator, was asked how the accelerator would contribute to the development of military technology. Wilson replied “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

— Posted by Carlo Graziani

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I see that the NYT comment engine has its quirks. The count is now 53 and Graziani’s comment is now #43. In what is currently comment #48 HJBoitel makes an interesting observation:

A careful reading makes clear that he has shifted the focus from the first to the second part in the manner of a three-card monte dealer, but with a lot less style. He abruptly changes the field of play, so that he can triumphantly say that the worthless is worthless.

He distinguishes between the great body of knowledge that is the stuff of the humanities, on the one hand, and the study of that stuff, on the other hand. If that was to be the discussion, he could easily have made it clear from the outset.

I wonder.

The distinction is an obvious one and I certainly spent a fair amount of energy making that distinction in discussions here and I did it because I thought the distinction needed to be made. It seemed to me that Fish was mostly talking about the professional discipline, despite his mention of Sidney’s well-known defense. My guess is that Fish had failed to account for the fact that what’s obvious from his POV as a professional scholar - namely, the restricted scope of his argument - and one-time administrator would not be so obvious to others.

This sort of thing happens alot.

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jesus wants me for a sunbeam interpreter.

By Ray Davis on 01/14/08 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sunbeam interpreters are not made like me.

By on 01/14/08 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

68 comments.

Beam me up, JC.

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

296

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

416 on the comment meter.

By Bill Benzon on 01/15/08 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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