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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
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Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
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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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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

In response to Stanley Fish’s “Will The Humanities Save Us?”

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/08/08 at 05:52 AM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Bill Benzon calls our attention to a new blog entry by Stanley Fish, posted by The New York Times here.

It is easy to imagine how, after a lifetime of dedicated scholarship, an emeritus professor like Fish might react in frustration against the platitudes in Education’s End, a new book by professor of law Anthony Kronman. Kronman has little to offer us; his vision of college as a place for the “nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together form the basis for living the best life one can” is a rhetorically tepid, repackaged version of a pedagogical philosophy shared by many earlier authors, including Matthew Arnold and Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne figures prominently in Alexander Nehamas’s book The Art of Living, which is entirely devoted to the enormous history of this idea within the Western philosophical tradition alone, to say nothing of history, literary studies, or the other constituent disciplines of the humanities.

That said, the banality of Kronman’s prose is no excuse for what Fish has written. Fish ends his post thus:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

The crux of Fish’s argument against literature as an agent of moral self-fashioning goes like this:

If [Kronman’s position] were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge.

It my sincere belief that this argument is worthless. I hope, when I am finished, that it will be ashamed to show its face again. It is hardly original with Fish; rather, it is everywhere, since it makes scholars in the humanities feel humble and forthright, and it makes people hostile towards the humanities rejoice.

To begin with, there is no universal standard of behavior to which Fish can appeal in order to prove his point. Instead, one of the foundational principles of much study in the humanities is the idea of incomparability: we give up trying to decide whether one individual, or one culture, is essentially superior to another. Look at the description he chooses: “generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people.” Such an account of the supposed purpose of literary studies would have sickened Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote:

The oppressed, downtrodden, outraged exhort one another with the vengeful cunning of impotence: “let us be different from the evil, namely good! And he is good who does not outrage, who harms nobody, who does not attack, who does not requite, who leaves revenge to God, who keeps himself hidden as we do, who avoids evil and desires little from life, like, us, the patient, humble, and just.” (Genealogy of Morals, 1.14)

Nietzsche also described honesty as the virtue of those afraid of what secrets others may keep from them. Of course, nobody has to take Nietzsche at his word, but there is value in confronting him with sympathy, or with hatred. Here Kronman hits the mark. He writes about students considering “which alternatives lie closest to their own evolving sense of self,” and, presumably, which others lie furthest away. There is no reason to assume that engagement with texts produces a certain type of person, least of all a person who could equally belong to a Christian ministry.

Fish makes the ministry his standard for a justified moral vocation: “Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry.” In fact, ministers are also engaged in interpreting and teaching texts. Their proper subject is theology, and they are just as prone as other human beings to moral and ethical lapses. This fact has not yet extinguished religion, or forced it to withdraw into a sterile self-regard. Fish attacks the humanities but not other forums for moral education and reflection. He writes as though he had never read Chaucer, or, more to the point, as though he were a stranger to Milton.

Fish’s sample consists of “the members of literature and philosophy departments.” That is, his sample of the human population bears absolutely no relation to the actual participation of thinking people in what we might call “the humanities.” Artists, lay readers of all kinds, and students—to name only three of the many constituencies of the arts and human sciences—are excluded here, along with any thought of the purposes the humanities serve outside of the academy. Fish also imposes judgment from the outside; while he vastly overvalues his own anecdotal observations, he leaves no space for personal accounts of a profound experience of an intellectual work. I know, from reading an earlier blog post, that Fish has been an ardent admirer of Frank Sinatra for most of his life, and that he sees Sinatra as a symbol of “single-minded dedication to craft.” Craft is, of course, the most reflexive virtue of a work of art, but it is a virtue nonetheless, and not the only one a reader, interlocutor, or listener may choose to admire. The idea of devoting oneself to a craft is precisely the sort of moral valuation that opens out onto many human enterprises, including scholarship, and endows life with resonance and meaning. Fish will have his Sinatra, but deprive us of ours.

Fish writes that the humanities are their own good, and believes in studying them for their sake. I believe in studying them for our sake. But I do not mean for the sake of the salvation of mankind, understood in some grandiose manner. There truly is a difference between the evangelist and the reader. Humanism is not, as Fish seems to think, a substitute for Sunday school. It is the emergence of a reflective capacity within human culture, and so represents the possibility of a truly self-determined culture for individuals and collectives alike. The humanities are an archive of reflective modes of encounter and expression: close reading, historical reconstruction, artistic making, anthropological study, and so on. The arts and human sciences do not make us better people, according to some a priori moral standard that Fish, despite himself, cannot help bringing to bear upon them. Instead, they make witnesses and authors of us. They make us responsible, and free.


Comments

"In fact, ministers are also engaged in interpreting and teaching texts. Their proper subject is theology, and they are just as prone as other human beings to moral and ethical lapses.”

Excellent post, but this is where I think it goes astray.  (Why write about this part then?  Because writing “excellent post” by itself is quickly over.) The proper subject of a minister isn’t theology, it’s ministry. 

Or at least in some religions.  Let’s take the North American liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism.  There just isn’t a body of doctrine, so the minister’s purpose—in addition to the basic work of rituals around births and deaths, visiting the sick, organizing church activities etc.—is to help people reflect on which parts of religious culture they want to bring into individual and communal expression, and to help to negotiate the inevitable disputes between people with different conceptions.  In this limiting case, Fish’s example turns back on itself; instead of people in the humanities being compared to ministers and falling short, ministers do some of the kind of work that you suggest that is useful from people in the humanities.

By on 01/08/08 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The panagyric at the end is a bit flat, I think.  What is the difference between the humanities for “it’s sake” and the humanities for “our sake” except an empty distinction?  And it seems a bit odd to bring Nietzsche to bear against Mr. Fish without noting that Nietzsche reserved his greatest venom for the ascetics of academia—the same target that Fish is aiming at when he says they are not particularly noble individuals.

In their defence, you seem to want to say that, at least, they enjoy what they are doing, these students of philosophy and students of literature.  Which is all good and fine—but what would Nietzsche say?

By Herr Ziffer on 01/08/08 at 10:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The arts and human sciences do not make us better people, according to some a priori moral standard that Fish, despite himself, cannot help bringing to bear upon them. Instead, they make witnesses and authors of us. They make us responsible, and free”

Beautifully put.

Richard Posner is another one who has played the “English professors are no better than the rest of us” card; the exchanges between Posner, Wayne Booth, and Martha Nussbaum in Philosophy and Literature on the ethical potential of literature are, I think, well worth reading.

By Rohan Maitzen on 01/08/08 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I note that, as of 10:39 AM, Eastern time, Fish’s post has garnered 313 comments (of which I’ve read a few). That’s considerably more than many of his other posts. His immediately prior post - which he references at the beginning of the current one - went up on 23 Dec and has 116 comments.

16 December post (Two Aesthetics), 113 comments
9 December, Integrity or Craft: The Leadership Question, 127
11 November, It Depends What the Meaning of ‘Makes Sense’ Is, 212
4 November, Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God, 351

Will the usefulness of the humanities surpass evil in the Fish Comment Sweepstakes?

By Bill Benzon on 01/08/08 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You can use any text to justify practically any idea, but the idea of the uselessness of the humanities is not as innocuous as it may appear, as it is backed up by considerable institutional power.  As such, spouting this idea can help the above-average social Darwinian move up the corporate ladder of academia and make a reasonably fine living whilst repeating it. 

And then, think of all the tender young minds that will come to lust for the aristocratic prestige of the specialist without spirit, who will set aside their plans to do socially useful work to join such august and Olympian company…

The humanities may not save us, but the inhumanities are sure to help doom us.

By on 01/08/08 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Herr Z,

The difference between “the humanities’ sake” and our sake is that the humanities don’t have a sake of thier own. They are by us and for us. One might say that those things (or beings) upon whose existence we have no bearing (a skylark, say, or the moon) are ends in themselves; but The Aenead or A Tale of Two Cities would never have come into being if they had not been written, with sustained poetic effort, with the obvious intent that they be read by others.

Writes Fish: “An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good.”

But even Fish concedes that literary and philosophical efforts are not completely wasted. They, after all, bring “pleasure… to those who enjoy them.” That would appear to make pleasure, at the very least, one possible larger good of the type Fish claims does not exist.

One wants to avoid a utilitarian explanation for literature, but in doing so one does not want to have to claim that works of great genius are written for no good reason, or even no reason whatsoever.

By C. Schoen on 01/08/08 at 01:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s so bad about a utilitarian explanation for literature or the humanities?  How does such an explanation diminish the “object of its supposed praise”? 

There must be some unstated premise that I am missing.  Human beings have utilitarian explanations for everything, so why is literature somehow exempt?  Are people worried that the explanation will sell literature short, or that literature will appear less valuable in comparison to other activities? 

To my own mind, saying that literature has no value outside itself - or at most, only has value insofar as as it gives pleasure to the individual reader - diminishes the value of literature.  Lots of things give human beings pleasure without become objects of academic study or made part of a liberal arts education.  Fish’s non-defense seems like a cop out.

By on 01/08/08 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Platitudinous justifications for the humanities are unnecessary.  The humanities make us more good, happy, free, etc… But if they don’t, they can’t be justified?  What if Mozart made your baby dumber… Wouldn’t Mozart still be justified?  Once you make the raison d’être of the humanities some utilitarian purpose, haven’t you given the game away?  That’s the attrraction of the tautological definition of the humanities, that they are valuable in and of themselves, not for benefits that might accrue secondarily.

By on 01/08/08 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If Mozart made my baby dumber, I think I would want to know that.  It might change my decision to listen to Mozart around my baby. 

I don’t think you give the game away by talking about utilitarian justifications.  This is the unstated premise that I keep missing.  Why would it give the game away?  What game are we talking about?

By on 01/08/08 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

6:17 PM (roughly 8 hours after my first comment), Fish now has 484 comments, far outstripping his post on suffering, evil, and god.

In comment 481, one Richard Stack observes:

He does not, for some reason, (space, probably) deal with the most obvious argument which is that Humanities departments have been hijacked by a bunch of tedious “post-modrn” scholastic bores rather than by teachers and curators of great works.

I was going to post a comment observing that Fish made his career as one of those pomo bores, but, alas, they are no longer accepting comments.

By Bill Benzon on 01/08/08 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This post is just one more reason Joseph Kugelmass is my favorite academic blogger. Sure, as one respondent pointed out, “the difference between the humanities for ‘it’s sake’ and the humanities for ‘our sake’” may be “an empty distinction,” but I take Joseph’s “our sake” to point to the idea of the humanities as a kind of collectivist activity that enriches the lives of those who actively participate in it [as opposed to all of society, or all of “humanity"], that makes us more “free,” as Joseph puts it, but not without certain responsibilities. I think Joseph’s thinking here accords very well with the thinking of Danielle Allen at “Critical Inquiry“‘s 2003 symposium on the future of “Critical Inquiry” and critical theory more broadly. [Fish also participated in this symposium, where he indicated that politics do not need the “attention” of literary critics, but texts do.] In her remarks, “On the Sociological Imagination,” Allen wrote,

“If one wishes to know how language is working and shaping our world, one needs to know not just how it plays, obscures, reveals, and subverts, but also where human social orders are explicitly (and not just implicitly) held together by words: the realms of law and punishment, of value and the division of labor (gender and sexuality come in here), of religion, of organized strife (from athletic events to war), of membership in imagined communities like ‘the people,’ and of generational transition. Words not only tell but also do, but some words are asked to do more work than others.”

It has always been too easy [and cheap] to make the argument that since the humanities cannot be argued to have use-value in the same fashion as other academic disciplines, therefore it is best to argue for their, let’s say, valuable [or beautiful] uselessness [but is empty aesthetic-intellectual pleasures really all we’re after?]. It has also always been too easy [and cheap] to argue that no one really learns anything from history, crying over Antigone doesn’t make you a better person, or that only a very few rare persons will truly respond to Rilke’s dictum, “change your life.” What is more difficult is believing in and enacting a humanities that would create affective-intellectual communities that understand Levinas’s idea of “la petite bonte”: the little act of goodness. Goodness, whether through political diplomacy, economic prosperity, or the humanities, never triumphs as a force that sweeps everything out of its path, including evil. It’s like Auden’s plea to himself in “September 1, 1939”:

Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

By Eileen A. Joy on 01/08/08 at 09:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just a quick comment here. The mere temptation to judge the academic humanities as worthless arises, in my humble view, from assimilating the humanities to the sciences, and models everything in the former in terms of the latter. That the question of their worth even arises in the first place seems to me indicative of the age in which we live which increasingly sees everything from the viewpoint of empiricism and rationalism, cause and effect, name and object. But, one should not treat any academic domain with greater systematicity than it allows.

The academic humanities is not a building, and is not comprised of science-like disciplines which aim at constructing an ever more complex and layered edifice. It is not a body of doctrine, but an activity. The humanities function more as a construction site, and is not concerned with describing or explaining reality in the manner of the sciences. This is not a form of irrationalism - humanities scholars should not be insensitive to data, but the problems which beset them are more conceptual than factual in nature - and the problems of the humanities are the humanities - and call for different interests, sensitivies and abilities in people (e.g., an interest to clarify rather than explain, to take up a familiar Wittgensteinian theme). Our sensitvity to difference atrophies when we always ask questions in the manner of the sciences.

As Butler said: ‘Everything is what it is, and not another thing’. It is just brute dogmatism to impose uniformity where none exists.

Simon

By Simon van Rysewyk on 01/08/08 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I asked on the other Fish thread, what does it *mean* for something to be valuable “in and of itself”?  Where does this value come from?  Can anything have value unless humans give it value?  And can we really say we value something simply for being?  Isn’t that really saying we value it because its being gives us pleasure, satisfaction, cause for reflection, nervous shivers, etc.?

By on 01/08/08 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Humanities for humanities sake or humanities for humanity’s sake, it all sounds the same to me.

By nnyhav on 01/08/08 at 10:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich writes:

In this limiting case, Fish’s example turns back on itself; instead of people in the humanities being compared to ministers and falling short, ministers do some of the kind of work that you suggest that is useful from people in the humanities.

That is very much in the spirit of that paragraph, as I envisioned it. It’s true that authors like Chaucer and Milton have written very effective polemics against the Church, and satires of it, but it’s also true that certain parallels can be drawn between the humanities and some religious work. These parallel is especially visible for a group like the Jesuits.

Rohan, thank you!

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/08/08 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Herr Ziffer,

Nietzsche was a deeply ambivalent personality; in addition to academics, he criticized poets and priests, while simultaneously producing works of philology (including, but not limited to, The Birth of Tragedy) and an epic poem (Zarathustra) that bears a strong resemblance to the Gospels.

I do not mean to suggest that, as a result, his criticisms do not count. At the end of the post, I talk about the reflective capacity of the humanities. Nietzsche’s critical reflections on his time as an academic are valuable for academics because the raise the question of reform; not so Fish, who has plunged into quietism. Furthermore, while I have a lot of appreciation for the university system, I absolutely do not want to confine our understanding of “the humanities” to what happens at colleges and universities.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/08/08 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

I’ve tried to read the comment thread at the Times, but—hooray for the Valve!—the quality of the average response was so low, as with the example you cite, that it hardly seemed worth the effort. I’m not particularly surprised that he was able to stir up a hornet’s nest, but one longs for quality over quantity.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/08/08 at 11:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What interests me about the numbers is simply that this entry garnered far more comments than any other entry in the last 3 months or so. I don’t draw any conclusion in particular from this, but it’s as interesting to me - in a general sort of way - as Zizekian controversy at the Valve.

There was an early comment - number 10 perhaps, somewhere around there - signed by a Jeffrey Sachs. Now, is that the Jeffrey Sachs who directs the Earth Institute and Columbia University and is an advisor to the UN? I don’t know.

By Bill Benzon on 01/08/08 at 11:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In reading through these wonderful comments, I want to call attention to some of the common themes. Eileen’s very kind comment and quotation from Auden beautifully express something I wanted to include in the post, but couldn’t quite make fit: there is a matter of scale at issue here. The rewards of reading a book are not necessarily dramatic, immediate, or visible; over time, we get a sense of what in the culture has impacted us most, and what has shaped others; what has been a benefit, what a distraction. Yeats wrote that it was enough if a poem could please a girl in the indolence of her youth, or an old man on a winter’s night. There is, in asking so much more than this of culture, a tendency to become dismissive or grandiose.

This leads into Luther’s comment about the logical problem with Fish’s argument; if something gives us pleasure, then it is by definition purposive and instrumental. In fact, Fish offers all kinds of uses for the humanities, including understanding “literary effects” and comparing accounts of the “foundations of knowledge.” He merely fails to explain why these functions are significant, or how it is that they prevent the humanities from serving any other function.

My own personal best guess is that Mozart is not particularly good or bad for infants; regardless, I think Simon has it right when he suggests that these aren’t really the criteria according to which we want to judge cultural products. Blah, Fish wants us to think that doing without justification is, for some inexplicable reason, noble. But really, since we would be hard pressed to call somebody devoting themselves to life-saving cancer research ignoble, the presumption of nobility just makes the humanities look pathetic.

Finally, it is true that Fish seems to present us with a false choice, as does certain versions of aestheticism. The arts must be either pleasurable or morally concerned; they must be either capable of miraculously expelling an audience’s sins, or else they are agreeably useless. There is no benefit in applying such ham-fisted conceptual frames.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/08/08 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Herr Ziffer wrote (as Eileen notes) that there’s no discernible difference between culture “for its own sake” and for “ours.” There is a real and significant difference, however, and I apologize if that wasn’t immediately clear from the post.

Here’s a good example of how this works in practice: there is now far too much reading material for any single person to consume, Harold Bloom’s exaggerated claims notwithstanding. If you believe that culture is valuable in and of itself, you end up having to argue that people should either adhere to a certain canonized list of cultural artifacts, or that it does not matter what they seek it out, as long as it’s something. In fact, we all know that certain people will have an incredibly positive and strong reaction to Virginia Woolf, and that others will get more mileage out of Plato, and the reasons have to do with them. The readers are the justification for the difference, not something inherent in the work.

This has also come up in threads to other posts—for example, via the question of whether someone should forego reading more of Shakespeare in order to attend a performance or a reading by a friend.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/09/08 at 12:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A bit less glibly, would it be untoward to point out, by way of analogy, that the attraction of many mathematicians to number theory, long into its development as a field of study, was not in spite of, but because of, a perceived lack of applicability?

By nnyhav on 01/09/08 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav,

I didn’t have any particular response to your earlier comment, but as a modernist, I can tell you that the fine line between D. H. Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and E. M. Forster is one that gives people even more semantic trouble.

“Pure” mathematics or “pure” science are things we do out of curiosity; to speak, in advance, about what applications they may have is already to presume too much. Likewise, it is presumptuous to prize their sublime irrelevance.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/09/08 at 05:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav raises an interesting point, amplified by JK. But it’s not about pure math or pure science, but any academic research activity. Lot’s of us are in it because that’s what we enjoy doing. As for just why and how society funds this pursuit of knowledge, that’s a different issue.

And that’s the issue that’s on Fish’s mind. And lurking behind his rather lame defense of the humanities is the question of “pure” research in general. And, as far as I can tell, that’s been under attack for several decades. The most obvious index is not in the universities, however, but in industry. The once great Bell Laboratories doesn’t exist any more. That’s where the background radiation of the universe was discovered; as far as I know, that has no practical value whatever. Xerox PARC isn’t what it once was, nor GE laboratories (in Schenectady). And so forth. Research universities have been taking more and more money from industry to do practical research, leading to nasty intellectual property issues - most obviously in biotech.

Of course, that research is justified for its practical utility. Fish isn’t worried about that. His implicit stance seems to be that that’s how it’s always been and always will be. Surely he knows better; surely he knows that much of the best research in all disciplines has been done by men and women who don’t give a fig for practical utility, not ALL the best research, but some of it. And many of those researchers get their money by pretending to have practical motives they don’t have, by pretending that their research will have practical benefits that are, in fact, remote.

By Bill Benzon on 01/09/08 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think this is a very rich discussion and while I agree with much of what is being said here, especially with regard to, as Joseph puts it, how the humanities aids, let’s say, the progressive development [ethical, affective, aesthetic, etc.] and even freedom of the individual person, and also with regard to what Bill has demonstrated about the sciences--that they *also* have considerations of utility versus non-utility with which to wrestle [and much brilliant science work is often completely non-practical, as Bill rightly points out, although many scientists have to devise creative ways to mask this fact when seeking grant money; since my father was a program officer at NSF and my sister is currently a program officer at NIH, and is also a geneticist who formerly worked on the genome of malaria, this is a subject with which I am intimately familiar].

But Bill also raises the issue of funding and this is where all sorts of sticky difficulties begin to set in. As academics who are, for better or worse, I *hope*, also public intellectuals [and on this note, I follow the recent thinking of Jerome McGowan who, in a recent issue of “The Hedgehog Review,” wrote: “The term ‘public intellectual’ is redundant. There is—and can be—no such thing as a private intellectual. An intellectual is someone who, by way of words and arguments, aims to influence others. Like Diogenes in search of an honest man, the intellectual is always in search of a public, an audience."], we cannot entirely dismiss the importance of trying to work harder to articulate what I would call more forceful arguments for the value [if not the *use*-value] of the humanities, however we might want to describe the parameters, effects, intended ends & objects, etc. of that value, and then we will also have to better define “value,” and isn’t that something we do all the time, anyway, in the humanities? And we can’t blithely ignore the question, as Fish does, of value, because that is a bit like fiddling while Rome burns: it’s fun to do that when you live in the palace and you’ve already had your say as a ruler.

We will also have to rethink, too, what we think we mean, when we say “humanities,” and this reminds me *again* of some comments made at the 2003 “Critical Inquiry” symposium, this time by Teresa de Lauretis, who wrote:

“now may be a time for the human sciences to reopen the questions of subjectivity, materiality, discursivity, knowledge, to reflect on the post of posthumanity. It is a time to break the piggy bank of saved conceptual schemata and reinstall uncertainty in all theoretical applications, starting with the primacy of the cultural and its many ‘turns’: linguistic, discursive, performative, therapeutic, ethical, you name it.”

It may be that a large part of the “utility,” if we must call it that, of the humanities in the near future will not be so much making it more “scientific” [or even in new interdisciplinary alliances with the sciences, such as we see in cognitive literary studies or evolutionary philosophy], but in bringing the work of the humanities [of a new post-humanities, even] to bear upon the consideration of “the human” in such disciplines as biotechnology, neuroscience, etc. as well as upon public policy, while also maintaining discrete spaces for humanities/aesthetic work that can happily call itself self-interested. If Cary Wolfe is right, and “the human” is “not now, and never was, itself” [from his Introduction to “Zoontologies"] and if this statement can be seen to have significant ramifications in the lives of real persons [in both their psychic-imaginative and more bodily-material aspects and movements], then might not the humanities be the ideal space for both the critique and possible elaborations of this statement? And doesn’t that matter in the so-called “real world”?

By Eileen A. Joy on 01/09/08 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well . . . . some years ago William Golding published a novel about a bunch of boys marooned on an island - Lord of the Flies. The veneer of civilization washes away leaving a nasty Hobbsian world of brutal kids who end up at war with one another.

Well, if novels, plays, movies, music, dance, all that cultural stuff, high, low, and mid, if all that just disappeared, pretty much the same thing would happen to us. The world would become much more violent. The works of science, technology, the law, and whatever else would not be sufficient to keep the peace, even such as it is today.

But how do you turn that story into a defense of the humanities? Art for art’s sake won’t do it. But neither will art for responsibility and freedom.

By Bill Benzon on 01/09/08 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But I also don’t believe that Golding’s novel ["Lord of the Flies"] is an accurate representation of “what happens” when the so-called “veneer” of civilization “washes away,” any more than I believe that the reality show “Survivor” reveals the social Darwinism at the core of the human person stripped of his cultural comfort zones and slickly-packaged groceries. The world is already violent and will likely get *more* violent [thanks to looming catastrophes such as a global oil or water shortage, global warming, nuclear terrorism, etc.], but not necessarily because fewer and fewer people read novels or attend the opera or speak multiple languages. The violence of the world, and therefore of the individual persons situated in that world, in my mind, is more directly proportionate to certain economic and ideological situations that have never benefited [or been negatively affected] by the reading of a novel or a poem [or lack thereof]. The boys in Golding’s novel [or, for that matter, the girls in Marianne Wiggins’s “John Dollar"--a female version of Golding’s conceit] turn to violence and what we might call savagery, not because they have forgotten their manners or their education, but because they give in to feelings of desperation that are directly proportional to their fear of what they believe is their impending mortality. It is not that the veneer of their “civilization” has washed away, but rather, that their more “animal” selves, which have always been there, feel less protected by that civilization and are more nakedly vulnerable, more exposed. But these stories also leave a great deal out in order to make their thinly-veiled polemical points, because there has never been an historical moment of great catastrophe and inhumanity when there was not also at least one person who acted more humanely, and without regard for self-preservation. The Hobbesian argument is very persuasive, of course, and any riot in an economically depressed city neighborhood after an energy blackout will seem to bear out his wisdom. But it is not reading novels or poems that keeps the so-called “peace” in such places *prior* to the riots that might break out there. It is rather, a barely-contained anomie layered over with a general resignation in the face of heavy personal losses that keeps things seemingly “peaceful.” Of course, the boys in Golding’s novels and the girls of Wiggins’s book were distinctly upper-class and, therefore, supposedly have more “reason” to contain their worst impulses, but these are fictions: what are their real-world counterparts, if any?

I just don’t believe, is what I guess I am trying to say here, that the humanities help make the world *less* violent. If anything, they can *inspire* violence, as well as peace.

By Eileen A. Joy on 01/09/08 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, isn’t the problem, both with Golding’s asshat novel and with that narrative as a defense of the humanities, that there’s never been a time when humans lacked the veneer of civilization? 

There have never been humans outside of culture.  Civilizations may differ, but every group of humans has “all that cultural stuff.” Aztecs had amazing architecture and human sacrifice.  Nazis had great films.  The Slave South had lovely poets.  I think Wally Benjy said something about every instance of culture being an instance of barbarism.  (Which is why WB was smarter than Adorno: he knew Beckett and Schoenberg wouldn’t save us anymore than aerotech and increased productivity.)

And I’m not certain forms of culture—poems or novels—keep us from hurting one another any more than other forms of culture—cooking or clothing, say.  Actually, insofar as cooking inevitably brings people together, it might be *more* socializing than poetry.  I mean, this guy Homer wrote a long poem that in part praises a guy who sacrifices his own daughter in order to stir up the winds that will carry him off somewhere to solve his brother’s domestic dispute.  And a bunch of Chosen People wrote a long piece about how they had to kill all the men, women, children, animals, plants, and buildings on a piece of land that a Big Voice told them was really theirs. 

Not sure The Classics teach us not to be brutes.  They sometimes teach us that WE aren’t brutes, but THEY are.  Which makes it easier to brutalize them.

(Which is to say: Of course art teaches us stuff.  But if that’s how we defend art, then we had better focus on art that teaches the right stuff.  That’s why I think it’s better, and more radical, simply to defend art and the study of art precisely because it does have human uses.  Houses and stories are things humans need; studying how to make houses, how people have made houses, how to tell stories, and how people have told stories, all is part of being a human interested in the species.  And we cannot help being interested in ourselves.  That reflexivity is one of our natural traits.)

By on 01/09/08 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Given that we do need stories, we are certainly entitled to study those stories and that need as part of studying ourselves. But why do we need stories & all that other stuff? Because it’s in our reflexive nature? What’s that?

Meanwhile, I’m trying to imagine how one would raise children in a world without make-believe stories and music and movies and cartoons and dancing and all that silly stuff that kids like. Keep science and technology and the law, all that serious stuff. But get rid of make believe, etc. and don’t let kids do it at all. Will any children survive in such a world? Will any of them learn science, engineering, and the law? Will any of them become reasonably proficient with language?

By Bill Benzon on 01/09/08 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Meanwhile, I’m trying to imagine how one would raise children in a world without make-believe stories and music and movies and cartoons and dancing and all that silly stuff that kids like. Keep science and technology and the law, all that serious stuff. But get rid of make believe, etc. and don’t let kids do it at all. Will any children survive in such a world?”

I think that thought experiment is called Hard Times.

By Rohan Maitzen on 01/09/08 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My critical comments on Kugelmass’ blog were censored by Kugelmass - no doubt it’s all part of his grand strategy to defend the humanities. So I’ll see if freedom of expression and critical debate is more acceptable here.

Fish’s argument that the humanities do not produce a better type of person according to some standard outside the humanities is perfectly compatible with Kugelmass’ claim that there is no “a priori moral standard” with which to determine what better means - exactly how this is supposed to contradict Fish is beyond me.

The most important point Fish is making of course is not that the humanities are worthless, or not that they can’t have any impact outside of the humanities. It is that ideologically they cannot be restricted to some predetermined purpose, because the humanities as a whole encompass (condition, frame) whatever ideology seeks to appropriate it. That is why the humanities must ultimately be “for its own sake”.

Thanks for letting me contribute.

By on 01/10/08 at 01:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Eileen writes,

If Cary Wolfe is right, and “the human” is “not now, and never was, itself” [from his Introduction to “Zoontologies"] and if this statement can be seen to have significant ramifications in the lives of real persons [in both their psychic-imaginative and more bodily-material aspects and movements], then might not the humanities be the ideal space for both the critique and possible elaborations of this statement? And doesn’t that matter in the so-called “real world”?

To me, the most important and complex issue here is how standard articulations of humanistic principles and goals fit together with compelling postmodern theories that are expressly hostile to “humanism,” including the Derridean phenomena that, I suspect, underlie Wolf’s deconstruction of “the human.” There is an ongoing tension between our sense of the utility of the old categories—“great” works, moral benefit, the educated populace that upholds liberal government—and our concern with all the assumptions that underlie Arnoldian thought, and link it to forms of oppression.

In my view, it will eventually be necessary to do a reading of postmodernism through humanism, in order to develop a vocabulary of common purpose within the humanities. For example, I am currently teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, certainly a play in which the human is anything but itself. Even so, one finds there a humanistic emphasis on the craft of the playwright, the experience of the audience, and the universality of the travails of love.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/10/08 at 01:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I just don’t believe, is what I guess I am trying to say here, that the humanities help make the world *less* violent. If anything, they can *inspire* violence, as well as peace.

I want to return to the terms I used in the post to describe work in the humanities, particularly art: “reflective modes of encounter and expression.” Human beings are perfectly capable of reacting violently to an unwelcome encounter, or of urging their fellows to commit violent acts. In fact, revolutionary rhetoric is usually directly concerned with inspiring violence.

So that, within the humanities, the question becomes not how to avoid violence under all circumstances, but rather how to interrupt the historical, ideological, and economic conditions that produce violence without reflection, or make it unavoidable.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/10/08 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew,

Don’t jump to conclusions. As sometimes happens, your comment got eaten by the Internet. This has happened to me a thousand times, and it’s always intensely frustrating. I certainly didn’t censor you.

Your version of what Fish is saying is interesting; for example, I take your point to be that we can’t talk about becoming “free” without relying on a set of discourses that it is the responsibility of scholars in the humanities to describe.

At its best, this attitude embraces the kind of vital uncertainty described in the quote Eileen provided from Teresa de Laurentis. It should not be confused with what Fish has written; you are supplying him with meanings. For Fish, there are good people, but after 45 years in humanities departments, he has learned not to expect them in greater concentration where he works. You’re talking about problematic terminology; Fish is using all kinds of terms completely unproblematically.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/10/08 at 02:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A postscript to the comment above: I want to stress how open-ended the definition of “scholar” must be, in the provided case of people working on the question of freedom. Such work is done both inside and outside the conventional boundaries of the academy.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/10/08 at 03:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For Fish, there are good people, but after 45 years in humanities departments, he has learned not to expect them in greater concentration where he works.

I suppose he talks that way, but did he really expect, when he started out, that his fellow travelers in the humanities would be better people than those in, say, physics, or getting business degrees. Does anyone expect that? What kind of rhetorical game is Fish playing when he points out that his colleagues don’t seem to have received a special dollop of goodness through their professional work? What’s the point of personalizing the issue in that way?

* * *

It occurs to me that there’s a difference between justifying art, music, literature, etc. as worthwhile human activities and explaining why we do them. I would think that justification would call on explanation, but explanation need not extend to justification.

* * *

As for freedom, it depends on how you talk about it. It’s one thing to talk about whether or not one’s choice in some domain is constrained by some external agency that has the power to enforce the constraints it dictates. It’s rather different to talk about whether or a brain made of physical stuff can ever exhibit free and undetermined behavior. And then one might ask whether or not the second question is the result of a covert rhetorical move in which the brain is treated as a coercive external agent impinging on the mind. But now I’ve gone way off topic, so I’ll stop.

By Bill Benzon on 01/10/08 at 08:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, The Iliad is all about making violence both inevitable and unreflective.  The gods are often pissed off that the humans are lagging behind, trying to steal a brief moment of calm.  So they stir the heroes on through emotional speeches to self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of their armies.

Arguably, The Iliad is also the greatest poem in the Western tradition.

I don’t teach students to obey Homer’s message.  Now do I teach them to disobey Homer’s message.  Both would be forms of indoctrination. 

I teach students to tease out possible interpretations of Homer’s message.  I teach students to chart how he makes a group of words on the page into a living character.  I teach them how to identify these character’s conflicts and transformations.  I teach them to pay attention to motifs.  I teach them that, as Fritz Lang once said, “Nothing in this film is accidental,” that every tree, beach, storm, star, fruit, or rock in a good story is there for a reason.

I teach them to consider *why* we do this weird thing called writing.  What is Homer trying to think about with this setting, these images, this lengthy similes, these characters, this plot trajectory?  How can *you* think about something using plot, image, character, etc.?

As I wrote before, teaching literature is important for the simple fact that humans do this terribly wonky thing called writing and reading literature.  Humans need food, so we study how to grow it, how to eat it, how to prepare it.  Humans need leaders, so we study past leaders and train future leaders.  Humans also need stories and songs, so we study how we told stories and sung songs.

This isn’t utilitarian in the sense that we do X to get Y.  We’re not studying wood to make a fire.  We’re not studying a cow to make a Beef Wellington.  We’re studying literature to understand what it is that we need from literature. 

There might be many blurry lines beween human and non-human, but those are themselves symptoms of the fact that humans are the animals who tell stories in which the lines between humans and non-humans are blurred.  Our first stories are always about a few simple things: earth/water, plants and animals, humans and gods.  Earth becomes human, humans try to be gods, humans are punished and made into trees or cows.  All of which shows us what makes humans different: that we need stories to draw these lines.  Coyote takes his eyeballs out and juggles them.  Which shows the audience the limitations of real people, real bodies, real personalities. 

Humanism musn’t be the belief that humans *are* the center of the world; it must be a term describing humans inevitable need for humanity to be at the center of their concerns.

By on 01/10/08 at 08:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In response to Luther’s comment that,

“Humanism musn’t be the belief that humans *are* the center of the world; it must be a term describing humans’ inevitable need for humanity to be at the center of their concerns,”

I can agree with the first half of the statement, but not the second half. Historically, humanism has served as a set of *situated* philosophies and socio-critical practices that have, for the most part, placed humanity at the center or “top” of the world, and has also demonstrated, as Luther writes, “humans’ inevitable need for humanity to be at the center of their concerns.” But humanism has also, at its best, named various practices of significant self-critique, which practice can be seen to culminate in scholars such as Foucault and Derrida and even Cary Wolfe who is a vehement anti-humanist [and yes, Joseph, Wolfe’s work draws heavily upon Derrida]. By which I mean, humanism must *not* be a term which describes how we [whoever “we” might be] need “humanity” to be the center of our concerns, but rather, must describe the process by which “the human” functions as a valuable site through which the practices of both “becoming” and “un-becoming” can unfold--by which I mean, the practices of becoming a *good* person [not necessarily in the moral sense but in the Aristotelean sense of desiring goodness in its multiple aspects of feeling, action, etc.] but also of forgetting oneself enough so that the world can be seen more clearly in its shining strangeness. To put this another way, I crib from Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, writing about Terence Malick’s film “The Thin Red Line” [in their book “Forms of Being: Aesthetics, Cinema, Subjectivity"], and who assert that we have to work on various ways to exceed our human subjectivity in order that we might move with a more intense *affectivity* toward “a community grounded in anonymity and held together by an absence of both individuality and leadership.”

To go at this question of what humanism, or the humanities, *must* do now, I also offer these quotations, of myself from a book proposal that is currently under consideration at Ohio State University, “Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism” [this is an edited volume, or will possibly be a multi-volume production, that represents part of the collective work of the BABEL Working Group, and the more fill prospectus can be viewed at:

http://www.siue.edu/babel/ProspectusFragmentsVolume.htm

[beginning of excerpt]

There is no doubt that humanism—especially of the variety in which, in Iain Chambers’ words, “the human subject is considered sovereign, language [is] the transparent medium of its agency, and truth [is] the representation of its rationalism”—has a terrible reputation and has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated in history. Furthermore, we are aware that any attempt to recuperate humanism now may always come too late if, as Foucault supposes in the conclusion to “The Order of Things,” “man” has already been “erased,” like “a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Nevertheless, there are good reasons, we believe, for hanging on to the idea of the possibility of a recuperated and recuperative humanism such that, while we are fully aware that humanism has a long and troubling history that implicates it in violent exclusions, deprivations, and disenfranchisements of all sorts, we would also aver that humanism (of different philosophical varieties) has also been responsible for heroic acts of psychic and material sustenance, rescue and redemption, mutually-productive alliance and overcoming, and personal freedom. This is also to say, following Edward Said, that what might be called the canonical texts of Western humanism, “far from being a rigid tablet of fixed rules and monuments bullying us from the past . . . will always remain open to changing combinations of sense and signification; every reading and interpretation of a canonical work reanimates it in the present” and shows us that history is “an agonistic process still being made, rather than finished and settled once and for all.” And even the most polemically anti-humanist texts, such as Cary Wolfe’s “Animal Rites,” continue, in Kate Soper’s terms, to “secrete” humanist rhetoric.

There can be, in other words, no anti- or posthumanism without the space of the university humanities where, as Derrida has written, the principle of unconditionality “has an originary and privileged place of presentation, of manifestation, of safekeeping” as well as its “space of discussion and reelaboration.” And all of this “passes as much by way of literature and languages (that is, the sciences called the sciences of man and culture) as by way of the nondiscursive arts, by way of law and philosophy, by way of critique, by way of questioning—where it is a matter of nothing less than rethinking the concept of man, the figure of humanity in general, and singularly the one presupposed by what we have called, in the university, for the last few centuries, the Humanities.” In this sense, the BABEL Working Group desires what Martin Halliwell and Andy Mousley have termed a critical or “baggy” humanism that “takes the human to be an open-ended and mutable process.” And like Halliwell and Mousley, we wish to develop a new or post-humanism that is “both a pluralistic and a self-critical tradition that folds in and over itself, provoking a series of questions and problems rather than necessarily providing consolation or edification for individuals when faced with intractable economic, political, and social pressures.” This is a humanism that acknowledges, with Chambers, that “being in the world does not add up, it never arrives at the complete picture, the conclusive verdict. There is always something more that exceeds the frame we desire to impose.” And this is also a humanism that agrees with Wolfe that “the human” is “not now, and never was, itself.”

A heretofore underdeveloped consideration of the deep past in the posthumanist project is where BABEL locates its point of entry into the ongoing conversation, but the (posthuman) present always provides, for BABEL, the pressing questions. We are therefore intensely invested, as Fernand Braudel was in the 1950s, with the idea that “nothing is more important, nothing comes closer to the crux of social reality, than [the] living, intimate, infinitely repeated opposition between the instant of time and that time which flows only slowly. Whether it is a question of the past or of the present, a clear awareness of this plurality of social time is indispensable to the communal methodology of the human sciences.” As regards our more narrow purview—literature, history, philosophy, narrative and critical theory, and the arts—BABEL is especially concerned with developing, from a long or “slow” historical perspective, a critical humanism that would explore: 1) the significance (historical, socio-cultural, psychic, etc.) of human expression, and affectivity; 2) the impact of technology and new sciences on what it means to be a human self; 3) the importance of art and literature to defining and enacting human selves; 4) the importance of history in defining and re-membering the human; 5) the artistic possibilities inherent in the human, and how those artistic possibilities rewrite, or redraw, the human as open and not closed; 6) the question of what might be called a human collectivity or human “join”: what is the value, and peril, of “being human” together? and finally, 7) the constructive, and destructive, relations (aesthetic, historical, and philosophical) of the human to the nonhuman.

[end of excerpt]

Well, that’s BABEL’s [and my] 25 cents, anyway, when it comes to Fish’s and others’ arguments over the value or non-value of humanism & the humanities. Historically, I would just also say again, that humanism at its best is a non-narcissistic self-critical practice that seeks, not to make the human central, but to *use* what is best or unique in human *being* and human activity in order to improve what I would call a general, more enworlded well-being.

By Eileen A. Joy on 01/10/08 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My apologies to Kugelmass for jumping to conclusions.

The crucial passage in Fish’s argument is this:

“Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge.”

The humanities, like every other academic discipline, is a matter of technical expertise and epistemic authority. It’s object of study is not the self, or the soul, or the good life, but texts. This makes it useless for everything but the study of texts. This is not nothing. But there’s no point trying to justify it on the basis of its external effects, because that would be to misrepresent what the humanities are about.

By on 01/11/08 at 05:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m reminded of John Holbo’s weariness over Ann Boleyn’s six fingers. ...

I don’t know how we can improve on Horace’s declaration that the purpose of rhetoric/poetry is to instruct and please (utile et dulce)—or be useful and please, if you prefer. Indeed, from what we know of ancient oral transmission, poetry has always had a didactic function.

Larger claims are just that—claims, of the sort that cannot be supported by quantifiable evidence. We’ve all had the experience of engaging with atrocious but highly culturally literate people. And we’ve all had the experience of engaging with wonderful but culturally illiterate folks.

Let’s accept that our belief in the beneficial nature of the humanities is just a belief, and no amount of clever argumentation can change that—at least not until we have a suitable calculus.

By on 01/11/08 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Montion’s statement, following Fish, that the object of the study of the humanities is texts and “this makes it useless for everything but the study of texts” astounds me. Has all of post-structural philosophy been for nought? If you don’t think, texts, and the language that makes up texts, have a profound impact on individual but also collective selves, lives, etc., I don’t know what to say. To also argue, as Trent does, that the possible beneficial nature of the humanities “is just a belief, and no amount of clever argumentations can change that,” well, again, I don’t know what to say. Thomas Jefferson was influenced by his humanities education and this little thing called the United States was partly the result of that, and I could go on, but I won’t because it might be too tiring to keep discussing something so frivolous as how the study of texts might mean something more than just, um, understanding textual effects. And this thing about “different accounts of the foundations of knowledge"--well, they’re just different is all. That won’t change anything that’s “real.”

By Eileen A. Joy on 01/11/08 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew,

Fish does provide us these two rhetorical/genealogical justifications for the existence of the humanities, but begs the question in the process. Why should we care what “literary effects” are, or how they function? Why should we try to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge?

I do not understand how a range of disciplines that, among many other things, directly encompasses Aristotle’s treatise on the good life (the Ethics), can simultaneously be called unconcerned with the good life.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/11/08 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know how we can improve on Horace’s declaration that the purpose of rhetoric/poetry is to instruct and please (utile et dulce)—or be useful and please, if you prefer. Indeed, from what we know of ancient oral transmission, poetry has always had a didactic function.

I’m not trying to improve on Horace; I’m trying to defend his and similar positions.

And we’ve all had the experience of engaging with wonderful but culturally illiterate folks.

Human beings are complex and contradictory; as I’ve tried to stress over and over, the mere fact of having read Pale Fire or Margaret Mead is not going to produce a moral genius.

That said, I do not believe in “culturally illiterate” people any more than I believe in gnomes. The wonderful people I have met who were not much concerned with the humanities were still part of families, still had a gender, a nationality, an ethnicity. Most of them watch movies. We develop in relation to the cultures that surround us, which is to say in relation to other people, including the mediated relationships we choose through texts and art.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/11/08 at 04:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Eileen,

I take it on faith that the humanities have an overall positive effect on us, but I can’t imagine a proof. The best we might do is pile on the anecdotal evidence. (Btw, “Hi” because you must be the Eileen I once knew.)

JK,

Fair enough.

By on 01/11/08 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Eileen, JK,

Nowhere I think does Fish say that texts, literary or philosophical, don’t bring about effects in the world - he says rather that the study of texts doesn’t. And that is because the study of texts is not concerned with the world per se.

The publication of the Harry Potter books had a significant economic impact as far as book sales go, but that doesn’t mean the humanities should concern itself with economics. Even in the case of authors like Rousseau or Marx or Jefferson, whose texts inspired social and political change, one does not have to be a sociologist to study those texts. To the extent that history and historical context is involved in their study, it is as texts. A similar point can be made with regard to Aristotle - to write a dissertation about what he says concerning the good life doesn’t bear any relationship to leading a good life.

I think Fish’s position is very much informed by “post-structuralism”. At any rate, it has a lot in common with Paul de Man’s argument in “The Resistance to Theory,” to which I’d like to draw your attention. De Man writes:

“Literary theory can be said to come into being when the approach to literary texts is no longer based on non-linguistic, that is to say historical and aesthetic, considerations or, to put it somewhat less crudely, when the object of discussion is no longer the meaning or the value but the modalities of production and of reception of meaning and of value prior to their establishment - the implication being that this establishment is problematic enough to require an autonomous discipline of critical investigation to consider its possibility and its status.”

But without going in to de Man’s argument (although I’m prepared to do so), I think the most important point of agreement between Fish and de Man lies in the following:

“Literature is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge ‘reality,’ but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world. It is therefore not a priori certain that literature is a reliable source of information about anything but its own language.... This does not mean that fictional narratives are not part of the world and of reality; their impact upon the world may well be all too strong for comfort. What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism. It follows that, more than any other mode of inquiry, including economics, the linguistics of literariness is a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations, as well as a determining factor in accounting for their occurrence. Those who reproach literary theory for being oblivious to social and historical (that is to say ideological) reality are merely stating their fear at having their own ideological mystifications exposed by the tool they are trying to discredit.”

The only thing I’d add is that this claim cannot itself be used to justify the humanities without becoming ideological. De Man offers a more sophisticated and subtle version of this point in the conclusion to his essay.

By on 01/11/08 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

De Man was a Nazi.  QED.

By on 01/12/08 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew:

thanks for your clarifications via De Man, whose words, regardless of his status as a Nazi, have some import in this discussion. There is obviously a slippery line here, though, between the idea that while texts [literary and otherwise, fictional or purportedly more non-fictional] themselves do a lot of material work in the world, writing about texts does not. Also, to say that, certain texts might be concerned with the world, but the study of texts is not, per se, concerned with the world in the same way, seems to belie, first of all, an impoverished sense of what “world” means. I also do not believe that everyone who studies the effects or knowledge-bases of texts [literary, sociological, philosophical, what-have-you] is not concerned with the connections between texts and the world[s] within which they circulate. But I *do* take Trent’s point that it would be difficult [if not downright impossible] to offer mathematical-like “proofs” of the benefit of the humanities, but that does not mean [for me, anyway] that we should give up trying to articulate the kind of good [and even bad] work the study of literature can do in the world. De Man himself obviously understands that “fiction” can have profound sociological effects, when he writes,

“ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism.”

It’s a little wierd to say, on the one hand, ideology is predicated on a confusion between fiction and reality, but those who study fiction can play no role in, let’s say, ameliorating the material effects of this confusion. I guess I just naively disagree.

By Eileen A. Joy on 01/12/08 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and Trent: hello back. If you’re who I think you are, we were in graduate school together at UTK? I hope I’m right.

By Eileen A. Joy on 01/12/08 at 03:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is obviously a slippery line here, though, between the idea that while texts [literary and otherwise, fictional or purportedly more non-fictional] themselves do a lot of material work in the world, writing about texts does not.

Given that texts do material work, I see little problem in justifying the study of such texts, and their modes of working in the world. Now, just how one studies those texts, that’s a matter of some contention, and I have rather strong preferences about that. But that’s not under debate here.

By Bill Benzon on 01/12/08 at 06:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nowhere I think does Fish say that texts, literary or philosophical, don’t bring about effects in the world - he says rather that the study of texts doesn’t. And that is because the study of texts is not concerned with the world per se.

Eileen calls this a “slippery line,” and I agree; in fact, I can’t make the distinction work at all. For a text to create an effect, it needs the studious attention of a reader, and the main work of literary criticism is the production of critical texts.

From what do we derive this split between text and world? I think all of the participants in this thread are aware of postmodernism; one of its most famous and productive claims is the elimination of that difference.

Of course it is possible to write an accurate account of Aristotle’s Ethics without the slightest personal interest in the problem of the good life; without agreeing or disagreeing with Aristotle; without expecting anything of one’s readers, either. But such an activity does not manage to justify itself in some mystical fashion. It is a waste.

De Man writes: ““Literary theory can be said to come into being when the approach to literary texts is no longer based on non-linguistic, that is to say historical and aesthetic.” This is only De Man characterizing his own work. From a historical point of view, the approach to literary texts has never ceased to be partly historical. In fact, historicism is one of the most thriving schools within literary criticism. Neither has it ceased being concerned with the aesthetic more generally—but one refutation will suffice. (Note: Is there an error here? Should the quote say something like “non-linguistic criteria”?)

The publication of the Harry Potter books had a significant economic impact as far as book sales go, but that doesn’t mean the humanities should concern itself with economics. Even in the case of authors like Rousseau or Marx or Jefferson, whose texts inspired social and political change, one does not have to be a sociologist to study those texts.

First of all, Fish is writing about all of the humanities, not just literature. I don’t see any problem with us emphasizing literature in the thread, but at the same time we should recognize that any potential virtue of his article, if it can only be applied to literature, is something different from what he said.

No, you don’t have to be a card-carrying sociologist to read Rousseau, but it helps. That’s only to say that what counts in the humanities is not the formal recognition of study in a discipline—that’s just the best way to gain the time to devote yourself to it—but rather a disciplinary approach on the part of any reader: a careful, informed approach. That is what makes reading productive and worthwhile.

The way De Man closes his circle leaves us nowhere. He writes that texts produce mystifying ideologies, unless they are worked upon by literary theory, but that literary theory cannot adopt “de-mystification” as its purpose without becoming ideological. This is not elegance, or, to use Fish’s term, nobility; it is mere paradox, and very unworthy of the attention it has received.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/12/08 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

JK,

I wonder about certain of your assertions. You say for a text to produce an effect, it requires studious attention. Further, you say that _only_ (my inference) a disciplinary approach makes reading productive and worthwhile. Now, if we claim that all readers always use a disciplinary approach, whether they are aware of it or not, then that claim doesn’t allow us to distinguish types of reading. If we claim that only a conscious disciplinary approach makes reading productive and worthwhile, then we are placed in a difficult position of saying that throughout history most readers—even those who have produced worthy texts themselves—did not read in a productive or worthwhile fashion.

I refuse to accept that. That claim privileges theory over art; it suggests that all those millions of people who love good literature but who haven’t studied theoretical approaches to reading literature are wasting their time.

Eileen,

Yup, I’m _that_ Trent. You know others? ;)

By on 01/12/08 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trent,

I absolutely see how my comment could have warranted the interpretation you give it here; allow me to explain.

Most of the different ways people read texts have their equivalents within academic disciplines, including serious analysis, goal-specific skimming, reading for ideology, and reading for style. Not all of these involve the same sort of attention, and I should probably redact the word “studious.” Billboards produce effects, but are almost never read “studiously.”

In other words, you can distinguish between serious approaches to texts while still calling these different approaches “disciplinary.”

Off this list, of course, is “reading for pleasure.” That’s not because reading isn’t a great pleasure; it’s because people mean different things by the phrase. Some mean intellectual satisfaction, others an affective sympathy with the characters and/or an interest in how the plot resolves. Sometimes it’s just an easy way to describe books that have nothing to do with work.

I think that in most cases, people are doing very high-level work when they read for pleasure, as it were “behind the scenes.” Again, this seems to me parallel with work in the humanities, which can be a great pleasure, and which frequently involves (at least at the beginning of a project) intuitive rather than explicitly reasoned responses.

The only kind of reading I don’t wish to valorize is reading done in order to waste time, though now people do this more frequently with movies. They don’t develop strong opinions about what they have read and make little effort to remember it or differentiate it from other texts in its genre. They are uninterested in or actually hostile to critical discussion. In that case, the approach really does produce an ineffectual text.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/12/08 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that in most cases, people are doing very high-level work when they read for pleasure, as it were “behind the scenes.” Again, this seems to me parallel with work in the humanities, which can be a great pleasure, and which frequently involves (at least at the beginning of a project) intuitive rather than explicitly reasoned responses.

That may well be so, but until a century ago most texts managed to make their way in the world without benefit of the commentary of professional scholars. Whatever our work is necessary for, vital reading is not one of them. The conceit that somehow we’re necessary for that, is just that, a professional conceit, and a tiresome one. Why do we keep insisting that we are needed to mediate between texts and readers? Perhaps the reason we blather on so about the lack of immediacy, of presence, is that we insist on getting in the way, thereby creating the mediation we insist upon.

By Bill Benzon on 01/12/08 at 11:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

O puh-lease.  As someone who works in middle and high schools, I can safely say that without English teachers and professors, we’d be screwed when it comes to literacy.  The scores of something like the New York State Regents Exam give us a good idea of what your average 9-12 grader can do when confronted with a piece of half-decent literature, and it’s not all that much, even by graduation.

Readers might do all sorts of things when they read for pleasure—but many, if not most, of those things would be considered “outside the text” by your standard close reader, from basic anachronism to making up pasts and childhoods to the characters with whom they over-identify.

The illiteracy rate in America gives us some idea of what humanities professors and teachers are good for.  It’s like the Middle Ages, and we’re the monks.

By on 01/13/08 at 01:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Come on, Luther, what do basic literacy skills have to do with the kind of “reading” that’s been the professional practice in the academy for the last 50 years? People whose reading vocabulary is deficient don’t need to know the terminology of contemporary Theory. People who can’t write a coherent cover letter for a job application don’t need instruction in how to write for Critical Inquiry.

Conversely, Shakespeare’s position in our literary culture was secured by generations of theater goers and readers who did all those things ruled out of court by mid-20th century close readers. How is it that those poor people ever got along without Brooks and Warren? Oh the mistakes they made, the misunderstandings they had, all in the name of pleasure. The horror! the horror!

Among those forbidden things that pleasure readers do, they also write fanfic (the more literate ones); in the manga world, this sort of thing is a major phenomenon. For a number of years I followed the on-line postings of a particular group of fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” These folks were pretty literate (& most were college educated), there was lots of over-identification going on, at least some speculation about events not given in any episode, some wrote fanfic. Very little of what they said would pass professional muster, though every once in awhile someone would say something that indicated they’d taken a lit course or two in college. So what?

I wouldn’t have devoted half of my life (mostly without benefit of academic employment) to the study of literature, music, and culture in general if I didn’t think it was important. But I surely haven’t done so out of any belief that the kind of work I have published is a necessary part of the general education of middle school and high school students.

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/08 at 06:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, that’s exactly my point: there’s not a lot of sophisticated reading practice going on outside of professional settings.  Given the literacy rates of America, there’s not a lot of reading going on either.  But what literacy is passed on is done so by humanities teachers, who learn their trade from humanities professors. 

Let’s remember that the college-educated people who write fanfiction are a slim minority of people when it comes to American literacy broadly considered.  Most Americans don’t attend college.  Of those who do, most do not write fanfiction.  And it’s one thing to “break the rules” of reading for pleasure; it’s another to do it out of complete ignorance.  Feel free to think Hamlet was molested as a child if you’re going to write your own story about Hamlet.  But if that’s your only response to the character, you’re really not reading at all.  You’re just making shit up.  That these same readers do this same sort of thing with nonfiction, journalism, charts and graphs, and other forms demanding literacy suggests it’s less about their innate Romantic Creativity and more about their functional illiteracy.

By on 01/13/08 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

...there’s not a lot of sophisticated reading practice going on outside of professional settings.

Right. And there NEVER has been. Most of the readings given most books by most readers have NEVER been “sophisticated.” And still we’ve got a canon. I suspect that most of those 19th century pedagogues and critics who put the canon together would have been hard put to do a sophisticated reading; learned, yes, but certainly not sophisticated by current standards.

Feel free to think Hamlet was molested as a child if you’re going to write your own story about Hamlet.  But if that’s your only response to the character, you’re really not reading at all.

In order to get even that far you had to have read the play or have seen a performance. And if it impressed you enough that you want to invent a past for Hamlet and then write your own story, that’s something. What happened inside your head that got you even that far? What if you could get a bunch of students to make up their own Hamlet stories and act them out? What if they liked doing that?

You’re just making shit up.

That’s what they started saying about literary criticism in the 60s. It’s not at all clear to me that all our hard-won canniness has changed that in any fundamental way.

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/08 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But Bill, the canon was not made by average readers.  Conservatives still freak out that recent scholars have been studying the novels that 18th and 19th century readers REALLY enjoyed instead of studying the Canon. 

My experience reading 19th century book reviews suggests to me that these professionals were perfectly sophisticated readers.  They might have missed the values in very new types of literature (see Melville criticism), but they did not make the mistakes of naive readers. 

If professionals—reviewers, teachers, scholars—*are* indeed more sophisticated readers, well then that simply acts as further justification of then humanities.  For once, we can claim to have made progress!  But I’m not sure professionals today are more sophisticated than professionals of the 18th or 19th century. 

As far as my Hamlet example goes, that’s a fairly normal type of assignment in my classroom.  I tend to do it so that the students have to stick to the facts as we know them in the text, though.  Having the students assemble a *MacBeth* newspaper, with coverage of the rebellion, the assembly as MacBeth’s castle, the murders, etc., asks the students to examine the plot from different perspectives, to ask what we really know and what we can only infer (and what—such as Lady MacBeth’s driving force—we’ll never really know).

So yeah, you can take student interest in the characters’ lives and direct it in smart directions.  But that’s different from simply encouraging the sort of reader who makes shit up.  When my students claim that Finny and Gene are gay lovers in *A Separate Peace*, I ask them one little question: What evidence do you have for it?  They might go on to write homoerotic fanfic about the novel, but let’s not confuse that with an actual understanding of the novel.  The sort of modern reader who can’t imagine two men being close friends without sexual interests is exactly the problem.

By on 01/13/08 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In February’s issue of Harpers, Ursula Le Guin has an interesting, but deeply flawed, article about the fate of books and reading.  Her basic conclusion is that few people have ever read, so it’s not surprising that few people read today.

She traces the rise in literacy to “a high point of reading in the United States from around 1850 to about 1950,” a height she connects to compulsory public education.  But despite her thesis that few people ever really read, she writes this about old textbooks:

“To look at schoolbooks from 1890 or 1910 can be scary; the level of literacy and general cultural knowledge expected of a ten-year-old is rather awesome.  Such texts, and lists of the novels kids were expected to read in high school up to the 1960s, lead one to believe that Americans really wanted and expected their children not only to be able to read but to do it, and not to fall asleep doing it” (34).

So I have to ask: What happened to these dreams, to these high expectations?  The easy answer, which is in part the right one, is that these schoolbooks are a sign that the only students who *really* made it through high school were from stable backgrounds.  As schools netted in those students who rarely attended school in the past—in the 1960s-1980s—standards had to be lowered because the average literacy rate was suddenly lowered.  What many students had once picked up at home was no longer available to most of the new students. 

But, this is all tied to the Fish argument.  It’s no surprise that we’re suddenly forced to defend the humanities in an atmosphere in which many Americans have little actual contact with them, even through high school.

By on 01/13/08 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I think that your defense of professional readers/teachers goes a bit further than it needs to when it refers to fanfic, even bad fanfic, as making stuff up.  Fanfic has its own rules to handle just this problem.  Stories are either in canon or outside of canon, where “canon” equates to the facts established by the original text(s).  (A completely different meaning of “canon” than has been used in this thread, obviously.) A very naive writer of fanfic might never have heard about this, but if so they’d be so naive they wouldn’t refer to what they were writing as fanfic either.  Arguments over what is in canon and what isn’t are a fanfic staple.

By on 01/13/08 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Bill, the canon was not made by average readers.

I know this, though not in the sort of detail specialists in the history of the profession know it. But weren’t the now-canonical texts among those read and even enjoyed by the unwashed? Perhaps not all the now-canonical texts, but certainly a good many of them. And aren’t the non-canonical texts that were widely read, aren’t they part of literary culture as well?

* * * *

Rich is right about fanfic and its canons; what’s canon and what’s not was a constant refrain in the BTVS discussions I followed.

* * * *

All I’m trying to do is maintain a distinction between the role those primary texts - non-canonical as well as canonical - play in the cultural process at large, and the role played by professional academic critical activity. They’re different things. The are links between them, of course, including the one you’re already mentioned, that the people who teach those primary texts in the secondary schools are trained, in part, by the people who do the professional research.

To put it rather crudely, if the professional research disappeared from the face of the earth, but the primary texts remained, literary culture could still go on. But if the primary texts disappeared, leaving only the professional research, literary culture is dead. Recovering from the first disaster would be a lot easier than recovering from the second.

As for defending the humanities, there’s nothing “suddenly new” about the need to mount such a defense. Didn’t the 19th century creation of the canon have a defensive component?

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/08 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t time to read it right now, but I did want to note that Fish’s follow-up has been posted: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/

By tomemos on 01/14/08 at 02:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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