Friday, January 30, 2009


In his online site, Think Again, Stanley Fish has posted several columns on the humanities -- 'Will the Humanities Save Us?,' 'The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two,' 'The Last Professor' -- asserting, a) the humanities, as academic disciplines, serve no purpose beyond themselves, b) the funding of the humanities in the university becomes harder and harder to justify, c) the existence of humanities departments will continue to decline. All of which is obviously true. But why bring this up now as though it were controversial?

Perhaps to make it controversial, so that talk might inspire more appreciation of the humanities? Unlikely, since Fish himself prefers to shoot down efforts to justify the humanities (albeit, only when the justification invokes a reference to some "good" achieved or aimed at outside the humanities themselves).

Perhaps to take some final potshots at the discipline that has served him well (and which he has served) but which he believes has gone astray? Maybe so, but Fish is no Bloom with his 'school of resentment' fulminations, standing as hoary prophet unappreciated in his field. Fish is a pragmatist, essentially, and what he's describing he isn't necessarily decrying. In other words, he sees the writing on the wall, and has merely the glib good fortune to be ahead of the deluge. As plugs get pulled on more and more tenure track appointments, he can, from happy retirement, write his intellectual memoirs of the glory days, should he choose.

Perhaps to maintain his 'cred' as a tenured nihilist, quite willing to 'deconstruct' (I use the term loosely) the claims of humanistic self-importance, i.e., 'critical thinking,' 'moral value,' and so on? There is something there, perhaps, since Fish finally, as justification for his own work, comes down in favor only of 'pleasure,' the 'isn't that great?' of the admiring reader, though he is willing to expand the concept of pleasure with requisite references to 'cognitive awareness' -- because, you see, the literature professor not only experiences the pleasure but is clever enough to be able explain it as well.

Ah, but there's the rub. That explanation of the pleasure immediately brings into play 'values' -- a line of poetry is good because it gives pleasure, this pleasure is good because I can explain its complexity or its sonority or its succinctness, and, eventually, this pleasure is good because it partakes of certain aesthetic or intellectual values which, in the history of the humanities (and, by extension, humanity) have been deemed worthy of attention, discussion, explication. And, ultimately, right appreciation of this pleasure requires mastery of a body of knowledge, of explication and critique, that exists by virtue of the pleasure of discussing a pre-existent pleasure.

In other words, Fish is adamant that he does not, by 'humanities,' mean to indicate works of poetry or fiction, or paintings or plays and their creation. He means the discussion and investigation of such works. But ultimately the only reason any culture would take such a discipline seriously, and support it, is because it considers the 'primary texts' important enough to merit the attention and investigation. 'As a culture,' we want there to be a body of knowledge about the great works of the past.

Indeed, that attitude did underwrite the classics as a body of knowledge (no one wrote 'the classics' any longer, one simply studied them). But as the study of the humanities has become more up to date, including, first, 'the moderns,' then contemporary literary works and visual works, then film and TV and the internet, that justification fades away, and you have, simply, people educating themselves to talk a certain kind of educated jargon about common (or more arcane) features of our intellectual environment. Is this a waste of time or money? Yes, if we want there to be some 'outcome.' No, if we simply want the discussion to continue.

What Fish is pointing out is that the discussion may not be continued, much, for the next generation of would-be humanists. This has often happened, in the sense that what has been the 'justification' for the practice has often had to shift its ground. In fact, it's rather amusing to look at the history of literary criticism and the history of intellectual fashion, as the 'lip service' the discipline itself pays to whatever is 'critical' or 'crucial' in an era inevitably comes to the fore. In other words, there's always a bit of that corporate 'run it up the flagpole and see who salutes' ideology at work, even in the 'objective' and 'non-utilitarian' reaches of academic study. But what Fish sees as different is that now all the 'lip service' is on the side of those who at least want to pretend they value the humanities, though they -- regretfully or not -- have to cut the funds. And Fish is right in seeing such people as a dying breed, since literary 'cultural capital' has disappeared faster than the capital in all those retirement funds.

So, I'm all for Fish's testy 'last stand': 'love me as I am or leave me.' Either value 'debate' for debate's sake, or be done with it. Don't try to swell the ranks of believers by selling a false bill of goods. The humanities, as disciplines supporting a doctorate of philosophy, are about nothing but training the mind to take part in the discipline, much as is true of any academic discipline. To assert a 'pay-off' for trustees or parents or investors or general humanity is to pretend that the work the mind does to attain such lucidity is supposed to support some other effort, an effort 'anyone,' (i.e., those not schooled in the discipline) can appreciate and see the benefit of. And that's simply false.

In terms of the relation between the scholars and theorists in the field and the undergraduates they teach and the university they serve, well, at that point there is some grounds for a discussion of whether there is any practical gain from taking a course in the humanities, whether it adds anything tangible to the mind or to the capabilities of the students thus exposed. And it's that side of the question that I feel Fish willfully skirts because, I assume, he's been long removed from 'the trenches,' where his TAs and other hapless adjuncts toil, trying to justify how they assign grades to the writing of the students who sit through Fish's clever, brilliant and insightful lectures -- who pay, in other words, for the privilege of listening to the professoriat exercise its mind.

Heiße Magister, heiße Doktor gar,
Und ziehe schon an die zehen Jahr
Herauf, herab und quer und krumm
Meine Schüler an der Nase herum --
Und sehe, daß wir nichts wissen können!
--Goethe, Faust

(To Be Continued)

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