Fish Redux

A response of mine to Fish’s latest arguments about the Humanities was posted today in the comments section of the Times at Fish’s blog. I think I’m going to write my parents and tell them I’ve now been published in the New York Times! However, they think it’s a liberal rag. I doubt they will mention it to their friends at church. (Side note:  What exactly is a liberal rag in digital world–liberal pixels?  liberal electrons?  Maybe an e-rag.  I like it.)
My comment ran as follows:

I wonder whether the refutation of Dr. Fish’s position lies within the framework of his own argument, at least insofar as English studies is concerned. He begins with a marvelous disquisition on the way language works and means–or does not mean what we think it means–in Herbert’s poem. He ends by saying “I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s ‘Matins’) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’”

The rhetorical shape of his argument–to say nothing of its length–makes us conflate these two moments, and we find ourselves agreeing with him when he says, “I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

However, these are two very different moments of response, two very different pleasures, we might say. In the final instance, who, after all, would pay for us to say to one another “Gee whiz, isn’t literature grand.” The first instance, however, is an exemplary instance of close reading learned through a substantial amount of reading,training, and practice (in both reading and writing). Fish’s close reading points to the particular role that literary studies can play–though it often fails to play–in understanding the nature, history and possibilities of written language.

If I am right about this, a rationale for this kind of study lies not in Fish’s aesthetic wonderment, but in rhetoric and philology. Surely the way written language works in the world deserves the kind of careful scrutiny we give to bacteria and to economics. We don’t need to think of the utility of this kind of study in immediate terms. The study of pure science or mathematics, for instance, proceeds without any clear sense of it’s immediate utility, and students are required to study chemistry even when the day to day practice of their lives rarely requires it’s application.

Similary, we might say the careful study of how written language works need not be justified by it’s immediate application, but by a general sense that it is better to have human beings in the modern world educated in the ways language has functioned and can function and may function. A related gesture would be to return to a recognition that the study of literature can exist in part to create better writers–something that most English departments these days choose to see as beneath the seriousness of their enterprise. However, undergraduates that have understood the textual dimensions of complex, dense, and difficult texts may be in a better position to apply that understanding to their own writing in the future.

This might be a pleasure worth paying for.

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