We’re really getting desperate now

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a man walked into an English class at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis Tennessee and robbed 18 students at gunpoint.

Do thieves really have nothing better to do with their time than to rob a bunch of people who are learning how to read and write.  More, these folks will never make any money anyway, as amply demonstrated by their being English majors?

A theoretical side-note.  In my literary theory classes at Duke, I remember fellow students attempting to refute deconstruction by asking, “If someone held you at gunpoint, would you really sit there and deconstruct the gun?”  We may never know, but these students really have the opportunity!  I think the prof should take advantage.  This is one of those infamous “teachable moments,”  by which teachers usually mean “something uncomfortable and really unfortunate just happened, but let’s just turn it in to language!”

“How, John, did you see the gun–as a phenomenon in the moment of its appearance or as sign and symbol of our oppressive political dialectics…No thoughts?…Jane?…Jim…anyone?”

Speeding and Reading

As luck would have it I stumbled over two good essays in the same day that seemed to speak to my general concerns (paranoia) at the state of the world. Mark Edmundson over at The Chronicle Review has an excellent piece on the speed with which American college students live their lives these days, a speed perhaps most emphatically symbolized by the Internet. Edmundson is a professor at the University of Virginia, and the author of the book Why Read, a book, among thousands of others, I haven’t had time to read yet.

Says Edmundson, beginning with a chance encounter with a student at the beginning of the school year:

We asked each other the usual question: What did you do over the summer? What he did, as I recall, was a brief internship at a well-regarded Internet publication, a six-country swing though Europe, then back to enjoy his family and home, reconnect with high-school friends, and work on recording a rock CD. What had I done? I had written five drafts of a chapter for a book on the last two years of Sigmund Freud’s life. I had traveled to Crozet, a few miles away, to get pizza. I’d sojourned overnight in Virginia Beach, the day after I woke up distressed because I couldn’t figure out how to begin my chapter. I’d driven to the beach, figured it out (I thought), and then I’d come home. My young friend looked at me with a mixture of awe and compassion. I felt a little like one of those aged men of the earth who populate Wordsworth’s poetry. One of them, the Old Cumberland Beggar, goes so slowly that you never actually see him move, but if you return to the spot where you first encountered him two hours past, lo, he has gone a little way down the road. The footprints are there to prove it.


One day I tried an experiment in a class I was teaching on English and American Romanticism. We had been studying Thoreau and talking about his reflections (sour) on the uses of technology for communication. (“We are in great haste,” he famously said, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”) I asked the group, “How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?” Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson’s Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau’s “Economy” — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn’t take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that’s what the current technology invites, and that’s what my students aspire to do.

Edmundson’s essay is pretty wide-ranging, going on to link up with insightful discussion of the relevance of Byron, the natural of contemporary sex, and the laptop as an engine for infinitely expanding desire. Most interesting to me is that Edmundson rightly notes that higher education tends to respond to this situation by saying something like “There go my people, I must lead them” then rushing as fast as possible to make our classrooms and our curricula ever more multi-dimensional, multi-media, multi-tasking, multi-cultural, and multitudinous.

In part, the frantic and unrelenting—and perhaps unavoidable—drive for students as consumers leads us to “meet them where they are” rather than challenging and questioning the form of the culture we all necessarily inhabit.

Often times this argument is put in apolitical—and frankly just stupid—terms by casting it as old culture against new culture, or the culture of elders against the culture of youth. Edmundson points out that this generation of college students has had the internet since they were eight years old. My son has never known a time when we didn’t have an internet connection—even though we only managed to get off dialup a few months ago. How, one must ask, is an eight year old determining the contours of his or her culture. This is a culture that has been thrust upon them by mature adults who made the culture in which they must inevitably participate.

But to recognize that inevitability is not the same thing as having to endorse it or at least fail to recognize its limitations. The formidable speed and the wealth of information available at my internet connection is offered by denizens of the net as its greatest and most empowering aspect. It is also, perhaps, its most its most dehumanizing aspect.

Side note: who decided that more power—implied by the notion of empowerment—is always a good thing, always a humanizing thing. Ask Eliot Spitzer—awfully empowered. Not completely sure the quest for more empowerment results in better persons or better cultures.

Though, as I think about it, this isn’t really a sidenote. One traditional hack on traditional modes of reading (and traditional classrooms) are that they are disempowering. Too slow. The author/teacher is too much in control. Against this notion Edmundson suggests that the first task of teaching in such a world is not to speed up our classes, but to slow them down

For a student to be educated, she has to face brilliant antagonists. She has to encounter thinkers who see the world in different terms than she does. Does she come to college as a fundamentalist guardian of crude faith? Then two necessary books for her are Freud’s Future of an Illusion and Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. Once she’s weathered the surface insults, she may find herself in an intellectual version of paradise, where she can defend her beliefs or change them, and where what’s on hand is not a chance conversation, as Socrates liked to say, but a dialogue about how to live. Is the student a scion of high-minded liberals who think that religion is the OxyContin — the redneck heroin — of Redneck Nation? Then on might come William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience or Schopenhauer’s essays on faith. It’s this kind of dialogue, deliberate, gradual, thoughtful, that immersion in the manic culture of the Internet and Adderall conditions students not to have. The first step for the professor now is to slow his classroom down. The common phrase for what he wants to do is telling: We “stop and think.” Stop. Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They’re always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising.

Not long ago a young man came to my office, plopped down, and looked at me with tired urgency. “Give me 10 minutes on Freud,” he said. “Convince me that he really has something important to tell me.” Despite appearances, this was a good moment. It was a chance to try to persuade him to slow it down. Get one of Freud’s books — Civilization and Its Discontents is usually the best place to start — read it once and again, then let’s talk.


As to our students, all honor to them: They may have much to teach the five-drafter. By their hunger for more life they convey hope that the world is still in some measure a splendid place, worth seeing and appreciating. Into spontaneity they can liberate us. But life is more than spontaneity and whim. To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.

Yes, I think this is it precisely, and I appreciate Edmundson’s effort to find a balance between the culture of speed and the culture of reflection. But I also think he’s right that our students don’t need from us how to be taught to speed through a course of study; they do that well enough already.

Along these lines, I do think one of the greatest challenges facing English departments—if not the culture as a whole–is the deliberateness and singularly absorbed attention that traditional intensive reading requires.

There is a particular sense in which this kind of attention, this kind of slowing down, is “disempowering” in a particular and commonplace use of that term. I willingly subject myself to the book and surrender my consciousness to the authority of the text, my imagination to the primacy of another imagination. I am in some very real sense possessed and my consciousness of self temporarily dissolved into another world created not by the clicking finger of my desire—though my desire may not be suspended—but created by another will.

This is why romantics from Emerson to Byron to Barthes have hated reading (I say this even though Barthes is sometimes taken as a romantic of the reader. Or because of it. He can only imagine reading as a positive act if reading is reimagined as a form of writing, not a form of self-abnegation.)

My terms here verge on the spiritual, which leads to a second essay I read from Nancy Malone, but I’ve gone on too long already and will try to get to this later. Reading, or at least some kinds of reading, as a form of contemplative practice, one who’s desired goal the self-aggrandizing expansion of desire, but dissolution of the desiring self in any straightforward sense.

Emerson and the Umpires of taste

It’s not particular fashionable to admit that I love Emerson. Indeed, for as long as I’ve been in literary studies, Emerson and the other Romantics have been the arch-enemies that others have sought to dismiss, disparage, demote, decenter, damn, and deconstruct. Among other things. As an undergraduate this had a religious and an aesthetic cast. On a religious scale,Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson was a heretic who could say in all seriousness that poets are liberating gods, that we are part and parcel of God, and that he was a transcendatal eyeball (or something like that) creating the universe through his imagination. And we all thought Mitt Romney’s Mormonism might be just a little bit odd. What need the consolations of Christ when the advent of the world came through the exercise of the individual imagination, consort of the Oversoul?

On an aesthetic scale, Emerson and the romantics were merely gauche, optimistic naifs willing to blather on about the state of their own souls when what was really needed was the hard and broken nose of modernism, which viewed the soul of the poet with only a little less scepticism than the machinations of the modern world. Both strains of anti-Romnticism came together in the aesthetic pieties and the pious aesthetics of T.S. Eliot. Odd mix for me, but I’d still rather read Eliot’s Waste Land than Emerson’s Poetry. But, too, I’d rather read any one of Emerson’s essays than any essay that Eliot ever wrote. They are a poetry of their own, and by that I mean they move me and change the way I see the world in some of the same ways that Eliot’s poetry moves and changes me.

(Unfashionable admission number two–I became a scholar of English during a semester in which I spent hours memorizing lines of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land to deliver as part of an oral interpretation class. Who says it’s not a song?)

(Unfashiongable admission number three–I admit to the perversity of liking equally and in different ways the long, engorged, and lusty lines of breathy Walt Whitman and the Puritan and technical severity of Eliot’s poetry that tends to exist only on the page. The belief that you can only like one kind of thing, that we can’t like poetries that are polar opposites is, in the words of Emerson, a contradiction that is the hobgoblin on little minds. Read much. Love much. Contain multitudes.)

Which brings me to the “umpires of taste” who are the target of the first line of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Obviously Emerson has in mind the critics of his age, but my general interest is the way that Emerson looks at and understands reading. The umpires of reading are seeking to create rules for reading and writing, to arrive at a proper reading. What is the right thing to like, what is the best thing to read, what is the best way to read, what is the proper understanding of a text. This is the kind of reading that Emerson derides when he priviledges writing over reading, when he dismisses the reading of books for the making of books. He is, of course, suspicious of reading in general, as “The American Scholar” makes plain. However, there is a kind of reading that is a kind of poetry. Indeed, it’s not to much to say that writing is a kind of reading, and that reading is a kind of writing, if we understand that both can require the agency of the imagination.

There is, of course, a kind of reading that is purely instrumental. The gaining, processing, and storing of information. Too often, this is the kind of reading that we encourage in school, and the kind of reading that we think is the primary and first point of reading. Any other kind of reading only comes later, or is suspect if it doesn’t subject itself to this. The umpires of taste sniff at the inspiration, the personal connections, the new insights that readers bring to a text, sniff and subject such readings to the rules and requirements of reading properly.

Emerson reverses this academic privileging of analysis under reposed and quieted emotion.

“An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only this one dream that holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism.”

Amen and Amen. The Discipline of English is often not ill-named a discipline, since it’s goal can often end up being to transform these wild and boggy responses to the chant of the universe to automatic responsa, with criticism as dull as memorized prayers.

Ok, I’ll be more composed and analytical tomorrow. But first I had to say that Emerson does a service by getting at why we chose to read in the first place. Before we had to read in order to write a disseration, or publish an essay, or teach a class. When we were lovers plain and simple.

I hope that isn’t the same thing as saying before we grew up.

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.

Passion, Politics, and English Studies; Or, What Hillary’s Tears Can Teach English Departments.

The New York Times today gives a serious turn to all the random speculation that Hillary’s tears—or more precisely, near tears—may have played a role in her victory in New Hampshire.

“Short, emotionally charged narratives — story fragments, of a certain kind — can travel through a population faster than any virus and alter behavior on a dime, they say. Under certain conditions, this behavior is especially infectious, research suggests, and anyone eager to play Monday morning quarterback on the New Hampshire vote should take them into account.

“’Any story that is short and powerful and throws into relief exactly the sort of issues people are thinking about at the moment they’re making a decision can have enormous impact,’ said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine who analyzed the effect of personal stories on the civil rights movement in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.

“Mrs. Clinton’s emotional reaction to a question about how she was holding up under the pressure was not only genuine, many voters apparently decided, but it formed a powerful response to an incident during the most recent debate, when her rival John Edwards sided with Mr. Obama in a pointed exchange to one of her questions. A mininarrative was born.”

The story goes on to show statistically that more undecided women voters lurched toward Hillary in the immediate aftermath of the debate. I hate to say “I told you so,” but in the aftermath I said that I thought the tears would give an immediate 5% bump to Hillary’s poll numbers, this despite seeing all the discussion among women and having a couple of personal conversations with others who were appalled and felt that Hillary had shown an unacceptable weakness that “put women back.”

You don’t need to have a degree in social pscyhology to understand this. You just need to have an elementary grasp of gender narratives in Western culture, and perhaps to pay attention to your immediate emotional instincts before worrying about what people might think if they knew you were feeling. I felt the pull of those tears. (And I’m not even a woman. Imagine.) Leaning toward Obama, and still leaning I must say, I felt that moment pull me back, and to some degree still pulling me back at least to the degree that I’m still willing to listen to what Hillary has to say.

I still think there’s a double standard in play here, and not the one typically assigned to political divisions between men and women. The sympathy vote for Hillary goes to her because, apparently, people thought Edwards and Obama were ganging up on her. I want to say, “Oh, Boo Hoo.” Edwards’s decision to gang up on Clinton was a political calculation that she had all the money, she had a lot of the establishment power, and if he were to have a chance she would have to go. In other words he treated her like he would treat any other man in the race. But many, mostly women, read it as two men ganging up unfairly on a woman. No doubt this could have been in play. But Republicans were ganging up on Romney because he had all the money, a lot of the establishment power, and he seemed vulnerable and open to attack because of the Mormon factor (a calculation for Huckabee at least) and the flip-flop factor (a calculation for everyone). Now if, as he sat down for coffee with potential voters, Mitt had let his voice quaver the next day about how difficult it all was, do we imagine he would be getting a sympathy vote. Somehow I doubt it, but not from women, and certainly not from men. Perhaps from Mormons and those with money. Or those given to changing their minds.

The reaction provoked by Hillary’s tears spoke to very deep gender stereotypes. I just got done performing the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. At one point late in the opera Alfredo publicly berates and shames the diva Violetta—basically calling her a wanton whore (important difference from the cultured courtesan she actually is). In our staging, during this moment Violetta breaks down in tears. All the men and all the women rush or lean in the direction of Violetta even as they shout Alfredo down.

[Hey, isn’t this a fabulous rendition of me singing one of the most difficult pieces in the repetoire (heh, heh).]

Anyway, it seems to me that something similar happened with at least some significant percentage of the undecided vote in New Hampshire. The combination of Obama and Edwards tag teaming and Hillary’s next day tears provoked a rush of female sisterhood and, probably to some degree, male instinct to protect the endangered female. I don’t know if it was planned or not, but the masterstroke of the Clinton campaign was to turn a feminine stereotype in to a political strength.

Still, all that aside, I am actually really interested in the important role of emotion in this election, and in our lives generally. I actually think it was fine that Clinton teared up, and that Obama gets the citizenry’s adrenaline flowing, if not their hormones. In dismissing Barack as a kid who is purveying fairy tales Bill Clinton misses—and bizarrely so, given his history as a politician—that human beings don’t live by reason alone, or by bread.  (Besides outraging the black community–read the blogs, Hillary, the black community doesn’t need Barack to fan anything in to flames)

It’s not just the economy stupid. It’s not just the most rational man or woman for the job. [If this were so, surely Gore would have won in a runaway, the rationalist in me says]. Human beings need to be inspired, they need to be moved, they need to transcend the instrumentalism that dominates their lives day to day and see that such day-to-dayness can be connected to something bigger than themselves. Obama does this seemingly by breathing. Hillary’s tears connected undecided women to some sense of transcendent sisterhood—and, of course, it helped tremendously that the Clinton folks had superior organization in the end.

[Insert huge unjustified conceptual leap of associational logic here]

Ok, well, what does this have to do with English studies? Probably absolutely nothing, I guess. But I’ve been reading a lot lately about the crisis in the discipline, the decline of English majors, the lost sense of purpose, etcetera ad nauseum. There are various things going on here, multiple forms of causation and so forth. Still, I sense a very big disconnect between the normative passions of the profession and the passions and desires of the electorate…er, rather, student body and prospective student body.

Indeed, the idea of talking about the passions of the profession seems to be almost an oxymoron. Isn’t passion the opposite of professionalism? I remember a meeting early in my graduate career at Duke where Stanley Fish said something on the order of “If you think you are pursuing a graduate degree in English because you love literature, you are in the wrong profession.” Well, there is a certain sense in which, as with so many things, Fish is precisely right in this formulation—but perhaps disastrously so.

The professionalism of the discipline functions at odds with the very things that brought people to the discipline in the first place. The profession, seeking the dignity of professionalism and the seriousness accorded academic subjects, necessarily negates the passions associated with literature. Think, for instance, of how readily we talk about having a passion for teaching, and how rare it would be to hear someone at the MLA conference talk about their passion for literature. Good reason for this. We in the academy generally think teaching is for amateurs, and thus something that you can love and be passionate about. Besides the fact that it wins you points with search committees–at least at some schools–whereas being passionate about literature gains you nothing. (“You’re Passionate about literature??? That’s sooo 1950s.”)

Students, however, and prospective students especially in this context, consider our majors not because it will make them better lawyers or middle-level managers, or because they want to be sophisticated cultural critics. In 7 years of running sessions for prospective students I regularly ask them why they are there, why they are even bothering to think about studying literature. In 7 years I have never had a student say even once that they are going to study literature because they want to be a literary critic or literary theorist, I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they want to have a dispassionate and philosophical grasp of the semiotic status of nose hair in Jane Austen, and I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they hope to study the conflicts in interpretation represented by contemporary cultural theory. Never once. Imagine.

They all say they want to study literature because they love it. Asked why they love it they say because it changed some part of their lives, because it helped them understand others, because it helped them understand themselves, and on and on. All the reasons that we, in our dispassionate dismissing of youthful idealism, have learned to sneer at secretly in our faculty lounges. By some miraculous and unimaginable twist of fate, such 17 and 18 years old had learned to read and get something out of literature and to somehow think it would make a difference to the world if they read more of it. Young people want to be inspired and to be moved, and at our peril I think we’ve dismissed that desire as beneath importance in our quest for professional status.

A couple of examples. As an undergraduate I was a history major and bored to tears by my history profs. Then I had Joe McClatchey, an unknown to almost anyone who didn’t have him as a student or who didn’t work with him at Wheaton College, but the person to whom I dedicated my first book.

Out of Western World Lit I, I remember almost nothing about the books we read (more at some later date on Pierre Bayard’s take on whether books we’ve forgotten can actually be counted as having been read). What I do remember is the day Joe McClatchey showed slides of various satyrs and other vaguely evil beings from Roman mythology. He suddenly shuddered visibly, turned away from the screen, and whispered “Unnatural!” He wasn’t acting. Now, all this is laughable to sophisticates in the current academy. But I was profoundly moved that there was something important to care about in books.

Another day McClatchey was reading Milton describing the fall of Adam in Paradise Lost. In the middle of the passage, Joe McClatchey teared up like Hillary Clinton and said, “I can’t go on.” He closed his book and leaving papers and books behind, fled the room. Again, incredulous laughter from the contemporary sophisticate, but we were all in awe. What it said to me as an undergraduate was, “Wow, there’s something more important going on here than getting a grade, and something more important than taking a class so I can get in to law school.”

Assess that, o ye provosts of the world.

At this stage of the game, of course, we’ve become so sophisticated that we’ve about decided that there is no such thing as “literature” and we have lost an object of critical investigation. May be. But I think we would do better, even in these late days of the English crisis, to recover our first love. To figure out why these things that we can only call “literature” with quotation marks to sanitize our embarrassment, somehow nevertheless move us and change us and teach us, all without and well beyond the teaching that comes from the latest theoretical or critical fad. We need more teachers with a passion for literature, a passion for reading that will match their passion for teaching.

It will, of course, take a great deal more than tears and shuddering to repair the condition of the humanities in the world. But by rediscovering that first love we might discover that our passion leads to conviction, which leads to action and changes in ourselves and in others. We might even discover that students can think that literature rather than our theories about it is relevant to the world.

Justified by Fish Alone

In his most recent essay for the New York Times, Stanley Fish takes up the much exercised question of whether the study of the humanities can be justified. His answer, predictable for anyone who has followed his work, is “No, and it’s a good thing too.” Of late Fish’s growing irritation with literary and other humanistic disciplines has focused on the fruitless politicization of these disciplines, fruitless because such politicization seeks to change the world in ways that are demonstrably ineffective and that debase the professional status of the humanities in the bargain. Fish is always singular, but to some degree he is one of a large group of cranky elder statesmen who are none too happy with what the literary academy has become in the hands of their academic children and grandchildren. Men—and it is mostly men—like Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton, and , to a somewhat less cranky degree, Gerald Graff. Fish’s argument in the Times concludes as follows:

Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

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.

Fish followers will recognize the argument Stanley has been flogging for nigh on two decades. The professionalization of any discipline is it’s own justification. And in so many ways this is Fish at his inimitable best. Lucid and engaging, persuasive by the force of well-rendered prose alone. (Full disclosure, I had Stanley in a graduate seminar on Milton at Duke; I was and still am so intimidated that I will only call him “Stanley” in prose I am pretty sure he will never read. Professor Fish, always and forever). And there’s so much I want to agree with in Fish’s continuing obsession with this problem. The idea that literature or the study of literature could best be justified by the way it contributes to the revolution has increasingly struck me as excruciatingly reductive, this despite the fact that I’ve written one book and am nearly finished with another that examines literature from a political perspective.

Still, this is mostly an argument about justification that Fish can make largely because he is no longer a dean or department chair having to make justifications. Perhaps he now resents all the years he had to do all that justifying of something that appeared so obviously to him as the ultimate rendering of “The Good.” Indeed, Stanley Fish the institution needs no further justification. He is his own good.

However, Fish’s argument rests on a faulty assumption. When Fish says “Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance,” and that “The humanities are their own good” one imagines that he lives in a metaphysical bubble. This is because, in fact, performance of any activity always depends in some shape or form on things outside its own performance. When I read a book, that personal and cultural good does not exist in an ether of its own making or its own perpetuation. It is made possible by an economy of other personal and cultural goods and other cultural and personal activities. To read the book I take time away from my kids. I refuse to be with my students for at least a spell. I depend on the destruction of trees or the electronic production of pixels, which means I depend upon an economy of human labor and leisure. I also live within the frame of an inevitable personal economy. If only by the fact that I am one body and not many, I do not participate in other demonstrable cultural and personal goods such as the effort to alleviate hunger or to heal the sick.

Any single one of these, of course, need not be the determinative activity that says my decision to read a book is justified or unjustified. But it does suggest that our activities absolutely never exist in a sphere where their own performance is all that counts. In short, the humanities exist within the world already and therefore have effects by the fact of their performance, even if only to the extent that pursuing them must take place within a human economy of means and ends. To “justify” then is simply to give an account of why this cultural good is worth pursuing in light of the world we live in. In the academy this takes the very obvious shape of places within curricula and claims upon the financial well-being of students and their parents. Why is the time and money necessary for a course in literature (or film or philosophy or history) justified? To say that the humanities are their own good is to imagine a humanities without students; indeed, a discipline without human beings. To imagine it so is, from one perspective, self-indulgent. From another it is to imagine nothing at all since there is no world in which such a humanities could possibly be pursued.

The other limitation of Fish’s argument is that he seems to assume justification is only achieved by a transcendental logic. That is, I must point to a foundational reason that will make the humanities (or the simple reading of my book) justifiable. Because I can’t come up with that foundational reason that is beyond dispute, it must be the case that my activity cannot be justified from a perspective outside itself. This is a fairly common deconstructive form of attack on almost anything. However, as Fish surely well knows, many theories of justified beliefs hardly take this form of transcendental logic. More typically, justification is not a form of transcendental logic, but a pragmatic form of argument, or even a network of stories demonstrating use and consequence. In other words, justification is usually much more like the kinds of arguments you have to make to a dean to justify new expenditures. No transcendent logic will work, but a series of stories demonstrating the connection of my activities with the logic and practice of other activities can be very compelling indeed. This justification is what the performance of my own humanistic endeavors depend upon. Why else would a college care to spend a lot of money to let me read books if I couldn’t justify the expense.

Fish’s persistent sense that there is simply no evidence of the usefulness of the humanities is, in fact, demonstrably false if we see each one of these reasons not as an absolute reason but as a thread in a network of argument, a scene in the story of the humanities.

One small example. This week The Guardian reported on the development of a new form of therapy called bibliotherapy. Reading books actually seems to play a role in helping the psychically damaged or depressed to begin a process of managing and even repairing their emotional problems. Brain studies demonstrate that the reading of poetry enlivens parts of the brain that reading non-fictional prose or watching TV does not. Studies in composition and rhetoric demonstrate the deep connection between reading facility and writing ability. Graduate schools in fields as diverse as Business, psychology, and law, repeatedly cite the study of English as a form of preparation. None of these things are exactly the same thing as talking about the deep meaning—or lack thereof—that can be found in literary works (and who, after all, said that this was the only performance that the discipline of literary studies could pursue). But it’s not quite clear that they are completely separate from these activities and many others. These performances are interpenetrating and mutually reinforcing.

We are not our own performance. We dance together or we die alone.