What is the Digital Humanities and Where can I get some of it?

As I’ve started listening in on Digital Humanities conversations over the past 12 to 18 months, and especially in the last three or four months as I’ve gotten more fully onto Twitter and understood its potential for academics, I’ve realized that I am mostly just a bobbing rubber duck in a great wave of ignorant interest in Digital Humanities.  “What is this thing, Digital Humanities, and where can I get some of it?”  seems to be a general hue and cry, and I’ve added my own voice to the mix.  Some of that wave is no doubt driven by the general malaise that seems to be afflicting the humanistic ecosystem, and mid-career academics look back with rose-colored nostalgia to culture wars of the 80s when our classes were full and our conflicts were played out in middle-brow journals so we could feel self-important.  Maybe digital humanities will make us relevant again and keep our budgets from getting cut.

On the other hand, I think that most people recognize that many different aspects of digital humanities practice seem to coalesce and provide responses to driving forces in academe at the moment:  our students’ need for technical proficiency, the increasingly porous border between distanced and bricks and mortar instruction, the needs to connect effectively with the public while maintaining high standards of academic rigor, the need for our students to be involved in “real world” experiential learning, the effort to provide opportunities for serious and original undergraduate research, the need to support collaborative forms of learning.

I have been terribly impressed with the generosity of Digital Humanities folks in responding to these repeated pleas to “Show me how to do like you.  Show me how to do it.”   There’s been a lot of different things I’ve discovered over the past year, and as many more than have been put out.  The most recent is a bibliographic blog compiled by Matthew Huculak.  As with any bibliography it is an act of interpretation. There are inclusions I’ve not seen elsewhere–Franco Moretti’s book on data in literary studies was on the list and is now on mine. [Though I admit this is at least as much because I had Moretti as a prof while a grad student at Duke, the same semester I completed my first essay ever on a Macintosh computer].  The blog skews toward the literary–and I have increasingly realized that while there is this strong discourse of solidarity among digital humanists, the traditional disciplinary divisions still play a strong role in much of the practical work that is actually done.  DH’ers have conferences together but it’s not always clear that they work together on projects across their humanistic disciplines. There are also obviously omissions (I thought that the new Journal of the Digital Humanities should have made the list).

My larger concern though is that I’m actually beginning to feel that there may actually be a glut of introductory materials, so many different possible things to do at the beginning that it is actually impossible to point to a place and say, “this is where to start.”  To some degree on this score the Digital Humanities are reflecting what Geoffrey Harpham has indicated is a basic feature of the Humanities in general.

In a great many colleges and universities, there is no “Intro to English” class at all, because there is no agreement among the faculty on what constitutes a proper introduction to a field in which the goals, methods, basic concepts, and even objects are so loosely defined, and in which individual subjective experience plays such a large part. This lack of consensus has sometimes been lamented, but has never been considered a serious problem.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (p. 101). Kindle Edition.

The details don’t quite apply.  I’m not entirely sure individual subjective experience is at the heart of DH work, and that is one of the biggest bones of contention with DH work as it has been reflected in English departments (see my reflections on Fish and his comments on DH in yesterdays post).  But I do think the general pragmatic feel of humanities departments where you can begin almost anywhere, which is in stark contrast to the methodical and even rigid approach to immersing students in the STEM disciplines, may be characteristic of DH as well.  Start where you are and get where you want to go.

In reading Harpham, I was reminded of one of Stanley Fish’s essays, which one I forget, in which he talks about the best way to introduce students to literary criticism is not to give them a theory, but to give them examples and say “Go thou and do likewise”.  I’m increasingly feeling this is the case for the Digital Humanities.  Figure out what seems appealing to you, and then figure out what you have to figure out so you can do like that.

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Distanced and Close Reading in literary study: Metaphors for love

I am old enough now to begin sentences with the phrase “I am old enough…”  Seriously, though, I am old enough now to feel like I have lived through one revolution, into a new orthodoxy, and now the experience of a new revolution in literary studies.  In the ongoing debates I hear about the digital humanities versus whatever other kind of humanities happens to be at hand, I keep having this vertiginous sense of deja vu, as if I’m hearing the same arguments I heard two decades ago, but transformed in to a key just different enough that I can’t tell whether today’s debates are mere variations on a theme or some genuinely new frame of discourse.

The song that I think is remaining the same is the divide between the proponents of what gets called “distanced reading,”  which in some hands is a shorthand for all things digital humanities (if it’s digital, it must be distanced as compared to the human touch of paper, ink, and typewriters–how the industrial period came to be the sign and symbol of all thing human and intimate I am not entirely clear), and close reading which is somehow taken to be THE form of intimate human contact with the text.

This division is exemplified in Stanley Fish’s recent essay on the digital humanities in the New York times, an argument that has the usual whiff of caustic Fishian insight leavened with what I take to be a genuine if wary respect for what he sees in the practices of distanced reading.  Nevertheless, for Fish, it is finally close reading that is genuinely the work of the humane critic devoted to intimacy with the text:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

Ironically, in an earlier period it was Fish and precisely this kind of close reading (as practiced by deconstructionists) that was descried for its lack of seriousness, for the way it removed literature from the realm of human involvement and into the play of mere textuality .  By contrast, the distanced readers in those days imagined themselves as defenders of humanity (or, since humanism was a dirty word, at least the defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the miserable, the huddled masses).  Historicism read widely and broadly in the name of discourse, and proclaimed itself a liberating project, ferreting out the hidden political underbelly in a multitude of texts and considering literary criticism to be an act of responsible justice-seeking over and against the decadent jouissance-seekers of post-structuralism.

A recent blog by Alex Reid takes up this same criticism of what he describes as the Close Reading industry, arguing for the ways digitization can free us from the tyranny of the industrialized close reader:

In the composition classroom, the widgets on the belt are student papers. If computers can read like people it’s because we have trained people to read like computers. The real question we should be asking ourselves is why are we working in this widget factory? And FYC essays are perhaps the best real world instantiation of the widget, the fictional product, produced merely as a generic example of production. They never leave the warehouse, never get shipped to market, and are never used for anything except test runs on the factory floor. 

In an earlier period, it was again the close-readers who were accused of being mechanistic, dry, and scientific as putatively more humanistic readers accused New Critics of an unfeeling scientism in their formalist attitude toward the text, cutting out every human affect in the quest for a serious and scientific study of literature.

I wonder at root, whether this is the controlling metaphor, the key to which all our tunes in literary and cultural studies are played, a quest for the human that is not merely scientific, and yet an unrepressed desire for the authority of the scientist to say things with security, to wear the mantle of authority that our culture apparently only believes a statistical method can endow.

It is probably a mark against my character that I tend to be a both/and pragmatist as a thinker.  I do not buy the notion that distanced reading is inconsequential, or some how less about truth or less serious than the close rhetorical readings that Fish invokes.  At the same time, I am not too given to the euphoric and pugnacious challenges that can sometimes characterize digital humanities responses to the regnant forms of literary criticism.  At their best, Fishian forms of close reading are endowed not simply with acute attention, but with attention that seems to give birth to a form of wisdom that only attentiveness and close examination can provide, the kind of insistent close reading that led Gerard Manley Hopkins to seek the “inscape” of individual instances beyond categories, rather than simply the ways in which individuals fit into the vast landscapes popular in his post-romantic period.

I was reminded of this need to attend to the close properties of the individual use of language again in a recent article on Chaucer in the Chronicle. The writer attends to the detail of Chaucer’s language in a way that seems to reveal something important about the ways in which we are human.

translating Chaucer is like translating any other foreign language: The words are different from one language to the next. And then comes the third category, the most fascinating and the most aggravating because it is the trickiest: the false cognates, words that look like they should mean what they do in Modern English, but don’t. False cognates are especially aggravating, and fascinating when they carry their Middle and Modern English meanings simultaneously. These are exciting moments, when we see, through a kind of linguistic time-lapse photography, Chaucer’s language on its way to becoming our own.

In Middle English, for instance, countrefete means “to counterfeit,” as in “to fake,” but it also has the more flattering meaning of “to imitate.” Corage has not only the Modern English sense of bravery but also, frequently, overtones of sexual energy, desire, or potency. Corage takes its roots from the word coeur, or “heart,” and transplants them slightly southward. The same is true for solas, or “solace.” The “comfort,” “satisfaction,” or “pleasure” it entails is often sexual.

Lust might seem to pose no problem for the modern reader. Yet in the 14th century, the word, spelled as it is today, could mean any kind of desire or pleasure, though around that time it was beginning to carry a sexual connotation, too. And lest it seem as if false cognates always involve sex, take sely, or “silly.” It most often means “blessed” or “innocent,” as well as “pitiful” and “hapless,” but “foolish” was making its way in there, too.

A sentence like “The sely man felte for luste for solas” could mean “The pitiful man felt desire for comfort.” It could just as likely mean: “The foolish man felt lust for sex.” In Chaucer’s hands, it could mean both at once.

Chaucer was fully aware of the slipperiness of language. He delights in it; he makes his artistic capital from it. He is an inveterate punster. The Wife of Bath, for example, repeatedly puns on the word queynte (eventually the Modern English “quaint”). In the 14th century, the word means not only “curious” or “fascinating” but also the curious part of her female anatomy that most fascinates her five husbands. What’s more, the slipperiness of language gives Chaucer the tools to form his famous irony and ambiguity. If the way-too-pretty Prioress is “nat undergrowe” (“not undergrown”), how big is she?

(via Instapaper)

 These kinds of particularities of language are the worthy objects of our attention as literary scholars.  At the same time,  I do not think we need say that distanced reading plays no role in our understanding of such peculiarities.  A Chaucer project on the order of the Homer Multi-text, might actually deepen and multiply our understanding of Chaucer’s slipperiness and originality.  At the same time, vast database-driven analyses of every text written within a hundred years of Chaucer might allow us to discover the kinds of linguistic sources he was drawing on and manipulating anew for his own purposes, they might show us new creativities we had not imagined, or they might show us things we had taken to be unique were fairly common stock and trade.
These kinds of knowledges could not be derived from a contest between methods, but only from a reading marked by attentiveness, skill and desire, one willing to draw on any resource to understand what one wishes to know, which used to be a metaphor for love.

Literature Matters, yet again!

The Web has been recently awash with literary analyses of the inaugural, of all things.  Some of this is due to the excitement surrounding the fact that Obama had an inaugural poet.  Well, I’m glad to have poetry present on the national stage, but I’ll be honest that I thought the poem was a yawner and tone deaf to the moment.  Too much writing for other intellectuals at Yale instead of the man and woman in the street.  Maybe I wanted something more incantatory and straightforward.  Walt Whitman.

There’s also a good bit of literary kerfuffle over the state of Obama’s prose in the inaugural address.   Charles Krauthammer derides “the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln’s second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush’s second inaugural.”  Ok, I might take this more seriously if Krauthammer didn’t try to assert the oratorical superiority of our last president, but he’s not alone in finding the speech tame.

On the other hand, Stanley Fish–sorry, I’m on a bit of a Stanley Fish kick these days–gives a thorough going literary analysis of the speech, spying in Obama’s use of parataxis a biblical rhetoric fitting for the occasion:

But if we regard the text as an object rather than as a performance in time, it becomes possible (and rewarding) to do what the pundits are doing: linger over each alliteration, parse each emphasis, tease out each implication….

Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.

Paratactic prose lends itself to leisurely and loving study, and that is what Obama’s speech is already receiving. Penguin Books is getting out a “keepsake” edition of the speech, which will be presented along with writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (You can move back and forth among them, annotating similarities and differences.)

So the prose is Lincolnesque….or not.  It’s enough to make one believe in the kind of reader response criticism that Stanley Fish largely abandoned, wherein the reader makes up the text as he goes along.  Still, I guess if I had to choose a reader to trust, Stanley gets my vote. (Disclaimer:  Fish was my prof at Duke in grad school, and Krauthammer has irritated me for years, so what do I know).

All I know is that it is good to know we have a President whose language calls for attention that reaches beyond ridicule.

Humanists, despise thyselves

Stanley Fish has a depressing review of Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors:  The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, posted a few days ago. An excerpt:

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

I find especially delicious Crane’s quotation.  It reminds me of a friend in college who gave the following definition of an English major:  Someone who makes life more difficult than it really is.  The obvious riposte, of course, is that the English major sees the deep and underlying difficulties of life that no man or woman has seen before.  Doctoral dissertations can be written on Love Story and on Goodnight Moon, if one only knows how to go about seeing and reading in the right way.  And I suppose the obvious riposte to Crane is that a man with a taste for literature is not so interested in happiness, narrowly construed, after all.  We delight in being morose, in thinking deep thoughts, and in being sadder for it.  Of course, we wish the world would recognize the legitimacy of our sadness and reward it with wine and women, and extensive paid vacations on the French Riviera–but in most respects a knowing melancholy is its own reward.

I thought I should also note the titles of several other Crane texts, published between 1909 and 1911:  “The Futility of Higher Schooling,” “The Futility of Technical Schools” and “The Demoralization of College Life.”  Crane apparently saw a lot of futility in education.  And Donogue takes the current state of higher education as evidence that the Cranes and Carnegies of the world have really at last won the day.

I’ll be the last to say that Donoghue doesn’t have a point.  And it does seem to me that faculty often make their cases for their pet projects or their majors or their departments with a lack of awareness–or perhaps interest–in the facts of how institutions are run as institutions.  Almost as if their paychecks appear miraculously in the bank every month and don’t come from clearly defined and self-replicating economies that make the traditional project of education for its own sake increasingly precarious.  [Ok, now I’ve alienated faculty members and clearly deserve to die].

Still, there’s counter evidence.  All in all, humanities remain relatively robust.  My colleague, Joseph Huffman, pointed out that today’s Chronicle of Higher Education that the ARts and Humanities continue to produce over 13% of the college and university graduates in the United States, trailing the Business and Professional fields, to be sure, but well ahead of the sciences and most others.  Hardly the fainting violet that everyone takes the Humanities to be these days.  Even in the stuff that Fish-Donoghue present, there’s reason to hope.  Should it not say something that people have been saying this kind of thing for 100 years, or more?  That is,  does the fact that Crane could say this kind of thing 100 years ago point to the ultimate triumph of his point of view, or to the remarkable endurance of certain kinds of humanistic educational ideals, the ideal that it is better to know–oneself, one’s fellows, one’s world–than to not know?  That ignorace, far from bliss, is a failing of our purpose;  to learn, to explore, to develop the mind that God gave us is surely part of our vocation as human beings.  Maybe this latest sense of humanistic despair and crisis is merely one more chapter in an ongoing saga.  It is, in many respect, our secularized version of the Christian divide over works and grace.  Americans for the most part have little use for grace and celebrate the man who works his own way in to heaven–or wealth, or political influence, or whatever.  The old line humanists among us, like Stanley Fish, insist that our real goal in life is no worldly good at all.

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.

Stanley Fish Pleasures Himself, Yet Again

Fish returned again today to his continued probing of the rationale for the humanities, concluding—surprise!—there is no such rationale, at least not one that anyone will bother to pay for. Fish’s arguments change, somewhat, this time around but he’s mostly sticking to familiar territory, unconvinced by the hundreds of readers who mustered the energy to respond before the Times cut off the opportunity to comment.

Fish begins with an interesting and powerful disquisition on the nature of humanistic investigations.

“In a poem titled ‘Matins,’ the 17th century Anglican poet George Herbert says to God, If you will ‘teach me thy love to know . . . Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.’ But the dynamics of the proffered bargain – if you do X, I’ll do Y – are undercut by the line that proposes it, and especially by the double pun in ‘sunbeam.’

“‘Sun’ is a standard pun on Son; it refers to Jesus Christ; ‘beam’ means not only ray of light, but a piece of wood large enough to support a structure; it refers to the cross on which a crucified Christ by dying takes upon himself and redeems (pays the price for) the sins of those who believe in him. So while ‘by a sunbeam’ seems to specify the means by which the poem’s speaker will perform a certain act – ‘I will climb to thee’ – the phrase undercut his claim to be able to do so by reminding us (not him) that Christ has already done the climbing and thereby prevented (in the sense of anticipating) any positive act man mistakenly thinks to be his own. If the speaker climbs to God, he does so by means of God, and cannot take any personal credit for what he ‘does.’ If he truly knows God’s love, he will know that as an unconditional and all-sufficing gift it has disabled him as an agent.

“This brief analysis of a line of poetry that simultaneously reports a resolution and undermines it is an example of the kind of work and teaching I have done for almost five decades. It is the work of a humanist, that is, someone employed in a college to teach literary, philosophical and historical texts. The questions raised in my previous column and in the responses to it are: what is the value of such work, why should anyone fund it, and why (for what reasons) does anyone do it?”

This is Fish the quintessential close reader, to my mind demonstrating once again that whatever the peregrinations he and we may have made through high theory, our debt as a discipline to the New Critics remains in some sense unexceedable. What we do, he rightly says, what we always return to, what we inevitably affirm whatever our allegiances to history or whatever our convictions about the possibility and impossibility of meaning, is this activity, the simple and yet difficult act of attending, of reading what the flow of language tempts us always to miss.
For Fish, again, this is its own pleasure and its own rationale. It serves no larger purpose. And, as he now comes out frankly in his final paragraphs and asserts, it’s not clear that there is any justification in being paid for it.

“One final point. Nguyen Chau Giao asks, ‘Dr. Fish, when was the last time you read a poem . . . that so moved you to take certain actions to improve your lot or others?’ To tell the truth, I can’t remember a single time. But I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s “Matins”) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’ That’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

To some degree I’ve already argued with Fish’s position here in my post last Thursday. However, I want to point out today that there’s a very long distance between his opening disquisition and his late affirmation of aesthetic wonderment. In between, Fish again makes the case that the study of literature does absolutely nothing in the world. However, I think his own example may suggest otherwise.

Fish continues to imagine the bases of the discipline in the triumph of literature, he is stuck in noting the division between the production—and perhaps usefulness—of great art and the uselessness of studying it. However although this self-substantive view of literature has been at the center of English studies for the past century, it seems to me that we need not be captive to this particular image of what it is we do and why.

Fish the rhetorician surely knows that an older rationale for study of literature is that it teaches us about how language works and how it can be used. Literature is not an icon that exists apart from the world in a separate sphere; Literature subsists in language, and by studying literature seriously we come to understand better how language works in the world, no small thing to accomplish. Indeed, the skill that Fish ably demonstrates in his opening is not a natural but a learned skill, one that requires substantial practice and study.

I have suggested with some colleagues for some time now that English studies needs to return to or reemphasize it’s roots in rhetoric and philology. The study of literature is only one, but one very good way to study how language has worked in the past and what its possibilities might be for the future. As a corollary, writing studies needs to be rescued from it’s marginal status in most English departments. Unless one believes that imitation is useless, the study of how works of literature achieve their effects in the present—or how they achieved similar or different effects in the past—can be a doorway in to understanding how the written word can function effectively in the present.

I realize this only applies to English studies; the rest of the humanities will have to fend for themselves. However would my suggestions satisfy Fish even as to the study of literature. I doubt it. But that’s because he has narrowly defined his pleasures over and against utility. Perhaps Fish has studied a bit too much of the Milton the Puritan. It is, perhaps, one of the great blessings of literary study, that pleasure and utility can be achieved in the same fertile moment, rather than existing in futile opposition.

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.