Tag Archives: justification

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.