Monday, January 14, 2008
So, as probably all of you haven't noticed, over the past couple of weeks, world-renowned literary theorist and critic Stanley Fish has been spouting his ideas about the value of the Humanities in the New York Times. The problem, of course, with his gushings is that they are not gushy at all! His extolments achieve at best a trickle. And those few drops that slip from his pen, he intentionally reserves for himself and other like-minded, self-minded literary scholars. Speaking about a poem he recently unpacked (that's literary jargon for "to explain"), he writes:
"Why do I do it? I don’t do it because Herbert and I are co-religionists. I don’t believe what he believes or value what he values. I don’t do it because it inspires me to do other things, like change my religion, or go out and work for the poor. If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved."
For Fish, then, teaching and studying the humanities is all about the personal rush of exercising the heart (not the moral one, mind you) and mind--just his, naturally.
"Me, me, me"--that transparent message certainly does not need to be unpacked.
Therefore, as a view on the value of the Humanities, Fish's isn't much of one at all. In fact, it seems intentionally designed to be an argument contra that very translation of purpose and value. A sort of humanistic anti-Christ: the value of the humanities begins and ends in him--"I am inclined to like it; I'm the miracle. What about you?" This of course, is an intentional political maneuver that Fish makes, he's not that self-centered (is he?), designed to push the humanities beyond the reach of realistic and concrete evaluative measures imposed on nearly all other departments, fields of knowledge and industries. In order to justify the continued pursuit of knowledge or production, that pursuit must, in fact, produce something tangible or, at the very least, quantifiable. Stanley Fish (and he's not the first) tries to solve this problem by refusing to acknowledge the standard by openly and provocatively claiming the worthlessness of the pursuit of humanistic studies. By rendering all worth to a simple personal confession, the possibility of the objective evaluation of the worth of the humanities becomes impossible.
Ergo, the humanities are justified and safe (?!) Self-contained and solipsistic, the humanities are nothing but their own end, untranslatable and answerable to no standard other then their own internal economy.
I don't know about you, but that just feels like a really poor move. In fact, it seems down-right childish and irresponsible. Aren't the humanities designed to promote more refined gestures of communication and rhetoric? Or is this just another trope meant to achieve a surprising effect?