Stanley Fish is an important critic.
Let’s begin with that essential statement of fact, because it is a truism that seems to have escaped some of those who have responded, on Twitter and elsewhere, to his recent critique of the digital humanities with a (facetious, one hopes) assertion of Fish’s irrelevance. While it is true that we are no longer so “surprised” by his critical insights as we once were, that is surely because, like all worthwhile criticism, they have been quietly absorbed into our understanding of what texts are, and how they work; what was once shocking now seems commonplace precisely because he made it so. To suggest that he has nothing new to say is a bit like accusing Shakespeare, Pope, or Tennyson of writing clichés. He is no more “irrelevant” than, say, Matthew Arnold, or Cleanth Brooks. He is one of the reasons why we are where we are.
For that reason, if for no other, we need to take seriously what Fish has to say about the digital humanities in three columns written for the New York Times, most recently in a post entitled “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.”
We need, as I say, to take Fish seriously. But not, I want to suggest, too seriously. Fish’s winking allusion in his second column to the absolutism of Morris Zapp, David Lodge’s caricature of him in the novels Changing Places and Small World, is one means of asserting his own theoretical position. Fish readily confesses that he, like Zapp, seeks after “pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power” by covering a topic “with such force and completeness that no other critic will be able to say a word about it.” This assertion is probably accurate enough, but it is also sufficiently arch and “meta” to leave us wondering how seriously we are meant to take it: the very circularity and ludic quality of the allusion should alert us to the fact that Fish is being at least somewhat playful here. At the same time, while it is not too difficult to credit Fish with the overweening hubris that he seems here, and elsewhere in the columns, to exhibit, we would do well to remember that we are dealing with the critic who changed our understanding of Milton’s über-rhetorician, Satan – and should accordingly respond with a requisite degree of caution.
Fish asks questions, and provides some answers. The questions are – and always have been – worthwhile. What are the real contributions that digital humanities has to make to our understanding of literature? What are the full implications of our methodologies, and of the way in which we think of texts? And what does it mean, what are the responsibilities that accompany, being the “next big thing” in the humanities (if this is indeed so)?
His answers, on the other hand, are enormously reductive. It is rather amusing to watch someone critical of the digital enterprise resort to binaries, but this is very much what Fish does. The notion of a “text in process,” a term he gets from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, comes for Fish to signify that there is no text at all for digital humanists, as though we were all Heraclitus, unable ever to dip a toe into the same text twice. Text mining becomes (if you’ll forgive the pun) a sort of critical fishing expedition, as though digital humanists never formulate hypotheses. A focus upon “big data” becomes a negligent attitude towards detail, as though text miners never refined their data to a more granular level. The ludic quality of such a methodology becomes a “lack of seriousness,” while the acknowledgement of the multivalence of meaning becomes, in Fish’s analysis, an acceptance of all meanings as equally “right,” with the result that the distinction between “truth” and “falsehood” is entirely elided.
And so on. Fish’s “answers” to the legitimate questions he asks are less a critique of the digital humanities than they are a caricature of its premises and methodologies. This is not criticism or theory: it is satire and parody – as is again hinted at by Fish’s playful evocation of the phantom critic Morris Zapp, who is at one and the same time both a fabrication, a parody, and a real life critic. How should one respond to an assault launched by fictional comic character?
Digital humanities needs to answer Fish’s questions, but not by means of responding to his answers, for to do so would put us in the ridiculous situation of Thomas Shadwell responding to the satirical use of “Mac” in the title of Dryden’s Macflecknoe by plaintively asserting that he’d never so much as set foot in Ireland.
We don’t need to respond to Fish’s criticisms seriously – although some clarification of his characterizations might be worthwhile, if only as a public relations exercise – because Fish isn’t really concerned about critiquing the digital humanities in the first place. These three columns (or “blog” posts, as he smirkingly labels them) aren’t about criticism, theory, the future of literary studies, immortality, religiosity, or indeed any of the issues, themes, and metaphors that Fish evokes: they are about Stanley Fish. Everything we need to know about Fish’s real point, and his intention, is revealed in his final paragraph:
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.
If we consider Fish’s remarks in the terms of the criteria he himself sets out here, we will discover, I think, that he’s been playing with us, for Fish’s own remarks are transgressions of this mini-manifesto: they generalize where they should engage, they produce a great deal of noise and not much substance, and they are, ultimately, ludic and self-referential.
The real question for digital humanists should be whether this is a “game” that we want to play.