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I´ve read the articles and thought on and off about them... the points raised by Stanley began to haunt me during the dissertation phase, when I was also teaching some of Borges’ more philosophically skeptical stories.

But, I think the problem is more with specialization than anything else.

A good friend of mine got a Phid where he spends most of his day thinking up experiments, writing code and running code for the experiments, sticking people in scanners, running the experiments, and then running the data through the code and some really funky math to see if there’s any there there. People, especially the government, are going gaga over this stuff… but most of his days are spent doing really menial, arcane, esoteric stuff like debugging code and retooling code (because what if the patterns that you’ve found are nothing but your own desire to find pattern in random data and the experiment has imposed this will-to-order on the data, even though all you’re really looking at is white noise?). Still, most of his days are spent doing this, locked in a room somewhere in the bowels of D.C. hoping to find a place on the brain for this, that, or the other concept/idea/thought/word/action. the stuff he does, though, is so rarefied that any sort of immediate use value is not only minimal but possibly non-existent, or existent until the real genius comes along and says something like Chomsky’s ideas of transformative grammar are bogus, or at least utterly useless.

Still, he labors away on his arcana and there really isn’t that much “real” use—of course, given that it’s science there is a lot of perceived use. And, there might be “real” use, eventually, some day, hopefully.

Now, the problem of esoterica is not his field, broadly psychology, but of his degree of specialization. And, it’s not that there’s not a certain use or value to what he does, beyond the it entertains him; there is hopefully the possibility of discovery and of real “scientific” break-through (which, inevitably will lead to fame and riches…or so the story goes).

I think largely the same goes for literature… there is something very “useful” to lit-comp-rhet-lang instruction. Whether this be the mundane exercise learning how to tear a poem, a story, a play apart; or being forced to write clear, concise prose; or being taught what makes this or that linguistic feat work.

But, the higher up the academic ladder one goes, the further away one moves from “real” instruction—by real I mean teaching Jane and Joe average to read well… and this is something that must be taught. I presume that the student’s Fish sees in his seminars are, for the most part, very, very competent readers… I imagine that they are not readers to whom he has to say slow down, you move too fast, that sentence though really beautiful does not say what you think it says because it comes at a moment in the essay before you think it does. Or, wait, that word actually means this. And, he doesn’t have to do this because they come to him, or they should come to him, as already patient readers. So, he gets to do even more cool stuff and engage in even more obtuse language games with them.

I don’t buy the humanities as repository for critical thinking… and, those humanists that do should be ashamed of themselves, as they should know that each discipline has a mode of thought that is slightly different and that each discipline requires “critical thinking skills.”

But, I do buy that there is something that the lang/lit/comp/rhet crowd does, or should do, better than most and that is pay attention to language, and certain uses of language… and I would argue that there is something very useful about this.

Certainly, I agree with Fish, the world doesn’t necessarily need another reading of Shakespeare… but it does need competent readers of Shakespeare… and one hopes, though this is certainly not something that can be measured, that becoming competent readers of Shakespeare will make them competent readers of other texts… and that is all we can ask of the rhet/lang/comp/lit crowd.



notice, this is not an aestheticist argument, per se. It’s a skills based argument… though, certainly, pleasure is involved. But, it is a secondary effect of learning how to read well. And, maybe that is something that Fish has forgotten. The pursuit isn’t for truth, beauty, or pleasure, those are unexpected, wonderful results of having gotten lost.

Nota bene, to aver that Fish forgot that is both bold and stupid.

I read Fish’s essay when it was first published, and followed the discussion here.

I think the best argument in favor of (funding) the humanities is respect for our ancestors. We owe it to those who came before us to grapple with the best of what they thought and wrote. I don’t think it needs to be any more complex than that.

Of course the resident philologist would come in with a Neo-traditionalist, respect to the ancestors argument.

Not that my argument isn’t Neo-traditionalist… since at its core is eloquence… and this is something learned through imitatio, in the end.

I think you’re right to point to specialization as the chief problem with justifying the humanities, and certainly Fish’s situation may be a bit too rarefied to serve as an example of such justification. I also think you’re right about attentiveness to language being a (the?) primary justification for the lit/lang/rhet/comp branch of the humanities. I once heard the venerable Stephen Greenblatt (of all people) say as much.

I take this kind of “textualist” (as opposed to aestheticist) approach to my comp classes in which I teach primarily from non-literary genres, and I think I make as good a case as one can make to college freshman that my class will be valuable to them no matter their field. But, I wonder, is this enough to justify the more aesthetic field of literature? That is, it seems easy to justify teaching (and funding) writing and reading skills in the broadly liberal arts context of gen. ed. requirements. I’m not sure that it is as easy to justify the increased specialization of literature departments. Is there a connection I’m missing?

Well, certainly if you don’t buy the arts and humanities as ennobling argument, and there’s no real reason why you should necessarily, then the whole enterprise seems suspect.

But, in part, it has to do with the beginning of the ‘modern’ disciplines and the ‘modern’, or postromantic, conception of literature (where literature is no longer simply writing and to be literate is to write well, but where literature is a specific body of writing where novels and poetry take preeminence), which coincides with the massive secularization of society and the ascendancy of the nation-state as the mode of organizing society. The nation-state needs a common culture and religion no longer provides this, so the next best thing is moved to the top—the arts and humanities, that branch of learning just below theology, which in the old world were the preparation for theology.

But, back in the day, it was Rhetoric, Grammar and Dialectics, not literature

This is fine for a while, lit-phil-hist take the place of theology and reign, but not for long. Of the three lit has had the most identity crisis of all… but philosophy are we math and logic? (english) or are we language and big questions? (continental) and history are we a social science that deals with numbers and data or are we story tellers? have also had their fair share of identity crisis. But, literature, as it was the study of the pursuit of beauty and whatnot seemed to have the most problems. Certainly, as Fish himself says, there’s no real problem with the poet or the novelist (and at the end of the day, as Prose’s essay on close reading argues, you learn to write by reading closely)… the problem is what do we do. We’ve run to the sciences, to history, to philosophy, to anthropology to find a way to legitimate what we do… but, I still think, the further we get from the “real” task of teaching to read and write, the more confused we will be.

The degree of specialization, it seems to me, is the outgrowth of 1) the above much too hastily sketched, though not unknown to any reader of this blog, history and 2) to the fact that we need schools to train those (PHDs) who train those (Undergrads) who train those (HighSchool), and as long as that is the set up, the further up we go the more rarefied the discussion. In part, because those on the bottom still have something of a Literature in the place of Theology, which has been debunked, somewhat, or is trying to be debunked by persons like Fish (and I take his statements to be more that than anything else)… and, in part, because you want your discipline to matter and to say something… well, and because the model that reigns is science. In a way, and here my traditionalist undies will show, all that can be said about how literature works has been said, sure nuances and the occasional new theory comes up, but how literature is largely a non-starter and we get paid to be starters and simply doing really, really good readings of this that or the other doesn’t suffice. Or, all the really good readings have been done, and so you gotta find the newest new reading because it’s all about being productive.

But, I feel I’m boring you all with things you know…

Twasn’t boring. Particularly not the part where I had to parse reason #1 in the penultimate paragraph. That’s a sort of style where I honestly can’t decide if it’s terrible or awesome. Which I guess makes it awesome.

yeah, for all i read, my style is still tortured.

strunk and white cringe every time they see me approaching a keyboard

I say let them roll. Strunk & White are much less useful than their reputation suggests.

Linguists make it a point to curl their lips in contempt at the very mention of Strunk & White.

I’ve noticed! I often imagine they snarl, too, though quietly like mice.

Passive-aggresion from linguists? Never!

It seems I am worth little but feeding the thread fancy chocolates. (Can’t I interest you in a Jack Daniels truffle?) Joseph Kugelmass and Scott Eric Kaufmann put on the robes of the scholar teacher of literature—poor, twisted souls that they are, fated to carry the Humanities’ burden.

I got totally (and publicly) chastised by a colleague for forwarding the AG booklist link and commenting that I found it amusing. Clearly I am a neanderthal.
Would I find it so amusing if he had not posed in front of bookshelves, or claimed to have read the entire dictionary? Is it the top-this page count that appears by each book?
I don’t know. Trying to do the mature thing and not reply sarcastically is difficult.

Clearly, it is your colleague who is Neanderthal. How can it not be thrilling to discover that in June 1997, Art Garfunkel read #736, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions by Alcoholics Anonymous? That little fact is like having AG invite you for a split second into his life in a way that no one else does. Even while it’s nigh impossible to say with any certainty why he read it, it’s easy to suppose and to imagine.

Alternately: your colleague is jealous.

Or this: last year, AG read Burke!

jealous of AG for keeping a list of every book he’s read for the past 40 years? for taking himself even MORE seriously than she does? or for having the time to read so freaking much?
or, jealous of me for having a sense of humor?

I was thinking jealous for reading so much and so broadly, but any of the others could be just as true.

so, do you think he rereads anything?

though, he does list on friendship by montaigne as a book… when it’s more of a long essay than a book, really. or bartleby, really?, that’s a book?

i had a retort about your colleague but obviously i need to reread francis yates’ the art of memory for the fifth time!

Art Garfunkel’s definition of book does on occasion appear to be broader than your typical Barnes & Noble’s. But, honestly! Who’s gonna fault him for that?

right… in one month not only did he read Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, but had also time to read Milton’s Samson Agonistes and George Kubler’s The Shape of Time

And two months later, Ida Tarbell!