For a while now, I’ve been following Stanley Fish‘s New York Times column. Fish, a literary theorist by training, blogs about the academe and, in his latest musings, the state of Humanities and its place in the university-industrial complex. For me, this is a vastly important topic for several reasons. I read the posts with some anxiety in no small part because of my hope to one day become a university professor in a Humanities department, but also because of an intrinsic love for knowledge, the arts, and a dedication to its imperatives.
While I think it’s terrific that Fish brings attention to the issue of Humanities, I cannot help but feel that something crucial is being left out. Firstly, he might have traced the historical tensions between the role of the university and the public need for knowledge. The post on neoliberalism, for example, outlines a conversation that’s been going on since the 1970s and, in all honesty, really needed to be talked about back then. Surely it’s still of relevance, but let’s remember that it’s the now tenured academics like Fish who did not fuel a strong dialogue and critical resistance against university privatization that has been in practice for nearly 40 years.
Secondly, Fish insists on The Humanities as some idealized tome. The humanities is a complex of fields and inquiries that point to more than knowledge for its own sake, but rather knowledge for the redemption, justice, and dignity that it can bring. I refuse this line because I do not want my humanities to exist in some arcane vacuum; the puritanical old guards are dead weight as much as the philistines running Phoenix University. Humanities have changed with the times and are every bit as important as life sciences, business, law, et cetera, but whose productive metrics yield less equity in our liberal capitalist world. The question, then, is to what extent will the mandates of universities continue to go hand in glove with the neoliberal agenda and at what real costs? And when, if ever, will the state step in to correct the logic of capital?
In a post earlier this year, Fish says: “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.”
I agree that couching humanities in terms of financial deliverance is ridiculous. Humanities is the expressive condition of life; it is what we breathe. To attempt to mine its extrinsic value is to miss the point entirely. However, what I fault here is that he argues for a terrifically Enlightenment-bound, bourgeois notion of the intrinsic value of the Humanities as a toy of privilege and civility and, perhaps most irritatingly, “pleasure.” What amazes and offends me is Fish’s arrogant distance from contemporary fields. For those of us working (and living) in identity politics, critical race theory, studies in gender, sexuality, disability, these are not Enlightenment projects so much as fields of study and action that exist because oppressed peoples have had to make it their business to render accountable concentrated forms of power.
For my generation of (emergent) scholars, I think our task as knowledge producers will be to redefine the disciplinary boundaries of the academe as they confront neoliberalism, globalization, neocolonialism, the Internet and information technology, advances in biological sciences, et cetera. And, indeed, I think we will have to defend the newly formed outposts of these intellectual precincts, cultivate their liminalities, and stand a vigilant post against the ogre of privitization.