a response to stanley fish

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.



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8 responses to “a response to stanley fish

  1. p

    I think you’re reading too much into this, it’s a blog for the NYT: old people writing obvious things for old people. The intrinsic value of word, image and song (and the study of them) is obvious to anyone who thinks past the immediate resale value of things (even more obvious as more and more of the largest corporations don’t sell tangible things).

    It shows how out of touch Fish is that he only decides to argue that Humanities achieves its own value. In anything besides a posthumanistic worldview everything else serves the humanities.

    So of course Fish has an “arrogant distance” from the NOW humanities, by even addressing the issues he does he invalidates his version of humanities.

    Fish writes, “As this last quotation makes clear, Kronman is not so much mounting a defense of the humanities as he is mounting an attack on everything else,” but SO HIS HE. If he were actually defending the humanities his blog wouldn’t be about anything but the internet/ideas of identity tied to the rise of THE INTERNET.

    It makes it even funnier that this whole thing is presented as a BLOG (even though I think it is published in the paper as well)


  2. p


    There definitely needs to be a distinction made between the university and the abstract idea of humanities. You can’t set it up as the humanities caught between the free traders and the state because the idea of the modern state is in decline (especially as regulator of ideas/commerce).

  3. p

    this was supposed to be quoted in the last comment:

    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?

  4. satoriinbrooklyn

    Hey Patrick,

    You’re right, he speaks from a distance about a world removed from our own. But in all candor, why should I ignore something that I find untrue? I would feel uneasy to consider any of these notions of intrinsic/extrinsic value as implicit or self-evident. And if in fact Fish is so out of touch, why is he so prominent, well-read/cited?

    And yes, there is a distinction between the humanities writ large and the university, however, I am unwilling to divorce the two entirely. While the abstract idea of humanities can reside in the ether of our subjectivity, the production, application, and praxis of the humanities is ultimately the functioning of the university.


  5. p

    “why should I ignore something that I find untrue?”

    It’s not that it should be ignored but you have to pick the right thing to argue against. Fish in the second post you site basically lowers himself to the level of the Hs’ detractors who want the H to be monetarily justified by arguing that this is not the point of the H.

    But in arguing against an argument that brings H into a system of ‘justification’ that it has no bearing on he fails to make a proper justification for H’s existence on it’s own terms.

    So it’s not that you should ignore people like Fish’s insistence that H justifies itself with some sort of intellectual pleasure, it’s that you need to take on this whole system of NYT blog/old liberal politics.

    you said “To attempt to mine its extrinsic value is to miss the point entirely. ”

    But to defend H against an entirely capitalistic view is also to miss the point entirely. Of course Fish comes up with as dumb an argument as he does to defend H because he is arguing on the “justify your monetary output” people’s terms.

    But of course my own argument presents a whole different problem of if the two sides start defending themselves in their own realm of understanding only they will only grow further apart….

  6. patrickweaver

    i made a new blog for bike trip and beyond:



  7. satoriinbrooklyn

    Whoa rad, you’re taking off for the bike trip soon, no? I’ve added you to my blogroll.

    And no, cabron! Vulgar as it may be, H and the universityare ultimately inseparable in this context and thus we need to consider the university and H as a totality that is subject to the same set of conditions (again, such as the doctrine of neoliberalism). And to clarify – obviously I’m not justifying H in terms of capital, I am justifying the abolishment of capital in the space of the academe.

    Also, where are you going with this conflation with NYT and old liberal politics? Fish’s understanding of humanities is, at its core, animated by a liberal elitism, yes, but what’s about “this whole system…”?

  8. patrickweaver

    He just seems pretty clueless to me and the fact that the NYT is printing his blog makes it seem like they are clueless.

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