A follow-up to my last post on virtual conferences:
Over the last two to three years, the term “digital humanities” has displaced “interdisciplinarity” as a kind of new bureaucratic buzzword, a rallying cry for administrators under pressure to attract students, make an impact, and embrace the future, whatever that might be.
Anxieties are high among many of those who actually research and teach in the humanities. What will the digital do to us? And what can the digital actually do for the humanities? Does the “digital” have any substance? For film scholars, the digital poses a number of questions about the boundaries of our discipline, the future of our archives, and the ontology of our beloved objects.
In his most recent piece in the NYTimes, Stanley Fish takes up the term and offers his own skeptical position. He begins:
This is a blog. There, I’ve said it. I have been resisting saying it — I have always referred to this space as a “column” — not only because “blog” is an ugly word (as are clog, smog and slog), but because blogs are provisional, ephemeral, interactive, and communal; whereas in a professional life now going into its 50th year, I have been building arguments that are intended to be decisive, comprehensive, monumental, definitive, and most important, all mine.
There are a lot of things to dislike about this opening paragraph, not least of which is Fish’s argument from and for the authority of academic authorship, with 50 years of experience to guide him. (Coincidentally, this puts Fish’s entry into the field around 1962. Post-war academic boom-time, esp. for men with Ph.Ds).
More interesting, however, is Fish’s reluctant admission to writing a blog and his dismissive characterization of the process of “interactive” and “communal” writing. According to Fish,
In the traditional model of scholarship, a credentialed author — someone with a Ph.D. or working toward one — gets an idea (that’s the original part) and applies it to a text or a set of problems, and produces, all by himself, a new text that is offered to readers with the promise that if they follow (that is, submit to) it, they will gain an increase in understanding and knowledge.
If one follows Fish’s vision of the academy to its conclusion, one would have no need for the humanities, much less for the digital. We could just follow (or…submit to) our mystically-credentialled masters, empty vessels to be filled with “understanding and knowledge.”
But: How does an author get those credentials, if not through a long process of mentorship, collaboration, and dialectic exchange? And what do those credentials actually mean, if not that one is ready to mentor others, guide the exchange, and continue in a process of thinking, exchanging, drafting, and revision?
Fish turns to the work of Kathleen Fitzpatrick (a credentialed author and the Director of Scholarly Communication for the MLA) to understand the effects of the digital. Fitzpatrick makes a neo-Barthesian argument for digital futures. The author is destabilized anew. Fish pivots from Fitzpatrick’s description of digital “texts in process” to structural annihilation:
Meaning everywhere and nowhere, produced not by anyone but by everyone in concert, meaning not waiting for us at the end of a linear chain of authored thought in the form of a sentence or an essay or a book, but immediately and multiply present in a cornucopia of ever-expanding significances.
Of course, there is a wide and productive field between the authority Fish celebrates and the strawman of digital anarchy and meaninglessness. I tried to outline one of these positions in my post a couple of days ago. The digital humanities can widen access to the foundations of humanistic thought: reasoned debate, exchange with opponents, discussion with mentors and colleagues. Fish, I should note, does not seem swayed by arguments for access, what he calls the “political vision” of the digital humanities.
The fevered embrace of the digital also owes to what Fish describes as a “theological vision.” Digital theology promises to:
liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated — knowledge at this time and this place experienced by this limited being — and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in a full and immediate presence to which everyone has access as a node or relay in the meaning-producing system. […]
Fish brings these digital theologians back to earth:
The obstacle to this happy state is mortality itself. To be mortal is to be capable of dying (as opposed to going on and on and on), and therefore of having a beginning, middle and end, which is what sentences, narratives and arguments have: you start here and end there with the completed thought or story or conclusion (quod erat demonstrandum).
How can the digital threaten us simultaneously with ephemerality and fantasies of immortality? If, as Fish argues, the digital does away with mortality and invites us to worship at the altar of a higher power, it would seem the path was cleared by the cult of authorship. Fish, we should remember, has his own theology, one which we have been invited to follow (or submit to…) with the promise of understanding and knowledge.
Ironically enough, Fitzpatrick’s book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy was a blog first and a book second. Fish’s post also plucks a comment that Mark Sample, an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Literature and New Media at George Mason University, left on a graduate student’s blog. (Sample tweeted on Jan. 10: “A full professor cites an assistant professor’s comment on a graduate student’s blog. Fish, you just illustrated the new scholarly ecology”).
The ground slips…
In the end I think that Fish and I disagree about what the foundations of the humanities actually are. Extrapolating from his article (he does not stake a firm position and glides between multiple voices), Fish seems prepared to mourn the loss of institutional power, unidirectional communication, and mythologies of genius. It is difficult to reconcile Fish’s own work on reading and interpretive communities (not to mention his argument for the intrinsic value of the humanities) with his take on the digital. Nevertheless, I am not surprised by the resistance. Fish defends the status quo. And it is gradually being eroded by, among other forces, the digital humanities.