On 23 January 2012, Stanley Fish's "Mind Your P's and B's: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation" appeared in the online New York Times. In the article, Fish complains that the tools being developed and employed by digital humanities scholars are changing methods of study for the worse by eliminating the possibility and need for critical interpretation. He opens by carrying out a mock-reading of Milton's Areopagitica, using it as an exemplar of the kind of work that digital humanities facilitates, pointing out the inadequacy of such work by asserting that the simple existence of a pattern does not suffice to support a given interpretation of that pattern. Fish moves on to assert that the simple identification of patterns is the focus of digital humanities research, a paradigm diametrically opposed to the methods by which literary criticism has been carried out for nearly a century. He assails digital humanities work because it does not, in his view, offer closure and meaning, but rather rejects the certainty of meaning that he presents as the end-point of his own critical analysis. Unfortunately, the article fails to convince for several reasons: he indulges in reductio ad absurdum arguments based on supposition errors (such as a tacit assertion that digital humanities research never approaches a text with an idea of critical approach already in hand, that researchers wholly hand over their agency to the machines), over-simplification, and, in his last paragraph, an excessive degree of smirking sarcasm.Fish exerts a certain influence on those working in the academic humanities. For instance, more than a third of Profession 2009 is devoted to responses to and from Stanley Fish; for an annual publication to focus so narrowly on a single scholar bespeaks the importance of that scholar. Even those people who take issue with him concede that he does have useful things to say. Patricia Bizzell provides one example ready to hand for me. Jonathan Culler provides another. So it is clear that he is worth attention. And even in critiquing digital scholarship, he is not entirely in error; there are, admittedly, problems with the field. Some of the questions he raises are questions that need to be asked. And there are other stress-points in doing digital work; one of the major ones is the shift towards an attitude and social context which facilitate what we currently regard as plagiarism. It is a potential problem, as I have discussed.
The great opening of information that digital work performs does set up a climate in which anyone can access and contribute to information, and the concepts of ownership of ideas and the receipt of credit for articulating them are becoming more contested. That Fish makes claims that grate is not a reason to reject him out of hand; he does make a number of good points, and even when he does not, the fact that he does pose questions, that he compels them and the defense of ideas that they entail, is a good thing. One of the tenets of critical thinking, that chimera we are exhorted to pursue in our classrooms, is that one must question ideas and claims, and in the questioning, they are either strengthened or shown to merit being discarded--an idea DePalma lays out quite succinctly in his article.
That he says what he says is not the problem. What he says can be argued against--and any scholar should expect that there will be argument against it. Certainly, Fish's position against the value of the digital humanities is argued against. Purdy and Walker, for example, assert the need to integrate digital scholarship into the rubrics used for hiring, promotion, and tenure, noting that it is "often more likely than print to be read and used" (190). Their position is hardly in line with that of Fish. In addition, Profession 2011 gives as much of itself to discussion of digital scholarship as Profession 2009 devotes to Fish, and it would not likely do so were there not something to discuss about the matter. In it, Schreibman, Mandell, and Olsen make the point early on that "humanities disciplines must find ways not simply of evaluating but also of valuing digital scholarship" (123). The position is one more or less diametrically opposed to that Fish outlines in his New York Times piece, and it is one supported by a number of other scholars. Excellent speller Geoffrey Rockwell, for instance, remarks on the potential for the development of new modes of inquiry by digital scholarship, viewing it as one of the assets of digital work (154-55). Jerome McGann, whose “On Creating a Usable Future” I have discussed, even asserts digital scholarship as a potential corrective to the crisis in which the academic humanities currently find themselves. It is hardly a condemnation of the field of study.
No, the problem is not that he says what he says. The problem is where he says what he says.*
Many people read the New York Times, whether in printed or online format, and so Fish is positioned to be able to address a wide audience through writing for it. The position is one that not many in academia have; most of us speak to our students and our colleagues about our work and the views we come to have through it, and we try to publish articles and books, but in reality few people outside the academic establishment (and not as many within it as should be the case) pay attention to what goes on within the walls of the proverbial ivory tower. The affairs of those descended from Chaucer's Clerk do not often penetrate the perceptions of the bulk of people in the United States, something I think I have commented on before (here, here, here, and here, if not elsewhere). So what Fish writes has the opportunity to exert disproportionate influence on popular perception of the work done by those in the humanities. When he decides to condemn a field of study, then, he does more than simply express a divergent opinion of scholarly discipline--which he is certainly within his rights to do, both as a human being and as a scholar. He marshals opposition to the ability of others to do their work--and in that, he undermines himself, for in saying that any one of us working in the academic humanities is wasting time to no good purpose, the accusation that any others of us, or even all of us, are similarly wasteful becomes not just possible but viable.
After all, if even our own are calling into question whether or not the work we do is actually worth doing as a field, as opposed to simply disagreeing about results or specific methods...
~Bizzell, Patricia. "Composition Studies Saves the World!" Profession 2009 (2009): 94-98. Print.
~Culler, Johnathan. "Writing to Provoke." Profession 2009 (2009): 84-88. Print.
~DePalma, Michael-John. "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief." CCC 63.2 (December 2011): 219-43. Print.
~Fish, Stanley. "Mind Your P's and B's: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation." NYTimes.com. New York Times, 23 January 2010. Web. 24 January 2012.
~McGann, Jerome. “On Creating a Usable Future.” Profession 2011 (2011): 182-95. Print.
~Purdy, James P., and Joyce R. Walker. "Valuing Digital Scholarship: Exploring the Changing Realities of Intellectual Work." Profession 2010 (2010): 177-95. Print.
~Rockwell, Geoffrey. "On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship." Profession 2011 (2011): 152-68. Print.
~Schreibman, Susan, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen. Introduction. Profession 2011 (2011): 123-35. Print.
*I understand that this comment is somewhat problematic. I think I explain the reasoning behind it in the following paragraph, but I do know that I appear to tread dangerously close to advocating censorship. For the record, here as often, I am not generally in favor of restricting speech, particularly academic speech (do I need to make a full disclosure statement here?). Fish has every right to voice his opinion, and he goes to great length to support that opinion, so that he is exercising sufficiently due diligence--even if he is wrong. And the Times has the right to print what it pleases, both as an instrument of "the press" and as a business providing a product. That does not mean that I have to be happy, or that I in fact am happy, to have seen it pop up where it did. There is a lot of potential for damage in it, and since I am one of those who may be damaged by it, I think I have the right to express my displeasure at the decision no less than did Fish and the Times to make it.
**I am aware of the irony of my employing a preponderance of print sources in discussing digital scholarship. Many of my sources, however, discuss the necessity of interplay between traditional print and new digital media. I hope to be aligned with the practice current research suggests is preferable.