Who would not sing for Lycidas?

It’s late January, another semester is gearing up, and yet once more I’m preparing another round of Lit Hum — must be time for Stanley Fish to say something risible about the humanities.

Last year around this time, Fish reveled in the inutility of it all: “To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. ”
In a NY Times blog post published today (“The Last Professor”) he declares, “Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past.”

Universities, you see, are now dominated by a “business model” that has irreversibly devalued the life of the mind:

The best evidence for this is the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts, part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals. In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.”

And they’re “delivering” to students who could care less about the humanistic tradition; they’re clocking time, really just wanting “information and skills necessary to gain employment,” thankyouverymuch.

The devaluation in Fish’s latest post of students, “itinerant workers,” technology, “delivery people,” even museums — all this is too execrable to merit much debate, though we could generously posit that debate is what Fish wants. (For a more trenchant indictment of university “business models” I suggest Marc Bousquet’s 2002 The ‘Informal Economy’ of the Information University). It’s probably a waste of time to dwell on Fish’s mugging for the NYT, a late-career prance undaunted by flops (his 2007 screed against Starbucks was plausibly recognized by Ron Rosenbaum as the worst op-ed ever).

What pushes Fish’s recent fulmination past annoying and into painful, though, is the post’s conclusion:

People sometimes believe that they were born too late or too early…. I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.

Lucky to have had a powerhouse career, and so lucky to be coming to an end of it just as, generally, the “life of the mind” has left the building. If Fish is representative of a mode of academic privilege — not just tenured, but superstar professor/critic/administrator blazing through several universities — then he’s embarrassing more than himself. What is it about his lucky career that makes him so future-indifferent? There’s no elegy, even, just a smug old man farting.


Fish’s career continues to be much discussed. I suspect he’ll be remembered less for what he thought than what he did — stocking Duke University’s English department with itinerant (that word again) superstars. As this Lingua Franca post-mortem outlines, outside evaluators of the Fish Duke fiefdom cut through the glitter to find a department “without anything we would be disposed to describe as an undergraduate or a graduate curriculum.” A similar indifference to actual pedagogy runs through Fish’s later comments-catching announcements of the death of the humanities.

When as a tender young grad student I took up Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class I was drawn in — but even then something didn’t seem right. What sticks in my memory after all these years is Fish’s reading of John Milton’s Lycidas, particularly the lines,

He must not float upon his wat’ry bier

Fish wanted to pay attention to reader response — an exciting emphasis for me at the time, New Critical scales falling from my eyes. Could a poem really depend on its relationship with me? Yet Fish’s depiction of the “reader’s experience” came to seem, well, forced. Apparently the “reader” comes to the end of line 13 expecting “perceptual closure”: that poor drowned shepherd Lycidas just can’t be left floating out there in the water; according to Fish, “there is now an expectation that something will be done about this unfortunate situation, and the reader anticipates a call to action, perhaps even a program for the undertaking of a rescue mission.”

Then, Fish would have it, “the reader” goes on to line 14, “Unwept,” and now learns that “nothing will be done,” “the only action taken will be the lamenting of the fact that no action will be efficacious, including the actions of speaking and listening to this lament.”

Say what? Here was enjambment on steroids, certainly not the way I experienced the lines. This “reader” seemed quite idiosyncratic to me — and I experienced the same disappointment I had just experienced when, reading Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, it became quite clear that “you” was not me, but rather just another character in a novel.

What strikes me now is the consistency of Fish’s defeatism: the raised expectations, the dashing of same. If, as Paul Alpers once put it, Fish was “dogmatically relativistic,” the Fishean notion of “interpretive communities” began to seem simply dogmatic. We live in a wilderness of imposed interpretation:

the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between an interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself. It is this awareness that I am claiming for myself.

Bully for you, Mr. Fish. This fixation on mediation (“critical activity is constitutive of its object”) has somehow now shrunk into an arthritic shrug at university “business models” and the death of humanities. Tenure, that meretricious patronage, is as lost as Lycidas, as dead as Daphnis. Meanwhile the hungry sheep look up and are not fed. Pastures new, anyone?

Comments are closed.