Response to Stanley Fish

I’ve just posted the following response to Stanley Fish’s comments about my book; they should be up once they’re moderated through. In the interim, and for the sake of keeping this comment visible long after it’s drowned in a sea of commenter crankiness, here’s what I said:

This is a fascinating discussion of the shifts taking place in scholarly communication today; thanks to Prof. Fish for his exploration of new digital modes of scholarship. I’m honored that he’s engaged with my book so avidly and want to add a few brief thoughts to this conversation.

First, as several have noted, the project went through an open peer review process, and remains available online. The print version serves a key role, however, as a form of reverse compatibility with those in the academy who have not yet made the transition to networked reading.

But I want to note that I don’t entirely believe that “long-form scholarship… needs the interdependent notions of author, text, and originality.” Rather, I believe that scholarship circulates through a particular interpretive community, a concept I draw from Prof. Fish’s important intervention into assumptions about the fixed nature of texts and meanings. To this point, that interpretive community has relied on notions like originality to give meaning to its communications. I do not argue that these things are going away in the digital age, only that they are changing, as the interpretive community of scholars changes.

There is much resistance to such change from those in established interpretive communities. But changes are underway, and it is crucial for all scholars today — not just those working in new forms, but also those hiring and promoting them — to understand how new forms create new kinds of engagement.


  1. I’ll add, as an aside to an aside, that I’ve actually got much more to say than this — but the NYT has a 1500-character limit for comments. Given the general state of newspaper comments, that’s probably a good idea, but it’s a little funny to accuse blogs of making sustained engagement impossible when there are such strict limits on the potential to engage.

    1. Worth pointing out, I think, that because Fish has a “blog” and not a “column” in the Times, his own word limit seems quite flexible — he posted 2200 words today.

  2. What I’d add is that digital humanists are a subset of humanistic scholars recognizing that the institutional practices of academia have impeded not just the production of interpretation and scholarship in the present, but our ability to recognize and describe how culture and text have been produced in the past. E.g., this is not just modifying or reforming practices in the present (Fish’s ‘political’) and recentering the way we understand the human subject in relationship to culture (Fish’s ‘theological’) but seeing our valued cultural and textual subjects for what they have been. The history of printing and the book in the last decade has been a fantastic curative for our previous habit of imagining literary history as a succession of original, isolated authors producing work out of their individually distinctive consciousness.

    I also think what Kathleen says above is crucial: that much DH is not as rigorously aligned with postmodernist/poststructuralist views of the subject as Fish implies in his column. The author is not dead in Planned Obsolescence and other DH manifestos: just scaled down to human size.

  3. I think Timothy’s point about the history of textual originality (and it is one that Kathleen and others have made) is an important one. Blogs and other social media help to make visible the collective nature of all literary productions. That’s one of the reasons I found it important to recognize so many people in the acknowledgements to my book.

  4. The importance and dynamics of Kathleen’s work goes beyond, in my opinion, the sub-set of people who work in and around “digital humanities.” I expect that as a result of this kind of opening to the collective and collaborative aspects of intellectual labor that the horizontal will come to a political place of engagement with the traditional verticality of academia. I don’t think it will be reformist, a la Fish: either it will be transformatory or it gets absorbed as yet another branch of sub-divided academic labor. The highly contradictory material conditions of the field, often funded by private foundations like Mellon and MacArthur, yet sustaining these almost revolutionary hopes, is going to have to be figured out.

  5. I hope you will recognize this comment as sober. As I read through your response and the comments so far, I was struck by how incredibly smart and thoughtful everyone is–not feeling bad, exactly, but feeling lesser than. Then I found myself looking for the “like” button to signal my approval of a particular comment, and I realized why the sense-making part of my brain feels as if I’ve injected it with Novocaine.

    1. Hi, Alfie! I do take that as sober, if not sobering. The “like” button has definitely had a ripple effect on modes of comment online, as it becomes easier to “like” or “+1” something than it is to leave a substantive comment. On the other hand, it’s nice to have a lightweight way to signal general support for an idea presented online; without that, too often, the agreement can go unmentioned, and all that’s left is quibbling.


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