Culture Magazine

Fishy Business – A Mathophobe Constructs a Straw Man [#DH]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Stanley Fish has just published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities”, (June 17 2018). As the title indicates, it’s mostly about what he regards as futile efforts to justify the ways of humanist to the populace. He may well be right about the futility of those appeals, and he may be right, as well, that they are deeply mistaken about the value of the humanities, but those are not my concerns in this post. Near the end of the piece he makes a drive-by hit on that digital humanities. That’s what interests me.
Here’s a paragraph:
But there is an even deeper problem with the digital humanities: It is an anti-humanistic project, for the hope of the project is that a machine, unaided by anything but its immense computational powers, can decode texts produced by human beings. For it to work, the project requires a digital dictionary — a set of fixed correlations between formal patterns and the significances they regularly convey. There is no such dictionary, although if there were one the acts of readers and interpreter could be dispensed with and bypassed; one could just count things and go directly from the result to a statement of what Paradise Lost means. That is the holy grail of the digital-humanities project, at least with respect to interpretation: It wants to get rid of the inconvenience of partial, limited human beings by removing from the patterns they produce all traces of the human. It is an old game forever being renewed, but in whatever form it takes, it’s a sure loser.
As far as I know, no one has made such a proposal–though there’s much beyond my knowledge so it’s possible that somewhere out there such a proposal has been entertained. It’s a straw man.
He’s been stalking that straw man, or a close relative, since the 1970s. In “What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” [1] he berates several scholars, Louis Milic in particular, for being bewitched (my terms) with “the promise of an automatic interpretive procedure.” It’s not at all clear to me that any of those thinkers had such a creature explicitly in mind, though they may have had such longings. It is, in a way, an attractive prospect, especially when you consider the contemporary context, where critics were warring over the disconcerting fact that critical agreement is impossible to come by (a way, as far as I can tell, that hasn’t been won, but has mostly been abandoned). Mostly, however, it is an Other that Fish can set in opposition to his own position, whatever it might.
Let me suggest that “mathophobia” is at the heart of that Other, its skeleton, heart, stomach, and brain, all in one. In today’s edition of the Humanist newsletter (32.103 Fish’ing for fatal flaws) Willard McCarthy asserts, in response to the Chronicle piece:
I suspect there's another problem here as well: the fear of, and so inability to see work tinged with or involving, mathematics (mathophobia?). We’ve run into his "extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by" (OED) mathematically involved analysis of literary style before. What he and others are missing as a result! Note that it is not necessary at all to be mathematically competent to see what's happening and appreciate the importance of current work in statistically sophisticated computational stylistics, for example. It helps to observe that sorting and counting are mathematical operations, then to investigate what happens when these are powered by the digital machine over large quantities of data.
As I have found more than once, it is a mistake to assume that the old fears are a thing of the past or will be any time soon. Fearful reactions, such as Fish's, are valuable. They point to the depth and breadth, if you will, of the cognitive changes at work, slow though they may be.
I think, no, I’m sure, that McCarthy is right in this.
Fish’s mathophobia was in full force in the Q&A after “If You Count It, They Will Come: The Promise of the Digital Humanities”, an address he gave before the School of Criticism and Theory in the summer of 2015–a video and a transcript are online.
In the course of answering a question he mentions Literary Lab, Pamphlet 4: A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 19th Century British Novels: the semantic cohort method. He asks: “Now what is the semantic cohort method? Well, it turns out to be a method-- by the way, just as a piece, I don’t know, something that's almost, if you pardon the word, aesthetic. When I come upon an essay that has a page in it like that, I want to reach for my gun.” As he utters that last phrase (in a rising tone of voice) he’s holding up a page from the pamphlet, a page given over to a graph. And everyone knows that graphs consist of math wrapped in visible clothing.
He goes on to observe: “But they also discovered as the century progresses, the seed words become less descriptive of general character formations and of moral imperatives, and more descriptive of the rich, and to some extent, the nitty gritty feel of the city.” One can quarrel with Fish’s formulation of Heuser and Le-Khac’s central result on both methodological (seed words) and substantive (“general character formations and of moral imperatives”, “the rich...the nitty gritty feel of the city”) grounds but let’s let that go. He then asserts, “Now in other words, what these people have discovered is that if you read Jane Austin, there are many ways in which it will be different from the experience of reading Charles Dickens.” That’s rather a breath-taking a bit of sophistry. Heuser and Le-Khac argue for one kind of change in the course of the century and Fish transforms the one change into “many ways”. It’s as though one were to assert:
(1) All fish are animals. (2) Fish have scales. (3) Therefore, all animals have scales.
What? He’s working hard to miss the point.
He then offers his standard one-line critique of computational criticism, “But for them to have-- and these guys know this-- for them to have reached that conclusion is to have had that conclusion waiting, not in the wings, but at the beginning.” Well sure, they were looking for something, and they took Raymond Williams as their point of departure. They’re quite upfront about this, and about the methodological assumptions and devices set in place to get a result. And they got a result, not many kinds of changes, but one specific kind of change. You can question whether or not the result was worth the effort, but that’s not what Fish said. What he said was, in effect, we (and they) knew it all along. No, we didn’t.
Later in the Q&A, one interlocutor begins with, “I’ll tell you, for me, every time names and words turn into numbers, I start to get a chill.” Once again, mathophobia.
* * * * *
Now, I should say, in fairness to Fish, that his presentation wasn’t a complete dismissal of digital humanities. At the outset he tells us that he’s in favor of authorship studies, work undertaken to identify the authors of disputed texts. Furthermore:
And then there's that part of the digital humanities that provides very extensive and helpful, pedagogical helpful websites, allowing you to surround a text or an object or a painting with all kinds of historical and interpretive materials, and introduce your students to those materials. And I think that's also a worthy addition to the tools that we have at our disposal.
Then he goes into his critique of computational criticism.
He frames his critique with the question: What is interpretation? “Debates about interpretation, as you know, are found in every discipline. But the debate is most sharply focused in the discipline of law, in part because the object of legal interpretation is often the Constitution, or a landmark statute.” And he informs us that there are three main schools of legal interpretation: 1) textualism, which he identifies most strongly with Justice Antonin Scalia and his belief in original meaning, 2) “the living Constitution school”, and 3) intentionalism, where Fish plants his flag. What Fish does within that tripartite frame is interesting, but beyond the scope of this little not.
[1] Stanley Fish, “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”, New Literary History, Vol. 2, No. 1, A Symposium on Literary History (Autumn, 1970), pp. 123-162. It was republished in Is There a Text in This Class? Harvard, 1980, pp. 21-17.

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