Thoughts on Fish’s Theology

“The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality,” Stanley Fish presents his reader with an examination and criticism of the digital humanities that reveals some interesting difference and similarities between DH and traditional scholarship in the humanities. Of particular interest is the fact that Fish apparently fails to realize that he lauds the same characteristics in traditional scholarship that he criticizes in the digital humanities. In his blog in the New York Times, Fish refers to digital humanists’ vision for their field as being theological in the sense that it “promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated…and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in full and immediate presence.” In other words, DH seeks to lead us to a sort of nirvana, an enlightenment of mind and spirit in which the “would-be knower” is no longer separated from any knowledge source. In addition, DH also promises to remove the obstacle of mortality by creating a “steady yet dynamic state where there is…no beginning and end, just all middle,” a state in which knowledge and existence would presumably continue in perpetuity. Based on this description, it would appear that Fish considers digital humanists as tech-hippies in pursuit of everlasting nirvana, eternal enlightenment; they want all knowledge made available to them, and they want it now and always.

In opposition to this vision of DH is Fish’s depiction of traditional humanities scholarship: “a hitherto linear experience – a lone reader facing a stable text provided by an author who dictates the shape of reading by doling out information in a sequence he control.” My issue with this description of traditional humanities scholarship is how is it any less theological than DH? Could the traditional humanities scholar not be seen as a god figure who decides what knowledge the readers (his subjects) should receive and in what order/structure they should receive it? And how is this more strictly delineated and hierarchical form of scholarship and knowledge-sharing really any different or better than DH? Are both scholarships not seeking the same thing: knowledge, or enlightenment? Are they not both forced to work within the limitations of their given field? And yes, both do have limitations. As Martin Mueller points out in “Stanley Fish and the Digital Humanities,” just because an algorithm only takes “seconds or minutes to execute” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely on “data that it took weeks to prepare” or that it might “spit out results that it takes days to analyze.” Digital humanities may offer new possibilities, but it still functions within a set of limitations. So, it would appear that DH and traditional humanities scholarship have more in common than Fish would care to acknowledge. Perhaps, then, instead of pitting these two forms of scholarship against each other as stark opposites of which only one can prevail, we should more appropriately focus on the similarities of the two and the ways in which they can work together and complement each other. Perhaps Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore have it right when they suggest that the “job of digital tools [in the humanities] is to draw our attention to evidence impossible or hard to see during normal reading” and to serve as a complement to “the skills of close textual analysis that are the staple of literary training” (“What did Stanley Fish count, and when did he start counting it?”).