A Poet with Tools Reflects on Fish

“Will the Humanities Save Us?” is the title of a column by the eminent scholar Stanley Fish published recently by The New York Times. In the column Fish states:

How does one justify funding the arts and humanities? It is clear which justifications are not available. You can’t argue that the arts and humanities are able to support themselves through grants and private donations. You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum).

The column has resulted in an avalanche of comments on the site (293 at present) and I can completely understand why. I respect Fish, his work is an important part of the background to my own research, but his text seems to indicate his preoccupation with a concept of the humanities that I have had only a marginal amount of contact with over the last few years. Even if Fish is playing the rhetorical devil’s advocate, the column still belies a vision of the humanities that seems to ignore so much of the creative and communicative domains of the humanities, as well as the enormous amount of time, energy and (yikes) money that is being devoted to the production of culture today. Not to mention the research and critical thinking that makes possible things like virtual worlds, digital mapping, Libraries 2.0, computer games, collaborative and participatory authorship, activist arts, networks over distance via digital media, and digital archiving (to name just a few).

I don’t mean to sing the praises of my own organisation (….ok I will), but I see the evaluation and transmission of texts as just one, be it important, part of the humanities today. Since I began working in HUMlab as an undergraduate third term student in 2003 I have performed, constructed, arranged, critiqued, rearranged, published, listened, analysed, stolen, borrowed, given, and created a lot of materials. I have studied computer codes as one would have studied a lost language (no manual, trial and error), I have taken part in community based media actions that resulted in change in the lives of those who participated. Funding is always an issue but this is not unique to the humanities schools in universities today. Many schools across all disciplines are experiencing money problems.

Through all the activities and contemplation that is undertaken by the many people who have been working in HUMlab since I started, there are consistently moral or ethical considerations present in much of what we do. I have had many conversations in the lab around the topic of ethics; in relation to both research and the production of material artefacts. I do not think these exchanges could be as developed and relevant as they have to me if there was not a humanist tradition (be it ever changing) present. I would be interested in hearing the views of others regarding Mr Fish’s text.

Finally, we are in the final stages of what is strangely called ‘the Fall Term’ here in Umeå. It’s strange because looking out the window there is snow falling and it is already thick on the ground. The next six months promises to be an exciting time in HUMlab, with the doubling in size of the physical lab, new equipment and tools, interesting guests and numerous projects underway.