the humanities and public intellectualism

Stanley Fish’s most recent NY Times blog post seeks to defend his previous post Will the Humanities Save Us?, which I wrote about earlier. This time, Fish reasserts that the Humanities only have intrinsic value, and no utility in the world. To quote his clarification in his newest post:

Note that what we’re talking about here is the study, not the production, of humanistic texts. The question I posed in the column was not do works of literature, philosophy and history have instrumental value, but does the academic analysis of works of literature, philosophy and history have instrumental value. When Jeffrey Sachs says that “in the real world” the distinction between the humanities and the sciences on the basis of utility does not hold because “philosophers have made important contributions to the sciences” and “the hard sciences have had a profound impact on the humanities,” he doesn’t come within 100 miles of refuting anything I say. Whatever does or does not happen in the “real world” is not the issue; the issue is what happens in the academic world, where the distinctions Sachs dismisses do hold. It may be, as George Mobus maintains, that “only in academia where you are supposed to be a specialist . . . do we parse the world into silos,” but the academic world is by definition parsed into silos and when the utility of one of them is questioned, it is not to any point to say that in some other world everything exists in some great big mix.

In my response, I argued that they do have utility: creating ethical frameworks (to summarize what I wrote).

But let’s go a bit further with this. After reading Fish’s comment, I had to pull out my (scanned, actually) copy of Christian Weisser’s Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition and the Public Sphere, which, as I recalled, had a discussion of Stanley Fish.

Weisser quotes Fish’s assertion from Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (which, unfortunately, I haven’t read):

A public intellectual is someone who takes as his or her subject matters of public concern, and has the public’s attention. Since one cannot gain that attention from the stage of the academy (except by some happy contingency) academics, by definition, are not candidates for the role of the public intellectual. Whatever the answer to the question “How does one get to be a public intellectual?” we know it won’t be “by joing the academy.” (Fish 118, quoted in Weisser 118)

The problem with this account, however, as Weisser points out, is a belief in a singular public sphere, and the outdated belief in the public intellectual as someone who speaks to the entire public. Weisser goes on to compare Fish to Habermas:

Both, for example, suggest that public discourse is only worthwhile if it reaches a large segment of the population who are able to act upon it in some way. Furthermore, they both seem to suggest that public discourse must address an eclectic audience, since speaking to an assorted constituency is the only way to bring about widespread changes in thinking and practice. In other words, they assume that public discourse must address the “general public,” and the term public is often taken to encompass all members of a society or at least a representative microcosm of them. (120)

But why do I bring in Weisser’s book, in particular his chapter on public intellectuals, into this dialogue on the worth of the humanities? It is because, in the passage I quote from Fish’s blog, he has continued the very fracture between academia and “the real world” that Weisser criticizes. Is not academia a counterpublic (though not subaltern)? That is, aren’t fields of academia public spaces for dialogue, though not the public as a singularity?

I’m exhausted (have some grading and reading left to do tonight), so I’m going to cut this short by a) quoting my own thesis (I know, lazy and egotistical, perhaps) in order to summarize Weisser’s point, and b) getting to the point I want to make here: that I think the Humanities does have a role in public outside of academia: to assist in ethical public dialogue, whether as public intellectuals speaking to people (as even Fish does), or in helping to create counterpublics.

He [Weisser] writes that, contrary to a traditional concept, “[i]ntellectuals can take part in creating such counterpublics, and must also look for alternative sites in which to voice their opinions on social and political issues” (123). Intellectuals can promote and affect change “on the micro level of interaction,” in their classroom, through scholarship, and through public actions, and need not be an expert on all subjects, but should be able to “speak to any group outside of the academy” (123, 125).

Weisser believes that if we view the role of the public intellectual in this way, we might “see a variety of opportunities for work,” of which “[o]ur work in the classroom … might be seen as perhaps the most important and effective avenue of political and social change that is available to us” (127). Weisser sees the work of compositionists as necessarily public: it is our role to be scholars of public discourse and to help to foster links amongst different discourse communities (129). “We need,” he concludes, “as Ellen Cushman notes in The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change, ‘a deeper consideration of the civic purpose of our positions in the academy, of what we do with our knowledge, for whom, and by what means.’ Activist intellectuals might be then, quite simply, members of academe who take steps to bring more voices, more discourse, and a greater degree of communication to public debates, and in turn bring about social change” (131).

Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse has also written about this role of the public intellectual, noting that she “has a decisive preparatory function” for public debate. He writes, “education today is more than discussion, more than teaching and learning and writing. Unless and until it goes beyond the classroom, until and unless it goes beyond the college, the school, the university, it will remain powerless” (“Liberation” 285). If the work of an intellectual spreads to outside of schools, there is the need to help develop public spheres where others can speak and talk. The intellectual’s role (at least in the humanities), as I see it, then, is to not only offer counterdiscourse, but to help foster public arenas where others can speak — not to organize others, but to help foster democratic public spheres. (138-139)

EDIT: My friend Christian emailed me a smart response, which I’d like to excerpt and post here:

First, I agree. Duh, of course I do. Where you say “role” I suppose I say “responsibility.” Actually, pluralize that: “responsibilities.” There have to be more than one monolithic responsibility here, just as there may be more than one “role.”

[…] I say hey let’s just argue for the responsibility thing: the Humanities, personified in active agents, categorized in texts, owe it to publics to take on certain roles (read: earn certain roles and/or inherit certain roles), not simply “be in a role” as if it’s part and parcel with academia. Ought we to emphasize the responsibility, not the position (role)?

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