Sunday, July 27, 2008

Why Stanley Fish would not cut it as a medievalist

by J J Cohen

In that regular column of his in the NYT, Professor Fish explains why travel abroad bores him:
Strategic fatigue sets in whenever I enter a museum (when I saw that the display case containing the Book of Kells was surrounded by other tourists I didn’t have the strength to push myself forward) or when I approach an ancient site (at Clonmacnoise, the location of an ancient abbey, I retreated immediately to the coffee shop and never saw the ruin) or when the possibility of getting out of the car to enjoy a scenic view presented itself (I protested that it would take too much time, or that we needed gas, or something equally feeble).
It's funny, for me strategic fatigue sets in when I read this regular column by Stanley Fish. I did make it to the "What’s wrong with me?" paragraph (#7!) before I gave up -- though two of those paragraphs contained precisely one sentence. But it's not as if I stepped out of queue to see the Book of Kells or anything ...


Mary Kate Hurley said...

Quick response having read the entirety of Fish's article for reasons I don't comprehend (it's like looking at a train wreck):

Two interesting segments:

1. By definition, a culture other than yours is one that displays unfamiliar practices, enforces local protocols and insists on its own decorums. Some of them even have different languages and are unhappy if you don’t speak them. To me that all spells discomfort, and I don’t see why I should endure the indignities of airplane travel only to be made uncomfortable once I get where I’m going. As for seeing how other people live, that’s their business, not mine.

to which I respond that it's easy to see why he hasn't changed since the 1980s, if he hates discomfort that much. Isn't discomfort always a part of growing and learning? Pushing against the way we ARE in the hopes of further becomings?

2. But I had to acknowledge that the springs of my own sensibilities had more to do with parochialism and sloth than with some noble capaciousness of mind. In the end, I just have to admit that I was born without the travel gene, which probably means that I was also born without the curiosity gene, and that I’ll just have to live with it.

I find this part heart-breaking. He might as well say he's done with living and growing -- had he not already essentially said that in #1 above. I'd refer him to Faulkner, and though I doubt it would do him much good even if for some reason he saw this and looked it up -- "you always wear out life before you have exhausted the possibilities of living."

Eileen Joy said...

Seriously, guys, isn't this column kind of embarrassing? It's like Fish was out of usual cant/material and was casting around for something to write about, and came up with . . . this?!? It doesn't even really fit the purview of his regular column. It must be summer is all I can say and the psychologists have left the building. Did he really admit to:

"intentional difficulties (euphemism)"?

If that means what I think it does, I'm sorry I had to picture it.

BLB said...

You'd almost think it would be some kind of subtle lampooning of parochialism, or U.S. attitudes towards the world (occasioned by Obama's journey?),, just grousing.

Next Fish column: "kids, get off my lawn!"

Rick Godden said...

Well, this piece is a lot better (this being a relative term) than when he airs his frustrations about how hard it is to get a cup of coffee in this awful modern age!

Apologies for quoting at length, but I almost can't believe this isn't self-parody: "It used to be that when you wanted a cup of coffee you went into a nondescript place fitted out largely in linoleum, Formica and neon, sat down at a counter, and, in response to a brisk “What’ll you have, dear?” said, “Coffee and a cheese Danish.” Twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page.

Now it’s all wood or concrete floors, lots of earth tones, soft, high-style lighting, open barrels of coffee beans, folk-rock and indie music, photographs of urban landscapes, and copies of The Onion. As you walk in, everything is saying, “This is very sophisticated, and you’d better be up to it.”

It turns out to be hard. First you have to get in line, and you may have one or two people in front of you who are ordering a drink with more parts than an internal combustion engine, something about “double shot,” “skinny,” “breve,” “grande,” “au lait” and a lot of other words that never pass my lips. If you are patient and stay in line (no bathroom breaks), you get to put in your order, but then you have to find a place to stand while you wait for it. There is no such place. So you shift your body, first here and then there, trying not to get in the way of those you can’t help get in the way of.

Finally, the coffee arrives."

It's such a tough life that he needs to learn how to ask for coffee.

Or there's his column, in August 2007, about how it was time to pick Clinton's running mate. He's quite the prognosticator. Maybe he just didn't get his cup of coffee.

flacius1551 said...

Most of what he writes is tedious, but this sort of takes the cake. He used to teach the liberal arts? Where we push learning about other cultures and other ages?

He should have stuck to Milton.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

That was 3 minutes of my life I'll never get back

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I know I had once on this blog declared Fish "below notice," but the truth is that many smart readers who are not academics read hos column. If they form an impression of the contemporary academy -- especially an unspoken one, because that's the kind that is difficult to dislodge -- based upon an essay like this, then that is a sad effect of a sad piece of writing. Fish's values (and I know he is exaggerating in order to get a rise, in order to have an effect) are not values I've ever glimpsed in any of my colleagues. Travel (actual, imaginative, emotional, psychological, linguistic) and unflagging curiosity are the sine qua non of liberal arts education.

Mary Kate asked "Isn't discomfort always a part of growing and learning?" Bingo!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Rick, I was just out for a run and this little scene you quoted went -- for reasons known only to my misfiring neurons -- through my head:

in response to a brisk “What’ll you have, dear?” [I] said, “Coffee and a cheese Danish.” Twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page.

Two things: (1) Stanley Fish sure misses the 1950s. (2) I feel sorry for Mrs Fish, who obviously is in charge of bringing him coffee and danishes in the Fish home as he reads the morning paper. Now I understand why he didn't like traveling without her (and why she does like traveling: no mugs to fill or danishes to place on plates or "Yes, dear"s to pronounce).

scyllacat said...

I can only agree with everyone. I agreed with the first sentence. Other cultures involve unfamiliar practices. That means it's natural to feel uncomfortable, to be wary... but it also means heightened senses.

The idea of his having no curiosity at BEST makes me wonder why people give him a forum to write in, and at worst makes me wonder why no one has shot him in the head to put him out of his misery.

Writers with no curiosity. Not just some downtrodden prole who has no idea how amazing the world is (boom-de-yada), but an educated, cultured writer.... JUST when I think the world could not possibly surprise me more, and I've SEEN goatse...

Karl Steel said...

I'm not even going to look. The fact of the matter is that one's OWN culture is never entirely one's own culture. That sense of homogeneousness is always false consciousness, but we've been over that ground 200 times here before. I'm reminded of a friend who refused to travel because of the fear that he'd enjoy the place he went more than his home city and suddenly find himself discontent at home. To his credit, he's put some of his $$ to traveling since.

I'm wondering how rising fuel costs and stagnant air travel technology will affect international culture, migration, and immigration relations. Will we 'return' to the 50s in some way, or will Skype &c. keep us in touch, even if we can't get the fetish of 'actually' touching the place.

Finally, I can't help it any more than you all could:

"It used to be that when you wanted a cup of coffee you went into a nondescript place fitted out largely in linoleum, Formica and neon, sat down at a counter, and, in response to a brisk “What’ll you have, dear?” said, “Coffee and a cheese Danish.” Twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page.

Who is this you, anyhow? Surely not an Italian. "It used to be that when you wanted a cup of coffee, you went to a counter outfitted with a noisy machine and pushed your way to the front of the crowd to shout your order, IF you were lucky enough not to get elbowed out of the way by a wily septuagenarian."