Friday, October 23, 2009

Is there a Methodology in this Class?

by Mary Kate Hurley

I was sitting quietly in my library carrel (where I spend approx. 20 hours of every day) when a friend sent me a Gmail chat, asking “Are you going to the talk?” I was feeling a bit tired, and a bit confused – “what talk?” I typed back, thinking that there was very, very little that would get me to leave the library that day. “Stanley Fish!” he answered. “12.30 in 523 Butler. Only Grad Students and Faculty invited.” Since I didn’t have to leave the library to walk downstairs, and it was even on my side of the building, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.

I was curious, and that was the major reason I wanted to go. I’ve had my share of disagreements (one-sided to be sure) with Prof. Fish. I’ve taught him in class and read his NYTimes blog when I manage to get past my email backlog while procrastinating. I don’t always agree with him. In fact, I actually don’t think I agree with him much at all – as he’s a Miltonist, this hasn’t really been a central facet of my increasingly Beowulf-focused life in recent days (as a side note: Hi, everybody! It’s been ages!). But I’m always interested in hearing what another “giant” of the field is like when giving a talk – will he be well-spoken? Dismissive of grad student questions? Funny? Irascible?

Thus I found myself at Stanley Fish’s talk, on “Milton and Theory.”

I have to say: I was quite impressed. I found his analysis of other Miltonists quite amusing at times, and enlightening at others, if often a bit harsh. His central claim revolved around how theoretical readings of texts tend to turn the literary works they treat into “allegories” which simply prove the reader’s point, again and again. As a medievalist, I found this assertion quite interesting: I hate allegory with a firey passion, mostly because I often have trouble finding where the allegory ends and where whatever takes its place begins. Fish was speaking on a very specific kind of reading of Milton, Deconstructionist with a Capital ‘D’. Again, it’s a theory I’ve largely lost interest in as I’ve gotten further into my own work. Deconstruction is fascinating, and an important theoretical tool, but I’ve never been able to see it as more than just that, a tool.

In the end, Fish’s talk made a single claim with three major points, beyond his annoyance with other interpreters of John Milton. The claim was about “what to do with John Milton and Paradise Lost,” a question to which Fish gave three answers:
  1. Find out what the author meant. (Find the author’s intention).
  2. Find out how other critics have read the author, for example, how the Romantics read Milton.
  3. Find out what you can make with the text in question.
For Fish, the only one of these which was really worthwhile as a literary endeavor was the first: an avowed intentionalist, he defined his premise as believing that the text means what its author says it means. He ended the talk with a call for what he termed “professional humility,” which if I read him correctly, meant that remembering that the endeavor of the literary critic is to treat the text in a way that is limited to the text itself: in short, that we should not pretend we’re saving the world here.

I was curious about Fish’s point here. In college, while working on my senior thesis, a biweekly colloquium convened to help us work through the difficult task of writing a paper longer than anything we’d ever written. I remember one colleague, struggling with the awesome difficulty of beginning to write on Shakespeare (the details of her argument are fuzzy now) who was petrified of beginning. With everything others had said already, she explained, what could she do? What if she was wrong? I vividly remember turning to her, saying the single thing that I would give anything to be sure of now: “Shakespeare will be fine. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to him that will ‘mess up’ the plays.”

At 21, apparently I knew something that I have trouble remembering at 27: the critics rarely become anything more than just critics. That is to say: while literary criticism is difficult and beautiful and life-changing, the consequences are perhaps more humble than our highest aspirations (or deepest fears) would have us believe.

But, returning to Fish’s talk, I was very interested in the three theses he proposed. So, like all good sixth year graduate students do at such events, I asked an evenhanded but still (I hope) engaging question. Explaining that I was a PhD candidate working with Old English texts – a tidbit of personal information that I hoped would contextualize the question I went on to ask – I inquired as to Prof. Fish’s ideas about Methodology. Is it possible to ask a fourth question of a text? I asked. Is it possible what a poem or other literary work does -- that is to say, not what does it mean so much as how does it construct this meaning? Could we productively raise a question of methodology here, and might the methodology literary scholars seek to employ also determine (or pre-determine) what types of evidence is admissable, and does this have ramifications for our enterprise?

To begin a response, Prof. Fish acknowledged that these questions were very complicated – and I’m sure they were more so when constructed on the spot during the question and answer session. But what it seemed to come down to, in his response, was that being an Intentionalist meant that one believed the text meant what its author said it meant. It is a critical affiliation, to be sure, but it is not a methodological point. Fish averred that our best option is using the “usual empirical way” – interpretation, for Fish, is an empirical activity, not a theoretical one. There is no methodology that attaches to it. This accumulation of empirical research may “take too long” – but there it is.

I’ve been mulling over this since Tuesday: what does it mean, if we are to be empirical in the pursuit of literary studies? On some levels, I suppose, it means what I always tell my students: use textual evidence. But at the same time, aren’t close readings also a form of methodology, and doesn’t empiricism hold its own theoretical rather than interpretive troubles? To wit, can’t empiricism itself proceed from a single (and allegorizing) premise? That everything is both explainable and reproducible, and moreover, that steps taken in an orderly proceeding will inevitably point us to an explanation for – well – everything?

Fish raised some important questions, and I was glad to find him humorous and erudite, and very much accepting of questions from all levels of scholars. I want to engage the points he raised, but in part I don’t know how to begin: all I know is that some of the evidence I accumulated while writing my most recently completed chapter was taken very well, and some of it was deeply disliked and disapproved of. There are, it would seem, certain ways that It Is Okay to Read Beowulf – and stepping outside those is difficult, if not impossible. How, then, to define a literary endeavor? How do we accumulate evidence to interpret a text – what tools do we have to use, and can we use them as tools rather than allegory?

What, dear readers of In the Middle, do you think? What is Methodology, and how does it relate, or not relate to Interpretation? Or to the study of Medieval Literature? Is there a difference between interpretation done in pre-modern and early modern/modern texts? And as regards literary criticsim, is there a methodology in this field?


Suzanne Akbari said...

What a provocative and interesting post. I have been thinking a lot about early modern vs pre-modern literature lately, partly because I'm teaching one undergrad lecture on Milton, which I've never done before, and one on Chaucer, which I've done, like, a million times. I've also been wondering about this question of methodology, a term that I was first introduced to on a grant application over a decade ago, and to which my initial reaction was "Huh? We have methodologies?" At this point, trained by the granting agencies, I have become good at translating whatever it is we do into methodology-ese, and this exercise is even sometimes -- not always -- useful. In this light, your account of Fish's lecture and your reaction to it is striking. I had Fish in two undergrad seminars in the early 80s, one on 17c poetry and one on Milton, and in those days, you would never catch him talking about authorial intentionality. The text would do things to you, yes; the text would pick you up and turn you upside down and confuse you and lead you into sin, but the author was not really something you talked about. When Derrida came to give a lecture, Fish was in the front row energetically arguing with him about poststructuralist approaches, but certainly intentionality was not part of the argument.
It seems to me that the reason Fish was able to make arguments, at that time, about the energetic activity of the text without making recourse to authorial intentionality is because when you're talking about poetry -- especially highly controlled, highly formal poetry, like Herbert, Marvell, or (especially) Milton -- you're in a setting where the reader is in some sense shaped by the reading experience. It tends not to be this way, I would suggest, with most medieval literature. (I know this point will be contentious -- I am already starting to argue this point with myself with regard to Piers Plowman and Dante.) In some ways, maybe the medieval (or pre-modern) vs Renaissance (or early modern) divide centers on how much the text manipulates us versus how much we feel free to manipulate the text.

dan remein said...


Excellent questions at the heart of my questions about my own relations to something like a tradition of humanist criticism. My first reaction to questions regarding empiricism is to balk, however, because I just am not interested in being a scientist myself, but a reader and a writer. That means, for me, to ask about methodology is interesting only until it distracts me from the question of theory itself--because theory is, I hope, not only my but a methodology that supersedes that very question. I mean, my Heideggerian and deconstructive self (I of course, as you know, believe deconstruction is much more than a tool--its an announcement, a promise, a commitment, a prayer, a love, a hospitality with regard to the other or to the future, or the outside, or whatever you want to call it as long as it is not an ontically 'there' 'being' as a 'false messiah' or gnostic god)find theory to be practice itself, and one not reducible to the scientifized 'grasping' of a methodology which would control and wield its object, test it instead of care for it.

Care, I hope, is different than methodology and more just. Proceeding on the paths of Care, which are long, full of detours, require patience and cannot guarantee and 'results'--on these paths categories like intentionality or structure sort of dissolve. All of this is important, as I said, to a humanistic discipline and one's relation to it, because it concerns certain ideals which are difficult to maintain--time, freedom of developement for the human imagination, a sanction to look for alternatives to current configurations of imagination and look for alternatives to totalitarian regimes of thought--that is, to imagine new possibilities for human imagination and civil society. In short, all of the above depends on not really caring so much about knowledge production. Care would attend first to being and then to sense. Is that a methodology? I'm sure not it is. It would be different in every moment, place, being, love, or time. ?

mon rodriguez-amat said...

Sorry, I am not a medievalist, nor a native english speaker, nor a literary criticist. But I try to follow the posts in this blog because they are usually stimulating and very suggestive.
Like this one.
(Thanks, and please, go on).

But as a social researcher (I do not feel comfortable with many more labels than this one) I believe the question about methodology is of much transcendence.

Isn't it now that we are interested in the past? Is not for today all the knowledge that should emerge from our (re)questioning of the past? I think yes.
Is it properly a "substance" what we are looking for? I do not think so.

I guess our purpose as social scientists should not be to increase our knowledge (as if it was a warehouse where we keep all the things, we know) but to reinvent forms of thinking about it; so to say, conquering spaces of liberty, new interstices of thought that help us criticize what we took for granted.

There, is where we reinvent ourselves in the present: by reinterpreting the past, rereading the texts, recollecting examples. The possibility of truth, or the chances of the original meaning, or the option of reaching the proper interpretations are far away from our capabilities.

Perhaps we shouldn't loose the contexts of meaning; and contexts are products of the tensions between power and knowledge ("words mean what I want them to mean! -whe I want them to mean") and therefore the question about methodology should come before the question of knowledge as a strategy to unveil the conditions of interpretation, the context.

In this sense, as social scientists -analyzers of contextualized social products/social practices - we do not have much more than our permanent questions on methodologies, procedures, rigour and discipline; the limits of our thought instead of the limits of our knowledge.

There is where I would talk about humility and awareness; not anywhere else. Because I actually don't believe we should think we know anything else.

tenthmedieval said...

Nice to see you back MKH! I have to say that I think your fourth question is a valid one, though I personally would rather someone other than me thought about it :-) But I have a matching anecdote, from a mentor of mine who when organising a conference on new approaches to archæology contacted a very traditional colleague about giving a paper, explaining to him that he (my mentor) thought that a positivist perspective would be useful too. To which said colleague replied, "Oh, I don't do any of that theory stuff, you know that." I think there's a warning for us all there: we may not use the methodology in question but we need to allow for the existence of other ways in to our personal citadel.

Mon, when you say:

I guess our purpose as social scientists should not be to increase our knowledge (as if it was a warehouse where we keep all the things, we know) but to reinvent forms of thinking about it; so to say, conquering spaces of liberty, new interstices of thought that help us criticize what we took for granted.

I have to say I think it's OK to seek knowledge too, even if we can't really know it. Quite apart from the thrill of the chase, the glee of discovery, and so on, new data so often forces us to reinterpretation of the old data and adaptation of methodologies that I think it should be seen as a basic requirement of the development of approaches that they need to be tested with such unanticipated material.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Last night I attended a lecture by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson at which she argued that:
1) literary critics possess a unique methodology because they read texts closely as unfoldings of worlds
2) this methodology is exportable into other arenas, most particularly built space

These statements were not without controversy, as you can imagine -- especially because she then read the Gas Chamber (by which she meant the system of transportation that culminated in the euthanasia of the disabled in early Nazi Germany, a system of selection and purification) next to the DC Metro system (with the BART system in SF, one of two publication transportation systems built on a principle of universal access for all variations of bodies).

So, her talk was all about methodology, and close reading ... and humanism, though she foregrounded implicit aspirational intent over authorial or societal predetermination.

Jonathan makes an excellent point: lots of people don't think they are using a methodology or a theory, but in fact they are just not recognizing the parameters within whcih they work.

anna klosowska said...

Reading is unfolding of worlds, thus applicable to other disciplines and life pursuits. I really love this definition!

tenthmedieval said...

Jonathan makes an excellent point: lots of people don't think they are using a methodology or a theory, but in fact they are just not recognizing the parameters within which they work.

And that mentor of mine will hopefully never realise how short a time before he told that story I'd realised that, and indeed learnt the word `positivist'...

ken tompkins said...

For me, "methodology" is what I do to get to the possibility of an interpretation.