Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is Marx a gloss of Hegel? Is Lacan just rehashing Freud?

13. January 14th,2008 1:11 am
Simply put, Fish argues that the entire scholarly output of the humanities is, for lack of a better word, marginalia. In his analysis, professors of Shakespeare don’t “produce” — they replicate, comment on, and endlessly rehash the same tired arguments about the same tired plays. Or worse, their enthusiasm leads them to distort a play’s original meaning and reduce it to a shape unrecognizable to the Bard himself.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this argument. How do we know what is marginalia and what is actually unique? Is Marx a gloss of Hegel? Is Lacan just rehashing Freud? To what extent were these men producing something new and to what extent were they merely commenting on something old?
Fish is, it seems to me, a humanities fundamentalist. He sees the endless commentary and study and elaboration by scholars of certain “truly unique works” socially useless. He operates in the same spirit as those who saw in the theologians of the Catholic Church an impediment to reading the clear, unambiguous message of the Bible. For the Bible alone, according to such men, is a unique and socially useful creation. All else (Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Moore) are mere distractions from the unambiguous meaning of the original text.
In any field, scholarly advancement is a painfully slow process. The line of minor historians who connect Thucydides to Gibbon is filled with people who study “medieval astrology, Renaisssance [sic] iconography, 18th century political satire, and romantic theories of the imagination”. No doubt Fish would have found their scholarly output incredibly boring, but you can’t get from “The Peloponnesian War” to “Decline and Fall…” without them.
If Fish had his way, how would the disciplines progress? Merely on the shoulders of indisputably great men like Shakespeare who, says Fish, need no defending? Ought we just to close our eyes, keep our fingers crossed, and pray that every generation or two produces a man or woman of such outstanding genius that a truly important work can be summoned forth from the scholarly vacuum? Or, on the other hand, ought we to cultivate an environment in which thousands of people can discuss, debate, and research a succession of points that, while seemingly minor in social import, can on occasion burst forth and alter the course of history?
— Posted by Jeffrey Sachs

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