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Science Fiction Isn’t About The Future (or the past)

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I would like to share the short introduction Ursula K. Le Guin wrote for The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’m beginning to read. It’s a powerful statement about the vocation of the writer, the nature of science-fiction and even fiction as such. She makes a devastating case for science fiction not being about the future, which is hard to say is always the case. In Star Trek, for example, much effort is expended to build a believable continuity between their fictive future and our actual present; Roddenberry wanted us to believe in Star Trek as a possible future, while also clearly using it as a way of describing the present.

A great example of what Le Guin means by “science fiction isn’t about the future” is the 2008 b-film, Outlander.

WARNING: SPOILERS.

Outlander is set in 8th Century northern Europe, where a space-craft crashes carrying a lone surviving hominid (Kainan) and a monster worthy of Grendel’s name. The twist is that the extra-terrestrial hominid is actually a human, or rather, humans on Earth are an unwitting seed-colony of that parent species. The monster (Moorwen) is really a creature from one of the many planets these space-faring humans have brutally attacked to clear space for their own colonies.

When Kainan runs into Norsemen, who are suspicious of him after finding him passing through a village the Moorwen destroyed, he tries to appeal (it seems) to their primitive sensibilities and claims he’s hunting a dragon. Though it’s actually somewhat ambiguous: all he really does, when they ask him what he’s hunting that could destroy the village, is points to a dragon ornament and says “that.” Whether he cleverly thinks he’s appealing to their beliefs-qua-mythology or naively thinks similar creatures exist on Earth is unclear. He says this though, and the Norsemen are incredulous Realpolitikers. They already suspect he was part of a raid from a neighboring community, and laugh at him for appealing to and maybe trying to trick them with “children’s stories.”

By correlating these children’s stories with a material support in the form of the Moorwen “dragon,” the film isn’t giving something like a historical materialist account of dragon-stories—or dare I say of dragons. To do so would be to believe in the film, itself a work of fiction made in 2008 and not 709, just as the Norse deride Kainan for believing in “what everyone knows” are children’s stories.

In this way, science fiction (when minding its own business, to borrow Le Guin’s language) cannot explain our past any more than it can predict our future. In the Star Trek The Original Series episode, “Who Mourns For Adonais,” the ship is captured by a being that claims to be Apollo. The being seems to have unassailable powers and otherwise appears to be who he says he is, and even explains that he and the other Olympian gods were a band of travelers who happened upon earth 5000 years ago. The point is very clear: the ancient gods were real, but they weren’t really gods. Kirk at one point, balking at Apollo’s demand for worship, asserts: “Mankind has no need for gods. Our One will do.”

The key to the episode is destroying a temple-structure on the planetoid that apparently accompanies Apollo. It’s explained to be a power-source, but its mechanics are left completely unexplored and unexplained. It’s not really a scientific perspective on the nature of this being nor its claims to divinity. Destroying the temple with the phasers does cause Apollo to lose his powers, but the cause and effect are as magical as any mythological understanding this whole Apollo’s-really-an-alien is supposed to dispel. In the end, the mythological fiction, with its “scientific” underpinning, is presented as true and we feel like we’ve been 5000 years in the past than 300 in the future.

At any rate, here’s Le Guin:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.’ A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it is so depressing.’

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in this laboratory; let’ say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens . . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger’s and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you ‘re like—what’s going on—what the weather is like now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.

‘The truth against the world!’—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and tell about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and when they say they are done writing down this pack of lies they say, There! That’s the truth!

They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology, and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalizable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted in its artists?
But our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists.

I do not say that artists cannot be seers, inspired: that the awen cannot come upon them, and the god speak through them. Who would be an artist if they did not believe that happens? If they did not know it happens, because they have felt the god within them use their tongue, their hands? Maybe only once, once in their lives. But once is enough.

Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in the number as well as in words.

But it is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only insofar as it has one single meaning, points to one fact that is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.

Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number—Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.

I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.

Oh, it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Sciences displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.

This book is not about the future. Yes, it begins by announcing that it’s sent in the ‘Ekumenical Year 1490-97,’ but surely you don’t believe that?

Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re don with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound—a fact the linguistic positives take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors drawn from certain great dominants [domains?] of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.
A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

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Written by Joe

February 15, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Posted in Fantasy, Film, Lit Crit

The Ones Who Stayed and the Ones Who Went

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Omelas, as it exists with the suffering child, is utopia from the perspective of the false mother of 1 Kings 3:16-28.

The one who walk away from Omelas pretend to give up on Utopia as an index of the importance of that for the sake of which they left (hint hint: their own True Selves (an update to Hegel’s ‘Beautiful Soul’). They do not really give up on utopia though. Their counter- or anti-belief is their very bad faith in that society. Those who would really give up on Omelas, on Utopia, are those who stay to free the child or otherwise ameliorate the situation. They are, to paraphrase Zizek, the atheists who can truly believe. That is to say, call the bluff of the only law in this society: that it all goes away when that child is freed. (Begin to think here of ‘the child-like empress’ of The Neverending Story as a prisoner of fantasia.) The Law says exactly what will happen, so why not take it at its word? You want to let go of Utopia, but are still stuck on the idea? Then stay and engage it — watch it go away; watch it go no where.

The ones who walk away from Omelas have a bad faith in the Law, like the false mother had a bad faith in the Law qua Solomon’s judgement. Perhaps Joshu, walking out on Nansen with his sandals on his head, is one of ones who walk away from Omelas? The monks were scared shitless of Nansen, not because he was going to cut into the cat, but into their True Selves. Joshu would have turned Nansen’s sword on him and saved the cat, but he couldn’t because Nansen already killed it, sanctifying it in the process. Nansen’s mistake — that he kills the cat as a means for destroying the monks’ clinging (to their own True Selves) — is the false mother’s mistake too. Is Joshu critiquing Nansen’s bad faith, or merely repeating it? The suggestion that Joshu would take Nansen’s sword and enforce the same edict suggests that Joshu is repeating Nansen. Is this a case where an action is only fully realized when it fails and is repeated, where truth is attained through a misrecognition?

Did he really threaten their True Selves? If we take Omelas as a kind of True Self or Beautiful Soul, and the suffering of the child as a fundamental condition of the Beautiful Soul, letting the child in its suffering remain means letting the Beautiful Soul remain. In other words, without the child in its state of suffering, the Beautiful Souls become guilty – they lose their innocence.

This happens to the little girl in William Blake’s The Book of Thel. She is aware of the decay and transience inherent to her paradise, which in a Buddhist view is to say she is aware of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness in paradise. She makes to leave the paradise, but is confronted the sound of what I believe is her own voice and the Worm’s voice, and they are not-two. She is one of those children who flees back into Omelas in tears at the site of the suffering child, though ultimately to confirm their dwelling in Omelas and the suffering of the child. Is this what Nietzsche meant by affirming life?

Those who leave Omelas, or think they do, are to it as the little girl is to the Worm. She essentializes it as a weakling and inferior. Those who leave Omelas are reactionaries not revolutionaries. They are more libertarian than anarchist. The anarchist (i.e. the mature socialist revolutionary) throws away or at least lets go of it utopia for the sake of the child, against the usual drooz of how socialists want to sub-ordinate the individual to the collective. One for All and All for One.

The ones who walk away from Omelas give up on Omelas as the false mother gives up on the child, treating him like a piece of property that can be divided to resolve the conflict. It is still a place on a war-map, the place they left in rebellion, ever solidifying their resolve with every step they take going away from IT. Like Badiou said, we need a peace that is beyond the war and not merely it’s lazy hand. We need Omelasians more than Omelas.

Written by Joe

June 15, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Posted in Lit Crit, Politics, Practice

Hegel’s Return to Rhetoricality, and Getting High With Moses

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One of Hegel’s complaints in the Phenomenology is against what he calls “picture-thinking.” If it’s not a complaint against it as such, it’s definitely a complaint about a way of thinking about the world people have used it for. A great example of this latter sort of ambiguity is in paragraph 346, where after finishing his discussion of phrenology and otherwise physiognomy, Hegel turns to a rather potent analogy (pun most definitely intended). Since his discussion of phrenology was more or less a discussion of the difference and relationship between the objective world (i.e. explicit appearances) and Spirit, and specifically in the context of phrenology the relationship between the physical skull and the Spirit, he makes a nifty point: the genitals, but more obviously the phallus, are at once the organs of perhaps the highest ecstasy natural to human physiology (Hegel actually refers to its specialness in it being “the organ of regeneration,” which is to say procreation) as well as the organs that handle some of the most nasty stuff we regularly deal with, like urination (cf. Woody Allen in Sleeper: My brain, it’s my second favorite organ!”). While not necessarily making an interpretive point about human physiology (like Freud does with the Oral, Anal and Genital stages of development, which are all sites of otherwise nasty physiological function and pleasure, which we can easily think of as organs of (re)generation if we think of the painful pleasure (jouissance) neurotics seek out of repetition compulsion), Hegel uses this duplicity to say something about how Reason can take this fact.

Brain fibres and the like, when regarded as the being of Spirit, are no more than a merely hypothetical reality existing only in one’s head, not hte true reality which has an outer existence, and which can be felt and seen; when they exist out there, when they are seen, they are dead objects, and then no longer pass for the being of Spirit. But objectivity proper must be an immediate, sensuous objectivity, so that in this dead objectivity—for the bone [of the skull] is a dead thing, so far as what is dead is present in the living being itself—Spirit is explicitly present as actual. The Notion underlying this idea is that Reason takes itself to be all thinghood, even purely objective thinghood itself; but it is only in the Notion, or, only the Notion is the truth of this idead; and the purer the Notion itself is, the sillier an idea it becomes when its content is in the form, not of the Notion, but of picture-thinking, i.e. if the self-suspending judgement is not taken with the consciousness of this its infinitude, but as a fixed proposition the subject and predicate of which are valid each on its own account, the self fixed as self, the thing fixed as thing, and yet each is supposed to be the other. Reason, essentially the Notion, is directly sundered into itself and its opposite, an antithesis which for that very reason is equally immediately resolved. But when Reason is presented as its own self and its opposite, and is helf fast in the entirely separate moment of this asunderness, it is apprehended irrationally; and the purer the moments of this asunderness, the cruder is the appearance of this content which is either only for consciousness, or only ingenuously expressed by it. The depth which Spirit brings forth from within—but only as far as its picture-thinking consciousness where it lets it remain—and the ignorance of this consciousness about what it really is saying, are the same conjunction of the high and the low which, in the living being, Nature naively expresses when it combines the organ of its highest fulfilment [sic], the organ of generation, with the organ of urination. The infinite judgement, qua infinite, would be the fulfilment [sic] of life that comprehends itself; the consciousness of the infinite judgement that remains [i.e. gets stuck] at the level of picture-thinking behaves as urination.

What Hegel is anticipating is his eventual turn back towards Christianity (now that he has just made a certain turn away from it in his ostensible critique of the Unhappy Consciousness), when by the end of the book he ends up arguing how his metaphysics is the literal truth of what is only the metaphorical truth of Christian theology. What is amazing about this move is how it restores the place of the rhetorical, or at least rhetoricality, in contrast to hundreds of years of literalistic picture-thinking qua knowledge as representation. It goes back even further if you consider Hegel’s subtle alignment with medieval Christian mysticism. What Hegel shakes loose, decades before Nietzsche was even born, is the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche is still necessary later on though, because Hegel does not really take himself seriously enough: even in Hegelianism we idealize the transitory world, which is implicitly an attempt to escape from it that Hegel never makes explicit.

The literal truth Hegel wants to suppose for his metaphysics as opposed the metaphorical truth of otherwise symbolic Christianity, which for the most part looks ludicrous when taken literally (a fairly popular approach), is a sort of lala-land that pragmatists, starting with James want to reject. I know I skip over Emerson, who in his own way rejects the foundationalist lala-land of literal meaning or abstract truth, but not only is he not exactly writing polemics like James kind of is (a good thing, on Emerson’s part, by my read), I’m in no position to distill anything interesting about that right now. What Rorty inherits from the pragmatists and Nietzsche is a love for language and its inescapability in how we talk about truth. One thing to which this leads him, much as with Nietzsche and to a lesser extent with Freud and Lacan, is a romantic view of language that argues for a return to, if not a full on valorization of poetry. For other anti-foundational thinkers, like Bloom, this linguistic turn has meant more modestly returning to texts themselves.

This was Hegel’s creative and not logical response to the philosophers of his time and before, though his thinking otherwise would prove to limit his system in the end. When he simply says (mind you, not argues) in Paragraph 82, “…call to mind the abstract determinations of thought and knowledge as they occur in the consciousness,” he is acting more like a poet than a philosopher typical of his time. In a certain sense, he takes experience in general to be a text, to which he returns us when he just starts interpreting it. The logical necessity, the truth of his project is, as Rorty says of truth in general, a compliment he pays to how well thinking this way, saying these things works for him. That it has and hasn’t worked for others since him has nothing to do with the text he produced, but with whether it has worked for them. I like this return to the text, but it the book, the speech of the analysand, or to what is there in all its stupid ambiguity and debatability.

It’s thinking of the text like this that I was pissed off by Benny Shannon. Professor Shannon, as he’s referred to in the article published in the Daily Mail about the burning-bush story of Exodus being a case of drug-use, is laughable and potentially dangerous as the religious zealot who claims Moses is really (no, seriously, really) talking to God in the burning bush. The story has the air of another Bible-story debunked, and I’m all for giving historical depth to otherwise literary documents, but there is no depth to be had by Professor Shannon’s interpretation. The Exodus, certainly the portion recounted in the burning-bush story, is on fairly shaky historical ground, in terms of outside, contemporary sources talking about it on terms outside of the deeply ambiguous and sometimes fantastic terms of the text itself. Professor Shannon wants to, like religious zealots, take this text as for serious about something that really happened, but wants to say what happened was something else. If we were dealing with a historical document, then I’d have less of a problem with this, but what Shannon is doing is interpreting the meaning (his meaning, his 21st century experimental drug-taking and academic meaning) “of the text” as what for serious is meant in the text itself.

On its face, we can take this as just another interpretation, but in its appeal to a real historical happening about which there are clear meanings, it asks to be nothing less than the word of God. I’m not a Christian or a Jew, but I find something fiendish in this, just as I find something fiendish in interpreting anything absolute in user-supplied meaning of the text. I am with Lacan in this respect, whose big beef with Ego Psychology was its insistence on interpreting the transference (i.e. the imaginary relations) rather than the analysand’s Symbolic context, which is to say the text that is the analysand’s situation. There is nothing particularly dangerous about Shannon’s interpretation, which is why my complaint may seem a bit over-blown, but neither is there anything particularly harmful about interpreting the text the way religious zealot does. What’s at stake for me is the very orientation to the text these interpretations take, or rather don’t take. Neither of them really have anything to do with the text itself, and that in itself is what is dangerous about this kind of thinking. Not having anything to do with the text, but ostensibly grounding themselves “in” it, this sort of thinking is effectively made up, but on dangerously unchecked grounds.

I think the more radically middle path would be give up both the concern for what the text really means, and to return to the text itself. When you hear people start talking about what this or that means, you can be sure as sunday that they’re in lala-land, because it is obvious that if we’re talking about this or that that it means something. It’s when they foreground their description with a statement of what we already know that we should be suspicious, like Zizek is of the Bush Administration’s to up-front talk of torture, and wonder deeply why are you saying this; what do you mean by your foregrounding of what this or that means?

Written by Joe

March 8, 2008 at 1:27 pm

Wow!

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For Stanley Fish, “that’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study,” he writes in a follow-up column (in the New York Times) to an earlier one that entertains the question, “Will The Humanities Save Us?” His argument—much like one he outlines in the introduction to his 1989 book, “Doing What Comes Naturally,” where he argues that “theory has no consequences” (14)—is that the study of the humanities (that is, the professional study of the humanities) has no (tenably) extrinsic use, but only intrinsic value. In other words, “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. ” What’s more is that, as he puts it, this is “an answer that brings honor to its subject.”

What I take Fish to be suggesting, as the at once explicit and tacit question of these articles is why we should fund the study of the humanities and why should anyone study them professionally, is that, as anti-climatic as it seems, the humanities are worth preserving in themselves. This also goes for (financially) supporting the study of the humanities, specifically, however, avoiding the notion that through studying them we become “well rounded citizens.” In this sense, Fish is saying that studying the humanities anymore persists because the people who devote their lives to the study of the humanities (like Fish) are people, which is to say, they are not agents of some extrinsic goal. An agent of some extrinsic goal would be like a job (or our idea of being a worker with a job) in relation to the idea of retirement (or our idea of not being workers anymore): paradoxically we commit our lives to something, and in effect make it that something, purely for the sake of something that is not it.

The same issue is at stake in an anecdote Zizek recalls in “The Antinomies of Tolerant Reason,” and probably somewhere else given how Zizek writes, where

In the course of the Crusade of King St.Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she is doing it, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: “Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God.”

To Fish the humanities, or those who study and write on them for a living, perform in their very existence the function of the old woman. This is NOT in the sense that they have an agenda to destroy all instrumentality, but that earnestly pursuing the humanities quickly turns itself away from an agenda apart from itself. This is kind of at odds with his equally emphatic insistence that even this is not to be put to extrinsic use (i.e. as inspiration to be better people, or as a standard against which we can hold ourselves). A possible way out is to conceive of the study of the humanities as fundamentally interpretive, but only in the sense that Fish also says that EVERYTHING is interpretive, and that the in studying the humanities we make interpretation its own interpretive end—as opposed to, say, interpreting some data to decide on doing this or that.

On the one hand, it could be viewed in that same sense of a kind of “higher ideal” to which we aspire, while on the other hand I think the Buddha’s notion of “Mindfulness” can help us figure out what this has to do with the rest of our lives.

I think that the former view still fails because, insofar as we’re going along with Fish and saying that EVERYTHING we do is interpretation, the humanities cannot claim to have something not present in other spheres of life/academia. Fish somewhat gets at this when he critiques in the second article the notion that there is something called “critical thinking,” which incidentally is crucial to everything we do and only can be learned within the humanities. He points out that we engage in critical thinking all the time in popular culture, and cites as support some (sloppy) examples of political analysis on television. Some commenters pointed out the weakness of these examples, but none did nor could get rid of the point he is still making: there isn’t anything we’re doing in studying the humanities that we aren’t or can’t be doing at least some of the time elsewhere.

If we take the humanities as Fish invokes them to be where we are studying or getting at what the Buddha taught as Mindfulness, then we can appreciate what people are doing there and how it can/does relate to what they and others are doing elsewhere. Mindfulness (Pali: Sati) is part of what the Buddha taught as the Noble Eightfold Path, and specifically in this sense he referred to it as Right or Whole Mindfulness (Pali: samma-sati). In a nutshell, it is intentional awareness of/in the present moment. As it appears in the literature, mindfulness is basically the practice of “contemplating [body, sensations, perceptions, consciousness and mental dispositions] within [body, sensations, perceptions, consciousness and mental dispositions].” On its face, this asks us to have nothing to do with interpretation or discriminating thought, though the through-going interpretation going on in the humanities, particularly when it leads one to one of those “Wow!” moments, may have more to do with it than it would seem.

I say this because, at its height, the study of literature, philosophy and history is, as Dogen Zenji and later Shunryu Suzuki said, the study of ourselves, which has become blatantly obvious with the rise of French-influenced literary theory. More deeply, the influence there is from Hegel, who would agree that we are studying ourselves (that is, ourselves as Spirit) when we study not just the humanities, but the world in general. Where Hegel does not go, though, is that we study ourselves in order to forget ourselves. Lacan (and, perhaps, Foucault) seemed aware of the vanishing quality of the subject, already anticipated in the vanishing moments of Hegel’s dialectic, such that as we realize the radical emptiness of the Other, its not really being there except for us acting as if it were, we realize something radically empty about what we call our self.

When Fish says that the study of the humanities is worthwhile in itself, and that this is a good thing, he is affirming the basic gesture of (life-) affirmation itself. In this same way, as D.T. Suziki said in his deceptively thin “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” (Zen) Buddhism is seeking a higher affirmation—not of some external goal or use, but of something in itself. This becomes instantly relevant to everything else in our lives as we begin to realize how to pursue goals as ends in themselves. As Emerson said, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road … is wisdom.” I want to say that the modern study of the humanities seeks this same affirmation, with its same radiating quality, and that scholars like Fish are giving us a better vocabulary for realizing this quality both within and without the humanities.

Written by Joe

February 9, 2008 at 11:35 am