What did Stanley Fish count, and when did he start counting it?

We have been observing the reaction to Stanley Fish’s critique of the Digital Humanities with great interest. Here is the full text of our comment, which could only be partially displayed on the New York Times comment window.

You know you’ve come up in the world if you’re being needled by Stanley Fish in The New York Times. Having done our share of work in the data mines, we believe Fish is right to insist that nothing in a text becomes evidence unless you have an interpretation which makes that evidence count. No amount of digital tabulation will substitute for a coherent, defensible reading.

As traditionally trained humanities scholars who use computers to study Shakespeare’s genres, we have pointed out repeatedly that nothing in literary studies will be settled by an algorithm or visualization, however seductively colorful. We have also argued that any pattern found through an iterative, computer-assisted analysis is meaningless without a larger interpretive framework in which to view it. It is the job of literary critics and historians to provide those interpretations, something they do by returning to the text and re-reading it with fresh eyes.

The job of digital tools is to draw our attention to evidence impossible or hard to see during normal reading, prompting us to ask new questions about our texts. This ability to redirect attention and pose new questions is the strong suit of certain kinds of digital humanities research. Indeed, we believe the addition of a digital prosthetic to our insistently human reading complements the skills of close textual analysis that are the staple of literary training. Not everyone in the so-called Digital Humanities community would agree with this position, but we believe the old and new techniques are entirely compatible.

What does it matter why Stanley Fish started minding his ps and bs in Milton? The point is that he has produced a plausible interpretation of Milton’s work based on evidence that fits his larger claim. The fact that an algorithm (“count ps and bs”) has directed his attention to something he hadn’t noticed doesn’t make the resulting pattern gibberish. You bet there are interesting patterns that show up in Milton when you mind his ps and bs. They existed before you counted them, and they exist after. However he found it, Fish has used that patterning to produce an interesting argument about the role of sound in Milton’s prose. And he has the evidence to back this argument up. In the end, he’s doing what most literary critics do in their work: create an interpretation that builds meaningfully on evidence in the text. Is there really any other way?

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Hope, Strathclyde University

Michael Witmore, Folger Shakespeare Library

You can view a sample of our work at here.

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One Comment

  1. David Lee Miller
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    My favorite so far of the responses I have seen. What I was thinking but hadn’t found time or the right words to say. Well done!

2 Trackbacks

  • […] of knowledge.  Michael Whitmore, in response to Stanley Fish’s recent bloviating, has echoed a common refrain against using information visualization as anything more than a helpful illustration or exploratory […]

  • […] of knowledge.  Michael Whitmore, in response to Stanley Fish’s recent bloviating, has echoed a common refrainagainst using information visualization as anything more than a helpful illustration or exploratory […]

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