Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Veering Off-Course

So this blog has clearly become mildly defunct. As I dislike leaving partial efforts visible to the naked eye, and I don't want to delete it, I am going to recommend to my fellow contributors that we use this space for random ramblings on our particular interests, whether or not they are particularly funny or offbeat. I figure it would be a good way to communicate with each other about what's going on academically, as well as a good way to blow of mental steam, which was of course the initial intent of this blog.

To that end, I here present an offering of this sort:
I have been reading Stanley Fish a lot in the past two days; particularly Fish on Milton, which is probably his most famous work (Fish's, not Milton's) although he has of course worked on other authors. I first encountered him through a friend who had to read an article in which he was challenging what constituted a poem by writing random things on blackboards and labeling them as poems. But that is neither here nor there; what I'm reading now is for a class.

I've read Surprised by Sin: The Reader In Paradise Lost and his fairly recent article Milton Studies, "Why Milton Matters." He wrote these about 40 years apart, but I noticed a similar trend between the two, or at least between my reactions to the two of them. In both cases I find myself nodding along with his general point, or at least conceding its general validity or importance, but quibbling distinctly with his details.

To cut a long description short, the reason for this is, or seems to be, that these two works by Fish are both heavily rooted in individual, idiosyncratic relations with the text, whether it be the text of Paradise Lost, as in Surprised by Sin, or of modern Milton criticism, as in "Why Milton Matters." In both cases, Fish stands in, reasonably well, for a certain type of reader, and therefore his statements must be seriously considered, and there is much to be gained from engaging with them. In the first, his argument that Milton catches the reader in the process of constantly being seduced by Satan (or evil generally) and therefore makes the reader participate, and be aware of participating, in Adam and Eve's fall and the condition of fallen humanity generally, is clearly plausible, and quite productive (indeed, he makes very good use of it). In the latter, his criticism that too much Milton scholarship is focused on Milton's politics or theology and not on his poetry is well taken, or at least worth considering in the field going forward.

However, in both I feel that he oversteps; he over-generalizes from his own perspective. Perhaps he is caught up by Satan (or the devils generally); and indeed, I would argue that likely many or most readers are, at least once. But his argument is that all readers are, and many of his specific examples fall flat for me, as I have read the poem multiple times without falling prey to the mental traps he alleges to be inevitable. The case is overstated; it is a useful tool for examining what is at work in the text, but it is not as all-encompassing or sufficient as he believes. As for the criticism, it should be noted that first, he is very gracious to those he criticizes, commenting positively on their scholarship even as he says it is misguided. But more importantly, he once again overstates his position; he argues "against historicism" rather than arguing against the misapplication of historicism. The latter is a more accurate target; indeed, his criticism could almost be boiled down to the point that critics fail to turn back to Milton successfully after considering the larger world. Instead of making this more limited argument, he seems to wish to simply dismiss historicism out of hand, acting as if it must, by its very nature, refuse to apply its historical insights back to the text, or fail to do so successfully. This is not true, and the seeming assumption that it is weakens Fish's case.

In both these cases, Stanley Fish makes valid points, only to overgeneralize them and fail, at least for me, only by virtue of the attenuation of his arguments over too wide an expanse. Am I also overstepping by seeing this as a pattern? Has anyone else read Fish, and had this or a different opinion on him? And does this idea work for this blog?