Stanley Fish’s NYT response to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence is actually a pretty useful provocation in several respects.
As I read it, Fish basically moves to identify digital humanists as playing out the next move of postmodern politics and epistemology. I think that’s both right and wrong. Fish argues that most digital humanists believe in diminishing the human subject (which he labels DH’s ‘theology’) and in reconstituting the institutions which govern, imagine and interpret human subjects (which he labels DH’s ‘politics’). Fish sees these moves as prescriptive. Fair enough as a reading of Fitzpatrick’s book, which argues for major changes in academic practices.
But many digital humanists in the academy think that many of these visions of how academics should produce knowledge and participate in culture are also an accurate description of how culture and knowledge are being and have been produced in global society since at least the rise of print culture. Digital humanists are therefore not just arguing for new practices, but against persistent mythologies about established practices. If DH has a “theology”, then to some extent its theses are nailed to the wall of the old humanism, a protest against its corruptions and illusions.
To push the metaphor a bit further, this is also where DH is very much not postmodernist in any strong epistemological or political sense. DH doesn’t leave the church, it just wants to be in it in a different way. In DH, authors are not dead, just brought down to human scale. There are still individual acts of authorship, distinctive moments of creation, original imaginations in both the digital culture of the present and the newly-seen culture of the past. This is not a hive mind, not the multitude. There are still texts meant to be fluid, partial, ephemeral, and texts written with other kinds of craft and other kinds of long-term prospects in view.
Moreover, much of the postmodern view of diminishment was essentially despairing, a kind of mournful cry for the unities and power of the failed modernist subject. DH’s diminishment is both pragmatic and hopeful. Pragmatic in that it describes how culture actually gets produced, and thus liberates us from the psychologically burdening and idolatrous worship of the Great Men and Women who create culture (and scholarship) that ordinary people can only consume (and cite). It reveals that most authors (in whatever medium and institution) are only just little people behind the curtain, aided in making a big show by the machinery of criticism and the accumulation of cultural capital among elites. Across every medium you care to name, what digital technologies are revealing is that the set of people who make “good culture” is vastly larger than what the post-1945 gatekeepers of high culture claimed: that there are hundreds of good photographers, webcomics creators, fiction writers, scholarship producers, documentarians, sketch artists, for every one that late 20th Century gatekeepers claimed there were.
The hopeful part of it, which drives Fitzpatrick’s book, is that in recognizing that this is how culture not only is, but probably always was, we can design intentional practices of cultural production and knowledge dissemination that will use our new technologies and our new understandings as rocket fuel for a culture, a politics, a way of being that really will be novel. But this in part is just about self-knowledge, about honestly recognizing what we have been already and living with ourselves as we are.