Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More of Fish's God Talk

In a post earlier this month, I referenced a fable that made some sport of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish for their notions of science, scientific reasoning, and religion.

Fish recently added a follow-up article, a well-done piece that - wonder of wonders - brings in the concept of the author.
When Tony Eads [a commenter on Fish's earlier article] declares that “the overwhelming weight of the evidence fails to provide any ground for believing there is a God,” is the evidence he refers to (he doesn’t actually present any) just lying around waiting to be cited as independent confirmation or disconfirmation of an equally independent thesis?

I don’t think that’s the way it happens or could happen. Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.

But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)
I have an issue with Fish's third paragraph above, which suggests that thinkers along the lines of Barthes and Foucault have no use for such items as writings of rival candidates, letters and personal libraries, records of printers and publishers, the history of reception, etc. Fish makes poststructuralist thinking on authors and authority an almost purely speculative enterprise, a project in reducing people to the movement of cultural discourses. I don't believe this portrayal is accurate, and it's one of my biggest beefs with people who criticize poststructuralism. The word "mere" is usually a sign that the writer is characterizing the position he opposes.

Nevertheless, Fish's first paragraph nicely sums up the wider problem: can we untie the evidence from our preconditions and presuppositions? Is the evidence ever independent? Is our view of it? As Fish himself later encapsulates the point: "Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence."

These are, of course, questions of philosophy, not science, but they have obvious import. Let's suppose, however, that we discover scientifically it is indeed impossible for evidence to be ideologically neutral. In fact, the ideology is part of what makes it appear as evidence. Same with the "lens" we use to look at the evidence. So OK, we have verified it. The practical question then becomes whether we can correct the bias or at least account for it. If we can, we may also ask whether we actually need to make a correction or an accounting. Perhaps we have situations where close enough is good enough. My point is that the introduction of bias, even if it's inevitable, doesn't necessarily undercut scientific categories, instruments, or conclusions - so long as the bias can be identified and, if necessary, factored.

But Fish's point, especially when he brings in the issue of authorship - is perhaps even more provocative. The different perspectives on authorship are not just matters of opinion, as in "I have mine, you have yours, and we can get along." The difference actually calls into question the whole enterprise of the discipline. The difference leads us to question who gets to define what literary studies is, or what evidence is, or what science is. These are philosophical questions, too, but the practical matters of who is what and what someone is supposed to do as part of the discipline - well, that's all very unsettled.

To bring these points back to Fish's topic, he goes through his explanation to assert to his readers that, in the endless science versus religion culture wars, the talking point of "science is based on evidence" breaks down, or can be broken down, under scrutiny. Fair enough. I think, however, that the broad range of disciplines called the sciences generally do a good job of seeking to identify and account for biases. Personally, I don't think religion and religious proponents do an equally good job.

I don't think Fish or anyone has said that religion and science - or views of the traditional author and the Barthes-ian "author-function" - are equally correct, descriptive, effective or analytically powerful. In scholarship, perhaps our job is to get ever more "less wrong" than before. I am reminded of a neat piece by biologists Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne that insists one side can indeed be (all) wrong.

I'm not prepared yet to say that one or the other side of the authorship issue is all wrong, but the isssue will certainly continue to be a central one for me.

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