Monday, July 2, 2018

Stanley Fish, machine and mechanism, and the poverty of his intentionalist search for meaning

Over on the Humanist Discussion Group we’ve been examining Stanley Fish’s criticisms of, for the most part, computational criticism (which he frames as a criticism of digital humanities as a whole) – check the archives for June 2018 (see entries entitled “Fish'ing for fatal flaws”). I want to look at something closely related, his sense of machine and mechanism.

Mechanism and Intention

In his seminal essay, “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”[1], Fish made a general point that the pattern of expectations, some satisfied and some not, which is set up in reader’s mind in the process of reading literary texts is essential to the meaning of those texts. Hence any adequate analytic method must describe that essentially temporal pattern. Of the proposed method, Fish asserts:
Essentially what the method does is slow down the reading experience so that “events” one does not notice in normal time, but which do occur, are brought before our analytical attentions. It is as if a slow motion camera with an automatic stop action effect were recording our linguistic experiences and presenting them to us for viewing. Of course the value of such a procedure is predicated on the idea of meaning as an event, something that is happening between words and in the reader’s mind...
A bit further on Fish asserts that “What is required, then, is a method, a machine if you will, which in its operation makes observable, or at least accessible, what goes on below the level of self-conscious response.”

What did he mean by that, “a method, a machine”? Clearly he didn’t mean, for example, a steam locomotive, a sewing machine, a dental drill, or any such device. For a long time I’ve conjectured that modern digital computers were resonating in his mind when he wrote that, though he doesn’t mention them anywhere in the essay. But then, when we talk of, for example, a “political machine”, in what sense is THAT a machine? Is Fish using “machine” in a general sense that covers a wide variety of cases, including phenomena other than electromechanical devices?

While Fish doesn’t mention computers in that essay, he does examine some computational stylistics in another essay he wrote at the time, “What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” and so is necessarily referencing computers, if only indirectly [2]. We thus know that he knows about computers and has thought about them. But I’m more interested in what he said in thaeessay about an article by the linguist, Michael Halliday, which doesn’t involve computing, but does involve a linguistics system.

After quoting a passage in which Halliday analyses a single sentence from Through the Looking Glass, Fish remarks (p. 80): “When a text is run through Halliday’s machine, its parts are first dissembled, then labeled, and finally recombined in their original form. The procedure is a complicated one, and it requires many operations, but the critic who performs them has finally done nothing at all.” Note, moreover, that he had framed Halliday’s essay as one of many lured on by “the promise of an automatic interpretive procedure” (p. 78), though he doesn’t ascribe that automaticity to a computer.

If one takes Halliday’s “machine” as a crude approximation to the linguistic mind, well it seems to me, then, that you accomplish quite a lot with it. It’s not an interpretation in the usual sense of the word. But, for whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to interest Fish.

Now let’s come forward in time to Fish’s 2015 address to the School of Criticism and Theory, “If You Count It, They Will Come: The Promise of the Digital Humanities”–a video and transcript are online. On page 4 (of the transcript) he says this:
Now writing in a book called The Companion to the Digital Humanities, digital humanist Hugh Craig acknowledges the force of my criticism in the 1970s, but asserts that the more sophisticated techniques now available make possible a new stylistics with what he calls another motivation. And he defines it, the motivation, quote, to uncover patterns of language use, which because of their background quality-- that is, how deeply embedded they are-- or their emergence on a super humanly wide scale, would otherwise not be noticed, unquote.

But if the problem with the old stylistics was that you could not generalize, except illegitimately, from the data, the problem with this new up-to-date stylistics is that it is by no means clear why you should be interested in the data it uncovers at all. Maybe the patterns that have not been noticed before, patterns like the frequency with which particular words appear in the titles of 19th century books through the decades, should have remained unnoticed, because they are nothing more than the artifacts of a machine.
But what machine is he talking about, the computational machine used by the scholar or the “machine”, or the linguistic mind, that produced the text in the first place? I suspect that he means the latter.

Later on, where he is discussing his preferred ‘school’ of interpretation, intentionalism, he says (p. 8):
For an intentionalist, the fact that data mining can uncover hidden patterns undetectable by the mere human reader is cause not for celebration, but for suspicion. A pattern that is subterranean is unlikely to be a pattern that was put there by an intentional agent. And if it wasn't put there by an intentional agent, it cannot have meaning.
Assuming the pattern was really there, then, where’d it come from?

There are a LOT of assumptions in Fish’s statement about “hidden patterns undetectable...reader” and “put there...agent”, and in the question I just asked immediately above, and this is not the place to untangle them all. So I’m going to let those things alone and skip to where I’m going. Fish seems to think we’ve got intentional agents conveying meaning, on the one hand, and that they are distinct from mere mechanical patterns on the other. Can that be right?

Can we disentangle agency from mechanism?

Consider that Halliday machine that he examined way back in 1970. M.A.K. Halliday was a linguist and his “machine” was a model of language in action. People are intentional agents who use language but, by and large, are not aware of the kinds of patterns linguists attribute to their usage, any more than they are aware of the functioning of their liver of gall bladder. It may well be that they do not “have meaning” in the sense of Fish’s phrase, but they are the means through which meaning is conveyed. Does it make sense to rule their examination out of order? I find it hard to imagine that Fish would simply deny the existence of unconscious patterns in language. Moreover, it is by no means obvious to me that he could meaningfully disentangle grammatical and morphological pattern (as mechanical) from semantic meaning (as intended). That, I fear, is a fool’s game.

But texts of various kinds, and certainly literary texts, have large-scale patterns that are as seemingly mechanical and as hidden from (casual, uncurious) inspection as those of sentential syntax. I’ve been investigating one such family of patterns, those known as ring-composition, which is related to the small-scale rhetorical figure of chiasmus, which Fish certainly knows. Ring-composition is known among classicists, Biblical scholars, and medievalists, but is otherwise all but unknown. I was alerted to it by the late Mary Douglas, whose Thinking in Circles (Yale 2007) is a good introduction to the form. I’ve explored it in a number of texts, including Heart of Darkness, King Kong (1933), and Gojira (1954). President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney is the most recent of these texts.

The analysis is relatively straight forward, but I’m not going to go through it here; the full analysis is readily available [4]. Quickly and crudely, Obama introduces the word and concept of “grace” roughly the half-way through the eulogy. It’s at that point where he also refers to the man who killed Pinckney, though not by name. That’s the structural mid-point. Ring composition is often depicted by a simple verbal formula:

A, B, C...X...C’, B’, A’

X is the center. I don’t see that the ring-form analysis bears on meaning as Fish, and I suspect most literary critics, understands it.

But it bears on affective response, which we can judge by the audience’s response to Obama’s performance. Here’s a video:

To my ear, Obama’s address gets the most vigorous response at the very end. But the second most vigorous response comes at the structural center [5]. Surely that is of interest, no?

And it speaks directly to something one might call an affective stylistics, to invoke Fish’s 1970s paper of that title. But that paper says little or nothing about affect. Nor did Fish follow up on the intellectual program he outlined there, where he talked of “meaning as event”. What happened to that? In Obama’s eulogy do we not see meaning as event? And if affective response to Obama’s eulogy is structured by an apparently mechanical symmetry – for that is what ring composition is, mechanical symmetry – what does that say about the mechanisms of the human mind?

I am suggesting then that we cannot separate human agency from mechanism, meaning from mechanical pattern. We are embodied beings and as such, agency is entangled in mechanism, where mechanism is understood in a broad sense. In this context Fish’s attempt to keep agency separate from mechanism looks like an echo of the ancient a venerable mind-body distinction where meaning and agency are mental in nature. It is an impoverished and impoverishing conception.

* * * * *

An exercise: Does the question of disentangling mechanism from agency involve a category error?

While the so-called “cognitive revolution” was well under way by the time Fish wrote his affective stylistics piece, the term “cognitive science” had not yet been coined. One of the minor (or perhaps not so minor) results of this “revolution” is that it was realized that most perceptual and cognitive processes were largely unconscious. The term “cognitive unconscious” was coined as was explicated contrasted with, e.g., the psychoanalytic unconscious. The cognitive unconscious was mechanistic in the broad sense, and many models and proposals about its operations were computationally inspired. Judging from this Google Ngram query, the term “cognitive unconscious” started appearing in the 1970s and took off in the 1990s.

If Fish’s basic conceptual repertoire was in place by the beginning of the 1970s, then he would have missed these developments. He might well have read some linguistics (e.g. in connection with his interest in stylistics), but he would have been assimilating it to the largely discursive repertoire standard to humanistic thought, then and now. It was foreign, Other.

The idea that perceiving, speaking, and reading agents, beings with intention, the idea that they were constituted of largely unconscious mental processes would have been foreign to him. In his conceptual universe these intending agents have no differentiated internal processes. They read and write, but those actions have no internal character. They are simply undifferentiated intention.


[1] Stanley Fish, “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”, New Literary History, Vol. 2, No. 1, A Symposium on Literary History (Autumn, 1970), pp. 123-162. It was republished in Is There a Text in This Class?. Harvard, 1980, pp. 21-17.

[2] “What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” Is There a Text in This Class?. Harvard, 1980, pp. 68-96. I believe it was originally published in 1973.

[3] I’ve blogged quite a bit about ring composition. Those posts have been tagged with “ring-form”:

I’ve collected various groups of those posts into working papers under the heading “Ring Composition” at

Of those working papers, this one is the most general and systematic: Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology, Version 3, Working Paper, September 11, 2017, 71 pp. URL:

[4] The basic analysis is in a blog post from July 16, 2015, Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 1: The Circle of Grace:

You can find a full discussion a working paper, Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney: Technics of Power and Grace, July 2015, 37 pp. URL:

[5] I lay this out in a brief working paper, Obama’s Affective Trajectory in His Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Fall 2016, 9 pp. URL:

1 comment:

  1. "Essentially what the method does is slow down the reading experience so that “events” one does not notice in normal time, but which do occur, are brought before our analytical attentions."

    I googled this, so the introduction I got was a Copernican revolution is underway in which these ideas are gaining currency.

    As I am not in the habit of engaging in meet and greets at cheese and wine events in the great hall of dead white men; my papers are not in order, its not socially useful data.

    Seems to be a high degree of social noise surrounding these debates.

    Lots of flag waving in a fractured social landscape?