Summary of Stanley Fish keynote
by Arthur Farley.

In this presentation, Dr. Stanley Fish provides a lively and insightful critique of the digital humanities and its methods, goals, and claims. He does this using the framework of approaches to interpretation, i.e., how we decide what a given text means. Looking to constitutional law, Dr. Fish outlines three approaches to interpretation and discusses how digital technologies relate to them.

The first is textualism, which argues that meaning is embedded solely in the text, its words and syntactic structure. Digital data mining, looking for word frequencies or patterns in texts, reflects this view. Dr. Fish argues that, while many more texts can be compared or analyzed, any interpretation of their statistical results is unfounded, if not meaningless. Stylistic elements are just that: stylistic elements, not meaning.

The second approach is living constitutionalism, where interpretation is seen to be a creative process by a reader in a current context; meaning is only loosely prompted by the text and can be bent to serve the reader's purpose. Dr. Fish relates this to deformance theory, where texts are seen to be restructured and rewritten during interpretation, leading to new texts to be deformed, etc. Pushing this to the limit, he notes that the approach becomes theological, with digital tools now seen as a means for the emergence of a new mode of being, e.g., a non-linear, continuously changing present that breaks the bonds of sequential experience.

But without meaning, according to Dr. Fish, as he subscribes to the third approach to interpretation known as intentionalism, where the meaning of an individual text is tied directly to its author and their intentions in the context that it was written. Interpretation is not a statistical exercise nor a new creative process, but one of in-depth, anecdotal analysis of the work and author. Dr. Fish argues that digital technologies that claim to reduce the author - text relationship, facilitating group-produced, incomplete, dynamic artifacts, also reduce the potential for meaning in the process. Only by adopting new styles and protocols that fit the new communication medium can meaning arise, even in "multi-media combines". Dr. Fish concludes by stating that he believes the field of digital humanities will necessarily fail with respect to more grandiose claims but can provide useful means for research. He sees it as an inevitable part of the future of humanities being adopted by a new generation that will carry on the work.

Link to Keynote video: http://media.uoregon.edu/channel/2012/04/30/textualites-in-the-digital-age-session-iii-keynote/


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