by John Holbo on September 21, 2009

I just got Masterpiece Comics, by R. Sikoryak [amazon]. It’s great. Inspired mash-ups of classic cartoons/comics with Great Literature. Batman and Crime and Punishment. Wuthering Heights and Tales From the Crypt. Blondie and The Book of Genesis. Peanuts and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. Bazooka Joe and Dante’s Inferno. Little Lulu and The Scarlet Letter. Here’s a preview from D&Q. Above and beyond the perfect-pitch mimicry, I like the symmetry of the moral critique – of Dostoyevsky and Batman equally, and so forth. You can learn from this stuff. For example, if Stanley Fish had read Sikoryak’s “Blond Eve”, it might have occurred to him that familiar, blanket critiques of curiosity may not make self-evident moral or rational sense. Going a step further, this whole business of condemning curiosity tout court, in the strongest terms, all up and down the scale, in ordinary life, morally and scientifically, concerning matters large and small, can seem downright peculiar. Some sense of the diversity of human impulses and activities that would fall foul of a ban on ‘curiosity’, hence some sense of the problematic character of such a ban, might have crept into his column in some way. Alas.

UPDATE: Before accusing me of misreading Fish, please consider whether this comment satisfies you.



Dave Maier 09.21.09 at 6:28 am

Is that Elmo with a flaming sword? Very nice. (But where’s Daisy?)


magistra 09.21.09 at 6:54 am

I don’t normally go for Fish’s columns, but this seems to me a misreading of him. He knows that most forms of curiosity are now seen positively within our culture and that a ‘right to curiosity’ now seems sensible. Most of what he is doing in this column is pointing out that this view is a historical phenomenon and that other traditions have existed: he is not saying that hostility to all curiosity is right. Does any discussion of a previous cultural attitude have to include a large flashing sign saying: ‘I do not approve of this’?


John Holbo 09.21.09 at 7:10 am

“I don’t normally go for Fish’s columns, but this seems to me a misreading of him. He knows that most forms of curiosity are now seen positively within our culture and that a ‘right to curiosity’ now seems sensible.”

I suppose I thought I was just serving Fish back the way he serves others: in his editorial he writes as though those who assert a right to curiosity must never have entertained that, in some cases, curiosity might lead to unhappy consequences. (Compare: I may assert a right to free speech. It hardly follows that it has never occurred to me that some exercising of that right may turn out unhappily.) The point that sometimes curiosity goes wrong is trivial, so can hardly be taken seriously as a critique of the claim of a ‘right to curiosity’. The only substantive point Fish could be making is the Genesis-grade claim that curiosity is always and ever bad – a false God. And that claim would seem to require some defense.

In short, it’s true that Fish must know that curiosity is generally seen positively. But he writes, oddly, as though merely pointing out something his audience surely knows – namely, curiosity has not always been seen so positively – is in itself enough to establish that ‘I have a right to be curious’ is problematic or even mistaken.


John Holbo 09.21.09 at 7:13 am

Yes, Elmo with a flaming sword is a nice touch, isn’t he?


yoyo 09.21.09 at 7:26 am

Reminds me of the genre of scifi where humans are oddly curious because of our being monkeys, as opposed to those totally awesome fascist aliens.


giotto 09.21.09 at 12:02 pm

This seems like one of those columns in which Fish is signaling that he doesn’t really expect us to take him seriously. The argument against curiosity he relays (he isn’t really making the argument, just passing it along, which, not coincidentally, frees him from the obligation of having to defend it, in accordance with the standards of contemporary journalism) is based either in fiction (Genesis, Frankenstein etc…), in metafiction (Augustine), or on the authority of people who sound like cranks, given the quotes Fish has chosen: Griffiths, who speaks of the “obscene inundation of every aspect of human life….” and Newman with his “They have no power of self-control because they have no allegiance. . .” Fish is just going through the motions here…

But the comics do look wonderful! Eventually, John Holbo, you are going to convince me to take the plunge


arcseed 09.21.09 at 12:43 pm

Besides, what are you gonna do about me being curious? Implant a chip in my brain?


nickhayw 09.21.09 at 1:38 pm

I just can’t get past the irony of an academic presenting an argument against curiosity. Since Fish cannot completely lack a sense of irony, I am led to believe that either he’s equivocating for the sake of it, or being inflammatory, or both. The only substantive point I gather from his column is, as you’ve pointed out, ‘some say x is good, some say (or have said) x is bad’.


John Holbo 09.21.09 at 1:47 pm

Fish likes the following argument form. If by X you mean Y, it turns out to be absurd to want X, even though everyone thinks they do. In every case it is perfectly obvious that no one means Y by X, so the exercise is exquisitely pointless. But he likes to write ’em this way. And I like to complain about ’em.

In this case X is belief in the right to curiosity, or belief curiosity is potentially good; and Y is something like belief that it’s absolutely impossible for curiosity to go wrong; or (alternatively) Y equals belief that you have an absolute duty to be curious about everything ad infinitum, in some sort of crazy way.


Substance McGravitas 09.21.09 at 1:48 pm

Cookies: are they good? Just ask a diabetic.


bianca steele 09.21.09 at 2:36 pm

Not for the first time, when I read Fish’s last blog/column, I found myself wondering who he thinks his audience is.

Or: @2 . @3 . the fact that the readership of the New York Times is widely known to be liberal and disproportionately Jewish.


bored observer 09.21.09 at 2:43 pm

The right to curiosity is more important than the right to speech. It’s a better more solid foundation to the law, even though it covers the same relation.
But the argument Fish is making, or merely reporting, is more complex than its adherents know. It’s not curiosity they’re bothered by but specifically “unbounded” curiosity. They would say that curiosity needs to be framed and that they are arguing in defense of a frame. Examining their fears (religious arguments are all based on a concern for community) you can understand their logic. And you can take it even further: isn’t all curiosity framed? History re-contextualizes our assumptions, “framing” them better than we could or did. Our grandchildren will see frames where we saw freedom.

And what about that sort of enquiry that engages framing in its processes? Learning the violin is enquiry framed by the cultural knowledge of the instrument. Learning to write “well” requires a form of curiosity about language, about the frame itself. The narcissism of Ayn Rand is evidenced in her lack of interest in the frame and consequently she’s a lousy writer. The same arguments, morally simplistic or not, made by a better writer would have made a better book.
Fish is hazy/lazy in his presentation because he’s aware of the problem, like the priests, but also doesn’t know how to phrase it in a way that would satisfy [his own?] secularism, so I’ll do that for him. Is curiosity best represented by the desire to invent a new musical instrument, therefore a new individual thing, marking its maker as an individual person, or by learning to play an instrument that already exists? Is it best represented by the musician and the inventor? The curiosity of the inventor is one theologians worry about. The danger of individualism is that it produces a herd of independent minds, each preoccupied with self-expression of one sort or another, but inarticulate. And if self-expression is connected to machine knowledge than that articulateness is asocial; the primary interpersonal relationships are between a person and a mechanism, not between one person and another. The problematics are all there, in the present and in American history. Observer or inventor? What’s the model for secularism in the 21st century?


bianca steele 09.21.09 at 2:46 pm

Actually, @11 . the fact that Fish’s writing is just academic/pseudointellectual enough to be unreadable or unbearable to at least 75% of the readership of even a newspaper as well read by educated people as the Times.


bored observer 09.21.09 at 2:47 pm

“the musician or the inventor?”
more typos.
I was in a hurry.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.21.09 at 3:52 pm

What he is arguing for is applying a bit of common sense to your X, whatever it is. Against technocratic, rationalistic-idealistic approach.


Tim Wilkinson 09.21.09 at 4:05 pm

I’d say this was in the same genre as this fairly nasty little screed: Conspiracy Theories 101. Can readers spot the deliberate mistakes? (clues: think theory v metatheory, contemporary history v political action, balance v self-censorship…)


Jim Harrison 09.21.09 at 4:54 pm

Phooey, Fish is a lot like Camille Paglia. They both go in for a strategy of provocation that is guaranteed to work because it exploits the most predictable pieties of their respective audiences. Denouncing curiosity to fundamentalists would be rhetorically pointless, merely boring, and unlikely to keep you in print at Salon or the New York Times. The problem I have with Fish is that the questions he raises never get at the significant issues, for example, what is problematic or at least unconsidered about the values that underlie the sciences. He merely exercises people’s ideological reflexes. He isn’t objectionable because he’s objectionable but precisely because he never has the nerve to stick with a line of thought. His rhetoric never becomes dialectic. The ideal-typical Fish essay always takes back in the last paragraph what it put out in the first.


Substance McGravitas 09.21.09 at 5:13 pm

What he is arguing for is applying a bit of common sense to your X, whatever it is. Against technocratic, rationalistic-idealistic approach.

It’s not curiosity that demands a solution to how best you can get rid of people.


Bloix 09.21.09 at 5:16 pm

Fish is making the case for book-burning.


roac 09.21.09 at 7:06 pm

OK, this is a here’s-something-I-read column of the kind that George Will turns out on days when he can’t be bothered. The question is, how did Fish come to read the book that this guy Griffiths is working on? They have Duke in common, but Griffiths’ Wikipedia entry doesn’t say how long he’s been there.

(It says Griffiths used to be a world authority on some strain of Buddhism, but has given it up and converted to Catholicism. Wouldn’t it be something if Stanley Fish went that way? What a feather in Pope Benedict’s cap!))

(Further BTW, I see Fish’s own Wiki entry makes no reference to Morris Zapp. Somebody should fix that.)


Dave 09.22.09 at 5:18 pm

For those curious about the Griffiths-Fish connection. Fish, when dean of LAS at the University of Illinois at Chicago, hired Griffiths to be the founding member of the new program in Catholic Studies. Fish was very enthusiastic about this program and about Griffiths. It’s not that surprising that a Milton scholar would have some interest in theology and I don’t know of any reason to think that Fish’s interest in Catholic Studies was other than intellectual and political. On the other hand I don’t know much about Fish’s doings since he ceased being my dean.


roac 09.22.09 at 9:34 pm

Ah. Thank you.


roac 09.22.09 at 9:39 pm

I should perhaps add that the line about Fish converting was strictly a joke.


Jerry Vinokurov 09.23.09 at 5:07 pm

I once attended a dinner with Fish, given for graduate students at my university, in which he tried to convince all of us that ideas don’t matter. Fish may be a well-regarded Miltonist, but I can’t see why anyone would take him seriously outside that one specialty. He’s a terribly sloppy thinker whose single schtick is to play chiding parent to liberals. He has nothing interesting to say and says it loudly and frequently.

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