Art Will Not Save You—And Neither Will Stanley

 

But I was lucky, and that, I believe, made all the difference.
—Stanley Fish. “My Life Report” 31 October 2011, New York Times. 

 

Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, United States Army, is the subject of the new season of Serial, the National Public Radio show that tells “One story. Week by week.” as the advertising tagline has it. NPR is doing a show about Bergdahl because of what Bergdahl chose to do on the night of 30 June 2009: as Serial reports, that night he walked off his “small outpost in eastern Afghanistan and into hostile territory,” where he was captured by Taliban guerrillas and held prisoner for nearly five years. Bergdahl’s actions have led some to call him a deserter and a traitor; as a result of leaving his unit Bergdahl faces a life sentence from a military court. But the line Bergdahl crossed when he stepped beyond the concertina wire and into the desert of Paktika Province was far greater than the line between a loyal soldier and a criminal. When Bowe Bergdahl wandered into the wilderness, he also crossed the line between the sciences and the humanities—and demonstrated why the political hopes some people place in the humanities is not only illogical, but arguably holding up actual political progress.

Bergdahl can be said to have crossed that line because what happens to him when he is tried by a military court regarding what happened will, likely, turn on what the intent behind his act was: in legal terms, this is known as mens rea, which is Latin for “guilty mind.” Intent is one of the necessary components prosecutors must prove to convict Bergdahl for desertion: according to Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to be convicted of desertion Bergdahl must be shown to have had the “intent to remain away” from his unit “permanently.” It’s this matter of intent that demonstrates the difference between the humanities and the sciences.

The old devil, Stanley Fish, once demonstrated that border in an essay in the New York Times designed to explain what it is that literary critics, and other people who engage in interpretation, do, and how it differs from other lines of work:

Suppose you’re looking at a rock formation and see in it what seems to be the word ‘help.’ You look more closely and decide that, no, what you’re seeing is an effect of erosion, random marks that just happen to resemble an English word. The moment you decide that nature caused the effect, you will have lost all interest in interpreting the formation, because you no longer believe that it has been produced intentionally, and therefore you no longer believe that it’s a word, a bearer of meaning.

To put it another way, matters of interpretation concern agents who possess intent: any other kind of discussion is of no concern to the humanities. Conversely, the sciences can be said to concern all those things not produced by an agent, or more specifically an agent who intended to convey something to some other agent.

It’s a line that seems clear enough, even in what might be marginal cases: when a beaver builds a dam, surely he intends to build that dam, but it also seems inarguable that the beaver intends nothing more to be conveyed to other beavers than, “here is my dam.” More questionable cases might be when, say, a bird or some other animal performs a “mating dance”: surely the bird intends his beloved to respond, but still it would seem ludicrous to put a scholar of, say, Jane Austen’s novels to the task of recovering the bird’s message. That would certainly be overkill.

Yes yes, you will impatiently say, but what has that to do with Bergdahl? The answer, I think, might be this: if Bergdahl’s lawyer had a scientific, instead of a humanistic, sort of mind, he might ask how many soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan during Bergdahl’s time there, and how many overall. The reason a scientist would ask that question about, say, a flock of birds he was studying is because, to a scientist, the overall numbers matter. The reason why they matter demonstrates just what the difference between science and the humanities is, but also why the faith some place in the political utility of the humanities is ridiculous.

The reason why the overall numbers of the flock would matter to a scientist is because sample size matters: a behavior that one bird in a flock of twelve birds exhibited is probably not as significant as a behavior that one bird in a flock of millions exhibited. As Nassim Taleb put it in his book, Fooled By Randomness, how impressive it is if a monkey has managed to type a verbatim copy of the Iliad “Depends On The Number of Monkeys.” “If there are five monkeys in the game,” Taleb elaborates, “I would be rather impressed with the Iliad writer”—but if, on the other hand, “there are a billion to the power one billion monkeys I would be less impressed.” Or to put it in another context, the “greater the number of businessmen, the greater the likelihood of one of them performing in a stellar manner just by luck.” What matters to a scientist, in other words, isn’t just what a given bird does—it’s how big the flock was in the first place.

To a lawyer, of course, none of that would be significant: the court that tries Bergdahl will not view that question as a relevant one in determining whether he is guilty of the crime of desertion. That is because, as a discipline concerned with interpretation, such a question will have been ruled out of court, as we say, before the court has even met: to consider how many birds in the flock there were when one of them behaved strangely, in other words, is to have a priori ceased to consider that bird as an agent because when one asks how many other birds there are, the implication is that what matters more is simply the role of chance rather than any intent on the part of the bird. Any lawyer that brought up the fact that Bergdahl was the only one out of so many thousands of soldiers to have done what he did, without taking up the matter of Bergdahl’s intent, would not be acting as a lawyer.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, roughly 65,000 soldiers were in Afghanistan by early October of 2009, behind the “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama shortly after taking office. The number, according to a contemporary story by The Washington Post, would be “more than double the number there when Bush left office,” which is to say that when Bergdahl left his tiny outpost at the end of June that year, the military was in the midst of a massive buildup of troops. The sample size, in Taleb’s terms, was growing rapidly at that time—with what effects on Bergdahl’s situation, if any, I await enlightenment, if there be any.

Whether that matters or not in terms of Bergdahl’s story—in Serial or anywhere else—remains to be seen; as a legal matter it would be very surprising if any military lawyer brought it up. What that, in turn, suggests is that the caution with which Stanley Fish has greeted many in the profession of literary study regarding the application of such work to actual political change is thoroughly justified: “when you get to the end” of the road many of those within the humanities have been traveling at least since the 1960s or 70s, Fish has remarked for instance, “nothing will have changed except the answers you might give to some traditional questions in philosophy and literary theory.” It’s a warning of crisis that even now may be reaching its peak as the nation realizes that, after all, the great political story of our time has not been about the minor league struggles within academia, but rather the story of how a small number of monkeys have managed to seize huge proportions of the planet’s total wealth: as Bernie Sanders, the political candidate, tweeted recently in a claim rated “True” by Politifact, “the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America.”

In that story, the intent of the monkeys hardly matters.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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