“You see before you,” he began, “a man who once believed in the possibility of interpretation. That is, I thought that the goal of reading was to establish the meaning of texts.”
—Morris Zapp, in David Lodge’s Small World
“What I say is that ‘just’ or ‘'right’ means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger party.”
—Thrasymachus, in The Republic
At a moment when the assault on the humanities by deconstruction and other French imports seems to be giving way to ever more knowing, overtly political forms of rebuke, few figures better embody the academy’s revolt against its traditional goals than the critic and polemicist Stanley Fish. Not that Professor Fish is a newcomer. His early book, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1967), helped to inaugurate the so-called “reader response” school of literary theory—according to which the meaning of a literary work inheres not in the text but in the interpretive acts of its readers—and instantly established its author’s reputation as a powerful and ingenious critical intelligence.
Professor Fish’s later works include a book on the religious poet George Herbert and a study of seventeenth-century literature. But his next professional tour de force came in 1980, when he published Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. This influential collection of essays from the 1970s, most of which are exercises in literary theory as distinct from literary criticism, consolidated and extended Professor Fish’s reputation as a formidable academic critic. It continued in an increasingly radical key his project of “dislodging [the text] as the privileged container of meaning” and, not quite incidentally, it presented to the reading public the figure of an able and fiercely contentious rhetorician whose name has ever since been at the forefront of academic literary controversy.
Professor Fish, who received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1962, taught for several years at the University of California at Berkeley and then at Johns Hopkins University before going to Duke University in 1985. Today, as we are reminded on the colophon page of his lengthy new collection of essays, Doing What Comes Naturally, he is simultaneously “Arts and Sciences Professor of English, Professor of Law, and Chair of the Department of English at Duke University.” This impressive triple-barreled title not only suggests the heights to which Professor Fish’s academic career has risen, it also neatly summarizes his accomplishments. The dual appointment to a university chair in English and a professorship in law acknowledges Professor Fish’s success in his diverse intellectual endeavors. For while he began his career as a scholar of seventeenth-century English literature, he now devotes much of his attention to the law, teaching courses in the Duke Law School and publishing about as often in university law reviews as in literary journals.
It must also be understood that his position as chairman of the Duke English department is no merely honorific administrative post. More than any other individual, Professor Fish must be credited— if “credited” is the correct term—with fashioning the contemporary Duke English department. It was largely through his initiatives (backed by generous amounts of money from the university, which had “targeted” the English department for “development”) that Duke has been transformed in just a few years from a genteel though perhaps unexciting academic conclave into a bastion of every “advanced” and radical trend currently besetting the humanities. Along with providing lavish new offices for the chairman and a select group of professors, the English department in short order acquired a number of professors well known for their antipathy to traditional humanistic study. In a series of much-publicized and unusually high-paying appointments, the university hired veteran critical theorists like Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Frank Lentricchia, Annabel Patterson and her husband, Lee Patterson, and Professor Fish’s wife, Jane Tompkins, as well as younger aspirants like the radical feminist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Together with the much-celebrated Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, who (among his other titles) is chairman of Duke’s Graduate Program in Literature, this cadre of chic theorists and literary activists has made Duke one of the most influential anti-traditionalist forces in contemporary academic literary studies.
It is another measure of the extent to which Professor Fish has insinuated himself into the imagination of his discipline that he should have served (or so it is widely rumored) as the model for the character Morris Zapp in Small World (1984), David Lodge’s hilariously scathing satire of the high-powered, jet-setting Lit. Crit. world, with its international conferences, sordid professional intrigues, and fabulous salaries and perquisites for the lucky few who prevail. Whether or not Mr. Lodge really had Professor Fish in mind when he created Morris Zapp, anyone familiar with Professor Fish’s work can easily imagine him defending as his own the quotation from Small World that stands at the head of this essay. (He would endorse Thrasymachus’s words, too, as we shall see.) And given Professor Fish’s long-standing interest in the subject of “professionalism,” one can also imagine him responding as did Morris Zapp when, after delivering a paper entitled “Textuality as Striptease,” he is asked by an exasperated colleague, “Then what in God’s name is the point of it all?” “The point [of literary interpretation], of course,” replies Zapp coolly, “is to uphold the institution of academic literary studies. We maintain our position in society by publicly performing a certain ritual, just like any other group of workers in the realm of discourse—lawyers, politicians, journalists.”
As it happens, the issue of “professionalism"—what an earlier generation might have called “gamesmanship”—goes a long way toward helping one understand the course of Professor Fish’s stunning academic career. Rather like the ambitious Morris Zapp, he is wont to insist that teaching and writing about literature is a profession like any other, concerned more with self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement than with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. In fact, Professor Fish—again like Morris Zapp, as well as so many real-life academics today—denies that the traditional scholarly ideal of disinterestedness is even possible, let alone desirable. He repeatedly warns his colleagues against the snares of “anti-professionalism,” which he defines as “any attitude or argument that enforces a distinction between professional labors on the one hand and the identification and promotion of what is true or valuable on the other.” Such attitudes might be useful as an occasional corrective, Professor Fish admits; he even refers to such anti-professionalism as the “conscience” of the profession. But at bottom he argues that the attempt to distinguish between mere professional activity and (for example) the disinterested pursuit of truth is a mistake that encourages precisely the kind of false idealism that leads one to ask embarrassing questions like “What is the point of studying literature?”
In accordance with his own precepts, Professor Fish has been nothing if not “professional.” One important expression of his professionalism has been his knack of keeping his criticism one short, provocative step ahead of the criticism practiced by the majority of his colleagues. Indeed, looking back over the development of his career, one sees that he early on perfected what Jean Cocteau described as the art of knowing just how far to go in going too far. Thus in Surprised by Sin, written at a time when the New Criticism, though waning, was still regnant in the academy, Professor Fish made the daring suggestion that the key to the meaning of Paradise Lost lay not in Milton’s complex text but in the reader’s own struggle with that complexity. We are told that, because Milton wanted the experience of struggling with the poem’s syntax to mimic the experience of struggling with and facing up to one’s own sinfulness, he wrote in a convoluted style that deliberately confused and stymied his readers. It is only when the reader sees through his confusion, usually at the end of a sentence when he at last comes to the verb, that Milton’s intended pattern of moral education—“mistake, correction, instruction"—is fulfilled. In this sense, Professor Fish argues, Paradise Lost continually traces “the reader’s humiliation and his education.”
Of course, it does seem odd that, if this really were Milton’s intention, no one noticed it before Stanley Fish. One would have thought such a lofty moral design would have been more accessible to ordinary mortal scrutiny. But even odder is the caliber of the reader of Milton that Professor Fish assumes. While Professor Fish pursued his case with considerable erudition, ingenuity, and even brilliance, the reader he posits is a model of obtuseness. He never quite wises up to Milton’s supposed intentions and is certainly too shallow a fellow to appreciate the argument of Surprised by Sin. As the critic Frederick Crews has observed, Professor Fish’s reader is a straw man, “a dunce—a Charlie Brown who, having had the syntactic football yanked away a hundred times, would keep right on charging it in perfect innocence, never learning to suspend judgment until he arrived at the poet’s verb.”
Professor Fish has long since abandoned the “reader response” suppositions he argued for in Surprised by Sin. But he has continued in his role of intellectual provocateur, sprinkling his work with arguments and asides that seem designed as much to taunt his readers as to enlighten them. Why else would he have blithely described his style of criticism as a “superior fiction,” whose very status as fiction, he writes, “relieves me of the obligation to be right . . . and demands only that I be interesting"? Again, it must be noted that Professor Fish later abandoned this Wildean assertion from the mid-i 970s, calling it “the most unfortunate sentence I ever wrote.” (His readers may wish to propose alternative candidates for that honor.) Yet it is difficult to know quite what to make of Professor Fish’s repudiations. There are so many of them. The truth is that he has made a speciality of disowning the provocative statements that had earlier gained him the notice—if often the irritated notice—of his peers. The detailed introduction to Is There a Text in This Class?, for example, traces the development of the notion of “interpretive communities” and is a veritable inventory of his own discarded positions, each abandoned for one slightly more extreme or, to use a word he favors, “subversive.”
Professor Fish’s habit of denying the positions he had once forcefully insisted upon might simply be evidence of his unusual openness to criticism and willingness to change his mind when confronted with superior arguments. But a suspicious observer might wonder whether the drivingforce of his intellectual life is not truth but the desire for a certain notoriety. The question is whether pronouncements like the one quoted above are products of momentary exaggeration—incautiously penned in the heat of debate, perhaps—or whether they are the result of deliberate calculation and a striving for effect.
Doing What Comes Naturally effectively answers that question and a good many others that one might have about the nature and lasting value of the work of this influential critic and academic entrepreneur. Part of a new series from Duke anomalously called “Post-Contemporary Interventions,” Doing What Comes Naturally contains twenty-two essays, all but three of which have appeared previously in one form or another. After a long introduction setting forth the author’s current credo, the book is divided into four sections: Meaning and Constraint, Professionalism, Consequences, and Rhetoric. The essays thus range freely over Professor Fish’s standard repertoire. And as with everything Professor Fish writes, the pieces collected here are clearly written and display both wit and learning. Unlike many of his colleagues, at Duke and elsewhere, Professor Fish not only does his homework but also values clarity of expression. It is noteworthy, though, that none of the essays in this bulky volume concerns itself explicitly with a literary text considered as literature. About as close as we get to literature is an essay called “Transmuting the Lump,” which deals with the changing critical fortunes of books XI and XII of Paradise Lost. But even here, the poem is adduced solely in order to illustrate the politics of literary taste in contemporary English studies. Appropriately, the essay appears in the section entitled “Professionalism.”
True, literary texts are often mentioned in Doing What Comes Naturally. But Professor Fish—and here, alas, he resembles many of his colleagues in English and comparative literature throughout the country—seems to have given up literary criticism in order to play at being a philosopher. Accordingly, several essays deal with what for lack of a better term one may call the philosophy of language. Some of these advance Professor Fish’s views on rhetoric, about which more below. (“[R]hetorical,” he correctly notes, is “a master-word” in these essays.) Others explicate and criticize rival theories of language and meaning. Typical of the latter is a lengthy piece that compares the work of the doyen of French deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, to that of the British ordinary-language philosopher J. L. Austin. One would hardly have thought this a subject to inspire humor, but who can resist an incredulous smile when Professor Fish confides that “Derrida is very much a philosopher of common sense,” that “[o]ne might even say, with the proper qualifications, that he is a philosopher of ordinary language”? In order to appreciate the extent to which Derrida is a philosopher of “common sense” and “ordinary language,” consider this passage, of about average clarity, from the main article by Derrida upon which Professor Fish bases his claim:
A written sign is proffered in the absence of the receiver. How to style this absence? One could say that at the moment when I am writing, the receiver may be absent from my field of present perception. But is not this absence merely a distant presence, one which is delayed or which, in one form or another, is idealized in its representation? This does not seem to be the case, or at least this distance, divergence, delay, this deferral must be capable of being carried to a certain absoluteness of absence if the structure of writing, assuming that writing exists, is to constitute itself. It is at that point that the difference as writing could no longer (be) an (ontological) modification of presence.
Well, one thing really does seem clear from Professor Fish’s description of Derrida as a philosopher of common sense and ordinary language: they talk different down there in Durham, North Carolina.
Doing What Comes Naturally also contains a half dozen pieces on the law, including three much-discussed attacks on the work of the legal theorist Ronald Dworkin (“Working on the Chain Gang,” “Wrong Again,” “Still Wrong After All These Years”), as well as, under the rubric “Professionalism,” a well-known essay entitled “No Bias, No Merit.” In this essay, Professor Fish argues against the policy many academic journals follow of accepting articles for publication only after they have been submitted to a blind peer review. Now, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of this policy; often it seems blind in more than the desired sense of “impartial.” But how many sought-after academics would admit that they oppose it because it prevents them from cashing in on their reputations? “I am against blind submission,” Professor Fish proclaims with characteristic bravura, “because the fact that my name is attached to an article greatly increases its chances of getting accepted .... I have paid my dues and earned the benefit of the doubt I now enjoy and don't see why others shouldn't labor in the vineyards as I did.”
It is important to note that Professor Fish’s case against the policy of blind submission goes well beyond this expression of blatant self-interest. In fact, at the center of his animus is a contention that, in one way or another, surfaces in nearly every article in Doing What Comes Naturally. Professor Fish duly acknowledges that the intention behind the blind-sub mission policy is to minimize bias and provide the proverbial “level playing field” for the hordes of academics hungry for publications to add to their resumes. But he rejects the idea that bias is a problem; more specifically, he rejects the idea that, given the limitations of human knowledge, the notion of bias is even intelligible. “[B]ias,” he writes, “is just another word for seeing from a particular perspective as opposed to seeing from no perspective at all, and since seeing from no perspective at all is not a possibility, bias is a condition of consciousness and therefore of action.”
When he is not being deliberately provocative, Professor Fish has a tendency to present the obvious as if it were a stunning discovery. In “Critical Self-Consciousness, Or Can We Know What We’re Doing?” he explains how it is that even our best efforts to be impartial turn out to be biased. “[W]e say to ourselves,” he writes, “‘with respect to this matter I am going to put aside my interests, preferences and biases; and consider the evidence and alternatives in an impartial manner.’” In his view, what this resolution overlooks is “the extent to which the specification of what is and is not an ‘impartial manner’ is itself an ‘interested’ act, that is, an act performed within a set of assumptions” about what will count as evidence. Hence, he concludes, it is an ineluctably “partial” view of the world. Rightly understood, this would seem to be an unexceptionable point. For what does it portend except that our ideas have a history, that they arise in particular circumstances and are the products of diverse situations? Does any of this dilute by one iota the ideal of impartiality?
The answer is no, but for Professor Fish the insight that we are not gods, endowed with perfect knowledge, seems to have come as a shocking revelation. It leads him to one of his chief polemical points—a point made repeatedly in this volume: namely, that we are imprisoned by our interpretive schemes. Traditionally, reflection has been seen as a means of achieving critical distance on these schemes; reflecting on our point of view, we in some sense transcend that point of view, appreciate its limitations, and entertain alternatives. But for Professor Fish, this sense of transcendence is largely an illusion. He pretends it could be achieved only “if the moment of self-reflection is in no way dependent on that from which it is to set us free” (i.e., our “deeply assumed norms and standards”). “Reflection,” he concludes, is “just a fancy word for persuasion.” But why should we insist that reflection, in order to be effective, in order to be liberating, must be utterly free from the “norms and standards” out of which it arises? Does not the simple fact of our being able to entertain a point of view very different from our own show that we can meaningfully transcend our taken-for-granted interpretive schemes?
Like many of his colleagues who are impatient with concepts like objectivity and disinterestedness, Professor Fish tends to prosecute his anti-traditional case by caricaturing the opposition. A basic tactic is to postulate a kind of super-Cartesian whose view of what counts as knowledge is so stringent that it is inevitably defeated and whose defeat is then chalked up as a victory for the notion of “interpretive communities.” Thus, Professor Fish assures us that for anyone who believes in objectivity,
[t]he trick... is to think of sentences that would be heard in the same way by all competent speakers no matter what their educational experience, or class membership, or partisan affiliation, or special knowledge, sentences which, invariant across contexts, could form the basis of an acontextual and formal description of the language and its rules.
But who believes such sentences exist, outside the precincts of pure mathematics? And who believes that we need such a rigorous view of language in order to make sense of, say, impartial judgment? Just as Professor Fish’s reader of Paradise Lost was a dim chap whose primary virtue was to bring glory to the “reader response” view of literary criticism, so those who dispute his skeptical notion of interpretive authority are held to be a crude lot who have never suspected that knowledge is a fallible thing.
One of Professor Fish’s neatest rhetorical gambits is to assure us that his radical view of meaning and interpretation is benign. Are you worried about making decisions on the basis of merit, not prejudice? Don't worry: because all judgments are prejudiced, decisions that claim to be based on merit are just as prejudiced as any others, only they are less self-conscious, since they fail to recognize their own prejudices. Are you concerned about preserving the ideal of disinterested scholarship? Forget about it: “disinterestedness” is a chimera; and what is impossible or illusory can't very well be preserved. Professor Fish’s favorite method of introducing such charming sophisms is by bluntly denying the obvious. “There is no such thing as…”'—you name it: truth, merit, justice, facts. For example:
there is no such thing as literal meaning . . . (Page 4)
there can be no such thing as theory ... (Page 14)
there is no such thing as intrinsic merit . . . (Page 164)
Indeed, there is no such thing as a “mere preference” in the sense that makes it a threat to communal norms, for anything that could be experienced as a preference will derive from the norms inherent in some community. (Page 11)
Let us allow the first three of these pronouncements to stand as what they primarily are: verbal provocations, without (since we have just been assured that there is no such thing) literal meaning or intrinsic merit. But do let us pause to consider some of the implications of Professor Fish’s dismissal of anything so scandalous as “mere” preference and his assurance that nothing “that could be experienced as a preference” can be “a threat to communal norms.” First, note that he is not just making the point that our desires and preferences have a social component, that what we want is to some extent the product of the community we happen to find ourselves in. On the contrary, he believes that socialization—to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Richard Rorty—“goes all the way down.” Like Rorty, Professor Fish maintains that there are no independent criteria to which we might appeal to justify, or to condemn, our beliefs or actions. Indeed, he is fond of declaring that phrases like “independent criteria” and “disinterested judgment” are self-contradictory.
Yet, as is often the case in these essays, part of Professor Fish’s purpose in denying the obvious is to sweeten his message, to reassure us that his view of language and meaning entails no important loss. If there are no such things as intrinsic merit or disinterested judgment to begin with, then we need hardly worry about their corruption or loss. Of course, most of us have been taught the opposite. We believe, for example, that there is a difference between action based on “mere preference” and action based on principle, between acting in a way that is self-interested and acting for the sake of something greater than self-interest. We believe that there is such a thing as unprincipled behavior, based on “mere preference,” and that such behavior can be dangerous. Professor Fish is in effect telling us that we are being too fastidious. Since, in his view, every decision and every action is inexpungably colored by undeclared interests, the effort to distinguish between preference and principle is otiose. Moreover, because all values, preferences, facts, desires, and principles are themselves products of some “interpretive community,” “ ‘mere’ preference” cannot be a “threat to communal norms.” Professor Fish’s slogan for this happy state of affairs is that “all preferences are principled.”
But think about it. Last spring, a gang of adolescent boys raped and brutally beat a woman in Central Park, leaving her for dead. The extreme youth of the attackers and the ghastly savageness of their crime assured that the case made national headlines. When asked why he had repeatedly beat the helpless woman about the head with a metal pipe, one of the boys is reported to have replied: “Because it was fun.” In other words, there was no particular reason. It was a whim. He just felt like doing it. Not to worry, though: Professor Fish has informed us that since preferences always “derive from the norms inherent in some community,” they cannot be a “threat to communal norms.” Is it mere prejudice, then, that leads us to condemn this act? Would another point of view, one that sanctioned rape and brutality, be equally legitimate and morally compelling because it, too, derived from norms inherent in some interpretive community? Is Hitler to be exonerated because, after all, his preferences derived from the norms that prevailed in his interpretive community?
Looming behind all Professor Fish’s startling denials and rhetorical antics is a single large claim about the nature of truth. In brief, there isn't any. That is to say, there isn't any if one insists that truth requires independent criteria, that there must be external checks or constraints on meaning and interpretation. In Professor Fish’s terms, this insistence is “formalist” or “foundationalist.” He defines foundationalism as “any attempt to ground inquiry and communication in something more firm and stable than mere belief or unexamined practice.” It follows that we are guilty of being foundationalist if we believe there are criteria or “constraints” on judgment independent of our particular situation.
Foundationalism is Professor Fish’s bête noire. Again and again in these essays he assures us that “there are no higher or more general constraints, only constraints that are different, constraints built into practices other than the one whose reform is now being contemplated.” In this sense, Professor Fish is not your garden-variety relativist; he is a relativist of a more sophisticated stripe. He recognizes that in order to make sense of judgment at all one has to appeal to something like criteria. It’s just that he doesn't believe that criteria ever possess the independence traditionally imputed to them. Hence he insists there are “no constraints that are more than the content of a practice from which they are indistinguishable”; “whatever is invoked as a constraint on interpretation will turn out upon further examination to have been the product of interpretation.” Hence, too, the frankly political aspect of his view of meaning: “It is first and last,” he writes in his introduction, “a question of power in relation to the putting in place of constraints.”
This set of ideas has been dawning on Professor Fish for years, and has now assumed the proportions of an idée fixe. It is indeed the lodestar around which all his critical work currently circles. As he notes in the preface to Doing What Comes Naturally, the essays therein collected, though ostensibly on diverse topics, are really “the same.” All develop or defend or explain this one idea about the nature of truth and meaning. Not surprisingly, Professor Fish’s preferred term for his outlook is “anti-foundationalism.” He himself, he assures us, is a “card-carrying anti-foundationalist,” and he thinks we should be, too. Not that he wants for company. While he is more rigorous in his exposition than most of his literary colleagues, Professor Fish is hardly alone in his anti-foundationalist sympathies. In some version or other, the anti-foundationalist creed has installed itself as the reigning ideology throughout the humanities. It is, to take just one example, anti-foundationalist fervor that stands behind Richard Rorty’s endorsement of a “postmetaphysical” and “postreligious” culture in which “the sermon and treatise” would be replaced by “the novel, the movie, and the TV program” as the “principal vehicles of moral change and progress.” And in case there were any doubts on this score, be assured that, like Professor Fish, this MacArthur Fellow and Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia presents his vision of anti-foundationalist triumph as a desirable eventuality.
In this context, it may be worth noting that one of the things Professor Fish is proudest of is the unusually wide range of his enemies. He is fond of reminding one that he is attacked as often by the Left as by the Right. The academic Left is unhappy with him because he is impatient with their claims for “theory"—what he aptly calls “theory talk” or “theory hope.” In accordance with the principle of knowing how far to go in going too far, Professor Fish outflanks his radical brethren, claiming that they aren't quite radical enough. They may have plowed through volumes of Derrida and Althusser and Habermas, to say nothing of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger; they may rail against the logocentric hegemony of an elitest patriarchal faith in objectivity and science—but what good does it do them? In the midst of their orgies of disillusionment and skepticism, there is one belief they never abandon: the belief in theory itself. That is to say, they always assume that their current pet theory provides a critical purchase on language or the world that is somehow truer, better, more accurate than that enjoyed by their benighted neighbor. Accordingly, Professor Fish charges that even “anti-foundationalist” theory (and is there any other kind in the academy?) is covertly... yes, foundationalist. And that, clearly, is not a charge calculated to win one friends in the humanities departments of our universities.
The academic Right, on the other hand, is unhappy with Professor Fish primarily because he is a relativist who believes that “political justifications are the only kind there are” and because he consequently denies that traditional ideals like truth or justice—to say nothing of our old friends “intrinsic merit,” “disinterestedness,” and “objectivity"—have any meaning except as rhetorical gestures. Yet it would be a grave error to suppose that Professor Fish plies a middle road between the intellectual Left and the Right. Both the Right and the Left have misunderstood him, he complains, but it is clear that he regards some misunderstandings as more equal than others. He criticizes the naivete of his leftist colleagues and attracts their ire (a certain species of feminist seems to be especially exercised by his writings). But as a “card-carrying anti-foundationalist” his political sympathies— and remember, for Professor Fish there are no other kind—are all with them.
If this were not already clear enough from his anti-foundationalist ideas about meaning, truth, and interpretation, it becomes pellucidly clear whenever he steps out of his preferred role as radical epistemological proselytizer and discusses concrete issues of policy. Consider, for example, the very different ways he characterizes two articles by fellow academics in “Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Self-Loathing in Literary Studies.” The primary occasion for this lecture on the virtues of professionalism was a 1982 article by the eminent Harvard literary scholar Walter Jackson Bate decrying the new faddishness and politicization that were erupting in English departments around the country. Naturally, Professor Fish has little patience with Bate’s criticism. But it is instructive to compare his attack on Bate’s piece with his treatment of another attack on the academy that appeared in 19 82: this one by Columbia University’s redoubtable PLO sympathizer and professor of comparative literature, Edward Said. No one acquainted with the work of Bate and Said will be surprised to learn that where Bate criticized the profession for abandoning standards, Said criticized it for being overly narrow and not sufficiently political. After spending several pages excoriating Bate for his small-mindedness, Professor Fish turns, reluctantly, to criticize Said. Said must be criticized because he thinks something is wrong with the profession of English being professional. But Professor Fish is careful to describe Said’s piece as “infinitely more attractive” than Bate’s, claiming that it is “everything that Bate’s is not: generous, learned, humane, compassionate, responsible.” Again, anyone familiar with the work of these authors will recognize that Professor Fish’s characterization is preposterous. It appears, though, that one tangible advantage of doing what comes naturally is that it relieves one of the chore of even attempting to be evenhanded.
The development of Professor Fish’s anti-foundationalist campaign also explains a good deal about the direction his own work has taken. It explains, for example, why he has increasingly abandoned literary criticism for the study of rhetoric. Already in Is There a Text in This Class?, he concludes that
the business of criticism was not (as I had previously thought) to determine a correct way of reading but to determine from which of a number of possible perspectives reading will proceed…. The business of criticism, in other words, was not to decide between interpretations by subjecting them to the test of disinterested evidence but to establish by political and persuasive means (they are the same thing) the set of interpretive assumptions from the vantage of which the evidence (and the facts and the intentions and everything else) will hereafter be specifiable.
Given this interest in the art of persuasion— that is to say, in rhetoric—it is no wonder that Professor Fish should have increasingly turned away from literature and toward legal texts to provide fodder for his theories. At least since Plato, as the Phaedrus reminds us, rhetoric has been understood as having to do principally with “lawsuits . . . and of course public harangues also.”
In broad outline, Professor Fish’s position is nothing new. Similar presuppositions about language can be found in certain strains of American pragmatism as well as in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s late philosophy of language, especially in his theory of language games. And as Professor Fish proudly acknowledges, the spirit and intellectual pedigree of his anti-foundationalist views hark back to the sophists of Plato’s time. Like them, he argues that “man is measure of all things,” that “justice” “means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger party,” etc. Here is Professor Fish’s own version of Thrasymachus’s claim: “Does might make right? In a sense the answer I must give is yes, since in the absence of a perspective independent of interpretation some interpretive perspective will always rule by virtue of having won out over its competitors.” In other words, Professor Fish would have us believe that whatever interpretive scheme “wins out” is not only victorious but therefore right.
No, for all its professional cachet and shock value, Professor Fish’s position is far from convincing. For one thing, as with the sophists before him, there is an insurmountable contradiction at the heart of the Fish course on meaning. It is this: he cannot claim truth for his own theory without denying the relativistic principles upon which it is based. He rightly points out that the various aspects of his anti-foundationalist creed are closely connected, noting that the “first step down the anti-formalist road,” the denial of literal meaning, “contains all the others.” But how are we to understand that denial? Is it . . . true? Or is it merely an interpretive gesture? As with every thoroughgoing relativist since Protagoras, Professor Fish must eventually face the problem of not being able to assert his own position without self-contradiction. And indeed this central contradiction works as a solvent on the whole idea of interpretive communities as Professor Fish develops it. He hastily assures us that this is an objection that is “easily gotten around.” But is his response convincing? Does it help to say, as he does, that, yes, there is a foundation for his relativistic position, but it is only “rhetorical,” based on evidence that is “cultural and contextual”?
Professor Fish’s anti-foundationalist view of language and interpretation is most egregiously deficient when it comes to science and the idea of objective truth. The insistence that all our notions of truth are products of particular interpretive communities does not go very far in accounting for the cogency of scientific discourse, or, in fact, for the everyday notion of empirical truth. Pace Professor Fish, the fact remains that science offers us not just another description of reality but, in a way that can be precisely specified, a more objective description of reality than that offered by ordinary language. Is the concept of objectivity itself the product of a particular culture and assumptions about the nature of truth? Of course it is. But the fact that all our concepts and theories have a history does not by itself gainsay their truth or validity. Nor does the fact that the idea of objectivity happened to arise out of a particular interpretive community mean that its application is limited to that community. The very power science has given us to manipulate and control reality shows that its truths, though reductive, are genuinely universal.
Like virtually every other English professor eager to debunk the authority of science and objectivity, Professor Fish quotes abundantly from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, somehow under the impression that this much misused book abets the project of collapsing science into a form of literary chitchat. But for all his talk of “paradigm change” and recognition that science, too, inevitably works with theories that themselves unfold in particular cultural circumstances, Kuhn is far from the freewheeling relativist that professors of English have turned him into. He is careful to insist, for example, that “later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied.” As Kuhn himself comments: “That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.” These are not statements calculated to console the anti-foundationalist faithful. The simple fact of scientific progress—relying as it does on there being some descriptions of phenomena that are demonstrably more objective than others—effectively undercuts the anti-foundationalist ambition to disenfranchise the notion of truth and transform facts into a form of exotic political capital generated by “interpretive communities.”
It is important to emphasize that the implications of Professor Fish’s anti-foundationalist fantasies are not confined to abstract matters of epistemoiogy. As he himself acknowledges early on in Doing What Comes Naturally, the implications of the anti-formalist, anti-foundationalist creed are “almost boundless.” We have seen, however, that notwithstanding this admission he is also everywhere at pains to assure his readers that “when you get to the end of the anti-formalist road nothing will have changed except the answers you might give to some traditional questions in philosophy and literary theory.” “[T]he dangers of excessive interpretive freedom, of ‘masked power,’ of random or irresponsible activity,” he writes, “are unrealizable, because the conditions that would make them the basis of a reasonable fear—the condition of free subjectivity, of ‘naturally’ indeterminate texts, or unprincipled authority—could never obtain.” Once again, we find there is nothing to worry about: “nihilism is impossible” and of course “it is unnecessary to combat something that is not possible.”
But in fact there is a great deal to worry about. For not only is the anti-foundationalist creed wrong, it is—as Professor Fish has been eager to declare—subversive. Indeed, he notes in passing that the entire tenor of anti-foundationalism is against “a general assumption of liberal thought,” namely, the ideal of disinterested knowledge. And this brings us back to that “master-word” of these essays: rhetoric. What we see at work throughout this book is a deliberate attempt to supplant reason by rhetoric, truth by persuasion. This would be troubling enough if it were confined to literary texts; extended to legal texts and basic political concepts like justice, it is nothing short of disastrous. There was a time when one studied rhetoric in order to employ its resources effectively for the sake of truth and justice and to inoculate oneself against its charms. For Professor Fish, however, rhetoric is all there is. This has always been the position of professional rhetoricians, from the time of sophists like Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Protagoras, down to contemporary sophists like Rorty and Fish. Plato condemned rhetoric as a “shadow play of words” that was concerned with semblance, not reality. Does it help to be told that Plato’s qualms are groundless because there is no such thing as reality or facts or literal meaning or truth? (Given the large material triumphs of Professor Fish & Co. at Duke, one cannot help recalling that Plato also remarked on the “astounding” amounts of money that sophists make.)
Surely one of the clearest symptoms of the decadence and politicization afflicting academic literary studies today is the extent to which elementary distinctions of taste and value have been corrupted, willfully misunderstood, or simply ignored. We know something is gravely amiss when teachers of the humanities confess—or, as is more often the case, when they boast—that they are no longer able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between reality and rhetoric. We know something is wrong when scholars assure us—and their pupils—that there is no essential difference between the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and partisan proselytizing, and when academic literary critics abandon the effort to identify and elucidate works of lasting achievement as a reactionary enterprise unworthy of their calling. By the time he published Is There a Text in This Class? in 1980, Stanley Fish was already far down the anti-formalist, anti-foundationalist road. Like most errors, this one did not improve with time. Regarding his new book, with its updated litanies, one can hardly do better than quote one of his own condemnations: Still wrong after all these years.
- Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, by Stanley Fish; Duke University Press, 613 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
- My review of Robert Bly’s book appeared in the October issue of The New Criterion. Go back to the text.
- Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Limited Inc (Northwestern University Press, 1988), translated by Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, p. 7 Go back to the text.
- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity; Cambridge University Press, 1989, pages xiii-xvi. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 2, on page 5
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