||The Fish Turn
by J. Judd Owen
This slim volume is an important, and in many ways remarkable, document in the hotly contested battle for the soul of today's university. Its author, Stanley Fish, is professor of English and law at Duke University, and one of the most influential figures in the debates surrounding the continuing transformation of the academy. The book is made up of five lectures on the crusade to turn the study of the humanities-especially Fish's own field of literary studies-into a vehicle for the advancement of a distinctly left-wing multiculturalism, associated with what is popularly known as "political correctness". Fish has been one of the most pugnacious public defenders of "political correctness". His attack, in this latest book, on the politicization of literary studies will likely be interpreted by more than one reader as a betrayal of a movement that is not renowned for its charity toward dissenters.
Literary studies have seen a dramatic transformation in recent years and Duke, in no small part thanks to Fish, has gained a reputation for being on the cutting edge. He himself has shown little patience for what he once called the "dyspeptic attack on the humanities" launched by those who complained that the cutting edge was in fact proceeding to gut the humanities. In his preface here, Fish denies that this book is "a repudiation of cultural studies, black studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, and other forms of activity that have reinvigorated the literary scene. The argument that unfolds here is absolutely continuous with arguments I have made since the late 1970s, and my support for non-traditional scholarship in the humanities is as strong as it ever was."
The significance of this book, however, is that Fish attempts to take the wind out of the sails of this movement of "non-traditional scholarship" by subjecting its dominant motivation, viz. its political zeal, to an incisive critique.
Though he denies any alliance with the "neo-conservative assault on the humanities", Fish sides with "conservatives" in challenging the wisdom of attempts to politicize the academy, and in defending the integrity of the traditional purposes of literary studies. He speculates that the current politically charged literary criticism will soon seem tired, and that the discipline will gravitate back to its more enduring themes. He goes so far as to attribute the political ambitions of his fellow left-wing professors to a "megalomania" that "approaches insanity."
Still, Fish shares a "postmodernist" conception of knowledge with those of his colleagues whom he is now criticizing. We can call it (for the present purpose) "social constructionism". According to this doctrine, all human opinions-all the competing opinions about politics, morals, religion, and science-are historically specific phenomena, generated solely by human convention. No single human world-view is universally valid or uniquely enlightened. A claim that any practice is natural, rational, or divinely ordained, that it is rooted in something that transcends a human institution, is inevitably a ruse that serves to cover up the true origins of that practice or institution. Human institutions always originate in a power struggle among competing interests-i.e., in politics. This is just as true of academic disciplines such as literary criticism as of any other human practice.
But Fish does take issue with those who believe that this doctrine is in any sense radical or subversive. He denies that it poses a threat to existing social (including academic) institutions. He is well aware that its usually conservative detractors and its usually radical advocates agree with each other, and not with him, on this point: conservatives, of course, tend to argue against social constructionism as vigorously as they argue for the institutions they wish to defend; radicals wield the doctrine with zeal, confident that they have discovered the magic sword for battling hierarchy and oppression, in whatever form these may take.
Fish insists that "the thesis of social constructionism is a threat to nothing; or, rather, it is only a threat if it is asserted weakly." Deconstructionism, then, is a weak or incomplete assertion of that thesis. Social constructionism, when fully and consistently thought through, would be threatening only if it could be contrasted with something that was not conventional or artificial or constructed-as philosophy once contrasted convention with nature. "But," Fish argues, "if everything is socially constructed, the fact of a particular thing being socially constructed is not a fact you can do anything with." In particular, it is a "fact" that is of no use in condemning or praising a given institution. If it were a flaw in literature and literary interpretation that they are socially constructed, one still couldn't point to any alternative that would be free of the same flaw.
In fact, Fish argues, being socially constructed is not a flaw, but is rather precisely what makes literature and its study, indeed human activity generally, possible. Only because of social construction are our words and deeds able fit into a system of meaning shared with our fellow human beings. The origin of that system of meaning, in competition among group interests or whatever, does not affect the usefulness and hence the merit of what it now is and has become. Nor is the fact of an activity having a narrow and interested purpose a flaw. It is, as Fish declares with exasperation, a point "I have made so many times: a practice only acquires identity.by not being other practices, by presenting itself not as doing everything but as doing one thing in such a way as to have society look to it for specific performance." A narrow and interested practice may well serve a broader good. And whatever function it may have is made possible because it is narrow and interested, because it serves this particular purpose and not that one, this particular interest and not that one.
As Fish sees it, the radicals' naive ambition for literary criticism is to transform it from a narrow, technical discipline into an activity with a selfconscious and culturally comprehensive political agenda. Literary criticism, the radical accusation goes, has improperly limited its scope to such things as analysing the metre of a poem, tracing the influences on a poet, or interpreting a poem's meaning. The broader social and political contexts, such as sexism, racism, and homophobia and the plight of the poor, and how these evils are tacitly reinforced or legitimized, are issues that are ignored as irrelevant to the literary point. Following on the heels of this critique comes the radical call to transcend narrow disciplinarity toward an interdisciplinarity-exemplified in Cultural Studies-that will be awake to the full political significance of the subject-matter and of the activity of the scholars themselves. Cultural Studies is to put an end to complicity in the prejudices and oppression of the past. The wall between aesthetics and politics will be dismantled, and literary criticism will become a force for liberation.
Fish dismisses this project as absurd. To begin with, he contends that it is simply beyond the power of professors to transform literary criticism into a genuine political vehicle. Strictly speaking, literary criticism cannot be politicized. In order to make this case, Fish is forced to issue what is in effect an important amendment to his earlier apologetics for "political correctness". (With the title of this book, Fish invites us to make this comparison.) He had defended "political correctness" in part by claiming that everything we do is political. In serving an agenda of their own, opponents of "political correctness" are themselves, Fish insisted, no less "politically correct" than those they are attacking. They simply have a different political agenda. Now, however, Fish is forced to distinguish between two meanings of "political": "everything is political [in] the sense that.every action is ultimately rooted in a contestable point of origin"; in this "trivial" sense, literary criticism has always been political. But literary criticism cannot be made political in "the more usual sense of `political' when it is used to refer to actions performed with the intention of winning elections and influencing legislators."
One reason that literary criticism cannot be politicized in this latter sense is sociological. The public views literature, and by extension literary criticism, as politically irrelevant. At one time, and even today in some places, it was different. A prominent literary figure might have carried political clout in Milton's day. One could also note that a playwright is now president of the Czech Republic. But the artistic and academic freedom we North Americans enjoy were bought by liberalism at the price of irrelevance. "Liberalism's disinclination either to authorize or to condemn anyone's opinions," Fish observes, "has provided the artist with his strongest bulwark against state regulation (although, as many would complain, it is a bulwark continually being breached by overreaching statists), but at the same time [liberalism] deprives the artist of any rationale for intervening in precincts that have been assigned to other agents whose franchise is held no less exclusively than his." Poets can do what they wish, because no-one else cares what poets do. Moreover, a poet or critic cannot change this situation simply by changing his poetry or his mode of criticism. Poets can do what they wish, and still no-one else will care what poets do. If professors "politicize" their journals, that change will take place beneath public notice, where "no-one but a few of their friends will be listening." It will be a change only in academic practice; it will not be genuine politicization. Genuine politicization of the humanities would require a transformation on a broader societal level. That is the sort of change that those in the humanities do not have the power to effect. Fish argues that whatever political influence such parts of the university as the women's studies department or the law school enjoy originates in the political arena. Their external influence was not and could not have been generated internally.
Fish thus concedes that many professors-such as Catherine McKinnon, Anita Hill, and Edward Said-have had some real political impact. But that, he argues, is not the result of their professional activities, but rather of their extra-professional, and distinctly political activities. They were playing in a different arena, by rules already in place there. Vaclav Havel the politician is different from Vaclav Havel the playwright.
This leads us to a more fundamental reason why literary criticism cannot be politicized. Literary criticism and politics are defined by distinct purposes. Even "where the link between politics and interpretive acts of a literary kind is close and pressuring, interpretive acts will still not be political acts in the strong sense, because while they might well have political consequences (by virtue of a network of reciprocal attention) they will still not have as their immediate aim-as the purpose that gets them going-the telling of the truth about some text or group of texts." If literary criticism succeeded in taking on a wholly new function, it would no longer be literary criticism, but something else. To be sure, the tools of literary criticism can be used with a view to considering primarily the political consequences of a poem rather than its meaning. This sort of politicization is feasible. Yet it does not make literary criticism into an effective political vehicle; nor is the activity in question really literary criticism at all any more.
Fish is aware that he may appear to be contradicting his own doctrine of social constructionism. After all, is he not implying that politics and literary criticism have essences, that no amount of social reconstruction could alter their irreducible difference of purpose? Is he not on the brink of rediscovering the difference between that which owes its being wholly to human convention and that which does not?
The most persuasive part of Fish's response to these obvious questions forms a powerful challenge to a common assumption among contemporary intellectuals on the left. The use to which the academic left puts the doctrine of radical conventionalism-the assumption that radical epistemology is a natural friend to radical, egalitarian politics-betrays a hidden hope that we do somehow have recourse to something more than mere human convention. For the left assumes that by revealing that "the self-advertised unity [of an institution] is really a grab-bag of disparate elements held together by the conceptual equivalent of chicken-wire, or by shifting political and economic alliances, or by a desire to control the production and dissemination of knowledge," they contribute to dispelling the power of that institution. But, Fish counters, "to think that by exposing the leaks in a system you fatally wound it, is to engage in a strange kind of Platonism-strange because Platonism is what deconstruction pushes against-in which the surface features of life are declared illusory in relation to a deep underlying truth or non-truth. It is in the surfaces, however, that we live and move and have our being (it is surfaces all the way down) and no philosophical demonstration will loosen their hold." The deconstructionists are using social constructionism just as Plato used it, as a critique. (Plato's famous cave analogy makes precisely the charge that all political regimes are merely socially constructed.) But, Fish argues, there is no behind-the-surfaces of our social constructions.
The implication of Fish's argument, as he readily admits, is that radical self-criticism is impossible. If literary criticism attempts self-criticism, it can only do so according to the standards which make literary criticism what it is. It cannot criticize those standards except by some other standards, from a perspective that is no longer that of literary criticism. Fish's argument dimly resembles the Platonic doctrine according to which learning is really remembering what you somehow already knew. Presumably something like this is what Fish hopes for from his audience-he wants them to see that they as literary critics are mistaken about their true fundamental assumptions and interests. They are not crusaders fighting for the oppressed. They are scholars, using a specialized vocabulary for the benefit of a small community with specialized interests. They are not rebels against the academy, but members of it.
But, Fish warns, even if the rebels cannot turn the humanities into the avant-garde of universal liberation, they can do much harm to their own professional lives and to the humanities as they have been. These "would-be shakers and movers [face] an unhappy choice: they must either content themselves with the success achieved in the context of literary goals and purposes, or they must look forward to a life of continual frustration as the desire to extend the effects of such successes into precincts incapable of recognizing them (never mind responding to them) goes forever unrealized." Fish's challenge to his colleagues is to face their own limitations and then to reassess the value of what they would destroy. Few, he suspects, are drawn initially to get a Ph.D. in English because they think it an especially good way to help the down-trodden. "Rather," he claims, "we become interested in something-in an author, a text, a genre, a problem in theory-and it is usually later, under the pressure of anxieties created by the demand for justification, that we tell ourselves a story in which the pursuit of our interest is crucial for the improvement of the human condition." Professional Correctness, in sharp contrast to Fish's previous work, could be read as an apology for liberalism, which serves the interests of scholars like himself. Fish's defence of literary studies is a defence of class interest-the class (and classrooms) of literary critics.
But what justification does Fish himself offer for what is, as viewed from the outside, a "curious way to make (or not make) a living"? Why literary criticism? Because it's pleasant. To take a rich and complex poem like Paradise Lost and use the intellectual tools one has acquired over the years to unearth the treasures, even the wisdom, that Milton buried there is a true delight. Get paid to study Milton? Fish intones Ira Gershwin: "Nice work if you can get it." Fish is aware that this constitutes at best an "internal justification" directed at "an audience made up of fellow practitioners." In concluding the book, he appears to confess to being at a loss about how to justify such a curious way to make a living "to those not of our party without whose approval and material/political support that living could not be made." Yet this dependence suggests that the academy can never be thoroughly depoliticized. Fish is too honest a fellow to claim that the life of the mind is uniquely noble and elevated despite its privacy. Nevertheless, one might have supposed that Fish, who is famous for affirming both the irreducible differences among competing interests and the unavoidable dependence on rhetoric, would have more to say in self-defence at just this point.
It is also puzzling why Fish fails to see how serious a threat his proposed depoliticization would be to his colleagues' careers even within the academy. It is hard to imagine what the new scholarship would look like, or how it would survive, if deprived of its political animus. According to Fish's own argument, cultural studies, feminist studies, black studies, etc. are in part defined by their political intentions. Feminist literary study, for example, is not the same as the study of literature by women. If literary studies were depoliticized, the varieties of scholarship Fish claims he continues to support would disappear.
However that may be, Professional Correctness deserves readers outside of literary studies. It presents a challenging lesson on the present juncture of the North American university, reveals much about the current intellectual state of affairs, and in the process moves beyond issues of merely historical concern to speak to "what it means to be human".