Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Self-Loathing in Literary Studies

Critical Inquiry 10 (2):349-364 (1983)

It might seem at this point that I am courting a contradiction: If antiprofessionalism is a form of professional behavior and if professional behavior covers the field , then how can I fault Bate for using antiprofessionalism to further a professional project? By collapsing the distinction between activity that is professionally motivated and activity motivated by a commitment to abstract and general values, have I not deprived myself of a basis for making judgments, since one form of activity would seem to be no different from or better than any other? The answer is no, because the consequence of turning everything into professionalism is not to deny value but to redistribute it. One deconstructs an opposition not by reversing the hierarchy of its poles but by denying to either pole the independence that makes the opposition possible in the first place. If my argument that there can be no literary criticism or pedagogy that is not a form of professionalism, it is also that there can be no form of professionalism that is not an extension of some value or set of values. Whereas before one was asked to choose between professionalism and some category of pure value , the choice can now be seen as a choice between different versions of professionalism, each with its attendant values. To say that antiprofessionalism is a form of professional behavior is not to have closed the discussion but to have identified the basis on which it can continue by identifying the questions that should now be asked: What kind of professional behavior is antiprofessionalism? and What are its consequences? The answer is that, at least in its literary form, it urges impossible goals and therefore has the consequence of making people ashamed of what they are doing. The psychological distress that marks this profession, the fact that so many of its members exist in a shamefaced relationship with the machinery that enables their labors, is in part attributable, I think, to literary antiprofessionalism, which is, as a form of professional behavior, almost always damaging. Stanley Fish’s most recent work is “Wrong Again: A Reply to Ronald Dworking,” Texas Law Review . His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry include “With the Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida”
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