Response to Stanley Fish

Critical Inquiry 10 (2):371-373 (1983)
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At one point Fish says that a profession produces no “real” commodity but offers only a service. But surely the increasing reification of services and even of knowledge has made them a commodity as well. And indeed the logical extension of Fish’s position on professionalism is not that it is something done or lived but something produced and reproduced, albeit with redistributed and redeployed values. What those are, Fish doesn’t say. Then again he makes the rather telling remarks that he is “turning everything into professionalism” —an instance of overstating and overinsisting at a moment when what he is really arguing for can neither be formulated nor defended clearly. To turn “everything” into professionalism is to strip professionalism of any meaning at all. For until one can define professionalism—and the particular values associated with it—there is very little value in going on about the incoherencies of antiprofessionalism. Fish resorts to the reductionist attitude of telling us that professionalism is what is, and whatever is, is more or less therefore right, which by only the slightest extension of its logic is a view no less applicable to antiprofessionalism.On the other hand, Fish does say that the profession has changed, that new ways of doing things have emerged, that values are contested within and without the profession. Those kinds of observations, however, have to be pursued, made me more concrete, put in specific historical contexts, one of which is the fact that professions are not natural objects but concrete, political, economic, and social formations playing very defined, although sometimes barely visible, roles. Unfortunately, Fish commits the lobbyist-s error by obscuring and being blind to the sociopolitical actualities of what he lobbies for even as he defends its existence. Thus when Fish alleges that the reason most literary professionals “exist in a shamefaced relationship with the machinery that enables their labors” is because of their damaging antiprofessionalism , he is making an observation whose form is assertive but whose sense is tautological since he neither defines the professional and professionalism nor specifies “machinery” and “labors” with any precision at all. For if you take the extraordinary step of reducing everything to professionalism and institutionalism as Fish does, then the very possibility of talking about the profession with any intelligibility is negated. Few would dispute Fish’s important point, that all interpretive and social situations are in fact already grounded in a context, in institutions, communities, and so forth. But there is a very great difference between making that claim and going on to say that so far as the literary profession is concerned, “the profession” is the context to which “everything” can be related. Edward W. Said’s most recent work is The World, the Text, and the Critic. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions” and “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community”



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