In an era when much of what passes for debate is merely moral posturing--traditional family values versus the cultural elite, free speech versus censorship--or reflexive name-calling--the terms "liberal" and "politically correct," are used with as much dismissive scorn by the right as "reactionary" and "fascist" are by the left--Stanley Fish would seem an unlikely lightning rod for controversy. A renowned scholar of Milton, head of the English Department of Duke University, Fish has emerged as a brilliantly original critic of the (...) culture at large, praised and pilloried as a vigorous debunker of the pieties of both the left and right. His mission is not to win the cultural wars that preoccupy the nation's attention, but rather to redefine the terms of battle. In There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, Fish takes aim at the ideological gridlock paralyzing academic and political exchange in the nineties. In his witty, accessible dissections of the swirling controversies over multiculturalism, affirmative action, canon revision, hate speech, and legal reform, he neatly eviscerates both the conservatives' claim to possession of timeless, transcendent values, and the intellectual left's icons of equality, tolerance, and non-discrimination. He argues that while conservative ideologues and liberal stalwarts might disagree vehemently on what is essential to a culture, or to a curriculum, both mistakenly believe that what is essential can be identified apart from the accidental circumstances to which the essential is ritually opposed. In the book's first section, which includes the five essays written for Fish's celebrated debates with Dinesh D'Souza, Fish turns his attention to the neoconservative backlash. In his introduction, Fish writes, "Terms that come to us wearing the label 'apolitical'--'common values', 'fairness', 'merit', 'color blind', 'free speech', 'reason'--are in fact the ideologically charged constructions of a decidedly political agenda. I make the point not in order to level an accusation, but to remove the sting of accusation from the world 'politics' and redefine it as a synonym for what everyone inevitably does." Fish maintains that the debate over political correctness is an artificial one, because it is simply not possible for any party or individual to occupy a position above or beyond politics. Regarding the controversy over the revision of the college curriculum, Fish argues that the point is not to try to insist that inclusion of ethnic and gender studies is not a political decision, but "to point out that any alternative curriculum--say a diet of exclusively Western or European texts--would be no less politically invested." In Part Two, Fish follows the implications of his arguments to a surprising rejection of the optimistic claims of the intellectual left that awareness of the historical roots of our beliefs and biases can allow us, as individuals or as a society, to escape or transcend them. Specifically, he turns to the movement for reform of legal studies, and insists that a dream of a legal culture in which no one's values are slighted or declared peripheral can no more be realized than the dream of a concept of fairness that answers to everyone's notions of equality and jsutice, or a yardstick of merit that is true to everyone's notions of worth and substance. Similarly, he argues that attempts to politicize the study of literature are ultimately misguided, because recharacterizations of literary works have absolutely no impact on the mainstream of political life. He concludes his critique of the academy with "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," an extraordinary look at some of the more puzzing, if not out-and-out masochistic, characteristics of a life in academia. Penetrating, fearless, and brilliantly argued, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech captures the essential Fish. It is must reading for anyone who cares about the outcome of America's cultural wars. (shrink)
He had made it all up, he said, and gloated that his "prank" proved that sociologists and humanists who spoke of science as a "social construction" didn't know what they were talking about. Acknowledging the ethical issues raised by his deception, Professor Sokal declared it justified by the importance of the truths he was defending from postmodernist attack: "There is a world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise?".
The willows and the hazel copses greenShall now no more be seenFanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.[Milton, Lycidas, Ll. 42-44] It is my thesis that the reader is always making sense , and in the case of these lines the sense he makes will involve the assumption of a completed assertion after the word "seen," to wit, the death of Lycidas has so affected the willows and the hazel copses green that, in sympathy, they will wither and die (...) . In other words at the end of line 43 the reader will have hazarded an interpretation, or performed an act of perpetual closure, or made a decision as to what is being asserted. I do not mean that he has done four things, but that he has done one thing the description of which might take any one of four forms—making sense, interpreting, performing perpetual closure, deciding about what is intended. Whatever he has done he will undo it in the act of reading the next line; for here he discovers that his closure, or making of sense, was premature and that he must make a new one in which the relationship between man and nature is exactly the reverse of what was first assumed. The willows and the hazel copses green will in fact be seen, but they will not be seen by Lycidas. It is he who will be no more, while they go on as before, fanning their joyous leaves to someone else's soft lays . Nature is not sympathetic, but indifferent, and the notion of her sympathy is one of those "false surmises" that the poem is continually encouraging and then disallowing. Stanley E. Fish, professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of John Skelton's Poetry, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, and Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature. His other contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Facts and Fictions: A Reply to Ralph Rader" , "Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases" , "A Reply to John Reichert; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Interpretation" , and "One More Time" . See also: "Professor Fish on the Milton Variorum" by Douglas Bush in Vol. 3, No. 1; "Stanley Fish's 'Interpreting the Variorum': Advance or Retreat?" by Steven Mailloux in Vol. 3, No. 1; "Interpreting 'Interpreting the Variorum'" by Stanley E. Fish in Vol. 3, No. 1. (shrink)
In the summer of 1977, as I was preparing to teach Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology to a class at the School of Criticism and Theory in Irvine, a card floated out of the text and presented itself for interpretation. It read:WITH THE COMPLIMENTS OF THE AUTHORImmediately I was faced with an interpretive problem not only in the ordinary and everyday sense of having to determine the meaning and the intention of the utterance but in the special sense occasioned by the (...) fact that I didn’t know who the author named or, rather, not named by the card was. It might have been Derrida himself whom I had met, but only in passing. Or it might have been Derrida’s translator, Gayatri Spivak whom I had known for some time and who might well have put me on the publisher’s list. Or it might have been the publisher, in this case the Johns Hopkins University Press of whose editorial board I was then a member. In the absence of any explicit identification, I found myself a very emblem of the difficulties or infelicities that attend distanced or etiolated communication: unable to proceed because the words were cut off from their anchoring source in a unique and clearly present intention. That is to say, I seemed, in the very moment of my perplexity, to be proving on my pulse the superiority of face-to-face communication, where one can know intentions directly, to communication mediated by the marks of writing and in this case by a writing that materialized without any clues as to its context of origin. It may not have been a message found in a bottle, but it certainly was a message found in a book. (shrink)
Nothing I wrote in Is There a Text in This Class? has provoked more opposition or consternation than my claim that the argument of the book has no consequences for the practice of literary criticism.1 To many it seemed counterintuitive to maintain that an argument in theory could leave untouched the practice it considers: After all, isn’t the very point of theory to throw light on or reform or guide practice? In answer to this question, I want to say, first, (...) that this claim is unsupportable. Here, I am in agreement with Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, who are almost alone in agreeing with me and who fault me not for making the “no consequences” argument but for occasionally falling away from it. Those dislike Is There a Text in This Class? tend to dislike “Against Theory” even more, and it is part of my purpose here to account for the hostility to both pieces. But since the issues at stake are fundamental, it is incumbent to begin at the beginning with a discussion of what theory is and is not. 1. See my Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities , p. 370. For a response to the “no consequences” claim, see Mary Louise Pratt, “Interpretive Strategies/Strategic Interpretations: on Anglo-American Reader Response Criticism,” Boundary 2 11 : 222. Stanley Fish is the William Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. His most recent contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Self-Loathing in Literary Studies” and “Fear of Fish:”A Reply to Walter Davis” . The present essay is the concluding chapter of Change. (shrink)
A sentence is never not in a context. We are never not in a situation. A statute is never not read in the light on some purpose. A set of interpretative assumptions is always in force. A sentence that seems to need no interpretation is already the product of one...No sentence is ever apprehended independently of some or other illocutionary force. Illocutionary force is the key term in speech-act theory. It refers to the way an utterance is taken—as an order, (...) a warning, a promise, a proposal, a request, etc.—and the theory's strongest assertion is that no utterance is ever taken purely, that is, without already having been understood as the performance of some illocutionary act. Consider, as an example, the sentence "I will go." Depending on the context in which it is uttered, "I will go" can be understood as a promise, a threat, a warning, a report, a prediction, etc., but it will always be understood as one of these, and it will never be an unsituated kernel of pure semantic value. In other words, "I will go" does not have a basic or primary meaning which is then put to various illocutionary uses; rather, "I will go" is known only in its illocutionary lives, and in each of them its meaning will be different. Moreover, if the meaning of a sentence is a function of its illocutionary force , and if illocutionary force varies with the circumstances, then illocutionary force is not a property of sentences, but of situations. That is, while a sentence will always have an illocutionary force , the illocutionary force it has will not always be the same. Stanley E. Fish is the author of, among many other works, Is There a Text in This Class? Interpretative Authority in the Classroom and in Literary Criticism, and The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Facts and Fictions: A Reply to Ralph Rader" , "Interpreting the Variorum" , "Interpreting 'Interpreting the Variorum'" , "A Reply to John Reichert; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Interpretation" , and "One More Time". (shrink)
From 1995 to 2013, Stanley Fish's provocative New York Times columns consistently generated passionate discussion and debate. In Think Again, he has assembled almost one hundred of his best columns into a thematically arranged collection with a substantial new introduction that explains his intention in writing these pieces and offers an analysis of why they provoked so much reaction. Some readers reported being frustrated when they couldn’t figure out where Fish, one of America’s most influential thinkers, stood on the controversies (...) he addressed in the essays—from atheism and affirmative action to plagiarism and postmodernism. But, as Fish says, that is the point. Opinions are cheap; you can get them anywhere. Instead of offering just another set of them, Fish analyzes and dissects the arguments put forth by different sides—in debates over free speech, identity politics, the gun lobby, and other hot-button topics—in order to explain how their arguments work or don’t work. In short, these are essays that teach you not what to think but how to think more clearly. Brief and accessible yet challenging, these essays provide all the hard-edged intellectual, cultural, and political analysis one expects from Fish. At the same time, the collection includes a number of revealing and even poignant autobiographical essays in which, as Fish says, "readers will learn about my anxieties, my aspirations, my eccentricities, my foibles, my father, and my obsessions—Frank Sinatra, Ted Williams, basketball, and Jews." Reflecting the wide-ranging interests of one of today's leading critics, this is Fish’s broadest and most engaging book to date. (shrink)
In this presentation, Dr. Stanley Fish provides a lively and insightful critique of the digital humanities and its methods, goals, and claims. He does this using the framework of approaches to interpretation, i.e., how we decide what a given text means. Looking to constitutional law, Dr. Fish outlines three approaches to interpretation and discusses how digital technologies relate to them.
I could go on in this way, replying to Reichert's reply, point by point, but the pattern of my replies is already set: he charges that my position entails certain undesirable consequences and flies in the face of some of our most basic intuitions; I labor to show that none of those consequences follow and that our basic intuitions are confirmed rather than denied by what I have to say. This of course is exactly what I was doing in the (...) article to which he takes exception and will soon do at length in a book to be published within the year. I am not, however, optimistic that a reading of that book will make Reichert a convert because the fears that impel his argument are so basic to his beliefs. I take the key sentence in his article to be this one: "Since I would like to think that I read the same King Lear that Dr. Johnson read, and am therefore free to disagree with his interpretation of it, I would like to find a way out of Fish's formulation of the reader's situation" . Reichert's commitment to what he would like to be able to do and his conviction that if what I say is true he will be unable to do it make it impossible for him to regard my position as anything but perverse and dangerous. Even if I could demonstrate in his own terms that his fears are unfounded—that he is still free to disagree with Dr. Johnson or anyone else—any argument I might make would be received within the belief that it had to be wrong, and within that belief he could only hear it as wrong. To this Reichert would probably reply that arguments are either good or bad, irrespective of beliefs, and that mine are bad; but it is my contention that arguments are forceful only within a set of beliefs and that unless someone is willing to entertain the possibility that his beliefs are wrong he will be unable even to hear an argument that constitutes a challenge to them. That is why the fact that Reichert is likely to remain unconvinced by my argument is its strongest confirmation. Stanley Fish is the author of, among other works, Is There a Text in This Class? Interpretative Authority in the Classroom and in Literary Criticism. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Facts and Fictions: A Reply to Ralph Rader" , "Interpreting the Variorum" , "Interpreting 'Interpreting the Variorum'" , "Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases" , and "One More Time". (shrink)
Ralph Rader's model of literary activity is built up from a theory of intention. A literary work, he believes, embodies a "cognitive act,"1 an act variously characterized as a "positive constructive intention" , "an overall creative intention" . To read a literary work is to perform an answering "act of cognition" , which is in effect the comprehension of this comprehensive intention, the assigning to the work of a "single coherent meaning" . Both acts—the embodying and the assigning —are one-time, (...) single-shot performances. They are "ends" in two senses; the overall intention is the end to which everything in the work must be contributory, and its comprehension is something the reader does at the end . Rader offers this model as if it were descriptive, as if it made explicit rules of behavior we unerringly follow, rules which underlie our "tacit or intuitive capacity" of intention producing and intention retrieving; but the model is, in fact, prescriptive since it quite arbitrarily limits this same capacity: authors are limited to no more than one positive constructive intention per unit, while readers or interpreters are limited to its discovery; whatever cannot be related to that discovery or interferes with it will either be declared not to exist or, if its existence cannot be denied, it will be labeled a defect, an "unintended and unavoidable negative consequence of the artist's positive constructive intention" . · 1. My argument will engage two of Rader's articles. They are "Fact, Theory, and Literary Explanation," Critical Inquiry 1, no.2 : 245-72, and "The Concept of Genre and Eighteenth-Century Studies," in New Approaches to Eighteenth-Century Literature: Selected Papers from the English Institute , pp. 79-115. In what follows they will be referred to as Fact and Concept along with the appropriate page number. Stanley E. Fish, professor of English at John Hopkins University, responds in this essay to Ralph W. Rader's "Fact, Theory, and Literary Explanation" . Professor Fish is the author of John Skelton's Poetry, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, and Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature. His other contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Interpreting the Variorum" , "CRITICAL RESPONSE: Interpreting 'Interpreting the Variorum'" , "Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases" , "CRITICAL RESPONSE: A Reply to John Reichert; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Interpretation" , and "One More Time". (shrink)
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”. (shrink)
When the chorus at the end of Samson Agonistes declares that “all is best,” what it means is that the best of all possible things, the thing everyone in the play most desires, has finally happened: Samson is dead. This is, of course, not quite fair. What the chorus most wants is that things once more be as they were, and its moment of highest joy in the play involves the speculation that a revived Hebrew hero may “now be dealing (...) dole among his foes / And over heaps of slaughtered walk his way” .1 “That were a joy presumptuous to be through” , responds Manoa, indicating that he too wishes for nothing more than the return of the days when his son “walked about … / On hostile ground” “like a petty god” . This is also what Harapha wants for different reasons when he says of Samson’s change of fortune, I “wish it had not been, / Though for no friendly intent” ; and it is what Dalila wants for more reasons than Samson can shake a stick at when she laments an event more “perverse … than I foresaw” and attempts to mitigate if she cannot cancel the effects of her “rash but more unfortunate misdeed” . Everyone, in short, wants to turn back the clock, and this, of course, includes Samson, who is obsessed with the disparity between his present and his past states: “Why was my breeding ordered and prescribed / … / … if I must die / Betrayed, captive[?]” ; “Promise was that I / Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver; / Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him / Eyeless in Gaza” ; “The base degree to which I now am fall’n” ; “I was his nursling once and choice delight” . 1. John Milton, Samson Agonistes, The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler ; hereafter cited by line number. Stanley Fish is Arts and Sciences Professor of English and Professor of Law and chairman of the English department at Duke University. His most recent book is Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Legal and Literary Studies. (shrink)
Together Professor Bush and Mr. Mailloux present a problem in interpretation not unlike those that were the occasion of the paper they criticize: Professor Bush takes the first section of the paper more seriously than I do, and Mr. Mailloux complains that I do not take it seriously enough. In their different ways they seem to miss or slight the playfulness of my performance, the degree to which it is an attempt to be faithful to my admitted unwillingness to come (...) to, or rest on, a point. Professor Bush seems to think that I am mounting an attack on the Variorum. Let me say at the outset that I intended no such attack, that I am sorry if anything I wrote gave that impression, and that I regret any offense that may have been taken. Professor Bush and I view the Variorum from different perspectives, both of which seem to me to be perfectly legitimate. He views it as a document, while I view it as a text. As a document, as a record and history of research and interpretation, it is a model of its kind, full, judicious, and above all, honest. The editors pay us the compliment of not pretending to an impossible objectivity. They leave us the valuable record of their own occasional disagreements, and thus suggest that they know very well that theirs is an interim report. My inquiry is into the significance of that report; it is not a brief against the compiling of its materials but an attempt to put to them a question the editors quite properly do not ask: what does the history of the effort to determine the meaning of Milton's poems mean? In short, I am extending the scope of interpretation to include the interpreters themselves and, rather than attacking the Variorum, taking one step further the task it has so well begun. Stanley E. Fish's "How to Do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism" was published in the Special Centennial Issue of Modern Language Notes, Summer 1976. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Facts and Fictions: A Reply to Ralph Rader" , "Interpreting the Variorum" , "Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases" , "A Reply to John Reichert; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Interpretation" , and "One More Time". (shrink)
What I would add, and what Reichert seems unable to see, is that the facts of the text do not identify themselves. He faults Roskill for failing to see that coherence is not a function of the text but of "principles we bring to the text"; yet he himself does not see that the text, insofar as one can point to it, is produced by those same principles. Indeed, Reichert is continually doing the very thing for which he criticizes Roskill, (...) attributing to the text qualities and features that are the product of interpretive strategies. Thus, for example, he cites the instance of "the interpreter . . . noticing something in the text that makes his former reading seem implausible" as evidence that the text is at some level independent of interpretation; but noticeability is a function of what it is possible to notice given a particular set of assumptions: a reader innocent of the principles of typology would be incapable of "noticing" a typological pattern, whereas for a reader like Madsen, the pattern will seem to announce itself; and a reader who "notices" something he didn't "notice" before is a reader who is proceeding within a different set of interpretive assumptions. That which is noticeable, in short, can never be the means of confirming or constraining interpretations because it is always a product of one. The same argument dissolves the distinction, invoked by Reichert, between extratextual and textual evidence; it is not that such a distinction is never in force but that what counts as internal and external evidence will vary according to the interpretive principles one espouses. Just what is and what is not extratextual is a matter of continual debate, and when the debate has been concluded, it is not because the matter has been settled by the facts but because one set of interpretive principles has won the right to say what the facts are. Stanley E. Fish is the author of, among other works, Is There a Text in This Class: The Sources of Interpretative Authority. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Facts and Fictions: A Reply to Ralph Rader" , "Interpreting the Variorum" , "Interpreting 'Interpreting the Variorum'" , "Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases" , and "A Reply to John Reichert; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Interpretation". (shrink)
It may seem that I am simply confirming Davis’ assertion that in my view of the critical process “different interpretive strategies create completely different texts with no point of comparison” ; but the differences are not all that complete. While many readers now see a God who is more dramatically effective than Pope’s “school divine,” they still see a God who exists in a defining relationship with the figure of Satan, a Satan who is himself significantly changed from the energy-bearing (...) Byronic antihero who was for so long a “given” in the interpretive landscape. The point is, again, that changes do not occur in isolation, because the facts that have undergone change did not exist in isolation either. In the history of Milton criticism, any judgment against God is always and simultaneously a judgment for Satan ; and it follows that a reversal in one pole of the judgment cannot occur without a corresponding—that is, related—reversal in the other. Any increase in the literary “cash value” of Milton’s God will be registered at the expense of his Satan.In short, since literary judgments or observations are not made piecemeal, the process of challenging and changing them is not piecemeal either. That is why it is not “contradictory,” as Davis asserts, “to talk about recalcitrant features of a text” in the context of a thesis that makes the text’s features a function of interpretation . The source of recalcitrance or resistance is not the text as it exists independently of interpretation, but the text as an authoritative and elaborated interpretation has given it to us. I stress “elaborated” because the interpretation is not a single assertion but a complex of assertions; and when a challenge is made to the interpreted text at one point, its other points constitute a reservoir from which objections and “counterchallenges” can emerge. Thus, when someone offers a revisionist account of Milton’s God, a skeptical or unpersuaded reader will respond by observing that this account is incompatible with what we know to be true about other parts of the poem: the characterization of Satan, or of the War in Heaven, or of books 11 and 12. It is then the obligation of the revisionist critic either to demonstrate there is no incompatibility or to extend his new reading in such a way as to recharacterize those parts of the poem that seem to stand as refutations of the revisionist’s reading. He will then be working against resistance, but it will not be the resistance of something that stands outside interpretation; rather it will be the resistance offered by one interpretively produced shape to the production of another. Stanley Fish is the William Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include “Working on the Chain Gang: Interpretation in the Law and in Literary Criticism” and “Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Self-Loathing in Literary Studies”. (shrink)