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Stanley Fish Turned Careerism Into a Philosophy

Flickr/Fishbowl Collective

The advanced fragmentation of intellectual life in America means that personalities and issues that loom large in one field are often invisible in another. For the sociologist or the economist, the name Stanley Fish probably means little or nothing. For those in more literary domains, however, this scholar, university administrator, and critic has for decades been a familiar figure. To be sure, he has gained wider acclaim inasmuch as David Lodge apparently drew upon Fish for the character of Morris Zapp in his novels satirizing academic life. He also shows up regularly as an opinion writer for The New York Times. Fish’s importance resides mainly in that he is an exemplar of recent academic trends. He chiefly represents himself—he does that quite well—but he may also represent something of the postmodern academic life: its self-satisfaction, its self-promotion, its glibness. If the humanities are in trouble today, humanists like Fish are one of the reasons.

Unlike the jargon-filled writings of his colleagues, Fish’s work has a utilitarian and readable style. Many of his books are collected essays and reflect a relaxed public self. They are larded with “I think this,” “I hasten to add,” and “I am aware.” He does not shy away from distilling his arguments, and even presenting them in bullet points. He writes short declarative sentences. “By ‘there’s no such thing as free speech,’ I mean three things.” Compare the prose of Fish with that of a high priest of academic gibberish: the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language and the director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University. Homi K. Bhabha writes, in a typical passage, “The politics of difference lives on to rethink the minority not as an identity but as a process of affiliation ... that eschews sovereignty and sees its own selfhood and interests as partial and incipient in relation to the other’s presence.” This is not Fish.

Fish claims that his basic positions over forty years have not changed. He may be right. In the early 1990s, he wrote a widely circulated essay called “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos.” He pondered why academics prefer ugly cars such as Volvos to handsome cars. The choice of Volvos, he explained, reflects the general orientation of academics, which is self-abasement. The coin of the academic realm is suffering and oppression—the more the better. Academics revel in unlovely cars, uncomfortable conferences, and crummy offices. Fish reduced his observations to an aphorism, which he formulated back in 1964: “Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch, they don’t care whose shit they eat.”

Lily Padula

The piece is Fish at his best: punchy and subversive, or so he thinks. In fact the subversion smacks of nose-thumbing, perhaps cheerleading, and certainly not of revolution. Fish may have a point—or, more accurately, he once did. In newly fattened post–World War II universities, both the ideal and the reality of the impoverished professor were fading fast. In fact the new academic prosperity undergirds Fish’s argument. What bothers him is the split between the new wealth and professorial self-image. The “new dilemma facing many academics” is “how to enjoy the benefits of increasing affluence” while maintaining an attitude of disdain toward luxury goods. His complaint about substandard conference accommodations rests on the same footing. On one hand, the domain of travel and cavorting has opened up for the professorial class. On the other, this class opts for depressing hotels and cheap meals. “When I was a graduate student in the late fifties and early sixties,” Fish writes, conferencing did not exist. But now the “flourishing” conference circuit provides “new sources of extra income,” international travel, publicity, and “the commodities for which academics yearn: attention, applause, fame.” Fish wants the professors to embrace this world, not to denigrate it.

We have come a long way from Seneca and Cicero. Nothing here about wisdom, duty, or solitude. Fish swims at the surface. To the benighted shoppers of the corner store, Fish announces the coming of the galleria mall with two hundred boutiques and valet parking. Undoubtedly some of the old profs were confused; they continued to wear fraying sports coats and to drive ratty VW bugs. But undoubtedly Fish spoke for the future. The downtowns shriveled—or were reborn as cobblestoned quartiers lined with upscale restaurants. The professoriate got the message. They now sport tailored shirts, carry supple leather purses, and drive BMWs and Lexuses. The average salary for a professor at a leading research university is about $150,000—and more than $200,000 at the top ones like Columbia and Harvard. And that is an average. Do you think the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language dresses down or drives an old Volvo?

The point is this. Fish spoke boldly in favor of privilege, consumption, and connections. To ye olde Puritan professoriate, this was eye-opening and heretical. The realities of affluence and power obviously existed, but they were not celebrated among the humanist professoriate. Fish’s heresy was that of the market blasting open paper-thin doors. As a scholar, Fish has written what is considered one of the most influential studies of Paradise LostSurprised by Sin, published in 1967—which helped to resolve the old controversy as to why Satan appeared more sympathetic than God, by focusing on how the reader responds to the poem. But putting this aside, Fish has largely stayed on message. Consider another of his well-known pieces: an essay that challenged “blind submissions,” the practice in which an article submitted to an academic journal is stripped of its author’s name and is presented as anonymous. Presumably this allows those who are evaluating the pieces to do so without bias: they do not know if the author is a widely cited chaired professor at Yale or an unpublished adjunct at Saddle Rock Community College. But for the supremely practical Fish—he attributes his personal utilitarianism to American pragmatism—reputations and connections are everything, not nothing. No one can judge the “intrinsic” merits of an article, he argued, separate from “considerations of rank, professional status, previous achievement, ideology, and so on” of the author. Why pretend otherwise? The unpublished adjunct at Nowheresville Community College is a loser—and those reviewing the adjunct’s piece for publication should at least know his or her track record. Fish is not shy. “I am against blind submission because the fact that my name is attached to an article greatly increases its chances of getting accepted.” The Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of the Humanities at Florida International University and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote that.

The larger argument reappears in all of Fish’s writings. “There is no such thing as blind submission,” writes Fish in his piece against blind submission. There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech is the title of a collection of his pieces. The basic outline of Fish’s standpoint dovetails with his ideas on blind submission, scholarly debate, and the liberal arts. “There is no such thing as free speech,” because everything is contextual, pragmatic, and political. There are no abstract principles outside of society and history. Should universities pass speech codes? Fish gives a ringing answer: it depends. Depends on what? Local situations. “The question of whether or not to regulate will always be a local one.... We cannot rely on abstractions.... Instead we must consider in every case what is at stake.” Free speech is defined by local people, local interests, local politics.

Fish’s original claim to fame was his idea of “interpretive communities,” which was presented in 1980 in his book Is There a Text in This Class? The answer to the title’s question is no. For the early as well as the late Fish, disciplinary or historical realities overwhelm old-fashioned principles. (Another one of his collections is called The Trouble with Principle.) The notion of the scholar eliciting textual truth is as quaint as the general store. For Fish, the reader—or the consumer—is king. It is we scholars who decide what a text means. The text itself disappears. “Meanings are not extracted but made.” How do we decide on meanings or their validity? It depends. On what? It depends on what you bring to a text: what your training is; what issues bother you; what “interpretive strategies” you use; and—in general—what “interpretive communities” you belong to.

This is a version of “different folks, different strokes,” which Fish basically admits. One group of scholars uses this approach; another uses that approach. “Those outside that community will be deploying a different set of interpretive strategies.” The question of which is true does not interest Fish. Disputes about what a text means devolve into group membership. How do you settle disputes? You don’t. You check the membership card. You make certain you are talking to an ally. “The only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me ... only if you already agree with me.” Group thought and solidarity trump everything.

Of course, Fish throws in important caveats. The communities are unstable and shifting; one person can belong to many communities, and membership can get confusing. Hence a scholar frequently argues across communities, as Fish himself does. But the basic point remains. Interpretation becomes the province of like-minded professionals who constitute a community with its own preconceptions, conceptions, and rules. Little or nothing exists outside these communities. They constitute texts, interpretations, and even facts.

It is hardly surprising that Fish passionately defends professionalization. Everything in his method celebrates the professional scholar-critic and his or her happy world. The anti-professionals trade in “essences—a commitment to the centrality ... of transcendent truths and values.” Fish is past all of that. His view is the standard denunciation that the profession has succumbed to careerism, mindless specialization, and trivial research—and that, worse, the profession foolishly supposes “a truth that exists independently of any temporal or local concern.” On one side, the disinterested critic apparently taps into a shining truth. “On the other side,” this truth is “continually threatened by the contingent, the accidental, the merely fashionable, the narrowly political, the superficial, the blindly interested, the inessential, the merely historical, the rhetorical, by everything that seems to so many to be the content of professionalism once it has been divorced from or has forgotten the higher purposes and values.” For Fish, the “higher purposes and values” are bunk—or, at least, they can only be approached through the profession and its realities.

Fish proudly defends “the merely fashionable, the narrowly political, the superficial, the blindly interested.” Whatever objections arise against the ills of professionalism take place within it. “In short, the alternative to anti-professionalist behavior ... is behavior of the kind we are already engaged in. One could call it business as usual.” For Fish “business as usual” does not necessarily mean complete acquiescence. "'Business as usual’ is understood to include looking around ... to see conditions ... that are unjust or merely inefficient.” It means also to understand that, whatever disputes emerge, all the parties are “agents embedded in different organizational settings with different priorities and interests” and that none “will be acting purely, that is, with no ax to grind.”

More than fifteen years ago, Alan Sokal, a professor at NYU, pilloried the literary theorists in what became a famous put-down. He submitted to a leading journal of literary theory an article of high academic balderdash that heavily cited French pooh-bahs. After it was accepted and published, he revealed the prank. Of course Fish came to the defense of his hoodwinked confrères. He lectured Sokal, who is a professor of physics, about how science, like baseball, was “socially constructed.” Balls and strikes are “socially constructed” inasmuch as the rules can change. They are the product of history and choice. And the physics of baseball are also socially constructed. How so? Here Fish gets uncharacteristically vague. After making these acerbic points, Fish appealed to his version of his interpretive communities. Sokal was not part of the literary-theory community; he was a presumptuous outsider. He does not understand that “the criteria of an enterprise will be internal to its own history,” which depends on colleagues, traditions, and issues. We have our “own goals and protocols.” In other words, if we English professors trade in advanced nonsense, this is our own business. Or to update Fish’s aphorism, academics don’t eat shit anymore; now they serve it, and in a pinch they don’t care whose shit they serve.

It would take a scholar of prodigious energy and inexhaustible masochism to document the extent to which the professoriate, decade after decade, remains thunderstruck by the most basic insight into the historical reality of life and thought, which Fish regularly rehearses. Thus the jaws of academics collectively drop when someone declares for the zillionth time that everything is historical, contextual, or situated. With the added imprimatur of Foucault or Althusser, this banal idea turns academic dross into academic gold. Althusser had the habit of dating exactly when he completed an essay, which he considered “important” to do. Without a date indicating when it was written, we would presumably imagine that his essay was a missive from the beyond. The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders missed this obsessive-compulsive disorder of literary professors: repeating sans cesse the pedestrian observation that everything is contextual and contingent. Fish has taken this historicist principle and run with it forever. He is still agog over it.

It is not an evil principle, and sometimes it can be salutary. It is also profoundly conservative and—despite Fish’s good cheer—deeply cynical. To be sure, Fish positions himself as a critic of both left and right. On most things, however, he is a solid academic liberal warmly defending new academic fields such as women’s studies and African American studies. He eschews “the neo-conservative assault on the humanities.” (In fact some neoconservatives have been the most ferocious defenders of the humanities.) On certain issues, however, Fish has roundly attacked the pretensions of academic leftists. He is not wrong to do so. We have all experienced the deluded Che Guevara–citing professors who cannot teach or write. Save the World on Your Own Time runs the title of one of Fish’s books. Yet it must be said that, for every leftist professor who makes waves by berating his students with Chairman Mao, there are a thousand—no, ten thousand—who bore their students with professional platitudes. A problem of the contemporary professoriate is not vociferous leftism but blatant quiescence, not political posturing but relentless careerism.

The issue is not that Fish challenges political bombast, but the way he does it, by defending professionalization. He cites Samuel Goldwyn, the movie mogul, who responded to criticism that his movies lacked social significance with the comment, “If I wanted to send a message, I’d use Western Union.” Fish reformulates the idea: “If you want to send a message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it. Or, if I may adapt a patriotic slogan, ‘the academy—love it or leave it.'" Fish loves it. Fine, but his love always devolves into celebrating the woof and warp of the discipline. The rank solipsism of his position inevitably surfaces. What do English professors do? We do literary criticism. What’s that? “It’s what I do.” And “I do it because I like the way I feel when I’m doing it.” Fish does it in journals, jargon, and junkets. “The structure of a fully articulated profession is such that those who enter its precincts will find that the basic decisions, about where to look, what to do, and how to do it, have already been made.” Join in or leave us alone.

The empirical truth that Fish proffers can hardly be challenged—intellectual life in this country has been highly professionalized—but its banality is hard to beat. In response to criticisms of an argument or questions about a particular interpretation, Fish merely outlines how the profession functions, as if this were an answer. The cult of theory ends in the cult of facts. Fish’s default position describes the activities of professionals. He seems convinced that this is a powerful sally—and advances it in perhaps his most consequential discussion, when he weighs in on the role of liberal education.

Here Fish is at his best and worst. He is at his best because he punctures some “grandiose claims” for liberal education—for instance, that it fosters moral uprightness, community involvement, or global justice. “What is really at stake” in the controversy over liberal education, Fish writes, are not large philosophical principles but “administrative judgment with respect to professional behavior and job performance.” What happened to the idea that liberal education is more than just skills and job performance? That it entails, as John Henry Newman put it in The Idea of a University, overcoming “narrowness of mind”? That it leads to comprehension, even enlightenment? Newman described the narrow mind this way: “Nothing has a drift or relation; nothing has a history or a promise. Everything stands by itself, and comes and goes in its turn.” Newman could be describing Fish’s educational ideal.

Fish wants academics to respond with aggression, even arrogance, to the perpetual calls to slash the funding of humanities departments and programs. He wants the professors to stop rolling over and playing dead. He is right. But when Fish comes out shooting, he turns out to be packing a water pistol. His aggressive rejoinder has nothing to do with first principles or with philosophical fundamentals. He offers conformity in the name of iconoclasm. His take-no-prisoners comeback retreats to the facts of academic life—with the kicker “take it or leave it.” What is liberal education to Fish? It’s what we do, that’s all. It is “entirely self-referential.” “We are responsible for the selection of texts, the preparation of a syllabus, the sequence of assignments and exams, the framing and grading of a term paper, and so on.” If you are busy with this, then the bigger questions, like “what is this good for,” are irrelevant. “You have already answered that question by sticking with the job: it’s good because it’s what you like to do.”

Thus Fish gives these instructions for those who resist the calls to gut the university: “Instead of saying, ‘Let me tell you what we do so that you’ll love us,’ or ‘Let me explain how your values are really our values too,’ say, ‘We do what we do, we’ve been doing it for a long time, it has its own history, and until you learn it or join it, your opinions are not worth listening to.'" So much for a ringing defense of liberal education! Fish merely puffs himself, his colleagues, and his allies. From his criticism of “blind submissions” to his recent defense in the Times of favoritism and nepotism, Fish elevates those close to him—because they are close to him. “What counts is who your friends and allies are.... Your loyalty is to particular people and not to an abstraction.” You cannot fault him for gilding his credo.

What is one to make of all of this? The crisis of the humanities—at the very least, the declining interest in the humanities—cannot obviously be attributed to Fish and his like-minded colleagues, but they have certainly abetted the decline. The lax concept of “socially constructed” flattens out cultural distinctions, so that baseball, physics, serious novels, and sitcoms all appear as kindred inventions, all worthy of full-time study. Not only students, but also interested outsiders and literate citizens, might wonder what is the point of going into the humanities to study comic books. Fish has been unable to uphold the liberal arts as anything more than a vehicle to provide jobs for liberal-arts professors, who do what they do. After all, the liberal tradition has served him and his friends quite nicely. “I believe fully in the core curriculum,” he wrote in one of his Times columns on the crisis of the humanities, “as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.” Bully for him. But if this is the best defense of the liberal arts by one of its most celebrated practitioners, who needs it?

Fish has raised careerism to a worldview. In this way, he is a man for our time. His writings incarnate the cheerful, expedient self-involvement that is part and parcel of contemporary life: everyone is out for himself. Fish has burnished this credo for the professoriate (who already knew it). He seems to believe that frank self-promotion is somehow subversive in this society. Fish also likes to see himself as the perpetual bad boy of literary criticism, provoking left and right. Fish is anything but. He is much too practical to be dangerous. He closes one of his defenses of the humanities with a little vignette of an encounter with a university lobbyist. He offers to accompany the fellow to the next legislative committee investigating the university. But the lobbyist has doubts about Fish’s conduct and asks, “Will you behave?” Fish concludes his chapter, “Some people never learn.” The self-satisfaction is palpable—as is the self-mystification. The unexciting truth is that Stanley Fish has always behaved. He has always bravely defended self-interest. With friends like him, the humanities needs no enemies.

Russell Jacoby is the author, most recently, of Bloodlust: On the Origins of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present (Free Press). He is a professor of history at UCLA.