Stanley Fish and the Place of Criticism

Stanley Fish and the Place of Criticism

Christopher Knight
Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change
Stanley Fish
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Christopher Knight on Stanley Fish’s Professional Correctness.

In Representations of the Intellectual (New York, 1994), Edward Said writes,

The particular threat to the intellectual today, whether in the West or the non-Western world, is not the academy, nor the suburbs, nor the appalling commercialism of journalism and publishing houses, but rather an attitude that I will call professionalism. By professional I mean thinking of your own work as an intellectual as something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five with one ear cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behavior - not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable, hence uncontroversial and unpolitical and “objective.” (74)

In favorable opposition to professionalism, Said offers “amateurism, the desire to be moved not by profit or reward but by love for and unquenchable interest in the larger picture, in making connections across lines and barriers, in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a profession” (76). An interesting and somewhat iconoclastic book, Representations of the Intellectual is, in fact, the published version of Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures, offered first, on BBC radio, to the British public, which must have especially welcomed the lecture entitled “Professionals and Amateurs” (from which the two quotations above appear), for it articulates a view, political sore points aside, shared by both the British academy and larger public: the suspicion of professionalism. Here, the late Donald Davie might be thought something of a representative spokesperson when, placing himself in opposition to “Americanists” and other field-identified academicians, he wrote:

For those critics who aim above all at “professionalism” are only reflecting, in their own chosen sphere, the assumption that underlies Schools of Business Management, and the big corporations that recruit from them: the assumption that many minds systematically trained and collaborating will always outstrip one mind, self-trained, proceeding on its own with dedication and flair. (How much Dryden could have achieved in criticism if he had been enlisted in an organization that would have required him to collaborate with John Dennis and Nauham Tate!)

(“Criticism and the Academy,” in Criticism in the University, ed. Gerald Graff and Reginald Gibbons [Chicago, 1985],175)

Given the British suspicions, it must, then, have required a certain amount of chutzpa for Stanley Fish to cross the ocean to deliver, in the form of the 1993 Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, what has now been published as Professional Correctness. I say this for the reason that the lectures, with their extolling of academic professionalization, go so much against the grain of British notions of dondom. Maybe some in the audience found themselves agreeing with Fish’s definition and embrace of “professionalization” as “a form of organization in which membership is acquired by a course of special training whose end is the production of persons who recognize one another not because they regularly meet at the same ceremonial occasions (unless one equates an MLA meeting with the Elizabethan court), but because they perform the same ‘moves’ in the same ‘game’ ” (32). But probably not many, and while Fish says that one of the pleasures of the Clarendon Lectures was the “number of chance meetings with members of the audience who pause on the street or in a café or in a bookshop to say hello and ask a question,” he also notes that the latter most often came “in the form of a mild (at least in tone) objection” (93). As well it might, for Professional Correctness is a decidedly American book, not only in its stance toward literary studies but also in terms of its anecdotes and evidence, almost all of which are drawn from the sphere of the American literary academy. It is an especially cloistral book that argues the need for even greater cloistering.

This does not necessarily mean that Professional Correctness is a bad book. In fact, it is often, as one has grown to expect from Fish, quite brilliant. He is especially acute in what he has to say with regard to the utopian ambitions of both cultural studies and interdisciplinarity. Patrick Brantlinger may, on behalf of cultural studies, argue the need for “a unified map of knowledge” (78), and Robert Scholes, on behalf of interdisciplinarity, the need to “make the object of study the whole intertextual system of relations that connects one text to others…the matrix or master code that the literary text both depends upon and modifies” (77); yet if we take seriously either of these ambitions we should also admit that the focus of our interests has shifted away from the analysis of specific literary texts and toward something more on par - at least in the grandness of its aspiration - with religion. “The hope that we can put all the jobs of work - all the so-called disciplines - together and form one large and unified field of knowledge (call it cultural studies),” writes Fish, “is the hope of interdisciplinary studies when it becomes a religion when it becomes an agenda called ‘interdisciplinarity’ and it is dashed when one realizes that different forms of disciplinary work, rather than being co-partners in a single teleological and utopian task, are engaged in performing the particular tasks that would pass away from the earth were they to lose themselves in the name of some grand synthesis…” (73). Fish is not against either interdisciplinarity or notions of unity - he thinks them practically inescapable - but he is afraid that if we make these the principal objects of study, we put at risk that discipline which, for the last hundred years or more, has thrived under the rubric of literary studies. Of course, like any other discipline, literary studies is not immune to the contingencies of history and cultural transformation, and if we truly think it unworthy of our attention and affection, it too will pass away. But it is not quite clear that we do want it to pass away, and one even has the sense that the efforts of a Brantlinger and a Scholes are motivated in part by their own desire to rescue literary studies from moribundity.

Perhaps the most notable weakness of Fish’s book is that even as he argues the need to keep literary studies alive in the form that it has come down to us i.e., the scrupulous analysis of specific and quite singular (for reasons of their aesthetic value) texts he seems incapable of working up much enthusiasm for this in itself. For instance, in his first lecture, “Yet Once More,” he offers a reading, or the beginnings of a reading, of Milton’s Lycidas with the purpose of demonstrating less the rightness of this particular interpretation than the point “that Lycidas is a poem,” recognizably different from, say, “a political pamphlet or a sermon” by its quality of “linguistic and semantic density” (13). But having carried the reading forward for a few pages, he soon breaks it off, writing that “enough has been done, I trust, to support my point” (13) and later, referencing back, he writes, “After completing as much of the analysis as either you or I could bear…” (41). Clearly, the reading is meant to serve as an illustration for the argument that as a discipline literary criticism already comes equipped “by a sense of the questions appropriate to it” (41) but just as clearly, Fish’s interests seem to run much more to the argument to be made about the reading than to the reading itself.

Later, in the lecture “Why Literary Criticism is Like Virtue,” Fish, in demonstration of his belief that “literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward” (110), offers a more spirited reading, this time of a single line from Paradise Lost, yet it is easy to come away from Professional Correctness with the sense that the author’s enthusiasm for traditional literary studies is somewhat forced, and that, at least as far as he is concerned, it really is in a moribund state. Nor is it quite clear how we are to help matters, Fish finding it easier to say why the proffered solutions - e.g., new historicism, cultural studies, interdisciplinary studies, and so on - are not the answer. Here, his most forceful rebuttals are offered in lectures three, “Disciplinary Tasks and Political Intentions,” and four, “Looking Elsewhere: Cultural Studies and Interdisciplinarity.” In the first of these, Fish stresses the need to “distinguish between the general (and trivial) sense in which everything is political - the sense in which every action is ultimately rooted in a contestable point of origin - and the more usual sense of ‘political’ when the word is used to refer to actions performed with the intention of winning elections or influencing legislators” (50). His sense is that literary academics are prone to imagine that when they engage in “subversive readings” they are truly helping to move society in a more progressive direction, that their politics are real rather than superficial. Yet Fish makes the worthwhile point that if you wish to effect real political change, you need to speak in a public language that the larger community understands. Subversive readings of Spenser and Shakespeare, couched in the privacies of disciplinary discourse, are not going to result in that change, except as politics is understood as the most attenuated of affairs: “An interpretation of Othello that marks out the dynamics of race-consciousness in a manner that might gain it publication in Representations is not in itself going to constitute an effective intervention in our anguished national conversation about race; and an analysis of gender reversals in Macbeth or Coriolanus will not move members of the public, wherever they might be situated, to rethink the case against abortion” (51). Literary scholars have no clear access to the halls of political power, and, Fish believes, they best acknowledge this rather than go on thinking that they are changing the world rather than one of its smallest postal districts. [ Link to essays and ripostes on “the politics of selling out” for further discussion on academics, publishers, and the public sphere, Eds. ]

Meanwhile, in “Looking Elsewhere” Fish argues that cultural studies and interdisciplinarity both present themselves as projects designed to put us into a truer or more real relation to some ultimate ground: the Context of contexts. The practitioners of such projects delight in telling us that our literary understandings are historically and socially contingent, that they are transitory, that their claims of coherence and unity are bogus, and that rather than being the expression of something real, they are, in fact, the most jerrybuilt of constructions. To which Fish aptly replies:

“So what?” The fact that a self-advertised unity 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, does not make the unity disappear; it merely shows what the unity is made of, not that it isn’t one. Just because the unity is underwritten by rhetoric rather than by nature or logic in no way lessens the force of its operation in the moments of its existence. So long as it is even temporarily established, the unity of a discipline has a material existence and therefore has material effects that no analysis can dispel. (74)

As a pragmatist, Fish is clearly not too bothered by the imputation that literary studies, like other fields, is a construction. Granting this does not change the fact that literature - be it in the form of novels by Eliot, Woolf, and Gaddis; or of poems by Keats, Moore, and Ashbery - still constitutes a force in our world, one which, in the here and now, we do better for understanding. Not everyone will think this understanding essential to their intellectual makeup, but to the extent that a significant minority does, it will make more sense for its members to direct their attentions to the way in which these novels, poems, and so on acquire their value, and to what makes a novel different from a poem, and to what makes one novel different from another, including of course the differences associated with distinct authorship, culture, epoch, and so on. It will also make sense to think, says Fish, more about a literary work’s meaning, and to acknowledge that “trying to figure out what a poem means will be quite another activity from trying to figure out which interpretation of a poem will contribute to the war effort or to the toppling of the patriarchy” (75). Here, Fish’s larger point is that if too many members of this minority start to shift their attention away from the more local sorts of knowledge entailed in the study of literature, the eventual consequence will be that they will not be studying literature but something else. Or as Fish writes in his critique of the cultural studies work done by Brantlinger:

Still, one might say, even if the cultural studies must fail of its aspiration to reveal the deep causal structure of things, it can do something; it can produce a new object, another text. But that text - what Brantlinger calls the cultural text - has no epistemological or ontological superiority over the texts (of literature, history, law, etc.) it displaces. That is, it is not a larger text or a more inclusive text; it is just a different text, with its own emphases, details, and meanings of other texts. The cultural text, if it comes into view, will not provide a deeper apprehension of the literary text or the legal text; rather it will erase them even in the act of referring to them, for the references will always be produced from its angle of interest, not theirs. If cultural studies tells us to look elsewhere to find the meaning of the literary text, I say that if you look elsewhere, you will see something else. (79)

Fish makes no claim that literature is indispensable or that it is a form of sacred knowledge; he only says if it continues to be recognized as a force in this world we should be in a better position to say why this is if we make literature itself, rather than something else, the object of our attention. This does not mean that literature exists in a completely separate space, or that it does not have frequent intercourse with everything that is non-literary. It is simply a pragmatic recognition that as we, unlike God (72), cannot be in all places at once, we should do well to make ourselves expert in that corner - literature - that we profess to take an interest in, or otherwise risk disciplinary and professional suicide. All this seems sensible enough, at least until the penultimate lecture, where Fish, in a gesture of unnecessary compensation, goes too far in the other direction: toward accentuating the self-delighting, self-reflexive aspect of literary study. Not only does he argue, as noted, that “literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward,” but also that “I do it because I like the way I feel I’m when doing it” (111) and that “I will take my enjoyment wherever I can find it” (111). Here, literary study is imagined as just one more “game” (Fish: “when I run out of sources and analogues, similarities and differences, I go to the history of the criticism which not only allows me to continue the game, but to secure my place in it by linking my own efforts to those of past giants” [111].), less meaningful as a way to get us through the night than as a pleasant way to pass the day. That only those who live lives of some luxury will need to find ways to pass the day may be bruited about elsewhere but not here. As a result, Fish’s pitch for literature comes off seeming too much like a bad adman’s notion that he can interest a generation grown tired with Nintendo and Myst in the truly ultimate game: literature. And while no one disputes Fish’s salesmanship, this one looks like a particularly hard sell.

One final objection I should wish to make with regard to Fish’s notion of literature and its study is that he thinks the two performances more akin than they, in fact, are. He speaks of “the relationship between writers and their readers” not as one “between agents with differing tasks and objectives but as one between agents engaged in the mutual performance of a single task” (14). The task, writes Fish, is an interpretative one, joining writer and critic in a communal enterprise that makes questions regarding individual choice seem irrelevant:

When I use words like “institution” or “community” I refer not to a collection of independent individuals who, in a moment of deliberation, choose to employ certain interpretative strategies, but rather to a set of practices that are defining of an enterprise and fill the consciousness of the enterprise’s members. Those members include the authors and speakers as well as their interpreters. (14)

There is much truth in this, but the problem is that Fish doesn’t go far enough, doesn’t take into account all the ways, or even some of the ways, that artist and critic work at cross purposes, especially the way in which criticism has traditionally played a disciplinary role vis-à-vis poetry’s more individualistic and disruptive energies. After all, as Mark Edmundson points out, “[l]iterary criticism in the West begins with the wish that literature disappear. Plato’s chief objection to Homer is that he exists” (Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defence of Poetry [Cambridge, 1995], 1). Nor have the relations between criticism and literature much improved since, as even the most casual glance at the present-day literary scene will testify. What could a contemporary author do but shudder upon hearing de Man, after deconstructing a passage in Proust, declare: “The whole of literature would respond in similar fashion…” (The Allegories of Reading [New Haven, 1979], 16). If this were the case, what should be the need for new novels, poems, and plays? Certainly, de Man’s criticism, like that of his colleagues in deconstruction, didn’t suggest the need for such. Or as Edmundson writes: “the canon of so-called literature that de Man and his disciples worked up was minuscule: one encounters respectful de Manian readings of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Rilke, Rousseau, Hölderlin, more Rousseau, more Wordsworth, and very few others” (49). Yet if it has been in the nature “of literature since Homer…to proliferate narrative, to spread before the reader a vast array of incidents that, while they may have much to teach, resist being housed under any given sign or system of signs” (Edmundson, 14), criticism should probably give more thought to the ways in which it can be responsive to this proliferation, rather than detached from, and even hostile to, it. Here, thinking of writers and critics as committed to the same “task,” and thinking of literary studies as needing – in the spirit of doctors, lawyers and other professionals - to further solidify its credentialing apparatuses, may (the logical appeal of Fish’s arguments notwithstanding) not be the best way to proceed. This sense of the matter is only strengthened by Fish’s own thinly disguised lack of interest in literature itself.

Still, while it is possible to raise serious objections to Fish’s book, Professional Correctness remains a timely and important work. In fact, only someone of Fish’s professional stature could, at the present moment, make the argument that literary studies needs to be more attentive to its own household without finding him - or herself characterized as “retrograde and reactionary” (1). Of course, some will still make the charge, and Fish knows this. It doesn’t make him happy, but he thinks the argument needs stating; and having, over the years, strengthened his skills as an upstream swimmer, he can withstand and even counteract the current’s pounding. For this, and much more, we owe him our gratitude.