Stanley Fish

I have just returned from the AALS (American Association of Law Schools) meeting in Washington, where I was a member of a panel considering the state of legal theory at the beginning of the new century. I gave my standard stump speech (called “Theory Minimalism”), which always makes the same three points: 1) if by theory you mean the attaining of a perspective unattached to any local or partisan concerns but providing a vantage point from which local and partisan concerns can be clarified and ordered, the theory quest will always fail because no such perspective is or could be available; 2) the unavailability of that supra-contextual is in no way disabling because in its absence you will not be adrift and groundless; rather you will be grounded in and by the same everyday practices–complete with authoritative exemplars, understood goals, canons of evidence, shared histories–that gave you a habitation before you began your fruitless quest for a theory; and 3) nothing follows from 1) and 2); knowing that resources of everyday life are all you have and knowing too that such resources are historical and therefore revisable will neither help you to identify them nor teach you to rely on them with a certain skeptical reserve; the lesson of 1) and 2) goes nowhere; if grand theories provide no guidance (because they are so general as to be empty), the realization that grand theories provide no guidance doesn’t provide any guidance either. End of story, end of theory as an interesting topic.

I like this argument because no one else does. Those on the right don’t like it because they have a stake in believing that without the foundations of fixed and absolute verities, the world will go to hell in a handbasket. Those on the left don’t like it because they have a stake in believing that in a world where truths are always being revised and authorities dislodged, we can sweep old structures away and begin from scratch to build the just society. This means that I am never in danger of persuading everyone or even many; and that means that I’ll never have to give up the argument because there will always be those who don’t get it and complain (as did two members of the audience) either that I have undermined certainty and stability, or that I haven’t.

I have to say, however, that the pleasures of performances like this one grow thin, in part because the act is getting tired after so many years, in part because the minimalist lesson at its center is empty (of course, that’s what it’s supposed to be) and the satisfaction of preaching it doesn’t last very long. I find this to be true of the entire conference experience. A conference is a piece of theater; you are always on display, in the hotel lobby, at the book exhibit, on the dais, in the bar. In Washington, I catch myself worrying about how long it’s been since anyone recognized me. I hang around the Harvard Press booth to see if anyone will pick up my book. I wonder if anyone will ask me to dinner. (I get very lucky when a former colleague treats me to a magnificent meal with friends.) I recall a conference a year ago in Atlanta, when after giving a paper (basically the same one), I lingered in conversation before going out to the cocktail party. No one acknowledged me or commented on my talk or broke away from a group to say hello, or even greeted me on the drink line. What is happening? Am I becoming invisible? And suddenly I realized that I was at the wrong party (there were two conventions at the hotel), and I hurried down the hall to the right one where I was immediately surrounded by familiar faces and everyone knew my name. A narrow escape, but I realized then (though I pushed the realization away) that the escape was to something artificial and ephemeral, and that what was real or at least more enduring than brief moments of academic theater (also a description of the classroom) were all those moments when you were alone and had to make do with the resources inside you, if any.

That is the reason that (after an early experience in Boston) I never stay to the end of a conference; the letdown is too great, the hollowness of the event, and perhaps of yourself, is too apparent. And so this morning I got up at 6:30 and missed the all-star (without me) panel discussing and rewriting Brown vs. Board of Education and came back to Chicago where I was met by a slightly injured dog and an empty apartment. My wife is in California visiting a seriously ill cousin, and I am in my most vulnerable position, alone. I am responding in my usual way, by cleaning up, doing errands, making phone calls, checking e-mail–by doing any number of small things that protect me from thinking about the big ones.

Sincerely yours,

Stanley Fish