The Indefensible Stanley Fish

To readers of British fiction, Stanley Fish, the new dean of arts and sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago and the second-most-famous English professor in America–after Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr.–is indistinguishable from Morris Zapp. Everyone knows that the character in David Lodge’s trilogy Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, the most popular campus novels since Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, was based on Fish, Lodge’s good friend. Zapp, a jetsetting, starfucking, and intellectually luminous American deconstructionist whose charm lies in his gleeful disregard for scholarly convention, aspires to become the highest-paid English professor in the world. What’s wrong with that? he asks.

To readers of American newspapers, however, particularly the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fish is the symbol of how the left is wrecking American universities. Fish’s sin, according to his journalistic critics, is moral relativism. He is the founder of “reader-response” criticism, which holds that texts don’t have intrinsic meaning–meaning is a byproduct of the encounter between reader and text. He advocates campus speech codes, the ultimate in political correctness. He defends the cultural-studies journal Social Text and the field of “science studies,” even after they were humiliated through a brilliant prank by physicist Alan Sokal. And yes, he is one of the highest-paid English professors around. He currently gets $230,000 a year from the University of Illinois. This, it is felt, does not reflect an amusing brashness. It reflects a lack of principle.

An implicit answer to these and other criticisms can be found in Fish’s latest book, The Trouble With Principle (Harvard University Press, $24.95). It opens with a scene from a movie–Sam Peckinpah’s western The Wild Bunch. Outlaws Ernest Borgnine and William Holden are discussing a friend who has betrayed them by becoming a railroad detective. Why would their friend do a thing like that? Borgnine asks. Holden explains: The friend gave his word to the railroad. So what? Borgnine replies: “It isn’t giving your word that’s important; it’s who you give your word to.”

Most people would agree with Holden that a code of honor is worth at least paying lip service to. The combative Fish sides with Borgnine. “The trouble with principle,” he writes, “is, first, it does not exist, and second, that nowadays many bad things are done in its name.” None of the ideals a liberal society is supposed to be based on, Fish argues–fairness, impartiality, reasonableness–is ever truly neutral or principled. They all mask a political agenda. If all disputes over abstract ideals are, as Fish says, attempts to exploit an elevated moral language for partisan advantage, then to hell with his critics and their faith in chimera such as free speech and scientific objectivity! To hell with conservatives and their absolute values! To hell with liberals and their cherished notion of tolerance, since the people who benefit from it (such as fundamentalists and supremacists) would punch a liberal silly if they found one in a dark alley. The only beliefs that matter, says Fish, are the ones that matter directly to you. In the case of Stanley Fish, those are “my convictions and commitments.”

Before you dismiss Fish as either a danger to democratic values or a pugilistic idiot, you have to know three more things about him. First, he’s a remarkable scholar. As a young man in the 1960s, he single-handedly dragged his chosen specialty, John Milton studies, into the modern era. The field was mired in a stale debate over whether Paradise Lost is flawed because it contradicts itself–Satan is an appealing character, even though Milton appears to side with God, etc. Fish took Milton’s contradictions to be a dramatization of the theological paradoxes of his day, rather than mere literary error.

Second, Fish is a political realist, not a head-in-the-clouds theorist. He is receiving such a princely sum from the University of Illinois not just because he’s famous–or notorious–but because he was the chief architect of two of the most well-thought-of (though controversial) American academic programs in the 1980s and ‘90s, Johns Hopkins University’s Humanities Center and Duke University’s English department. His success as an administrator rested on two insights that are now commonplace: first, that the academic star system could be used to create departments with high-profile brand names, and second, that the longing of academic couples to live in the same place represents an administrative opportunity, not a headache. Fish built both the Humanities Center and Duke’s English department by hiring celebrity couples and finding room for both, rather than wooing one member of the couple and banishing the other to a lesser department, or condemning husband and wife to a commuter marriage. That both departments are now falling apart can be chalked up either to his considerable skill at maintaining allies or to his cynical lack of concern with long-term stability.

Third, it is not as easy as it seems to lump Fish with the progressives and utopianists who dominate the cultural and intellectual left. The Trouble With Principle, with its typically Fishy mix of transgressiveness and realism, demonstrates the distance between him and them. The book’s best essay by far is an attack on multiculturalism. In it, Fish argues that multiculturalism is a logical impossibility. His brief goes like this: There are two kinds of multiculturalism, “weak” (or “boutique”) “multiculturalism” and “strong multiculturalism.” “Weak multiculturalism,” says Fish, is a watery tolerance for cultural diversity. Weak multiculturalists hold that the differences between people are trivial, because there are certain central values–tolerance, respecting the dignity of individual rights, etc–that supersede everything else. Weak multiculturalists do not tolerate practices, such as polygamy or female circumcision, that offend those values. Strong multiculturalists recognize that some differences are irreconcilable, but say you must put up with them. In the end, Fish argues, both multiculturalisms are really uniculturalism. Weak multiculturalists simply impose their Western, liberal values on everyone else. Strong multiculturalists, if they follow their argument to its extremes, end up having to support some other culture whose basic principles violate their own–thereby elevating the values of that culture above their own.

If there are no rules for living peacefully in an ethnically mixed society, what do we do now? Why, says Fish, we do what we have always done, since we have never really practiced multiculturalism. We improvise. We engage in something Fish calls, borrowing the phrase from a philosopher named Charles Taylor, “inspired adhoccery.” We decide what to do on a case-by-case basis. When it makes sense to offer a major in Hindi studies, we offer a major in Hindi studies. When animal sacrifices become sufficiently offensive, we outlaw them. This, he adds, is not a recommendation. It is how we do things already, and the sooner we admit that, the better we’ll get at it.

This may be well and good for multiculturalism, but Fish has bigger targets in mind. The most troubling essay in the book is called “Mission Impossible.” Here Fish claims that there is no such thing as liberalism, since liberalism’s only way of dealing with those who don’t agree with it is forcibly to exclude them, mostly by calling them mad. It’s an old argument, but Fish makes it new by going back to the source–John Locke–and showing that in order to arrive at the principle of separation of church and state (the bedrock of liberal polity), Locke had to define religion as an internal process, each man’s war “upon his own lusts and vices.” In so doing, says Fish, Locke defines religion away, or at least all religions with strong beliefs and problematic forms of public worship. Locke does acknowledge that in some rare cases churches must be suppressed, but, he says, that’s not a problem–we’ll know which ones to suppress because they will be condemned “by the judgment of all mankind.” Right there, says Fish, Locke undoes his own argument, since “the judgment of all mankind” requires a reigning consensus that doesn’t exist. If it did, Locke wouldn’t have had to invent liberalism. Liberals, rather than practicing tolerance, have by acts of intellectual (and real) violence elevated their own ideas of what will and won’t do to the status of that which is universally right.

The philosophy Fish is practicing here bears some resemblance to pragmatism, a turn-of-the-century American doctrine that has recently been revived and wedded to European postmodernism. Modern pragmatism is a powerful brew of relativism–the idea that all truths are situational–and the optimistic belief that things work themselves out in the end. But Fish is not an upbeat pragmatist. His vision of society is far darker, for instance, than that of the leading American pragmatist, Richard Rorty, who holds that no idea is truly bad as long as it leads to other ideas. “Mission Impossible” is the essay in which Fish’s scariest side emerges in clear view. The only thinker who is really honest about the implausibility of the liberal state, says Fish, is Hobbes:

[B]ecause the equality of right and ability breeds “equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends,” and because each man’s ends are naturally to be preferred to his rival’s, the two will inevitably “become enemies,” and in the absence of a neutral arbiter “they will endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.”

And there Fish more or less stops. (Well, actually, he goes on to argue in a similar fashion against the logical plausibility of free speech, academic freedom, and blind justice.) Maddeningly, he leads us to the center of the Hobbesian maze, then refuses to extricate us. If life is a war of all against all, what guarantee do we have that adhoccery will work, no matter how inspired? None, of course–at which point Fish generally cackles and says that since he’s a pragmatist, he believes that his ideas about the world are just that, ideas without consequences. There is, he says, “no straight line from these propositions to the solution of any real-life problem; they are of no help and do no work except the non-directing work of telling you that you are on your own.”

In other words, Fish isn’t the unprincipled relativist he’s accused of being. He’s something worse. He’s a fatalist. But then, so were the pre-Socratics, several Roman philosophers, and Machiavelli. Culturebox certainly can’t tell you whether Fish is right or wrong. On the other hand, Fish never claimed to be right. In fact, he once quipped that, now that objectivity is dead, it is no longer necessary to be right. You just have to be interesting. Which he is.