Fishing for Meaning with the Mullahs

Stanley Fish was the consummate “star” of the eighties and nineties; rumors are he is the model for the irritating American professor of David Lodge’s quite funny Changing Places. He defined the way academics approached literature during these decades; well, maybe not literature so much as power: how to build a “star” faculty, how to demonstrate one’s superiority to the great old guys like Shakespeare (who were, of course, hopelessly sexist & racist), how to prove all is meaningless, how to obtain & exert power, how to make the big bucks. He built the high-flying Duke English department, considered the best during those years. He was, of course, easily seduced by departments that offered more money and free time. Long a voice for post-modernist criticism & always one to hold his finger to the wind, he now argues against “liberalism.” This has been a position for quite a while, There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech And It’s a Good Thing, Too states this turn clearly.

But he (with little care) lumps together the world in which he reigned and what he always saw as the dark side, the people at The New Criterion, The National Association of Scholars, and The Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, who are in the tradition of the old liberals. Of course, the liberals who followed Stanley Fish are exactly the people he is describing; he has turned on his own. But then, what could they expect? They had followed Fish precisely because he was a “strong man.” He was always more of a careerist than a scholar, a tyrant than a comrade – but isn’t that always true? Using the status given him by the gullible, he now has a spotlight he can turn on them with disdain.

Continuing in a vein of provocative self-promotion, he has penned an editorial for the New York Times, where it is available at $3.95. (Does this surprise us?) However, Robert McHenry’s Fishing for Liberalism quotes deeply, beginning by asking: “What are we seeing here? Can it be once again the seduction of the intellectual by the strong man?” The answer is yes. But, of course, as in similar cases, it is an attempt to wrest power, to “be” a strong man. And in Fish we see that, yet again, a man who stands for nothing is likely to fall for anything—or at least use anything. But we sense the cynic, the man who finds life meaningless, understands the longing for meaning. Having lived so long as the willful I (Fish was first known for his interpretations of Milton), he now looks around. He expresses contempt for those–one assumes including himself–with no values. But he still doesn’t understand. Having for so long had no principles of his own, he sees only a choice between libertine chaos & external, draconian law. In that, of course, he resembles the assumptions of cultures we are only beginning to understand.

Having never understood the calling of Western values – of literature, of religion, of the open marketplace – he now seeks the kind of certainty that a strong man offers, that of the extraordinarily Hebraic – in Arnold’s terms – Sharia law. McHenry tells us:

On the one hand, says Fish, there is Western liberalism, concerned only — only! — to “stand up for an abstract principle — free speech”. And on the other hand there is the morality of “those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrous evil.”

And the winner is? “And the difference is, I think, to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.” Principle: 0; primitivism: 1.

Under liberalism, he says, “one’s religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection,” and they “should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable.” How refreshingly forthright, then, are those who urge their views on others by means of riot, fire, and murder. How the heart thrills to the sight of mobs and menacing mullahs.

Yes, Stanley Fish understands the mullahs; it is the liberal tradition that he did so much to diminish he doesn’t understand. It is the academy, with its love for learning and not prestige, its passion for the inter-relationship of thought and art through the centuries, that he does not understand. When I was an undergraduate, my teachers accepted their rather lousy salaries because of the pleasure of what they did. They sat in the coffee room, speaking to each other about the literature, arguing over the meaning. They came into class and continued that dialogue. Then the Fishes of the world came to power, influenced by the Marxist tinged thinking of the sixties & theories of those weaned on fascism & coming to see all relationships, all art as about power – and manipulation.

This way of looking at power altered the very idea of a community of scholars. Here is an instance: a dean here, influenced by Fish’s way of looking at the world, proposed clumping together all the money given to the grad students into two scholarships. This would get the best, he argued. While rewarding excellence is a good idea, it is best to remember that the predictive power of this early screening process is not all that great. Giving more money to the best student applying is probably a quite good idea, but giving that much power to some and none to others isn’t likely to make for a great community of scholars. And one would hope the best grad students would value the appropriate mentor over money any way. Finally & pragmatically, few grad students would choose to rub shoulders with the great if they had no income at all–especially if the great were not to be their mentors but instead their peers.

But academics misunderstood both the marketplace of economics & that of ideas. During these years the marketplace of ideas narrowed, not just in the political ways Horowitz describes but also in approaches. Fish, as noted above, had insufficient optimism for the breathtaking concept of that marketplace, those many & open challenges. The wrong might prevail, we might be confused by the number of choices, he tells us. A cynic’s stance is always part cowardice, even if it he is a schoolyard bully.

On the other hand, this economic marketplace was a fantasy. While it is true, raises were often determined by job offers at other schools (which would appear to be and perhaps was rewarding worth in the marketplace), it must be remembered that the people paying the salaries were not the people making the choices nor often having to live with the results. The awarding of both scholarships at that early stage or hiring at later stages was less on the basis of work done than work proposed. And if people did not live up to expectations, with tenure & locked in salaries, they merely sat (deadwood & at home most of the week) gathering a quite inflated salary. Little was expected and little need be performed. Thus, it was a marketplace in which political skills rather than scholarly ones were rewarded: this was a faux marketplace.

Fish (and I suspect few of his admirers, but enough to influence the atmosphere) sees the necessity of external & draconian rules because he can not appreciate the importance of the light rule of law that our culture bequeathed us and the values of respect for one another that arose from tolerance for others while not jettisoning one’s own beliefs. And so, is it surprising, Fish is the kind of person, obsessed with power, that longs for “the strong man” – as those of his persuasion did in Russia in the twenties and Germany in the thirties? And, today in Iran or the hills of Pakistan or on Al-Jazeera they can probably find one for the twenty-first century.

Update: Fish longs for the certainty of Phelps. But Phelps’ insanity is not only evil but will fail because, in the end, humanity has the rich, messy, diverse human tradition Fish dismissed so lightly, and that will help it stand up to the Phelps of the world.

(Personal Moment: a) I wasn’t in academic circles during those years and have come back to it on a level so below that of Fish’s that this rant is not as informed as it should be. I did go to enough MLAs even in my off years to see that the changes were not all for the better; b) Fish’s examples didn’t prevail in many schools. and c) my husband has this semester off; I think that is important and I’m glad he can work on his book (on Darwinian approaches as a matter of fact) but perhaps I shouldn’t bitch so much since this is the system that has paid for our house, put our kids through school, and generally given us a pleasant enough life. I know we are lucky – the hours supervised next to the salaries mean we are paid quite fairly, if not hugely.

7 thoughts on “Fishing for Meaning with the Mullahs”

  1. Thus, it was a marketplace in which political skills rather than scholarly ones were rewarded: this was a faux marketplace.

    I think this has always been true within the humanities and that it is the field’s critical flaw.

    Unlike the sciences or business, the humanities deals with matters of pure human judgement. An individual’s success within the field is determined solely by the opinion of their peers and superiors. An iconoclastic scientist can undermine the graybeards by conclusive experimentation. No such mechanism exist within the humanities.

    I think this attribute of the humanities explains both the intensely conformist nature (relative to their colleagues) of those within the field and the appeal to them of post-modernism. Since they have no means of proving any of their assertions, those in humanities convey authority by unanimity. If all the professor say it, it must be true. Post-modernism arises from using the arbitrary world of the humanities as a template for all human activity. Post-modernist believe that all information is subjective and “spin” because in their world, it is.

    In the past, intellectuals devoted themselves to abstract principles like objectivity. They attempted to escape themselves and their immediate social, cultural and political milieus. This is impossible of course but in making the attempt they insulated themselves somewhat from the crushingly egocentric world view so rampant today.

    It should come as no surprise that modern humanist fall prey to the “strong man.’ They owe their position in society purely to the belief that they know important things that the rest of us do not. They desperately seek the means to maintain this illusion. Strong authority figures serve this purpose well.

  2. This man Stanley Fish has insulted the US, it’s constitution and it’s founders. He should be brought to justice and the greatest justice for traitors is death. Anyone who kills him will be doing a service to the USA and the memory of our Founders!!! In fact, I’ll even pay the court fees of anyone who does it!!

    Death to our Enemies… Death to Stanley Fish!!!

    /// Sarcasm off ///

    Gosh.. it felt really wierd just typing that… which itself is a difference between Islam and the west.

  3. “He built the high-flying Duke department, considered the best English department during those years.”

    I realize this wasn’t your main point, but good heavens! Considered by whom to be the best English Department? English was a wasteland in the 80’s and 90’s and Duke was miseducating with the best of them.

  4. I think Shannon is right about the consequences of the lack of an objective test in the humanities, and yet…my sense is that it wasn’t always thus. I think that historically, a higher % of humanities professors were seriously interested in the pursuit of truth, however they chose to define it.

    I suspect that the current situation is at least partly the result of the tremendous expansion of university-level education in recent decades. This has led to a large expansion of professorial jobs and thus to the employment of a large number of people who really don’t have a vocation as university professors. The situation is vaguely analogous to “tech”-industry business in the late 1990s, when the proliferation of companies led to many people in senior executive positions who probably should not have even been running lemonade stands.

  5. Ginny, you description of Stanley Fish immediately reminded me of Paul de Man, one of the founding gurus of post-modernism, and how when the Nazis conquered Europe he happily went to work writing anti-Semitic essays for a Belgian newspaper. And also of Jacques Derrida, who defended Paul de Man with every dishonest rhetorical trick he could muster, including personal abuse.

  6. The arrogance of Fish is based on two propositions:

    1) Educated people make better moral choices-the more educated you are the better choices you will make.

    refutation by example: nazi doctors

    2)Universities occupy the moral high ground in our society.

    refutation by example: adjunct faculty (who without unions have all the rights of a black Alabama field hand in 1860).

    There is NO objective evidence whatsoever for either proposition. In fact in light of twentieth century history there is a lot of evidence to the contrary.

    Both of these absurd propositions have been advanced to me tenured professors in the English Department (more than once).

    In the humanities one is judged by the elegance of ones argumentation. In life one is judged by actions and results. In science one is judged by predictive efficacy of theoretical formulations.

    “A society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a lowly profession and accepts shoddy philosophy because philosophy is an exalted profession will have neither pipes nor ideas that will hold water”
    John Gardner

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