The Chronicle Review

A Solitary Thinker

Brian Smith for The Chronicle Review

May 15, 2011

The art historian Michael Fried tells an amusing story about Stanley Fish. In the mid-1980s, Fish and Fried team-taught a yearlong course on interpretation to 40 undergraduates at the Johns Hopkins University. Fish was a "teaching tornado," recalls Fried, who sometimes felt like just another student in the room—invigoratingly so. One day they walked into class, settled their papers, sat down, and Fish began the presentation. Right off, Fried noticed a problem. He leaned over to Fish and whispered, "Stanley, look around. ... Half the class is missing." Fish paused, then announced:

"It has just come to the attention of Professor Fried and me that today's attendance is impermissibly down. We are going to step out for a cup of coffee and will come back at 11 for the second hour of class."

He spoke slowly, measuring each word.

"You will do this: Find every absent student in this class and all of you ... will ... be ... here when we return."

Fish gathered his books, nodded to Fried, and they left. Five minutes later, they sat down in a cafeteria nearby. "Stanley, what happens if we get back and it hasn't worked? What do we do?"

Fish: "I have no idea."

That freewheeling style helps explain why Stanley Fish, 74, has remained for 40 years a renowned figure in literary studies. Ten years ago, writing in The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar declared: "Fish feels that he has written all that he really wants to write. His life's project is finished." At the time, Fish had left his high-profile post at Duke University's English department. A widely read 1999 story in Lingua Franca portrayed the department as in ruins. His subsequent job as dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago hadn't produced nearly the buzz as the Duke episode, and his 1995 book, Professional Correctness (Oxford University Press), a brief against cultural studies and political criticism, annoyed entire schools of thinkers in the field. And he was getting old.

But the assertion that "his project is finished" turned out to be premature. The work has proceeded, and the notoriety, too. Fish's presence on a Modern Language Association convention panel still ensures a packed room, and visiting-professorship offers continue to arrive. In 2008, Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford University Press) appeared, a volume that every conservative I know in academe read with pleasure. Last year, The Fugitive in Flight: Faith, Liberalism, and Law in a Classic TV Show (University of Pennsylvania Press) was published, a lively analysis of the popular 1960s drama. This year, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One (Harper) came out, an urbane display of the craft of great sentences. Moreover, Fish, now a professor of law and humanities at Florida International University, has since 2006 been an online columnist for The New York Times. His pieces on higher education and American culture circulate perhaps more than anyone else's in academe.

It is tempting to attribute Fish's enduring marquee value to professional savvy and provocative temper. Nobody else has slid in and out of controversy and dispute so often, nor has anyone proven so willing and able to combat conservatives and (sometimes) liberals in academic forums and nationwide media alike. Think of major debates in literary and cultural studies, and Fish is there—High Theory in the 70s, culture wars in the 80s, political correctness in the 90s, and ideological bias in the 2000s. Over time, the labels have accumulated and contradicted one another:

  • "The scourge of Western civilization" (The New Yorker)
  • "The willfully provocative, politically conservative law professor" (The New York Times Magazine)
  • "Pied Piper of Relativism" (The Wall Street Journal)
  • "Academic radical" (Roger Kimball)
  • "Totalitarian Tinkerbell" (Camille Paglia)
  • "He's One of Us!" (The Duke Review, a conservative student newspaper)
  • "The High Priest of PC" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
  • "A 53-year-old white male ... [who has] taught only traditional texts written by canonical male authors of the ultracanonical English Renaissance" (Fish on himself)

One could add the jeers that sprinkle comments on nearly every one of Fish's Times articles, as well as the accusations of radical subjectivism and sophistry by traditionalist academics from the 70s forward (a collection of essays about Fish's work is titled Postmodern Sophistry). Add up the judgments, and Fish's character lessens and simplifies. He's a polarizer, a provocateur, a controversialist, a casuist. For him, it's the game that counts, not the truth.

So goes the common opinion, but in truth it devalues Fish's thought and his disposition. Yes, Fish has adjusted his opinion about many things, but one root belief stands firm, which he summarized recently in a conversation with me: "Forms of knowledge are historically produced by men and women like you and me, and are therefore challengeable and revisable." Moreover, Fish has maintained the historicity of all truths and methods at complicated and crisis-ridden times, taking positions that have alternately inspired and affronted his colleagues. There's a pattern: Fish championed new ideas and interests at times of ferment and controversy, only to dissent when the profession absorbed those ideas and converted them into dogmas and reflexes. It was the trendiness and sectarianism of literary studies that made him seem ever tactical and adversarial. As theories and missions, at first fresh and creative, congealed into group outlooks, a nonconformist impulse burst through, a habit of mind partly for and partly against the pieties of the moment—which, of course, makes him the pious ones' most irritating colleague.

It is, perhaps, impossible for young literary scholars today to realize how dynamic the field was in the 1970s. Theory had arrived, and it energized and scandalized everybody. The central question—"What is the meaning of a poem?" or, perhaps, "How does a poem mean?"—might seem tepid to professors and grad students accustomed to edgy themes of sexuality and race, but it managed to spark sectarian disputes, generational divisions (old guard vs. Young Turks), changes in hiring and curriculum, the journals Diacritics, New Literary History, boundary 2, Critical Inquiry, and Glyph, as well as the prestigious School of Criticism and Theory at the University of California at Irvine.

Ask scholars in their 60s about that era and their faces get ponderous, their voices expressive. Sam Weber, founder of Glyph and a colleague of Fish's at Johns Hopkins, once recalled being a graduate student at Yale in the 60s and driving once a week to Cornell, where Paul de Man was teaching a seminar on Heidegger's Being and Time, which had just been translated into English. "Why?" I asked him. "That's a long trip."

"Because we heard that something was happening there," he answered, "and we wanted to know."

Fish smiled when I told him that story, recalling with a shudder, too, how Weber and Jane Tompkins, Fish's wife, used to jump on their motorcycles for a spin around the Baltimore expressway. The zeitgeist of the 60s and early 70s seemed far away as I sat with Fish in an office at the Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law in January. He had been a visiting professor there the previous semester, and the dean was to host a party that evening to celebrate the publication of How to Read a Sentence.

Fish has been cast by the news media as a self-satisfied showman, but not a speck of pretense crops up during our conversation. Dressed in a dark suit that looks three sizes too big, Fish speaks softly and patiently. Easing back when he sits, stooping when he stands, his posture is altogether unassuming. When his interviewer lags, Fish takes the lead, slipping gently into teacher mode as he recounts his first exposure to the work of Richard Rorty, cautions against dismissing Sarah Palin, and chides the timidity of professors in the face of administrators. No "grand old man" aura surrounds him. One thing, though. If he disagrees with you, he flatly says so.

Fish, like Weber, remembers the 70s as a time when older faculty members realized that "younger colleagues were onto something that might pass them by." Big ideas were in the air, a new order of things on the way. The 1966 conference at Hopkins that brought Jacques Derrida to America had already become legendary, and people raced to assimilate the works of structuralism, deconstruction, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, the School of Constance, and ordinary language philosophy that had descended but had not yet been subdivided into sects and discrete methods. Their import remained unclarified but nonetheless compelling. The editor of New Literary History, Ralph Cohen, sent Fish a note in 1970 that captures the wide-open spirit of the moment: "We hear that you believe something, and we would like you to tell us about it."

Fish responded with a set of essays—later collected in Is There a Text in This Class? (1980)—that placed him at the head of the Theory invasion. He had already published two books before the age of 30; the second one, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in 'Paradise Lost' (1967), was instantly recognized as a transformative study of the masterpiece. Now he set about crafting a new theory of interpretation, one that would undo prevailing principles of meaning. The target was the New Critics, especially W.K. Wimsatt, and their belief in meaning as a fixed composition of ideas and attitudes embedded in the text, waiting for discerning readers to extract it. Fish argued that meaning is, instead, a reader's experience, and that it unfolds over time—"meaning as an event." New Critics asked, "What does the poem mean?" Fish asked, "What happens when a reader reads it?"

Older scholars recoiled. Literary studies, they feared, was turning into a mush of relativism. But younger scholars loved it. Fish's reader-response theory seemed more adventuresome and human than the Old School's semiscientific formalism. New Ph.D.'s were flooding the field, and they needed fresh theories to play with. The number of doctorates granted in the United States in English and in French, German, and Spanish exploded from, respectively, 397 and 110 in 1960 to 1,817 and 585 in 1973. To those rising juniors needing to publish, the works of Cleanth Brooks, R.P. Blackmur, Wimsatt, and others looked obsolete and overused, while those of Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, and Fish seemed ultrasophisticated and ripe for implementation.

The battle played out in a familiar fashion. Enthusiasm for new ideas had a corollary—the denigration of past idols. After Fish and others had mounted their arguments, the next wave raised the volume and added a touch of moral censure. Jane Tompkins alleged that New Criticism "elided" the "female subject par excellence, which is her self and her experiences." Frank Lentricchia, later Fish's colleague at Duke, summarized the New Critical motive as "the subtle denial of history ... this evasive antihistorical maneuver." Terry Eagleton termed it a mode of "Southern religious-aesthetic conservatism" that reified "habits of industrial capitalism." By 1980, trashing the New Critics for political and moral sins was a routine gesture, one of those pieties whose expression reflected well upon the professor.

If they thought Fish would join the denunciation, though, they were disappointed. He argued against the New Critics, yes, but his critique never meant disrespect. On the contrary, he regarded them as worthy adversaries. He disagreed that New Critics "denied" history. In Professional Correctness, Fish held up as a specimen of political criticism a book published in 1942 by G. Wilson Knight, who elsewhere argued for a formal, "spatial" analysis of Shakespeare's plays (patterns of images, symbols, metaphors). In the book Fish cites, however, Knight frankly culls Milton's poetry for passages that will inspire the British people during the war. Formalists could do political criticism just like anybody else—if they wanted to.

As we wrap up our discussion of those forebears, Fish tells me a story. Not long before Wimsatt died, in 1975, they had an encounter. "The last time I saw him," Fish remembers, "I was waiting for a train in Grand Central Station." Propped up against his suitcase, Fish was practically lying on the ground. "I heard somebody rumbling above me. I looked up and saw it was Wimsatt, who was nearly 7 feet tall. And he said in that deep voice of his, 'Ahh, Stanley Fish, my chief theoretical antagonist.' I said, 'Bill, not on my very best day.'"

That wasn't Fish's only dissent. Over the next decade, theory conquered the discipline, but in a sudden and implacable summation, Fish nullified its most captivating element. At the end of Is There a Text in This Class? Fish pondered what changes a decade of theory had wrought, and concluded "none whatsoever"—no reform, no revolution. Theory is a practice all its own, he claimed, and as soon as you "descend from theoretical reasoning about your assumptions, you will once again inhabit them and you will inhabit them without any reservations." Fish's announcement deflated the puffed up self-image of the theorists. They were glamorous prodigies and subversive rogues standing at the head of Western thought, "a new avant-garde of sorts," in the words of Peter Brooks. Fish denied them any impact.

This was especially annoying to the politically minded. During the 70s and 80s, as more and more humanities professors embraced social change as the point of their work, theory gave them epistemological cover. As Fish put it in The Atlantic Monthly (speaking to Dinesh D'Souza), "many people on the political Left found my work psychologically liberating. They began to say, once you realize that standards emerge historically, then you can see through and discard all the norms to which we have been falsely enslaved." Foundations ("nature," "God," "reason," "canon") held back needed reforms, they asserted, and by knocking them down, Fish freed the academic Left to insert "difference," "identity," and "social justice" into the field.

How dismaying it was, then, when Fish declared that his theory provided no support at all. As literary studies grew more political and group-identity-oriented, Fish more or less endorsed the changes but held that theory had nothing to do with them. To believe otherwise was to fall into the old hope that "if we can only get our ideas right, we can straighten out our practices." Practice isn't justified by theory, Fish insisted. It's justified by interests, and all the brilliant theory in the world won't much help in the marketplace where interests compete.

What, then, was literary theory for? Not social change, but simply this: "Literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward. I do it because I like the way I feel when I'm doing it." That was in 1993. Four months ago, he repeated the same point during a lecture on The Fugitive at Princeton. At the end of the event, when the host marveled that Fish's "brief against commitment does not extend to his own activity," Fish interjected: "You do this kind of work simply because it's the kind of work that you like to do, and the moment you think you're doing it to make either people or the world better, you've made a huge mistake. There's no justification whatsoever for what we do except the pleasure of doing it and the possibility of introducing others to that pleasure. That's it!"

Note that phrase: "introducing others to that pleasure." It saves Fish from decadence. He believes in the enterprise as a source of pleasure for others, and he's committed to sharing it. The pleasure itself deserves respect and support. That's why he dismissed the class at Hopkins. (Needless to say, when Fish and Fried returned, every student was there.)

When To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education appeared, in 1984, it stunned the professoriate. To them, the 50-page NEH assessment misrepresented and maligned the progress they had made over the previous 20 years. In their own spheres, theorists and political critics had all the momentum, the top ones fielding job offers, book deals, and lecture invitations. But Chairman William Bennett of the National Endowment for the Humanities cast them as tendentious thinkers and bad teachers. What they regarded as a triumph he cast as a disaster. Bennett wrote, "Sometimes the humanities are used as if they were the handmaiden of ideology, subordinated to particular prejudices and valued or rejected on the basis of the relation to a certain social stance." He might have had Fish in mind when he asserted, "The humanities are declared to have no inherent meaning because all meaning is subjective and relative to one's own perspective."

Professors who'd taken the Theory turn could treat the study only as reductive, simplistic, stupid. There was an added outrage: Bennett wasn't a marginal old crank. He was the head of the federal agency that supplied research funds to the fields, with a bully pulpit, too. When Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind came along three years later, and Lynne Cheney took over the NEH and issued yearly reports on the degradation of humanities education, and The Wall Street Journal published op-eds against the faculty, and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals and D'Souza's Illiberal Education appeared, and Camille Paglia hit the lecture circuit ... theorists felt besieged and paralyzed. They didn't argue back—they recoiled with pique and contempt. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar put it in a 1995 reminiscence: "We barely understood what was going on"; the professoriate was "oddly disinclined to explain themselves to the general public."

Not Stanley Fish. He was a frequent target of the Right, the nihilist-theorist who denied objective value to Great Books and, more important, the chairman of Duke's English department (starting in 1986) who gathered leading figures in race/sexuality/political criticism. To conservatives, the first was a destructive but sophomoric position. The second was a full-scale campus takeover. Fish recruited Lee Patterson, Annabel Patterson, Toril Moi, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Cathy Davidson, Karla FC Holloway, Houston A. Baker Jr., Henry Louis Gates Jr., Eve Sedgwick, and Jonathan Goldberg, among others. The Chronicle announced "Duke's Faculty Hiring-Spree Is Talk of the Literary World." Historical distribution requirements were dropped, interdisciplinarity was encouraged, grad applications jumped 300 percent. With Fredric Jameson, Fish started the Duke University Press series Post-Contemporary Interventions, which included titles such as The Politics of Liberal Education and Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The first part of D'Souza's piece in The Atlantic Monthly was titled "The Victims' Revolution," the second "The Case of Duke University." An article in The New Republic on "The Cult of Multiculturalism" took Duke as the example of "How the new orthodoxy speaks power to truth." A photo of Fish in Newsweek bore the caption, "A highly visible combatant in the academic wars."

Professors hunkered down in sullenness or complacency—one prominent editor told me once that he and his faculty friends used to read portions of Tenured Radicals and laugh at how much Kimball got wrong. But Fish came out swinging. When a chapter of the National Association of Scholars was formed at Duke, Fish asked the provost to keep members off of "key university committees ... dealing with academic priorities and evaluations" (on the grounds that the NAS categorically discounts scholarship that falls outside of "very traditional paradigms"). He appeared on The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour during a weeklong series on political correctness and characterized the issue as a simple generational clash of "sensitivities." He took part in an August 1991 debate on Firing Line titled "Resolved: Freedom of Thought Is in Danger on American Campuses," joining Catherine Stimpson, Leon Botstein, and Ronald Walters on the Left and facing William F. Buckley, John Silber, Glenn Loury, and D'Souza on the Right. Michael Kinsley was the moderator. At one point, Fish compared conservatives in the culture wars to old Communists in post-Soviet Russia who tried to mount a coup to bring the old regime back. (Can one imagine a parallel more infuriating to Buckley and Silber?)

Letters from colleagues everywhere piled in Fish's mailbox, praising him for putting the ignorami in their place. But if they expected Fish to shut the Right down and walk away, they were disappointed. First, as the years passed, Fish frankly acknowledged the success of the conservatives. On Richard Heffner's television show, The Open Mind, in 1991, Fish conceded that "the argument, at least in the media and in the press, has been won by those who are saying that an entire cultural foundation is under assault by irrational and dangerous forces." Scholars may have kept right-wing sallies out of their daily affairs, but conservatives had branded them decadents and extremists.

Second, Fish allowed the Right a measure of legitimacy. His 1995 book, Professional Correctness, pressed a sturdy defense of "disciplinary integrity" against the intellectual Left's treatment of disciplinary boundaries as repressively conservative. And, as is obvious from the title, Fish's 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, argued for a narrow definition of the academic vocation against those who wished to expand a professor's duties to social movements, political goals, etc. His most recent book, How to Write a Sentence, is an appreciation of the craft of great sentences (one example: "He loved Big Brother"), and an implicit rebuke to the turn of composition studies toward politics, identity, the environment, and other social issues. In January he wrote a Times column praising Sarah Palin's most recent book as a firm, skillful version of American Exceptionalism—an imputation that enraged Times readers. Finally, Fish made some friends. When D'Souza got married, Fish and Jane Tompkins sat at the honorary table with bride and groom, right next to the staunch conservative Linda Chavez.

Fish delivered these pointed dissents in blunt, provocative style, but they nonetheless served to moderate the excesses and utopianism and sensitivities of his colleagues. Theory is full of genius and insight, but it isn't an insurgency, he said. Fight your adversaries with words and images, don't treat them as fools or demons. Respect yourselves, and stop trying to be what you're not—rebels and martyrs.

You can trace this independent impulse all the way back to high school, in Providence, R.I. Among the 157 boxes that make up the Stanley Fish Papers in the Critical Theory Archive at the University of California at Irvine is a file containing a few issues of a youth newspaper, Junior Achievement Journal. Fish wrote editorials for the paper in 1954-55, one of them an unsigned piece headed "Don't Be One of the Gang." (Two columns over is an advertisement for "Max Fish, Plumbing—Heating Contractor"—the name appears again on the dedication page of There's No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too, published by Oxford University Press in 1994.) The article sounds a familiar Emersonian theme: "'Just one of the gang ...'; is that enough for you?" he asks. The "best men" may join a group, but they have "a more important self which moves outside the circle of their friends, which prides itself on independent accomplishment." Perhaps that's why he loves the TV show The Fugitive, in part because the main character stands alone, self-sufficient, moved mainly by his own integrity. That he acts out a myth, not a reality, makes him no less a figure to emulate.

An editorial in another issue, signed "S.E.F.," explores further the drama of individual and group. It pictures an afternoon school-bus ride, "life as we know it ... concentrated in one small space." The kids divide into groups. "Here is the braggart, the bully," his "disciples" huddling close by, "similarly dressed and singularly attentive. They hang on each word, their fawning minds quickly forming stories which might parallel those of their idol." Nearby sits the "scholar, hat on head, briefcase in hand." The gang baits him, hoping "to anger him to the point where he retorts" so that "physical action" may follow.

If they were the only characters, the moral of the piece would be easy. But Fish includes "a few solid, typical teenagers," kids who talk about sports, school, and politics and "do nothing to remedy" the bullying going on.

Finally, there is "You," the reader of the piece. "You" survey the scene and rise above it, disillusioned and judgmental. "Wait!" Fish commands, "Before you descend from that last step, before you begin to walk and mentally condemn those you have just viewed, question yourself. Which were you?"

Question yourself. No Emersonianism there. Instead, we have a hive of conformity and cruelty, a solitary thinker, and pedestrian goodness and complacency—plus the duty of self-examination. Fish wrote it when he was a teenager, but it anticipates his course ever since.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and a blogger for Brainstorm.