Sunday, July 23, 2006
The most alarming thing about this debate is that anybody would take anything Stanley Fish says seriously. Or perhaps I should say, "seriously." Let's get the explanation over with quickly. INVHO, Fish is a completely insincere man. He doesn't necessarily believe what he is saying; he says whatever he says to get something, I assume usually for himself. This is OK in his view, to the extent anything has to be OK in order to do or say it, because there is no such thing as anything being true, or perhaps I should say, "true." So I suppose what is really going on in his current positioning is that, in supporting the idea that absolutely anything should be able to be studied from an "academic" point of view, he is supporting the idea this his particular brand of half-baked skepticism (which actually does grave injustice to the half bakers of the world, who are at least trying to make bread) should be applicable to anything anyone wants to apply it to. Of course, of course. How unobjectionable. But this is just more of the usual Fishian sham. He doesn't really mean objective, maybe even scientific scrutiny, which is what he sounds like he means. He means, or rather "means," half-baked, Engl. Lit. trying to be philosophical scrutiny, where we never get beyond whether medium sized dry goods such as chairs and books actually exist. And if chairs don't really exist, then why not have a Department of Zany Things to do with Your "Body" Studies? Isn't it as "true" as anything else? By the time you have convinced some serious philosopher to come over and shut these people up, you've already wasted a chunk of the philosophy department's budget, and graduated hundreds of law students who think the "law" doesn't really "exist."
Why does he do this? I think the best explanation is that Fish figures his academic career prospers best in intellectual chaos, and he seems to have sort of prospered, if you count nearly single handedly destroying an academic discipline as prosperity, as some people say he did. One hopes that all this deconstruction stuff will someday be looked back at as bellbottoms are now, and it seems that it is beginning to happen. Fish likes to stress how much young people like all this stuff, which confirms what we know about the judgment of some young people. This probably has something to do with why we have to get so many of our mathematicians from India.
Some people say Fish's role model is Satan in Paradise Lost, but I think the character he reminds me of most is that Jesuit-Communist guy in the Magic Mountain, whose name I don't recall. If you have read that [no quotation mark] great book [no quotation mark] by Thomas Mann, you know whom I mean. What did that guy believe? Anything, or was he just a chaotic void of swirling creepiness? That's pretty much how I view Fish. But there is no need to get too exercised, because I think in this case, the damage has been done, is over with, and the academy is ever so slowly repairing itself from the era of the encounter with his especially unfortunate ideas. The end of the era of academic vaudeville, when it was finally figured out that bad taste tasted bad.
I don't really care if Wisconsin has some conspiracy theorist nut on their part-time faculty, because I think nuttiness disguised as serious scholarship has gone as far as it is going to go, and every village needs an idiot or two. We don't really need Idiot Studies, but at least the trend has abated, or so I optimistically believe.
I don't really know how or why the academic industry figured out that the whole Fishian let's be totally skeptical about everything in the interests of promoting nutty lefty causes and in particular me, was just an entirely cynical and valueless enterprise. But it seems to have. It's almost enough to make you believe in the marketplace of ideas. You will notice Fish is not President of the University of Chicago, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, or something of that sort. Our elite institutions seem to have survived more or less, or rather, less, and are busy transforming themselves into institutions where a lot of serious stuff gets done, at least outside those departments most academics are too polite to talk about. Fish now seems to find his audience in the more unsophisticated subset of the readership of the New York Times, the sort that take the fiction reviews in the Sunday paper seriously. A lot of former students who were taught under the influence of his ideas are the worse off for it, but so much else seems to be going on now in the American marketplace of ideas, that it is more like a few bad harvest years than the impending fall of civilization. What a great country.