April 19, 2017, marks Stanley Fish’s seventy-ninth birthday. Originally hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Fish has established himself as a major figure in literary postmodernism while denying that he is a postmodernist and has—famously—“defended” the humanities while denying that they have any practical value. What gives?
Throughout his career, which began in the 1960s with graduate scholarship on the poet John Milton, Fish has tended to see himself as a kind of knight-errant of academic discourse. He endorses provocation because he believes it moves the ball forward, which often leads him to engage in reactionary position-taking. There’s no reason not to, Fish claims, since academic dialogue has no real stakes.
Fish’s preoccupation with playing Devil’s Advocate has driven him to argue, among other things, that “[s]witching back and forth between talking like a liberal and engaging in distinctly illiberal actions” is ethically acceptable, since it’s “something we all do anyway.” And it has prompted him to charge anyone who acknowledges “the diversity of opinions about abortion” but opposes those “who block the entrance to clinics and subject the women who approach them to verbal assaults” with the intellectual crime of “boutique multiculturalism.” Fish has even penned a Stanford Law Review article bearing the (very juridical) title “Fish v. Fiss,” suggesting that, for him, brand-recognition is more important than the substance of the disagreement. In the eyes of his critics, who include nationally recognized thinkers like Martha Nussbaum, Camille Paglia, and Terry Eagleton, Fish’s taste for being inflammatory results from his lack of integrity. He is “the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect,” as Eagleton wrote in the London Review of Books.
In one telling incident, Fish caused an academic-world kerfuffle with his 1988 guest column for the Modern Language Association (MLA), in which he argued against the blind submission of academic articles for peer review. The following spring, the MLA published a series of letters to the editor on the subject of Stanley Fish, which included a letter from Stanley Fish. An accusatory missive from Geoffery Harpham, the former President and Director of the National Humanities Center, appears first. Harpham scolds, “Stanley Fish’s guest column… reflects a view of the profession that is, I will argue, neither cynical nor realistic but simply incomplete and even incoherent.”
Fish responded, conceding the point and claiming he was just being cheeky. “I may have seemed to be saying,” he says, “that the content of professional practice is ‘mere’ interest; but in fact the notion of ‘mere’ interest is one of the things I was attempting to debunk.” In other words, while I might have seemed to be accusing the entire academic profession of self-interested agenda-promotion, my actual view is that purely self-interested agenda-promotion doesn’t exist.
There is a certain aspect of nobility in Fish’s self-styling as a modern-day Don Quixote. From an outsider’s perspective, the ivory tower might look slanted, being, after all, occupied by a more or less homogeneous group of wealthy white liberals, who enforce a dreary uniformity of opinion and style.
Then again, Fish has signed onto an effort to build a college in Savannah, Georgia, to be called Ralston College, which promises nothing short of a “reinvention of the classical liberal arts college in a form appropriate to our time,” because at it “there will be no restrictions on freedom of speech.” Although Ralston filed articles of incorporation with the Georgia Secretary of State in 2010, not a single concrete development has occurred since. Where in Savannah is Ralston? That, y’all, well, that remains a mystery.
Perhaps Fish’s outsize ambition is rooted in the same worry-free nihilism for which his work calls. But his refusal to ever commit to anything—beyond, of course, never committing—makes him a somewhat tedious intellectual foil. By his own logic, he doesn’t have to mean the words he pronounces. In this way, Sir Fish the Valiant sells his knighthood for a well-paid gig as court jester. Or does he?