Doing something different

John Ellis

  • Doing what comes naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies by Stanley Fish
    Oxford, 613 pp, £35.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 19 812998 X

Before Stanley Fish started doing what comes naturally, he wrote standard works of literary criticism which dealt, as most such books do, with particular literary figures and periods. Then, in 1980, he published his first volume devoted to theory of criticism, Is there a text in this class?, a collection of his essays from the Seventies. Doing what comes naturally is Fish’s second volume of theory, but while this, too, is a collection of his essays from the previous decade, it is quite different in important respects. Is there a text was devoted to a single issue in theory – reader-oriented criticism – and the sequence of the essays chronicled Fish’s progress as he grappled with the problems raised by a subjectivist view of interpretation; there was something almost autobiographical about the way in which the editorial introductions to successive essays commented on each as a stage in Fish’s thought. The relative paucity of references to other work on this topic reinforced the general impression of an individual’s lonely theoretical journey.

The aura of Doing what comes naturally is quite different. There is, first of all, more variety of theme: in addition to the now familiar reader-oriented view of literary interpretation, there are essays on various aspects of theory of language (speech-act theory, irony, rhetoric), on legal theory (interpretation in the law, the concept of force), and on the literary profession and professionalism. But the more basic change lies in the disappearance of the loner struggling with a problem of theory within his own field. A quick sampling of the positions he takes in these essays shows the difference clearly enough. In theory of language, Fish argues that all discourse is rhetorical and words do not constrain meaning, and that to think otherwise is to subscribe to an illusory objectivist account of meaning; in legal theory, interpretation of the law by a judge is no less an exercise of power than is the behaviour of the violent criminal who uses brute force; in legal rulings the bottom line remains the ascendancy of one person or set of interests over another; in science, all knowledge is also rhetorical; in social theory, principles are really preferences, and vice versa; in literary interpretation, the critic makes the text refer to whatever is relevant to his purpose; in the academic profession, ‘blind’ evaluation of scholarly papers submitted to journals is just as biased as evaluation with full knowledge of the author’s identity, because all readings are biased.

Now these are all currently well-known positions, and the basis of their appearing together in one volume is just as clear: Fish the erstwhile loner in theory seems now to have committed himself to an identifiable group with a particular orientation. How one should refer to this group, and who should be included, would be matters of dispute between those sympathetic to it and those who are more sceptical. Fish himself gives us lists and characterisations at several points in his book. On page 345 his generic term is ‘anti-foundationalists’, while on page 225 he refers to those who have joined in the attack on foundations as ‘the intellectual left’. The lists include deconstructionists, Marxists, the Critical Legal Studies movement, Foucault, Kuhnian philosophy of science and reader-oriented critics of literature. Feminists are, surprisingly, not much in evidence.

The positions taken by Fish in most of these essays are therefore fairly predictable given this new identification, but before going on to look at the efficacy of his presentation and advocacy I should note the few ways in which he departs from this orthodoxy. First, the notion of theory itself is a highly valued one among his fellows in this group: for them, theory is the means whereby we come to see through claims to objectivity, or to indispensable foundations, or to principles which are neutral rather than embodiments of particular interests. Fish disagrees, arguing that theory has no consequences. He thinks that seeking an ‘overarching theory’ is really foundationalism again, and in his preface he tells us that, given the historical and social determinations which are always in place, what you do ‘will issue from you as naturally as breathing’. (Hence the title of the book.) Fish also dissents from the anti-professionalism of the intellectual left, since he thinks that to complain of the corruption of professional hierarchies is to postulate a situation where intrinsic values operate rather than the interests of particular individuals and groups. He thinks there are no such situations – this is for him foundationalism again, and foundationalism is a characteristic of those on the intellectual right; left-wing intellectuals (Fish’s kind of left-wing intellectual) become right-wing intellectuals in disguise when they do this. For the same reason, Fish complains at other points in the book that a belief in the superiority of the socialist system can blind a Marxist (in this case Eagleton) to the pervasive rhetoricity of everything. That belief is foundationalism again, and so presumably Eagleton has to be placed among right-wing intellectuals too.

What are we to make of all this? It is easy to see that Fish’s arguments on various topics tend to have a common structure, and to embody the same kind of moves. Take the argument about force and law. He begins by looking at the opposed notions of brute force and the rule of law. He attempts to break down the distinction, arguing that the policeman no less than the gunman uses force, and that even the judge, in interpreting the law, is forcing the legal text into the shape he wants it to have. The end-result is the disappearance of the distinction: ‘the force of law is always and already indistinguishable from the forces it would oppose. Or to put the matter another way: there is always a gun at your head,’ and ‘the bottom line remains the ascendancy of one person – or one set of interests aggressively pursued – over another, and the dream of general rules “judicially applied” remains just that, a dream.’

This is all too reminiscent of the standard schoolboy cynic argument: I choose to lounge on the beach; Mother Theresa chooses to care for the poor in India; we both do what makes us feel good, and both do what we want to do; so what’s the difference? Arguments like this have long been used by adolescents to ward off burdensome distinctions like that between responsible and irresponsible behaviour, or between selfishness and helpfulness, but most parents, whether or not they were competent logicians, have been able to recognise a reductive, self-serving argument when they saw it. The logical mistake in arguments of this kind lies in the fact that breaking down a particular conceptual distinction between A and B is not the same thing as showing that there are no differences between them. The most common case is one in which a sharp difference in kind is replaced with a continuum of differences of degree which does virtually the same kind of conceptual work that was done by the original distinction. If what makes Mother Theresa feel good is helping others, while what makes the schoolboy cynic feel good is not having to mow the lawn, that difference is enough to allow us to begin to rebuild some kind of notion of responsibility. But here we see Fish’s central logical weakness: he seems to have no grasp of what he has and has not done when he has broken down a particular distinction. He speaks as if he had abolished differences, not just the particular distinction. Even if we grant the thesis that the rapist, the bank robber, the judge, the legislator and the soldier on Tiananmen Square are all exercising force or power, it does not follow that the force of law is simply indistinguishable from the force it opposes, still less that all we ever have is ‘principled force – and it is my argument that there is no other kind,’ or that ‘force is just another name for what follows naturally from conviction.’ Do we really want to concede that the rapist is using principled force, or that the bank robber acts from conviction just as the legislator does when he votes to mandate safety standards which will save lives? Even the schoolboy cynic, relentless sophist and reductionist though he is, would not push his argument that far. What Fish ignores as he throws the conceptual baby out with the bathwater is that even if we decide to see force as the basis of everything, there would still be many differences to be noted in the kind of force used, in the circumstances of its use, in the legitimacy which can be claimed for it, and in the derivation of that claimed legitimacy – all of which would effectively put back in place much of what Fish thinks he has gotten rid of in breaking down the distinction between law and force.

Much the same holds for his other arguments. The attempt to reduce principles to preferences is more schoolboy cynic argumentation, but even if we were to allow the abolition of this useful practical distinction we should have to put back much of its content by making distinctions among preferences according to their scope, generality and legitimacy. The realisation that all evaluations of articles for publication in professional journals are biased – including those that are ‘blind’ – should not prevent us from seeing that biases are of different kinds, that merit is one factor operating among others which include those biases, and that blind submission goes some way to removing one of the most important kinds of bias.

Throughout, he complains that those he opposes are beguiled by a belief in ‘absolutes’, but it seems to me far more true to say that it is his own argument that is beguiled by them. Again and again he argues, in effect, that if readings are not completely free of bias, they are just biased; that if principles are not completely devoid of personal considerations, they are not really principles; that if the law is not totally objective and neutral, it is no different from other kinds of force; that if words do not have an absolutely clear reference they do not constrain meaning at all; that if science does not offer final truth, it is just rhetorical. To be sure, he knows enough about the danger of being seen as one who jumps from one extreme to another to position himself rhetorically as one who steers a path between objectivism and subjectivism: but the argument he consistently uses to back up this rhetorical posture is an appeal to a particular historical and cultural context. This is essentially the appeal to cultural and historical relativism which has been the standard counter to normative thought since Herder first advanced it in the 18th century, and Fish tends to wave it as if it were a magic wand to solve the problems that have arisen in his argument. Whatever its intrinsic merit as a position, it is neither the new move that Fish takes it to be, nor is it well suited to the purpose for which he wishes to use it here: it cannot mediate between the two opposed poles of thought in these instances, for it is essentially one of them.

Fish’s argument that theory has no practical consequences may be thought to bring to the fore all the least attractive features of his style of argument. This is on its face a startling thesis: to say that all one has to do is to ignore theory and do whatever comes naturally seems at the outset to be unable to deal with two important facts of experience – that most of us find that reflecting on what we are doing is helpful, and that what comes naturally to many people can seem foolish or even horrendous to others. Can we really value reflection so little? Some classic statements on the relation of theory to practice come to mind. Goethe said that ‘with every attentive look at the world we are already theorising,’ and that the most important thing was to understand that ‘everything that is factual is already theory.’ Kant gave us an equally memorable aphorism: ‘thoughts without content are empty; perceptions without concepts are blind.’ Were they both wrong? Is practice separate from theory after all? Take some examples from this century in humanistic scholarship: when the New Critics argued that the author’s intention was not available or desirable as a standard for interpreting and evaluating literary texts, those critics who accepted their theory began to write a different kind of criticism; and when Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, practice in linguistics also changed dramatically. How does Fish deal with such powerful arguments and evidence?

The short answer is that he tries to make what he has asserted true by definition: whenever he is face to face with theory having consequences, he simply argues that the theory is not really theory, and that the consequences are not really consequences either. The matter of consequences is handled very simply: those which flowed from Chomsky’s appearance are said to be merely political consequences. One group within the profession acquired ascendancy over another. But to make this strained argument Fish has to ignore the fact that one of these groups is identifiable as a group only by the fact that it did a different kind of linguistics – the kind that showed the influence of Chomsky’s theory. The demonstration that theory is not really theory is more complex, and here Fish is inconsistent. Sometimes he says that theory must be separable from practice or it would reduce to practice, and not be theory at all. But at other times he says that theory in the sense that he requires cannot exist: ‘there can be no such thing as theory, and something that does not exist cannot have consequences.’ This is Fish at his worst, and it shows how he acquired his reputation for stubborn defence of a position no matter how hopeless it becomes. The basic problem here is addiction to schoolboy cynic logic again: either altruism is wholly separable from gratification or there is no such thing as altruism; either readings are wholly unbiased or there is just bias; either theory is absolutely distinct from practice or there is no such thing as theory. All of which adds up to the assumption that if a distinction is not completely and absolutely exclusive it cannot be made at all. But since many if not most distinctions are between two opposed poles of a continuum, Fish’s argument is doomed.

Fish makes this argument about the status of theory the leading issue in his book, but it seems to me a side-issue. More fundamental is his rehearsing the series of familiar arguments in theory of language, literature and the law which announce his new alignment with a particular group. He thinks of this group as the ‘intellectual left’, but that seems to me untenable. Fish’s attempt to redefine the ‘left’ as that part of the spectrum of thought which has no definite social beliefs to advocate is one of his most specious attempts at redefinition: the one thing that the right and left have in common is that both have social beliefs, and a definition of the left which has to exclude socialists and Marxists is just silly. Still, the group that Fish now aligns himself with certainly does exist. It is a group which has arisen over the last fifteen years and could be called the new theory élite, or perhaps the theory jet-set. It has identifiable characteristics. It talks a great deal about theory. It appears to believe that recent theory is of an especially sophisticated kind, and that most significant events in the development of theory are recent. And its interest in theory is less a devotion to theoretical inquiry per se than it is a commitment to certain very specific ideas, which is why one recognises Fish’s alignment so quickly.

Within this narrowly-focused discussion it might seem that really important work in philosophy of science begins with Thomas Kuhn, that serious questioning of both the positivist theory of language and the general notion of truth begins with Derrida, that jurisprudence begins with Critical Legal Studies, that truly profound thought on intention and interpretation in criticism is also of recent vintage, and even that historical and cultural relativism is a bright new idea. But none of this is so, and the lack of any realistic context or historical awareness of the development of these issues must inevitably result in distortion and crudities.

Kuhn’s basic ideas in the philosophy of science go back to C.S. Peirce and through him to Goethe; within this context it is not at all remarkable, as Fish seems to think it is, to see Kuhn restate the idea that in scientific inquiry the key to validity is not verification but the assent of the scientific community. And Peirce’s point, echoed by Kuhn, is not that science is rhetorical, as Fish and others would have it, but that it is always hypothetical and provisional. In theory of language, the available alternatives are not limited to those considered by Fish and those he follows – that is, either a positivist theory of meaning or the rejection of any constraints on meaning; many other alternatives to positivism have long been available, and one of them – the later Wittgenstein – cannot be assimilated to the ‘no constraints’ school, as Fish thinks. In jurisprudence, Fish’s reduction of law to various kinds of force ignores long-standing arguments that the basis of a legal system is found not in compulsion, but in order. In literary criticism, the celebrated essay by Wimsatt and Beardsley on the Intentional Fallacy goes far deeper into the many issues that arise in intentionalism than Fish’s single-issue discussion is able to do. And finally, a look at the historical record of historical and cultural relativism would show that it has been used just as much by the right as by the left; its first use by Herder was in the context of the rise of German nationalism, scarcely a left-wing force, and in China it is one of the arguments now being used to ward off generalised ideas of democracy by an appeal to the unique character and circumstances of China.

Finally, however, there is an even deeper problem. It is that theoretical analysis tends to be an individual activity; particular people set out to crack particular theoretical problems by thinking hard about them. This is solitary, probing, difficult work, and one never quite knows where it will lead. It is quite inconsistent with fashionable orthodoxy. Indeed, it seems to me that a theory jet-set can only arise when the pursuit of theory has degenerated into the group celebration of a temporary and local consensus, and that consensus is likely to be – as this one is – a fairly primitive one from a theoretician’s standpoint. Which brings me back to the difference between Is there a text in this class? and Doing what comes naturally, and Fish’s progress from one to the other. Though its logic was also vulnerable, the first had the aura of an individual’s serious attempt to grapple with a theoretical issue – it felt like a theoretical inquiry. The sense that Fish has joined a club gives this second volume an altogether different feel. Strangely enough, Fish’s title, borrowed from Annie get your gun, invokes a completely different group – the shrewd but unpretentious country-folk who know what is what even though ‘they ain’t got no learnin’. That now famous ‘uncle out in Texas’ who ‘couldn’t write his name’ still knew a city slicker when he saw one, and when ‘he signed his checks with X’s’ the bank knew exactly what those X’s meant.