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.

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