It’s all just history

Scott Malcomson

  • There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too by Stanley Fish
    Oxford, 332 pp, £16.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 19 508018 1

People who can find the world in a grain of sand are not necessarily people one wants to spend a lot of time with. At a recent conference held in a SoHo gallery in New York, the moderator spoke of interventions and discursive spaces, of enacting positions in a performative way, of avoiding both essentialism and relativism. He spoke of crucial theoretical work. To a person of my generation, this rap is utterly familiar, even homey; one has to struggle to imagine a time when things were différent. Nevertheless, the idea of crucial theoretical work appears to me laughably pretentious. Crucial to whom? How? Why?

Stanley Fish has created a role for himself as America’s most theoretical anti-theorist, an eager nay-sayer splashing about in Philosophy’s vain, ever-babbling spring. He has polemicised steadily on behalf of an anti-foundational pragmatism, his only timeless principle being that there are no timeless principles. As an American and a democrat, he assures us that he is equally critical of Left and Right; as Stanley Fish, he is even more vehemently anti-liberal. Each of these clubs of which he is not a member commits the same error by locating a principle outside time or history, and using it to judge present reality. Fish sees such reliance on principles as a mistaken, inherently misleading and disingenuous use of epistemology. For the Right, the current principle is an empirical epistemology of the good society, a mélange of ideas, aphorisms, statuary, and photo opportunities all tucked away in a shoebox labelled Western Civilisation. For the contemporary American Left, the principle appears as a theory of multicultural tolerance and shared instruction that presumes a vantage point from which one can determine how well or badly one is tolerating. The liberal’s principle is transparent Reason. Fish argues that belief in any of these three vantage points is illogical and ahistorical. For him, the two amount to the same thing. A ‘principle’ implies a point of view outside oneself – an impossibility. Logically, one can never be apart from oneself; a community can never be apart from itself; history can never get outside itself.

Fish makes these arguments with great style and a protean egotism that will be charming or irritating according to taste. He’s a deconstructionist imp, a jester who lampoons the king for using his power and, when the king falls, lampoons him for missing it. Hey, king! Why the long face? It’s all just history, and there’s damn little you or I can do about that.

Such, anyway, appears to be the thrust of this collection of essays and one interview. Fish applies his arguments to free speech, current literary debates and legal theory, with excursions into affirmative action and the political-correctness tempest of the last few years. As rhetorical logic, it serves him amazingly well. His manner is that of a playfully aggressive philosophy professor demonstrating to each of his freshmen that the beliefs they have brought to class are without foundation. His attack on the anti-PC crowd could hardly be bettered. He’s certainly right to show that absolute free speech is an impossibility, that a sinister uniformity lurks within multiculturalist tolerance, that the law is profoundly fungible despite assertions to the contrary, that affirmative action is not ‘reverse racism’ on any decent definition of racism. A dose of Fish always helps to clear the arteries.

His initial, modest fame in the US came from his work as a Miltonist and specifically from his 1968 book Surprised by Sin. He later reached a fresh plateau with arguments for ‘reader-response’ criticism and ideas about ‘interpretive communities’. But Fish’s true celebrity – or, what amounts to the same thing, his regular appearance on television – came in the political-correctness years, which are not yet past but are nearing, one desperately hopes, their coughing demise. This period, starting around 1989, has featured a rare breaching of the big-media walls by humanities scholars. Fish gaily took on the well-placed few who maintained that squads of Puritan Red Guards in multicultural feminist clothing were polluting the previously pristine academic pond. After sharpening his TV pitch, Fish went on the road for four debates with Dinesh D’Souza, a young Dartmouth man and author of the anti-PC tract Illiberal Education. Fish’s talks from that trip are collected here. During this vigorous period, Fish wasn’t shy about, for instance, attributing to the US Secretary of Education, among others, ‘the classically fissured shape of paranoid thought, in which absolute power and absolute vulnerability are simultaneously declared’. Many of us were deeply grateful to him. Although chair of the Duke University English Department, he dressed well and had an urbane cockiness that made us proud as he strode out to fight the good fight. We are all, he declared, politically correct, in that each of us is enmeshed in politics and would rather they be correct than not.

Fish did not, however, say that his politics were more correct than anyone else’s, as that would have violated his principle of having no principles. As to whether Fish has politics, that remains hard to determine – odd, in a book so dedicated to the political. In its course, he takes two strong positions. The first is against ‘bigots’. The second concerns ‘hate speech’ – violent language directed at representatives of historically oppressed groups – which some seek to regulate. ‘I am persuaded,’ Fish writes, ‘that at the present moment, right now, the risk of not attending to hate speech is greater than the risk that by regulating it we will deprive ourselves of valuable voices or slide down the slippery slope toward tyranny. This is a judgment for which I can offer reasons but no guarantees.’ Fish not only refrains from offering principles or theories as rules for regulating ‘hate speech’ – we would expect that – he doesn’t give conjunctural reasons, either. I think he might contend that reasons can’t exist apart from the politics they justify (or ‘justify’), and so in a sense they need not be stated. In a sense, there are no reasons.

By reducing principles to phenomena of ‘politics’ or ‘history’ – he often uses the terms interchangeably to mean something like ‘life in society’ – Fish seeks to destroy the pretensions of those who want to change society with reference to historical theories or ideals. Logically, such people must be hypocrites, or at best, believers in divine revelation. And logically, Fish cannot condemn them, because to do so would be to assume that he alone can stand aside and say: ‘Your politics are disingenuous.’ After all, how would he know?

Hearkening to me, from my point of view, is supposed to lead to nothing. As I say in Doing What Comes Naturally in answer to the question ‘What is the point?’, the point is that there is no point, no yield of a positive programmatic kind to be carried away from these analyses. Nevertheless, that point (that there is no point) is the point because it’s the promise of such a yield – either in the form of some finally successful identification of a foundational set of standards or some program by which we can move away from standards to ever-expanding liberation... it’s the unavailability of such a yield that is my point, and therefore it would he contradictory for me to have a point beyond that point. People go absolutely bonkers when they hear that, but that’s the way it is.

In fact, however, Fish does condemn others, on two grounds: that theorists left, right and liberal don’t get the point that there is no point and all their stubbornly epistemological worldviews are actually historical, contingent, political; that the beauty of politics – non-epistemological politics, what he might call ‘politics properly understood’ – consists in its granting to everyone, including Fish, the capacity for making judgments without foundations. The question is: without foundations, from where do you make judgments? Fish’s usual answer is a strong historical determinism. ‘Politics,’ he writes, ‘can neither be avoided nor positively embraced; these impossible alternatives are superficially different ways of grasping the political, of holding it in one’s hand, whereas properly understood, the political – the inescapability of partisan, angled seeing – is what always and already grasps us.’ History also ‘grasps’ us. We can’t grasp it. The same holds for speech:

Absent some already-in-place and (for the time being) unquestioned ideological vision, the act of speaking would make no sense, because it would not be resonating against any background understanding of the possible courses of physical or verbal actions and their possible consequences. Nor is that background accessible to the speaker it constrains; it is not an object of his or her critical self-consciousness; rather, it constitutes the field in which consciousness occurs, and therefore the productions of consciousness, and specifically speech, will always be political (that is, angled) in ways the speaker cannot know

One might well wonder why we would talk at all. Can we not imagine silence?

It’s unclear to me how, in Fish’s world, things change. He commonly argues that change just happens to people (other people?). We cannot know the consequences of our actions, certainly not when we’re guided by theories – an impossibility anyway, for him. Down the line, those unforeseen consequences become historical change. Critical self-consciousness is logically impossible and therefore will make no difference.

Isn’t it possible, however, that critical self-consciousness could function politically? Isn’t it rather obvious that it does, and that civilisation, reason, tolerance and God do too? I think Fish would agree, then say it’s beside the point (so to speak). He would be wrong. It is, strictly speaking, beside his point – that we have no way of knowing if the All-Seeing One exists. Surely that point has been well established already; in any event, I imagine his real point is that people other than himself believe there is a point, a Day of Judgment, an epistemology, and they’re wrong because they don’t grasp the thoroughgoing nature of contingency. Yet, as he amply shows, epistemology is very much with us. If everything ‘with us’ is ‘political’ or ‘historical’, then epistemology is political. And – again, on the evidence of Fish’s book – epistemology has uses, it works, it is pragmatic. Indeed, given its useful presence, and adopting a strong Fishian historical determinism, one may wonder whether epistemology is among the things grasping us and making politics imaginable. Of course, in a strong determinist world I will never know the answer to this question. I may not even be able to ask it. I wonder how I can find out.

Fish addresses the question of how theory (or principles or an epistemology) works by demonstrating that although Ted Williams did write a book called The Science of Batting the great ballplayer did not actually use theory or principles in his batting. Rather, he stayed alert. Therefore, ‘insofar as one is ever critically reflective, one is critically reflective within the routines of a practice. One’s critical reflectiveness is in fact a function of, its shape is a function of, the routineness of the practice.’ The qualification of ‘shape’ may give some room for manoeuvre, but the space available still seems cramped. And indeed in Fish’s work discourses come in many sizes, overlap, some have more power than others. People move amongst them, invoking principles. Even history, at times, shows an unnerving portability. On page 87 we find that ‘ideas are only intelligible within the particular circumstances that give rise to them.’ Four pages before, however, in comparing current books on ethnicity and civilisation to their interwar counterparts, he writes: ‘It is not smiply that the books written today bear some similarities to the books that warned earlier generations of the ethnic menace; they are the same books.’ Evidently two histories or politics, separated by time, with no shared personnel, can be identical. Perhaps history can grasp us the same way twice, potentially countless times. Or, as seems more likely, perhaps Fish believes he really can grasp history. I cannot say from what theoretical position or vantage point he’s grasping it. But I’m glad to see he’s trying. Such efforts, while rarely crucial, are never entirely beside the point.