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Fishy

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Stanley Fish chimes in on Ward Churchill in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (why is this still coming in the mail?) I must admit I don’t understand what’s happening in the following three paragraphs. Can someone explain them to me?

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that Churchill can’t be disciplined
or even fired. The analysis he presented of the September 11 attacks in
his controversial essay was part and parcel of an avowedly polemical
set of political recommendations, a veritable call to arms. He has
every right to issue that call, as long as he doesn’t do it in the
classroom and, as it were, on the state’s dime. While Churchill cannot
or should not be disciplined for the political views he urges in his
role as a citizen, he can and should be disciplined for urging those
views in venues designated as academic and financed as such by state
revenues or by tuition.

I am not saying that political matters can never be raised in an
academic setting; such a draconian requirement would mean the end of
departments of political science, philosophy, sociology, English,
criminal justice, and more. I am just saying that when political
matters do enter an academic setting, they must do so in academic
terms. A few years ago, a national conference was held at my university
on an important topic. A flier advertising the conference went out
before I saw it. One sentence in that flier began, "Now that we are
fighting a racist war in Afghanistan … " Because the flier carried
with it the imprimatur of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it
seemed to be the university that was issuing that judgment.

The case would have been entirely different if there had been a list
of the conference’s panels on the flier, and if one of those panels had
been titled, "Are We Fighting a Racist War in Afghanistan?" That would
have been perfectly appropriate because it would have identified the
question as one that would be debated at the conference: Speakers would
give their answers and back up what they said with evidence, and other
speakers would give opposing answers and cite alternative bodies of
evidence. That’s what we do in the academic world, and if Churchill is
doing something else (and I don’t know that he is), he is taking money
under false pretenses, and he should be called to account for it.

So, we have:

1) Churchill can’t or shouldn’t be fired for extra-curricular utterances of any sort, but if he’s in the classroom he can and should be disciplined for urging controversial, polemical views.
2) While banning political matters from the classroom is impossible, the discussion of such matters should take place in academic terms. The assertion that the war in Afghanistan is racist is a judgment, is not properly "academic."
3) On the other hand, it would be OK to have a conference entitled "Are We Fighting a Racist War in Afghanistan," since this would inspire debate backed with evidence. "Speakers would
give their answers and back up what they said with evidence, and other
speakers would give opposing answers and cite alternative bodies of
evidence."

So, from the three, it sounds as though a polemical utterance ("the war in Afghanistan is racist") is only academic, and thus appropriate, when it comes in the course of a debate, a dialogue. A classroom isn’t a classroom when there’s someone from the otherside to talk back? Is this what Fish meant to say? Did he mean to say anything at all?

And given this, what do we make of his dismissal of just this argument a few paragraphs later?

So again, what do you do? One thing administrators sometimes do in
this kind of situation is understandable but academically suspect. They
go for "balance"; that is, they don’t withdraw the invitation to a
Churchill type, but they surround him on the stage with persons from
the "opposing side," say someone who advocates expelling or imprisoning
or (at the very least) registering all the Arabs living in this
country. The idea is to inoculate the institution from criticism by
multiplying the points of view represented so that no one of them seems
to be endorsed or valued. The model for that strategy is to be found in
those U.S. Supreme Court cases in which it was held that you couldn’t
put a cross or a crèche on the courthouse steps unless you placed next
to it a menorah or a Buddha or a wigwam or something. In that way, the
state gets to display those symbols — and its tolerance — without
taking any of them seriously.

But that’s just the trouble. The academy flourishes when it takes
ideas seriously; turning the occasion of a talk on a particular topic
or question into a pledge of allegiance to balance and First Amendment
neutrality blunts the edge of any of the arguments that might be made
and makes them theatrical in the pejorative sense: They are just part
of the "see how ecumenical we are" play. It may look like the
protection of academic inquiry, but in fact it is the evacuation of
academic inquiry.

In other words, discourse isn’t academic when it takes the form of a staged debate, debate for debate’s sake, empty ecumenicalism. Hmm… I’m afraid he’s lost me. Just like he lost me, a month after 9/11, when Fish published in the Times his satantically torqued defense of postmodernism – as a technology built for some serious terrorist ass-kicking. Here’s the piece, hearteningly titled "Condemnation Without Absolutes."

When Reuters decided to be careful about using the word
"terrorism" because, according to its news director, one man’s
terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of
the Annenberg School for Communication at the  University of Southern California, castigated
what he saw as one more instance of cultural relativism. But Reuters is simply
recognizing how unhelpful the word is, because it prevents us from making
distinctions that would allow us to get a better picture of where we are and
what we might do. If you think of yourself as the target of terrorism with a
capital T, your opponent is everywhere and nowhere. But if you think of yourself
as the target of a terrorist who comes from somewhere, even if he operates
internationally, you can at least try to anticipate his future assaults.

Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a cast of mind that
renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary,
then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by
definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them
is neither an option nor a danger.

Only when you get past the false essentialism of assuming that the whole world is out to get you, can you begin smart-bombing the right set of bad guys. To paraphrase a popular Vietnam helmet motto, "Kill ’em all, let postmodernism sort it out."

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 10, 2005 at 12:17 am

Posted in academia

10 Responses

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  1. Q: is Fish any good at Milton (his specialty, right?)I’m not being snarky here; some people are gifted specialists, but aren’t satisfied with doing well in their area of expertise, and show themselves to be nutjobs or worse when they wander outsideand alas, they insist on wandering outside their field…
    For example, I understand Robert Faurisson did important work on Rimbaud (IIRC, he’s mentioned numerous times in Enid Starkey [sp?] bio of Rimbaud.) Of course, he’s better known as the Holocaust revisionist for whom Chomsky penned a preface.
    Please don’t construe this as an attempt to draw a moral equivalence between Fish and Faurisson (although I didn’t know that about Fish on the war in Afghanistan….urgh.) But in either case, we’d be better off if somebody had patted them on their heads and said, “Oh, that’s very nice sweetie…now why don’t you go do something on your speciality? You know how I enjoy it when you do that!”

    et alia

    May 11, 2005 at 11:08 pm

  2. People condemn Chomsky by the same flawed logic, I’m sure you realize.
    I’m not a Miltonist, but it’s clear that Fish’s work had a major impact on the field.

    Jonathan

    May 11, 2005 at 11:40 pm

  3. Fish’s work on Milton is considered quite important – Surprised By Sin…
    But I’m not a Miltonist, so my main interest in Fish is his new career as the public representative of the discipline. (Search on the NY Times for his name – he’s written a slew of columns for them since 9/11).
    The shitty thing is, Fish is seen to be a representative of “postmodern theory” by the MSM – when that’s not really the case. More of a pragmatist, personally and in terms of his work. Totally divorced from the left side of the ledger.
    Among those who know him, or know folks who know him, his got the reputation of being quite a dick as well. So I’ve heard.

    CR

    May 12, 2005 at 1:09 am

  4. http://www.lichtensteiger.de/impatience.html
    (Fish was a former student of Derrida, right?)

    Anonymous

    May 14, 2005 at 12:44 am

  5. I’m a fan of Fish (although I just saw Hitchhiker’s Guide last night and keep thinking of the theme song, ‘so long, farewell, and thanks for all the fish’) anyway. In my view, these comments show what happens when someone becomes an administrator. They aren’t about Fish’s work. They are about institutions saving their asses. And, that is part of the banality of the academy these days–the fearful worry about boldness, a worry that hides under the trappings of academic debate in a way that is convincing to no one.

    Jodi

    May 15, 2005 at 11:34 am

  6. The notion of “interpretive communities” always struck me as a bit bold, but fishy.

    Matt

    May 15, 2005 at 11:37 am

  7. Jodi –
    I know what you mean – my own work, without real reference to Fish, definitely plays along the “reader response” line… A line that’s being internalized and naturalized by literary studies. So I guess I owe him at least that.
    But I’ve had a huge problem with his arguments (if that’s the word for them) in his new incarnation as a public intellectual in the NY Times and Chronicle of Higher Ed. This “pragmatic” turn, which seems seems like a way of greying white guys to say “oh, but it’s so much more complicated than all of you are making it – so complicated, in fact, that the only thing to do is give up and go with the flow…” Hence, learning to focus in on and smoke out of their holes (wholes?) terrorists with a little t. Or this stuff about Churchill and Larry Summers (throw the former out, and the latter, well, what can you do: that’s academic freedom for you…) Ugly.
    There’s been an ugly trend post-9/11 for the tenured radicals of old to suddenly find “maturity” and throw up their hands. The horrorshow Critical Inquiry issue last year, the exchange in the LRB letters after 9/11, etc…

    CR

    May 15, 2005 at 12:11 pm

  8. Matt –
    Nice link…
    And this is the turn that bothers me:
    “Fish’s argument to this effect was quickly seconded in Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’s “Against Theory,” and these critics are often seen as forming with Fish a “neo-pragmatist” movement placing a higher value on practice over theory. But this position seems caught up in a number of contradictions. Fish’s critique of theory is itself a piece of theory, a general account that seeks to direct practice, so it seems caught in a vicious circle. Moreover, the consistent thing for Fish to do, having recommended that we stop doing theory, would be to follow his own advice and return from theory to the domain of “practice,” something he has through the early 1990s shown no signs of doing.”
    I think the author of this summary gets it just about right…

    CR

    May 15, 2005 at 12:12 pm

  9. There’s a grain of truth in that. Michael Bérubé has a provocative essay on Fish too, which details his popular demise. I think it can be found here:
    http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/essays/

    Matt

    May 15, 2005 at 10:52 pm


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