For decades, Professor Stanley Fish has asserted there is an essential nothingness at the heart of humanistic inquiry.
Now, after a long career of promoting his postmodern theories about art and rhetoric–arguing all along that there’s no truth at the center of things–Fish, with an apparent sense of shoulder-shrugging, tells us that it’s tough to make a case for the study of humanities these days.
Although he has taught English and law for many years at places such as UC Berkeley, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Yale, and although he has spent over 60 years “in conversation” with greats such as Plato, Milton, and Shakespeare, he’s not sure how to “sell” such pursuits to students.
“I hate to be the one to tell you,” he writes in a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “but there is no generalizable benefit to having led a life centered on great texts.”
He offers no solution to this crisis or inspirational words for students who might be interested in subjects such art, literature, and philosophy. Instead, in typical Fishian fashion, he only seeks to point out why all the current justifications for such study are wrong.
He says “great texts,” of course, rather than “great books,” quite deliberately. The word “books” conveys notions of facts, information, and established meaning–but a central tenet of Fish’s critical theory is that such concepts are ruses.
Rather, readers only interact with “texts,” whose words might as well be written on water: the act of writing by the author is imperfect, the intent behind the words may be inexact or indeterminate, and the readers themselves are hopelessly subjective in their reactions to those words. “Texts” are only Rorschachs in typeset, where fluid senses of meaning compete for transitory dominance.
With regard to poetry, for example, “Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them,” because “all objects are made not found.”
So suggested Professor Fish in his book, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Published in 1980, the book–ahem, text–signaled the rise of Fish as an academic celebrity in the 1980’s and 90’s, as he mischievously subverted traditional expectations of art, quality, and meaning.
Fish was probably most influential in the mid-1980’s when, as chairman of Duke University’s English department, he transformed it into a hotbed of fashionable, highly-paid, avant-garde critical theorists, largely promoting postmodern and/or Marxist approaches to literary study.
Never mind that the department was left in a “seriously weakened position” (according to a formal, external academic review) once Fish’s flashy stint there was over. By that point, the influence of Duke’s faculty had spread nationwide, infecting the study of humanities for years to come.
By now, critics from both left and right have widely rejected Fish’s theories, and his arguments have variously been described as “unprincipled,” “sinister,” and “careless.” Professor Christopher Ricks characterized Fish as “the Doctor Strangelove of the theory effort” and said Fish’s ideas “lobotomise” critical thought.
Roger Kimball, as an early, vocal critic of Fish, provided an especially valuable service by exposing the nihilism behind Fish’s work, describing him with a word many others would later invoke: sophist.
Writing in The New Criterion in 1989, Kimball identified deep flaws in Fish’s scholarship, which has frequently tended towards both self-contradiction and self-promotion. Kimball wrote:
“Professor Fish’s habit of denying the positions he had once forcefully insisted upon might simply be evidence of his unusual openness to criticism and willingness to change his mind when confronted with superior arguments. But a suspicious observer might wonder whether the driving force of his intellectual life is not truth but the desire for a certain notoriety.”
Self-promotion aside, though, Fish was doing real damage with his subversive rejection of concepts such as quality and meaning. It’s all relative! Kimball extracted representative sophisms from Fish’s book Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies:
“Professor Fish’s favorite method of introducing such charming sophisms is by bluntly denying the obvious. ‘There is no such thing as…’—you name it: truth, merit, justice, facts. For example:
there is no such thing as literal meaning . . . (Page 4)
there can be no such thing as theory … (Page 14)
there is no such thing as intrinsic merit . . . (Page 164)”
Now, 30 years later, in his Chronicle column, Fish joins the rest of us in observing that “the humanities are taking it on the chin.” Fewer students are interested in humanities courses, and some universities have begun to shut down art, English, philosophy, and language departments.
Remarkably, Fish gives no consideration in the column of why this might be. Left unaddressed is the giant elephant-in-the-text: that Fish and his ilk helped destroy interest in such studies, as he and other radical theorists twisted and tortured great books to the point they all seemed tales told by idiots, signifying nothing.
Instead, Fish is concerned with debunking any feel-good reasons which might encourage students to sign up for one of those English or art history courses.
-Does the study of the humanities incubate broader skills which are useful in later life and work? No. “Arguments that assert the utility of humanistic study,” he writes, “become strained after a very short while.” It’s hard to make the connection between studying Renaissance poetry and developing modern language skills, Fish says.
-Does studying great works make one a better person? No. As Fish explains, “Anyone who believes that hasn’t spent much time in English and philosophy departments.”
-Is studying the humanities good for democracy? No. This is a “specious argument.”
And so, having done so much with his intellectual energy to burn down traditional regard for the humanities, Fish now pokes among the ashes and can’t think of why anyone else should come take a look. After dismissing all the rationales for humanities study, he concludes, “Alas, there will be no turn at the end of this essay to a solution everyone else has missed…I can’t think of a plan that would return the humanities to the prominence they once enjoyed.”
We can’t think of such a plan, either, now that so much damage has been done.
But we will take solace in two thoughts. First, that regular, common-sense people will always be attracted to and find innate value in great art. Second, there is purpose and truth in that art, as Flannery O’Connor explained:
“Art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.”