U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Luring Fish, Or Stanley Fish Simplified And Criticized

Stanley Fish’s ongoing posts on “French Theory in America” at his New York Times weblog, Think Again, have attracted a great deal of reader interest. Our very own Mike O’Connor brought the first to our attention a few weeks back. As of yesterday, the first Fish post garnered 615 comments and counting, and the second 270.

The first post served as a preview/review of Francois Cusset’s book, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota Press). The second dealt with Fish’s response to first post’s comments. Based on the number of comments between the two, I’d say the book’s sales prospects are solid. [Aside: Per the link, you can see that the book is already for sale.]

I have two goals for this post. First, I want to distill Professor Fish’s 26 paragraph “Part Two” post into something even more concise—five paragraphs or less. My post can then serve as a “reader aid” to his. Then I’ll both praise and criticize his effort.

Professor Fish begins Part Two by addressing a few specific comments to Part One. He summarized their points in his own words. He identified a group of comments that admired Derrida’s epistemology. Those critics of his post asserted that there is no such thing as a final meaning, or resting point, for a text: deconstruction prevents all forms of textual idolatry. Fish seems to gently mock those members of this group who argued that his analysis of Derrida, in particular, was pointless. Fish alludes to Derrida’s circularity by citing instances of multiple beginnings in the latter’s texts. Fish then notes a second group of comments. This group said he got it wrong when he argued against the political implications of deconstruction. This summarizes the first seven paragraphs.

After this, Professor Fish attacks these points by creating two more groups: those who see both negative and positive consequences of deconstruction. He argues against the negative group, who see deconstruction as taking away our “most cherished beliefs” and meanings, by asserting that deconstruction is merely a theory of knowledge, an epistemology. As a theory deconstruction gets us nowhere with regard to concrete facts. Fish then mocks them with Alan Sokal’s challenge to jump from a “rhetorical” high-rise window. Funny. Fish’s message to those who believe in the practical (read: political) effects of postmodern discourse are invited to understand why a postmodernist wouldn’t have jumped: namely, because experience, not theories of truth, informed her/him not to. Postmodern arguments, therefore, do no signal a loss of meaning to Fish. They’re merely wordplay, not a substantial interpretation of either the text or life itself. This summarizes paragraphs eight through fifteen.

The next line of attack consisted of Fish undermining those who have a positive view of the effects of deconstruction. Some assert that Derridean deconstruction leads us to softer, less dogmatic stances or more dialogue. No way. To Fish, it’s evidence and probability that soften us up. Something concrete has to contradict our point of view, or lower the possibility of its meaning what we think. Fish’s conclusion: “There is just no necessary or even likely relationship between one’s performance as a theorist [or belief in a truth theory] and one’s performance in the polity.” This constitutes paragraphs sixteen through nineteen.

As a last thrust of his argument against the positive effects of deconstruction in America, Fish takes on those who think deconstruction alerts us to the fact that we’re continually dealing with social constructions and not “natural” institutions or events. So what? Fish writes that e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g we deal with and live within is a social construction. And if all things reside in that category, then deconstruction is too vague to be useful. He added: “Not only does deconstruction not threaten anything or deliver anything, it doesn’t change anything.” Deconstruction “is not the answer to any empirical question.” This summarizes paragraphs twenty to twenty-three.

In his last three paragraphs, Fish asks “So what was all the fuss about?” Deconstruction was nothing more, in his final analysis, than “a sexy new way of thinking.” Some caught “the wave,” and some didn’t.

There. I summarized Professor Fish’s 26 paragraphs into 5. Now what? How does this apply to USIH readers?

I tend to agree with Fish’s cynical view of the effects of 1960s and 1970s-era French theory in America. Although I find it intriguing and intellectually challenging, the results were mixed. It always seemed to me to be just another way to try and “get behind” or revise the normative narrative. That is a fine thing by itself, no matter the means, the clothing. So I appreciated the end goal of most deconstruction as applied to history, even if I disliked the theoretical language—the jargon—that accompanied the effort.

My biggest criticism of Fish’s two posts is that, aside from a few references in Part One, neither essay recounts his own empirical experiences in America. Fish argues with the text and against deconstructionism abstractly. He cites “American academics,” and Richard Rorty, Judith Butler, and Joan Scott, all of whom are presumably a part of Cusset’s text. The philosophical/abstract counter arguments have been out there for some time. But if Fish feels strongly about the subject, enough to post twice on it and spend a great deal of time answering the comments, then he should cite his own professional experiences that corroborate (or not) Cusset’s text.

In a related fashion, I want to hear—from Fish—on how he sees U.S. intellectual life in general as being “transformed” by French theory. My experience in the academy, in history, was that only parts of the same were affected by deconstruction, Derrida, and other French theorists. If U.S. intellectual life was broadly affected by the same, it seems to me that it was in a reactionary way. But does “reaction” constitute a “transformation,” to use Cusset’s word? Now if Cusset argues that the Culture Wars (Is it not time to start capitalizing this?) were the product of French theory in America, well, I’ll need to read the book before affirming or denying his hypothesis. My hunch is that might be overly reductionist. Still, one or both sides in the Culture Wars may have appropriately or falsely appropriated French theory. Could it be that “the right” trumped up the effects as a straw man? Did “the left” use it after the fact, not seeing the weaknesses of deconstruction?

But, back to Stanley Fish, what does he think about the transformation of U.S. intellectual life in general? It is clear that he counts himself among those opposed to, or skeptical of, French theory in the academy. Fine. But please ground your argument in your autobiography—in concrete, empirical U.S. events. By doing this, Professor Fish will help future historians figure out the intricacies of late twentieth-century, academic-intellectual-social connections. – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. But if Fish feels strongly about the subject, enough to post twice on it and spend a great deal of time answering the comments, then he should cite his own professional experiences that corroborate (or not) Cusset’s text.

    I totally agree. I’d like to add to it however. While some of the comments to Fish’s posts became nasty ad homs, I share their disposition when they ask the question: “How can you, Mr. Fish, write so blasé about ‘theory’ when you basically built your entire career around it?” (And Milton of Course). It’s more of a curiosity than a point of contention.

    On a similar note, I’m not only curious to know what he thinks about intellectual life being transformed by French Theory, but also, about what he thinks about intellectual life in general.

    Yet I am reminded of this piece in the NYT:


    Published almost 5 years ago to the day, where Fish is quoted as saying:

    ”I wish to deny the effectiveness of intellectual work. And especially, I always wish to counsel people against the decision to go into the academy because they hope to be effective beyond it.”

    hmmm… one must wonder.

    Nevertheless, my amateur understanding of it is tempted to see it as a reflection of a much deeper rooted question that the political left, as disorganized as it is, is trying to answer. Namely the question of Social Democracy (I thought Sherri Berman’s book and the responses on Crooked Timber were excellent in this regard). Indeed, in the first piece Fish wraps up by saying that:

    That drama features deconstruction either as a positive weapon or as an object of attack, but the springs of the drama are elsewhere (in the ordinary, not theoretical, world of economic/social interest) because deconstruction neither mandates nor authorizes any course of action

    This is a rich statement. Not only does he elevate the “ordinary world of economic/social interest” above the “theoretical” (in effect returning to the base rather than the superstructure- a tendency which is Social Democratic as well as Marxist), but he also repeats his claim that ‘deconstruction doesn’t authorize any course of action’.

    On the first note, I agree. Even Rorty talked about how ‘theory’ shouldn’t signal a retreat from politics into culture. Theorists need to accept their own decentering of their own subjectivity and realize that while they “endlessly” (I joke) problematize the relationship between liberalism, capitalism and democracy in constituting ‘the human, they need to also exercise their social democratic muscle. Discourses need to be critiqued and genealogies of power/knowledge need to be mapped, but not at the cost of political quietism.

    Yet, I find his oft-repeated claim that “deconstruction doesn’t authorize any course of action” to be absurd and a red herring. To say that deconstruction by itself doesn’t yield a certain politics is not a claim unique to deconstruction. No philosophy (epistemological, political, ethical) necessarily yields a certain form of politics, and Fish knows this. Even a freshman humanities major will be exposed to Wittgenstein’s argument about ‘Family Resemblances’ and can discern that there is no such thing as liberal-ism, but rather, only liberal-ism(s). The point of family resemblances is that there isn’t one trait that a family shares in common; there is no lowest common denominator per se. But rather, there are a series of overlapping qualities that they will share (you have your dad’s eyes, your uncle’s hairline, your grandmother’s nose- but there isn’t something that your entire family all shares- there is no essence to being a “Johnson”).

    This is quite elementary. Stanley Fish knows this.
    But if Professor Fish was not inviting us, the public, into an academic conference to discuss the contours of theory, especially when he finds no efficacy for them, what was he doing? The only conclusion I can make out is that is that Professor Fish was telling us to put away the theory- to not worry about it and be a good a liberal
    (social democrat). Yet instead of telling us that he thinks that the political options open in liberalism are a better political strategy for achieving ‘justice’ than ‘theory’, why didn’t he just tell us- instead of setting up the strawman that ‘theory’ cannot yield politics?

    In the end, I am tempted to see ‘french theory’, in a complicated way, as a form of ‘discourse ethics’. Habermas probably has a lot in common with his detractors in this regard. On the other end, Fish is telling us to be healthy materialists and good Social Democrats. I think there is an opening here to call him a Straussian, but I don’t think he’s going down that road per se.

    I am partisan to neither, and as an undergraduate, I am hoping to not become partisan for quite a while. I’m enjoying my skeptical posture for now.

    A point that I will not talk about, but I wish to mention in passing, is that he made a great disservice in subsuming all French Theory into deconstruction. French Theory is so diverse, and disparate, that lumping it all together, not to mention reducing it to a single ‘school’, is not only an immature intellectual history but also makes it much easier to dismiss without any engagement.

    Hope all is well and cheers from Berkeley!

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