Stanley Fish and the Storm in Ottowa

Peter Wood

Stanley Fish has an unsurpassed talent for self-cancelling nullity. In his recent book, Save the World on Your Own Time, he strikes a pose against the politicized classroom only to carve out exceptions large enough to permit devoting a class to the topic, "Is George W. Bush the worst president in our history?" Radical feminists, advocates of the view that America is inherently racist, and enviro-activists can keep right on going in Fish's view, provided they spin their political positions as "analysis." Still, the title of the book and some of pages taken out of context have led some conservative critics of the university to mistake Fish as an ally. But Fish is no ally of traditional academic standards. He is simply a gentleman sophist who has made an art of sitting simultaneously on both sides of the fence.

Fish's New York Times blog entry, "The Two Languages of Academic Freedom," offers another study in bifurcation. It starts out sounding as though Fish morally disapproves of a man who hypocritically invokes "academic freedom" as an excuse for not performing his basic duties as a professor. The note of indignation rings through the first six paragraphs. Here is a man, Professor Rancourt, who clearly abuses his position, his students, his university, and the public trust. He denies the legitimacy of the university, but is willing to claim its protections when it suits him to. But come Fish's paragraph seven ("Rancourt is a self-described anarchist and an advocate of 'critical pedagogy'..."), a new note (think of a bassoon calling from the distance) is heard: it is the note of fascination. Provide something strange, academically outre, and this Fish is hooked. He seems by his deepest nature drawn to find virtue in what others find scabrous. He loves delinquency, and behaves (at age 71 or so) like a little boy proud of having stuck his finger into the pie.

Fish's admiration for Rancourt's bad-boy behavior is lightly disguised behind a string of quotations. He's just giving us the facts, after all. This is how Rancourt sees himself, so to speak. But there is more going on. Fish gets to pose as the expositor of a doctrine we may not have heard of, "critical pedagogy," and to explicate the thieves' argot of "squatting." This is showmanship, in case you failed to recognize it. But it also expresses Fish's pleasure in tracing the contours of a fellow subversive's thought. "Rancourt does not merely preach his philosophy. He practices it," smiles Fish, and for this fellow, there is no higher compliment.

But Fish has one more game to play. Up to now we might have thought he was just indulging in an amused description of Rancourt's rancid self-serving. In his last four paragraphs ("The record shows exchanges of letters...") Fish plays his favorite epistemological trick. It turns out he is neither outraged nor enamored with Rancourt. The Ottawa academic was just a prop to show that the concept of "academic freedom" has no essential meaning. An Arizona court says academic freedom doesn't protect incompetence; Rancourt says competence be damned; academic freedom is a tool of world revolution. And Fish says, it is impossible to judge which view is right on the merits, since both entail political presuppositions and conflicting worldviews.

So Fish is once again simultaneously on both sides of the fence—though no doubt he would say he is on neither. He also denies (elsewhere) that he is a relativist, though he certainly seems to quack like one. In his own view, he helps make the world "more intelligible," but I'm not sure that showing that two views of academic freedom are mutually exclusive clarifies much of anything. Fish's larger purpose apparent in much of his writing is to persuade us that rationality alone won't let us decide between rules based on civilized order and demands fueled by radical dissent. We have to choose one or the other based on something other than principled judgment, by voting our disposition, our preference, or our cultural druthers. But if it all comes down to non-rational preference, who is to say that Rancourt's preference is worse than that of the University of Ottawa?

This is postmodernism at work and it provides a neat little test: can you spot the fallacy? Is it circular reasoning? (Fish assumes politics comes first, then offers his assumption as proof that politics comes first.) Or is it the use of words with unacknowledged double meanings as though they referred to the same thing? (Rancourt has an idiosyncratic definition of "academic freedom," which need not be taken seriously at all, except that Fish elevates it to epistemological equivalence with a well-established legal concept.)

My explication is longer than Fish's original, but I imagine as an astute critic of poems, he would appreciate that. Fish's blogs have a certain poetic quality. He long ago ceased to have original thoughts, and he devotes himself these days to compact expressions of his same old magic tricks. He is a bit like the washed-up stage clown Calvero in Charlie Chaplain's wonderful movie, Limelight (1952) playing the same old gags over and over. Of course Fish, unlike Calvero, is still a celebrity. But it is hard to imagine that, by this point, he doesn't see through his own gags.

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