Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bauerlein, Mark. "A Solitary Thinker." CHRONICLE REVIEW May 15, 2011.

It is tempting to attribute Fish's enduring marquee value to professional savvy and provocative temper. Nobody else has slid in and out of controversy and dispute so often, nor has anyone proven so willing and able to combat conservatives and (sometimes) liberals in academic forums and nationwide media alike. Think of major debates in literary and cultural studies, and Fish is there—High Theory in the 70s, culture wars in the 80s, political correctness in the 90s, and ideological bias in the 2000s. Over time, the labels have accumulated and contradicted one another:
  • "The scourge of Western civilization" (The New Yorker)
  • "The willfully provocative, politically conservative law professor" (The New York Times Magazine)
  • "Pied Piper of Relativism" (The Wall Street Journal)
  • "Academic radical" (Roger Kimball)
  • "Totalitarian Tinkerbell" (Camille Paglia)
  • "He's One of Us!" (The Duke Review, a conservative student newspaper)
  • "The High Priest of PC" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
  • "A 53-year-old white male ... [who has] taught only traditional texts written by canonical male authors of the ultracanonical English Renaissance" (Fish on himself)
One could add the jeers that sprinkle comments on nearly every one of Fish's Times articles, as well as the accusations of radical subjectivism and sophistry by traditionalist academics from the 70s forward (a collection of essays about Fish's work is titled Postmodern Sophistry). Add up the judgments, and Fish's character lessens and simplifies. He's a polarizer, a provocateur, a controversialist, a casuist. For him, it's the game that counts, not the truth.

So goes the common opinion, but in truth it devalues Fish's thought and his disposition. Yes, Fish has adjusted his opinion about many things, but one root belief stands firm, which he summarized recently in a conversation with me: "Forms of knowledge are historically produced by men and women like you and me, and are therefore challengeable and revisable." Moreover, Fish has maintained the historicity of all truths and methods at complicated and crisis-ridden times, taking positions that have alternately inspired and affronted his colleagues. There's a pattern: Fish championed new ideas and interests at times of ferment and controversy, only to dissent when the profession absorbed those ideas and converted them into dogmas and reflexes. It was the trendiness and sectarianism of literary studies that made him seem ever tactical and adversarial. As theories and missions, at first fresh and creative, congealed into group outlooks, a nonconformist impulse burst through, a habit of mind partly for and partly against the pieties of the moment—which, of course, makes him the pious ones' most irritating colleague. . . .


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