Keeping Up with the Fishes

A historian of celebrity culture might include in a footnote the curious emergence, brief duration, and inauspicious decline of a “star system” in academic literary studies in last quarter of the twentieth century. The recent publication of an authorized biography of Stanley Fish, who was among the most famous of those stars in the brave o’er hanging firmament of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s, offers an occasion to reflect upon this strange moment in modern literary studies. After all, Fish was not merely one among many stars at the time, but he also developed a persona as well as a critical theory that actively fueled this sort of academic glamour, decadence, and celebrity in literary studies at the time. Stanley Fish, America’s Enfant Terrible, by Gary A. Olson, is not so much a study of the life of an influential literary critic and university administrator than it is a tabloid-styled celebration of a popular celebrity. It is less Cleanth Brooks and more Khloé Kardashian.


In his fascinating study of the rise, spread, and ultimate decline of “French theory” in America, François Cusset identified the emergence of academic stars as one of the more striking side-effects of the phenomenon, but he also observed that these “stars” became better known for their roles in the star system than for their own writings or ideas. Thus, for example, “scores of Americans have heard of Stanley Fish’s car collection, Cornel West’s salary, Stephen Greenblatt’s circle of friends, Donna Haraway’s provocative wardrobe, and queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s late conversion to Buddhism before – and, also, all too often instead of – knowing their academic works.” Each of these figures proved themselves to be influential teachers, scholars, and literary critics, but if such publications as the New York Times took note of them, it was not always because their research seemed especially newsworthy. But also, lest we give overestimate the grandeur of this star system, please note that Cusset says “scores,” not hundreds or thousands; notwithstanding the enthusiasm of some, there were not all that many stargazers.

Among such luminaries as Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Edward Said, Richard Rorty, and Fredric Jameson, all discussed by Cusset, Fish stands out for a couple of reasons: first, because he became the most widely known outside of the groves of academe, appearing in well-publicized debates, writing a regular online column for the New York Times, and generally making himself familiar to an audience far beyond that found in Milton Studies or similar such communities; but second, because – unlike some of other “public intellectuals” of this era, such as Said, Gates, or West – Fish develops a theory and practice more or less designed to celebrate celebrity. Becoming a “star” was one of Fish’s professional aims, as Olson’s authorized biography of him makes clear. We might even say that, if there were not a star system for him to join, he’d have had to invent one. We might even say that he did.

In Stanley Fish, America’s Enfant Terrible, Olson endeavors to tell a Horatio Alger story of Fish’s rise to fame and fortune (2), and in this tale, Fish’s insatiable desire for both renown and the remuneration that frequently comes with it provides the backbone of the narrative. We learn early on that a “working-class kid” from Providence, Rhode Island, vowed that “he would one day become the highest-paid English professor in the nation – which essentially meant the entire world. He would achieve that goal” (28). Olson follows Fish from his elite prep school through an Ivy League education, then to ever more lucrative positions at such institutions as Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Olson takes care to highlight just how canny Fish is in parlaying campus visits and public lectures – “whatever he was offered by a university, he would demand more – and he usually got it” (79) – into lucrative tenured positions. For over fifty years, Fish has undoubtedly been a gifted teacher, a productive scholar, and a diligent provider of service to his departments, to his universities, and to the profession at large. Yet this is not enough for Olson. Beyond being a mere literature professor, department chairman, or college dean, Fish comes off as a tabloid celebrity, a national “star,” in this account.

There is a certain puckish irony about all this, which may have something to do with Fish’s own immense charm and intellect. After all, a major facet of Fish’s theory of literature is that it, as an institution, has no real bearing on the outside world. One of Fish’s recent books, written in his capacity as a dean and elder statesman of higher education, is called Save the World on Your Own Time. He lists “Do your job!” as the categorical imperative of the profession, with “Don’t do somebody else’s job” and “Don’t let somebody else do your job” as necessary correlates. Fish insists, there as elsewhere, that literary studies is a specialized “profession,” with strict professional rules and conventions. This means that a literature professor cannot possibly also effect social or political change, at least not by doing the job of a literature professor. Fish’s oversized influence on or notoriety in the world outside of literary criticism is thus ironic.

Fish’s injunction to “Do your job!” is not merely the “best standards and practices” position of an efficient administrator, but lies at the heart of Fish’s most significant contribution to literary theory and criticism. I refer to Fish’s clever notion of “interpretive communities,” elaborated in a series of essays collected and expanded in Is There a Text in This Class? The concept, as well as its connection to a “star system,” may be illustrated by way of a well-known anecdote, recounted in Olson’s biography:

When he was on the Hopkins faculty, he once gave a lecture at another university, and an audience member stood up and asked brusquely why the audience should believe what he was saying. Stanley shot back, “Because I am Stanley Fish, I teach at Johns Hopkins University, and I make seventy-five thousand dollars a year. That’s why” (162).

Olson cites this as an example of how Fish could sometimes use money as “a visible sign to him of his success and influence, not to mention a weapon to use to bludgeon someone who is out of line” (162), but the riposte in fact supports, or is supported by, Fish’s theory of interpretation.

The theory goes something like this: If there is no transcendentally “true” or “correct” interpretation of a particular text, then that doesn’t mean that no interpretation is possible or that all interpretations are equally valid. On the contrary, it merely ensures that a certain range of possibility is permitted, and the permission is granted by the authority of the interpretive community itself. Such a community might be that of Milton scholars, who may allow, even encourage, a novel interpretation or analysis of a section of Paradise Lost, but who would serve as de facto gatekeepers to misguided reading that appeared to them to be obviously outside the range of acceptable practice. As Fish had put it in Is There a Text in This Class?, meanings are always the product of a point of view (hence, subjective), but that point of view is social or institutional (hence, objective), as the meanings that this so-called “self” “confers on texts is not its own but have their source in the interpretive community (or communities) of which it is a function.”

In the case of literary studies, then, the interpretive community becomes coextensive with the institutions of criticism, scholarship, and teaching, which place limits on the range of acceptable interpretation; while this community does not certify that only one meaning is correct, it does prevent outlandish readings from gaining footholds. Therefore, as quite possibly the most prominent figure within the institutional organization of the interpretive community in question – as evidenced by his well-paid, tenured position at one of the most elite universities in the country – Stanley Fish can claim that his own interpretation is valid if not necessarily true. That job and paycheck, presumably, just confirm what the community already suspected about his authority.

Needless to say, this kind of sophistry is both compelling and appalling. (It is also ingenious, in that it basically presupposes that Fish is correct and cannot be gainsaid: that is, if you can understand his argument, then you’ve proved his point by demonstrating that you are a member of his interpretive community; if you do not understand, then you’re in no position to argue, are you?) For Fish, all criticism becomes a sort of professional game, which in turn makes careerist ladder-climbing, measured by titles and salaries, the supreme justification of the critical endeavor. As Terry Eagleton has complained,

[Fish] is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervor with which others push secondhand Hoovers.

(Eagleton wrote this in 2000; one imagines that the reference to Trump may have taken on a surfeit of meanings in the intervening years, especially 2016.) Oddly enough, Olson’s biography, which – while not exactly hagiographic – is quite glowing in its portrait of the notoriously irascible scholar, confirms or even endorses this view of Fish as an almost made-for-television celebrity, one who could very well fill in for Trump for a season or two as the guest host of “The Apprentice.” Indeed, he would probably relish the opportunity to declare to those he deemed unworthy, “You’re fired.”

In his astute review of this book, Scott McLemee compared it to the sort of pulpy, mass-culture, celebrity biography, in which a celebrity is defined as someone well-known for being well-known. McLemee writes that “At no point does the subject go into rehab, but other than that, the book hits most of the tabloid marks: humble origins, plucky self-fashioning, innovative and controversial work, exorbitant earnings (for a Milton scholar), and illicit romance (leading to marital bliss). Much of this was once English department gossip, but now posterity is the richer for it.” Indeed, the biographer appears to be much more interested in “English department gossip” than in a study of a critic’s life and work.

Olson, who is the president of Daemon College, writes a thoroughly admiring narrative of the Fish’s life, focusing less on his actually professional accomplishments or controversies than on his person itself. (In fairness, Olson had previously written a study of Fish’s criticism, and he here asserts that the biography is intended as a “reportorial narrative,” rather than a “scholarly treatise” [x], not that anyone would likely confuse the two.) For example, Olson devotes only one paragraph, half of which merely mentions the acknowledgements and dedication, to Is There a Text in This Class?, one of Fish’s most important and influential books. By contrast, he spends a full three paragraphs on the rug that a young Professor Fish laid down in his Berkeley office (38–39). In discussing Fish’s move from the University of California to Johns Hopkins, Olson emphasizes such matters as his purchasing “a magnificent Georgian-style house in the historic Mount Washington section” of Baltimore for $80,000, “a large amount” but Fish “knew that this was a good value” (64–65). Later, while discussing Fish’s time at Duke University, Olson details the circumstances under which Fish bought a house in Chapel Hill for $234,000, as if anyone interested in Fish’s life must be more intrigued by how much he paid for a car or a house than what he wrote or taught. In fact, to hear Olson narrate it, Fish’s extensive career largely comes down to a series of real estate upgrades and pay raises.

Additionally, the subtitle’s phrase enfant terrible seems wholly inapplicable to a person who achieved his academic renown only in his 30s and his infamy in the broader culture in his 50s and beyond. If Fish has been unruly, then at least grant that he has been an adult about it. To call Fish America’s enfant terrible seems even less apt, since the United States has certainly produced far more unorthodox “terrible” figures, even if we limited our scope to the rarefied domain of literary criticism, never mind that far more well-known terrain of the Hollywood or sports celebrity, whose biographies this book seems compelled to imitate. And yet, so smitten is Olson with this label (one Fish himself must have “authorized”) that it appears no fewer than 40 times in the slim volume. It is as though Olson were trying to will such a being into existence by sheer incantatory perseverance. It is doubtful that “America” as a whole will take notice.

The greatest irony in all this is that no such “star” can possibly exist in the United States today, and that even those very few non-academics who know of Stanley Fish would hardly consider him to be a threat to the country or to basic decorum. Had Olson had written this book in the mid-1990s, when Fish was on his nationwide debating tour with antagonist, co-conspirator, and later felon Dinesh D’Souza, arguing over multiculturalism, hate speech, and political correctness, then perhaps this celebrity portrait might have been more timely.

Instead, the retrospective account of Fish’s career only serves to remind us today of how little any of this matters. When Fish achieved infamy as a “tenured radical” at Duke – always worth a laugh for Fish, a moderate liberal or fiscal conservative of the “Scoop Jackson” variety – the battle in English was over the canon, and the culture wars more broadly had to do with approaches to the texts under consideration. William Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later Secretary of Education under President Reagan, was worried about the threat to Western Civilization posed by universities expanding their required reading lists beyond to old Great Books tradition. Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind identified the crucial problem with contemporary U.S. culture as “the Nietzscheanization of the Left.” Heaven forfend! Would that we had a conservative movement today that insisted that the fate of the Republic depended on our reading more Plato! Or on reading anything at all, for that matter.

For better or worse, “stars” like Fish just can’t exist anymore. The purported “end of theory,” which has often meant the absorption and diffusion of theory into all areas of literary critical practices, has made the apparent novelty and “hipness” of certain brands of literary criticism, along with the stardom of their proponents, far less relevant. Given the sheer tedium of the celebrity critic profile, as evidenced by Olson’s fascination with Fish’s tastes in furniture or automobiles, perhaps this is for the best. Years ago, in a 1997 PMLA article titled “The Star System in Literary Studies,” David Shumway complained that the academic star system was making criticism less critical, as adoring fans merely cited their favorite theorists without giving further thought to the problems arising in or from their work. Literary academe may lack some of the glamor of that era, but one must conclude that the demise of the star system might be a silver lining of the storm-clouds menacing the humanities today.

© 2016 Robert T. Tally Jr.

Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University. His recent publications include Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism, Poe and the Subversion of American LiteratureSpatiality (The New Critical Idiom), and, as editor, The Geocritical Legacies of Edward W. SaidLiterary Cartographies, and The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space. Tally is also the editor of Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies, a Palgrave Macmillan book series.


2 responses

  1. […] T. Tally, Jr., “Keeping Up with the Fishes,” review of Stanley Fish: America’s Enfant Terrible, by Gary A. […]

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