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.