The Sentences of Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law.  He’s hella old, but instead of retiring to Florida, he did the next best thing:  Got a job writing editorials for the New York Times.  Oh, and took an academic job in Florida.  Before that, he taught at UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke and University of Illinois, Chicago.  During his protracted journeyings around this great nation, he’s built an intellectual reputation for advancing anti-foundationalism and extreme relativism.  Not the fake kind of relativism, where it just means you like gay people and disagree with Glenn Beck, but the real kind, where you go around like a dickhead telling everyone that truth doesn’t exist and human nature is just a bunch of historically contingent cultural norms.

Looking at his Wikipedia page, I find that critiques of his philosophical stance are legion.   For instance, Judith Shulevitz reports Fish “rejects wholesale the concepts of ‘fairness, impartiality, reasonableness,'” Terry Eagleton “excoriates Fish’s ‘discreditable epistemology’ as ‘sinister,'” and Martha Nussbaum says he “‘relies on the regulative principle of non-contradiction in order to adjudicate between competing principles,’ thereby relying on normative standards of argumentation even as he argues against them.”  I’m glad someone finally said something!  That’s basically what I was going to point out myself, but I didn’t want to be the first to one bring it up.

Knowing that Fish’s discreditable epistemology and regulative principle of non-contradiction have been duly addressed, we can turn with an easy conscience to this blog’s rightful concern: His writing for the Times.  Specifically, his sentences.  Fish is a master of sentences, having authored the recent volume How to Write a Sentence. So it’s fitting that we look to his methods for guidance and instruction.  What kind of sentences can a world-famous Milton scholar,  teacher to generations of young minds, and distinguished commentator for the Paper of Record turn out?

His latest post starts: “In a recent column in The Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts criticized Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for failing to denounce the proposal to honor Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest by issuing a vanity license plate bearing his name.”  I like it!  It has a lilt.  Like that rhyme about “This is the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.”  Except here, it’s the Herald writer that criticized the governor that failed to denounce the proposal that issued the plate that bore the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the KKK.  “In,” “for,” “to,” “by” are all great prepositions; criticizing, failing, denouncing, honoring, issuing, and bearing are all exciting actions I love to read about!  This sentence has got it all.  It’s like an encapsulation of the rich tapestry of American life.

And rightly so, given the topic of the essay.  Nathan Bedford Forrest became the first KKK Grand Wizard after amassing a fortune as a slave trader, becoming a Confederate general, and ordering his men to massacre hundreds of black Union soldiers.  As you can see, he is a complex figure with many facets to his personality, hence the raging debate over his legacy.  Nathan Beford Forrest: super nice guy, or just really nice guy?   He’s an enigma!

But Fish isn’t concerned with Forrest’s bid to join the elite ranks of such vanity license plate figures as the “Choose Life” baby, the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake, the Mississippi “Conserve Wildlife” trout, and the “In God We Trust” omniscient deity.  Fish is a sentence man, and here, he turns the wrath of his steely gaze on a sentence — a sentence so irrational, so misleading, and so damaging to the very fabric of democracy itself that it could only have come from one source: Sarah Palin.  Just kidding, Stanley Fish loves Sarah Palin!  (More on that later.)

No, the sentence in question was written by Leonard Pitts in a Miami Herald editorial.   Hayley Barbour had refused to weigh in on the Forrest license plate on the grounds that “I don’t go around denouncing people.”   By this logic, Pitts objects, “Barbour would be equally non-judgmental if his state were to consider similar honors to Osama bin Laden, convicted spy Robert Hanssen or Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.”  Now it’s Fish’s turn to object to Pitts (and now I am objecting to Fish’s objection to Pitt’s objection to Barbour… there does seem to be an egregious amount of recursion clinging somehow to this Forrest debate, a sort of mise en abîme effect that’s throwing off everybody’s sentences… maybe even mine! It’s like staring into an infinite void of self-referentiality and self-enclosed discursive play.  No wonder people are still confused about the KKK guy.)

Why the objection?  “[Pitts] is demanding that Barbour earn his right to be non-judgmental with respect to Forrest by being willing to extend the same generosity to bin Laden [et al.]….And you get the right to refrain from criticizing some only if you will also refrain from criticizing others…. I want to say that this is a bad move (and a cheap trick) because it deflects attention from the substantive claims being made and puts the spotlight instead on propositional consistency. The better move (by either party) would have been to …. back up the assertion with the marshaling of evidence. The better move, in short, would have been to take a stand on truth rather than shifting the focus to a calculation of reciprocal fairness.”

I “want to say” that Fish is a little on the verbose side.  It’s taken only 5 paragraphs for him to get to this “reciprocal fairness” thing.  But I think he’s missing the point.  Pitts, in my estimation, was trying to say that Forrest was a total dickhead… and those other guys were dickheads too… so they’re similar in that way.  And that a comprehensive “anti-denouncing” stance, such as the one Barbour disengenuously claims to hold, is untenable in a world so overrun by dickheads as ours.  I mean, I don’t think he was really calling on the governor of Mississippi to denounce Osama bin Laden.  To do so would only cloud the pellucid waters of this debate about vanity license plates.

Already, we’re deeply mired in confusion.  And we have six paragraphs to go!   Let’s skip to the end.

Fish is saying the real point is that Forrest was a bad man.  “Just say that, and don’t mess it up (and dilute it) by playing the ‘gotcha’ card, by challenging Barbour to display his liberal bona fides and accord equal treatment to everybody. That’s not what the moral life is about.”  Those liberals!  They’re so P.C. about things like war crimes and the KKK.  One day they’re calling on people to denounce lynching, the next they’ll be making everyone sign a loyalty oath.

Okay, next article.  This one’s about… well, you’ll figure it out.  “The code was part of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy adopted by the New York City school system and its application in this case tells us what zero tolerance means. It means no deviation from a precisely and narrowly formulated rule. ‘Narrowly formulated’ is  redundant because a rule is supposed to be narrow in a way that leaves very little if any latitude for interpretation.  A rule does not encourage one to ask if the fourth grader’s act was bullying or teasing; if it fits the physical description of bullying, then bullying or infraction A37 is what it is. A rule  is an ‘all or nothing’ proposition; it lays down the law and admits of no exceptions that might be claimed on the basis of  all the considerations it purposely excludes…. [A rule] stands as a bulwark against the instability and unpredictability that come along with making decisions case-by-case.”

I’m terribly sorry, I lost my concentration for a second there.  You were saying that rules are… different than random decisions? or the same?  Maybe it’d help if you restated your point once or twice?

Indeed, like all true masters of sentence-craft, Fish is willing to paraphrase his ideas as many times as it takes for them to get through the thick skulls of the readerly masses.  Despite his hard work, sometimes the masses just don’t get the point.  Here, he’s trying to explain that academic articles are intended to contribute to a body of ideas, rather than to influence real-world political and legal outcomes.  Sounds pretty simple, and yet:  “I have never felt that my attempts to explain this point have been entirely successful, but I am moved to try again by the recent experience of a conference that, I believe, exemplifies the point in action.”  How many tries is it gonna take for Fish to convince his readers that this one thing is different from that other thing?  If an action-packed example from his own life doesn’t do it for them, nothing will.  Man, what a bunch of idiots!

In all fairness, this academic stuff can be tricky.  Let’s turn to something simpler… like a movie review.  “Reviewers have remarked that the new ‘True Grit’ — bleak, violent, unrelenting — is just like ‘No Country for Old Men.’ Yes it is, but not quite.”  So it’s “not quite” “just like” No Country for Old Men?  This movie review is wack.  I hope he’s planning to exemplify the point in action.

“The accounting is strict; nothing is free, except the grace of God.  But free can bear two readings — distributed freely, just come and pick it up; or distributed in a way that exhibits no discernible pattern.”  Free can mean that?  Are we talking about the Cohen Brothers, or your mom’s vagina?  OOH, BURN!

Anyway, I’m still confused.  On to Palin.

“This mixture of Calvinist pessimism and unabashed patriotism is writ large in Palin’s recent book, ‘America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag.'”  Okay, the problem here is that you’re wasting a complex, multileveled literary analysis on someone who wouldn’t understand any of the words in it.  If you called Sarah Palin a “Calvinist,” she’d start tweeting that left-wing socialists were attacking her family and undermining America’s patriotic values by accusing her of pissing on the General Motors logo.

This is the only kind of Calvinism Palin approves of.

“Although she only mentions the Tea Party briefly in her book, Palin is busily elaborating its principles, first in the lengthy discussion of Capra’s Jefferson Smith and then, at the end of the same chapter, in an equally lengthy discussion of Martin Luther King.”  She elaborates the Tea Party’s principles by elaborating the principles of a guy who would have totally hated the Tea Party?  Does Sarah Palin’s book take place in an M.C. Escher drawing?

“In the spirit of full disclosure, I myself became a believer in American exceptionalism the first time I visited Europe, in 1966.”  That’s kinda like what happened to me.  I became a proponent of structuralist neo-Kantianism on my spring break to Cancun in 1999.  Some years later, I had an intense conversion experience during a 7-hour layover in Gatwick airport, and now I’m more of a Wittgensteinian logical positivist.  (Also, after living through August in Tennessee, I became a believer in public nudity, legalized heroin, and assisted suicide on demand.)   {<<<— that joke is going to seem incredibly relevant and hard-hitting a few months from now.}

I don’t see what any of that has to do with how much Sarah Palin hates foreigners.  And indeed, Fish himself has had to perform some intellectual contortions to grok the connection.  “There is then a unity to the book, but it is not one Palin proclaims or works out discursively. Rather, the unity is conveyed by the quotations that carry the argument, long (sometimes two-page) quotations from an impressive variety of authors, quotations that are strong in isolation and even stronger when they are laid next to one another.”  The book is a bunch of quotations about a vaguely similar subject, put next to each other?  So it’s like a racist Tumblr account you pay $29.95 to read?  Sounds great… could be the next big thing in publishing… someone tell Virginia Heffernan!

From some random post: “Nothing gets the juices and the comments flowing better than a column on religion and the liberal state.”   That is both distasteful and incorrect.  I hate the word “juices.”  But if Fish’s juices must be mentioned, the philosophical basis of the liberal state is pretty much the only thing I want to see next to them.

This one’s about the Tea Party.  “Liberal pundits and the politicians whose agendas they favor continue to misunderstand the Tea Party movement and, what is worse, fail to realize how much the disdainful tone of their criticism fuels it.”  Concern troll in the house!  It would indeed be terrible if the dreams of liberal humanism fell through because some guy wearing a “Titties & Beer, Thank God I Ain’t Queer” t-shirt took offense because a blogger was sarcastic at him.   Maybe Fish is right, though.  I will try his idea:  I’ll stop making fun of people for calling themselves “teabaggers,” and after two weeks, if it results in a utopia of well-informed voters and rational debate, I’ll admit I was wrong.

“We the people hear this and know who is being talked about, and react with anger: ‘Don’t presume to tell me what to think and whom to vote for just because you have more degrees than I do. I don’t know much about these people but if you guys are against them, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.'”  Why is Fish pretending to be We the People?  He’s written 13 books and taught the semiotics of Milton at Duke!  He has a Ph.D. from Yale!  Is this some kinky role-playing thing?  Was Joe the Plumber hiding under his desk wearing an American flag jockstrap while he typed that?  Please, Fish, keep it to yourself!

Oh, I forgot to mention that this article’s premise is based on the Greek mythological figure Antaeus.  “Better, perhaps, to take a cue from Hercules, who figured out the source of Antaeus’s strength and defeated him by embracing him in a bear hug, lifting him up high, and preventing him from touching the ground.”  Hmm.  I have examined the analogy more closely, and on second thought, I see nothing kinky or homoerotic about it.  Fish is right:  Antaeus was the original teabagger.

This is from a column about wind turbines.  “I was accused (a) of elevating the views I enjoyed from the windows of my second home above the interests of the society in encouraging green energy, (b) of displaying the usual latecomer’s indifference to the needs of the locals who had been living in Andes forever and (c) of not knowing what I was talking about when I described the construction (massively disruptive), effects (awful on land, animals and people), contribution to the grid (minimal) and financing (tax credits and accelerated depreciation rates) of the 400-foot-high towers with a 52-foot circumference base and blades 130 feet wide whooshing through the air at 178 m.p.h.”  Yes, the man who has been lecturing us about elitist condescension to “we the people” just wrote a 6-line sentence containing three lettered sections and three parentheses.  Also, he has a second home.

“The film is called ‘Windfall,’ a pun on the fate of the wind project (it fell).”   On the other hand, he’s never been more cogent than right now.  Maybe this could be his new job: just explaining puns in the titles of things.  He could tell people why the hair salon is called “A Cut Above,” the hot dog place is called “I Dream of Weenie,” and there’s a wine called “Seven Deadly Zins.”  Some people are slow to get puns — I heard the movie title Toy Story like 100 times before I noticed it was supposed to sound like “toy store” — so this would be a great service for us.  Coffee shops and dog grooming businesses alone would keep him busy for years.

Finally, we are getting close to Fish’s true strengths and weaknesses as a thinker.  The pun thing really gives us perspective.  One more quote, and we’ll understand his place in the intellectual firmament.

Here, he’s talking about student evaluations.  “This is a concern expressed by fellow columnist Ross Douthat.”  You heard it here, folks.  Whatever the concern was, it has surely been resolved by now.  When Fish and Douthat put their heads together to solve a problem, it must soon cease to trouble the human race.  Get those two guys together, and they’re like a couple of philosopher kings, plus the Founding Fathers, plus the Algonquin Round Table.  Maybe someday I’ll have the intellectual fortitude to take on Douthat’s body of work.  Until then, I’ll probably just make fun of the wedding pages or something.  Keep reading!

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5 thoughts on “The Sentences of Stanley Fish

  1. I don’t know how I found this site, but I haven’t laughed so hard in a long while. Thanks! You made my day. Thank God everyone who can read and write is not a credulous sheep receiving guidance from the Times Op-Ed page. Keep up the outstanding work!

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