The Higher Gamesmanship
There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too.
by Stanley Fish.
Oxford. 332 pp. $25.00.
Stanley Fish, a professor at Duke University, is a famous Milton scholar who has also written a great deal on the theory of literary criticism and the philosophy of law. His recent and more general notoriety, however, rests on his participation in a series of public debates with Dinesh D’Souza, the author of Illiberal Education1 on the status of “political correctness” on our campuses. Fish’s latest collection of essays, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, contains several essays written for those occasions, as well as articles on legal theory, pragmatist philosophy, and current trends in literary studies.
Fish observes here that it was an odd move of “central casting” to have him posed against D’Souza as a defender of the leftist agenda and a partisan of the effort to redefine the academic curriculum in order to accommodate the goals of “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” He is, after all, the wrong person to lend moral support to a movement that aims to undermine his own decades-long scholarly commitment to 17th-century poets, surely the most moribund of the dead white males who make up the received literary “canon” under attack by the multiculturalists. Moreover, unlike those guilt-ridden academics who try to atone for their assumed complicity in the oppression of minorities, women, and gays by adding a sop or two to the reading list, Fish says he will shamelessly go on reading and teaching Milton and his ilk as if nothing had happened.
So what does animate Fish’s support for the anti-patriarchal, anti-rationalist, anti-Western liberationists? Fish claims that his defense stems not from any advocacy of the diversity agenda as such but from his disgust at its critics. He trots out the usual suspects, such as Lynne Cheney (the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and William J. Bennett (the former Secretary of Education). These he characterizes as right-wing ideologues, whose commitment to “universal” human values is only a cover for a particularist agenda—the well-financed special pleading for a specific class, simply acting out of its own partisan sense of the world.
But it soon becomes clear that, for Fish, the debate over the curriculum is just a special instance of a larger crisis—a crisis of liberalism—which he here undertakes to cure. If there is any connecting thematic thread in this collection, it is Fish’s unrelenting attack on certain ideals of classical liberalism: individuality, autonomy, respect for the neutrality of legal institutions, objectivity, and the like. Fish sees these ideals as self-serving obfuscations, posited by those who refuse to face the essentially political nature of all assertions of value.
In the world according to Fish, all of us live with blinders on. We cannot see beyond our narrow perspectives, a tragicomic limitation brought into relief precisely when we try to appeal to a transcendental viewpoint. We are, moreover, deeply and inescapably constrained by the institutions—“interpretive communities,” in Fish’s jargon—in which we live and work. These institutional constraints dictate the terms of our thought and speech. When, for instance, we make claims about how life should be lived, we are merely reflecting a viewpoint which comes out of some groping sense of where we are amid the local conditions that shape us. Our aspirations reflect only that piece of the horizon that is visible from our bailiwick.
This idea of perspectivism, as it is often called, is flatly asserted by Fish as a demonstrable philosophical fact. From within its framework, it is not a giant leap to the notion that, as there is no such thing as neutrality, and no disinterested appeal to objectivity—objectivity now being construed as the name we give to an irredeemably partisan view to which we try to attach universal appeal by fiat—there is also no such thing as free speech. Our speech is “always already” enslaved to convention and institutional positioning.
In Fish’s view, it is a sign of neurosis that liberals—and for these purposes he might just as well have included many conservatives and neoconservatives as well—will not face up to the partisan and political nature of everything they say. Would it not be better, he asks, for us to abandon neutrality as an apriori categorical principle and just stipulate that some speech is better than others? True, he concedes, we would then revert to naked conflict over which speech to ban and which to protect. But how bracing and honest that kind of reckoning would be, in contrast to the pretense of neutrality we now insist on maintaining even as we sneak in all kinds of de-facto censorship.
Fish likes to position his views as if they were the culmination of an American tradition of pragmatism, taking their place in the line of William James, John Dewey, and, more recently, Richard Rorty. But there is little of the meliorist and essentially optimistic spirit of American pragmatism in Fish’s work. What he shares with pragmatism is a deep suspicion of metaphysical abstractions, and a belief that we can do real work in this world by attending to local particulars of social practice rather than relying on theoretical justifications or foundations. The odd dividing line—so definitive as to make one wonder why Fish bothers to invoke pragmatism at all—is that traditional pragmatists regard the challenge of dealing with quotidian particulars as liberating, while for Fish contingency is merely fate.
Fish emphasizes that we are bound by the operative terms of our “interpretive communities” and cannot escape them. And as a corollary, he therefore insists, as if it were a doctrinal mantra, that there is no sense in criticizing the intrinsic terminology and concerns of a profession from the outside. Although he abjures the liberal “fetish” of promoting the autonomy of the individual, he endorses the autonomy of professions, which are special cases of his “interpretive communities.”
This is where Fish does find his liberation—in transforming the recognition of constraint into a sense of contentment at being deeply situated in one’s professional activity; the value to be drawn from the irreducible particularity of our worldly existence is that of just “playing the game”—not a sense of wider or higher purpose, or any commitment to the content of the exercise, but simply the peace that comes with understanding that one is, willy-nilly, part of the game.
This notion of happy gamesmanship may seem like a strangely empty conclusion, but at least (to return to where we began) it has the merit of helping to explain how Fish comes to defend curriculum reform—i.e., changes in his own professional setting—while remaining skeptical of the agenda of the multiculturalists. To be sure, in doing so Fish betrays something of the faux-centrism, the phony balancing of Left and Right, that Carol Iannone has dissected in “PC with a Human Face” (COMMENTARY, August 1993): campus radicals come off in Fish’s rather limp critique as naive flower children, while their critics are stigmatized as repressive interventionists. It is an offensive and clearly biased picture—and yet there is reason to believe that Fish is sincere in disavowing the ideas of the leftists, if not their attacks on tradition.
What underlies Fish’s indulgence of the radical agenda is something actually more disturbing than fellow-traveling sentimentality. Attacking defenders of the traditional canon, he invokes the terms of pragmatism and asks: “[W]hat is to be gained or lost in our everyday lives as students and teachers by either welcoming or rejecting various new emphases and methodologies urged on us by various constituencies?” And he answers as follows:
If we harken to those who speak in the name of diversity (and I say again that I myself resist the invocation of diversity as a principle, as a new theology), the result will be more subject matter, more avenues of research, more attention to neglected and marginalized areas of our society, more opportunities to cross cultural, ethnic, and gender lines, more work, in short, for academics. If, on the other hand, we harken to those who would hold back the tide and defend the beachhead won 35 or 50 years ago, the result will be more rules, more exclusionary mechanisms, more hoops to jump through, more invidious distinctions, more opportunities to be demeaning and be demeaned, more bureaucracy, more control. I know what I like. In the words of the old song, how about you?
If we put aside the defensive glibness at the end, this virtual enshrinement of cynicism as a principle is strikingly candid. The particulars of social practice celebrated by the pragmatists are reduced by Fish to so many enlargements of playing chances. To draw on one of his own favorite analogies, it is as if he were a baseball fan recommending adoption of the designated-hitter rule: tradition be damned, the new rule offers more chances to bat, more chances to score runs, less tedium, less thought, and more action.
Would that the question of whether there is anything of our cultural legacy worth defending partook of similarly innocent choices, choices without real consequences. What Fish has labored to produce in his critique of liberalism is actually a parody of liberalism: one in which the principles of neutrality and tolerance are taken to extremes and then married to an unfettered entrepreneurialism. It is a philosophy freed of anxiety about values and choices, or choices among values; a philosophy made safe for yuppies.
1 Reviewed by Joseph Adelson in the June 1991 COMMENTARY.