Sunday, December 03, 2006

RIGHT YOU ARE (IF YOU THINK SO): STANLEY FISH AND THE RHETORIC OF ASSENT
by Christopher Norris, extracted from What's Wrong with Postmodernism.

Stanley Fish's imposing volume Doing What Comes Naturally bring together most of the essays that the author has published during his ten years of high productivity since Is There a Text in This Class? It is a wide-ranging collection in the sense that Fish writes about issues in literary theory, linguistics, jursprudence, philosophy, economics, psychoanalysis, professional ethics, historiography, and several other disciplines. Or again, one could say, and Fish says it himself in the Preface - that in fact, it is a thoroughly predictable and repetitive work, one which goes through the same argumentative moves over and again with wearisome regularity. But if this is the case, Fish arues, then it signals something of interest about the state of play in those various disciplines. For in his view they have all fallen prey to a certain kind of deep-laid philosophical error - what Fish calls 'theory-hope', positive or negative - which crops up repeatedly and therefore needs debunking whereever it appears.

So he is happy enough to acknowledge that charge that 'every essay in this book is the same: no matter what its putative topic each chapter finally reduces to an argument in which the troubles and benefits of interpretive theory are made to disappear in the solvent of an enriched notion of practise' (Fish, p. ix). But we would be wrong (Fish implies) to put this down to some tedious obsession on his part or some perverse delight in showing how all such arguments self-deconstruct in the end. For it is precisely his point that deconstruction and other kinds of 'negative' theory - Marxism, post-structuralism, Freudian or whatever - cannot have the least effect in changing our beliefs or bringing us to abandon habits of thought already in place. Or rather, any effect they may have can only come about by persuading us rhetorically to substitute one such item of belief for another, quite apart from their claim to 'theoretical' cogency or truth. In which case we might as well drop all the theory-talk and acknowledge that belief goes all the way down, since on the one hand truth just is what we beleive (or what we take as sufficient proof against counter-argument), while on the other - as a matter of plain psychological self-evidence - it is impossible bot to beleive something and entertain a negative theory that would show up that belief as erroneous, misguided, or a product of ideological conditioning. If we are convinced by any such argument then this must mean, according to Fish, that the theory falls square with certain pre-existent notions as to what properly counts as a valid, persuasive, or good-faith manner of reasoning. On this point he finds himself happily in agreement with a range of anti-foundationalist thinkers - among them Wittgenstein, Quine, Rorty, Davidson, Derrida, Foucault - whose combined efforts have at last succeeded in demolishing that old 'epistemological' paradigm.

This applies just as much to negative as to positive theories, since in neither case can there be any question of our breaking altogether with previous habits of thought on account of some utterly new and unlooked-for intellectual discovery. Quite simply, there is no external viewpoiint - no independent ground or neutral observation-language - from which one could survey the whole range of our present beliefs (or indeed any item among them) and apply determinate standards of truth or falsehood. For anyone who adopted, or who thought to adopt, such a stance would be ignoring three main points: (1) that all truth-claims take rise from some particular set of values, priorities, conventions, procedures of verification, etc., (2) that any challenge to existing claims - whatever its supposed 'theoretical' grounding - will necessarily involve some alternative (but no less conventional) background of belief; and (3) that this need not be a cause of anxiety since it makes no difference to the way we normally argue things out at the level of straighforward, honest disagreement on this or that topic of concern. If theory thus has no 'consequences', positive or negative, then neither does the decision to stop doing theory, or the willingness to acknowledge what Fish regards as the knock-down persuasive force of his arguments to that effect. If we were all won over to Fish's way of thinking then the only result would be to leave more time for the discussion of genuine, substantive differences of view. And this would be a wholly desireable result, although one quite devoid of theoretical significance.

Fish offers several arguments in support of this case. One is the piint - pushed home relentlessly in each of these essays - that theory can never do more than offer a post hoc rationalisation of beliefs that must always already be in place if its rhetoric is to carry conviction with us or other members of our own 'interpretive community.' On its broadest definition this latter may extend to the whole socio-cultural context or framework of values within which we live, work, and think as late-twentieth-century citizens of one or another Western bourgeois democracy. More narrowly, it signifies our membership of various more spesialised interest groups - political parties, academic disciplines, professional bodies, and so forth - which also set the terms for what shall count as an effective, worthwhile or acceptable contribution to debate. On the one hand, any truly radical theory - any argument that broke altogether with existing interpretive constraints- would ipso facto be wholly unintelligible to people within the relevant community, and would thus be either ignored, misconstrued or consigned to the limbo of 'incompetent' or 'eccentric' thought. On the other, any theory that claimed to be 'radical' but in fact enjoyed widespread acceptance - or even a modest degree of success among like-minded collegues - would for this very reason have to be seen as part of an existing consensus, no matter how small or marginal its membership. In short, critical theorists cannot have it both ways, assuming an imaginary standpoint of knowledge outside and above their interpretive community, while expecting their ideas to be received, taken up and merely understood by members of that same community. They are caught (so Fish would argue) in a classic double-bind predicament, since their claims to speak genuinely on behalf of an alternative, dispossessed, or minority culture must become less plausible with each new step toward gaining a wider currency for their views.

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