STANLEY FISH, 1/93
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
If our lives, as readers, and as members of a legal culture, and as husbands and wives, are characterized by acts of interpretation, how is it that we perform those acts? And with what mechanisms do we judge them to be adequate, or inadequate? Correct, or incorrect?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Stanley Fish, professor of English and law at Duke University, author most recently of Doing What Comes Naturally, and numerous other distinguished works.. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Fish. Many people are afraid of the slippery slope, not only in academia, but throughout the intellectual world. What are we talking about?
STANLEY FISH: Typically, a slippery-slope argument says that if you take one step down a certain road, then all of the other steps down that same road are assured. So, for example, you will find a slippery-slope argument used very often in First Amendment cases, or in discussions of First Amendment problems. Take, for example, the various attempts by cities like Minneapolis and Indianapolis to put in ordinances either criminalizing pornography or making it possible for the purveyors of pornography to be the object of civil suits. The argument made by the proponents of anti-pornography legislation always turns on the harms that are supposedly produced in the society at large by the availability of pornography. Even scholars who admit that these harms are indeed suffered, largely by women, will then say something like this, But, if you now ban certain forms of pornography on the basis of the effects they have, you will next be banning certain forms of lyric poetry, or certain forms of modern art, or certain forms of advertising. In short, once you start down the slippery slope, there is nothing to stop you from sliding all the way to the bottom. My view of the matter is very simple. That slippery-slope arguments work largely in the head. They are arguments in abstract logic rather than arguments that take into account the features and forces existing in the real world. In the real world, any effort that you make to do anything will always be met with potential resistance by persons with interests contrary to your own. It's only when you're thinking about a problem in what we might call an abstractly logical way that you can imagine that taking stepÝA will inevitably lead you down the road from A through Z. In most of the real-world contexts I know, when you take stepÝA, about seven people will then pop up to make sure that you never take stepÝB. So that I think that the slippery-slope argument is largely an argument designed to produce fear, and to retard the consideration of policies that might lead to change.
MP: We'll come back to a key notion that you introduced there, the community of resistance. But before that, you use the same metaphor, not quite slippery slope, but holding on to the last twig on a cliff to argue that those people who are afraid of letting go of absolute ideas, or absolute readings, absolute interpretations, whatever the circumstances of absolute is, are quite afraid of this long fall and the consequences of that fall.
STANLEY FISH: Yeah. And my response to those fears is that people who are afraid of falling in that manner have already fallen. And indeed the word "fall" in here is one that we could emphasize and bring back to its familiar and once-very-traditional context, which is of course a theological context. After all, what is the thesis of the Fall of Man? The thesis of the Fall of Man is that at a certain point man's union with divinity was fractured by his and her own disobedient actions. And therefore the easy access between human intelligence and divine truth that was supposedly the characteristic of Edenic life has now been lost, and we are in a condition of continual distance from an immediate apprehension of the divine, from an immediate apprehension of the whole truth. This is not a condition that some of us occupy, less holy than some others of is. It is the condition of being a fallen human being. In more familiar or perhaps comfortable twentieth-century philosophical terminology, it is the condition of not having access to the entire truth about everything or anything because, as limited partial beings, that is, beings who are situated in local rather than universal contexts, we can only apprehend that part of the truth or that version of the truth that is available to us within those contexts. Again, this is not a particular condition suffered only by a few, nor is it a condition that a few on the other side can somehow magically transcend. It is everyone's condition, which means that everyone's reading of a poem or of a political event or of a historical event is potentially challengeable. So that, people who are worried about falling away from absolutely clear or objectively determined readings of texts or of life or of anything else are in fact worried about something that they have long since done, and they should all notice that they, none of them has yet hit bottom, but are still in some fashion muddling through life as we all do.
MP: I read a recent history of the creationist movement, and of course it was instantly fractured by internal debate about all sorts of components of fundamentalist Biblical interpretation. You argue that this is not just the nature of a world that we have different positions in which we stand. You argue even more strongly about how we determine where we stand.
STANLEY FISH: Well, I would in fact pick, take a slight issue with your phrasing. "How we determine we stand" suggests that at a moment we either chose to stand where we do, or that at another moment we could become dissatisfied with where we were standing and step back and survey our positions and either choose one of them above the others or choose to discard them all in favor of a new place to stand. None of these are possible actions for human beings. One of the things that I think bedevils twentieth-century especially liberal thought is the notion of deliberate choice. In fact, much of liberal thought puts in a place of honor the moment of free deliberation on matters of morality or politics or aesthetics. It's my thesis that there never is nor could there every be such a moment, for we come to our judgments, we come to our positions, we come to our stands, not in a process characterized by a succession of choices, but in a process characterized by a succession of contingencies and accidents that then form patterns which literally found or ground our way of moving about and thinking about the world. You can see this in relation to an issue that often faces professors of literature in our society and that's the issue of justification. People are always asking a question which one would not think to ask, let's say, of a cancer researcher. How is it that you justify what you do? In this case, what I do is explicate Renaissance poetry, talk about Milton's Paradise Lost. How is it that you could justify that? Behind that question is the assumption that at some point earlier in my life I sat down, looked over all of the array of career possibilities that might be spread before me, and chose one on the basis of my ability to quote/unquote justify it. But of course all of us know that that's not the way that any of us came to be the kinds of persons we now are. That is, habitually occupied in performing this kind of task rather than that kind of task. Instead, what happens, or at least what happened to me, is that some teacher perhaps, in the ninth or tenth grade, tells you that you're good at something. And of course that happens at a moment in which you are quite uncertain as to your identity and as to your vocation or whether or not you will ever have one, and therefore when you hear a teacher say something complimentary, you welcome it, not only in the usual way, but, being a young person, you welcome it because it seems to afford you, to provide you, with that kind of identity that life has not yet conferred on you. You can then say to yourself, I am the kind of person who's good at X, because my teacher just told me. This will lead you to take more courses in X, whatever X is. This will lead you when you go to college to gravitate towards certain conversations and certain intellectual and social communities. And if you continue in this mode for some time, you will one day wake up and find that you are the kind of person characterized by an interest in, and a knowledge of, some particular field or activity or kind of labor. You will not ever have chosen to be that kind of person, in any way that makes sense. So, to return to your original question, we never determine how we stand, and where we stand. We find ourselves in moments of crisis, that is, in moments in which the world demands from us some kind of response, that we now are, and have been for some time, even if we don't know it, a certain kind of person.
MP: I want to pursue that, because we have both the position in which we stand and the concept of interpretive communities. How do those relate?
STANLEY FISH: Well, interpretive communities can be very easily illustrated by the remarks I made a few moments ago. Insofar as my little narrative takes me or someone else through college and then into either a professional position immediately or to graduate training or to law school, by the time that you have been in any of those situations for, let us say, a year, you will have been initiated into the community made up of persons who have internalized the ways of thinking and the rules of thumb that characterize that community. So an interpretive community again is not something you choose. And interpretive community is what you belong to when you involuntarily respond to situations with certain characteristic ways of thinking. The best example I know of is the first year of law school. When students come to law school in September, they are not only unable to answer the questions put to them by their law professors, they do not see why those are the questions, rather than some other questions. First-year law students in September read cases and they don't know how to read them, they don't know what is important about the paragraphs they have just processed. And so the first five or six months is an experience of trial and error, with more error than success. Then along about March, if you haven't already left law school in psychological distress, you wake up one morning and find that your head is full of legal concepts. Not because you've sat down and committed them to memory in some kind of willed exercise, but because you've been hanging around law-school classes and law-school colleagues and law-school lunchroom conversations for nine months and you have almost by osmosis absorbed a way of thinking and a set of emphases that now literally constitute your consciousness. Whereas in September you couldn't see what the point of a legal argument was, now when you sit down to lunch and someone says "Could you pass the salt?" the response is likely to be a dissertation on tort law, or a warning that such a request could lead to a suit for damages.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Stanley Fish. He's a professor of English and law at Duke University. His most recent book is Doing What Comes Naturally. He's written many other distinguished works. The next question follows from the law example. Is there a relationship between more recent interpretations of Milton and Judge Bork?
STANLEY FISH: Let me say first of all that I teach Judge Bork's book The Tempting of America, or did at least in my last legal theory course, and that with some reservations I am more an admirer of that book than many of my colleagues in the legal academy. As you will recall, Judge Bork's interpretive theory is called originalism, and by which he and others mean an attempt to interpret a document as it was intended to be interpreted by, in this case, the original framers of the Constitution. I am also an originalist or an intentionalist in both literary and legal interpretations. The difference between Judge Bork and me on this question is that he thinks being an originalist or an intentionalist is an interpretive option which one should choose and that the failure to choose it condemns one to interpretive irresponsibility. I believe that being an intentionalist or originalist is something that we all necessarily are and that there is no choice involved. And I believe that for the following very simple reason. Whenever you construe sense, that is, whenever you either hear someone say something or read what someone has said and comprehend it or construe it, you are necessarily assigning intention. Try it out. Try to think of a meaningful sentence which in its meaningfulness has not already assumed a situation in which a purposeful agent is attempting to communicate something to someone else. Intentionalism or originalism is not an option. It is something that we are all necessarily engaged in. Judge Bork's mistake is to think that if you become an intentionalist that you will have provided yourself with a methodological key. But to be an intentionalist is simply to have identified the area of dispute. Because, if you say, as Judge Bork says, let us in fact hew to the intentions of the framers, you are then faced with the situation that people have different views of what the intentions of the framers are, and that it becomes a question of evidence, argument, and interpretation, just as much when you are an intentionalist as when you are not. So, I believe Judge Bork is right, originalism is in fact an indispensable part of interpretation, but it is not a part that one could either choose or discard. It's just the way interpretation necessarily proceeds.
MP: I have to let my listeners know that I think there's an element of irony in there. This is like a pitcher throwing the ball to the catcher over the home plate and an elephant comes and sits down on home plate [chuckling]. Judge Bork's position is most totally eliminated by your occupying his position. But I'd like to go on to a next question, which is the traditional and unusual complaint that many great authors submit books to their publishers and the book is rejected, and that that's treated as a great outrage and evidence that publishers don't really have much ability to judge good work.
STANLEY FISH: Well, that assumes that good work or greatness or any of the other qualities that presumably are sought announce themselves and declare themselves, independently of historical context. So that when you fault someone for not quote/unquote recognizing a great work, the assumption is that the work comes to your desk breathing greatness, and it's just some deficiency in your sensibility that prevents you from recognizing it. Well, we have, we being many scholars and critics in the literary world, have come to understand in recent years is that the recognition of greatness or the recognition of interest is something that emerges in the course of publishing, publicizing, circulating, etc. There have been innumerable studies which show that the characteristics of a work that we now honor have been conferred on it by the history of its interpretation. They were not in some obviously self-manifest sense there the moment the work appeared in the world. They were placed there by the ?tradition of commentary. And after that's all over, we can take an ex post facto look and scorn our predecessors for not recognizing what we now so easily see. But of course we are now at this very moment making the same mistake, if it's a mistake, in relation to a present slate of authors whom in twenty-five years will be the basis of anthologies but who at this very moment are not being noticed by the makers of intellectual taste at all.
MP: Well, that's a new thought, that we can simultaneously be the community that is observing the conventional status and yet we can have within us some of the elements that are gonna make the change.
STANLEY FISH: Right. That happens in ways that I think are best described by the most influential book published in the social sciences and the humanities in the past thirty-five years, and that's Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which Kuhn points out that for most of the work of science what is being practiced is something he calls "normal science," science practiced according to well-known and canonically accepted rules of procedure and evidence. What interests Kuhn are moments of what he calls "revolutionary science," that is, moments in which new ways of thinking become first introduced and then accepted because they seem to solve problems that were intractable, as far as the older ways of thinking were concerned. The same thing, or the same pattern, holds in cultural work and cultural production. And I think to some extent it's a feature of satiation. That is, there comes a point where the routines that are well established and well recognized have been run so often, and perhaps with such perfection, that people begin to yearn for something new. They don't care what it is, as long as it will, in effect, refresh the game. And I think that's what happens. Now of course, there are so many forces occupying the center of any interpretive community that do not want the game refreshed, because these forces will have so much invested in the continuation of the older game. Holding on, however, is a losing proposition in the end. The conservative position which wishes to retard or hold back the next revolution in taste will always be the loser, although the loss for some of them will take place, thankfully, after they die.
MP: We've covered a fairly wide area, from Milton to law and now Kuhn and science. Can we put it together, and the word you used, the canon, certainly there recently has been a ferocious debate about canon. You've suggested that debate is moot by the time it occurs. But, can we have both sides of the issue? I notice on a junior high school near me, set in marble around the outside were the canon of the 1930s, and about half of them would be in the current canon.
STANLEY FISH: Yes, I think that that's an extremely nice example, because canonicity is I think a feature of any cultural moment. But that's precisely what it is. Canonicity refers to those texts or films or works of art which in the minds of a group of people educated at a certain set of schools and universities make up the central core of knowledge. I think that the project of fixing the canon, and the project of entirely dislodging the canon are equally foolish. The canon will never be fixed, because changes in educational patterns and demography, in political influence, will necessarily, if indirectly, affect the society's sense of what is crucial for it to read and process. On the other hand, the idea of dislodging canonicity altogether so that there were no authoritative texts is a typical utopian dream of the left. That is, the dream in which we all discard the hegemonic assumptions that have been imposed on us by the powers that be and start all over again. This brings me back to the beginning of our conversation, because again and again I have resisted the idea that we ever start, that we ever have a moment of free choice, that there's ever a moment of deliberation. The moment of free choice is one which conservatives would like to be the choice of stabilizing so that things never change. The moment of free choice of the utopian left imagines it is the moment in which we could just change everything! all at once. Neither moment is ever available to any situated, that is, fallen, human being.
MP: Why do we hold so tenaciously to the moment as being so real? Both the conservative and the liberal still sees the current moment as the basis from which judgments are made, without any sense that had they been standing there thirty years before the moment was radically different.
STANLEY FISH: Well, I think that in this case I must agree with both conservatives and liberals as to the pressure and centrality of the moment. Because what would the alternative be? The alternative would be to step back from your current beliefs, sets of assumptions, enabling presuppositions, and survey them coolly, from a distance, by comparing they with, let us say as you suggested, the positions that you held thirty years ago. But think about it for a moment. When you think about the positions that you held thirty years ago, you think of them necessarily as positions that are either wrong, partial, immature, or perhaps, if you're a severe judge of yourself, crazy. The idea that we can step back from our current situation and reflect on it in a disinterested way is I think simultaneously the falsest idea now current in the intellectual scene and yet the most powerful. I think this is the idea that has come down to us from traditional philosophy and from the statement quoted over and over again by Socrates that the examined life is not worth living. If that's true, no one has ever lived a life that is worth living. Because there's never been anyone in the history of the world who has been able to examine his or her life in the sense of stepping back from the stream of it at any moment and occupying a vantage point above it. That is not something any of us could ever do.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Fish. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Stanley Fish, professor of English and law at Duke University, author most recently of Doing What Comes Naturally, numerous other distinguished works. Doing What Comes Naturally was published by Duke in 1989.