The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Treasonous Clerk: Stanley Fish and the Lasting Professoriate
James Matthew Wilson - 02/20/09
laptop in classic library

The Treasonous Clerk is the regular column of James Matthew Wilson.

No supposed public intellectual appears quite so slippery as Stanley Fish. When given opportunity, I used to say that, in my life, I had witnessed only two true instances of nihilism: the television series, The Sopranos, and Stanley Fish. The first, as the reader may already know, replayed the conventional dilemmas of loyalty and betrayal, love and deviance that typically provide the plots of gangster films. But, from episode to episode, and then from season to season, those same dilemmas kept reappearing, with each character playing the part of the criminal with a heart of gold one week only to take on the role of the ostensible charmer with a heart like a den of vipers the next, and so on and so forth, until the world itself began to appear an infinite sequence of alternating depravities and crimes, above which no one stood and from which no one learned anything—ever.

Fish’s career could be described much the same way. After the fashion of a modern pop star, he has, with ever-shifting mental dexterity, fashioned and refashioned himself; he has shifted from argument to argument over the decades, always crafting his positions so that they provoke everyone in order to claim a kind of neutral authority. He would be heard as the clear-sighted truth-teller who stands outside the interests of party (political or academic) in order to tell us “how it is.” In truth, the consistent plank in the otherwise fresh lumber of his platforms is the rhetorical strategy of shocking self-described conservatives with his apparent defense of their position, only to show that his defense is merely an attack on this or that putative liberal camp. In the end, neither conservative nor liberal gets away, and only Fish remains, right as rain, the staunch champion of a debate in which no one but he is right—and what he believes in, he is always careful to ensure, is nothing anyone else would ever accept.

Because Fish has repeated these rhetorical gestures many times, they gush forth with an exciting fluency and tend to make, unfortunately, a great splash in that tiny pool where public intellectuals, academics, and those capable of reading The New York Times, still occasionally wade (or malinger). Because scandal delivers a frisson, and any feeling at all is a sign of life, such persons tend to view Fish as an exciting figure. Because, again, of his rhetorical pose, such persons also take with pleasure his dissection of their enemies and, usually, try to shut down mentally before he arrives as his own claim about the truth of the matter.

In the years just following September 11th, I heard Fish give an address on his nominally favorite subject, John Milton. The thesis of the talk boiled down to the claim that Milton, as a staunch individualist Protestant, believed that the conviction of his conscience, the truth in his heart, was the voice of God, and therefore impregnable to all argument. Given the context, it was plain that Fish wanted us to hear that the description of Muslim radicals as fundamentalists, closed off to all reason and determined to realize their will in the world regardless of appeals and arguments from others, also applied to a major poet of the Western humanist tradition. But the implications of the argument did not end there; Fish suggested that we are all mute inglorious Miltons. Each of us believes what we believe—whether fiercely and violently or not—in a manner impermeable to persuasion. And so, the world itself consists of myriad monads of will, bouncing off each other like atoms, sometimes causing an explosion—and, inexplicably, somehow cohering together in a society.

In addition to being a nihilist, Fish is, after his fashion, one such Milton. It may be a dreadful life for a human being, but it serves marvelously well as a pose for a public provocateur. At one and the same time, he can state his arguments with absolute, devastating conviction even as he is no less certain that, for all practical and moral purposes, his arguments will convince no one. They only flatter beliefs other monadic persons already hold and give Fish’s will a place in the world among us—but also (by grace of smug satisfaction and his access to any public platform he desires) a place visibly above everyone else.

It is not the appearance of snobbish sophistry in Fish’s pose that requires debunking, but its intense compound of emptiness and voluntarism. The romantics used to envision the man of pure will (as in, unhindered by reason) as a kind of noble, impetuous savage; but, in the event, it turns out he more closely resembles a huckster, hair slicked back, and with a tote of alchemical bottles containing dark, flavorless potations. Nihilism by itself may have bred upon us that horse-hugger, Nietzsche, and the world may tremble with the abounding examples of rarified voluntarism to be found in the lists of Islamic suicide bombers and American pornographers and child sex offenders. But together these qualities work nicely to the end of professional advancement: empty provocation sells, and indeed can advance one to the top of that least intellectually and morally sound of institutions, Academia. (Congratulations are due to the Sunshine State for circumnavigating Fish’s impregnable intellect by promising his skin nice weather).

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