Fish Rapping: Because I also can be a crotchety grouchy bastard

by zunguzungu

Before he turned to tales of his basketball prowess,  Stanley Fish’s last two blog-posts (“Neoliberalism and Higher Education” and “To Boycott…”) have had something to do with his distaste for the term “neo-liberalism.” He also wants to make some kind of connection between the term’s misuses and academic boycotts of Israel, but other than his disapproval, the link totally escapes me, so I’m going to ignore that part of it. Instead, I’m struck by the way he fails to ever actually address the critique of his position which supposedly started him off, to wit, that his argument against academic activism ultimately just amounts to allowing the university’s function to be defined by its market utility, a retreat to “professionalism” which gets defined in the breach in terms of economic utility. After all, as Sage Ross noted, Fish’s claim that “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever,” is not only weirdly oblivious of but is also absurdly inadequate to the problem of what the neo-liberalization of the university system actually means in practice: that anything not essentially in tune with market demand (like say, John Milton or literary theory) should be replaced by or changed into something that is.

In that sense, the question of whether he is or isn’t a neoliberal is far less interesting than the way he denies the word even has meaning. The first column treated the term with a certain amount of seriousness, but last Sunday’s column begins with a pair of quotations, which Fish endorses: first, that neoliberalism is “‘an opaque catchphrase coined by wannabe pundits’ that doesn’t ‘refer to anything,'” and, second, the term “is used in so ‘many different ways . . . that its appearance in any given article offers little clue as to what it actually means.'” And whereas the first column was interestingly tentative about the word’s meaning – appropriately enough, since it began with the frank admission that he ” had only a sketchy notion of what was intended by it” – Fish now seems to fully embrace the assessment that “in recent years ‘neoliberalism has become an academic catchphrase,’ [and that] its use ‘remains a puzzle’ because it is ‘left undefined . . even by those who employ it as a key independent or dependent variable.'”

Now, I don’t exactly disagree with this complaint. The word does often get used rhetorically rather than analytically, and people do tend to use the term as if it requires no explanation, while meaning quite radically and irreconcilably different things by it. And people often say neoliberal when they just mean capitalist, albeit a particular capitalism located in a particular time and place. But to complain about this kind of confusion is to confine onself to quite low hanging fruit. The idea that the term is often left undefined by those who (mis)use it does not mean there is nothing being signified, nor is it clear why the charge can simply be dismissed by cherry picking examples of its misuse (and, in passing, I should note that he produces no examples at all).

In fact, as Fish of all people should know, ambiguity doesn’t foreclose meaning; a word means in practice what people think it means when they use it, so if five different people think it means five different things, then, in practice, it does mean five different things. We might say that those would be five different “interpretive communities” (you heard it here first). And while polling my reading and composition class about the meaning of, say, “sin” in Milton’s Paradise Lost might produce a similar variety of irreducibly different and undertheorized meanings, this would hardly stand up as an illustration that the word “sin” is without meaning, or that Milton didn’t have well-thought out reasons for using it the way he did, or that we couldn’t learn something by taking his use of the word seriously. Were we to perform such an experiment, in fact, we might be quite surprised by it.

And yet I don’t imagine that Stanley Fish would blithely conflate Milton’s use of the word with that of my students. So why does he assume that the diversity of ways that the poor misguided commenters on his blog use the term is somehow an indication that the term is without meaning (or that Sophia McLennan’s use of it to describe him is off base)? It’s quite telling, in fact, that this seems to be the only burden of proof he wants to take on: he is quick to admit that he only bothered to try to figure out the term’s meaning after he was called a neoliberal, and while the Stanley Fish-centric nature of the two columns might not necessarily be an strike against his arguments, it does illustrate how unseriously he takes the question.

Here’s how David Harvey describes the term:

“Neo-liberalism is, for Harvey, a response to a dual crisis that emerged in the mid-1970s for the ruling class. On the one hand capitalists faced a ‘crisis of accumulation’ – the capitalist system was stagnating and profits had fallen from the rates achieved immediately after the Second World War. Secondly, a rising tide of workers’ struggle in the 1960s and 1970s posed a threat to the political power of the ruling elite. The ideas of neo-liberalism, policies that Harvey describes as ‘deregulation, privatisation and the withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision’, had existed on the fringes of intellectual life for decades. In the 1970s they were forced centre-stage as an answer to the dual crisis. Harvey argues forcefully that neoliberalism has dramatically failed to resolve the crisis of accumulation. But it has seen a major shift in class power to the benefit of a tiny elite. ‘Many of the other accounts of neo-liberalism talk about its relationship with accumulation, but very few see it clearly as a class project,’ said Harvey.”

Now, even if Harvey isn’t the be-all and end-all, he’s quite smart, with a track record of grounding rigorous analytic work in actual empirical data, and he’s a common point of reference for a variety of leftist thinkers. If one wanted to know what people mean when they say “neo-liberalism,” you might think that he would be a good person to consider engaging with, having written a book on the subject, and one with the virtues of being short, smart, polemic, and short. And while Harvey is a Marxist and the interview I quoted from comes from the Socialist Review — dark matter the both of them as far as the NY Times is concerned — people who talk about neo-liberalism tend to be leftists, meaning you can’t very well engage with a leftist idea without engaging with the leftists who espouse it, and with the leftism that informs the reasons they espouse its leftistness.

Fish, however, engages with Harvey only one time, in the following sentence:

“‘Neoliberalism,’ David Harvey explains, ‘delivers a “world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.”‘ (A Brief History of Neoliberalism)”

Notice the difference. In the former, which I found via the google, we have a broadly sketched historical claim, one informed very basically by the assertion that a class-project is in some way a motivating force behind the ways the world has changed since the seventies, and an argument which seeks to locate that class project in a particular historical conjuncture. The latter elides that argument into a caricature of po-mo bashing. In fact, since neo-liberalism does not equal postmodernism – Harvey’s argument would be, I think, that postmodernism is a cultural response to neo-liberal poliotical economy- describing it in such terms is to bypass Harvey’s argument very basically, in a way that is certainly symptomatic if not intentional. For one thing, class is read out of the argument, which would seem to be an odd thing to do to a Marxist argument about class. After all, if you wanted to engage with Harvey’s arguments about postmodernism, perhaps you would choose to quote from his excellent book on postmodernism. And if you wanted to engage with the arguments he makes about political economy and global economic politics, as it seems like Fish would want to do (given title of the article), then perhaps you would choose to quote from parts of that book that actually deal with the subject.

Fish does neither of these things. In fact, he’s even butchered the sentence the quote originally came from, which reads thusly in its entirety: “‘I shop therefore I am’ and possessive individualism together construct a world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.” So unless Fish reads “neo-liberalism” as synonymous with consumer culture and possessive individualism (in which case he is wrong), he’s taken the quote out of its context to produce a Harvey-an gospel of neo-liberalism shorn of its actual argument, and a dubious thing to do; why would you de-historicize and de-class a historical argument about class?

I think his claims about higher education have to be placed in the context of this evasion, the refuge he takes in specifically un-thinking higher education as a thing embedded in a particular time and place. After all, he responds to the accusation that he “forecloses the possibility of civic engagement and democratic action” by locating that possibility somewhere else. “I don’t foreclose the possibility,” he writes; “I just want to locate it outside the university and the classroom.” And despite his clear advocacy for particular viewpoints over others, he situates the subjectivity of his column in a similar kind of no-space, claiming that “I don’t stand anywhere; that’s the (non) point of most of these columns, not to endorse or reject agendas, but to follow out the lines of argument that accompany them, to see how those arguments work or don’t work, to see where they lead.” It may just be because I can’t imagine not standing anywhere, or because the idea of an “outside” of the classroom seems completely implausible to someone whose presence in that classroom is dependant on the vicissitudes of the California state budget, but, um, shenanegans. Telling the kids to get off his lawn is not a coherant argument.