Academic review of Stanley Fish's 'Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change'

In his book, Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change[1], Stanley Fish argues against the epistemological and political agendas of cultural studies, as being without justification and understanding in their treatment of the discipline of literary studies and ‘interdisciplinarity’. The strength of his critique is apparent in his internal knowledge and defence of the discipline of literary studies, as being essentially different and distinct as a discipline, from that of cultural studies. While there is great strength to his critique, there are also weaknesses. One of those weaknesses, I will argue, is his refusal to acknowledge the growing influence of external forces outside and increasingly inside the discipline of literary criticism.
Fish argues in favour of a return to the practice of literary criticism in and for itself, free from the political concerns associated with cultural studies. The political or cultural studies approach, in his opinion, is founded upon the mistaken belief that truth is elsewhere and not in the text. The critique is primarily against those cultural studies proponents who see theory as possessing the capacity for revolution and social change. Their aspirations stemming from the ‘mistaken’ belief, that their revised theoretical and epistemological procedures are capable of influencing important political practices. Fish rejects the sense that theoretical debate and discourse causes change; however, he does acknowledge the possibility of ‘theory talk’ as being a catalyst in other areas outside the discipline of origin. His point is essentially that once it becomes part of something other than its origin, theory loses its claim to that discipline e.g., literary theory used for cultural studies, becomes cultural theory. Intent governs content.
The relationship between discourse and belief, interpretation and practice, and the pursuance of truth, are the driving ideological forces behind Fish’s critique of cultural studies aspirations. The interaction and differences, that characterise disciplinary activity between these theoretical relationships, give Fish his definition of a discipline. This, in turn, provides the basis for his argument against criticism that comes from academic fronts that are not as definable (e.g. cultural studies).
Fish’s argument against interdisciplinarity rests on his notion of ‘difference’ as being not just a characteristic of disciplines, but an essential and necessary part of a discipline’s distinct identity. It is that which distinguishes theory as unique and self-defining, as part of a disciplinary practice, that resists its incorporation into appropriated roles within other disciplines. The purpose of literary theory and its internal facts, vocabularies, objects, values, and other ‘’various discursive formations . . . will of course always be a particular one’’(72). This particularity of specifics, and the ‘job’ of disciplinary practices (and) or theory, is what makes it different (and therefore distinct because of its differences).
That essential nature and intent, according to Fish, makes disciplinary function ‘’useful and appropriate for purposes and what is good for one purpose may not be so for another’’(73). The assertion is logically strong and well defended against interdisciplinary demands. However, it also (as cultural studies critics see it) supports the interpretation of an underlying agenda of autonomy, exclusiveness, and therefore a certain amount of unintentional stagnancy in its presentation and justification to the outside world.
A weakness of this kind of critique is that it seems to assume full understanding of the human condition. The constrictive and analytic discourse implies that only lesser understanding of an ‘unintelligible’ kind exists, other than that of the author. His uncompromising authorial tone borders on the verge of sounding ‘autonomous’ unto itself. Fish defines an enterprise that can ‘’make good’’ on its claim that it is ‘’uniquely qualified to perform a specific task’’(19), as being ‘autonomous’. This autonomy is however ‘’not autonomous in the sense of having no affiliations with or debts to other enterprises’’. Because, for Fish ‘’that would be an impossible requirement, which if met, would result in a practice wholly lacking in interest and human intelligibility’’(20).
Rather, he suggests, an enterprise will be ‘’autonomous in the sense of having primary responsibility for doing a job that society wants done’’. Here he makes a claim about disciplines that contradicts his own defence, and is non-affiliatory in nature, refusing to be in allegiance with any discipline other than literary criticism. It also presumes that respect for the discipline, is presently valued by society. I feel that Fish does not convincingly justify the discipline of literary criticism to a public audience, because of this presumptuousness that seems to remain unchecked throughout his critique. Even in his summary of his lectures (and Professional Correctness), he still maintains no need to justify literary criticism’s place amongst the growing public (as opposed to private) academies:

"Justifications, however, are never available from the outside . . . when all is said and done, there is no reason for any discipline or enterprise to exist except for what is brought into the world by the possibility of its practice. What you gain by maintaining an enterprise is the very special and specific pleasures and consolations it affords. They should be thought of neither as the vehicles of our salvation nor as obstacles to it; they are what they are and so are we (140-141)." 

While I agree that there are ‘pleasures and consolations’ gained from maintaining disciplines as they are and have been, I disagree that we can dismiss the changing nature of the world outside, and its effect upon, the institution of education. Society’s ever increasing reliance on tertiary qualifications, as an entry into the world of employment, negates the statically staunch position of academics such as Fish. If his only justification for the discipline of literary criticism, to continue operating as such, is that it is for personal and consolatory purposes, then this in my opinion is a weakness in his critique of other disciplinary aspirations that do take these factors into account.
      Within Professional Correctness, there is a definite feeling of reproachfulness, toward cultural studies critique that appears to disrespect, or resent, literary studies as a distinctive and socially viable discipline. Through the power of persuasion, Fish subtly uses this apparent lack of respect, to mark those proponents of cultural studies, as without integrity and principles of true cultural tolerance toward other disciplines and therefore other cultures. This affront, that Fish consistently emphasises, has the effect of rendering the project of ‘true’ cultural studies potentially null and void. This insight into the core and guiding principle of cultural studies, being that of tolerance, provides Fish with the ammunition to fortify the integrity and validity of his own discipline. His position is validly strong and poignantly essential to his critique, of the epistemological and political aspirations of cultural studies, as a distinct discipline. While there is obvious strength and logic, to this underlying critique of cultural studies fidelity to itself, it also shows how analytically devoid of moral principles literary criticism can be.   

Stanley Fish
Fish weakens his critics by asserting his strength as a literary critic. This effectively deprives them of a vocabulary through which they might lodge their objections or reservations to his arguments. To refute a critic’s claims, Fish discovers the term or concept the critic is using as the foundation for their assumptions. He then implies that the term or concept has been unjustifiably privileged (or appropriated) and accorded, a normative status that it can not possess outside of its discipline. The cultural studies critic, who uses literary terms to criticise Fish, or the discipline of literary studies, soon falls prey to the strength of this destabilising technique Fish employs. He uses his authority as a master of language and literary technique to silence the critic, making them seem ignorant of their own linguistic and theoretical arguments and positions within a given cultural context. Their silence is left to be construed (there are not many options) as the result of unfounded presuppositions and assumed knowledge concerning the nature of disciplines. While this technique of Fish’s is strong as a critical manoeuvre, it has the weakening effect of giving him an air of arrogance and elitism. It also implies that if there is to be any criticism directed at him, then it must come from within his own camp, from those who are able to battle with words as effectively and mercilessly as he. 
To justify and assert the strength of his discourse (and discipline) in opposition to cultural studies criticism, Fish pulls rank and reinforces his positions with a bombardment of literary critique. This manoeuvre is tactical in that the use of language and rhetorical skill forcefully shows the power and distinct nature of literary criticism (contrasted with the essentially non-specific ‘discipline’ of cultural studies). We, the reader, are forced to participate in the complex, and differently distinct, practice (from that of cultural studies) of literary interpretation. Before we know it, we are nodding our heads to the beat of Fish’s ‘game’. His arguments lead us to the end of each chapter, reduced to agreement or disagreement about literary theory’s viability as a discipline. This tactic places the reader as an ally or an enemy, intelligent or illiterate. It is hard not to be persuaded by the sound logic of Fish’s reasoning, after all, who wants to think of themselves as an enemy of anything or an illiterate? More often than not, agreement is our intended and skilfully pre-planned destination.
In my opinion, Fish’s position is consistent and logically strong, his only weakness so far found is when he leaves the realm of literary criticism and academic rhetoric, to assert (however subtly) his qualification of ‘professional correctness’.  Contradictions are few, but when they do occur, they show Fish’s human imperfection in almost a sacrificial manner. Sacrificial in the sense that it feels almost deliberate in light of the strength of the rest of the work. His critique shows this weakness in his apparent indifference to modern literary practice and academic teaching (e.g. the influence of cultural studies). He makes no attempt to convince cultural studies critics of his sincerity and honesty in criticising their cause, even after he has allied his ‘professional correctness’ with their ‘political correctness’: ’’do not read this as a repudiation of cultural studies, black studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, and other forms of activity that have reinvigorated the literary scene’’(x, preface). Fish, essentially, allows no compromise on his ideal of the discipline of literary criticism.
 As he approaches the climax of his argument, Fish explains the title (of chapter V) as follows: "literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward. I do it," he says provocatively, "because I like the way I feel when I'm doing it" (110). There is no doubting Fish’s passion for his craft, but the intent behind his self-justification is immediately questionable. The confessional tone, at first, seems only to convey an insight into Fish’s conviction and faith to his discipline. However, there is also another effect produced, which I feel was Fish’s intention behind his justification: to pitch legitimating talk at the level of personal enjoyment serves to differentiate between subjects of belief and conviction.
Displaying one’s personal preference and reason(s) for disciplinary practice, implies that those who do not have the same emotional involvement with their respective disciplines (cultural studies for example) are not as committed due to their lack of public faith in what they pursue. This tactic of Fish’s questions the strength of the beliefs of those who don’t exhibit the same apparent pride in their given professions. It is as if by not confessing their allegiance and patriotism to their discipline, they are less than qualified to pass judgement (and justification) on their own profession, let alone criticising literary interpretation and theory.
        Both the tone and the introductory last line that seems (contextually) as much a question as it is an answer: ‘how difficult it is to tell the difference between devils and deities’ (110). When combined, with Fish’s emotional and ‘self-referential’ tirade in the following paragraph, makes the reader reel in shock and moral incredulity at an intimacy bordering on the verge of eroticism. This tone of almost aloof expressionism and romantic semantics betrays (seemingly) overwhelming modesty and confidence, potentially frightening and somewhat radically strange to prospects of the discipline. There is a sense of ‘been there, done that’ in the paragraph, that would seem totally foreign to a younger academic whose literary aspirations and skills are just developing. A definite love of poetry would also seem to be a pre-requisite of a prospective literary interpreter, judging from the lasting impression of Fish’s desideratum.           
I do not suggest that expressing and maintaining faith and personal preference is a non-essential ingredient, in the continued and deliberate participation of literary criticism (or in any field of interest, academic or otherwise). However, Fish’s position as a repudiated literary theorist and critic, and the professionalism of the work in question, makes me ask why has he so provocatively posed and adopted this confessional rhetoric? Is he merely giving a reason as to why he does what he does? Is he trying to convince prospective members of his discipline (students) to join in the fun; does he use this rhetoric to make him more human and us more sympathetic to his views? Is he petitioning solidarity from comrades in arms fighting the common good fight? To these questions, there seems no concrete answer and we can only assume that what Fish tells us is sincere. In light of the weight of the rest of Fish’s discourse, the effect of this seemingly deliberate abatement places the astute reader in the position of questioning the intent behind it.
As someone who agrees with the emotions and experience that literary criticism gives, as related by Fish, I can also say that the reasons he gives do encourage me to continue within the discipline. As a form of ‘public justification’, I am unsure as to whether Fish has effectively used this part of his discourse to do so, or whether it is just to provide the reader with a topic of conversation. Whether it portrays an eccentric whose fetishistic leanings point to an unnatural desire to fornicate with words, seems too base a thought to even consider. Although I must admit, I entertained the idea with a certain amount of unintended and perplexed imagination.
As a form of ‘public justification’, Fish contradicts his assertion that the public or “those not of our party’’(115), do not have anything to gain from literary criticism. If there is such an obvious pleasure principle, involved in practicing criticism, that is only ‘internal’ to itself, then it would follow that it cannot also be relevant to any ‘external’ public justification. So why then, does Fish waste time justifying it as such? Moreover, if it were relevant, externally to the discipline, then it would mean that the public does have something to gain from literary criticism. This weakness in Fish’s argument seems to me to be a direct result of his overuse of rhetoric in order to persuade or justify his position to a public audience.
In Aristotle’s Rhetorica, he (Aristotle) states that “we must use, as our modes of persuasion and argument, notions possessed by everybody . . . when dealing with the way to handle a popular audience’’ (I.I.26-29). Fish subtly dismisses the need to justify literary criticism to the public with his argument against interdisciplinarity and his definition of a discipline, as essentially no less than ‘a law unto itself’. His argument does not leave us (as the judge of his work) with many matters of decision; he uses the principles of rhetorical persuasion in such a way that we are lead to conclusions almost involuntarily. The ease by which he establishes apparently watertight statements of fact, lead us to agree (in most instances) that the truth of his critique is as he maintains it is. This is one of the greatest strengths behind his arguments against cultural studies aspirations. Similarly, it can be interpreted in a negative way, as being manipulative and beguiling in nature, in order to bring the reader around to a point of agreement with the author.       
In summary, due to the strength of Fish’s critique of the epistemological and political aspirations of cultural studies, I agree that literary criticism is essentially non-causal toward political and social change. However, the fact that literary criticism has generated so much debate within the academies, seems to me an example of how a discipline can influence and generate changes within the institution and therefore within the discipline itself. Due to the apparent weaknesses that I have pointed out, I have to conclude that I am not fully convinced of the strength of Fish’s ‘public justification’ of literary criticism as a discipline.


[1]  Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change, by Stanley Fish   (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.)                                                   

(C) William Cook. 2014. 

Stanley Fish, Literary Criticism, Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change, Academic Essay, Essay, Rhetoric, University, William Cook

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