Stanley Fish Critical Essays

Introduction

Stanley Fish 1938-

(Full name Stanley Eugene Fish) American critic, nonfiction writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Fish's career through 2000.

A provocative literary theorist and intellectual gadfly, Stanley Fish has earned distinction for his investigations into the subjectivity of textual interpretation, specifically his explication of the concept of an “interpretive community.” While in the first major portion of his publishing career Fish explored the role of the reader in determining the meaning of a text (as seen through the lens of seventeenth-century English literature), he later applied his particular brand of literary theory to legal studies. He has also critiqued the work of his own colleagues, questioning the tendency of academics in English literature to politicize their writings. Fish is known, if not always appreciated, by his peers for his controversial stances.

Biographical Information

Fish was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 19, 1938. His family moved to Philadelphia, where he attended the University of Pennsylvania and received his B.A. in 1959. Upon graduating from college, he married Adrienne A. Aaron, with whom he had a daughter; Fish and Aaron divorced in 1980. He attended graduate school at Yale, earning his Ph.D., with a thesis on the English poet John Skelton, in 1962. Fish's first teaching job was at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received incremental promotions from the position of instructor, beginning in 1962, to that of professor of English in 1969. While at Berkeley Fish released his first book, John Skelton's Poetry (1965), as well as subsequent volumes that established his critical reputation. In 1974 Fish moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he was named Kenan Professor of English. During this period, he married his second wife, Jane Parry Tompkins, also a professor, in 1982. Fish began working at Duke University in 1985, where he served as Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and Law, chair of the English department, associate vice provost, and executive director of Duke University Press. Since 1999 he has held the position of dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Major Works

Beginning his career with strictly academic subjects, Fish's writings came to include concerns outside of the classroom. His first book, John Skelton's Poetry, which grew out of his doctoral thesis, takes a radical perspective in interpreting Skelton's work. Fish contends that Skelton was basically a private poet and that his implicitly Christian verse serves as a record of the poet's religious development; at the center of Fish's argument is the “psychological (spiritual) history” of what he refers to as the “protagonist.” In his next book, Surprised by Sin (1967), Fish daringly argues that the subject of John Milton's masterpiece, Paradise Lost, is actually the reader. Fish attempts to show that the text of the poem, controlled by its author's didactic goals, uses different techniques involving form and theme to call attention to the reader's interpretive inadequacies; the reader's deficiencies are pointed out by the poem, making the reader open to being educated as to “the ways of God to men.” Self-Consuming Artifacts (1972) presents a more direct confrontation of the matter of form within a text. In this book Fish identifies two types of literature: rhetorical, which confirms and reinforces the author's position, therefore affirming the reader's expectations and “self-esteem”; and dialectical, which undermines, or “consumes,” the reader's self-esteem by challenging assumptions and subverting expectations. Fish contends that seventeenth-century writers such as John Donne, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and Milton construct texts that are consumed under their own authority—thereby winning Fish's favor. In Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Fish continues to explore the idea of reader-as-subject. This collection of essays provides a broader statement of the author's notion that the reader, instead of merely discovering the meaning of a text, actually determines it. The author also calls into question the credibility of facts, maintaining that what are considered facts actually rely on certain assumptions within particular institutions. Facts thus depend upon the agreement of the members of an institution; if the nature of the institution is questioned, then the facts embraced by that institution can also be called into doubt. Is There a Text in This Class? emphasizes the role of an “interpretive community,” whereby meaning is attributed to a text through readers who, as members of such a group, share certain “interpretive assumptions.” Doing What Comes Naturally (1989) broadens the scope of the author's work in literary criticism to include legal studies. In this collection of essays, Fish examines the relation of theory to practice, the connection between meaning and context, and the influence of rhetoric on argument. In There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too (1994), Fish argues that free speech cannot be separated from partisan politics and therefore scorns liberals who believe in the possibility of neutrality. Fish's interest in politics continued with Professional Correctness (1995), in which he criticizes academics for investing their scholarly writings with political meaning, and The Trouble with Principle (1999), in which he uses, among other examples, the debate over affirmative action to assert that an emphasis on principles impedes democracy.

Critical Reception

Critics have greeted Fish's writings with a mixture of admiration and opposition. His first major scholarly work, Surprised by Sin, was praised by reviewers for its consideration of Paradise Lost, particularly in illustrating how the poem forces a sense of guilt upon the reader to open the reader to the work's instructive aims. This idea of the “guilty reader,” however, was also criticized for rendering the reader incapable of forming a critical judgment and thus precluding criticism of the work. Critics began to take serious note of Fish's ideas with Is There a Text in This Class? Fish's enervating writing style apparently played a significant role in the book's success in winning critics over to his argument that, even more so than the text itself, the reader's response creates the meaning of a text. There's No Such Thing as Free Speech generated a considerable debate. Fish was criticized for what was observed to be an overly strong cynicism concerning liberalism; on the other hand, the book was praised as helping to revive, through wit and word play, the rather weary state of current legal discourse. Critics also reacted strongly to Professional Correctness. While Fish's case that the university holds the most promise as a site for intellectual integrity was accepted, critics argued that he was incorrect in pointing to the academic world as the source of its own potential demise, instead locating the danger in the contemporary political climate; in any case, “professionalism” was not expected by critics to save the day. The Trouble with Principle again caught the attention of reviewers, who pointed out Fish's methods for exposing the actual lack of neutrality in the “democratic discourse” of liberals. Fish's opposition to the “principles” of liberalism, however, was not found to be either original in its stance or conclusive in terms of supplying a remedy for the current political state. Despite the criticisms found in response to the author's claims, Fish is known as an insightful critic of contemporary culture, one certainly not timid about potentially drawing the ire of his peers; whether they agree with him or not, critics have recognized Fish for the energetic creativity of his thought.