the minnesota review n.s. 52-54 (2001)

Jeffrey Williams

Stanley Agonistes: An Interview with Stanley Fish

Jeffrey Williams: I first want to ask you about the star system, befitting this issue of minnesota review. It seems such a fraught thing, which everybody is conscious of but also bemoans. What do you think of it?

Stanley Fish: Well, I think the star system is inevitable given that the coin or currency in our profession is in part prestige, so what you expect stars to do is to attract graduate students and to make a program more visible. If it's more visible, you'll get the kind of attention that will appeal to upper administrators, to boards of trustees, and to legislators if you're in a state university. The knock against the star system is that paying high salaries to so-called stars works at the expense of long-time members of programs, departments, and colleges, who then enter into a relationship of second-tier citizens to those brought in from the outside and given privileges and perks they never had. To some extent, there will be moments when that tension is experienced and lived by a community, but it's not necessary, and I think it will pass.

First of all, in most cases money spent to hire a star is not money taken away from those who have been in an institution for a long time; rather, if you didn't hire stars, the money that you saved is money that a department will never see. The reason that university members don't understand this is because they believe that the finances in a university operate according to the old diagrammatic pie, but this isn't the case. Universities' finances exist in pots of money, and at every level of the university there are cash reserves and funds which are, in effect, slush funds, which usually have other names—soft money, opportunity funds, and so forth. They are not funds available for the kinds of things about which long-term faculty members complain. Ironically, if you succeed in hiring people who are considered stars, the material conditions of your own working life will eventually, if not immediately, improve, because when people come in with large reputations and with perks and equipment as a part of a package, there's immediately a pressure to provide at least some of those benefits to others. Another way of putting this is to say that the entire tone of a unit will be enhanced if someone arrives who is being treated exceptionally well. The spirit changes.

Now it's true, of course, that some who have been long-time inhabitants of a place and who have spent many years being disappointed, being underpaid, being undernoticed, will have entered into a strange relationship with that unhappy situation. To put it simply, they've learned not only to tolerate it but to love it. They love it, in part, because they regard it as their badge of virtue. If we are being treated so badly, the reasoning goes, we must be superior persons.

JW: This is what you talk about in "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," about the constitutive tendency of academics toward self-abnegation.

SF: Yes, and that means that you must be very careful when you attempt to improve the conditions in the academic workplace either by bringing in stars or by other means, because there will be people who, although they seem to be the beneficiaries of your efforts, will resent them.

JW: How do you think the star system has changed? It seems to me that the profession has shifted from a patrilineal model, by which a master teacher conferred his prestige upon a student, to the star model, which represents individuals largely without a history or lineage.

SF: I think a lot of the changes have come about because of structural changes in the way business is done. When I was a graduate student in the late 50s and early 60s at Yale, there were no outside speakers coming in, there was no lecture circuit, there were many fewer journals than there are today and they were fairly tightly controlled by editors and boards of editors who had been in place for a while. You tended more to be involved with your colleagues and to regard their work as the work to which you should pay attention.

JW: I can see how that might have fostered more "community" in a department—now it seems that we are independent contractors operating out of our departmental sites—but the downside is that relied upon a rigid distinction among the academic hierarchy, between junior and senior faculty.

SF: Yes, I think that was true in my first position at Berkeley. The distinction between junior and senior faculty is, of course, still real and still strong in many ways, but it isn't as strong as it was when I first entered the profession, where it was more or less a relationship of apprentice to master. I remember I was offered a job the year I went out on the market at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the things I was going to be doing if I went there was be a section leader in a course taught by Helen White. This was presented to me as if it would be a great honor. I don't think that you could hire a bright young Ph.D. from a first-rate graduate school today and woo him or her by saying you can be a section leader in so-and-so's large and famous course.

It's also the case that, because of revolutions in communications—first Xerox, then fax, and now various forms of email—the community you can be a member of is not bounded by geographical spaces. It is certainly not bounded by the geography of your own campus. This has created a world in which you know people better who actually teach five hundred or a thousand miles away than you might know a colleague down the hall, whose work is in an area entirely different from yours. This has been produced an interesting culture where a bunch of people are known to many academics across the nation, and indeed internationally, by their first names, and in fact that's a test of the star system.

JW: Who do you know by first name?

SF: The first name test only works within the limits of, say, literary studies, or philosophy, or other disciplines. It's very rare when you can get a first name that will be instantly recognized pretty much across the disciplines. I can think of one: Noam. If you're going to speak knowingly of Noam, a lot of people in different disciplines are going to know that it's Noam Chomsky. Now, in the literary discipline, if you speak of Jacques, that of course means Jacques Derrida. Or if you say Edward, it's probably going to be Edward Said. Some people have had the benefit of having names that are unusual—take Hillis as an example. Some names are easily available to pass the first name test—Gayatri or Homi. Again, all the people who refer knowingly and familiarly to Edward are not going to be his colleagues in the old sense, so I think this is the big change that's occurred, along with the advent of the lecture circuit. All of this is entirely different from what it was in 1960.

JW: David Shumway talks about that in "The Star System in Literary Studies," about the changes in jet travel, conferences, and the like. I'm a little skeptical of that explanation because it seems akin to saying that capitalism arose because of railroads. I have an essay in this issue about "name recognition," which takes a point from you about self-abnegation; contrary to the usual complaints about the star system, it is in fact one of the significant and tangible rewards we have. If you write a paper or book, even if you live in mid-Kansas, somebody might recognize your name when you go to MLA, or someone from Harvard might cite you. And the star system doesn't just apply to major theory stars, as Shumway depicts it, but all the way down, at every level—across disciplines, within disciplines, within a particular field, within particular subfields, or even within departments and within grad programs. I think it's our present professional imaginary.

Aside from the star system, what other changes have you seen in the profession over the past thirty-five years, especially in the modes of criticism? I'm struck by the fact that you and a number of other figures associated with theory, like Greenblatt and Harold Bloom, were trained at Yale. It would be hard not to see what you do as a response to the kind of graduate school formation you had.

SF: Well, I can only think in terms of my own trajectories, which do not include all of the changes that have occurred in criticism. Actually, someone who might be better as an example for answering this question is my wife, Jane Tompkins, who's always changing and abandons fields as soon as she's conquered them, whereas I have pretty much done the same kinds of things and asked the same kinds of questions for forty years now, although the materials have changed. For me, the important part of graduate school was my colleagues, especially three: Richard Lanham, a very good friend of mine, a great student of rhetoric, of composition, and now of the internet and computers; Michael O'Loughlin, an eighteenth-century scholar who wrote The Garlands of Repose and who was and is one of these people who has read everything in every language that you can think of; and Bart Giamatti, who was the commissioner of baseball and before that the president of Yale, and who was a very funny and witty Renaissance scholar. The courses that we all took were basically courses in rhetoric—not in the way in which we define the rhetoric taught now in composition and rhetoric programs, but the history of rhetoric—the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, Quintilian, Cicero, Demosthenes, etc. We all learned and memorized the figures of speech, which is a thing that stayed with me. I still teach courses in rhetoric. The emphasis on rhetoric, or rather the training in rhetorical theory and practice, led me directly to concerns with the reader and reader-response theory. When I got to Berkeley in my first job I found two other people with the same interest, although they were trained at Harvard: Stephen Booth, whose edition of Shakespeare's sonnets and book on Shakespeare's sonnets are classics, and Paul Alpers, a great critic of Spenser's Faerie Queene. It turned out that all three of us, with suitable differences, were doing the same kind of work—beginning to think about readers and the reading experience in a structural way, therefore ignoring, or in my case polemically repudiating, "the affective fallacy," which was very much in vogue then.

But the important thing that happened, not only to me but to many others, was the sudden importation into our circles of French and German literary theory in the middle to late 60s, which is about as early as most Americans began to be aware of it. In my case, it was an accident; in the summer of 68 or 69 I went to Paris because I had seen, on a bulletin board, an offer of an exchange of a penthouse apartment in Paris for a house in Berkeley. I had a house in Berkeley. And so my wife and I and then less than two-year-old daughter packed up for the summer in Paris, and it's there that I fell in with a bunch of people who were then forming all of the theories that were soon to be so discussed.

The reason I got into this circle is because one of my undergraduate teachers at the University of Pennsylvania, Seymour Chatman, a structural scholar of narrative and metrics, was in Paris, spoke French very well, knew that we were coming, very graciously met us at the airport, and then introduced me to all kinds of people and to seminars with people like Bruce Morrisette and various kinds of Parisian types. Todorov was hanging around then, S/Z had just come out so everyone was talking about that, and I was introduced to this world that I never knew existed. I went back to Berkeley that fall and decided to teach a course in this material and related material from the Anglo-American tradition. That's how I got into the theory business, and I was perhaps ready to do so because I had already been writing about the reader in Milton's Paradise Lost.

Once theory became introduced in a strong way, the theoretical perspectives began to proliferate, and one of the consequences of this proliferation was that—and this is still the case today—a general sense of the shape of the task was lost, the task of what it is that we do in literary studies.

JW: So you think a problem is that theory has in fact, as neoconservatives claim, taken away from the true center of literary studies?

SF: No, I don't think it's a problem. It seems to me that it has produced, in the people that I see, very vigorous and brilliant investigations of issues, questions, texts, and bodies of materials that were simply not available or were not on our radar screen before. No one can any longer master it all. You can keep up to some extent, but you can't really keep up, and after a while you have to decide that you're going to stay with some topics and issues and be resigned to the fact that some very intelligent people down the hall are doing good work, but you know very little about it and really couldn't engage in an informed conversation with them.

JW: Actually, one argument might be that theory provided a kind of bridge or lingua franca for literary studies, so that somebody in Renaissance could talk to somebody in twentieth-century American literature.

SF: That was also true even before. New Criticism provided a vocabulary, with its notions of tension and paradox and verbal artifacts, that could be as much a part of Chaucerian criticism, as it was for a while, as of criticism, let's say, of Joseph Conrad's novels. So there was always a way, I think, that the techniques in one field could be generalized. What surprises me, though, and heartens me, is the survival through all of these changes of some commitment to close reading. I know that there are many, many complaints and laments that close reading is a lost art, but I see many people who still perform it. It still remains, at least in my experience, the most powerful pedagogical tool which can really awaken students' interest when they begin to realize that they can perform analyses of texts that remove the texts from the category of the alien and the strange, and then begin to actually understand the mechanics of how prose and verse work. Given all the changes that have occurred—some that I've participated in—this is still for me the most exciting activity. I have a new book on Milton coming out which shows me at the same old stand, vending the same old wares, and hoping that there'll be people who will be interested in purchasing it.

JW: Alongside changes in criticism, the university has also obviously changed precipitously. What do you think about the changes in the university? and what changes have you especially seen?

SF: I would just point to one thing: it has become increasingly impossible to maintain the fiction that the university or even the college is isolated from social and political questions, movements, problems, crises. It hasn't been a tenable position since the 60s, probably wasn't a tenable position before that either, but what this has meant in terms of curriculum is that courses that frankly acknowledge a relationship between academic work and extra-academic life, culture, and politics are now found in every university, with the possible exception of Hillsdale College.

I think the big change in the 90s and now the early 2000s is that universities are themselves reaching out to their communities and acknowledging the necessity of coming to terms with their communities, especially in urban centers such as Chicago. And criticism is participating in this self-conscious rejection of a firm boundary line between the academic and the non-academic, in, let's say, gay studies courses or Latina studies courses or third-world literature courses. I read in USA Today this morning that the state of Wyoming's legislature wants to shut down the law school because one of its members has written a book suggesting that cattle should not be grazing on federal land. There's going to be more and more of that, and less and less will it be just the academic, the student, and the great book.

JW: I'm surprised to hear you say that. I believe that we should see our work as being directly related to our communities—after all, public universities are by definition based on a link with their communities—but this seems to disagree with what you say in Professional Correctness, where you draw a fairly distinct boundary between our critical projects in literature and anything to do with politics.

SF: Well, yes and no. The boundary I draw is between different forms of engagement. It's one thing to say, and to say correctly, that a scholarly analysis of grazing practices on federal land in the southwest is addressed both to others who have written on this subject and to those in the legislature, federal government, and elsewhere, who will be influential in either maintaining the present practices or altering those practices. The question is, "When the author of that book sat down to write, what did she have in mind?" My point is, if she had in mind, "Well, I'm going to write something so that this piece of legislation will be repealed or some other legislation will be passed," then I believe that she is pretending to engage in one form of activity while actually engaging in another. It may be a consequence of her scholarly work that the arguments and analyses she offers find a political use, and she may indeed welcome that, but she has to begin, if she's doing academic work, with the intention of figuring out what is true, what are the facts of the matter as she sees them, about this question.

That's the distinction I kept trying to make in Professional Correctness and it was made most starkly in the context of a book written in World War II by a very famous literary critic, G. Wilson Knight. The book was a point for point comparison between the scenario and characters of Paradise Lost and the scenario and characters of World War II. It was an effort for which one might be grateful, but it was not an academic literary effort. It wasn't something that Mr. Knight set out to do in order to advance the discussion of Milton, and in fact after World War II that book disappeared or was regarded as an oddity. That's right because it is not finally part of the mainstream progress of Milton studies. I certainly don't want to say that the work that academics do can't have a political effect—it often can have, although more likely in some disciplines than in some other disciplines. But I do want to hold on to the distinction between beginning your work with an avowedly partisan, political intention as opposed to beginning your work with the intention of engaging with the literature that structures the field.

JW: I want to shift gears a bit and ask about your new job at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But first I'm curious to find out how you came to do what you've done. I know, since I just wrote an introduction to your work for the new Norton Anthology of Theory, that you grew up in Providence, "the son of a major plumbing contractor" in nortonese, and went to the University of Pennsylvania, the first in your family to go to college. What was your path?

SF: My answer to this is not going to be generalizable. And again, I would say that it would be a question better put to Jane Tompkins, who grew up in a very cultured, literary family, with poets often coming to dinner, like John Ciardi and others, a house full of books, etc. It was therefore natural for her to think of herself from an early time as being destined for an academic career. I didn't grow up in a household like that. I was not, as a young person, a voracious reader, and I did not take to intellectual pursuits. I just stumbled upon writing papers for English professors, both in high school and in college, finding that the papers were well received. When you're a young person and people continually ask you, "What are you going to be?" or "What are you going to do?," the questions are terrifying because they imply that right now you are nothing and that you have to find some way of being that allows you to answer those questions.

Originally I was going to be an architect because my father was in the construction business and architects hung around the house. But I don't think I had those skills. Simply because I seemed to have a knack when it came to discussing poems, I kind of slid into being an English major, and when it came time graduate I thought, "Well, what should I do? Should I go to graduate school"—about which I knew absolutely nothing—"or should I go to law school?" So I took the law aptitude test and the graduate record exams—I did better on the law test, actually—but I got fellowships to go to graduate school, whereas I wasn't going to get any scholarships to go to law school.

So I went to graduate school because someone else was paying for it. And the first year was very hard because many of my colleagues, Michael O'Loughlin and others, were true intellectuals. That is, they had, from a very early age, been thinking of themselves as persons who read widely, not simply under the pressure of an assignment, but because that is what they liked to do. Therefore they had read a great deal in many areas and I had not, so it took me quite a while to get the hang of it, and I considered quitting many times in my first year, especially on Friday afternoons when I had two back-to-back classes, one with an eighteenth-century scholar. Eighteenth-century was the only area that I thought I knew something about because my two favorite instructors at Penn were in the eighteenth century, but I didn't do very well in that class. The second class, right after that one, was with William K. Wimsatt in literary criticism. There wasn't anything yet called literary theory. Wimsatt was like Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. He was fierce. I found my colleagues in the class so much more able to respond to the questions and so much more alert to the concerns of literary criticism. I couldn't figure it out.

My wife and I used to go to New York a lot to hear jazz music and one time we went there we dropped into a book store and I found this book written by Wimsatt and Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History. I looked at it and there were all of the topics and all of the discussions and all of the questions. Wimsatt was obviously teaching the course from the book. So I bought the book, went back to New Haven and showed it to my colleagues, and they all laughed because they all had the book. At the end of every Friday afternoon, I would say to myself, "I'm just not cut out for this," and luckily I didn't have any Monday classes so that gave me an extra day to recover. Then in the summer of that year, I sat down and made up a huge reading list, literally hundreds of Renaissance plays, and I read those, and I read Paradise Lost two times. I had never read it, and I've never had a Milton course. The second year, I felt very much more at home.

JW: That's a great story. Now you're Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and you're probably the most high-profile administrator, at least in the humanities, since chairing English at Duke in the 80s and 90s. I know you're in the midst of changing things at UIC; what's your rationale and what do you intend to accomplish?

SF: What I like to do in administrative work is establish conditions in the workplace that allow people to use their talents and enjoy their labors, and I have been struck since the time I entered the academy by the extent to which structures in the academy and attitudes that persist in the academy tend in the opposite direction. For reasons that are certainly too complicated for me to explain in an interview, and I doubt that I could do so even if I had world enough and time, academics seem always to devise contexts for themselves that are deeply underwritten by a desire to experience pain.

JW: I've had a number of other jobs, and I'm struck by how, in my academic job, the material conditions are the best I've experienced, but the ethos isn't. I'm not sure how to characterize the ethos.

SF: Well, it's a form of elitism. It has to do with the phrase that perhaps does more damage than any other, at least in this context, and that is "the life of the mind." I have a general rule of thumb that if someone starts to speak about the life of the mind, watch out, something devious and perhaps dangerous is being performed and you might be its victim, because the phrase "the life of the mind," along with superficial invocations of academic freedom, are part and parcel of an almost relentless determination to ignore those features of a workplace that make it bearable for the men and women who must operate within it. There's a disdain in at least some parts of the academic world for material conditions that are humane. At times it seems that the censorious form of judgment that academics enjoy exercising seeks a physical environment that reflects the bleakness of that judgment. I have extraordinary contempt for most academic attitudes. They seem to me—this is in a way a touch of genius—simultaneously self-serving and self-defeating. They're self-defeating because they are designed finally to make sure that you never get or achieve what you say you want to achieve, and they're self-serving because in a way that failure is the goal which, when achieved, allows academics the platform of high and lofty complaint they so love to occupy. And it comes accompanied with all kinds of little sayings and attitudes, and in a way I consider it part of my work continually to puncture these balloons.

JW: To close, what are you working on now? Sometimes your work is characterized, as far as these tags go, as dealing with "interpretive communities," but you've obviously done a lot since tackling that. I know that you've recently written an essay on legal studies that crystallizes your views on principles and practices.

SF: In the past few years I've been elaborating an argument that has been consistently misunderstood. Essentially it makes three points: (1) if by theory you mean the attaining of a perspective unattached to any local or partisan concerns, but providing a vantage point from which local and partisan concerns can be clarified and ordered, the theory quest will always fail because no such perspective is or could be available; (2) the unavailability of that supra-contextual is in no way disabling because in its absence you will not be adrift and groundless; rather you will be grounded in and by the same everyday practices—complete with authoritative exemplars, understood goals, canons of evidence, shared histories—that gave you a habitation before you began your fruitless quest for a theory; and (3) nothing follows from (1) and (2). Knowing that resources of everyday life are all you have and knowing too that such resources are historical and therefore revisable will neither help you to identify them nor teach you to rely on them with a certain skeptical reserve; the lesson of (1) and (2) goes nowhere; if grand theories provide no guidance (because they are so general as to be empty), the realization that grand theorists provide no guidance doesn't provide any guidance either. End of story, end of theory as an interesting topic.

No matter how many times I go through these steps or respond to questions about them the same objections arise. I am told that this is cynical, but it is only cynical if the resources of everyday life do not include moral resources, as I believe they do. I am told that the position is empty, that it doesn't give any direction; but that is its point, that direction will not come from the realm of theory and that no direction comes from knowing that direction will not come from the realm of theory. I am told that the position is anti-progressive and supportive of the status quo. Actually the position isn't anything; it neither supports nor rules against any project or aspiration except the project or aspiration of grounding our decision in something extra-contextual and independent of the ways of knowing and categorizing already structuring our consciousness. I call this position "theory minimalism," and the fact that almost no one likes it and that it is continually misunderstood is in a way comforting since it means that I can go on rehearsing it forever with no fear that it will become conventional wisdom.

[This interview took place en route between St. Louis and Columbia, MO, on 3 March 2000. Thanks to Jackie Chambers for transcribing it.]

Relevant Works

Fish, Stanley.
Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. Durham: Duke UP, 1989.
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Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.
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John Skelton's Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.
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The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.
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Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1995.
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Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.
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Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 1967. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
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There's No Such Thing as Free Speech ... And It's a Good Thing, Too. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
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The Trouble with Principle. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
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"The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos." There's No Such Thing as Free Speech. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 273-79.
Veeser, H. A., ed.
The Stanley Fish Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1998.
Wimsatt, William K., Jr., and Cleanth Brooks.
Literary Criticism: A Short History. New York: Random House, 1957.

Stanley Fish is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago. His most recent books include The Trouble with Principle (Harvard, 1999) and How Milton Works (Belknap, 2001).

Jeffrey J. Williams is editor of the minnesota review.