Peter Berkowitz eviscerates (beheads, de-scales, bones, and disembowels) the flopping Stanley Fish in the New Republic Online. The only problem with this terrific essay is that Berkowitz was too kind.
Berkowitz documents in convincing detail the contradictions between what Fish has written in defense of postmodernism in the mainstream press and what he and other leading PoMo practitioners write in their journals to each other. “Either Fish is confused about exactly what postmodernism means,” Berkowitz writes, “or he is willing to say anything–no matter how internally inconsistent–to win an argument. Or maybe both.”
But in his trademark bad boy manner Fish shamelessly admits, even proclaims, that he proudly will say anything to win an argument, and its opposite to win another argument. Consistency, apparently, is only for those pre-postmodernists who believe in formal universalisms, like honesty.
Fish says some version of the above in most things he writes, but I have two representative examples handy:
• “The passion I display when debunking the normative claims of neutral principle ideologues is unrelated to the passion I might display when arguing for affirmative action or minority-enhancing redistricting. To be sure, there might be a contingent relation in a given instance if the outcome I dislike was brought about in part by neutral-principle rhetoric; I might then attack the rhetoric as part of my attack on what it was used to do. But I might turn around tomorrow and use the same rhetoric in the service of a cause I believed in. Nor would there be anything inconsistent or hypocritical about such behavior. The grounding consideration in both instances . . . would be my convictions and commitments; the means used to advance them would be secondary, and it would be no part of my morality to be consistent in my handling of those means.” – Fish, The Trouble With Principle (Harvard, 1999), p. 8
• “‘Free Speech’ is just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance…. Free speech, in short, is not an independent value but a political prize, and if that prize has been captured by a politics opposed to yours, it can no longer be invoked in ways that further your purposes, for it is now an obstacle to those purposes…. [S]o long as so-called free speech principles have been fashioned by your enemy . . . , contest their relevance to the issue at hand; but if you manage to refashion them in line with your purposes, urge them with a vengeance.” Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech…and it’s a good thing, too (Oxford, 1994), pp. 102, 114. This essay has been widely reprinted.
I’ve never understood why anyone bothers to argue with Fish. Since he’s announced in advance that he doesn’t necessarily believe what he says, why should anyone listen to him?