Sunday, December 8, 2019

Stanley Fish and “partisan politics”

From a Chronicle of Higher Education interview with Stanley Fish, “The Unbearable Virtue-Mongering of Academics”:

Let’s talk about your views on academe and social justice. One of the topics you address [in a new book] is university disinvestment in fossil fuels, a step that you object to.

My position has become a minority one; perhaps it was always a minority one. Both students and some faculty feel more and more that colleges and universities should stand for values and policies that are thought to be progressive, rather than sitting on the political sideline. That’s a prevailing sentiment, and it’s one I don’t share. Once you go in that direction, for example by declining to invest in fossil-fuel stock, you’ve transformed yourself from an educational institution into a political institution. Once you do that, there’s, in effect, no place to stop — the university becomes an extension of partisan politics, just another place where partisan politics occurs.
But to invest in fossil fuels is not to remain neutral, to sit “on the political sideline”; to invest is to take a position, however longheld or unexamined that position might be. And notice how Fish stacks the deck with his reference to “partisan politics”: to divest might better be described not as a gesture toward “partisan politics” but as a moral choice that can serve the cause of education. But while I’m taking apart Fish’s argument, I’ll add that a university is always already a political institution: who gets in, who’s kept out, what gets taught, and how. Those who seek to reduce public universities to centers for vocational training know that well.

The interviewer for The Chronicle calls Fish “one of the besieged humanities’ most prominent voices.” But see also Russell Jacoby: “With friends like him, the humanities needs no enemies.”

If you’re wondering about the interview’s title: the conversation devolves into a consideration of cars, with Fish throwing shade on Prius and Subaru owners and extolling his own recent vehicles of choice, a Mercedes and a Thunderbird.

Related posts
A review of How to Write a Sentence : Fish on Strunk and White : Russell Jacoby on Stanley Fish

comments: 4

Sparky said...

Sheesh. Stanley Fish channeling his inner Morris Zapp. Whenever I read anything by Stanley I can't help hearing my inner voice whispering "Alan Sokal, Alan Sokal".

Michael Leddy said...

Sheesh, indeed. My acquaintance with his work goes very far back, and I continue to be unimpressed.

Daughter Number Three said...

All I could think was, "Oy vey."

Michael Leddy said...

Oy indeed. I think all the way back to Is There a Text in This Class? — so many of the claims therein fall apart on close examination or the invention of a simple counterexample.

In this interview, see also his claim about university purchasing: “Universities that purchase from vendors should attempt, as would any other purchasers, to secure quality goods at a fair price. That is the obligation of the university when it acts as a consumer.” No concern about whether a company espouses hateful views.

But “fair” to whom? And what does “quality” mean? Is a manufacturer who exploits child labor offering “quality goods” at a “fair price”? Is not buying from such a manufacturer a matter of “partisan politics”?

Fish is a provocateur, a tricky rhetorician, and a bully of sorts (years ago at an MLA panel I saw him tell an academic with a question that she didn’t know how to think). He’s not, to my mind, a great mind.