Is There Such a Thing as Free Speech? Looking Back on Stanley Fish’s Book, 25 Years Later
Almost twenty-five years ago, Stanley Fish wrote a book for Oxford University Press with a title that anticipated the clickbait era. There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too, he called it — worthy of Buzzfeed. The classic clickbait formula of turning conventional wisdom on its head, of which the middle-postmodern-era academy of the heady 1990s, the perfect decade of Bill Clinton and the Super Nintendo, was so redolent: This thing you thought was real doesn’t exist! This thing you thought was bad is good! Isn’t it amazing?
Proud, strutting unreality, glittering and mischievous no-such-thingness, was the watchword of the day, and Fish was one of the most infamous subjectivists in the academy in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Sokal Affair. This unreality has been replaced with the restrictive half-reality of social construction that has come to dominate our graying, post-9/11, post-2008-economic-meltdown world. But in many ways the debates haven’t changed, especially the debates about free speech. I took a look back at Fish’s book, which I read in college as part of a class on free speech alongside Michel Foucault and Judith Butler (not exactly the first names that come to mind on the topic).
Fish’s preface is already fascinating. He starts out by discussing the proclivity of former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney — yes, that Cheney — to assert that her views on education were part of a broad coalition that included “liberal stalwarts” and “the occasional Marxist.” Cheney was right to do so, Fish says, because all these people, opposed to “multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, or political correctness,” were “committed to a similar structure of thought . . . a structure that opposes the essential to the accidental and enjoins us to be vigilant lest the latter overwhelm the former.” These people all “joined forces against anyone who argues, as [Fish does], that the essential is a rhetorical category whose shape varies with the contingencies of history and circumstance.”
What does this mean? (“Essential” and “accidental” are certainly not being used in the Aristotelian sense of per se and per accidens, for example.) At first blush it means that nothing is essential and people just say stuff is essential to try to get what they want. Postmodernism in Fish’s style is all about “contingency” in this way. Of course these terms are never defined and the postmodern position is never clarified. Does Fish think nothing is essential to anything? Is an engine not essential to a car? Are vitamins not an essential part of your diet? Is the existence of Socrates not essential to the existence of any set containing Socrates? Perhaps when contemporary critics of postmodernism are themselves criticized for not being able to characterize what they’re complaining about, it’s because their impressions of the ideas come from dreck like this.
Later on, in the second chapter, we get a little more information. There we get a quote directly from Lynne Cheney, stating that “[w]hat gives [the humanities] their abiding worth are truths that pass beyond time and circumstance; truths that, transcending accidents of class, race and gender, speak to us all.” So perhaps what Fish means is something like the now-familiar bromide: there is no perspective without accidents, no truth that transcends history and identity. (He himself doesn’t seem to use the word “identity” much — that word is a peccadillo of the more recent, individualistic trends that grew out of his sorts of efforts.) What might seem “essential” is actually “accidental” insofar as it is white, male, etc.
Fish extends this point (in the book’s first chapter; Lynne Cheney comes up a whole heck of a lot in the early parts of the book): “not only is there no one who could spot a transcendent truth if it happened to pass through the neighborhood, but it is difficult even to say what one would be like. Of course we would [sic] know what it would not be like; it would not speak to any particular condition, or be identified with any historical production, or be formulated in the terms of any national, ethnic, racial, economic, or class traditions.” Well, this depends on what’s meant by transcendent, which like essential is never really defined. There are some truths that seem to be genuinely transcendent in the sense of being a priori, like the truths of logic and mathematics. But focusing on the humanities, what Cheney was at least overtly talking about was not any robust sense of transcendence like this, but simply the idea of a canon that reflected (near-)universal aspects of the human experience. Such aspects might include coming of age, dealing with loss, falling in love, preparing for death, and so on. With such examples in mind, it becomes clear that, at least superficially, it is not Cheney who is making a vague and committal metaphysical claim, but Fish himself, in his dogmatic insistence that all such experiences are necessarily parochial, socially-constructed, historically-situated, and so on.
Of course, Fish’s side, for the most part, won the canon wars; Cheney’s lost. There is no longer any prohibition, and in fact not even much of a stigma, against teaching works from popular culture in college; it is courses on Western civilization, like Lucia Martinez Valdivia’s at Reed, that are under the greatest internal threat now. And many institutions of higher education have more employees dedicated to campus diversity than to, say, ancient philosophy. In any event, Fish later seemed to abandon (I imagine he either didn’t see or didn’t mind the contradiction) the position that there are no transcendent truths, writing in the New York Times that he “denies nothing except the possibility . . . of securing universal assent.” (“No such thing” in the title of the book under review seems to indicate otherwise, and he writes in it that “ethical judgments are disputable, and none can ever be grounded in anything firmer than the local conditions of practice”, and that if there were moral absolutes, “there would be no one capable of recognizing or responding to them”; but let’s pass over that.) But of course it is pretty much impossible to “secure universal assent” for some proposition even within some specific class, race, culture, tradition, historical moment, etc. So all of his canon-war talk about all that stuff — well, it seems completely beside the point. Perhaps by “universal” he means something different than what we might expect. But now the something-different-meanings are starting to pile up — essential, transcendent, universal — and our intuition should be that we are dealing with a sloppy thinker papering over the holes in his bombast.
Fish goes on to say a lot more stuff in this preface that makes no sense. For instance, he writes that “values, rather than being opposed to political commitment, grow only in its soil and wither in the arid atmosphere of bodiless abstraction, whether that abstraction is named reason, merit, fairness, or procedural neutrality.” Of course something like “fairness” seems like it actually is a value. In fact, it’s hard to conceive of what it would mean for something to be a value without being a “bodiless abstraction” (are there abstractions with bodies?). But this is all part of the conventional wisdom-flipping game Fish is playing. “When such words and phrases are invoked,” Fish writes — the “high-sounding” ones, that is — “it is almost always as part of an effort to deprive moral and legal problems of their histories.” Well: so? What’s crucial about “histories” such that moral and legal problems can’t do without them? And what prevents “history” from becoming its own “high-sounding” word, a new specter of the “essential” or whatever? In fact, Fish seems to assent to propositions like “all values are historical” — thus making historicity an essential feature of values.
This theme continues in the introduction, where he mocks “older academics” who are threatened by postmodernism — “who recognize in the rising popularity of new slogans and mantras (‘the personal is the political,’ ‘interpretation cannot be avoided or constrained,’ ‘there is nothing outside the text’) a challenge to the very foundation of their professional and personal lives.” Who knows exactly how Fish managed this sort of insight into the personal lives of his enemies. But what’s most interesting is that while the sides and slogans have stayed the same, the roles and the rhetoric seem to have switched — now it is the anti-postmoderns who see themselves as a new generation launching some sort of attack on the aging garrisons of academe. Perhaps this is some small vindication of Fish’s preference for the accidental over the essential — whatever that means.
Five of the book’s chapters emerged from a series of debates between Fish and Dinesh D’Souza. Fish writes — perhaps generously — that when all was said and done, he felt these debates came out to an overall draw. I don’t know if being on equal intellectual footing with Dinesh D’Souza was considered something to be proud of back in the nineties, but it certainly isn’t now. In the first such chapter, Fish goes on to describe the academic atmosphere at Duke University: “There are no multiculturalist requirements (perhaps there should be), no seminars in sensitivity training, no harassment of instructors presenting traditional courses in traditional ways.” It’s quaint, is what it is.
Enough of this; let’s get into the book’s titular essay. It opens like so: “Lately, many on the liberal and progressive left have been disconcerted to find that words, phrases, and concepts thought to be their property and generative of their politics have been appropriated by the forces of neoconservatism. This is particularly true of the concept of free speech, for in recent years First Amendment rhetoric has been used to justify policies and actions the left finds problematical if not abhorrent: pornography, sexist language, campus hate speech. How has this happened? The answer I shall give in this essay is that abstract concepts like free speech do not have any ‘natural’ content but are filled with whatever content and direction one can manage to put into them.”
Passing over the now-outdated association of neoconservatism with pornography and progressivism with censorship of pornography, we should note that there are some terms in this introduction that we would hope, in vain, that Fish might find a way to define for us. What (the fuck) does it mean for “words, phrases, and concepts” to be “the property” of some political movement? “Appropriated” here is a bit like “weaponized”, a term everyone knows I hate. What about “abstract” and “natural”? Do concrete concepts (if there are such things) have natural content, making them somehow superior to abstract concepts? (Is “appropriated” a concrete concept or an abstract one?) Isn’t Fish just saying that words mean what people take them to mean — which, of course, is quite different from saying that words don’t mean anything at all?
And what of Fish’s question: “How has this happened?” Is this a question that would even merit asking for anyone with a basic appreciation for a pluralistic liberal society? If a principle gives me the freedom to do something you might not like, then it likely also gives you the freedom to do something I might not like. On this analysis, Fish seems to be holding the wrong end of the stick here. He’s the one who’s trying to “fill” the concept of free speech with “whatever content and direction he can manage to put into it”. But again, under pluralistic liberalism, we would expect neutral principles to be “appropriated” in this way. That’s the whole notion of liberalism as a kind of compromise. Everyone gets to do their own thing, so it’s sort of okay that nobody gets to win. It is of course worth debating whether or not this is actually good; but a surprise? And a surprise that leads Fish to conclude that the principle fails to be neutral, when what has occurred is exactly what we would expect from a neutral liberal principle? The framing is incredibly strange.
But enough on Fish’s prefatory remarks; let’s go on to his argument, such as it is. And let’s keep in mind the title of the book, and the essay. Fish is claiming that there’s no such thing as free speech. What sort of evidence would suffice for that kind of conclusion?
Fish starts by talking about Milton. Milton wanted free speech, but made an exception for Catholics; the Catholics were no good. Fish says everyone’s invocations of free speech are like this: they have their own no-good people whom they except from the principle. But he goes a bit further than that. This isn’t a political reality or some sort of paradox of tolerance, but a metaphysical principle: “I do not mean that expression (saying something) is a realm whose integrity is sometimes compromised by certain restrictions but that restriction, in the form of an underlying articulation of the world that necessarily (if silently) negates alternatively possible articulations, is constitutive of expression. Without restriction, without an inbuilt sense of what it would be meaningless to say or wrong to say, there could be no assertion and no reason for asserting it.”
In many ways this is just the normal postmodern stuff. The sayable is nothing without the unsayable; presence is nothing without absence; etc. But does it mean anything? And what does it have to do with free speech? It is true in a sense, at least if we accept the principle of non-contradiction, that for there to be true assertions there must also be false assertions. If “X is F” is true, then “X is not F” must also be false. Is that what Fish means? Well, he goes on to say that “[i]t is in reference to that value — constituted as all values are by an act of exclusion — that some forms of speech will be heard as (quite literally) intolerable.” But a false proposition is not necessarily an intolerable proposition. And that something is excluded by my values does not necessarily make it intolerable. If there were, pluralism and liberalism would be ruled out a priori. So Fish’s conceptual stuff doesn’t pass muster at all.
Fish goes on to discuss a Canadian court case. A teacher who talked about how much he hated Jews was convicted under some kind of Canadian hate speech law. The Canadian court said that the question of such rights is (their words) “always one of balance,” and that, though the hate speech law (Fish’s words) “does in fact violate the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by the charter,” it “is nevertheless a permissible restriction because it accords with the principles proclaimed in Section 1.” Fish contrasts that with “our legal culture as it is now constituted,” where “if one yells ‘free speech’ in a crowded courtroom and makes it stick, the case is over.”
This is a stupid misunderstanding of American law (as Fish oddly admits in the very next sentence), but it’s also not clear how it could possibly buttress the extreme, mumbo-jumboed high-theory thesis that Fish proffered. Fish wrote that “the freedom has never been general and has always been understood against the background of an originary exclusion that gives it meaning.” How is the Canadian case supposed to help with that? The Canadian court wanted to balance a freedom and an interest: the freedom of speech and the state’s interest in preventing hate speech. It picked a certain way of balancing these. But nothing suggests that either the right or the interest fails in any way to be “general”. And the exclusion is not “originary” but merely a competing interest. This interest can be entirely separable from the idea of free speech, just as there is no internal relation between my interest in attending one seminar and my interest in attending another seminar that takes place at the same time. Because rights and freedoms must be balanced against each other and against various kinds of compelling interests, they are only ever what W. D. Ross calls, in another context, prima facie. But this is not the same as them failing to be general or having an originary exclusionary restrictionary blah-blah-blah.
Next Fish tries to take on “the distinction, essential to First Amendment jurisprudence, between speech and action.” This is a popular way to attack free speech among people who have read a little J. L. Austin. But Fish then admits that those who talk about free speech needn’t and indeed usually don’t declare speech “not to be a species of action” but rather insist that it is “a special form of action lacking the aspects of action that cause it to be the object of regulation.” So where is the “distinction” at all? This is another high-theory tic — the conviction that one’s opponents in virtually any dispute see the world in terms of binaries which the theorist, nuanced and sophisticated, either flips on their head or does away with entirely. That it usually turns out to be the case that the terms in which the theorists frame these binaries either are nonsensical or fail to capture any of their opponents’ views, and that the theorists themselves often appear to have pretty white-and-black views of things (e.g., that they think there’s “no such thing as” a freedom if it is sometimes balanced against other rights or interests), mysteriously has been no detriment to the prestige of high theory.
Fish goes on to write that “freedom of expression would only be a primary value if it didn’t matter what was said.” I don’t really know how to make sense of this, but I think the idea has to turn on this notion of “primary value”. Note that this is not a phrase that Fish’s opponents actually use but one that Fish is imputing to his opponents. He seems to repeat the point while making it specific to the academy: “Could it be the purpose of [universities and colleges] to encourage free expression? If the answer were ‘yes,’ it would be hard to say why there would be any need for classes, or examinations, or departments, or disciplines, or libraries.” But who ever said anything about the purpose? It’s enough for Fish’s opponent that freedom of expression is a value, a purpose. Who knows — it might even be sufficient for it to be a value or purpose that’s subservient to other values, like finding the truth. (It’s hard to know, because Fish never seems to actually quote the people he’s arguing with, to describe their positions, etc.) And even if it’s not, a subservient value is not necessarily a politicized one in the way Fish described, and it is certainly not necessarily “no such thing”.
What Fish ends up saying is that free speech is an “accidental feature” of institutions, which have some other “purpose”. So it’s something like a subservient value in the way I used that phrase above. But remember that in the book’s preface, he formulated his postmodernism as the claim that everything was an “accidental feature” in this way. Nothing is essential to any institution; everything is up for grabs. So this way of arguing is simply not available to him. He has done away with any notion of another value to which free speech would be subservient — unless, that is, he wants to argue that the value to which free speech is subservient is itself subservient to some further value, which is itself subservient to some further value, and so on; but this clearly leads to an infinite regress. It is, unsurprisingly, the generality of the postmodern rejection of, well, just about everything that gets Fish into trouble, because there’s nothing he can turn to that has any more reality than the “no such thing” that is free speech.
Fish seems by now to have made about a half-dozen different claims about free speech, but not to have any central thesis. You might expect, then, that at some point he would summarize all his points and stop making new ones. But he does not do this. He goes on to write that an exception for religious institutions included in a proposed amendment to the Civil Rights Act concerning free speech on campus shows that everyone recognizes that institutions of higher learning have central tenets and beliefs around which they’re organized. A page later, he mentions “the possibility that speech-related injuries may be grievous and deeply wounding.” (This is poor writing; of course the injuries are wounds, not wounding things.) And of course this is the meat of most discussions of free speech on campus. But what do injuries and wounds have to do with “an originary exclusion” or whatever? Is the restriction or exclusion of hate speech part of what makes non-hate speech understandable? It’s virtually impossible to see why anyone would think that to be the case.
On the matter of wounding, Fish writes that an opponent (Benno Schmidt) “would no doubt reply . . . that harmful speech should be answered not by regulation but by more speech; but that would make sense only if the effects of speech could be canceled out by additional speech, only if the pain and humiliation caused by racial or religious epithets could be ameliorated by saying something like ‘So’s your old man.’ What Schmidt fails to realize at every level of his argument is that expression is more than a matter of proffering and receiving propositions, that words do work in the world of a kind that cannot be confined to a purely cognitive realm of ‘mere’ ideas.” This paragraph is an extraordinarily confusing non sequitur; the only motive I can conceive of for putting these two ideas together is that Fish is going to extreme lengths to try to fit his theoretical ideas in with the practical realities he’s trying to write about. For the idea that some instance of speech could be ameliorated somehow by some subsequent instance of speech clearly does not rely on the notion that expression is merely “a matter of proffering and receiving propositions”. If anything, it relies on the opposite. It is Fish who is assuming that speech is not powerful enough to undo certain effects of certain other speech. Right or wrong, it would be great if Fish had the self-awareness to at least identify which views are his and which are his opponents’.
Fish thinks his opponents want to avoid “politics, the realization . . . that decisions about what is and is not protected in the realm of expression will rest not on principle or firm doctrine but on the ability of some persons to interpret . . . principle and doctrine in ways that lead to the protection of speech they want heard and the regulation of speech they want heard [sic] and the regulation of speech they want silenced. (That is how George Bush can argue for flag-burning statutes and against campus hate-speech codes.)” But this mention of Bush is interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost as though Fish does believe he knows what a neutral principle of free speech would indicate! It’s almost as though he thinks a neutral principle of free speech would rule the same way on flag-burning statutes and campus hate-speech codes! But Fish denies that we can appreciate what the action of any such neutral principle would be. Well, he can’t have it both ways; it can’t both be the case that there is no such thing as neutrality and that we can recognize deviations from neutrality and name them as such. Perhaps he should have titled the essay “nobody really believes in free speech”. But of course that’s too strong a conclusion too, because people fall short of the ideal when it comes to any moral principle.
Fish eventually falls back on one of my least favorite moves in any discussion of principles. He says: “I would not be heard as arguing either for or against regulation and speech codes as a matter of general principle. Instead my argument turns away from general principle to the pragmatic (anti)principle of considering each situation as it emerges.” But what does it mean to consider a situation? Surely it means to see it in the light of a bunch of general considerations. Otherwise, we would have no way of explaining why a situation calls for any particular action or decision. Say I do some action. You ask: “Why did you do that?” I say: “The situation seemed to call for that.” This isn’t an answer at all, though. What about the situation called for that action? And this what will always have a generality to it. That my action serves my interests is always an explanation of sorts, though one that might fail to paint me in a particularly good light; that my action frustrates my interests is never an explanation at all. That my action fulfills a promise I made is always an explanation of sorts; that my action breaks a promise I made is never an explanation at all. Pragmatism thus amount only to the recognition that the real world is complex and that a lot of different principles may point in different directions when it comes to any particular situation. But these principles are themselves always perfectly general.
In a postscript to the essay, Fish reiterates some of his themes. For instance, he writes that “constraint of an ideological kind is generative of speech and . . . therefore the very intelligibility of speech (as assertion rather than noise) is radically dependent on what free-speech ideologues would push away. Absent some already-in-place and (for the time being) unquestioned ideological vision, the act of speaking would make no sense, because it would not be resonating against any background understanding of the possible courses of physical or verbal actions and their possible consequences.” It is hard to see what makes a background understanding necessarily ideological. And the “therefore” and “because” don’t actually seem to indicate any logical relationship. In any event, Fish never explains just what it is about ideological constraint that “generates” speech. It’s just postmodern dogma, repeated until it gnaws its way into the brain of unsuspecting undergraduates, like I was when I first encountered this book. Later, he chides letter-writers for “ignor[ing his] challenge to the binaries on which their arguments depend.” There are those “binaries” again. It’s all so trendy and exhausting.
Other chapters contain snatches of gibberish within paragraphs heavy with bureaucratic trivia: this person proposed this policy, this person was a head of this commission or institute or whatever, and so on. It is true that, as Fish suggests early on in the book, all his postmodern positions begin to seem very mundane, like things a drunk executive might say at a meeting to determine a corporate mission statement. Take his response, in the second chapter, to the idea that academics ought to “structur[e] the curriculum around . . . conflicts”: “But if conflict is made into a structural principle, its very nature is domesticated; rather than being the manifestation of difference, conflict becomes the theater in which difference is displayed and stage-managed. Once a line has been drawn around difference, it ceases to be what it is.” Oh? Does this make any sense at all to anyone who gives it even a second of thought? Did Fish himself “domesticate” the “very nature” of the conflict between him and, say, Lynne Cheney, in the book under review? Does the difference between his view and hers “cease to be what it is” in virtue of their inclusion in the same volume? What would that even mean?
Where Fish is clear, he is usually just sophomoric. For example, he takes issue with a passage from Martha Nussbaum which holds that it is better to read a novel than hire a prostitute. After some nasty accusations of “self-promotion and self-dramatization” (because Nussbaum “acknowledg[ed]” that she herself prefers reading to hiring prostitutes — apparently a surprise of some sort), Fish writes, “As for the argument of the passage, problems arise at every juncture. Is the moral difference between the two persons Nussbaum imagines as clear as she thinks and in the direction she assumes?” A great cinematic work of that great decade, the nineties, was The Big Lebowski, whose main character, The Dude, famously said to an arrogant team-bowling opponent, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” This is the whole content of Fish’s “problems [that] arise at every juncture”! There’s nothing else to his analysis of the argument! This is one of the leading lights of the high postmodern academy. All he does is insult people and bang the table.
Why can Fish not engage with Nussbaum’s assertions in any more depth than this? Why did he flounder and change his position in his New York Times exchange with Paul Boghossian, mentioned and linked a few times above? I think the answer is the following. Some philosophers, like Nussbaum and Boghossian, write a bunch of assertions, one after another. Some (not all!) literary and cultural critics, like Fish, see this and fail to understand the structure, and think: That’s all an argument is — a bunch of assertions, one after another. So now, they think, I will make arguments, by asserting propositions until I’m blue in the face. But there is no care to ensure any relations among the propositions, no drive to establish clarity in definitions or to stick to any sort of valid inference structure. This inability to comprehend what relates to what, what follows from what, lends itself naturally to the idea that all discourse is political: my list of assertions against yours in some sort of war.
What of Fish’s own account of morality — since he rejects the idea of genuine moral principles, but also seems to write with such moral conviction? Unsurprisingly, it sucks. He writes that “since those who are embedded in local practices . . . are ‘naturally’ heirs of the norms and standards built into those practices, they can never be without (in two senses) norms and standards and are thus always acting in value-laden and judgmental ways simply by being competent actors in their workplaces.” We might expect, then, the following sort of characterization: An act is good if and only if it is dictated by the norms and standards built into the local practices that form the context for the act; an act is bad if and only if it is anti-dictated — that is, if it is dictated that one should not perform the act — by the norms and standards built into the local practices that form the context for the act. But Fish never says anything like this. (And of course he shouldn’t and can’t, since many local practices involve norms and standards that are unjust.) Instead, he seems to say the opposite: that there is never anything fundamentally wrong with an agent contesting the norms and standards of their local practices; that it’s just a form of jockeying for political power. But then where’s the ethics, if there are no acts that are right and no acts that are wrong? Fish doesn’t even know how to begin to formulate a theory of such things in a coherent way.
The main benefit of Fish’s literary training seems to have been the ability to interpret his opponents in imaginative ways that slip past their arguments into piñatas of his own making, full of sweet insights that serve his purposes but end up unrelated to any broader debate. At one point, for instance, he undertakes an effort “to examine the label [political correctness] and inquire into what it implies. First of all, it implies the introduction of politics into an area (often called the life of the mind) where politics doesn’t belong; and second, it implies that this intrusion of politics is itself politically organized, the result of design and coordinated activity.” Huh? One might think the most natural implication to take from the term “political correctness” is that there exist milieus in which the factual correctness of some statement ceases to be as important in determining the consequences of stating it, and is replaced by something that has some relationship to politics. This could be a milieu in which politics doesn’t belong or a milieu in which it does; and the important thing is generally not how political correctness is “organized”, “designed”, or “coordinated”, but whether there are any patterns when it comes to the statements for which factual correctness remains paramount and the statements for which political correctness seems to overtake it in importance. A similar thing occurs when Fish attacks Benno Schmidt’s use of the phrase “academic community.” Fish says that “the phrase recognizes what Schmidt would deny, that expression only occurs in communities.” Of course, it does no such thing, and anyone who knows how to read, including Fish, knows that it doesn’t.
Literally every page of the book has at least something like this: a strange moment where Fish seems to almost purposefully miss the point and devolve into jargon which is too senseless to be worth submerging oneself in it. The “decentering” effects of Fish’s postmodern sensibilities are praised every so often; but what is the mechanism of that decentering? Not Fish’s weak-sauce arguments, which reason from evidence like the path-dependency of genre classifications — if you start with a system of genres, you’re likely to find ways to fit certain works into that system, even if, without that system or in another system, they might not seem like a natural fit — to conclusions about things like whether there are transcendent truths, whether there are distinctions between facts and values, truth and politics, etc. I mean, just listen to it: “When you think about it, that book could have gone on the other shelf. Therefore, there’s no such thing as truth.” It’s so patently insufficient, it makes you wonder whether the whole project isn’t some sort of extended satire.
Despite it all, the Fish abides; he’s still energetically commenting on campus controversies. He wrote two years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “free speech is not an academic value”. Not a big shock, considering he’d already told us that it doesn’t fucking exist. But maybe somebody, somewhere, still found a way to feel the shock Fish sought to induce, now much more efficiently produced by clickbait outfits like Buzzfeed, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and so forth — likely by twentysomethings making twenty-five thousand dollars a year, or interns making nothing, who like me read Fish and others of his ilk in their college classes on free speech or literary theory or cultural politics or whatever, and themselves found a way to feel revolutionary while repeating the words of those widely-worshiped charlatans more or less verbatim.