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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, May 28, 2007

The Prestige

Posted by John Holbo on 05/28/07 at 06:07 AM

I was going to follow up on Bill’s Fish post but I haven’t quite got my ‘interpretive communities’ ducks in a row. Here’s an incidental point, noted in passing. In “Anti-Professionalism” Fish writes: “I define anti-professionalism as any attitude or argument that enforces a distinction between professional labors on the one hand and the identification and promotion of what is true or valuable on the other.” Now the problem with this - I trust it is obvious, ladies and gentlemen - is that it follows trivially that all reasonable attitudes and then some, including all the attitudes one might conceivably deem professional, are un-professional. Because of course everyone can conceive of a possible world on which, at least once, a ‘professional’ did something bad-wrong-false (and/or at least once a non-professional said something true/did something worthwhile). All articulations of professional norms of conduct - do this, rather than that - imply the possibility that a professional might fail to live up to standards. To say nothing of the possibility of professional self-criticism, intended to result in improved notions about norms of conduct.

I’m making it more complicated than necessary. Professionalism is normative. Ergo, professionalism is unprofessional. (See definition.) Page 1. We’re done. Of course, 30 pages later, Fish mints the fresh paradox that unprofessionalism is the height of professionalism.

I object.

Confidence men should at least try to hide the ace up their sleeve before flourishing it, self-satisfiedly, at the conclusion of the trick. If you just hold the ace out for all to see. And then say: here’s an ace. There’s no trick.

Better sophistry, please. If the author has, as in the present case, omitted to take his subject matter seriously - then I demand entertainment. Razzle-dazzle. 


My objection to professionalism (which I call methodologism or paradigmatization) is to the enforcement of a limited methodology or group of methodologies on an academic department by control of hiring, which is followed by the refutation of anything coming from other methodologies as unprofessional.  The dominanance of analytic philosophy in philosophy and the dominance of marginalist / neo-classical economics (and exclusion of political economy) in economics are cases. Last-gasp attempts were made around 25 years ago to challenge these monopolies, but they were so unsuccessful that most philosophers and economists today are baffled and annoyed to find that anyone has doubts about their profession. Since the monopolies were already being established during the 50s and 60s, few professionals younger than 60 or so have any idea what this is all about.

In Leiter’s scheme, hiring success and philosophical merit are indistinguishable.

By John Emerson on 05/28/07 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, John, I just noticed something that is, perhaps, interesing. Sometime in the past 6 months or so I read a Fish column in the NYTimes in which he made an intentional argument about the US Constitution: we don’t get to construe those words willy nilly in a contemporary fashion; we must take the Founding Fathers’ intentions into account. Let us assume he takes the same line on literary texts—I don’t know that he does, but, what the heck.

How does that square with the notion of interpretive communities?  Some interpretive communities are intentionalist, some are not—I have no idea of the ratio between these two in the current academy. Fish’s meta-level committment to intentionalism would seem to commit him to a view that favors certain kinds of interpretive communities over others. There’s nothing particularly strange about that, but it does suggest why he’s also fond of stating that meta-critical thinking has no bearing on practical criticism.

But it leaves one wondering about his intentions. In the chapters in the 1980 volume, Is There a Text . . ., he’s certainly trying to assure his audience that abandoning a committment to determinate meaning doesn’t mean one is surrenduring to chaos. Why not? Because interpretive communities are a source of authority. If, however, he’s also an intentionalist, then doesn’t that mean he believes in determinate meaning, i.e. that intended by the author?

It is entirely possible that I’m missing something in Fish—he’s written a lot, and I’ve only read this and that. But, on the basis of what I’ve read, I’m also inclined to believe that it’s entirely possible to believe that Fish has missed something. I’m attracted to your characterization of him as a confidence man.

By Bill Benzon on 05/28/07 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fish is fun, eh? ;) He’s got a great essay in one my favorite books, “There’s no Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” entitled “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos,” where he argues that “Volvos provide a solution to a new dilemma facing many academics--how to enjoy the benefits of increasing affluence while at the same time maintaining the proper attitude of disdain toward the good affluence brings” (273). In other words, academics like ugly cars because they want to make some kind of statement. Of course, at my campus, lots of professors have all kinds of nice automobiles, so I’m not sure where he got his data. ;) Anyway, here is another gem from that essay: “Whatever else thay are, academics are resourceful, and when they set their minds to it, there are no limits to the varieties of pain they can inflict on one another” (277).

By on 05/28/07 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, my impression is that Fish is an intentionalist, but also that he realizes that, no matter one’s arguments pro/con intention, what constitutes the core of one’s discipline is the professional paradigm at work. 

That is to say, Fish would argue that intentionalist readings are “the truth.” But he’d also say that what allows for the debates over intentionalism to have currency in the field is the discursive structure or interpretive community of the discipline. 

That’s why “interpretive communities” don’t mean relativism or pluralism.  Again, it’s akin to Kuhn: empirical science establishes the truth, but it does so within the confines of a particular paradigm that establishes what consitutes a research problem, what constitutes valid evidence, what constitutes a contribution to the field, etc.  Just as, within its own paradigm, something like alchemy could be said to have established certain (spiritual) truths about self-transformation (see Jung). 

It’s good to hear, though, that Fish connects intentionalism in literary hermeneutics with strict constructionism in law.  It’s always seemed a giant chasm in Benn Michaels’ argument for the redistribution of wealth.  If meaning is intention, then we can basically say that redistributing wealth is unconstitutional because *none* of the Founding Fathers would have supported such an idea.  So Benn Michaels’ ideas about interpretation fly in the face of his ideas about class politics—unless he’d be willing to admit that any redistributive laws would require Constitutional amendment.

By on 05/28/07 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fish is indeed GREAT fun — though, I’m keen to get onto his “free speech” paper, which is fabulous, and which I find almost inarguable. There’s only one point in it that I would question (admittedly, one which has great consequence for the rest of the argument, but even so ...), and so I’d love to hear what kind of objections others might put to it.

Bill, on the point about “intentionality” or “intentionalism”: perhaps there’s another way to read it. I haven’t seen the paper in question, so I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me that the statement that “we must take the Founding Fathers’ intentions into account” need not be (simply) a statement of obligation, but rather a positive (in the sense of legal-positivism) statement about the institutional force of “intentionalism” as a hermeneutic technique/ideal, or more radically still a statement of quasi-transcendental necessity.

Basically, we “must” take intentions into account because that technique/ideal so thoroughly permeates the various institutions that activate or otherwise depend upon hermeneutic technologies that were one not to take “intentions into account” one would immediately be marked as infelicitous, as unhelpful, if not even as mad or dangerous. So the “must” is not a moral imperative (even if only in the form of a regulative ideal) but a social power (in the form of a disciplinary command that has constituted and generalised a particular kind of subjectivity). On the basis of this alternative reading, we might go further to suggest that the institutionalisation of this technique/ideal and the form of subjectivity that it reproduces is such that we “must” take intentions into accounts, in the sense that we cannot avoid taking intentions into account: i.e. the sedimentation — hence power — of the relevant hermeneutic techniques/ideals is such that they might only be “overcome” by way of the deliberate attempt to bypass them (e.g. by producing counter-intuitive or even nonsensical readings). To the extent that such readings are deliberate in their attempt to read against intention (or intentionality, or intentionalism), moreover, they unavoidably, if tacitly, reactivate intention — precisely in order to identify what must be avoided or overcome.

Of course, it remains possible to return to the question of obligation in view of this latter reading, such that the “we must” no longer announces any simply moral imperative but opens into a much more complex ethico-political question of how (best) to account for intentions, etc.

By on 05/29/07 at 10:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is that text available online anywhere?  I ask because I absolutely cannot understand what you’re getting at in this post, and assume it has something to do with not having read Fish’s text.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/30/07 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Really? You don’t get it? It’s just that he stipulated a definition that transparently has totally counter-intuitive implications. Then, blah-blah-blah - you really don’t need the stuff in the middle - conclusion: a counter-intuitive implication. If I defined cats as dogs and then announced the surprising breakthrough that all cats turn out to be dogs ...

By John Holbo on 05/30/07 at 10:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, John, I’m wondering whether it is that simple, after all. I reckon I’d need to see the original, too, to be sure, but working with what you’ve got:

(1) Fish defines anti-professionalism as any argument/attitude that sees “professional labors” as separate from and (I’m assuming) as opposed to philosophical and political ideals (i.e. “the identification and promotion of what is true or valuable on the other"). There’s no mention in this definition of unprofessionalism. Nor is there any definition of professionalism, although I concede that one might be inclined to produce a definition of professionalism out of a negation of the definition of anti-professionalism.

(2) Anti-professionalism lies not in philosophical/political ideals as such, but rather in seeing such ideals as separate and separable from professional work. Consequently, “professionalism”, as distinct (in a sense) from “professional labours”, would therefore be defined as “the refusal to separate and oppose professional labour and philosophical/political ideals”. This is not quite the same as saying “professionalism is conducting professional labours according to established norms of conduct, etc.”

(3) Both professional labours as well as philosophy/politics — not least of all since the latter are professional labours, which is surely one of Fish’s points here — are therefore capable of displaying professionalist and anti-professionalist attitudes (i.e. professionalism and anti-professionalism are the province of neither “professional labours” nor philosophy/politics). A professionalist view of professional labours, then, would be one that saw political/philosophical ideals as (potentially?) embodied within or articulated by professional labours.

At this point, we’ve still not had anything to say about un-professionalism as distinct from anti-professionalism, so I’ve got nothing to work with regarding the apparent paradox Fish reveals at the end of the paper, nor any means to decide whether that paradox is no more than a restatement of the original definition.

By on 05/31/07 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess that’s where you lost me—I don’t see how the stated definition has transparently paradoxical consequences, particularly not the ones you claim.  It doesn’t seem relevant to cite “whatever a professional might happen to do” as being somehow inherently professional.  Obviously, say, a professor might hit on an undergrad—that wouldn’t ipso facto become professional just because he did it.  In fact, we would probably all agree that it’s unprofessional—and the supposed “sophistry” at the end would then amount to the basically unarguable assertion that the “unprofessional” only appears within the horizon of professionalism.

Anti-professionalism wouldn’t be the same thing as unprofessionalism—the latter could be used in its everyday sense, while anti-professionalism would be used in the sense of having an axe to grind against professional norms, as somehow obstructing the flow of ideas, etc. (i.e., what Fish said).

By Adam Kotsko on 05/31/07 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have my copy handy just right now, but my quick response would be ‘distinction’ is such a weak, er, distinction. A distinction is not an opposition, for example. Rob says he assumes Fish means ‘opposition’, but I don’t think he can get his fun result by doing anything so sensible as that. Adam says anti-professionalism would be used in the sense of ‘having an axe to grind’, but that doesn’t follow from the definition. (If I say ‘creature with a heart’ is distinct from ‘creature with a kidney’ it doesn’t follow I have an axe to grind against either.)

Also, Adam, I didn’t cite ‘whatever a professional might happen to do’ as being inherently professional, i.e. exemplary as professional behavior. Rather, I said that, by definition, it is activity by a professional (since we’ve stipuated it’s a professional we are talking about.) If it is a professional not upholding proper norms, we’ve got unprofessional behavior.

It’s sort of like that pesky moment when Thrasymachus tries to deny you are a mathematician at the moment you make a mistake. When it seems the right answer is: you are a bad mathematician at that moment.

You are right that Fish wants to make hay from the fact that ‘unprofessional’ only appears within the horizon of professionalism

By John Holbo on 05/31/07 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s review Fish’s definition of anti-professionalism (assuming, for the sake of argument, that it’s something other than un-professionalism): “I define anti-professionalism as any attitude or argument that enforces a distinction between professional labors on the one hand and the identification and promotion of what is true or valuable on the other.”

To me, “enforces a distinction” is where “having an axe to grind” comes in.  I get the impression that Fish has in mind someone who would say, “All this stuff of publishing articles and going to conferences is just professionalistic nonsense—I want to talk about ideas.” Now obviously everyone would agree that the discussion of worthwhile ideas isn’t simply coextensive with the realm of academic professionalism, but the idea of enforcing a distinction seems to imply a rigid disjunction.  And indeed, the very prefix “anti-” also contributes to this impression—one envisions the person with a chip on his shoulder, saying: “I don’t need that academic bullshit—I’m already a good thinker, and jumping through all those hoops would just slow me down...” (said person could very well be an academic who takes an “ironic distance” from academia and “realizes it’s bullshit").

So Fish could’ve been clearer, but it still doesn’t seem that he’s guilty of what you’re accusing him of (though the accusation in itself still remains unclear to me).

By Adam Kotsko on 05/31/07 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, this will probably be my last comment until I actually get hold of my copy of the book again: Fish operates by sliding between all these senses. He says ‘enforce’ so you will think that very thing you thought - you will charitably substitute it for what he actually said. But he is going to slide back to the other thing when he needs it. Also, he is going to play off the fact that to think that necessarily the set of professional activities could NEVER, on any possible world, overlap with any member of set of worthy, true things is totally nuts (it is, be it noted, technically several metaphysical orders of magnitude nuttier than just plain old having a chip on your shoulder about ‘academic bullshit’.)

You are trying to find some sensible thing for him to think. And that’s fine. But that’s also how he’ll getcha. He maintains access AS WELL to the ludicruously trivial and the ludicruously ludicruous. He blurs the line between all three, so he can slide around and produce, in the end, something ludicruously trivial as a result.

I stand by my post: anything we would be willing to call ‘professionalism’ will fit the ‘anti-professional’ definition, merely because we are always willing to consider that professionals might behave unprofessionally (i.e. badly) and that non-professionals might get things right once in a while.

By John Holbo on 06/01/07 at 04:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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