Thursday, February 09, 2006
Who Doesn’t Love Hating Stanley Fish?
As part of my ongoing, muddle-headed investigation of Literary Interest and the related phenomenon of the state of contemporary theory, I’ve started reading the Michael P. Clark edited Revenge of the Aesthetic. Included in the collection are a series of bravura close readings by heavyweights like Stanley Fish, Hazard Adams, J. Hillis Miller, Denis Donoghue, Wolfgang Iser, Jacques Derrida and Murray Krieger. (I do think women capable of bravura close readings . . . only there aren’t any in this collection.) The book’s central concern on aesthetics arose from the occasion of its conception: a Kreiger festschrift following the rechristening of the building which housed my my notorious old office. Much hay is made of Kreiger’s work on ekphrasis, but the essays I will focus on for the next week or so continue the investigation into the place of literariness in theory today I fitfully began last summer.
Stanley Fish’s contribution to the collection, entitled “Marvell and the Art of Disappearance,” seems to me the longest and most sustained back-handed complement in English letters. He opens by announcing the appeal of Krieger’s theory of poetic resistence thus:
[G]iven the high value we now place on political commitment, and the suspicion (voiced on all sides) of detachment and disengagement, it is satisfying to find a way of investing disengagement with political effectivity. Nevertheless, there is another apology for poetry, more radical (although as old as the hills), that one occasionally spies just below the surface of Krieger’s argument, especially in those pages where he revisits (nostalgiacally, I think) the discourse of the New Criticism, rooted in the Kantian ideal . . . of the work of art as a unique and self-enclosed construct, “a self sealing form” so internally complete and totalizing that “it exclude[s] everything else."
Vintage Fish. Krieger desires a “stronger aestheticism,” and Fish proposes to deliver it to him in the form of “a poet who wants it too,” Andrew Marvell. Via a series of breathtaking close-readings Fish demonstrates that “consciousness itself--the realm of consecutive and reflective thought--is the chief obstacle to the desired state of being in [Marvell’s] poems.” Flip those statements around and the initial adulatory statement become, well, let me present more examples of the Krieger-Marvell analogy Fish draws:
Marvell opposes “first, change, and then (and ultimately) the corrpution that attends relationality.” Then: “In Marvell’s corpus, the desire not to be represented, not to be known, not to be forced by an angle into appearance, is fully realized only by a non-animate agent, ‘On a Drop of Dew.’” Even that most infamous “coy mistress” desires a permanent, unrepresentable stasis. Responding to the lines “In how coy a figure wound/ Every way it turns away,” Fish notes that figure “means figure of of speech, a class of verbal actions characterized by every rhetorician as a deviation or turning away from direct or literal speech; but of course ‘coy’ means just that, a turning away, a withdrawing, a delay, and therefore a ‘coy’ figure is a withdrawing or retreating in retreat or a delayed delaying, an indirection that turns away.”
Note that this “indirection that turns away” is analogous to the “strong aestheticism” Fish first posited as “investing disengagement with political effectivity.” At this point (and there is one in every essay Fish has ever written) I shake the book like I have Stanley by his collar and implore him to return to that original gesture and explain its relation to subsequent ones. But instead he follows his poststructual postulates: “‘Upon Apple House,’ a poem consistently at war with its contmporality, with its tendency, inevitable given the structure of language, to mean.” The emphasis, obviously, is mine. There is always some inevitable in every Fish article which, once accepted, overdetermines his otherwise brilliant readings. Once identified (and this case is far easier than others), the reader can spin Stanley’s web for him. That’s both commendable, in that he shows some Hegelian seriousness sorely lacking in literary circles, and deplorable, in that he shows some Hegelian seriousness blessedly lacking in literary circles. Here lies the crux of my complaint with Fish: the point at which he becomes predictable and doctrinaire is the logical outcome of the position vis-a-vis literary theory to which I’m partial. Only instead of the responsibility I imagine will follow from it, instead I’m treated to a perpetual pile-up on the east-bound lanes of a slick bridge at the height of morning rush-hour. Once started it’s destined to get worse.
Fish continues: “‘Upon Apple House’ is a poem critics are forever attempting to unify, but unity, rather than being what the poem desires, is the enemy of its non-aspiration, its aspiration not to mean, not to point to anything beyond itself, not to go anywhere.” Again, remember that this desire not to mean, this “non-aspiration” is Fish’s analogue of Krieger’s notion of the efficacy of literature and literary theory. How so? Because it will frustrate any attempts to reconnect Marvell to the world from which he so resolutely turned away.
That is Fish’s answer.
“Here!” he says, maximal passive-aggression in tow, “take your Coleridgian/neo-Kantian/New Critical notion of the literary works as independent, closed systems of internally consistent linguistic references and pester me no more!” Part of me feels duped (again, this time, by a master). Part of me wants Fish to explain himself instead of ending his essay on this half beat. To wit:
"back-handed complement”. That’s an evocative typo, unless it was intended, in which case it is very sly.
Ending with “To wit: “ is also pretty evocative, and I assume that it’s advertent. Unless it’s a truncation or an editing remnant or some character not displaying in my browser and cutting off the rest of the line. Sometimes one hardly needs to write any more; the machines will do it.
I thought the intent’d be obvious, what with me writing about Fish. (Esp. the latter, what with the preceding “half beat.")
What can I say? I’m on a gimmicky streak . . . and ought to stop, before my puns go rancid. Oh, wait, too late.
However, all punning aside, any assessment of the actual content of what I wrote forthcoming? Not that I don’t appreciate the compliments, mind you, only I’d like to know if you think my complaints legitimate . . .
I meant mine as a complement. And I, for one, assumed the ‘to wit’ was intended to function as an example of what you were criticizing. That is, I assumed it was advertent.
I quite agree about Fish. It would be interesting to write an essay about the ubiquity of the Hope-Tipping gambit in criticism. I quote from Stephen Potter’s “Lifemanship” (which I’ve posted about before on J&B, if you care to go search):
“In Newstatesmaning the critic must always be on top of, or better than, the person criticised. Sometimes the critic will be of feeble and mean intelligence. The subject of his criticism may be a man of genius. Yet he must get on top. How? the layman asks.
By the old process - of going one better. Hope-Tipping of Buttermere had never really read a book since his schooldays, much less formed an original judgment. But he specialized in his own variations on the formula. He would skim some review dealing with the author involved, find the quality for which this author was most famous, and then blame him for not having enough of it.
H.-T. first made a name for himself in 1930 by saying that “the one thing that was lacking, of course, from D. H. Lawrence’s novels, was the consciousness of sexual relationship, the male and female element in life.”
Get the Hope-Tipping angle. Talk about the almost open sadism of Charles Lamb, or about Lytton Strachey as a master of baroque. “The deep superficiality of Catullus” is Hope-Tipping’s, too. Never, by any shadow of a chance, was there a hint of cliché in the judgments of Hope-Tipping.”
What Fish wrongly identifies as the inevitable function of the struture of language is really just the inevitable mischevious temptation to Hope-Tipping.
Technically, Fish is pulling a ‘blindness and insight’ variation on the standard lutz - take off, rotate, landing - Hope-Tipping jump. He’s praising the author for lacking what the author is typically praised for possessing.
Or, rather, praising the author for lacking what the author would wish to be praised for possessing. So you manage to praise the author for lacking self-knowedge AND for not knowing which way is up, value-wise. So it’s not so much a backhanded complement as a backhanded supplement, in Derrida’s sense. Plus an uppercut.
What makes Fish’s critique worthwhile is of course his eschewal of the Hope-Tipping point. This is accomplished by an inward turning-away that accompanies (and complements, orthogonally) the apparent outward reversal of the dominant trope. To extend the skating figure, the lutz is executed with a head-over-heels twist, frozen in the moment in which the jumper is suspended topsy-turvy above the ice, positioned like the Hanged Man in the Tarot deck.
It seems to me that Scott’s post and John’s comments share the same fault: evaluating Fish’s argument as a rhetorical exercise without taking into account the subject of that exercise. Okay, so we’ve seen Fish (and others) make that move (or a similar move) before. Does that mean that the move is always and everywhere wrong? Or even always and everywhere annoying? It’s worth noting that when Fish reads poems, as opposed to theoretical or legal texts, those poems are almost always from seventeenth-century England. And that may be because the political and social stresses of seventeenth-century England tended to deform poetic language and its rhetorical occasions in ways which actually lend themselves to the kind of reading that Fish likes to make. Or, perhaps, Fish learned to make these critical and interpretive moves by reading lots of seventeenth-century poetry. Instead of identifying his reading as a Hope-Tipping move and then walking away, maybe we should read “Upon Appleton House”—not “Upon Apple House”—and see if Fish is on to something. If we do read Marvell’s poem—and certain other poems of his, such as the “Horatian Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”—and if we pay attention to the known events of Marvell’s life, a life which skillfully but quite precipitously navigated the English Civil War and its aftermath, we may begin to suspect that Fish has actually discerned something about Marvell’s habitual rhetorical posture that is worth noticing. A man does not manage to affiliate himself with some of Cromwell’s most vocal and prominent supporters, and yet manage some years later to have enough pull in the Restoration government to help prevent Milton from being executed, without exhibiting some extraordinary skill in “aspiring not to mean.” Fish does not explicitly invoke this context, but that hardly means that he is unaware of it. (And the more we think about it, the more we might be tempted to suspect that, as Marvell navigated the dangers of the English Civil War, just so Fish navigates the dangers of the Theory Wars.)
John, just out of curiosity, have you read the essay Scott mentions here?
. . . just so Fish navigates the dangers of the Theory Wars.
My favorite example of such academic negotiation comes from “memetics.” Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as a unit of cultural evolution back in 1976; it seems to have been a more or less casual and informal notion he tossed in to The Selfish Gene to make a point, that there can be replicators other than genes. The notion caught on and now he’s stuck with it. Now consider how he blurbed Aunger’s (embarrsingly inept )The Electric Meme. He is very circumspect: “What more, one might ask, needed to be said about memes? The answer turns out to be plenty, and Robert Aunger says it clearly, intelligently, and entertainingly.” It has a positive ring to it, but is rather noncommittal. He doesn’t endorse Aunger’s ideas and arguments or say they are important, he just says that, in an otherwise dead line of inquiry, Aunger has written a lot of clear and entertaining prose.
Back to the puns: when I read about Hope-tipping criticism I began to wonder about the possibilities of cow-tipping criticism. It would probably be a little like philosophizing with a hammer, or Nabakov taking a hammer to the plaster busts of Gorky, Thomas Mann, Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, and Cervantes. (Come to think of it, though, lumping those other guys with Gorky and Mann was rather excessively cute.)
On Marvell, the early-modern / early-Protestant age was too complex to resolve easily, or maybe at all. I was just recently sent a smutty poem by Clement Marot, a very witty French Protestant poet whose poems were often off-color (and also an early prescriptive gammarian). Rabelais, who had close connections with French bishops, was also quite friendly to the Evangelists (proto-Protestant Bible-reading Catholics). There was a tremendous openness and experimentalism then which has to be read independently of the later Calvinist, Lutheran, counter-Reformation, absolutists, and Enlightment counter-revolutions.
Let it be said, to my discredit, that I have NOT read the article in question. In my defense, let it be said that I have read several volumes of Fish with considerable care. And the bits Scott quotes are so thoroughly characteristic that I had to have my Friday afternoon fun. (I myself have employed Hope-Tipping twice this week, which is about average. So I don’t really hold it against Stanley that he is so consistent in this regard.)
Tag me dense: but surely Fish doesn’t discuss a poem called ‘Upon Apple House’? Or is the lack of the Marvellian ‘-ton’ part of the ‘to whit:...’ joshery?
OK: just noticed that Alan Jacobs already called that typo. Sorry, I’m sluggy and crunchdrunk today. Alan J has some very clever things to say, I think: ie this sort of reading suits Marvel, a slippery sort, more than it might others.
Alan, I caught that transcription error after I posted, but as we’re having problems editing posted material around these parts, I wasn’t able to correct it. (Lord knows though, I wish I could attribute that to a pun.) Also, I by no means want to discredit the brilliance of Fish’s reading, nor do I want to criticize its accuracy. In point of fact, Fish does a marvelous job convincing me that this reading of Marvell should be the standard one. (He cites, approvingly, or as approvingly as he can, the work of a number of other Marvell scholars who point to this same general thematic in his work.) That said, I think what we have here is a carefully selected poet to match Krieger’s very specific idea of the aesthetic; what I wonder, then, is whether Fish thinks this model generalizable or particular to Marvell, and if the latter (and I sense it is the latter), why he would use it to praise Krieger.
(And why is everyone raking me over the coals for my joshery. I’ve been reading Fish, people? A little secondhand joshery should be de ricoeur. However, “crunchdrunk” easily bests my “thunkover.")
Thanks for the clarification, Scott. As to your question: “I wonder, then, is whether Fish thinks this model generalizable or particular to Marvell, and if the latter (and I sense it is the latter), why he would use it to praise Krieger.” Possibly the most characteristic rhetorical move of Fish’s career is to make critical statements that sound theoretical—that is, that sound as though they mean to apply to, or to govern, vast tracts of discourse—but never to own those implications directly. He lets us do his dirty work for him!