Stanley Fish: We do work we like to do

After reading in his NYT blog that Stanley Fish is retiring, I found this Chronicle of Higher Education profile that contains some ideas that I want to repeat here:

On the purpose of literary interpretation:

What, then, was literary theory for? Not social change, but simply this: “Literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward. I do it because I like the way I feel when I’m doing it.” That was in 1993. Four months ago, he repeated the same point during a lecture on The Fugitive at Princeton. At the end of the event, when the host marveled that Fish’s “brief against commitment does not extend to his own activity,” Fish interjected: “You do this kind of work simply because it’s the kind of work that you like to do, and the moment you think you’re doing it to make either people or the world better, you’ve made a huge mistake. There’s no justification whatsoever for what we do except the pleasure of doing it and the possibility of introducing others to that pleasure. That’s it!”

Note that phrase: “introducing others to that pleasure.” It saves Fish from decadence. He believes in the enterprise as a source of pleasure for others, and he’s committed to sharing it. The pleasure itself deserves respect and support.

On Fish’s literary criticism — seeing meaning as constructed by readers:

Now he set about crafting a new theory of interpretation, one that would undo prevailing principles of meaning. The target was the New Critics, especially W.K. Wimsatt, and their belief in meaning as a fixed composition of ideas and attitudes embedded in the text, waiting for discerning readers to extract it. Fish argued that meaning is, instead, a reader’s experience, and that it unfolds over time—”meaning as an event.” New Critics asked, “What does the poem mean?” Fish asked, “What happens when a reader reads it?”

Knowledge is human-produced, and therefore revisable:

Fish has adjusted his opinion about many things, but one root belief stands firm, which he summarized recently in a conversation with me: “Forms of knowledge are historically produced by men and women like you and me, and are therefore challengeable and revisable.” Moreover, Fish has maintained the historicity of all truths and methods at complicated and crisis-ridden times, taking positions that have alternately inspired and affronted his colleagues. There’s a pattern: Fish championed new ideas and interests at times of ferment and controversy, only to dissent when the profession absorbed those ideas and converted them into dogmas and reflexes. It was the trendiness and sectarianism of literary studies that made him seem ever tactical and adversarial. As theories and missions, at first fresh and creative, congealed into group outlooks, a nonconformist impulse burst through, a habit of mind partly for and partly against the pieties of the moment—which, of course, makes him the pious ones’ most irritating colleague.

And the article concludes by quoting a youthful Fish’s work:

Question yourself… the duty of self-examination

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