March 10, 2008

Essayist as Puck?

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
-Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream, V, i

In trying to explain Why I Write These Columns, Stanley Fish argues that his goal as an essayist is to probe the logic of an issue, and that he can remain agnostic on the larger issue while probing that logic. Thus, he says he could be atheist while criticizing Richard Dawkins et al., against identity politics while grasping one possible rationale, against the Iraq war while seeing advantages for John McCain in a McCain-Obama matchup, etc.:

[W]ere I to address myself to those matters, I would be entering the realm of moral and political (as opposed to analytical) judgment.

Fish has a point here: One can talk about aspects of an issue without taking a position on other aspects. On the other hand, I am surprised with how he did so. Fish's tone came across as whiny, or that's how I read it. The indirection of the first few sentences nailed it for me, with my comments in brackets:

Every once in a while [honestly, Fish, I don't care how often you do this] I feel that [glad to know you have feelings, but could you get to the point?]it might be helpful to readers if I explained [does anyone else think this phrase talks down to the reader?] what it is I am trying to do in these columns [Ah: we finally get to the point, which is that you're going to tell, not show]. It is easier to state the negative [you know that you should be stating the positive instead]: For the most part, it is not my purpose in this space to urge positions, or come down on one side or the other of a controversial question ["I'm not going to carry any reader's water"].

This is the worst argument for academicizing a subject I've ever read from Stanley Fish. Instead of pointing out how removing oneself from the instant issue can give one a broader perspective, he's being remarkably self-indulgent, focusing on how people have responded to prior columns. Who cares that comments on his prior columns misunderstood his point? Or, rather who cares about those specific misunderstandings?

I'd be slaughtered on end-of-semester surveys if I tried this approach with students: You're misunderstanding everything I say. That may be true, but maybe it's my fault, or maybe I could try explaining it in a different way. Implying that your immediate audience is stupid isn't endearing, even in the Gray Lady's blogs.

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Posted in Higher education on March 10, 2008 6:55 AM |