Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stanley Fish, pundits and the meaning of spectacle

Alfredo Triff

I dig Stanley Fish’s column in the NYTimes. He is respected as a Miltonian and an expert in Constitutional Law. I’ve attended some of his FIU lectures. Professor Fish is quick-witted and polemical. So, I was surprised to read his July 6 column In Defense of Palin and Stanford. This is how Fish starts:

“I did not vote for Sarah Palin in the November election, and had I been a resident of South Carolina, I wouldn’t have supported Mark Sanford (...) Both Republican governors made rambling and sometimes halting statements of about 18 minutes (is that the canonical length for this kind of thing?), and in response the commentators speculated endlessly about why they had said what they said.

Fish pretends (too obviously) that by qualifying his political persuasion, he comes comes across as unbiased. Why? He criticizes media commentators for speculating too much (isn’t that their job as commentators?) on both Palin and Sanford’s press conferences, as if they had the ability -much less the interest- to provide the public with objective readings of the news. Who cares if they mean what they say?1 Pundits are supposed to distort and exaggerate the news so keep people watching. Conversely, this is what people expects them to do.

The one explanation they didn’t seem capable of coming up with was that they meant it, that their words were coming from the heart, from an interior that may have been fissured and rocky, but was nonetheless (dare I use the word) genuine.” (My italics).

Fish unproblematically assumes Palin and Sanford really meant what they said in their televised press conferences! IS HE SERIOUS? Fish should know by now that the media is a circus, and pundits’ comments should be taken for what they are: Platitudes in an endless game of refractions whose aim is to entertain the public. “From the heart?” Isn’t it obvious that the appearance of honesty received as spectacle is already pure simulation? What matters is the spectacle, not the meaning, whatever the meaning.

With a rhetoric that harks back to 1940’s Logical Behaviorism2, Professor Fish digs into Palin’s emotional rambling in search for meaning. Perhaps by seeking atomic units of media/ted behavior, Fish can reconstruct a mental mapping out of the emotional mess. Though he admits that Palin’s “statement was not constructed in a straightforward, logical manner,” Fish feels he can find a discursive rationale through the media spectacle. In the end, what really disappoints him is that “the pundits didn’t want to hear them or, rather, they were committed to believing that the real reasons lay elsewhere, and were strategic3 (My italics).

Of course they are strategic! How could one ignore that Palin and Sandford’s declarations are expressions of power, whose only purpose consists of being taken as sincere. Finally, Fish dispatches a disappointing Self-Help Manual-like cut-to-the-chase finale:

“So what’s the bottom line story? Simple. Sanford is in love. Palin is in pain. Sometimes what it seems to be is what it is.”

1I’m referring to Stanley Cavell’s important 1969 book, Must we mean what we say?, which defends a Wittgensteinean context-dependent idea of meaning. The meaning of “I’m really sorry” depends of who speaks, and to whom, where and when the utterance is delivered. 2 The idea that mental states are equivalent to behavioral dispositions. 3On the other hand, in his
Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980), Fish elaborates his reader-response theory not unlike that of Cavell, suggesting that readers have the power to use the value systems developed within their cultural milieus to create meanings. Fish wrote: “The objectivity of the text is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous illusion.” If we take the text as a metaphor for reality, then Fish’s demands for objectivity and/or precision on behalf our media punditry become superfluously banal.



I like your blog is very interesting

A.T. said...

Thanks Mucha. Keep visiting.

Amida Frey said...

Professor Triff,
I too will preamble my own comment with the admission (certainly not to express any unbiased notions; as I can assure you, I am far too young to be without them anyway) that I enjoyed your insight into Stanley Fish's most recent musings from his column very much. That being said, I found it interesting that in your third paragraph you criticize Fish for doing what you seem to be doing in the very first sentence of your own column, albeit in a less obvious way. I am referring to his qualifying his own political views in such a way as to appear unbiased. I wasn't sure if this was intentional. This is just an observation however, and not a criticism, I promise. I say this because I agree with you wholeheartedly overall with your take on his column concerning punditry.
Just as a side note however, I thought I would add in a bit of insight I noticed while attending Professor Fish's class over the past several months. He loves to complain about being misunderstood, and loves even more espousing his total lack of a stance on many of the issues he takes up (which in my own still admittedly somewhat naive opinion seems to be untenable). His biggest complaint to us (his students) is how his editors are constantly bombarded by letters and e-mails of irate readers who chastise him for some perceived position he has taken up the flag of. That being said though, I see your point completely and would throw in my two cents that I don't always see eye to eye with Professor Fish on many points, and on this one, I'm with you completely. Thank you for your opinion and your eloquent words on the subject. That's why I hate Politics. Keep em coming please. Thanks again.

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, Amy. Very well said!

The only minute difference between Fish's manner and mine is that Fish's intro is (just to use a prima facie qualification) "in the negative," (I would not...) while mine is "in the positive."

Keep visiting.

Raysa said...

AT: I like your take. I can't believe Fish fell for that (by the way, I also took his class at FIU).

Anonymous said...

Yes Triff! Indeed. I see the difference and always prefer the positive to the negative. Raysa, just out of curiosity, did you take Fish's Jurisprudence class? Did you enjoy it? I would very much like to have taken that class, but alas only had the opportunity to take the Law of Higher Education. I look forward to his next class in the Spring, whatever that may be.
Thanks for your reply Triff.