Stanley Fish is one of our smartest, savviest, and most penetrating intellectuals - which makes him at once invaluable and supremely dangerous. He is the most engagingly seductive of the sophists, and even, dare one say, the most sophistical.
Take as evidence a recent blog posting in which he argues that the entirety of the culture wars fought in the 1980s until now was really so much ado about nothing. In the post he argues that Left postmodernists and Right traditionalists were fundamentally mistaken about the nature of postmodernism itself, and lined up to fight a battle over a philosophical approach that, upon further consideration, actually had no political implications whatsoever. As Fish concludes, "For both what was important about French theory in America was its political implications - but [my main contention] is that it doesn’t have any. When a deconstructive analysis interrogates an apparent unity — a poem, a manifesto, a sermon, a procedure, an agenda — and discovers, as it always will, that its surface coherence is achieved by the suppression of questions it must not ask if it is to maintain the fiction of its self-identity, the result is not the discovery of an anomaly, of a deviance from a norm that can be banished or corrected; for no structure built by man (which means no structure) could be otherwise....
"Criticizing something because it is socially constructed (and thus making the political turn) is what Judith Butler and Joan Scott are in danger of doing when they explain that deconstruction “is not strictly speaking a position, but rather a critical interrogation of the exclusionary operations by which ‘positions’ are established.” But those “exclusionary operations” could be held culpable only if they were out of the ordinary, if waiting around the next corner of analysis was a position that was genuinely inclusive. Deconstruction tells us (we don’t have to believe it) that there is no such position. Deconstruction’s technique of always going deeper has no natural stopping place, leads to no truth or falsehood that could then become the basis of a program of reform. Only by arresting the questioning and freeze-framing what Derrida called the endless play of signifiers can one make deconstruction into a political engine, at which point it is no longer deconstruction, but just another position awaiting deconstruction."
Fish explains there's nothing really new about deconstructionism - that one can already see its main features at least as far back as Hobbes, who declared that "true and false are attributes of speech, not of things." As Fish tells the story, this argument was developed in great part as a response to Enlightenment and scientistic thinkers like Bacon and Descartes that human reason and empirical investigation could be employed to develop clear and distinct - that is, objectively true - understandings of the world. In a word, Hobbes's insight - later elaborated by deconstructionists - is that all perception of the world is mediated through language and particular perception. There is no objective point of true perception, only infinitely refracted and unstable interpretations of the world.
Stanley Fish is nearly always half-right about things. Reading this essay, I found myself in agreement with his argument against the high-Enlightenment belief that reason, logic and science were the means to a final and authoritative knowledge of the world. Much political mischief has resulted from this belief that reason and logic could be relied upon to design political societies - starting with the guillotines and likely not ending with the Gulags. The impulse of deconstructionists is not 100% in the wrong, and there are points in which they seem to echo some of the epistemological uncertainties and humility of Augustine (indeed, Augustine is often a curiously but understandably attractive figure for many post-modernists, such as William Connolly).
But Fish goes badly astray in his modest claim that the culture wars were really a big misunderstanding. For, deconstructionism takes a basic and fruitful insight - that human perception is mediated in a host of ways, including most fundamentally through language, through culture, through prejudice, through contingent facts of one's existence - and concludes therefore that that's all there is. All perception is constructed by minds; and while Fish suggests that there's a "there" out there, in the end it really doesn't matter because we can't really "know" it; all we can do is refract it through the constructs of human understanding.
Thus, one argument - arising from Enlightenment optimists - is that the world can be definitely known through the exercise of human reason. The reaction against this supposition is the argument that there is not, and cannot be, any final knowledge of anything that exists. As Fish suggests, all that one can do is endlessly deconstruct.
Fish suggests that there was no point engaging in a culture war because no politics could arise from this stance. And, in once sense, he is quite correct - no politics can be derived from a deconstructionist position because, finally, there is no basis to take a position on anything. Nothing can be defended or asserted. All that can be done is endless and infinite deconstruction.
Ironically, but revealingly, both sides of this argument effectively disallow politics. If deconstruction eliminates politics because there is nowhere to stand, Enlightenment rationalism eliminates politics because it knows exactly where to stand. Foucault was at his best in understanding that the logical trajectory of enlightenment reason was bureaucratic, expert, and centralized control. Sure knowledge of what was scientifically true meant that politics - negotiation, deliberation, debate, tentative agreement, agreements to disagree, endless talk and argument and occasional if fleeting victories - was off the table.
To continue to beat a horse that I've been working to death of late, what both these positions do is to sever the connection of culture to nature. For enlightenment rationalists, nature can be fully known when culture is overthrown and replaced by reason. For deconstructionists, there is no "nature" - only infinite and endless forms of culture - even cultures limited to individual perceptions, as absurd as that might sound. All perception is mediated through language - we are, thus, creatures of our cultures, made by our mode of perception. For all practical purposes, there is no world outside our interpretation of the world.
In an earlier post I suggested that a Catholic worldview, lodged reasonably enough in Catholic universities, had something unique to offer the modern world. Here, in particular, is one area where, I submit, this can be readily seen. Catholicism represents the "middle way" between these two extremes, holding that culture, language, history, tradition, law, interpretation, community, discourse, and finally, politics is the medium of human knowing - but holding simultaneously that there is something to be known. We "see through a glass darkly," but there is something to be seen, even if we can't be positive of its precise outlines and exact dimensions. Mediation is the means to truth and knowledge, not its obstacle, on the one hand, or all that there is, on the other. It is, finally, a sacramental vision, holding that through earthly and corporeal media we gain an access - if indirectly and still imperfectly - of the Divine. This indirectness and imperfection does not result in the call to deconstruct, but to ascend. Ritual and liturgy are ways we enact that ascent in our daily lives.
Here again we see evidence of the paucity of options that exist in our current intellectual milieu. Our universities are dominated, on the one hand, by enlightenment rationalists - most often found in the natural sciences and Departments of Economics and of Philosophy dominated by the analytic approach. The universities are considerably populated (if less dominated, in spite of the fears on the Right), on the other hand, by the various postmodernists and "multiculturalists" who deconstruct away their lives. What is largely missing is a strongly and proudly humanist population who simultaneously defend the possibility of knowledge and the centrality of culture as the medium in which the common pursuit of knowledge takes place. What modernity has put asunder - and Fish would keep that way - should be joined again. This is the fundamental insight of Christian realism - a truer understanding of reality than that emaciated understanding of various modernities. Over this issue, surely, we are right to fight, even to the point of kulturkampf.