Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gone Fishing

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.


prophet said...

Hmmm. The "strongly and proudly humanist population" - which I think you are saying you see as missing from the middle in between the "enlightenment rationalists" on the right, and the deconstructionists on the left - are they coextensive (in your mind) to those who hold the "fundamental insight of Christian realism" that "culture, language, history, tradition, law, interpretation, community, discourse, and finally, politics is the medium of human knowing - but . . . . simultaneously that there is something to be known"?

If not coextensive (and I wouldn't think they are), how would you connect the step from 'strongly and proudly humanist' to the Christian insight of there being something definite to be seen, even if we are not able completely and accurately to discern it?

In other words, what common ground, language, or metaphor would provide the medium by which humanist and Christian might agree [effectively] on a metaphysical?

Anonymous said...

What political prescriptions can be drawn from "Christian realism?" For example, can Christian realism be the theoretical basis for overturning Roe v. Wade?

At some point the abstractions must come back to Earth.

Patrick Deneen said...

Prophet, note that I did not say "secular humanism." I suspect that is what you thought I meant. By humanism I mean to say a full conception of the human being, one at once created in the image of God but also subject to the limits of the Fall. In a sense, the two prevailing worldviews I discuss in this essay would make us all one thing or another - wholly autonomous knowers or beings trapped in the prisons of our own minds. The humanism I propose is a full and complete anthropology, and therefore necessarily includes our apprehension of our relationship to, and yet separation from, the divine.

Anonymous, of course we should be concerned with rubber on the road. But, too many of our activists (e.g., in the pro life movement) are apt to lose the bigger picture in the political battles of the day. They think this issue can be separated from the prevailing philosophies of the age. They think that a correction in the legal system will be the agent that cures the culture. I don't fault the efforts to engage in direct political activism - I seek to provide, within my limited powers, a fuller explanation of the broader cultural, philosophic and intellectual presuppositions of a world in which we find ourselves.

Robert said...

Are you familiar with the Radical Orthodox work of William Cavanaugh? His most recent book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, is a must-read on this topic.

prophet said...


So you start with a classical "humanist" definition, already assuming a Christian worldview, or at least - as I think you're saying - that a 'complete' view of the person necessarily includes an "apprehension of our relationship to, and yet separation from, the divine."

How would you move the [today more usual] secular humanist into this humanism you are proposing?

In short, I wonder how the secular humanist would react to having his humanism made more 'full' and 'complete' by necessary reference to the Divine, in the sense in which you use/define the same word. It rather reminds me of Rahner's Anonymous Christian.

My apologies for where I am undoubtedly demonstrating my ignorance of some of these categories. . . .

I agree that the worldviews you discuss would end up making us all 'either one thing or another' - "wholly autonomous knowers or beings trapped in the prisons of our own minds". Secular humanists are on both sides of that divide, however.

I question whether redefining humanism [today] to include reference to the Divine solves the problem in practice as neatly as it might solve it on paper. It is an age-old problem: do we deal with the world according to our own experience and limitations or according to the Infinite?

I don't think that that problem is resolvable by redefining the terms to include reference to the Infinite. Eventually, do we not continue to come back to the question of God?

For me, the operative question would be:

How can those who live in the knowledge of God operate in the world to bridge the gulf between the 'autonomous knowers' and the 'mind prisoners'?

Because I think what you are saying is that it is the knowledge of God that builds that bridge, and 'completes our anthropology'.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"He is the most engagingly seductive of the sophists" is one of the best descriptions of Fish I've ever read.