Friday Ephemera

Fish, Fried

Professor Stanley Fish is often to be found on the wrong side of an argument. Formerly an avowed postmodernist and now just a professional tenured contrarian, Fish once told his students that theorising and deconstruction “relieves me of the obligation to be right… and demands only that I be interesting” – an endeavour in which he, like many of his peers, has all too often failed. As, for instance, when Fish rushed to defend Social Text from the ridicule of Alan Sokal. More recently, Professor Fish excused the ongoing creep of campus speech codes with the most glib and dismissive of arguments, airily untroubled by the practicalities of what he was defending.

Fish’s latest campaign targets Salman Rushdie and his criticism of the withdrawal by Random House of Sherry Jones’ novel about Muhammad’s child bride, Aisha.

Over at B&W, Ophelia Benson is none too pleased:

Stanley Fish is a smug bastard. This is not news, but he’s smugger than usual in his New York Times blog post on Rushdie and Spellberg and Jones. The first sentence is a staggerer.

Salman Rushdie, self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment, is at it again.

That just irritates the bejesus out of me. Self-appointed? Poster boy? At it again? Excuse me? He could hardly have been less self-appointed - it was the Ayatollah and his murderous illegal bloodthirsty ‘fatwa’ that appointed Rushdie a supporter of free speech, not Rushdie. And Rushdie defends free speech in general, not the First Amendment in particular; how parochial of smug sneery Fish to conflate the two. And ‘poster boy’; that's just stupid as well as insultingly patronizing: Rushdie doesn’t swan around with a crutch, he makes arguments in support of free speech. And ‘at’ what again? ‘At’ saying that publishers shouldn’t give in to threats either from Islamists or from academics speaking for notional Islamists or ‘offended’ Muslims who in some distant subjunctive world might be ‘offended’ by a novel about Muhammad’s child ‘bride’? Now that’s ‘self-appointed’…

It gets better.

An example of Salman Rushdie “at it” can be found here.


John D

Fish: "This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior."



It is just a bit boggling. Fish simply dismisses the *de facto* censorship of what took place (and has taken place before). Arguing that this particular instance isn’t a constitutional matter and has “nothing to do with freedom of expression” ignores the broader context in which this is just the latest, sorry episode. Fish’s attempt to construe fearful self-censorship as “civilised behaviour” is evasive and disgusting. If someone decides not to publish something, or say something, because they’re afraid of – oh, let’s say, being killed – is this “civilised behaviour”? Presumably Fish would have us believe that daring to publish or say that thing - despite the fears and despite the threats - is just rude and uncivilised.

John D

"He [Fish] is the author of 10 books."

Let's start threatening his publisher so he never gets to 11.


I suggest everyone attack Random House, they are the morally incompetent miscreants. Attacking these secondary figures is a waste of time, and blogging's worst feature. Forget the small fry.


Prof. Fish might enjoy a recent post at, "Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads."
On the other hand, given the extent of his contributions to some of these areas, perhaps the good professor wouldn't find these charts to be as refreshing as I do.


Thanks for that.


Is it possible to say that Fish is both right and wrong? And his reasons for being wrong are far more serions than his reasons for being right.

He is right to say that the word "Censorship" is usually limited to an act of government. This is (somewhat) important, since I don't want every hack writer to yell "censorship" everytime a publisher does not publish his book, or a newspaper does not carry his opinion.

But he is wrong to say that other forms of silencing people are not important. In fact, in America (and Europe) the usual types of censorship are of this second type. These governments just don't censor people. Recently, protestors were stopped outside the Republican convention. But most news outlets covered the event, their views were aired, etc. So, if that was censorship it wasn't very effective.

But Muslims threatening to slit my throat is much more effective. It is currently the only type of censorship that worries me.


AMac, that was an interesting post at gnxp, but you have to remember that there is a lag in all publications, and an extra lag in publication databases, such as JSTOR. For example, some 2007 articles are not even in print yet. And they will not be entered in JSTOR until 2009.

The drop off in each graph might mean that not all of the recent articles have been entered in the Database yet.



“I don’t want every hack writer to yell ‘censorship’ every time a publisher does not publish his book, or a newspaper does not carry his opinion.”

Agreed. Within the law, people are free to publish or not publish whatever they wish. Or they should be. But what irks is Fish’s dismissal of internalised censorship – of learned inhibition and default anxiety, which exists irrespective of the law. As you say, being afraid to publish something – because of threats or plausible fears thereof – is a very different matter. As with his defence of campus speech codes, which is not unrelated, Fish simply ignores the broader, learned trepidation – the cultural creep, as it were.

P.S. This, by Robert Tracinski, may be of interest:



Some examples of internalised censorship, none of which are edifying:

Though it is grimly amusing to follow the dishonesties and contortions.

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