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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Objectifying Fish

Friend Stefan, from his Northern Ireland perch and with his child bouncing about on his lap, has a five hour advantage on us US east coast locals and so had already consumed and reacted (via blog post) to Stanley Fish's interesting New York Times OpEd on Conspiracy Theories 101.

The stage setting details are found in the controversy surrounding the hiring of Keith Barrett, an African languages and literature scholar, to teach an introductory course on "Islam: Religion and Culture" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Central to the controversy is Barrett's belief in a conspiracy theory attributing the 9/11 destruction of the WTC and Pentagon on the US government -- that it was an "inside job." Barrett has attempted to explain his position (and how he reached it) to one media outlet, and seems quite clear in saying that this particular and peculiar theory of his will not play a central role in the curriculum he has prepared for the fall semester course on Islam. Nevertheless, those who are shocked by the fact that the University of Wisconsin would hire someone who holds such beliefs to teach at UW, let alone this particular course, have stirred the political waters (see videos here and here) -- leading UW Provost Patrick Farrell to reconfirm the hiring as a matter of academic freedom and having various viewpoints reflected in the classroom (see local UW perspective here).

Stanley Fish's OpEd (which is the focus of Stefan's post) is a critique of both sides of the Barrett debate, which is typical of Fish's approach to the sociology of knowledge and epistemology -- as well as academic politics in general. The standard by which to assess Barrett is not the truth or political correctness of what he believes, nor is it the misguided view that academic freedom is a First Amendment right linked to freedom of speech. Instead, the issue is whether Barrett's freedom to engage in the study of alternative views of what happened on 9/11 are being subverted by calls for his pre-emptive dismissal (he does not start his teaching duties until August...).

On this measure, Barrett's case does raise an important issue. On the one hand, and in his own words (see here and here), he is proposing the theory of a government conspiracy to create the 9/11 disaster as a hypothesis that seems to make rational sense (to him, at least; bizarre thinking as far as I can tell), and on that basis he would pass muster with Fish. However, if his teaching reflected his role as a leader of (and advocate for) the group pushing for the adoption of the theory based on rhetorical assertion alone -- that is, if he assumed the role of indoctrinator rather than professor -- then he should not be given charge of a course curriculum (although he might be welcome as a guest speaker -- sort of a specimen to be studied, you might say...).

I have to take exception with Stefan's interpretation of Fish's OpEd as advocating a standard of methodological objectivity in the Barrett case. For one thing, Fish is a well known critic of scientism and such, having contributed and nurtured the idea of "interpretive communities" for decades. Second, I think Stefan has read too much of the old metholdogical debate among political scientists (normativism vs positivism) into Fish's discussion. That entire debate is based on a false dichotomy perpetrated by advocates on both sides who have never quite given up the ghost for the more nuanced views expressed by Fish and others. What is interesting in this instance is to see Fish (who is usually attacked by the advocates of scientistic (sic) perspectives as an apologist for knee-jerk postmodernism) pictured as a champion of empirical objectivism.

As for Barrett, if he lives up to his own narrative of how he was led to consider the conspiracy perspective, and in light of all attention his course is likely to get after this very visible controversy, then UW's provost is right to let him teach the course -- even if for the wrong reason. An explicit adoption of the Fish standard would seem to be in order....

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Comments on "Objectifying Fish"


Blogger meditations71 said ... (1:41 PM) : 

Many thanks for an enlightening reply. Clearly you've read more carefully on Barrett (who has apparently not begun teaching) than have I. You also know something of Fish's background, which undoubtedly helps...

Perhaps I too should have begun with "wiki:ing" (I wonder what the appropriate verb should be, the equivalent of "googling"?!) Fish himself. I do find the following sentence in the Wikipedia entry rather interesting: "A prominent public intellectual, and a hard man to pin down politically, Fish has spent considerable time in various public arenas vigorously debunking pieties of both the left and the right — sometimes in the same sentence."

Nevertheless, whether or not Fish is a critic of scientism he does seem to take such a very strong stance on the role of the "objective" teacher in the class room and the idea that non-partiality (or whatever the best term may be) is sacrosact.

Moreover, I take it from this brief introduction to Fish that he would then oppose academics like Chomsky, who is a linguist, contributing to/teaching/promoting his views and analyses of US foreign policy. (I found a rather polemical piece on the topic at, which I have no way of judging the fairness of). That is a common criticism of Chomsky on the (US) "right" but one I've never found very impressive. If the man can contribute in an informed and constructive fashion, then why not - no matter what his formal academic field of expertise happens to be. If he's a merely a dilettante then he will surely be exposed as such (and as far as I know there is in addition to criticism of Chomsky's writings on foreign policy quite a lot of support for them too among academics in that field).

In any case, an "apologist for knee-jerk postmodernism" he did not come across as to me...*

I did find a David Horowitz article at Salon ( which of course seems to take this line. But after watching the ugly debacle of Horowitz coming to talk at ASU, insulting and more or less harrassing minority students, he seems a bit too unhinged to take into consideration in this debate?


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