Ian Not His Real Name's Reviews > How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish
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Mar 24, 2011

bookshelves: to-read, cul-poli-phil-art, lit-krit, reviews

A Collection of Thoughts Inspired by Paul Bryant's Review


As usual, one of Paul Bryant's reviews acted as a powerful stimulus to think through some issues that have been percolating in the back of my mind for a while.
Paul is my favourite polymath-ematician and literary agent provocateur as well as my avant guardian.
Everything he writes is worth reading, contemplating, enjoying and following.

"A Confederacy of Dunces"

Jonathan Swift might be able to explain Fish's enemies (in quite a nice sentence, too):
"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

A Podcast
You might be interested in this podcast from this morning (24 March, 2011):

Some Thoughts about Stanley's Fishing Expedition

I think most debate has become so passionate and subjective that it shocks people when somebody pretends or appears to be dispassionate and objective.
Form and substance is an ancient distinction, but who (else but Fish) today would say that form was more important than substance?
I think this is a reason why Fish could be perceived to be threatening by both the left and the right.
He is actually quite radical, in that he looks at the root of all things.
But by emptying the vessel of content, he becomes an empty vessel or a neutral medium.
He is more interested in the form or the structure (the medium not the message).
By failing to be overtly political, or interventionist or discriminatory (in a positive sense), he might alienate the left liberal.
But this doesn't make him an advocate of the status quo.
He purports to be neutral about the right and alienates them as well.
For them, he has a dangerous ability to see through the internal logic of the content and undermine the gravity of the conservative message.
The threat to both sides of politics is that this method of debate, by being empty and neutral, could be filled with powerful content in the hands of someone else.
To the extent that he is a master of form and rhetoric, his skills could be waylaid by a new Hitler or Stalin, who could use his skills to achieve an "evil" goal.
This abuse of form to convey a content message would betray Fish's own world view, but values inevitably seek to fill an empty, value-free space.
He could therefore be the author of his own downfall like the French Structuralists.
His skills are manageable in his hands, but what fate will befall his acolytes?
Fish has the ability of an old-style lawyer to be dispassionate, to be objective, to know all of the arguments for both sides, to detect the weaknesses in presentation, to be surgical in his precision.
His delivery is concise and precise, elegant and effective.
But he doesn't seek to use these skills as an adversary on behalf of one side versus another.
If he wanted to be a judge, he could probably be a very fair judge.
But he probably wouldn't want to be a judge, because that would force him to make assessments of the content, whereas his passion is for the form.
This means he sits outside the system, and he won't play the game that everybody else plays and believes in and takes so seriously.
He plays his own game, and the main game feels threatened by his lack of interest.
Their fear is that, if his ideas catch on, then other people will lose faith in the main game.
What he has done to people might be to undermine the content of their arrogant self-belief.
He is on the outside of the parade pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Paul Links to "The King's New Clothes"


Gee, that brings back memories and how apt.
It must be over 30 years since I've heard that song, but what a song!

"And everybody was cheering like mad,
except one little boy. You see, he hadn't heard about
the magic suit and didn't know what he was supposed to see."

And from the original:

"But among the crowds a little child suddenly gasped out, "But he hasn't got anything on." And the people began to whisper to one another what the child had said. "He hasn't got anything on." "There's a little child saying he hasn't got anything on." Till everyone was saying, "But he hasn't got anything on." The Emperor himself had the uncomfortable feeling that what they were whispering was only too true. "But I will have to go through with the procession," he said to himself.

"So he drew himself up and walked boldly on holding his head higher than before, and the courtiers held on to the train that wasn't there at all."

So if my modest hypothesis is right, Stanley is a lawyer who doesn't want to be a courtier holding the train that isn't there.

And this from Wiki:

Andersen’s decision to change the ending may have occurred after he read the manuscript tale to a child,or had its source in a childhood incident similar to that in the tale.
In 1872, he recalled standing in a crowd with his mother waiting to see King Frederick VI.
When the king made his appearance, Andersen cried out, "Oh, he’s nothing more than a human being!"
His mother tried to silence him by crying, "Have you gone mad, child?"
Whatever the reason, Andersen thought the change would prove more satirical.

Formalist or Non-Conformist or both?

As paradoxical as it might seem, I wonder whether Fish is a non-conformalist.

Paul Links to Extracts from Fish's Critics

Paul wrote: "I finally checked Wiki and it turns out he's often in hot water



I was going to say that this negative criticism of Fish reminded me a lot of the reaction to FR Leavis and TS Eliot and the New Criticism in the 40's and 50's:
My own political and literary views are really influenced by the New York Intellectuals mentioned in the article:
And they absolutely hated the New Criticism.
They might be regarded as old fashioned now (some of them were part of the Old Left), but I still love reading their prose.
The amazing thing about Fish is how vehement and personal the criticism of him is, as if he is explicitly a threat to everybody, a clear and present danger.
They're all furiously dialling 911 (like he's some "campus killer" on the loose amongst our children).
If he was French, he would probably just be treated as an interesting, but eccentric, shit-stirrer.
Instead, they treat him like the Devil incarnate.
Some of his critics are people who I would otherwise respect (Eagleton).
Who would want to be a sophist or sophisticated?
I find Fish fascinating to listen to, because he adds to how I feel about things.
He's quite entertaining and invigorating and rejuvenating in a dry way (like a 21st century "Dead Poets Society").
His critics approach him as if their views are mutually exclusive, whereas I see them as complementary (if not complimentary).
But to pursue my analogies, he is a living technique, a methodology, a rifle, a cannon, and people are judging him for what could be done if his cannon got into the hands of others (like the NRA might say, you could argue that Fish's rifle or cannon isn't intrinsically bad, it's only bad in the hands of the wrong person).
You want to ask: isn't the worst thing that could happen that we could end up with a "loose canon" (sorry).
However, the thing is that he isn't loose in his methodology at all, he is actually incredibly rigid and disciplined and unforgiving (the lawyer in him).
I think that a lot of theorists envy him, because he actually came close to "inventing" something new, whereas they just play around with literature's "rich tapestry" using old techniques.
People will probably remember him long after they have forgotten his critics.
Which reminds me that I should be reading "A Confederacy of Dunces".
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message 1: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Not His Real Name Sorry, MJ, I wrote this before you too had become my avant guardian.

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