- Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change
Our greatest living Miltonist, Professor Fish, continues to address the most hotly contested issues of the profession of literary criticism in prose which, if perhaps not quite the best in Anglo-American literary studies as he once judged it to be, is certainly distinguished by coherence, power, and wit. In this version of material he presented in a workshop at the Folger Library in 1990 and as the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University in 1993, Fish analyzes the relationship between literary criticism and political change. By literary criticism, he means the activity of determining what a literary text means. According to Fish, while in the eighteenth century just about any kind of commentary on literature counted as literary criticism, the determination of the meaning of literature is the essential job of literary criticism in the twentieth century. By political change, Fish means changes in things such as the way governments spend money, treat their citizens and foreign governments, establish the civil law, and appoint people to office. The major claim of the book is that doing literary criticism in the United States today rarely causes political change. The counsel he offers to all those literary critics who want to bring about political change through their literary work is thus to find a new job: “if you want to send a message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it” (p. 2).
But why can’t observing that Lycidas means that Milton is afraid of women help to overthrow patriarchy and the legal/cultural system which continues to perpetuate it? Because, Fish claims, “there are, at present, no well-established routes by which literary criticism is first brought to the attention of those who inhabit the centers of power and then presented to them in a way that ties it to their concerns” (p. 52). That is to say that it is because American society is structured in a particular way that literary interpretive acts are politically inconsequential. Though he does not provide much evidence for this big claim about the structure of American society and its relation to literary criticism, Fish does support it by asking us to see the absurdity of imagining otherwise: “think about it. You are about to open a new business or introduce a bill in Congress or initiate an advertising campaign, but you pause to ask yourself, ‘What would the readers of Diacritics say?’” (p. 91). This is not to say that the segregation of literary work from political work is a given of the human condition. Fish cites Renaissance England and contemporary Israel as cases of societies structured in such a way that literary acts have immediate and important political consequences (though literary acts and political acts in these societies are still clearly distinct because their purposes are still different). The point is just that, because American society is currently structured as it is, the activity of identifying the meaning of works of literature is rarely [End Page 544] relevant to political change. The point holds even when one shifts the center of literary work from determining the meaning of literature to (i) observing how literature and the act of professing it are deeply implicated in society-wide structures of power and legitimization, or (ii) observing and “transcending” the boundaries between literary criticism and other disciplines. That is to say that even if one were to transform literary criticism in the way new historicists and several proponents of cultural studies whom Fish cites propose, work in this discipline would still rarely cause significant political change. For the contingent fact is that, regardless of what academics do, think they do, and intend to do, “no one cares very much about literary criticism outside the confines of its professional practice” (p. 55).
But if literary criticism cannot, at least for the moment in the U.S., do significant political work, and if, as Fish also claims, it cannot do significant moral, cultural work (making people better, preserving the best that is said...