Harvard Educational Review
  1. Political Correctness

    Literary Studies and Political Change

    By Stanley Fish

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 146 pp. $14.95 (paper)

    Whether one agrees with them or not, Stanley Fish’s books inevitably make readers think. Political Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change is no exception. In this collection of five lectures delivered in 1993 at Oxford University, Fish explores and occasionally expounds on issues regarding the nature of academic disciplines. He focuses on literary studies, a discipline whose landscape has often become an academic and political battlefield due to the clash of various camps within literary criticism, including new historicism, cultural studies, and interdisciplinarity. Readers interested in literary studies, in higher education, or simply in the nature of knowledge will find Political Correctness a thought-provoking exploration of these issues.

    Fish begins with an analysis of John Milton’s poetry, more specifically, the first three words of Milton’s Lycidas: “Yet once more.” He brings his knowledge of literature, history, linguistics, and Milton into a discussion of these three simple words, which are the title of the first lecture. Fish twists, turns, and pivots around these three words to make meaning of them, looking at their literary, historical, political, and linguistic contexts. He uses these disciplines to understand the poem itself. His analysis of Lycidas thus demonstrates the lecture’s central point: the goal of literary studies is always the literature itself. He ends this lecture with the recognition that literary studies, like all academic disciplines, has “distinctive” (p. 17) and separate objectives. Fish’s opinion challenges the interdisciplinary focus of many scholars, among them new historicists or cultural studies scholars who regard history and politics as equally, if not more, important to literary studies than literature.

    The subsequent lectures build on and expand Fish’s idea of the distinctiveness of the academic disciplines. In the second lecture, “Distinctiveness: Its Achievements and Costs,” he maintains that the academic disciplines are distinctive because each is driven by different basic questions. Fish, who held joint positions in law and literary studies at Duke University before serving as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago, examines the study of tort law to conclude that its central questions are, What is at fault? and What is its cause? In both cases, the answer lies within the law. From here, he turns to the discipline of history, concluding that its basic question is, What happened? Teaching readers by analogy, he then returns to literary studies, concluding that its basic question is, “What does this poem (or play or novel) mean?” (p. 34). As with tort law and history, the answers to the basic questions of the discipline of literary studies are self-referential and lie within literature.

    In the third lecture, “Disciplinary Tasks and Political Intentions,” Fish argues that the current emphases in literary studies on cultural studies, political agendas, interdisciplinarity, and new historicism ignore literature — the discipline’s central concern. Instead, they place related or peripheral issues and topics such as culture, history, and politics at the center of literary studies. The subsequent lecture, “Looking Elsewhere: Cultural Studies and Interdisciplinarity,” asserts that scholars who do so are no longer engaged in the discipline of literary studies. While they claim that moving the focus from the written text to culture gives literary scholars “a larger text or a more inclusive text” to study, in fact it merely creates “a different text, with its own emphases, details, and meanings which ‘naturally’ crowd out the emphases, details and meanings” (p. 79) of the literature. By shifting the center of the discipline from literature to culture, they have created a new discipline rather than expanding that of literary studies.

    The final lecture, “Why Literary Criticism Is Like Virtue,” brings readers back to the literature by focusing on what literary studies is rather than what it is not. In this lecture, Fish concludes that “literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward” (p. 110). He acknowledges that politics are involved in literary studies, as are history, linguistics, and a myriad of other disciplines, but at its heart lies the literature.

    As noted at the beginning of this review, readers may disagree with Fish about what literary studies is. Certainly there are many scholars who do, but getting through the delicious twists and turns of the lectures in Political Correctness is a wonderful and meaningful exercise in thinking.

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