by Perry Meisel
Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. By Stanley Fish. 613 pp. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. $37.50.
Of literary critics whose work comes to mind under the heading of ''theory,'' Stanley Fish, a professor of English and law at Duke University, has been pre-eminent as the orchestrator of a number of approaches to interpretation, chief among them reader-response criticism and deconstruction.
While no less rigorous than his earlier studies of Renaissance literature, Doing What Comes Naturally is a handy textbook for those who wish to catch up on the variety of questions to which literary criticism can usefully address itself today and to see a deconstructive method in action in various intellectual contexts, particularly in examining the similarities between questions of literature and law. Except for three of the 22 essays collected here, all have appeared in periodicals over the last decade, though they have been substantially rewritten for the present volume, especially the essay on Freud at the end of the book.
Ranging from constitutional jurisprudence to a recent chapter in the history of the reception of Paradise Lost, Mr. Fish's new work elaborates the claim he made in his influential book Is There a Text in This Class? (1980) that there is no such thing in life, law or literature as pure or immediate perception - or, for that matter, pure or immediate existence, for texts or for people.
The new book's title is intentionally ironic, since ''doing what comes naturally'' is how we usually - and unthinkingly - characterize what is really the result of one's involuntary participation in an institutional or interpretive scenario, whether as a jurist, a critic or even an athlete. ''The choices that occur to one 'naturally,' '' Mr. Fish says in his essay on the study of Milton, ''are already understood in terms of the needs of the profession'' - any profession - ''and therefore come already calculated.''
The correctives to popular misconceptions about contemporary literary criticism are wide-ranging and incisive. Mr. Fish's reading of Jacques Derrida in the essay ''With the Compliments of the Author'' nicely accommodates deconstruction to real and particular institutional situations, setting the record straight on Mr. Derrida as a proponent not of anarchic indeterminacy in interpretation but of an amplified sense of the paradoxes that ground self, world and texts.
Cool and systematic, such an approach pays off by collapsing, most dramatically, our customary belief in a categorical difference between what is subjective and objective in either interpretation or institutions. In studies of the German literary theorist Wolfgang Iser and the legal theorists Ronald Dworkin and Roberto M. Unger, and in an assessment of professional business such as scholarly publication and promotion, Mr. Fish shows how any opposition between subjective and objective, internal and external, intrinsic and extrinsic, is as a rule overridden in practice; one is never either individual or impersonal, but always both at the same time.
Mr. Fish's principal theoretical point is that ''there can be no such thing as theory.'' Less inclined to attend to the ironies of this contention than to show that it is simply true, Mr. Fish argues that since ''all knowledge is situational . . . we can never be at any distance from the knowledge we need.'' Thus he can also argue that what passes for theory has ''no consequences,'' since theory never makes a difference in practice anyway. What one ''always and already'' does (''doing what comes naturally'') is unconsciously created by interpretive assumptions that no conscious intervention can really undo. Theoretical posturing has no real effect on what we do.
The question of change preoccupies Mr. Fish (an essay is devoted to it), since his ''no consequences'' clause appears to alienate him from the possibility of action. However, he is at pains to show that change in any context is not only possible but inevitable, the normal and constant result of going about our business whatever our intentions.
Mr. Fish's chief practical aim throughout these essays is to show how the political claims of both left and right, whether in literary or legal studies, are essentially the same when it comes to epistemology. The Frankfurt School or E. D. Hirsch in literature, ''anti-foundationalism'' or ''foundationalism'' in law - such rival positions are linked by the same assumption: the belief in a transcendent truth outside the world they deplore from opposing points of view, with presumably opposed motives.
The seemingly distinct postures that separate the progressivism of ''political liberation'' from a belief in ''timeless masterpieces,'' Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno from Mr. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, the opponents of Robert Bork from his supporters, are ''finally exactly in the same position.'' Neither side will acknowledge the ironic and paradoxical situation in which it finds itself: the ''dilemma'' that ''awaits anyone who first acknowledges the essential historicity of all human endeavor but then seeks a space or a moment in which the pressure of that historicity can be escaped.'' Indeed, the political opposition between left and right, Mr. Fish says, is really a historical one between rhetoric and philosophy that is as old as Western civilization itself.
The book's centerpiece is a brief but dazzling essay entitled ''Anti-professionalism,'' a deconstruction of the distinction between professional and anti-professional biases in our culture that concludes by demonstrating that the two ''always and already'' go hand in hand. The reason is that the ethos of professionalism - the belief that the individual is master of his own destiny and can rise to the social prominence that expertise in a given field affords him - is the paradoxical product of an ideology of free choice and judgment. But that ideology runs counter to the belief in specialized, professional judgment in which it results.
''Anti-professionalism,'' Mr. Fish concludes, ''is the very center of the professional ethos, constituting by the very vigor of its opposition the true form of that which it opposes.''
Mr. Fish's belief that an unawareness of this ''doublethink'' is common to almost all thought leaves aside, however, one discipline for which this paradoxical kind of understanding is elementary: psychoanalysis. Mr. Fish devotes his final chapter to Freud, but it comes as something of a surprise given the 500 pages that precede it. A superb reader of everyone from Milton to Jurgen Habermas, Mr. Fish suddenly becomes an extraordinarily weak reader of Freud's most famous, and most literary, case history, the 1918 case of the Russian nobleman known as the Wolf Man because of his childhood dream of wolves outside his window.
The essay is entitled ''Withholding the Missing Portion.'' Freud is the best model for what he has argued for throughout his book, and yet when it comes to acknowledging this model Mr. Fish is blind to it. He misreads the measured ironies of the Wolf Man account as though their intent were somehow nefarious, particularly the deferred, retrospective construction of the ''primal scene,'' whose ''discursive'' reality Mr. Fish faults Freud for merely inventing.
This is, arguably, the special blindness that allows Mr. Fish his insights in the pages before, and betokens an anxiety of influence about psychoanalysis that likely accounts for the remarkable perspicacity he shows in interrogating any and all texts save Freudian ones. Perhaps, too, it is intended as a joke for these same reasons. It is, in any case, an oddly ironic way for a book that downplays the pleasures of irony to end.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1989