New Conversation, New Narrative: Stanley Fish

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stanley Fish. (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Stanley Fish: Paradise Regained?

Stanley Fish made the campaign’s most audacious — also the most thoughtful — attribution of a certain aspect of divinity to Barack Obama. Fish was a Milton scholar before he became a culture warrior and, more recently, the New York Times’ “Think Again” blogger on the life of the mind, on campus and off. When Doctor Fish pictured the taunting John McCain and the imperturbable Barack Obama as a version of Satan’s contest with Jesus, he was drawing on Milton’s Paradise Regained — “a four-book poem in which a very busy and agitated Satan dances around a preternaturally still Jesus until, driven half-crazy by the response he’s not getting, the arch-rebel (i.e. maverick) loses it… The power Jesus generates,” in Fish’s reading “is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger. It’s rope-a-dope on a grand scale… Jesus is usually the political model for Republicans, but this time his brand of passive, patient leadership is being channeled by a Democrat.”

We are talking in this election-day conversation about what feels already like a redemptive example and a profound turn in the civic culture. Are we ready for a touch of what could also be called a Gandhian model of doing the public business? I am asking Stanley Fish about the Obama challenge to public intellectuals, and about the Obama effect on the American “narrative.” Fish speaks as a Hillary Clinton Democrat who’s ready to make a considered and very large leap of faith.

SF: There will be, I believe, a three to six month period, which we can call a window of opportunity. By that I mean: countries around the world — some allies, some neutral, some our adversaries — will think there is a new opportunity for conversation and an opening up of old questions. So that is one part of the equation, the other part of the equation, if I’m right, is the response of the Obama administration is able to make.

In the Middle East, Latin America, Russia and Africa, there will be an opportunity for the United States, especially for the Obama administration, to start talking with people in ways that might lead to concrete resolutions, not tomorrow but down a road that has a discernable end.

I just heard this morning that Hugo Chavez, who is anticipating an Obama victory, said that he would be happy to sit down with the new American president and see what areas of compatibility and mutual self-interest we might identify so that we may no longer have to think of our two countries existing in an adversarial relationship.

CL: It’s remarkable. When Ahmadinejad calls then you know something has really happened.

SF: It is remarkable. If a bunch of things like that happen, and the administration has the savvy to take advantage of it, then I think we’ll see remarkable changes…

Stanley Fish in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 4, 2008

Related Content


  • hurley

    What a pleasant way to spend a little time, with CL and Morris Zap. And this on the heels of Carlo Ginzburg. Chris may have answered his own question with his roster of public intellectuals (Chomsky a conspicuous but certainly unintentional omission), but his point comes through. My question might be whether, in this age of sometimes gross compensation for little contribution and the inevitable celebrity apparatus that attaches to even the most modest accomplishment (Joe The Plumber, anybody?), such a thing as public intellectual virtue as we know it, or used to know it, can survive into the next generation, where an agent looms as a precondition. My sour and undoubtedly naive sense is that the people we look to for guidance might be following the money as much as anything else. Whereas there used to be the publiic intellectual, there is now the celebrity intellectual. We miss you, Iggy Stone.

  • hurley

    Er, Izzy. Too much rock & roll. But Iggy and Izzy might have gotten along…

  • I always listen to Open Source for a fresh perspective I can’t find anywhere else.

    Your musings with Stanley Fish on Obama’s psychological independence reminds me of a line from (Yeats?) … the “still center of the turning world”. Obama’s image of integrity is in contrast with McCain’s continual shifting of persona and message. This instability may have aroused a primitive distress response in voters; Obama subliminally became the “good parent”.

  • jazzman

    An amicus brief in defense of George W. Bush, John McCain and Sarah Palin

    After this election, given the congressional gains and the virtual mandate garnered by Barack Obama, I wanted underscore the valuable contributions made by the subjects of this post.

    After W.J. Clinton’s peccadilloes rendered Albert Gore’s bid for the presidency “too close to call” (he should have been a shoo in,) the “uniter not divider” was ushered in and promptly was tested by the events of 9/11. Instead of a reasoned response and missing a chance to capitalize on the outpouring of almost universal good will, he threatened Afghanistan (a sovereign nation – despite their political shortcomings) with a violent invasion if Osama was not handed over to him. Since the Taliban did not accede to his demands (if Osama were in France and Jacques Chirac refused to extradite him would we have invaded France?) he invaded with the support of a large majority of Americans.

    With terror in the driver’s seat on cruise control, he foisted the Patriot Act on the fear paralyzed public and Congress which rolled over and approved it almost unanimously. Since the invasion there have been many thousands of deaths and many more maimings with little or no benefit to the Afghan People or NATO soldiers, along with the concomitant “extraordinary rendition” torturing of detainees at black sites which caused the U.S.A.’s putative “moral authority” to evaporate.

    This wasn’t a sufficient sop for his paranoia, so along with the permission (ill-gained by deliberate deception) granted by a fearful congress, he formulated the “Bush Doctrine” – We reserve the right to launch a preemptive military attack any country that SCARES us – “In what respect, Charlie?”) Under its aegis he invaded another scary sovereign nation, handed the no-bid logistical management to Haliburton, became responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings, and like Pontius Pilate, washed his hands of the murder of Saddam Hussein whom he delivered to his puppet regime bent on exacting their ancestral code of Hammurabi.

    These actions were not sufficient to rouse the voting populace of America to replace him with John Kerry who actually had served in a war, knew the horror and was committed to ending the violence. Believing he had a mandate in his 2nd term, he trashed the constitution with hundreds of “signing statements”, eliminated Habeas Corpus and strong armed telcos to illegally release phone records and engaged in patently illegal warrantless wire tapping.

    It took the perfect storm of an at sea warrior bent on pursuing victory in Iraq having written off Afghanistan as a mop-up operation, allowing himself to be manipulated into a directionless caricature by less than ideal strategists, along with an ill-informed, inarticulate, former beauty pageant contestant (not so different from a political contestant) abetted by the brilliant Tina Fey and Katie Couric, and the Laffer/Friedman deregulation house of cards built by Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush to grease the skids of public dudgeon.

    The confluence GWB’s & McCain’s clueless economic savvy along with his cynical choice of Palin who alienated so many of the conservatives proved to be the final dressing of fertilizer (on top of the rich manure layers regularly applied for almost 8 years) that enabled Obama’s organic growth to become the president elect.

    With all the travesties perpetrated by the current administration and 80% reportedly believing the country was on the wrong path, the public outcry was AWOL until gasoline reached $4/gal, food prices doubled, the housing market and financial sector collapsed and their retirement accounts lost a 3rd of their value (it’s the economy stupid.)

    This was the most expensive presidential campaign ever waged but the price of regime change was trillions of borrowed dollars and trillions of lost dollars. The human tragedy was insufficient to sway those in thrall to fear, and it was only fear itself (of losing material possessions) that goaded enough people to grasp at the promise of Change We Can Believe In.

    That is not to say that PE Obama achieved his victory by luck, he had the best organization, the most balanced, optimistic, and inspirational campaign and the broadest appeal to fund his quest. He ran the virtually flawless campaign that was necessary and never trashed the opposition and deftly parried the desperate ad hominems and racist subtext to neutralize all detractors. He presciently seized the moment and enfenestrated himself through the slightly ajar window of opportunity before it slammed shut despite the objections of the Clintons and most of his confidantes. It was and is his time.

    Like Gollum in the LOTR, despite appearances, the above players in the drama had a positive role in enabling the outcome of this week’s election of Barack Hussein Obama.

    In my opinion, without the fertile ground provided by perhaps the most dismal president in U.S. history and the poor choices and haphazard campaign demonstrated by McCain/Palin, the outcome could have been 4 more years of fertilizing the fallow homeland until the seeds were sown for another attempt. GWB finally became the uniter he said he’d be.

    I give thanks to these players and those who sacrificed life and limb for their roles in this drama that decisively ends the long darkness of the last 8 years.

    Peace to ALL,

    Jazzman

  • To be honest and personal here…

    This is one of the first conversations in a while that had me on the edge of my seat. And it’s partly for personal reasons.

    I’m a 36 year-old French-speaking anthropologist and blogger from Montreal. This conversation, I felt, was addressed to me. Directly and specifically.

    See, the status of “public intellectuals” has been on my mind for a while. (Sorry for the shameless self-promotion but,) I’ve been blogging on that very subject over the last three and a half years, after having thought about it since childhood. Most recently, I’ve been blogging (in French) about the very concept of «intellectuel», eventually finding the connection between the term and Zola’s role in the Dreyfus Affair. Originally, it seems, the term «intellectuel» in French (and it seems that the same was true for “intellectual” in English) meant a figure who uses ideas to engage in public contexts. Not necessarily politicized and probably not based on party politics. But a social engagement nonetheless. My personal attitude tends to be more “neutral,” especially in terms of political engagement (I’m half-Swiss). But I can certainly relate to social engagement «à la française», especially when we talk about people like Bourdieu (who was also an anthropologist, by the way).

    This conversation between Fish and Lydon was especially interesting to me in that context. Including the part about Humanities and education. In fact, what I found personally fascinating about that section of the conversation is that it went from a discussion about Dead White Men into something more culturally aware, from a human perspective. Not only is that pleasant to hear, for an anthropologist like myself, but it connects to my personal experience.

    I’ve enjoyed reading several works which are probably considered classics (Crime and Punishment, Candide, À la recherche du temps perdu, Don Quixote, Cratylus, Pantagruel…). But canonic texts are far too limiting for the current world. Reading Montaigne can be fun but we should also make sure that we “read” more broadly: the Mande Epic, Ibn Battuta, the Popol Vuh…

    Kant was mentioned during the show. Interesting choice. To be honest, I did read some Kant as a teen (and, later, as an undergrad) but I never really cared for it. I was already too much of a relativist and an existentialist. It might go well with transcendentalism but it kind of clashed with my Piaget upbringing. So I feel that forcing people to read Kant wouldn’t have the kinds of effects which were discussed during the show in terms of Humanities and education. What might help, though, is allowing people to discuss ideas from diverse people from Kant to Dolto, and from P??ini to Nietzsche. The next step would be to not focus on individual thinkers as much as we currently do. But that might have to wait. In the U.S., the first step is to go beyond the divide between “Intellectuals” and “Real People.” What I tend to call “Geek Culture” might help. So might Obama’s presidency.

    Funny that anthropology should be mentioned during the show. Using the fact that Barack Obama’s mother was an anthropologist, I’ve been joking about anthropology’s victory during those elections. Kidding aside, Obama’s existence as a figurehead has an anthropological “feel.” On this show, Obama has often been associated to a kind of “allegory of diversity,” cultural and otherwise. Regardless of his actions and words, Obama can easily be used as a “representative” for diversity. And human diversity is the very core of anthropology as a discipline.

    Some of Obama’s words are also representative of an anthropological perspective, at least in terms of the cultural field within the discipline. His discourse on race, back in March, could easily be connected to anthropological discussions since Boas. Even his victory speech contained some passages which relate to anthropology’s dedication to a holistic perspective and skepticism toward deterministic pronouncements.

    Speaking of anthropology, use of the term “culture” near the end of the show was somewhat ambiguous, in context. It was probably meant to refer to the “High Culture” of those who are allegedly “cultivated,” but there was also an opportunity to interpret the term in the anthropological sense, which would help us go beyond the “Canon” and look at broader cultural diversity.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking show.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Preach it jazzman. I’m hoping that this election was an embrace of a viewpoint that expands the possibilities in addition to a repudiation of a narrow, cynical viewpoint. Rejection was a core piece of the rhetoric, facile in its delivered intention, but rejection doesn’t have the juice for the long journey that is needed at this interval. Candidate Obama was an embodiment of the idea put forth in Kipling’s ‘If’. Which makes him a mysterious traveler among us, elusive in his tangibility right before our eyes, ears, hearts and minds.

    As to the upcoming Obama administration narrative: it may be the case that the Rashimon choir is going to be compelled to sing it, and that is where the understanding will reside.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Not being a public nor private intellectual, I can boldly ask naive questions about the upcoming administration that require very little thinking and much emotional churning: Will President Obama and Congress sign on to the ICC? If we’re serious about ‘change’ then this issue is going to have to be met with some very deft and persuasive appeals, both domestic and internationally.

    President Obama will face a very real challenge on this issue within the framework of dealing with the current, outgoing cast. I would guess the Secretary of State is going to have to be able to take some arrows on this one. I see no political upside to this on the domestic front. I don’t relish the conundrum implications. But, the moral/ethical high ground is not such a lonely place in this case, in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Perhaps, some other large players will follow if the Obama administration signs on, though I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    I didn’t say this previously: thank you Mr. Fish and thank you Chris. Wonderful discussion.

  • Can’t remember if this NYT article was mentioned during the conversation but it seems to bring something to the discussion in terms of both “broad readings” and political engagement.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/03/books/03infl.html

    What I personally find interesting is that it’s a rare piece in which the restrictive character of political lateralization in the US is explicitly acknowledged.

  • potter

    If the Obama administration is going to help bring the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to a close it would have to be in concert with the Europeans and the Arab League countries plus or minus Iran- all working together. For that matter that would be only one problem such a group could attack. (We really need a more effective United Nations.) There is probably a window for Obama to make such a move now because many believe he can do everything and anything, and maybe I believe this too. But to me the situation looks worse than ever in the ME, the sides entrenched and more radical by the day. It seems as though both sides have gotten used to the current trajectory which is headed towards tragedy. The moderates are in hiding. So I have no doubt that if this were the only thing on Obama’s plate he could make some or even great progress. But it is not. Obama will have his hands full. There is just so much we can expect of him. But anyway it will be interesting to see who he appoints as Secretary of State. I have no immediate hopes for this situation and think it will get worse before it gets better.

    But I have, from the beginning of my support of Obama been dreaming of a White House that showcases talent from across the arts. We had that with the Kennedy’s. These last 8 years have been so dry culturally- unbelievably so.

    here is a link to Obama-Biden’s A Platform in Support of the Arts.

  • potter

    Public intellectual Bernard Avishai on “the situation” in Israel in this Vanderbilt U. lecture mentions Stanley Fish somewhere during the almost 2 hours during which he lays things out rather sanely. The second hour is Q & A, the whole thing takes patience but is very worthwhile if you are interested in the situation as I am.

    It’s not so simple as Stanley Fish says.

    The link is best on youtube–we are fortunate for having youtube.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmvgYZ1p13k

  • prolifer

    Well, it’s interesting to compare President-elect Obama with Jesus. But President-elect Obama is pro-choice to the max, pro-embryonic stem cell research, probably pro-euthanasia … and many Catholic Bishops have spoken against his policies, one Cardinal called them ‘apocalyptic’. I don’t think the comparison holds up,