Archive for the ‘academic conceit’ Category

Sigh, yawn. I’m Stanley Fish, the academic, and having an opinion would require about 75 footnotes.

What I’m here to do is help you regular folk — those unsophisticated enough not to have qualified your feelings with a hundred indecisions — to reason properly. I don’t have arguments about the world — that would be gauche, and naively suppose there is a world. I have arguments about arguments.

So my opinions transcend ideology. Godlike, I opine that I opine and nothing else. I’m not interested in actual issues, just the way they “play out in our present cultural moment.” And you, dear ignorant readers, are part of that play. You are subjects in a demi-God’s anthropological experiment, and when you think you disagree with me I am quietly recording your symptoms on my chart.

And now you have my dispassionate diagnosis — not about your disgusting untouchable beliefs, my dear filthy peasants, but how your stench casts its shadows on my pure white cerebrum.

Another way to put this argument, as I did in a comment to Fish’s article:

It’s true that when readers believe that you have intentionally taken a stand on some substantive political issue, they have missed the point. And these readers are easy to refute.

But there are other readers (like me) who find your column to be based on a conceit that reeks of academic condescension. If you really want to teach people about arguments (rather than pontificate on the substance of those arguments), why write about hot-button political issues? If the content is just a placeholder, why not choose subject matter that is relatively benign?

One possibility is that you’re trying to test your audience–that you’re inviting them to rise above their passions to your heights of “analytical judgment.” A more likely possibility is that you enjoy stirring things up and then sitting back to
watch your readers sputter with rage. The pretense of dispassion makes this all the more effective. And when the accusations fly, you get to throw up your hands and lawyer your case–“what did I say?” There’s a name for all of this: passive aggression.

That all of this is just a thin conceit is illustrated by how quickly it falls apart under pressure. The Obama/Surge argument is not, for instance, an “argument about arguments.” It may not be an evaluation of the Surge’s success, but it certainly is a misguided assessment of the implications that public sentiment about perceived success has for the general election. That’s a political argument, and it’s based on a lack of comprehension of the political climate. There’s lots of data to show that voters overwhelming resent the war and are disaffected with the Republican party, whatever they think about the Surge.

So not only is your view on Obama not an argument about arguments, it’s an example of the inane horce-race punditry that dominates public discourse. Worse, it’s just bad inane punditry.

That inanity is the result of your view that political argument cannot be suitably “analytical”–that they necessarily devolve into “pious fuzziness.” That’s precisely the kind of cynical view that motivates TV pundits like Chris Mathews, who must also maintain the conceit of being above the fray by talking about strategy. It’s not the issues they’re concerned with, but the techniques that power uses to preserve itself. And so by implication it esteems the possession of power over policy, in the same way you elevate the coherence of arguments over discourse about what is right (at least for the purposes of your column). What readers sense and respond to is the tired nihilism behind all of this.

These points are only reinforced by all the adoring admirers who wish that everyone had the same gratitude for your lofty dispensations, and even wish to protect you from the sea of passions that threatens to overturn your serene, transcendent bark!


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