Fish on the First

I first became acquainted with Stanley Fish in college. Literary theory was then the rage, and as a classical languages major, literary theory was making its primary disciplinary impact in the area of translation. Questions like– what does it mean to translate a work in one language into another? Is it possible to do so? What is lost and gained in the process? Are there such things as “better” and “worse” translations?–these dominated the intellectual scene, and they were the sorts of questions, mutatis mutandis and adapted to a much larger scale, that were being asked by Fish in English and Literature departments. Such questions radically changed the nature of the study of literature. For myself, at the time, I was mostly concerned with ensuring that my translation of Vergil or Cicero or Caesar was right, not whether it was possible.

I still recall that one had a choice in those days: take your Milton with Fish, or take it with Reynolds Price. To give some sense of the difference: Price had us memorize several stanzas of Lycidas (“Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more // Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear, // I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude…”).

Since the 1990s, Fish has become much more involved in the work of law and interpretation, adapting his core ideas to, for example, target textualism and originalism (they say that law always lags other academic disciplines). He has several interesting pieces on intentionalism in interpretation. And my own last experience in the classroom with Fish is his book on the nature of the academic enterprise, Save the World on Your Own Time, portions of which I have assigned in seminars ranging from Catholic Social Thought to the Religion Clauses.

Any Fish publication is therefore cause to perk up and take notice, and this new book is no exception: The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump (Atria). Covers a lot of ground; as is Fish’s wont.

“How does the First Amendment really work? Is it a principle or a value? What is hate speech and should it always be banned? Are we free to declare our religious beliefs in the public square? What role, if any, should companies like Facebook play in policing the exchange of thoughts, ideas, and opinions?

With clarity and power, Stanley Fish, “America’s most famous professor” (BookPage), explores these complex questions in The First. From the rise of fake news, to the role of tech companies in monitoring content (including the President’s tweets), to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, First Amendment controversies continue to dominate the news cycle. Across America, college campus administrators are being forced to balance free speech against demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings.

Ultimately, Fish argues, freedom of speech is a double-edged concept; it frees us from constraints, but it also frees us to say and do terrible things. Urgent and controversial, The First is sure to ruffle feathers, spark dialogue, and shine new light on one of America’s most cherished—and debated—constitutional rights.”

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