Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fish for Breakfast

Ah, Stanley Fish.  Who else but Stanley Fish could make a career out of being Stanley Fish?  I wrote one of my first undergraduate theory papers on his concept of interpretive communities in "Is There a Text In this Class?"  In this text (sorry, couldn't resist), Fish promotes the idea that interpretation is a result of shared conventions, so his answer is basically, no, there is no text in this class, or in any other.

Fish is an interesting and often controversial voice in literary and academic debates: at times, I think he simply likes to stir the pot to see what will surface.  At other times, though, I think he offers a useful take on things only to then retreat to a strange kind of intellectual Switzerland, insisting that what really matters is the fact that it (whatever topic he's chosen) doesn't really matter.  His recent post, "Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal" is a case in point.  Briefly stated, Fish argues that "if plagiarism is an idea that makes sense only in the precincts of certain specialized practices and is not a normative philosophical notion, inquiries into its philosophical underpinnings  are of no practical interest or import."  Since there's really nothing new under the sun, Fish suggests, writers who commit plagiarism are "professionally culpable," but philosophically, plagiarism is, you guessed it, "not a big moral deal."  There is no philosophical or theoretical underpinning that renders plagiarism Wrong, on the scale of one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

But who ever said it was?  This is what I find most frustrating about Fish: his tendency to resort to straw man arguments to make his points-- in my opinion, the pull-out quote summarizes his rhetorical strategy.  What reasonable person has ever argued that plagiarism is the same as stealing someone's car?  But if we want to go there, one could argue that teenagers do sometimes take the car without asking, and parents do sometimes call the cops on them "to teach them a lesson"--namely, that you shouldn't take things that you know don't belong to you.

I served as an "Academic Integrity Officer" for several years at my college: it offered no badge and no perks, just a chance to test whether the interrogation strategies you see on Law & Order reruns really do work.  It was an interesting experience.  Generally, the only people who seemed to express a sense of moral outrage were the occasionally overworked and overwrought professors who viewed the student's action as a personal insult, on the lines of, "I can't believe that little piss-ant thinks I'm not smart enough to catch something like this.  I'll see him/her burn in hell!"  Usually, the plagiarism was pretty pathetic and generally quite obvious to anyone actually looking at the paper, so the scale of this kind of reaction was definitely disproportionate to the weight of the action itself.

Most people--including myself, the deans, and the students themselves--had a much more practical reaction: "wow, what a dumb thing to do, okay, now let's figure out the best way to make sure they know that their actions have consequences and that they'd better not do it again."  The problem cases, however, were the repeat offenders: students who plagiarized repeatedly, clearly trying to work the system and betting that they wouldn't get caught more than once.  These were treated differently because, in essence, they speak to a different problem.  In the words of my mother, "You knew it was wrong, but you did it anyway."  And similarly, "I'm not sure you're sorry you did it, I think you're just sorry you got caught."

This is where, in my opinion, philosophy can productively inform the politics and pragmatics of dealing with something like plagiarism.  In legal matters, we acknowledge a clear distinction between acts of negligence, carelessness or stupidity, and conscious and willful attempts to wrongfully profit at the expense of others.  We make that distinction precisely because of the "metaphysical rap" that we value as a culture--and yes, of course, different cultures construct different systems of value.

In the end, I think Fish simply dismisses theory to emphasize practice, but I'm not sure why.  When we try to figure out whether or not something is in fact a Big Moral Deal or just an infraction of the rules we like to live by, we look to many things--our notions of intentionality, our understanding of the contexts in which the action occurred, our shared conventions of practice and purpose, etc.--but we all agree that, in the end, actions do have consequences.

1 comment:

  1. He does make some decent points about how our notions of ¨originality¨ have changed. I just don´t see how he can simultaneously make that claim and argue that there´s no theory behind our practices.

    I hope you keep up this blog. I´m enjoying it =)


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."