The Network Fallacy?

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Bopping around this morning, and came across Stanley Fish's latest column in the Chronicle. In it, he cites the conclusion that Mark Taylor arrives at in The Moment of Complexity:

Either argument -- the one that begins, no longer is it possible to maintain the divide [between the academy and society], or the one that begins, there never was a divide in the first place -- leads Taylor to the same conclusions: Let's stop pretending that we can operate in a splendid (but fictional) isolation from everything that enables us; let's accept the fact that we are in, and of, the market and "find new ways to turn market forces to [our] own advantage"; let's prepare "students for life and work changing at warp speed"; let's go beyond the kind of critical analysis that does little more than "promote organizations and institutions whose obsolescence is undeniable"; let's adapt to the real conditions of our existence and eschew "a politics that is merely academic," a politics that is "as sterile as theories that are not put into practice."

As you might imagine, Fish disagrees on a couple of different grounds. The one that I was most intrigued by was what he calls the "system or network mistake":

the argument, more than implicit in Taylor's pages and in the pages of many other theorists of our condition, makes what I would call the "system" or "network" mistake -- the mistake of thinking that because something is embedded in a network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape, it is incoherent to speak of its properties, or of the boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network. Since identity is network-dependent, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of and examined as if it were free standing and discrete.

The trouble with that reasoning is that it operates at a level of generality so high that you can't see the trees for the forest.

Well, yes and no. This is not a new "mistake"--it's been around at least since the heyday of poststructuralism (and it would be easy to trace back through Burke and IA Richards as well). There, it was used as a reductio ad absurdum with which to point out the problem with deconstruction and the like--if it's all "free play of signifiers," then nothing means anything, and we might as well give up, blah, blah, blah. Basically, it involves ignoring one half of KB's "paradox of substance."

Calling it a "network mistake" doesn't quite work for me, because it ignores the degree to which network theory toggles among nodes, links, flows, patterns, et al. And I only buy system as a name for it if we're working with that term circa Jacques Ellul, and Taylor most definitely is not. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only way Fish could have arrived at this characterization is by only reading the final chapter. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but even though it's been a couple of years since I read it, I know that Taylor's discussion of complex adaptive systems is more nuanced than the false dichotomy of forest/tree being offered here.

The "argument" as Fish lays it out sounds no better if the terms are reversed:

the mistake of thinking that because something has boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network, it is incoherent to speak of the network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape. Since nodal points are free standing and discrete, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of and examined as if it were network-dependent.

Network theory, as partially as I may understand it, poises itself between these false alternatives. And from that perspective, it's entirely plausible for Taylor to argue that we need to reconsider the cultural, political, and social flows that connect us to various other points "outside" the university. There are places where I really disagree with Taylor's proposed solutions (many of which are a result of the spectacularly miscalculated keynote he delivered at C&W a few years back), but I also respect the fact that he proposes solutions, and would prefer to see them engaged at that level. Fish has never tired of the strategy whereby he pulls out rugs at a logically prior point, both invalidating the conclusions and removing any need to engage with them. It's certainly a fun tactic to watch, but it rings a bit hollow when it's applied to a writer who's as careful and as skilled as Taylor is. Taylor, quite frankly, deserves better.

The latter half of the column goes on to engage in a longer running crusade of Fish's, the place of morality (or politics or diversity) in academic institutions. While there may indeed be curricular implications to Taylor's position, it differs from the issue of MAC (morality across the curriculum) in ways that Fish doesn't seem to acknowledge. In his February column, he explains that:

The left may have won the curricular battle, but the right won the public-relations war.

While the two are certainly related to one another, Fish has no trouble conceptually separating them in February, and honestly, it's not that tough to see that Taylor's advocating that the public-relations war be reopened. Taylor himself may fall afoul of Fish's arguments re curriculum, but to suggest that this is all Taylor is talking about is to neglect the very distinction with which Fish opens that Feb column. And the result is a July column that paints Taylor in a pretty unflattering fashion, which he almost certainly does not deserve.

And here I thought all I wanted to do was to scold Fish for using the word network without my permission...;-)


This is a great post. Love the dissoi-logoi on Fish.

Fish has one argument for all occasions. Great post, hope it turns into something longer.

"Morality across the curriculum"---I love that. I think. Well, I love the phrase. Makes me wonder what I can advocate across the curriculum. Hacking? Curiosity?

Your issue is with the first half of the article. I have to say that I Simply Do Not Get the second half. Let alone how they tie together. Maybe if I'd read this Weinrib piece...

thanks, Byron & Mark. Fish is so immensely seductive--on the one hand, I think he's easily one of the best rhetoricians/writers of his generation; on the other, I just can't resist trying to get him whenever I read something of his...

Brad, for me, the crucial part of the 2nd half comes early:

If you don't treat something as at least semi-autonomous, "you will be in danger of missing what is most crucial to its performance and you will ask it to do things appropriately done within the precincts of other practices, or you will complain that it does badly or minimally what it should not be doing at all. "

This is a refrain of his, and appears in the Jan 03 column like so:

"teachers should teach their subjects. They should not teach peace or war or freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or antinationalism or any other agenda that might properly be taught by a political leader or a talk-show host. Of course they can and should teach about such topics -- something very different from urging them as commitments -- when they are part of the history or philosophy or literature or sociology that is being studied."

Or from March 02:

"The bottom line, again, is don't make the mistake of giving your franchise away to some one else, be they students, politicians, unions, aldermen, whomever; don't let them do your job. And the corollary to the bottom line is know what your job is, and don't do a job that isn't yours. "

Or the reflection on the role of the writing class, that caused a firestorm on WPA-L, from June 02:

"Every dean should forthwith insist that all composition courses teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. No composition course should have a theme, especially not one the instructor is interested in. Ideas should be introduced not for their own sake, but for the sake of the syntactical and rhetorical points they help illustrate, and once they serve this purpose, they should be sent away. Content should be avoided like the plague it is, except for the deep and inexhaustible content that will reveal itself once the dynamics of language are regarded not as secondary, mechanical aids to thought, but as thought itself."

The 2nd half of the current article is basically another opportunity for him to hammer at this point yet again: academics should be academics. He has a point insofar as that stance defends the academy against guys like Horowitz (Mr. "Intellectual Diversity"), but it also locks us into the kind of Ivory Towerism that most of us would like to avoid.


Beyond the quote you point out, I don't see ole Stan making much connection to the network theories he takes to task. I guess he's just suturing whatever's on his reading list to his MxC hobby-horse.

And on the other hand, isn't Fish making exactly the "network mistake" he's critiquing? He's arguing that the identity of academics is dependent on not being network-dependent...

Speaking of reading lists, Taylor didn't make it onto mine, but maybe he should.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on July 25, 2004 4:22 AM.

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