You Are What You Read, with Craig Martin (Part 1)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

During my senior year of college I picked up a copy of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle, and it has made an indelible impact on me. In the book, Fish suggests that abstract principles — specifically abstract liberal principles such as “freedom,” “equality,” “inclusion,” “tolerance,” or “neutrality” — are, in and of themselves, vacuous of any particular content and can, in practice, be turned to support just about any social agenda. To use another analytical vocabulary: abstract liberal principles are floating signifiers that, in context, can be fixed to any particular referent, depending on the skill of the rhetorician at work. Fish suggests that liberal proceduralism — the attempt to find and apply non-partisan political principles — is, ultimately, a theoretically bankrupt affair, as abstract principles only begin to take shape when fixed to partisan projects. If it’s politics all the way down, the presentation of one’s own view as above the fray can be reduced to a form of legitimation. That is not to say that what is theoretically bankrupt is not politically useful: in good Nietzschean fashion Fish assumes that partisan contestation is the nature of the game, and that presenting one’s partisan agenda as neutral is a powerful way of winning social and political contests.

While today I find the details of Fish’s analysis weak at a number of points, I nevertheless remain convinced of his argument on the whole. In a field like the study of religion — many corners of which are saturated with liberal rhetoric — I find Fish’s suspicion of liberal discourse continually useful.