Deep Reads #6: Forces in the Field

From The Trouble with Principle by Stanley Fish:

“Many bad things are now being done in the name of neutral principles, and I hope it is clear by now that it is no paradox to say that bad things are being done by something which doesn’t exist.  Indeed, it is crucial that neutral principles not exist if they are to perform the function I have described, the function of facilitating the efforts of partisan agents to attach an honorific vocabulary to their agendas.  For the effort to succeed, the vocabulary (of ‘fairness’, ‘merit’, ‘neutrality’, ‘impartiality’, ‘mutual respect’, and so on) must be empty, have no traction or bite of its own, and thus be an unoccupied vessel waiting to be filled by whoever gets to it first or with the most persuasive force.

“But while there is a strong relationship between the emptiness or nonexistence of neutral principles and the work that they do (again, the emptiness provides the space for the work), there is no relationship at all between the emptiness of neutral principles and the political direction of that work.  I have labeled the things I see being done with neutral principles as ‘bad’ because they involve outcomes I neither desire nor approve.  They are not ‘bad’ simply because they were generated by the vocabulary of neutral principles, for that vocabulary has also generated outcomes I favor, especially in the areas of civil rights and the expansion of opportunities for women in the workplace and on the athletic field.  The fact that the game of neutral principles is really a political game — the object of which is to package your agenda in a vocabulary everyone, or almost everyone, honors — is itself neutral and tells you nothing about how the game will be played in a particular instance.  The truth, as I take it to be, that neutral principles, insofar as they are anything, are the very opposite of neutral, and are filled with substance, won’t tell you what substance they are filled with or whether or not you will like it.  The fact that someone is invoking neutral principles will give you no clue as to where he is likely to come out until he actually arrives there and reveals his substantive positions.

“Those who stand on neutral principles often wish to be neutral in the political sense, and they avoid taking sides in deference to the pluralism of the forces in the field.  It is for them that Machiavelli reserves his greatest scorn:  ‘As a general thing, anyone who is not your friend will advise neutrality, while anyone who is your friend will ask you to join him, weapon in hand.’  Taking sides, weapon in hand, is not a sign of zealotry or base partisanship; it is the sign of morality, and it is the morality of taking sides, of frank and vigorous political action that is to be celebrate (though not urged, for it is inevitable.

“Thus, a number of related and finally equivalent lessons:  no principle not already inflected with substance; no substantive agenda that is not (in the only appropriate non-neutral sense) principled.  No part of the self (deliberative reason, reflective self-consciousness) abstracted from substantive commitments, and therefor no vantage point from which to survey one’s beliefs and revise them.  No good reason to set one’s beliefs aside in favor of some higher-order impartiality or ethic of mutual respect, unless those abstractions are what you believe in — unless, that is, they are substantive and available to challenge as such.  No vocabulary not already laden with substance and therefore no neutral-observation language on the basis of which non-biased action can be taken.  No device, either representational or empirical, for quarantining politics, and therefore no hope of a procedural republic from which divisive issues have been banished and in which we can all just get along.  No straight line from those lessons to the solution of any real-life problem; they are of no help and do no work except the (non-directing) work of telling you that you are on your own and that the resources you need are within you, if they are anywhere.

“The main thing I believe is that conflict is manageable only in the short run and that structures of conciliation and harmony are forever fragile and must always be shored up, with uncertain success.  I am tempted to turn this into an imperative — perhaps, with a nod to Frederic Jameson, ‘always politicize’ — but the imperative would be unnecessary, for that is what we do all the time, whether we choose to or not.”

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