BOOK REVIEW / Guilty: old dons with ugly Volvos: 'There's No Such Thing as Free Speech' - Stanley Fish: Oxford University Press, 16.95 pounds. The law to end law: Conor Gearty admires a ringing new critique of the liberal pose

Stanley Fish has more personalities than the holy Trinity. He is a professor of law at Duke University and also the Arts and Sciences Professor of English there. He is simultaneously a Milton scholar, a public lawyer, a controversialist, a rhetorician and a campus (almost a media) celebrity. It is his brilliance rather than any opportunism or television trickery that has driven him to the centre of American cultural life. His new book is a fine introduction to one of the greatest and most accessible minds in contemporary Western thought. 'There's no such thing as free speech,' he declares, and his subtitle adds - 'and a good thing too'.

Fish is so intellectually subversive that he makes other iconoclasts look conformist. In this multi-layered volume of essays he has two favourite targets. The first is the neo-conservative backlash which has grabbed the phrase 'political correctness', emptied it of its original ethical meaning, and turned it into a term of vulgar abuse. Fish is alert to the fact that the meaning of words does not come from any intrinsic quality in the words themselves but is rather derived from the context that surrounds them. That context is inevitably political. The right is winning the war of words over political correctness because it can dominate the discourse, just as the Reagan / Bush White House did when it persuaded the world that its enemies (rather than itself) were the 'international terrorists'.

It is Fish's belief in the inherent emptiness of words, and his belief in the pervasiveness of politics, 'the inescapability of partisan, angled seeing', that makes him so vitriolic about his second target, liberalism. It is impossible here to do justice to the magnificience of his anger. Liberalism pretends to 'produce structures that will ensure that contending points of view can coexist in the same space without coming to a final conflict'; in other words it boasts of being above politics. 'Reason' is 'the most popular and prestigious of the names given to (this) nonexistent centre of liberal thought', but 'what is and is not a reason will always be a matter of faith, that is, of the assumptions that are bedrock within a discursive system which because it rests upon them cannot (without self-destructing) call them into question.' What liberalism does 'in the guise of devising structures that are neutral between contending agendas is to produce a structure that is far from neutral but then, by virtue of a political success, has claimed the right to think of itself as neutral.' In fact liberalism has 'a very particular moral agenda (privileging the individual over the community)' which it hides by pretending to be above 'the program of any particular group or party'. And because of its hegemony, important political words like conviction, belief, and passion are now routinely condemned as 'very close to fanaticism'. The heart of politics, the feelings that make us what we are, are forcibly evicted from the political forum by a narrow and arid ideology disguised as an eternal truth.

Fish illustrates the general point in a marvellous chapter on free speech, from which the volume gets its title. This great emblem of American freedom 'is just the name we give to verbal behaviour that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance; and we give our preferred verbal behaviours that name when we can, when we have the power to do so, because in the rhetoric of American life, the label 'free speech' is the one you want your favourites to wear.' Thus there is plenty of unfree speech in America (obscenity; libel; violent words) and a great deal also of unwanted free speech, freeloading on this obsessional commitment to liberal ideology.

The system of Anglo-American law, rooted as it is on liberal premises, is subjected to the same withering analysis. The formal structure of law, with its supposedly neutral rules of procedure and adjudication, 'was never really formal at all, but was the extension of a social vision from which it was detached at the moment of that vision's triumph.' Thus the rules of contract represent the victory of the market vision of society; the rules of negligence the triumph of industrial progress; and so on. But the rules are full of contradictory exceptions and are capable (the cases prove it) of being jettisoned at will. This exposure of the insubstantiality of law, and the consequent apparent ability of the judges to achieve any result they want by the manipulation of these fluid rules, is the stock-in-trade of critical legal scholars, who then go on angrily to argue that the myth of law must be laid bare, the false rules condemned and consigned to oblivion.

Fish the rhetorician does not agree. It is the tension between the mythic forms of law and the pressures of the real and ever-changing world that produces the inconsistencies that the critics condemn. But such irrationalities should be celebrated as the law's ' 'amazing trick', the trick by which the law rebuilds itself in mid-air without ever touching down.' They ensure that the law is 'already socially and historically constituted', whatever it might say itself. The explicit destruction of the formal structure of law may be compelling philosophy, but it would be bad legal practice which can only operate within the confines of its own culture. If there were no rules, there would be no law, only philosophy, and you can't advise clients with philosophy.

This book ranges across much wider ground than we have covered here. English studies, interdisciplinary pursuits, even the whole academic community, are undermined in the same confident and caustic way. There is a hilariously derisive chapter on the university teacher, the ugliness of whose Volvo (it is always a Volvo) 'becomes its most attractive feature, for it allows those who own one to plead innocent to the charge of really wanting it.'

It is as though Fish can only function in opposition to the constructive thoughts of others; even his celebration of the law is a response to his modernising colleagues who would dismantle it. They say that he may be bright and clever, but what is his point? Fish replies with the marvellous last lines of his book: 'The point is that there is no point, no yield of a positive programmatic kind to be carried away from these analyses. Nevertheless, that point (that there is no point) is the point because it's the promise of such a yield - either in the form of some finally successful identification of a foundational set of standards or some program by which we can move away from standards to ever- expanding liberation - it's the unavailability of such a yield that is my point, and therefore, it would be contradictory for me to have a point beyond that point. People absolutely go bonkers when they hear that, but that's the way it is.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us