Brook Thomas


A professor of law and literature at Duke University, Stanley Fish has entered into debates about the interpretation of legal texts with the same iconoclastic energy that he once devoted to analyzing Paradise Lost. For some thinkers, his work represents that aspect of the law and literature movement intent on applying insights from literary theory to the law. In fact, Fish disputes what he takes to be strong claims for the consequences of theory. For Fish, those consequences are quite circumscribed. To a large extent I agree, but Fish's alternative account generates problems of its own. For instance, late in "Dennis Martinez and the Uses of Theory" we come across the following footnote.

"47. Here then is a "consequence" of theory, not however as a blueprint or script for practice, but of theory as an institutional phenomenon that has become so widespread that everyone feels obligated to lard his discourse with theory talk, just as in other contexts practitioners might feel obligated to lard their discourses with sports talk or computer talk, or bio-feedback talk, or war talk, etc. In short, the consequences of theory are real, but they are political."

The "consequences of theory are real, but they are political." Why contrast the real and the political? I was taught that politics is concerned precisely with the messiness of reality, with Aristotle's "art of the possible," whereas a practice like literature points toward the realm of the imaginary. Fish's assertion that real consequences are, nonetheless, political can be better understood if we consider carefully the argument made about the consequences of theory.