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Issue 19


Impossible Things

On a project to clean up human behavior.


Way back in 1979 I wrote an essay against blind submission, the policy of removing from articles submitted to learned journals the identifying marks of the author’s name and his or her academic affiliation. The idea was to facilitate a disinterested and objective assessment of the piece made independently of the distracting factors of disciplinary prestige and previous publications. Why not let the submission speak for itself without the unfair and irrelevant advantage it might have if it were read through the lens of the author’s body of work? In that way, it was said, the editors would be judging the article’s intrinsic merit—the merit it has as a stand-alone object without a pedigree—rather than responding to the halo of borrowed merit conferred on it by its predecessors.

The simplest and most devastating response to the “intrinsic merit” argument is that looking at a piece of academic work apart from the professional networks within which it emerged is not a possible thing to do. Should you somehow succeed in setting aside or discounting all the circumstances within which the text before you was produced, what would you see? The answer is nothing, or, to be more precise, nothing whose meaning could be pinned down. You would see a collection of words embedded in a syntax, but independent of the contexts you have excluded—biography, disciplinary history, professional influence—there would be no way to assign a specific significance to those words. You would be in the position of someone who found a message in a bottle or a manuscript in your files with no title page. How would you read such an orphaned text? You would read it as the work of someone with an imagined or hypothetical profile, someone interested in this or that question with a history, a member of this or that school, a participant in this or that controversy. In short you would be hazarding a series of guesses in an effort to put back all the “extraneous” information provided by the missing title page. Only then would what you are looking at have a shape to which you could put interpretive questions like “What is it arguing?” or “Where does it fit in?” Absent that speculative contextualization, you wouldn’t have an “it.” Reading the words themselves without any speculative assignment of authorship won’t get you anywhere, or—and it is the same thing—it will get you everywhere, for the meanings that might be attached to words and sentences divorced from an intentional anchor constitute an infinite set; you can always ask what this would be saying if Kant wrote it, or Wordsworth wrote it, or Elvis wrote it. There is no natural end to the exercise; you could go on forever, trying out this or that hypothetical author, and never get any closer to determining the text’s meaning. Blind submission is not only a bad idea; it is an unrealizable idea. It can’t be done; you can’t read a text as if it came from nowhere and no one. And if you think you’re doing it, what you’re really doing is substituting for the actual, excluded interpretive contexts the interpretive contexts you have been forced to fabricate in the absence of the real ones. That can hardly be called objectivity. Indeed, if you want to arrive at an objective account of a text, the last thing you should do is remove from the field of interpretation everything that might guide it. I should add that there is no such thing as intrinsic merit; there is only the merit that might accrue to a writing when it is seen as a specific, particular disciplinary effort.

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About the author

Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is a professor at New College, Florida. He is author most recently of Law at the Movies: Turning Legal Doctrine into Filmic Art, to be published in February 2024 by Oxford University Press.