Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Look at Stanley Fish’s "Is There a Text in This Class?"

A Look at Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class?

Stanley Eugene Fish (b.1938) is one of the chief proponents of a school of literary criticism known as reader response criticism. In fact, the school of reader response critics has even been referred to as the “School of Fish” (Murfin 129). As the name might suggest, reader response criticism emphasizes the role of the reader as crucial in determining the significance of a text. To a critic of this type, reading is seen as an activity which makes meaning in a text rather than a passive function which derives meaning from a text. In his book Is There a Text in This Class?, Fish has collected a number of his most important essays and articles in an attempt to chart the progress of his evolving interpretive method.

In the essay “Literature in the Reader,” Fish stresses the temporal nature of the reading experience as opposed to the spatial one proposed by other critics: “. . . it [the opposing school] transforms a temporal experience into a spatial one; it steps back and in a single glance takes in a whole (sentence, page, work) which the reader knows (if at all) only bit by bit, moment by moment” (Fish 44). Fish finds the meaning of the work to reside in this bit by bit knowing, the experience that an “informed reader” has as he reads, rather than from anything imbedded in the actual text. In other words, the process of enchantment/disenchantment occurs continuously throughout the reading experience. He defines his “informed reader” as having the following qualities: “The informed reader is someone who (1)is a competent speaker of the language out of which the text is built up; (2)is in full possession of ‘the semantic knowledge that a mature . . . listener brings to his task of comprehension,’ . . . ; and (3) has literary competence” (48).

This emphasis on the importance of the reader in the creation of meaning in texts raises objections among the formalists, among them William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley. Their The Verbal Icon(1954) contains the following passage:

The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does) . . . It begins by trying to derive the standards of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome . . . is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear (21).

Fish answers this by saying, “My reply to this is simple. The objectivity of the text is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous illusion, because it is so physically convincing. . . . A line of print is so obviously there . . . that it seems to be the sole repository of whatever value and meaning we associate with it” (43). To Fish, the poem can’t disappear because it was never actually there in the first place except as a reflection of the interpretive strategy used to approach it.

Fish’s theory rejects the claims of the New Critics (formalists) that the work itself contains meaning that can be derived by a study of its formal features. Fish contends that those formal features are themselves interpretations and so any interpretation based on them is illegitimate. He does not deny the importance of formal features, but in his essay “What is Stylistics and Why are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?,” he asserts that rather than possessing any particular meaning in and of themselves, these features “. . . acquire it . . . by virtue of their position in a structure of experience” (91). In other words, the reader brings his particular interpretive strategy (a product of his cumulative experiences) to the text and creates meaning out of the pattern of formal features that are found within it. He strengthens this argument in “What is Stylistics, Part II”:

“Here my thesis is that formal patterns are themselves the products of interpretation and that therefore there is no such thing as a formal pattern, at least in the sense necessary for the practice of stylistics: that is no pattern that one can observe before interpretation is hazarded and which therefore can be used to prefer one interpretation to another. The conclusion, however, is not that there are no formal patterns but that there are always formal patterns; it is just that the formal patterns there always are will always be the product of a prior interpretive act, and therefore will be available for discerning only so long as that act is in force”(267).

This theory ran into trouble, however, because Fish was at once denying that meaning was in the text and at the same time using the text to control the reader’s experience. He begins to address this problem in “How Ordinary is Ordinary Language?” by proposing that the reader actually makes the text by bringing to it certain assumptions that are a product of his “informedness.” By this he doesn’t mean that the reader can make up any meaning he wants. On the contrary, he states, “Mine is not an argument for an infinitely plural or open text, but for a text that is always set; and yet because it is set not for all places or all times but for wherever and however long a particular way of reading [interpretation] is in force, it is a text that can change”( 274).

Still, this seems to point out a lack of stability and consistency in interpretation that is contradicted by the fact that so many readers come up with the same general “take” on the same texts. Fish addresses this question in “Interpreting the Variorum.” He asks: “If interpretive acts are the source of forms rather than the other way around, why isn’t it the case that readers are always performing the same acts or a sequence of random acts, and therefore creating the same forms or a random succession of forms?” (167). He goes on to say, “ . . . both the stability of interpretation among readers and the variety of interpretation in the career of a single reader would seem to argue for the existence of something independent of and prior to interpretive acts . . .”(167-8). What it is that is prior to these acts is the existence of a reader’s interpretive strategy that is present before he actually approaches the work. In other words, he doesn’t have to read a work in a certain way, but, as a function of his interpretive strategy, he chooses to do so. To illustrate this he uses St. Augustine’s argument from his On Christian Doctrine that “ . . . everything in the Scriptures, and indeed in the world when it is properly read, points to (bears the meaning of) God’s love for us and our answering responsibility to love our fellow creatures for His sake” (170). If something does not seem to point in this direction, Augustine says that it is simply a figurative way of creating the same “text” and that it is the Christian’s duty to find a way to interpret (to choose to interpret) it as such. In his “Normal Circumstances and Other Special Cases,” Fish describes how baseball player Pat Kelly’s conversion is exemplary of this. Kelly credited all of his homeruns to his faith in God, and Fish points out that,

His conversion follows the pattern prescribed by Augustine in On Christian Doctrine. The eye that was in bondage to the phenomenal world (had as its constitutive principle the autonomy of that world) has been cleansed and purged and is now capable of seeing what is really there, what is obvious, what anyone who has the eyes can see: ‘to the healthy and pure internal eye He is everywhere.’ He is everywhere not as the result of an interpretive act self-consciously performed on data otherwise available, but as the result of an interpretive act performed at so deep a level that it is indistinguishable from consciousness itself (271-2).

Fish posits that this idea is really an interpretive strategy for looking at the world, and a very successful one at that. In the same way, he says, readers choose, on a level that is “indistinguishable from consciousness itself,” to interpret texts either as the same or different and this choice produces the sameness or differentness of the texts’ formal features.

This may shed some light on why an individual reader may read a text one way or another, but it doesn’t address why separate readers often have the same (or at least similar) understanding of the same text. Fish states that “they don’t have to” but when they do it is because of his “ . . . notion of interpretive communities . . .” which are “ . . . made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing [creating meaning in] texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions” (171). This idea of interpretive communities is central to Fish’s position, as is evidenced by the fact that Is There a Text in This Class is subtitled The Authority of Interpretive Communities. In the introduction to the book he makes this position clear by stating, “ . . . the act of recognizing literature is not constrained by something in the text, nor does it issue from an independent and arbitrary will; rather, it proceeds from a collective decision as to what will count as literature, a decision that will be in force only so long as a community of readers or believers continues to abide by it” (11). This implies once again that the meaning of a text is brought to it by readers and that it can change from place to place and from time to time.

In Normal Circumstances, Fish’s idea that a text, though fixed at a certain time and place, can change over time brings up the concept of “context” as is illustrated in the following passage:

. . . we usually reserve ‘literal’ for the single meaning a text will always (or should always) have, while I am using ‘literal’ to refer to the different single meanings a text will have in a succession of different situations. There always is a literal meaning because in any situation there is always a meaning that seems obvious in the sense that it is there independently of anything we might do. But that only means that we have already done it, and in another situation, when we have already done something else, there will be another obvious, that is, literal, meaning . . .We are never not in a situation. Because we are never not in a situation, we are never not in the act of interpreting. Because we are never not in the act of interpreting, there is no possibility of reaching a level of meaning beyond or below interpretation (276).

In other words, everything is always already in a context, and it is because of this context that sentences have meaning.

Fish takes his argument a step further by contesting the distinction between direct and indirect speech acts. Direct speech acts are ones in which the meaning of the utterance is clearly imbedded in its “text.” Indirect speech acts are ones in which the meaning lies outside the “text” but is understood by the hearer due to a shared contextual understanding with the speaker. In both cases the contextual understanding of the utterance is typically considered to be subject to “normal” circumstances. In other words, the hearer knows what the speaker is talking about, whether he uses direct or indirect language, because the utterance and its reception occur in a situation that lies in the realm of both parties’ understanding. It is this idea of normal circumstances with which Fish takes issue. He says, “ . . . I am making the same argument for ‘normal context’ that I have made for ‘literal meaning’ . . . There will always be a normal context, but it will not always be the same one” (287). As an example he uses John Searle’s use of the following situation:

Searle begins by imagining a conversation between two students. Student X says, “Let’s go to the movies tonight,” and student Y replies, “I have to study for an exam.” The first sentence, Searle declares, “constitutes a proposal in virtue of its meaning,” but the second sentence, which is understood as a rejection of the proposal, is not so understood in virtue of its meaning because “in virtue of its meaning it is simply a statement about Y” (61, 62). It is here, in the assertion that either of these sentences is ever taken in the way it is “in virtue of its meaning,” that this account must finally be attacked. For if this were the case, then we would have to say that there is something about the meaning of a sentence that makes it more available for some illocutionary uses than for others, and this is precisely what Searle proceeds to say about “I have to study for an exam”: “Statements of this form do not, in general, constitute rejections of proposals, even in cases in which they are made in response to a proposal. Thus, if Y had said I have to eat popcorn tonight or I have to tie my shoes in a normal context, neither of these utterances would have been a rejection of the proposal” (62) (286).

At this point, Fish asks “Normal for whom?” in regards to Searle’s proposed normal context. He then goes on to list a number of situations in which eating popcorn and tying shoes could be taken as a rejection of a proposal as long as both X and Y were privy to the circumstances. To the argument that these circumstances are special as opposed to normal, Fish answers that “‘normal’ is content specific and to speak of a normal context is to be either redundant (because whatever in a given context goes without saying is the normal) or to be incoherent (because it would refer to a context whose claim was not to be one)” (287). He does not intend to imply that an utterance can mean anything, but, rather, that its meaning is subject to certain constraints: “ . . . chaos . . . would be possible only if a sentence could mean anything at all in the abstract.” He goes on to point out, however, that “A sentence . . . is never in the abstract; it is always in a situation, and the situation will already have determined the purpose for which it can be used” (291).

It is difficult to place Fish in relation to the other critics we have examined in class. He seems to be anti-structuralist, anti-formalist, and anti-stylist, yet he does not deny the validity of many of their premises, only the conclusions they derive from them. Essentially Fish’s position seems to be composed of the ideas that 1) reading is an activity, 2) rather than being imbedded in formal features, the meaning of any text is brought to it by the reader’s interpretive strategy, 3) interpretive communities make it possible for there to be some agreement on the meanings of texts, 4)all acts of interpretation occur in some context or other. These seem to be straightforward and even obvious assertions, yet they seem to frighten many critics. They apparently feel the same way that Wimsatt and Beardsley do, that Fish’s method leads to a lack of certainty. Fish himself does not try to argue against this claim directly. In fact, at the end of Interpreting the Variorum he himself admits this uncertainty when discussing how one can know to which interpretive community one belongs. He says, “The answer is he can’t, since any evidence brought forward to support the claim would itself be an interpretation . . .” All one can have as far as proof of membership is a “ . . . nod of recognition from someone in the same community . . .” He ends this essay with the only words that someone who speaks from his viewpoint can truly maintain with any certainty: “I say it [we know] to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” (173).


Works Cited

Augustine. On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), p. 13.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Is There a Text in This Class?, Cambridge: Harvard, 1980.

Murfin, Ross C.“Reader Response Criticism and The Dead: What is Reader Response Criticism?” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: James Joyce, The Dead, ed. Daniel R. Schwarz (Boston: St. Martin’s, 1994) 125-133.

Searle, John R. “Indirect Speech Acts,” in Syntax and Semantics, Volume 3: Speech Acts, ed. Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan (New York: Academic Press, 1975), pp. 60-62.

Wimsatt, William K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Verbal Icon, Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1954.

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