Key Theories of Stanley Fish

The Reader-Response Theorist, Stanley Fish (b. 1938), attempts to situate the reading process in a broader, institutional context. Fish’s earlier work, focusing on the reader’s experience of literary texts, included an important study of Milton, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost” (1967), and Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (1972). His essay Interpreting the Variorum (1976) introduced his concept of “interpretive communities,” a concept explored more fully in his book Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980),1 where he addresses the important question of the role of institutions, and in particular the literary institution, in the construction of meaning.

Stanley Fish (Christine Buckley/UConn Photo)

Fish’s essay Interpreting the Variorum takes its title and point of departure from the then recently published “Variorum” edition (containing variant textual versions) of the poems of John Milton.2 Fish suggests that the controversies over meaning in Milton’s sonnets are not “meant to be solved but to be experienced” and that “any procedure that attempts to determine which of a number of readings is correct will necessarily fail.” For example, noting that certain commentators draw opposing conclusions from exactly the same evidence, Fish warns that any analyses generated by the assumption that meaning is embedded in the text itself “will always point in as many directions as there are interpreters.” He urges that we need a “new set of questions based on new assumptions.” In each of the disputes analyzed by Fish, he points out that the responsibility for judgment and interpretation is transferred from the text to its readers: the meaning of the lines at stake coincides with the experience of the readers. Meaning is not somehow contained in the text but is created within the reader’s experience.

A formalist analysis, which locates meaning within the forms and verbal structure of the text itself, will ignore the reader’s experience of the text, which is temporal and contains modifications and shifts of viewpoint. The central assumption of formalist analysis to which Fish stands opposed is that “there is a sense, that it is embedded or encoded in the text, and that it can be taken in at a single glance.” Fish calls these assumptions “positivist, holistic, and spatial.” The goal of such analysis is “to settle on a meaning,” to step back from the text, and then to put together or calculate “the discrete units of significance it contains.” Fish’s objection to such an approach is that it takes the text as a self-sufficient entity, and ignores or devalues the reader’s activities. What we should be describing, he believes, is “the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structures available on the page.” The reader’s activities should be “the center of attention, where they are regarded not as leading to meaning but as having meaning.” These activities, which include the making and revising of many kinds of decisions, are already interpretative; hence a description of them will be an interpretation. Fish points out that his approach differs from the formalist methods primarily through its emphasis on the temporal dimension of the reading process and the creation of meanings.

Fish acknowledges that the intended reader he has in mind is the “reader whose education, opinions, concerns, linguistic competences . . . make him capable of having the experience the author wished to provide.” Notwithstanding Fish’s insistence that it is the reader’s experience of the text that creates meaning (or, in his terminology, has meaning), he views this meaning as always constrained by the central goal of readers: “the efforts of readers are always efforts to discern and therefore to realize (in the sense of becoming) an author’s intention.” The difference between Fish’s model of reading and traditional intentional models is that whereas those earlier models saw the grasping of an author’s purpose as a “single act,” Fish sees this as “the succession of acts readers perform in the continuing assumption that they are dealing with intentional beings.” Fish equates this understanding of an author’s intention with “all the activities which make up . . . the structure of the reader’s experience.” Hence, according to Fish, if we describe these activities of the reader, or the structure of the reader’s experience, we will also be describing the structure of the author’s intention. So Fish’s overall thesis, in his own words, is: “that the form of the reader’s experience, formal units, and the structure of intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously.”

Fish recognizes a potential problem here: if interpretative acts are the source of forms and of the intentions we ascribe to an author, what is to prevent an endless relativism, where there are as many interpretations as there are readers? In response to this problem, Fish argues that readers, or at least competent readers, belong to “interpretive communities” which are “made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.” These strategies, he points out, exist prior to the act of reading and therefore “determine the shape of what is read.”

In his book Is There a Text in this Class? (containing Fish’s widely anthologized essay of the same title), Fish argues that what constrains interpretation is not fixed meanings in a linguistic system but the practices and assumptions of an institution. It is not the linguistic system that gives determinacy to the meaning of an utterance but rather the context of the utterance. Fish offers an anecdote about a student who asked a professor, one of his colleagues, before taking his course: “Is there a text in this class?” The professor heard this utterance in one context, assuming the question to be an inquiry about the textbook that might be required for his class. The student’s question, however, referred to the concept of textuality as advanced in some modern literary theory. Fish uses this example to show that his colleague, having initially heard the question in one context (which includes whatever is associated with “the first day of class”), was obliged to modify this context (to embrace the concerns of modern literary theory) in order to understand the utterance (ITC, 309–311). His point is that “it is impossible even to think of a sentence independently of its context,” and that our making sense of an utterance and our identifying of its context occur simultaneously: we do not, as M. H. Abrams and E. D. Hirsch imply, first scrutinize an utterance and then give it meaning (ITC, 313). We hear an utterance as already embedded within, not prior to determining, a knowledge of its purposes and interests (ITC, 310).

Fish’s overall account is a sensible and balanced counter to the formalists who claim that the text is an object in its own right and that it somehow possesses stable meaning independently of any reader. The notion of intersubjectivity on which Fish’s idea of “interpretive communities” rests goes back of course at least as far as Hegel; it is developed by neo-Hegelian philosophers, hermeneutic scholars, and sociologists, as well as thinkers such as Nietzsche and Bergson. Fish is effectively applying a wellknown and previously extensively articulated insight to the act of reading. The same applies to his claim that facts do not exist independently of, or prior to, the interpretations and viewpoints that construct them as such. There are some problems with Fish’s account: in his model of the reading process, Fish insists that this process of constructing or “writing” the text is equivalent to grasping, in a temporal fashion, the author’s intention, which is itself a product of interpretation. The problem here, as Fish effectively acknowledges, is that the text disappears. Whereas for the formalists the text was a stable object, for Fish there is nothing beyond intersubjective agreement, and the text is reduced to merely the area of overlap of subjective responses. The problem here is that the process of interaction between text and reader is elided: where Iser saw reading as a dialectical interaction between a “virtual” text and an implied reader, Fish removes even that virtual status, reducing textuality to an effect of intersubjectivity.

Fish employs a naive notion of objectivity as somehow entirely independent of subjectivity. But philosophers for more than a century have been arguing that objectivity and subjectivity arise in the same, mutually constructive, process. Fish fails, moreover, to distinguish degrees of objectivity, whereby we might agree that certain “factual” elements of the text are less open to interpretation, or open to a far smaller range of interpretation, than, say, lines or phrases or themes in a poem which are overtly controversial. In this way we could talk about an objectivity which we understood to be constructed but which offered certain markers or foundations for such construction, rather than blandly saying that all objects are of equal status regarding the degree of intersubjective construction that constitutes them. The difficulty with Fish’s procedure is that it freezes our analytical power within the abstract insight that all objectivity is the product of collective subjectivity: once we acknowledge this, we still have to make distinctions and evaluations of the vast variety of “objects.”

Fish’s procedure sensibly states what is undeniably true: we bring our assumptions (learned from our community) to bear on what we see “in” a literary text: but if this is true for all literary texts, it remains frozen as a general insight and does not furnish a basis from which to analyze the ways in which a particular work might actively direct our response as readers. Different texts obviously constrain and direct readers’ responses in different ways, and simply to say that all of the strategies of the text are products of interpretation does not help us in describing the process of such constrainment and direction. Indeed, Fish does not explain how our mere “experience” of a work can have meaning (his phrase); how does this experience enter a structure of signification? It might also be objected that Fish invokes a naive, pre-Kantian, empiricism whereby the notion of “experience” is blandly opposed to thought and conceptuality: each element in a reader’s experience is somehow “legitimate” simply because it is experience (ITC, 207–209). Fish claims that a formalist analysis is incapable of analyzing an experiential, temporal process. But his own description of this temporal process is couched in terms that are (as Bergson might observe) inescapably spatial: he talks of a “sequence” where the reader “structures” the “field” he “inhabits” and is then asked to “restructure” it (ITC, 207–209). Each of the enquoted words is spatial, and Fish’s analyses follow the reader’s response in a linear, sequential manner. Notwithstanding Fish’s claim that “[e]verything depends on the temporal dimension,” he offers almost no analysis of this dimension of the reader’s response; his model in some ways rehearses the old intentional model of reading within an abstractly conceived temporality.

1. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1980). This book contains the revised version of “Interpreting the Variorum” which is cited in the current chapter. Hereafter cited as ITC.
2. A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton, gen. ed. Merritt Y. Hughes, 4 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970–1975).

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