Some Fish-y Thoughts About Theory and Method

Fish, Stanley Eugene Is There A Text In This Class? : The Authority Of Interpretive Communities
     Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard UP, 1980.

Excerpts from "Is There A Text In This Class," 305-10 and 316-21, "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One," 322-27, 332-4, and "What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?," 338-46.

" . . . neither my colleague [who was asked "Is there a text in this class?"] nor the reader of [E.D.] Hirsch's sentence ["The air is crisp."] is constrained by the meanings words have in a normative linguistic system; and yet neither is free to confer on an utterance any meaning he likes.  Indeed, 'confer' is exactly the wrong word because it implies a two stage procedure in which a reader or hearer first scrutinizes an utterance and then gives it a meaning.  The argument of the preceding pages can be reduced to the assertion that there is no such first stage, that one hears an utterance within, and not as a preliminary to determining, a knowledge of its purposes and concerns, and that to so hear it is already to have assigned it a shape and given it a meaning.  In other words, the problem of how meaning is determined is only a problem if there is a point at which its determination has not yet been made, and I am saying there is no such point" (310).

". . . the public and constituting norms (of language and understanding) invoked by [M.H.] Abrams . . . are not embedded in the language (where they may be read out by anyone with sufficiently clear, that is, unbiased, eyes) but in here in an institutional structure within which one hears utterances as already organized with reference to certain assumed purposes and goals.  Because both my colleague and his student are situated in that institution, their interpretive activities are not free, but what constrains them are the understood practices and assumptions of the institution and not the rules and fixed meanings of a language system" (306).

" . . . we seem to have here an instance of what I would call 'institutional nesting': if 'Is there a text in this class'1 is hearable only by those who know what is included under the rubric 'first day of class,' and if 'Is there a text in this class'2 is hearable only by those whose categories of understanding include the concerns of contemporary literary theory, then it is obvious that in a random population presented with the utterance, more people would 'hear' 'Is there a text in this class?"1 than "is there a text in this class?'2  [ . . . ]  some institutions or forms of life are so widely lived in that for a great many people the meanings they enable seem 'naturally' available and it takes a special effort to see that they are the products of circumstances" (308-9).

" . . . communication occurs within situations and . . . to be in a situation is already to be in possession of (or to be possessed by) a structure of assumptions, of practices understood to be relevant in relation to purposes and goals that are already in place; and it is within the assumption of these purposes and goals that any utterance is immediately heard" (318, italics Fish).

" . . . while relativism is a position one can entertain, it is not a position one can occupy.  No one can be a relativist, because no one can achieve the distance from his own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than the beliefs and assumptions held by others, or, for that matter, the beliefs and assumptions he himself used to hold. . . .no one is indifferent to the norms and values that enable his consciousness" (319, italics and sexist pronouns Fish).

"My students did not proceed from the noting of distinguishing features to the recognition that they were confronted by a poem; rather, it was the act of recognition that came first--they knew in advance that they were dealing with a poem--and the distinguishing features then followed [ . . . ] It was almost as if they were following a recipe . . . indeed, definitions of poetry are recipes, for by directing readers as to what to look for in a poem, they instruct them in ways of looking that will produce what they expect to see" (326-7,).

"Skilled reading is usually thought to be a matter of discerning what is there, but if the example of my students can be generalized, it is a matter of knowing how to produce what can thereafter be said to be there.  Interpretation is not the art of construing [vs. Hirsch] but the art of constructing.  Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them" (327, italics, as usual, Fish).

" . . . the fact of agreement, rather than being a proof of the stability of objects, is a testimony to the power of an interpretive community to constitute the objects upon which its members (also and simultaneously constituted) can then agree. [ . . . ]  To someone who believes in determinate meaning, disagreement can only be a theological error.  The truth lies plainly in view, available to anyone who has the eyes to see; but some readers choose not to see it and perversely substitute their own meanings for the meanings that texts obviously bear.  [. . . ]  In the view that I have been arguing, however, disagreements cannot be resolved by reference to the facts, because the facts emerge only in the context of some point of view.  [ . . . ]  Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled" (338).

"Whenever a critic prefaces an assertion with a phrase like 'without doubt' or 'there can be no doubt,' you can be sure that you are within hailing distance of the interpretive principles which produce the facts that he presents as obvious" (341).

" . . . Wayne Booth . . . asks, 'Are we right to rule out at least some readings?' and then answers his own question with a resounding yes.  It would be my answer too; but the real question is what gives us the right so to be right" (342).

"Presumably no one who has sat in Professor Booth's classes holds that set of values [ about Jane Austen, which he will not accept,] or is allowed to hold them (students always know what they are expected to believe) and it is unlikely that anyone who is now working in the Austen industry begins with an assumption other than the assumption that the novelist is a master ironist.  It is precisely for this reason that the time is ripe for the 'discovery' by an enterprising scholar of a nonironic Austen, and one can even predict the course such a discovery would take.  It would begin with the uncovering of new evidence (a letter, a lost manuscript, a contemporary response) and proceed to the conclusion that Austen's intentions have been misconstrued by generations of literary critics.  She was not in fact satirizing the narrow and circumscribed life of a country gentry; rather, she was celebrating that life and its tireless elaboration of a social fabric, complete with values, rituals, and self-perpetuating goals (marriage, the preservation of great houses, and so on)" (347).

" . . . the discovery of a letter in which Faulkner confides that he has always believed himself to be an Eskimo changeling.  (The example is absurd only if one forgets Yeat's [sic] Vision or Blake's Swedenborgianism or James Miller's recent elaboration of a homosexual reading of The Wasteland)" (346).   To read a serviceable online edition of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," click here.

Typical Legal Medieval Etymological Interpretation of a Saint's Name (Chaucer's "Second Nun's Prologue," ll. 85-119)

Constructing Chaucer and Spenser in "Collected Works" editions  Constructing Ben Jonson in his "Collected Works" edition of 1616 Constructing Shakespeare, Milton, and [Beaumont] & Fletcher in "Collected Works" editions 

Test Poem.