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The Professor Knows

Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities

by Stanley Fish
Harvard University Press, 394 pp., $17.50

Stanley Fish is a prominent professor of English who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University; he is a seventeenth-century scholar of distinction and a force among those literary critics who not merely assert but exercise the broader claims of their subject. In Is There a Text in This Class? he provides us with a decade’s reflections on what literary criticism is and what literary works are. Thus Fish follows the general practice of contemporary literary criticism, which insists on the right both to determine the method it uses and to define the objects it investigates. In this way it resembles philosophy.

The first essay, entitled “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics,” appeared in 1970 and Fish calls it with hindsight an “early manifesto,” for the central idea of this essay, revised and extended, provides the content of the four John Crowe Ransom Memorial Lectures, delivered in 1979, on which the book ends. The stronger of the intervening essays fill in the steps by which a bright idea about critical method is gradually elaborated into a far-reaching theory about the literary object.

The book then has a definite intellectual unity, and it is something of a perversity that Fish chooses to present it as though it were principally the chronicle of his own formation. In the notes appended to each essay where the circumstances in which it was written are set out, and again in the introduction to the book where these circumstances are strung together into a sequence, Fish slips into addressing his readers as though they were his future biographers. He begins the introduction, “What interests me about many of the essays collected here is the fact that I could not write them today.” That may be so, but readers who aren’t already what this book would call workers in “the Fish industry” will be less gripped by this fact; they will prefer to think about the direction of the arguments and the overall character and quality of the theory and will find there quite enough to interest them.

Literature in the Reader” begins as an animated attack upon the New Criticism. According to the New Critics the literary work was identical with the text, where this meant (roughly) the sequence of words as they might be found on the printed page. This being so, the task of the literary critic could only be to study what the words of the text, individually or in combination, were or said. Of necessity the New Critics became—the word is Fish’s—“formalists.” Fish’s claim is that this is a restrictive view of criticism and by adopting it the New Critics denied themselves an invaluable mode of access to the literary work: that which is provided by the actual experience of reading the text. What Fish would like to see criticism undertake is “an analysis of the developing responses of the reader to the words as they succeed one another on the page,” and he offers examples. By taking sometimes single sentences, sometimes whole passages, from Bunyan, Pater, Whitehead, Lancelot Andrewes, he tries to show how the minute endless fluctuations in the reader’s response, now from certainty to uncertainty, now from expectation to fulfillment or to disappointment, now from one belief to another belief and then back to the first, bring out aspects of the literary work that otherwise would go undetected.

Fish called his method “affective stylistics”—at once a reference to and a rejection of one of the central dogmas of the New Criticism, formulated in a well-known article by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley.^* Fish gave affective stylistics a working definition by saying that the critic, in reading a literary work, instead of asking himself what a certain word or sentence or period “is about,” should ask himself what it “does.” This Fish calls “the magic question.”

At times Fish makes the same point by saying that the critic should ignore “meaning,” but at other times—and then he anticipates his developed theory—he argues that his method reinterprets the notion of meaning by taking it “out of the utterance” and placing it “in the reader’s mind.” On this revised view what the work means is what the work does, and “meaning as an event” is not just a phrase, it is an italicized phrase, in the essay, and meaning as an event is the central concern of affective stylistics.

It is important to appreciate the comparative modesty of Fish’s position at this stage. In the first place, though he has introduced a new method, he has given us no reason to think that it is the only method or even that there are any methods with which it is actually incompatible—though sometimes he appears to assume this. Criticism might be pluralistic for all we have been told. Secondly, Fish has not attempted to argue from the character of this new critical method to any conclusion about the nature of the object that criticism considers. If certain remarks he makes appear to jeopardize the New Critics’ equation of literary work and text, this is because almost anything said in critical theory has this effect, which shows something about the New Critical thesis rather than about Fish’s method. Broken reed that it is, it shakes in any wind.

And thirdly, Fish is still as committed as any New Critic to the objectivity of criticism. In this early work he was correspondingly keen that the shift of attention from text to reader’s response should not put that objectivity at risk. To this end he laid down three conditions that a reader must satisfy if his responses to a text are to be taken seriously by critical analysis. The legitimized reader must be a competent speaker of the language in which the text was written, he must have (and Fish treats this for some reason as a separate condition) the appropriate semantic knowledge, and he must possess “literary competence.”

The last condition is obviously the crucial one, and the difficulty with it is to believe in it: it is, in other words, difficult to believe that there is a skill that both is appropriately general and can be made to fill this role. Suppose that I, an averagely educated person and averagely attentive reader, diverge in my responses to a particular text from a critic whom otherwise I admire—would it be reasonable nevertheless for me to defer to him and to do so solely because of something called his “literary competence”?

Fish himself provides us with a clear example of this problem. He is, let us say, a critic of seventeenth-century literature whom I in all ways respect. In “Literature in the Reader” he quotes a sentence from Sir Thomas Browne which runs, “That Judas perished by hanging himself, there is no certainty in Scripture.” He starts to describe his response. What this sentence “does” for him is that the first clause makes him believe that Browne believed that Judas hanged himself—the reader is invited to assume that the quoted proposition is being affirmed—with the result that he expects, indeed predicts, that the word “no” will be followed by the word “doubt,” with the consequence that the occurrence of “certainty” disorients him profoundly. “The strategy or action here is one of progressive decertainizing.” But at this point my response as a reader—as a reader of Fish, that is—is that, at any rate just this once, he is being wholly absurd. Nothing that I know about his expertise or reputation, above all no appeal to his “literary competence,” could possibly lead me to suppose that he was right in the way he responded to this sentence and that I was wrong. The appeal to literary competence carries no independent weight.

Fish’s concern with objectivity is, however, short-lived, the concern with literary competence as a device to sustain it recedes, and the modesty of his position already begins to fall away by the time we get to the last part of “Interpreting the Variorum,” an essay occasioned by the publication of the Milton Variorum. In this essay Fish takes two significant steps toward his elaborated theory.

First, he implicitly claims a methodological monopoly for reader-response analysis. He does this by the altogether intimidating tactic of maintaining the superiority of his method in a context where it might be thought at best weak and by and large inapplicable. He cites three well-known Milton sonnets—the sonnet on his blindness, the Lawrence sonnet, and the sonnet on the late massacre in Piedmont—each of which contains an interpretative crux over which the editors of the Variorum have evidently burned much midnight oil before proposing what they thought to be a plausible solution.

It might be expected that Fish would advance an opinion of his own on each of these knotty problems, but instead he simply denounces such “editorial practices.” He denounces them because of their consequences, which are that “the reader’s activities are at once ignored and devalued.” If commentators and textual scholars and such people would only let up, then the reader could feel himself at liberty to do what is expected of him: he could “experience” the problems that they meanwhile are trying to adjudicate out of existence.

Now we are not to suppose that these are special cases or that there are circumstances here that validate what, in the perspective of the text, might be called “ambiguities” or, in the reader’s perspective, the “restructuring of response.” No such circumstances are invoked to show that textual emendation is inappropriate here. The only relevant fact that Fish quotes is that critical opinion is fairly evenly balanced on either side of each crux. Accordingly the point that he is making must be very general. The response of the reader is always the preferred approach to a literary work and anything that ever depreciates it or rules out some reader’s response as “a mistake” is, and is just for that reason, to be deplored.

Secondly, reader response, or the phenomenon itself, now undergoes a revision. In his original essay, without saying as much, Fish had tended to think of the data upon which affective stylistics is concentrated as a train of experiences which the reading of a text sets off in a suitably informed reader. The reader will bring to his reading a mass of skill and information, but there is little in the train of experiences itself that could be thought to manifest activity. The reader is active only insofar as he attempts to associate certain experiences with others or to bring about what Fish calls “perceptual closures”: that is, every so often he will momentarily arrest the perceptual flow and try to draw some conclusion about the literary work to date.

At this point a new word presents itself in Fish’s characterization of the reader’s response—the word is “interpretation”—and with it the idea starts to gain strength that the reader is active in his response in some way not yet envisaged. Furthermore, he is active in a way that makes the demand of objectivity at once unattainable and superfluous. This does not entail—or so Fish is keen to assure us—that the reader’s response is totally arbitrary: there is some other standard it can meet which is just as good as the standard of objectivity. Here is obviously a crucial step in the final run-up to the theory, but it is not altogether easy to follow.

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