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The Professor Knows

The essence of interpretation, common ground to all those who invoke the notion, is that there is a category or concept that the interpreter applies to the world. The category may appear in a judgment that the interpreter makes. Alternatively—and this would be characteristic of literary criticism—it may color or permeate the perception which gives rise to the judgment. Two examples which derive from Fish may make the point. A reader of Lycidas, lines 13 to 14,

He must not float upon his wat’ry bier

may judge that the sense dramatically changes if the line ending after the word “bier” is deliberately read through. Or he may actually, in the course of reading the poem, experience the sense dramatically changing at the line-ending. Either way, the category of line-ending is employed. A reader of Samson Agonistes may judge that on a “typological construal” of Old Testament stories—i.e., one that associates the images in the Old Testament with those in the New Testament—Milton’s hero would be deemed to foreshadow Christ. Or he may read the poem according to this construal and experience Milton’s hero as typologically foreshadowing Christ. Again, either way, a category is employed, in this case that of typology.

Now the fact that interpretative judgment and interpretative perception depend upon categories has some obvious consequences. If a reader is unaware of a certain category, such as “line-ending,” he will be unable to make an interpretation that employs it. And if there had been no such category—whatever that means—the interpretation would have been altogether unavailable. But this by itself does nothing to upset either the objectivity of the interpretative judgment or the veridicality of the interpretative perception. Yet it is Fish’s view that it does. There is for him no fact of the matter behind an interpretation. Why?

At times Fish seems to be the victim of rather bad thinking. For instance, talking of the author’s intention he writes, “Interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out.” But if we abstract the principle of this argument, do we not have to conclude that, by creating a telescope magnifying thirty-three diameters, Galileo created the hills and valleys of the moon?

We probably should forget such arguments, for it seems likely that Fish’s view derives not from the general conditions of interpretation but from some peculiarity, as he sees it, of critical or, even more narrowly, of literary critical interpretation. The crucial peculiarity here is that of an “interpretative strategy.” According to Fish, every interpretation that a reader proposes is proposed in conformity with some interpretative strategy to which he there and then subscribes, though he is free, at the next minute if he wishes, to abandon that strategy and adopt another. Interpretative strategies sort themselves into broad groupings—psychoanalytic, structuralist, New Critical—and readers or critics whose strategies come out of the same grouping form an “interpretative community.”

Insisting that individual interpretations are always made in the context of a strategy has the effect of showing how complex are their “truth-conditions,” or the circumstances that ensure their truth. An interpretation has to be responsible on the one hand to the local character of the literary work and on the other hand to a number of general truths about literature, language, and the mind; often enough, one kind of factor will have to be weighed against another. But surely this doesn’t make objective interpretation impossible. This we can see better when we recognize that in shifting from one interpretation to another we generally build on the first. Only in exceptional circumstances do we think of ourselves as substituting truth for error, rather than more for less comprehensive truth.

But in two places Fish makes a very serious blunder about interpretation—a blunder he does not recognize and therefore does not correct—and this probably explains why he denies objectivity to interpretation. In the essay entitled “Normal Circumstances and Other Special Cases” and again in “A Reply to John Reichert” he claims that a critic can never be forced to give up an interpretation by an appeal to evidence, so long as he sticks to the same interpretative strategy. The reason is that the strategy determines the evidence. A critic adopts a strategy, the strategy generates an interpretation, any evidence against the interpretation is ruled out by the strategy, and so the interpretation is safe-guarded—but the price is objectivity. So Fish argues: wrongly.

For if it is true that an interpretative strategy “determines” the evidence, it does so only in a sense much weaker than would make Fish’s case. Presumably—“presumably,” for after all the idea is Fish’s and I am only trying to understand it—what a strategy determines is the kind of evidence that a critic who subscribes to it may use. A strategy will tell him, for instance, that biographical information is inadmissible, or that mythic patterns are of significance, or that favored grammatical transformations are stylistically relevant, or that voice and person are crucial—but what it will not tell him, because it cannot, is what, within the broad limits of admissibility, is actually the case. No strategy can say, for instance, just how the image of the golden bowl figures in James’s novel and to what effect, or whether Milton really did prefer deletion to conjunction in his Lawrence poem, or what and where are the actual changes of voice in Lycidas. If this is so, then, given a strategy, there is still the open question whether the evidence does or doesn’t verify an interpretation. The issue of objectivity is by no means closed.

The false picture of how an interpretation nestles securely within a strategy is neatly illustrated in the lecture that gives the book its title. It starts with a story. A student at Johns Hopkins asks a professor at the first meeting of his course, “Is there a text in this class?” The professor says, “Yes, it’s the Norton Anthology of Literature.” He has misunderstood her question, for, as Fish goes on to explain, the student might have been asking whether there is a particular book that is prescribed reading for the class, or whether in this class people are expected to believe in “poems and things” or only in readers. She was actually asking the second, but the professor took her to be asking the first.

Now the two questions become distinguished once the context of utterance—that is, the language or idiolect—is specified, and for Fish the point of telling this story is that according to him it is in the very same way that the authority of an interpretation is placed beyond dispute once the context of practice—that is, the interpretative strategy—is specified. But that is precisely the wrong analogy. If we want a parallel to the relation of an interpretation to its interpretative strategy, we find it not in the way in which the meaning of a certain word—say, “text”—but in the way in which the truth of a certain sentence—say, “There is a text in this class”—stands to the language of which it is a part. In other words, language fixes the meaning of a word but leaves open the truth of a sentence.

By whatever means Fish arrives at the view that interpretations derive not from litrary works but solely from interpretative strategies, and hence lack objectivity, it is now an easy step to reverse the natural view and claim that literary works derive solely from interpretation. Fish takes that step. “Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems, they make them.” To support this, Fish tells a rather hollow story in which a sophisticated professor persuades some gullible students—or perhaps some sophisticated students pretend to a gullible professor—to read the names of six contemporary critics written up on a blackboard and left over from an earlier class as if they were the text of a seventeenth-century devotional poem. The story is supposed to show just how much interpretation can do. By offering readings it can make a poem the poem that it is. Very impressive. But just by attending to it, it can make something into a poem.

By this point the original modesty has fallen away from Fish’s position: critical method is free to determine the object of criticism; interpretative communities have unrestricted rights over language and literature, and now the theory that found its germ in a bright idea is fully elaborated.

It would be difficult but also unprofitable to discuss how original Fish’s theory is or to what extent it reiterates the hermeneutic tradition of such thinkers as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Jürgen Habermas. Fish’s inventive mind, his impetuosity in argument, his flair for practical criticism, and his consistent jauntiness of manner give an individual quality to his thinking, and they also account for much of its appeal and some of its interest.

However, some of the appeal and much of the interest of his thinking come from another aspect. That is the way in which he enshrines certain commitments which to varying degrees, in differing combinations, pattern themselves over so broad a range of contemporary thought—in art theory, in psychoanalysis, in metaphilosophy, as well as in literary criticism—as to give Is There a Text in This Class? the status of a symptom. For want of better words I shall call these commitments positivism, relativism, and institutionalism, though I know that some of the thinkers I have in mind, and not least Fish, would feel that I could scarcely have chosen worse. Positivism and relativism are powerful and insidious doctrines, and the desire not to be contaminated by them has protected no one from them. It has just made diagnosis too late.

The general scheme of such thinking goes like this. First, an evidential base is chosen which is miserly in the extreme but is held to be all that experience warrants (a marked canvas, a patient’s utterances, a pattern of argument). This is positivism. Then an elaborate super-structure is placed on this meager base, and the construction is justified by appeal to certain norms or principles. So we get relativism. And if these norms or principles are challenged as arbitrary, then an appeal is made to the professional institution which has thought them up and which is declared the ultimate umpire. Now we have institutionalism. These three stages are of different relative importance in different theories, but in Is There a Text in This Class? they all show up so vividly that the book is a florid symptom of the tendency I have been describing.

The positivism emerges with the identification of the literary critic’s data, or what he starts from, as a sequence of words, otherwise known as the text. Fish, as we have seen, diverges from the New Critics in refusing to identify the text with the literary work, and here he is clearly sound. There is such an obvious difference between the two—a literary work can be innovatory, full of hidden presences, ephemeral, cautious, cautionary, all of which qualities a text presumably can’t have—that Fish is clearly right to reject their identity. But he does think that the sole evidence for the literary work or the only causally independent material available to the critic is the text, and this view also encounters enormous difficulties, of two sorts.

In the first place, if the text is to fill this role it will have to be thought of as a sequence of words plus much more that is true of these words: semantic interpretation, history of composition, philology, metrical analysis, and so on. But, secondly, even when all this is included, the critic who wishes to grasp the literary work will still need further information which could not possibly be thought of as textual, and this will be evidence that can be specified neither in advance nor in a systematic way. We might think of it as just that information which Fish himself tried to avoid enumerating by depositing it without inventory in the head of his “informed reader.”

Fish will plead that the charge of positivism, even in this restricted sense, is unfair—for doesn’t he, particularly in the second half of the book, insist that for him the text is not a datum or something “free-standing” but is also the product of interpretation? Certainly he says this. But I am doubtful that we should take him literally: for three reasons.

In the first place, the history of literary criticism, which is the history of successive interpretations, and which in Fish’s theory becomes the natural heir to the history of literature, requires for its coherent telling that there should be objects whose identity persists under different interpretations. Otherwise we should have no way of grouping together those interpretations whose differences peculiarly interest us because—as we should put it, in our unreformed way—they are interpretations of the same work. In a literary journal an interpretation of a Keats sonnet is followed by an interpretation of a Campion lyric which is succeeded by another interpretation of the same Keats sonnet. What do the first and the third interpretations have in common? Of course this object doesn’t have to be the text, but, if it isn’t, Fish has to tell us what he thinks it is.

Secondly, it is easy enough to explain away Fish’s insistence that interpretation creates the text without having to believe that he believes anything so unlikely. We may simply suppose that, well after he had rejected the New Critical equation of literary work and text, he remained for much of the time in its grip, so that he continues to use the word “text” to mean “literary work.” There is a lot of evidence in the book to support this explanation.

Thirdly, the only argument of Fish’s that expressly aims to show that the text—the text as opposed to the literary work—is created by interpretation is so unconvincing that it is hard to believe that he takes the issue seriously. He writes, “[T]he answer to the question ‘why do different texts give rise to different sequences of interpretive acts?’ is that they don’t have to, an answer which implies strongly that ‘they’ don’t exist.” I have a clock above the fireplace, and sometimes I look at it as a way of telling the time, sometimes as a piece of art nouveau furniture, sometimes as a reminder of where I used to live. We have already seen that Fish would argue from this to the fact that none of my perceptions of the clock is veridical. That is arguable, though implausible. Now Fish asks us to conclude from these very same facts of perception that the clock itself doesn’t exist.

The place of relativism in Fish’s theory I have already considered. The oddity is that, having induced relativism in criticism by arguing so heatedly that there is no fact of the matter behind critical interpretations and that they are made true solely by interpretative strategies, Fish then goes to some lengths to deny the charge of relativism. He has three arguments.

The first and most general argument is that no one can be a relativist because no one can stand back the required distance from his assumptions to see what they do for him: to see, that is, that he is interested only in securing beliefs that are true relative to them. But this is to confuse the practical relativist, whose beliefs are true only relative to certain assumptions, and the philosophical relativist, who recognizes that his beliefs are true only relative to certain assumptions. Philosophical relativism may be impossible to believe—though I doubt this—but what we are concerned with is the practical relativist, who would be no less of a relativist for not being able to see that this is what he is.

Secondly, Fish argues that for relativism to be a meaningful doctrine about criticism there would have to be the possibility in principle of a criticism that wasn’t relativist and that was independent of norms: but in his view there isn’t; so, he argues, relativism is not so much a theory about criticism as an unrealizable fear or a pointless lament. Some years ago positivist-minded philosophers tried to spirit out of existence uncomfortable metaphysical doctrines by arguments of this kind. They would ask, What would it be like, according to the idealist, for the world to be material? What would count for the skeptic as good evidence?—and they took the silence of their adversaries for an admission of defeat. Neither idealism nor skepticism, they concluded, is a real philosophical option. But there is, as far as I can see, no reason why the metaphysician should have such per impossible answers.

Thirdly, Fish contends that critical norms are never personal or idiosyncratic; they are social. But this at most would establish that certain kinds of relativism do not arise within literary criticism—or that critical interpretation is always relative to a community.

This takes us to the third and most interesting commitment—institutionalism—by which I have in mind the way in which interpretative strategies, and hence interpretations themselves, get authorized by interpretative communities. These have the right, and the duty, to propose what they please. Fish elects understatement: “Perhaps the greatest gain that falls to us under a persuasion model is a greatly enhanced sense of the importance of our activities.” Three sentences later, and the enhanced sense of importance gradually reflates the prose. “The practice of literary criticism is not something one must apologize for: it is absolutely essential not only to the maintenance of, but to the very production of, the objects of its attention.” By which, of course, Fish means not that critics subsidize the writers they study, but that they are them, since it is they who write such texts as there are in their classes.

To connect such views with the envy of creativity is inviting but to be resisted: it would be what psychoanalysts call a “premature interpretation.” For it is important to see at just what point the role of the critic becomes so vastly inflated. It does not come about because of the enormous significance assigned to interpretation. (Indeed here I am sure that Fish is right.) It comes about at a subtler point and because (as we have seen) of an error about interpretation, which involves thinking of it as relativistic—and this error might be without motivation. It might be a plain mistake: though, as it turns out, in his favor.

Once he has denied objectivity to interpretation Fish then looks around for a source that will nonetheless legitimize interpretation; and what is significant in his theory is how he identifies the class which he aggrandizes. It does not consist of aesthetes, independent thinkers, amateurs des livres, poets’ poets, but it is the unified class of the faculties of university English departments, with special privileges to the more ambitious and the more assertive. Fish’s arbiter of critical truth is characteristically someone with students to teach, colleagues to convince, a hearing to gain for himself, and who, if he does well in all this, will be, in Fish’s words, “a candidate for the profession’s highest honors.”

In advocating the claims of interpretative communities Fish proposes himself as the spokesman, or a spokesman, for a new irredentism. Traditionally American universities, unlike their British counterparts, have adopted—in Mark Pattison’s distinction—the “professorial” rather than the “tutorial” ideal of the university. As in the great German universities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emphasis was laid upon the scholar or scientist of originality who lectured out of his own interests, his own research, to a body of largely self-selected students and who did not have to concern himself particularly with the training of young minds to a fairly uniform and socially beneficial standard. Rising to the very top of such a system would be the great charismatic teachers who dazzled their audiences with the strength of their curiosity, the profundity of their learning, and a well-developed eloquence.

During the late Sixties much of this system was dismantled. Students no longer wanted to be spellbound. They called it, and much else, “mystification,” and so we may think of a theory such as Fish’s as, among other things, an attempt to re-mystify the institutions of learning. The old charismatic teacher gained his authority by his felt excellence within or (more likely) up against the boundaries of his subject. His successor, however, seeks his by gerrymandering these boundaries or by defining the subject as what he does—even while he waits, nervously, excitedly perhaps, for a rival to come along and redefine it as what he does.

In a recent number of a literary journal Stanley Fish was identified as the co-author of a forthcoming book called Professionalism in Literary Studies. Ambiguity is catching. Will he be concerned with the perfection of skill or the grooming for a career? Or should we conclude that the proofreader whose responses to this text have been so affective has struck again, and that Fish chose as his future title one under which the present book could more informatively have appeared: Professorialism in Literary Studies?

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