Fish, Stanley

Assigned: Fish, Stanley E. From Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Chapter 14. “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” (1898-1909). Also read the editors’ introduction (1896-98).

From Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980)

Chapter 14. How to Recognize a Poem When You See One

1. On 1898-99 (“Last time I sketched out an argument…”), Stanley Fish begins by saying he intends to broaden his earlier claims about poetic meaning being the product of “interpretive communities” (rather than inherent in the text or prescribed by some fully objective external authority) even to determining what is and is not a poem. How does the anecdote he recounts on 1899-1901 (“In the summer of 1971…”) about an experiment he performed in a SUNY Buffalo summer class on religious poetry help him set forth this extended claim? What do the students do by way of interpretation when they are given the task of making sense of a list of assigned authors?

2. On 1901-02 (“Some of you will have noticed…”), what does Fish’s SUNY Buffalo class experiment suggest to him about how we decide whether this or that selection and arrangement of words is a “poem” (1901)? What startling and contrarian conclusion does Fish draw from the experiment regarding the origin or locus of poetic value and meaning? In what sense, moreover, is the student-interpreters’ activity a lot like following a “recipe” (1902)?

3. On 1902-04 (“To many, this will be a distressing…”), what two counterarguments to his conclusions does Fish identify, and how does he deal with them? In particular, why is it still not to the point to insist that once people realize their “poem” started off as a list of assigned authors, they will go back to seeing it exactly that way? (1903) What is involved, according to Fish, even in recognizing a group of names as an assigned reading list—what do we already need to assume or know in order to “recognize” it as such?

4. On 1904-05 (“In a way this amounts to no more than…”), Fish extends his argument about the foundational status of “interpretive operations” (1904 bottom) right down to the level of the atom, or very near it, covering “letters, paper, graphite, black marks on white spaces, and so on…” (1905). Yet, in spite of what sounds like a very destabilizing claim that strips us of our perhaps naïve faith in the objective soundness or solidity of “things,” how does Fish assert that he is not making a merely subjectivist argument about perception and interpretation? Why would an unsympathetic layperson still be wrong to say, “Aha! It’s just as I suspected—all this ‘poetry interpretation’ is fanciful and subjective foolishness. It isn’t grounded in anything real or stable”?

5. On 1906-07 (“Of course poems are not the only…”), Fish moves on to an exploration of what allows a good deal of consensus regarding how to interpret words, gestures, and so forth. What inferences does he make from the way his own class participants responded to one Mr. Newlin’s vigorous hand-waving during a lecture, and from sociologist Harvey Sacks’ point about the paired sentences, “The baby cried. The mommy picked it up” (1906)? In particular, how do these examples both speak to what Harvey Sacks calls “the fine power of a culture” (1906)?

6. On 1907-09 (“Indeed, these categories are the…”), how does Fish try to convince his hearers that they should be confident about the daily work of interpretation that goes on in college literature classrooms? He has already said much about the power of culture to provide “a structure of interests and understood goals” (1906) and to establish “categories” (1907) that govern how we perceive things, how we derive the meaning of our experiences, and how we define and interpret literature. Taken together, how do these assertions allow Fish to discount the anxieties of critics like E. D. Hirsch and Meyer H. Abrams about “solipsism” (1907) and interpretive irresponsibility in the absence of any bedrock external authority that might ratify meaning? In what sense is the rigid distinction between “subject” and object” (1908), according to Fish, responsible for such anxieties, and for the arguments over how literature should be taught?

7. General question: Stanley Fish’s rhetoric in Is There a Text in This Class? reads as if it were patterned after Oxford don Walter Pater’s controversial 1873 “Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Leitch 716-19). There is no need to suppose that Fish is endorsing the literary impressionism or aestheticist “hedonism” of Oscar Wilde’s onetime professor, but what points of contact can you find between these two critics regarding the power of culture to shape our perceptions and inform our understanding of works of art? Is Pater’s seemingly solipsistic individual really operating in a walled-off void, or is there more to his argument than that? Finally, in what ways do you suppose Pater and Fish would disagree about the source and value of interpretation?

8. General question: To what extent is Stanley Fish, in Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), simply adapting a point made long ago by structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in that author’s Course in General Linguistics (Leitch 820-40)? De Saussure had, after all, posited that the differential operations of the transpersonal/transsubjective system we call “language” (langue in French) account for the effect we call “meaning,” not some almost mystical connection between words and “things themselves.” Is what Fish asserts about literary interpretation perhaps based on this structuralist insight? Explain.

9. General question: Stanley Fish, in Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), no doubt writes not only against objectivist critics like Meyer Abrams and E. D. Hirsch, but also against fears generated by deconstruction, which became a power in the American academy not long after Jacques Derrida’s influential criticism of structuralism in his 1966 Johns Hopkins conference paper, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Do you believe Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities” makes a convincing enough argument to allay the “unmoored” feeling generated by such powerful currents in academic life and study? Why or why not? Do you think that the general public would feel reassured by Fish’s claims, or lump them together with more radical-sounding arguments? Explain. Finally, what criticisms, if any, would you offer of Fish’s claims, and why so?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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