History and Future of the Book: In Which I Complain about Stanley Fish

In general, I like to think of myself as disinclined to complain. Especially when it comes to readings for classes, I tend not to think complaint is a very useful response, so I try to look for what might be valuable in everything I’m assigned and to turn my attention away from what I dislike. So I’m kind of breaking a little rule of mine this week, but I have to admit that I was just so annoyed by Stanley Fish’s “Interpreting the Varorium” that it’s gotten in the way of finding another avenue for response to the chapters we read this week. Hopefully, a little airing of my Fish complaints can lead to something more productive than the frowny faces and incredulous what?’s I littered the margins of Fish’s essay with.

In the first section of his essay, Fish lays out his case that in traditional criticism, “the reader’s activities are at once ignored and devalued” (450). This, in fact, strikes me as a potentially important insight, and if not undeniably true, at least more or less accurate. As we discussed in class last week, in “What Is an Author?” Foucault argues that in the rush to kill the Author we merely replace the author with ‘the text’ as a transcendental anonymous unity. The text seems to become an autonomous entity, leaving us with no way to understand its real interaction with society or readers. So here is where I think I get how Fish’s intervention has potential: by calling our attention the fact of texts as objects that are actually read by real people, and treating the effects of the texts on actual readers as important, we can more carefully understand texts as real entities operating on the same level of reality as readers. But in practice, it seems to me like what Fish argues for is ultimately a severe restriction of what can be said or known about any given text, and about reading in general. He focuses his idea of the interaction between a text and reader entirely on the phenomenological moment of a reader reading a text, to the point that it seems like for Fish this moment is the only thing that’s ever really real about a text. Everything else that could potentially be said or investigated or argued about a text all falls into a category outside this moment that Fish describes as creating an interpretive model—and interpretive models are real for Fish, but they’re ultimately secondary, they’re just a scaffolding built up around that moment of a reader encountering a line break and having a cognitive moment. That moment of reading is something that happens in the interior of the reader, or it’s also something that happens in between the physical text and the reader—in either case, it is an autonomous moment, something that Fish believes can’t really be shared or communicated between more than one person.[1]

Because this prime moment of reading is incommunicable, and because everything outside of that moment amounts to “predisposition to execute different interpretive strategies” (456), Fish really misses the potential value of his idea of interpretive communities. Making these communities visible as potential objects of study seems extremely useful,[2] but Fish instead, I think because of the primacy of the reading moment, leaves these interpretive communities incapable communicating with each other. In fact, even individual members of these communities are supposed to be unable to really communicate with each other in any way that engages the community. Instead, “The only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know’. I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” (458).[3] Again, Fish has left what could be a useful idea to sit in its own bubble as a unique moment, something that exists only as some instant of recognition. But nothing can be said about it or done with it, according to Fish, beyond possibly recognizing an agreement or disagreement. There is only the moment of a reader reading, and then the moment of a reader looking out to see if there’s another reader who has maybe had the same experience so they can potentially smile at each other and ‘know’ that they agree—there’s not even the potential in this for these shared readers to communicate with each other about what they’ve shared, because it’s all just that moment of interior experience. Ultimately, it seems like Fish’s project focuses on this moment of reading in order to deny us the possibility of saying anything about a text. And that just really bothers me.

Even without straying too far from where Fish leaves his ideas, I’m left wondering, couldn’t we look at the ways texts create or interact with interpretive communities? I do read McHenry’s essay as an example of making use of this idea of interpretive communities, but does everything about an interpretive community really happen outside a text? This is not to fault McHenry at all, but her study seems primarily sociological, and as a person perhaps too in love with texts (well, I’m studying Enlish, after all), I wonder if there isn’t potential here to look at ways certain kinds of texts work–or even individual texts–to call interpretive communities into being through their interactions with readers, or to encourage certain kinds of growth within already existing interpretive communities. Or these effects could be negative. But it seems like one way to approach this problem would be to ask about texts what they ask of their readers, or to ask what sorts of interpretive communities does a text (or a kind of text) require or encourage in order for that text to maintain its interaction with readers.


[1] This essay was written in ’76, and I do have to wonder how Fish or any critics trying to work within Fish’s framework might have dealt with our increasing understanding of recentness of individual moments of silent reading in the history of reading.

[2] McHenry’s essay about African-American ‘clubwomen’ around the end of the 19th century seems like a good example of exactly how a study of a particular interpretive community could be awesome, and I assume this is why the editors placed McHenry immediately after Fish in the anthology (it’s not a chronological decision). Though in order to really bring the idea to its potential I notice that by the time we get McHenry’s essay there’s basically nothing of left of Fish’s obsession with the instantaneous moment of a reader reading.

[3] My marginal note here is “buh…”, demonstrating apparently that I don’t agree with him, and therefore don’t understand.

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3 Responses to History and Future of the Book: In Which I Complain about Stanley Fish

  1. djschwei says:

    I somehow never tire of complaining about Fish. It seems to me, whenever I reread him, that there’s something fundamentally strange whose single big contribution is a sort of weird misappropriation of phenomenology (I’m ignoring his other, ah, major contributions, like basically gutting the educational part of Duke’s grad program in favor of hiring big-name professors to temporarily boost ratings by making deals where they basically didn’t teach and the grad students saw the number of classes they taught increase dramatically – and then responding to criticism by saying, “Well, that’s how it’s done.”).
    That aside, it seems to me that one of the things you’re hitting on comes very close to the sort of general statement we’re exploring for the novels seminar I’m in, which sort of loosely argues that the idea of the “death of the author” has been misapplied insofar as there are conscious gestures in texts that reach out through recognizable intertextual moments to specific communities of readers. In a way, I think that the work novels do there could be more usefully demonstrated in poetry, particularly as I’m not very familiar with it. People have noted that the primary readership of poetry is other poets/people involved in the poetry world (I’m going loosely here, so please don’t point out that I’m begging the question). Insofar as this group would have a primary knowledge of other works that would allow them to recognize certain moves as relating/alluding/responding to other works, I think that people within this would read poetry in what I would consider a fundamentally different way from how, for instance, I would (in the same way I would read a novel perhaps differently than my students). Obviously there won’t be a one to one correspondence – no one reads, I think it’s safe to say, exactly the same works as someone else – but at the level of forming a group, it’s not necessary to have a match of identity, only points that intersect in particular ways. That’s the big problem, I think, with Fish – as you point out, he makes the humanities incommensurable with itself as far as one can’t ever transmit knowledge or intersect with the experience of another person’s reading.
    (As an ad hominem note that I hope doesn’t affect readings of the above – I can’t help but relate this to Fish’s statement in that recent NY Times thing on digital humanities where he says that he is a scholar in hopes of achieving preeminence and that the goal of humanities scholarship is to try to write a “complete” book of criticism after which none would need be written, a goal I can’t help but see as affecting how he envisions reading in general operating.)

  2. lmaruca says:

    Marcus, I was about to provide a much stronger rebuttal until I read your first footnote, so I’ll just leave it at: yes–exactly–1976. Before this was formalism and New Criticism. The text said it all, contained it all, was all in all. Thus it was _groundbreaking_ to point to real readers –albeit ones defined as somewhat solipsistic and isolated–though I say “somewhat” because his big contribution, after all, is the idea of interpretive COMMUNITIES. These are ideas Fish developed more fully in his seminal “Is There a Text in This Class?,” which is where I first encountered him. Furthermore, to respond to your 2nd footnote: yes, because of him (in part) we are now able to describe/discuss/analyze communities of real readers in fuller and richer ways.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of the current incarnation of Stanley Fish–see my comments on Amy’s Fish post (http://precariouspedagogy.blogspot.com/2012/02/one-fish-two-fish-red-fish-stanley-fish.html#comment-form). I also find him surprisingly limited and conservative in this essay. But I only am able to find him so precisely /because/ of the ideas that he helped spawn.

  3. shandilynne says:

    I seem to have a special place in my heart for Fish, but not based on this essay or from this time in my life. As an undergrad, I read and presented on “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” and my mind was a blown, to use Amy’s phrase. I wonder if it would still be so powerful now, if I were to reread it, or if I would be a little less impressed. I further wonder if I would be more critical of the essay we read for this class if I didn’t have such a fond memory of Fish from years ago. People’s criticisms are making me second guess my objectivity concerning this essay, because I really didn’t take issue with it. Hmm.

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