December 5, 2011

Stanley Fish and institutional evasion

 Departing from Wolfgang Iser, whose theory of reading remains tied to the notion of an objective (albeit "inaccessible") text that exists outside of interpretation, Stanley Fish is able to regulate the sort of free play which Roland Barthes celebrates by invoking the “interpretative strategies of interpretative communities.” Much like Barthes, Fish’s critical readings reveal how the objects of interpretation are always constructed (or “written”) by their readers. As he explains in Is There a Text in This Class?, such strategies are not so much “for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.” Fish’s aim is to demonstrate how textual ambiguity is resolved by the modifications we make to our own interpretive strategies, like, say, establishing a context or ground that exists at a deeper level than interpretation. In this way, his theory always returns the text to a constitutive indeterminacy, a function of the “reader” rather than the “text.” At times, however, it is difficult to see Fish’s overt lack of a critical position as little more than evasive. It becomes obvious enough when Fish attempts to break free from accusations of relativism: “No one can be a relativist, because no one can achieve the distance from his or her own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than for the beliefs and assumptions held by others."

A brief example of how this lack of position supports Fish’s critical program can be found in an essay on Milton’s Areopagitica. Here, Fish argues that the importance of the tract lies in its process of “rhetoric” or “persuasion”: the making of virtue by what is contrary. He then proceeds to distance his reading from Christopher Kendrick’s Marxist interpretation, finally endorsing both critical positions as equally tenable sites of literary criticism: an institution that both determines and enables each critic’s respective work. “No criticism is more political than any other,” writes Fish, “at least not in the sense one normally means by ‘political,’ an intervention in the affairs of the greater—non-academic—world.” Again, the strategy echoes Milton, for Fish’s point in saying this is to demonstrate how Kendrick’s “political reading” is a product of the institution for consumption by the institution; that is, that “there is nothing larger, that institutional life (of some kind or other) defines and exhausts those possibilities, but (and this is the crucial point) that those possibilities are rich and varied, and they are, in the only meaningful sense of the word, political.” There is, in short, no deeper (i.e., political) reading of a text than the one that is produced within an institutional politics; there are only differences in institutional life, which as Fish bluntly puts it, cannot even amount to a conscious choice but are rather given as the “groundless ground” of our very freedom as academics. "Groundless ground"? How convenient. This academic paradigm is beginning to resemble the very author that Barthes and Foucault had sought to demystify.

For Fish, like Barthes, the agency of the reader comes to resemble that unity which had traditionally belonged to the author; both are, of course, the products of certain institutional or ideological histories that we cannot break free of. As Barthes writes in “The Death of the Author,” “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biology, psychology; is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which a written text is constituted.” Fish makes a similar claim when describes his critical method as a kind of production that can only occur within the confines of the institution. “Rather than restoring and recovering texts,” he writes in his well-known essay “Interpreting the Variorium,” “I am in the business of making texts and teaching others to make them.” This is to repeat the basic claim he makes against the “political” readings of those like Kendrick; but the earlier example also illustrates how Fish’s appeal to the institution as “a definable set of commonly held assumptions” fails to account for the indeterminacy and debate that defines this supposedly untranscendable category. As Samuel Weber has argued, Fish’s concept of an interpretive community is “ultimately nothing but generalized, indeed universalized form of the individualist monad: autonomous, self-contained and internally unified, not merely despite but because of the diversity it contains.” When Fish opposes a critic like Kendrick, his strategy is to explain away their difference by placing it within the unity of the institution. In Weber’s words, “The institution thus emerges as the condition of possibility of controversy, and hence, as its arbiter."

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