As a popular author of modern scare stories like Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain, Crichton's perspective that we have let our fears get out of control is ironic and effective. Initially introducing himself as a 62-year-old man, Crichton gives the sense that he is trying to give advice to the younger generation. Crichton also effectively uses his life story by opening the essay from his perspective as a younger man constantly plagued by worry over the latest, highly publicized fears.
Although at times he sounds like a ranting, senile old man, Crichton's smooth and sensible writing appeals to reason and simplicity and makes the reader want to agree. His abundant and various examples assist in emphasizing his point that Americans do have a tendency to over-react. The examples also distract the reader from focusing on his thesis, which can make his article seem more like a rant.
The author brings the reader along with him as he moves through the laundry list of 20th-century fears, poking fun at the exaggerated extremes of these claims through sarcasm as he describes the ever-switching pendulum of panic and public opinion. While assuming an audience who is roughly his age and has experienced these same scares, he gives enough details to convince even a younger audience to take his advice to keep things in perspective.
The question may naturally arise, "What has literary criticism to do with biblical studies?" Indeed the question is not a new one as Tertullian queried many years ago, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" My response to the question is, "Everything." Because, however much we may lament it, the majority of the Western world lives not in Jerusalem but in Athens and in order to bring Jerusalem to Athens we must first bring Athens to Jerusalem. In other words, we must first understand the thinking of the modern world before we can speak meaningfully to it. In as much as literary theory is a reflection of modern thought, not to mention its implications for biblical criticism, it is worth endeavoring to understand it.
Another way to answer the original question is from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, as Kevin Vanhoozer has said, "For better or for worse, every form of literary criticism eventually finds at least one biblical exegete who is willing to be its champion." 1 These words have shown true time and again. Post-modern literary theories are no exception. Post-structuralist theories such as reader-response theory and Deconstructionism have been gaining in popularity in biblical circles and it is these same post-modern theories that represent the greatest challenge to a grammatical-historical understanding of the text. To understand the challenge raised by these theories we must first survey the changes that have occurred in literary criticism in the recent past.
Literary theory has undergone drastic changes in the past century and this paper is an attempt to understand some of the influences that have altered the critical landscape. The change that has taken place in literary theory is not novel to this discipline alone, nor is it to be explained by any one phenomenon. The influences of modernism and post-modernism are accurately reflected in the changes that have taken place in literary theory.
To introduce the ideas of modernism as an influence on academia is to introduce a host of difficulties which are only exaggerated by the term post-modernism. The factors that have brought about what we call modernism are legion and cannot be attributed solely to either a change in philosophical thought or in sociological "development." There is a reciprocal relationship between these two phenomena. And both are necessary in order to understand the current situation. In the first chapter of this paper I will deal with the changes that have occurred in what is broadly referred to as literary theory, and more specifically with changes in the field of hermeneutics as it is this discipline that has most profoundly influenced literary theory recently. Specifically, I will focus on one post-structuralist critical theory, reader-response criticism as exemplified in the work of Stanley Fish. In the second chapter I will attempt to sketch the rise of modernism from the perspective of the history of ideas with special attention given to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein as it relates to Fish. In the third chapter I will attempt the same goal from a sociological perspective, based primarily on the thought of Peter Berger. My purpose is to examine and attempt to explain reader-response criticism in light of post-modern thought.
Before proceeding it may be helpful to examine what is meant by the terms modernism and post-modernism. These are notoriously elusive terms which at times appear somewhat arbitrary as they often overlap and at times lack clear distinction. One of the difficulties encountered in elaborating on these terms is that there is no clear disjuncture between these two time periods or paradigms in thinking. Although many try, it is difficult to say exactly when modernism began and ended and when post-modernism has taken over. They are rather like rivers fed by many smaller streams so that while post-modernism may be said to be a late twentieth-century phenomenon, the ideas and sociological changes that have contributed to its rise may be traced back much further.
As there is little consensus regarding these terms, I will make a modest attempt to distinguish them. Modernism began with the rise of rationalism, in which man is viewed as the starting point for knowledge, and with the belief that truth can be ascertained chiefly through the scientific method. As a result of urbanization and the economic reordering of society there is a bifurcation between what is seen as public or social and what is held to be private. Increasingly, religious truth claims, individual morality, and meaning (whether it be that of a text or of life in general) are relegated to the latter, undergoing the same kind of privatization as capitalism has brought to property rights. Third, modernism shows a strong inclination toward individualism with its emphasis on freedom and the "existing" individual.
Post-modernism is in many ways, though not exclusively, a reaction against modernism. Post-modernism is characterized first by a rejection of foundational truth or ontological essentialism. Language is the primary means by which this belief is established as language is believed to be a social construct. Second, its individualism is pitted against any authoritarian structure or worldview that would stand over the individual. Third, post-modernism differs from modernism in the degree to which pluralism is experienced by the average person. As these phenomena have influenced culture, what people view as plausible has clearly changed.
Meaning: The Movement from Author to Reader
The image, it is clear, must be set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others. Stephen Dedalus
The most significant change that has occurred in the field of literary criticism and hermeneutics is in where the locus of meaning is perceived to inhere. In the disciplines of literary criticism and hermeneutics (when hermeneutics principally referred to the methods and rules of interpretation) it was originally assumed that meaning resided with the author. Thus the purpose of interpretation was to discern the author's intention which would unlock the textual meaning for all times. After Lessing, however, a new-found distance between the present and the past caused interpreters to focus more concertedly on the text itself, because the author was no longer deemed accessible to the interpreter. The shift in the locus of meaning continued under the influence of cultural pressures and meaning came to be seen as inhering in the reader.2 I can unfortunately select only a few individuals to mention in this brief survey of critical theory before focusing on one of the more prominent and radical reader-response critics, Stanley Fish.
The place to begin is in the discipline of theology with Friedrich Schleiermacher who sought to apply a scientific method of interpretation to the biblical texts. Gadamer attributes to him the differentiation of understanding and misunderstanding, in which the interpreter is seen to begin the process within his or her own misunderstandings.3 In other words, the interpreter brings to the text his own set of presuppositions which causes him to misunderstand the text. The hermeneutical method was intended to secure a right understanding of the text from preconceived understandings or misunderstandings. Thus there is a recognition that the mind does not necessarily act as a mirror reflecting exactly what is in the text. Schleiermacher's position is epistemologically more sophisticated than those preceding him. From this perspective the discipline of hermeneutics gradually moves from a methodological approach to the text toward the modern conception that hermeneutics is what happens when we interpret a text or how one comes to understanding.
The story of modern hermeneutics begins with Edmund Husserl and his phenomenological approach. Following "Descartes' dream" of absolute certainty in knowing, Husserl focused on things as they show themselves. The philosophy of this movement was to "let things appear as they are" or to refrain from reading our presuppositions into a text.4 The purpose of Husserl's "phenomenological reduction" is to focus on what is immediate to experience, "Everything not 'immanent' to consciousness must be rigorously excluded."5 In this approach the meaning of the text has been fixed by the language and exists in an "idealist" sense.
In an attempt to go beyond Husserl's essentialist approach, his pupil Martin Heidegger posited an existential theory of hermeneutics in Being and Time. Heidegger rejects the notion of objective historical knowledge, instead man finds himself "thrown into" the world in which language, culture and the institutions of life are givens. We cannot simply "bracket off" our pre-understanding in order to gain a transcendent, objective standpoint. Pure objectivity can never be gained by the subject. Heidegger's rejection of the subject-object, "I-it" duality leads him to the position of denying that meaning is fixed in a text which would be to affirm its objective reality. Thus meaning is not something objectifiable but is as elusive as Being itself.
Heidegger's Dasein or Being examines the situation of Being from within, not outside of, history. Being for Heidegger is the historically conditioned individual which is aware of itself and the passage of time. As Being exists in time its understanding is conditioned on previous understanding. Thus the interpreter finds himself in a hermeneutical circle in which prior understanding is always "read into" the process of understanding. Heidegger describes the circularity in the process of reasoning about Being in the following: "Phenomenological Interpretation must make it possible for Dasein itself to disclose things primordially; it must, as it were, let Dasein interpret itself."6
Truth is then seen, not as an objective grasp of meaning, but as the unveiling of Being through the medium of language.7 As Dasein is historically conditioned and understanding is based on prior understanding, interpretation for Heidegger is the extrapolation of past understanding into the future.
In interpretation, understanding does not become something different. It becomes itself. Such interpretation is grounded existentially in understanding; the latter does not arise from the former. Nor is interpretation the acquiring of information about what is to be understood; it is rather the working-out of possibilities projected in understanding.8
Although he thoroughly grasped the situation of pre-understanding, because he failed to understand the primacy of language in producing, not just expressing, meaning, Terry Eagleton calls his approach a "hermeneutic phenomenology."9
It was one of Heidegger's students, Hans-George Gadamer, who first presented an adequate view of linguistics in hermeneutical theory. Gadamer makes a nice transition figure between hermeneutics and literary theory for he was also a student of Rudolf Bultmann. Like Saussure and Wittgenstein, Gadamer argues that there is no thought prior to language. It is language that both makes possible and limits our understanding. "Gadamer would say," according to Brice Wachterhauser, "that it is only through language that we have a world."10 In order to understand a text we need a fusion between the horizon of our world and the world of the text. This is a creative or dialectic fusion which produces a new meaning.11 "To understand it does not mean primarily to reason one's way back into the past, but to have a present involvement in what is said."12 Gadamer represents a movement away from author-centered interpretation but there remains, however, a two-way process between text and interpreter in which the latter's questions are informed by the former. He explains in the following what is meant by a "fusion of horizons":
One intends to understand the text itself. But this means that the interpreter's own thoughts too have gone into re-awakening the text's meaning. In this the interpreter's own horizon is decisive, yet not as a personal standpoint that he maintains or enforces, but more as an opinion and a possibility that one brings into play and puts at risk, and that helps to truly make one's own what the text says.13
While Gadamer moved the locus of meaning from the author somewhere between the text and the reader, on the American scene in the early to mid-twentieth century we see the rise of a school focused solely on the text with New Criticism. Gadamer's own theories bear a number of similarities to the approach of New Criticism.14 I. A. Richards represents somewhat of a transitional figure to this movement. Eagleton comments that Richards "had naively assumed that the poem was no more than a medium through which we could observe the poet's psychological processes: reading was just a matter of recreating in our own mind the mental condition of the author. Indeed much traditional literary criticism has held this view in one form or another."15 With New Criticism we find the ascendancy of a more text-focused hermeneutic where the author's intention, even if it could be discerned, is irrelevant to the work at hand. The text is all that is and all that is important.
In text-centered literary criticism William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley are key figures. It is their famous article on the "Intentional Fallacy" that secured the death of authorial intention. They argued that the psychological processes of the author are inaccessible to the interpreter. We are locked out of the mind of the author and have only the text and it is this that should be examined, not the author. As they wrote, "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art."16 They continue in the same article by saying, "The poem is not the critic's own and not the author's (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to thepublic" [italics mine].17 What is important to the New Critics is the verbal context as it now stands instead of the historical context in which it was first spoken. This may very well be a false dichotomy as it is unclear how the verbal context can have meaning apart from the historical context. But it is apparent that the wheels were in motion that transported meaning from the author's mental processes to that of the reader's, and the text from the public domain to the private.
It is Wimsatt and Beardsley who also bear the brunt of the later "reader-response" critics' ire. In another article on the Affective Fallacy, they argued against taking into consideration the affect which the text has on the reader saying that when this is done, "the poem itself, as an object . . . tends to disappear" making what was public verse into private verse.18 This comment also betrays the New Critical attempt to objectify the text and thus secure it from the subjectivity of those theories that had attempted to investigate what was happening in the mind of an author.
As with the neo-orthodox movement occurring in Germany, the meaning of the text is something that is not to be located in the past. There are definite similarities between New Criticism and German Neo-orthodoxy. The text is severed from its past and the interpreter stands at the far end of a yawning chasm with only the text in hand. It was Karl Barth who sought to free the meaning of the text from being corrupted by past understanding by positing an existential immediacy in which the Word is revealed to us through the word (recall Heidegger's "Being" revealed through the medium of language). Rudolf Bultmann then carried Barth's project to its radical extreme by severing all connections with the past in an attempt to secure meaning as suprahistorical.19 It is this mindset that is behind his demythologizing program which seeks to demonstrate "the independence of faith from history".20 Gadamer, on the other hand, sought to make immanent again the meaning by grounding it in language and Being. But if Gadamer moves us toward a text-centered hermeneutic, he also opens the door for the next movement in literary theory which is "reception theory."21
For Gadamer, because Dasein encounters the text in one's own world, the foundation of understanding is always shifting. Dasein is historically situated, which means that, "Our rational ability to make such judgments does not rest on some deep, permanent structure, transcendental reason or human nature, but rather it depends on our changing self-understanding."22 These insights open the door for a new attentiveness to the reader's contribution to the hermeneutic process. Eagleton notes that there has been, "a marked shift of attention to the reader over recent years. The reader has always been the most underprivileged of this trio [author, text, reader]--strangely, since without him or her there would be no literary texts at all."23
While the New Critics sought to secure the text objectively with verifiable results in the critical process, reader-response critics opened the door for the reader to focus on his or her mental processes in the act of reading. Following the German tradition, a more moderate proponent of this type of criticism is Wolfgang Iser. Iser says, "The phenomenological theory of art lays full stress on the idea that, in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text." He goes on to say, "The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence."24 Although Iser brings the reader more fully into the interpretive process, he does not find the locus of meaning to inhere in the reader. Similar to Gadamer's approach there is a free-play or creative act between the author and the reader with the reader supplying the gaps in understanding generated by the text.
A more radical approach to reader-response criticism in the tradition of neo-pragmatism and conventionalism is that of Stanley Fish. His assertion is that the reader manufactures the sense or meaning of the text. Meaning no longer inheres in the text, but is fully located within the reading community. Thus the reader's presuppositions are not something to be overcome, they are inescapable. The "interpretive community" is a reading public that shares a strategy or approach to interpretation. The text is not an object that can be approached and examined from the outside.25 There is no metanarrative; there is no truth or story that will encompass and make sense of all other narratives. There are only ungrounded language games and ungrounded interpretive communities. Indeed, a narrative is nothing without the reader. Fish rejects the idea that there are any right methodologies for interpretation; methodologies just are and they determine the interpretive results. He says that, "The meaning of an utterance, I repeat, is its experience--all of it--and that experience is immediately compromised the moment you say anything about it."26 At the end of this same article he concludes: "It follows then that what utterers do is give hearers and readers the opportunity to make meanings (and texts) by inviting them to put into execution a set of strategies."27
The Reader-Response Theory of Stanley Fish
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout:
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
At this point I would like to take a closer look at Stanley Fish's reader-response theory. It is my intent first to examine Fish's literary theory before criticizing it and then tie it in more broadly with the privatization of meaning and other phenomena occurring in philosophy and society which I will argue are historically conditioned. In other words, Fish's thesis is influenced by existential notions of truth and the rise of modernism/post-modernism.
There are really two kinds of reader-response criticism: one is a phenomenological approach to reading which characterizes much of Fish's earlier work, and the other is an epistemological theory characteristic of Fish's later work. The phenomenological method has much to commend itself to us as it focuses on what happens in the reader's mind as he or she reads. Fish applies this method in his early work "Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost." His thesis in this work is that Milton used a number of literary techniques intentionally to lead the reader into a false sense of security whereupon he would effect a turn from the reader's expectations in order to surprise the reader with his own prideful self-sufficiency. The supposed intent of Milton was to force the reader to see his own sinfulness in a new light and be forced back to God's grace. Fish's thesis is a rather ingenious approach to Paradise Lost and to Milton's (mis)leading of the reader.28
Fish's concern at this point in his career is with what "is really happening in the act of reading," and this is reflected in his compilations of essays entitled Is There a Text in This Class? especially the first half.29 Fish defines his own phenomenological approach as "an analysis of the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time.30 His concern is with what the text does as opposed to what it means. As J. F. Worthen suggests, much of his work can be seen as a reaction against the formalism that characterized the age of New Critical theory which held that meaning was embedded in the textual artifact or, as Wimsatt and Beardsley referred to it, "the object".31 He suggests that, "The context for the discussion is the question of whether formal features exist prior to and independently of interpretive strategies."32 As one might imagine Fish eventually offers a negative response to this question. He posits that rather than having a text that contains formal features identifiable in all times and places that it is the reader that projects these features onto the text, thereby also answering "No" to the question, "Is there a text in this class?"
From this point in Fish's career his theories evolve into a form of criticism that rejects the author's intentionally and places meaning solely within the arena of those receiving the text. Thus his theory is sometimes called "reception aesthetics" or "affective stylistics." Fish claims that it is the interpretive community that creates its own reality. It is the community that invests a text, or for that matter life itself, with meaning. Those who claim that meaning is to be found in some eternal superstructure or substructure of reality he labels "foundationalists." Naturally, because foundationalists comprise their own interpretive communities and interpret through such a grid, they will be opposed to theories such as his own. His theory is epistemological in that it deals not so much with literary criticism (although the implications for such are tremendous) as with how one comes to know. In the following analysis of Fish's theory I will focus primarily on his later reader-response theory.
Meaning in the Reader
This aspect of Fish's theory is one of the most radical and controversial. He posits that meaning inheres not in the text but in the reader, or rather the reading community. "In the procedures I would urge," he writes, "the reader's activities are at the center of attention, where they are regarded not as leading to meaning but as having meaning."33 He can hold this because he believes that there is no stable basis for meaning. There is no correct interpretation that will always hold true. Meaning does not exist "out there" somewhere. It exists, rather, within the reader.
In his earlier work he made a claim, not wholly disavowed in his later material, that what a text means is the experience that it produces in the reader. To define meaning he says, "It is an experience; it occurs; it does something; it makes us do something. Indeed, I would go so far as to say, in direct contradiction of Wimsatt and Beardsley, that what it does is what it means."34 Here Fish stakes out the territory of his critical enterprise which is to set himself against the formalist principles of the past with its supposed scientific agenda. This project he admits took some time from which to effect a complete liberation. But this is the principle that will eventually lead his theory from (what his critics would call) an "objective" to a fully blown "subjective" interpretive theory. Indeed, his early theory appears to be completely vulnerable to the criticism of subjectivity as he posits an experiential dimension to meaning which inheres in "the active and activating consciousness of the reader," a charge he will later attempt to counter.35
Fish's next move in his anti-formalist agenda is to deny the text as object, which was so important to Wimsatt and Beardsley and the New Critics. "The objectivity of the text is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous illusion, because it is so physically convincing."36 What exactly Fish means by this statement is somewhat unclear. He does not, as it may appear, deny the ontological reality or the existence of the palpable object, although one could argue that that is exactly what this sentence by itself means because he apparently pairs the word "objective" with "physical."37 It is the context that illuminates what he is driving at. But he does deny the text's independence as a repository of meaning.38 The text does not contain meaning: despite being written upon, it is a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which the reader, in reading, actually writes the text.
Fish takes the idea of the hermeneutical circle seriously. The reader is always reading her preunderstanding back into the text with no possibility of achieving an "objective" or author-centered interpretation. Fish claims that an interpretive theory is itself circular, that the interpreter will always find what he is looking for in the text, that formal patterns "are themselves constituted by an interpretive act."39 He claims at one point that:
Theories always work and they will always produce exactly the results they predict, results that will be immediately compelling to those for whom the theory's assumptions and enabling principles are self-evident. Indeed, the trick would be to find a theory that didn't work.40
Because the assumptions one begins with will determine the outcome of the study, for Fish, "success is inevitable."41 The methods with which one approaches the text have already determined the outcome, one's presuppositions actuate the product.42
For Fish a text is only a Rorschach43 blot onto which the reader projects her self-understanding or, as we shall see, her culturally determined assumptions. The text contains nothing in itself, rather the content is supplied by the reader. It is the reader that determines the shape of text, its form, and its content. This is how Fish can claim that reader's write texts. Worthen's comment is apt. He says, "as far as Fish is concerned, reading can only repeat reality, in that it necessarily consists of nothing but replications of independently existing collective interpretive strategies."44 This is exactly what reading does and this is one of the difficulties of his theory. It fails to account for the text being able to expand the readers' understanding or Weltanshung by introducing her to a different way of perceiving. For Fish the text can only function as a mirror that provides a reflection of its reader.
It is in this same manner that Fish dismisses the idea of authorial intent as the guiding principle in interpretation. In analyzing one of his previous critical works he declares,
I did what critics always do: I "saw" what my interpretive principles permitted or directed me to see, and then I turned around and attributed what I had 'seen' to a text and an intention. . . . What I am suggesting is that formal units are always a function of the interpretive model one brings to bear; they are not "in" the text, and I would make the same argument for intentions.45
To claim that the author intended to say or do such and such is really a declaration regarding the interpreter, in Fish's theory. Thus different interpreters will see different intentions because they are a creation of the reader and not the author. As with New Critical theory, the author fails to live past the creation of the text, indeed, for Fish the author as well is a creation of the reader.46
Fish can make this move because of his epistemic beliefs that nothing we see, perceive, or think is uninterpreted. He considers the attempt to access the author's intention as naive; for how would one ever access an intention as it does not exist in any objective or uninterpreted realm that can be mediated to our consciousness without itself being interpreted? We could have access to documents regarding the author's true intention, "but the documents . . . that would give us that intention are no more available to a literal reading (are no more uninterpreted) than the literal reading it would yield." Thus when John writes, "These things have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God; and that believing you may have eternal life in his name," we are no closer to his intentions than were he to have said and written nothing.47
Fish is following after the New Critical school, which as we have seen, disregarded authorial intent as well as historical interpretation. For Fish it is not important to access the original context in order to access meaning. He says, "to consult dictionaries, grammars, and histories is to assume that meanings can be specified independently of the activity of reading."48 But as we have seen it is the activity of reading which takes center stage in the making of meaning. Fish posits this because he believes that we as interpreters are cut off from past worlds or cultures. In other words, he believes that we are without commonality with past cultures and that, therefore, a complete disjuncture exists. The interpreter belongs to a different world from the author.
What lies behind Fish's thinking at this point is a strong view of the social construction of reality. Fish firmly believes that knowledge is not objective but always socially conditioned. All that one thinks and "knows" is an interpretation that is only made possible by the social context in which one lives. For Fish the very thoughts one thinks are made possible by presuppositions of the community in which one lives and furthermore the socially conditioned individual, which all individuals are, cannot think beyond the limits made possible by the culture. This culture is referred to by Fish as an "interpretive community" and the strategies of an interpreter are
community property, and insofar as they at once enable and limit the operations of his consciousness, he is too [community property]. . . . Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading but for writing texts, for constituting their properties.49
Fish believes that interpretive communities, like languages, are purely conventional, that is, arbitrarily agreed upon constructions. The way a community lives is in no way a reflection of some higher reality, it is rather a construction, or edifice that has been erected by consensus. This holds true for the interpretive strategies a culture or an institution employs as well as their notions of right and wrong. A culture's morality is no more founded in any external reality than its language.50 Nor is it possible to specify how language correlates with the external world.51 Language and its usage are arbitrary decisions made by convention as is the fact that we call north "North" instead of something else.
In response to a criticism launched by M. H. Abrams, Fish explains some of his understanding of the conventional nature of language.
If what follows is communication or understanding, it will not be because he and I share a language, in the sense of knowing the meanings of individual words and the rules for combining them, but because a way of thinking, a form of life, shares us, and implicates us in a world of already-in-place objects, purposes, goals, procedures, values, and so on; and it is to the features of that world that any words we utter will be heard as necessarily referring [italics mine].52
Similarly, what we call literature is not such because of some abiding principle of truth or art that exists in an atemporal state, but it is such because the culture values it for interests of its own, that is because it reflects the culture's values and beliefs in some way.
Thus the act of recognizing literature is not constrained by something in the text, nor does it issue from an independent and arbitrary will; rather, it proceeds from a collective decision as to what will count as literature, a decision that will be in force only so long as a community of readers or believers continues to abide by it.53
In this view literature is simply the expression of an ideology. Because of his views on literature, literature tends to lose its "special status" as literature and becomes simply a reflection of communal values which is as subject to change as are cultures. That is not to say that the individual or culture consciously chooses its values, which would imply some form of objectivity or the ability to stand apart from one's values. To Fish it is not possible to abstract one's self from one's values. Fish is simply a product of his environment without the ability to choose his beliefs and values. They are instead informed or determined by the culture which is historically conditioned and no more able to choose objectively than the individual.
Using Fish as an example of post-structuralist critical theory, I will in the remaining chapters analyze his thought as it relates to post-modernism. What follows is an examination of post-modernism from the perspective of the discipline of philosophy, or an history of ideas approach. It is not intended to be a comprehensive history of Western philosophy but a brief examination of some of the salient features which I believe have contributed to the rise of what is now being called post-modernism. I will end the chapter with an emphasis on the "linguistic turn", as Rorty has called it, in philosophy of the twentieth century by examining some of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein as his thinking bears some similarities to that of Stanley Fish and lays some of the groundwork for the current state of things. Wittgenstein is important as his thinking is often characterized as thoroughly conventionalist and misappropriated as such.
In the following chapters I would also like to take a critical look at some of Fish's theory and examine some of the consequences of his thinking. Fish claims that because his thinking is theoretical it is without consequences (he consistently tells his critics "not to worry"). He is at least disingenuous if not patently dishonest in this assertion as his theories have grave consequence especially for those who would appeal to some transcendent standard.
In taking a critical stance toward Fish's literary theory I am well aware of Fish's response to those who disagree with his theories or, as he puts it, "feel threatened" by his ideas. Those who hold to the idea of essences, or to the reality and accessibility of transcendent truths, he labels as foundationalists, members of the "intellectual right."54 And he further accuses them of holding to a naive epistemology which views the mind as merely reflecting the world as it really is (an sich). 55 Moreover they are characterized as without understanding how fundamental language is to one's world view and the cultural assumptions that go with it. I must plead guilty to being a foundationalist with objections to Fish's theory. Fish claims that his theory, however, is internally coherent, while I will argue just the opposite, that his theory does not cohere based on his own assumptions. Fish's response to these criticisms would be to deny me as his critic access to his theory in the first place because I do not share his assumptions and, to him, only those who are within a community can understand its thought. That claim is, however, as we shall see, one of the bases of my criticism. Let us turn briefly to the history of philosophy.
Post-Modernism And The History Of Ideas
In the republic of scholarship, every citizen has a constitutional right to get himself as thoroughly lost as he pleases.
- David Hackett Fischer
There it is, the unbearable lightness of being.
- Milan Kundera
One of the approaches in examining post-modernism is to delineate the changes in philosophy or the history of ideas. From this perspective modernism is seen as a phenomenon stressing rationalism based on the universal design or concept which gives order to a reality that can be known through the appropriate, that is scientific, method. It also stresses an optimistic faith in mankind's uniqueness and ability to progress. Post-modernism, on the other hand, emphasizes the lack of foundation in knowledge, the rootedness of understanding in language and context, as well as a rejection of the idea that "man" is at the center of the universe. In many ways post-modernism can be seen as an extension of modernism as the ideas of the one are rooted in the other. I will attempt a brief synopsis of this in the following pages.
From the Enlightenment to Existentialism: Existence Over Essence
Many trace the rise of modernism in philosophy to Descartes' process of radical doubt. His intent was to place knowledge on a secure foundation. To do this he methodologically is called into question everything he felt he knew and discovered that almost everything could be questioned. Descartes ended his doubt, or found bedrock on the tenuous foundation of his own consciousness. His own inner cognition was the only thing of which he could be certain. Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) is his final declaration. While his intention was to find certainty in knowing, Descartes radically changed epistemology by introducing his methodological doubt, a process which did not always end where Descartes had ended.
Though few agreed with Descartes' assertion, none were left unaffected by it. His cogitation began a shift in the way people perceived and experienced reality. The modern paradigm brought with it a search for objectivity established on the tenuous foundations of the individual consciousness. Descartes prompted both the relentless pursuit of the "objective" as well as planting the seeds of its demise. Kierkegaard perceptively identifies this subjective turn as early as 1843 in his publication of Fear and Trembling. He says,
Descartes has not cried 'Fire!' and made it everyone's duty to doubt, for Descartes was a quiet and lonely thinker, not a bellowing streetwatch; he was modest enough to allow that his method was important only for himself [italics mine] and sprang partly from his own earlier bungling with knowledge. ("Thus my design here is not to teach the Method which everyone should follow in order to promote the good conduct of Reason, but only to show in what manner I have endeavored to conduct my own . . .").56
Whereas Hegel would later attempt to encompass all of reality in his system, according to Kierkegaard, Descartes' intentions were much more modest.
The shift in epistemological method and certainty is at the heart of what is referred to as modernism and post-modernism. The Enlightenment project sought to replace divine revelation with human reason. Empiricism and scientific method were seen as the proper means of gaining access to truth, which is considered knowable within this paradigm. The human individual took center stage. In the post-Descartes world, however, knowledge was perceived to be an increasingly subjective endeavor, which is ironic as he sought to ground knowledge objectively. Lesslie Newbigin sees the Enlightenment mentality as a relentless pursuit of the critical method. "But the critical method must ultimately destroy itself. You cannot criticize a statement of what claims to be the truth except on the basis of some other truth-claim which -- at that moment -- you accept without criticism. But that truth-claim on which your critique is based must in turn be criticized" says Newbigin.57
While rationalism has reigned supreme from Descartes' time to our own, it has not been without its detractors. The Romantic movement in English and German literature is one of them. Reacting against the sterility and mechanization of all of life including that of religion, as evidenced by Deism, the Romantics sought to affirm the dynamic nature of the universe against the cold, rational system.58 Romanticism reemphasized the central place of the individual and sought to free the unconscious mind. Existentialism is another form of rebellion against rationalism and it shares a number of similarities with Romanticism. Frederick Copleston assesses the situation nicely when he says, "Hegel sought to capture all reality in the conceptual net of his dialectic, while existence slipped through the meshes."59 Existentialism reacted against any kind of a universal system or ethical absolute (especially Hegel's metaphysical system) that stands above the individual. The existential psychologist Rollo May summarizes it aptly:
Existentialism means centering upon the existing person; it is the emphasis on the human being as he is emerging, becoming. The word "existence" comes from the root ex-sistere, meaning literally "to stand out, emerge." Traditionally in Western culture, existence has been set over against essence, the latter being the emphasis upon immutable principles, truth, logical laws, etc., that are supposed to stand above any given existence.60
After existentialism existence gains primacy over essence with the emphasis placed primarily on the individual actualizing his or her existence through choice. Truth is experienced as an inward passion or the recovery of Being as opposed to an immutable principle. As Kierkegaard put it, "An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual" [italics his].61 I would argue that to the extent that existentialism has succeeded in overthrowing the universal or "essence," the demise of the idea of "absolute truth" has been the result. However, the loss of essence eventually results in the loss of existence with its resultant "unbearable lightness of being."62 Being no longer has meaning. This state naturally leads to philosophical relativism a condition which is exaggerated by the theories of language that follow. Gene Edward Veith rightly concludes, "Existentialism is the philosophical basis for postmodernism."63
Stanley Fish, as a post-modern literary theorist, also reflects a dependence on existentialist thought including that of Gadamer in his writings. While his emphasis on what a text does versus what it means may be primarily indebted to pragmatism, the idea of "meaning as an event," is thoroughly existential. Fish reflects the existential priority of the human consciousness as it brings to prominence the existing individual with its focus on experience. Often he characterizes meaning as an experience in opposition to an essence or truth located outside of the individual reader. "In the procedures I would urge, the reader's activities are at the center of attention, where they are regarded not as leading to meaning but as having meaning."64 And he makes an uncouched declaration regarding the nature of man by contrasting the Stylistics (formalist) approach, which is rooted in empiricism and positivism, with his own by declaring the former unworthy, "for it would deny to man the most remarkable of his abilities, the ability to give the world meaning rather than to extract a meaning that is already there."65 Fish apparently feels his philosophical freedom threatened by those practitioners who came before him.
But much of Fish's theoretical position can be seen as reactionary when viewed against the backdrop of philosophical modernism, by which I mean the Enlightenment project with its quest for absolute certainty and scientific objectivity. In Fish's thinking, as well as that of most post-modern thinkers, objectivity is an illusion brought about by the Enlightenment for which Descartes often takes the blame. Existence stands over essence and then essentialism or foundationalism, as Fish would call it, loses its independence and becomes dependant on the individual's experience. Fish claims that his formalist predecessors assumed that there were "observable facts that could be described and interpreted."66 But he argues that what counts as a fact is in itself determined by the presupposition of the interpreter thereby invalidating the entire procedure.
In an article published a few years later, Fish (who must be applauded for having the courage of being logically consistent even if it is illogical) gives up on evidence altogether including evidence that might support his position, "But it is the very possibility of providing such evidence that is denied [in this paper]. . . . I cut myself off from any recourse to evidentiary procedures."67 At this point one wonders what is the purpose of publishing papers if it is not to propound opinions and arguments, which amounts to the same thing as giving evidence. It is Fish's opinion that objectivity is an illusion, but as with making a claim to relativism, anytime one argues for a position he then stakes a claim to knowledge and anytime one stakes a claim to knowledge a claim to objectivity or truth is implicit.
The Linguistic Turn
Peter Berger argues that "reality is socially constructed, and therefore that truth over and beyond these social constructions cannot easily be attained."68 The last half of the statement is what separates Berger from Fish and post-modern thought. While he holds to a "metanarrative", a belief that there is a truth that makes sense of reality, post-modern thought is characterized by the belief that our experience of reality is a function of our language which is socially determined. Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed that our "language games" are a reflection of our "forms of life." By this he means that a language rests on the way we do things in the world. Wittgenstein said, "You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean; it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there--like our life."69 Wittgenstein would contend that the center of language, far from being an eternal logoV, is the constantly shifting and dynamic "forms of life," the activities, purpose, and context in which language games are played.
For Wittgenstein there is no essence of language, it is not a logocentric, metalinguistic idea. The thought here is similar to Derrida's concept of "de-centering" language.70 There is no ontological reality, no presence to language. It is not grounded in a metaphysical reality but in the context and function of life. Derrida argues that Western thought has functioned from a belief in a "presence" or ontology that is beyond or above.
It would be possible to show that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence--eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia. . . aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth."71
His purpose is to "de-center" language from the idea of "being" to that of "function." In other words, language is a pragmatic, ungrounded web of signifiers which constantly points not to any reality beyond but only to itself. The refusal to recognize these facts Derrida calls logocentrism.72
In postmodern thought logocentric discourse is considered totalizing, authoritarian discourse. It is at this point that Nietzsche's idea of the "will to power" enters the discussion in that as much as any one perspective claims knowledge, there exists a will to power. Jane P. Tompkins states,
The insistence that language is constitutive of reality rather than merely reflective of it suggests that contemporary critical theory has come to occupy a position very similar to, if not the same as, that of the Greek rhetoricians for whom mastery of language meant mastery of the state. . . . The similarity lies rather in the common perception of language as a form of power.73
From this perspective reason itself is seen to be an ideology that is Western and totalitarian.
For literary theorists and philosophers the conclusion is clear: the one who controls the language controls the world. For Marxist, African-American, and feminist critics this means the white middle class bourgeoisie and represents an order which must be challenged. Julia Kristeva, a Freudian feminist critic and philosopher, "looks to this 'language' of the semiotic as a means of undermining the symbolic order," in Eagleton's words. Referring to her language, he continues,
It is opposed to all fixed, transcendental signification's; and since the ideologies of modern male-dominated class-society rely on such fixed signs for their power (God, father, state, order, property and so on), such literature becomes a kind of equivalent in the realm of language to revolution in the sphere of politics.74
From this perspective, it is not surprising that the "Great Books" tradition has fallen out of favor in university curricula.
So the question becomes, not whether language holds power, but who will control language.75 It is to this end that we find competing ideologies in literature, theory, and philosophy. Jane Tompkins comments, "When discourse is responsible for reality and not merely a reflection of it, then whose discourse prevails makes all the difference."76 Thus we find in the academy today what has been termed a "culture war" as each element in a pluralistic society struggles to win strategic points of the landscape on which to plant their educational flag.77
While the existentialists took up where Descartes began with a focus on truth as a subjective phenomenon, modern literary theory has taken the idea one step further. Because language is not a reflection of a transcendent "word", but a completely immanent, functional medium, the very idea of truth collapses. Eagleton says it well,
The work of Derrida and others had cast grave doubt upon the classical notions of truth, reality, meaning and knowledge, all of which could be exposed as resting on a naively representational theory of language. If meaning, the signified, was a passing product of words or signifiers, always shifting and unstable, part-present and part-absent, how could there be any determinate truth or meaning at all?78
The rejection of any kind of metanarrative, as we have seen with Derrida, places reason itself in jeopardy because rational systems, and especially those with which we are familiar in the West, produce yet another kind of totalizing discourse that merely serves to justify the society in which it operates. "The hermeneutics of suspicion sees every text as a political creation, usually designed to function as propaganda for the status quo," according to Veith.79
Fish reflects this anti-rationalism in his writing first by denying literature any special status, as we have seen in his work, and also by propounding a "controlled subjectivity" as opposed to an objectivity. Nietzsche claimed that, "truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions." And, "he speaks most truthfully who recognizes the illusory nature of his speech."80 Fish echoes this sentiment when he writes, "I would rather have an acknowledged and controlled subjectivity than an objectivity which is finally an illusion."81 It is worth asking how one can have any control over subjectivity, either in the individual or the interpretive community, where objectivity is impossible. We will take this point up again in the next chapter, but for now let us underscore Fish's unwillingness to endorse reason as anything other than an historically conditioned ideology.
That is to say, unless one argues (as I shall finally argue) that the rational is itself a historical category. . . fashioned and refashioned by. . . causal forces. . . the rational will inevitably be seen as a category that is transhistorical and therefore as a category that is finally independent of the "causal" forces that either nourish it or threaten it.82
I think it safe to say that Fish's theory is intended to threaten rationality as his theoretical claim holds that literature, language, and rational categories are conventional and not foundational.
At this point it might be helpful to back up and examine more carefully one of the philosophers responsible for the linguistic turn in current theory, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Stanley Fish's thought shows familiarity with Wittgenstein's writing. He references Wittgenstein's terms such as form of life, language games, the conventional nature of language, and stresses the importance of meaning being associated with the context of an activity.83 The latter of these concepts is certainly not exclusive to Wittgenstein, but I believe that Fish's concept of an interpretive community is derived, at least partially, from a misappropriated concept of this Austrian philosopher.84 I will attempt to flesh out Wittgenstein's thought, compare it with Fish's and examine the differences.
The Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein
"In the beginning was the deed."
In order to gain a better understanding of the origins of much of modern thinking which regards language and truth as conventional it will be necessary to spend some time examining Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is an often misunderstood and misapplied philosopher who while postulating the conventional nature of language, still held to an objectivist view of truth. The philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein may seem at first to have little to do with the hermeneutical thinkers of the existentialist school, in as much as he is often mistakenly labeled as part of the Logical Positivist movement. Although his earlier work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was hailed by the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein never felt they understood him and was hesitant to ally himself with this movement. A hesitancy which eventually culminated in a complete reworking of his earlier thought. In his later work, Philosophical Investigations, he further distanced himself from this group. It is difficult to place Wittgenstein within a school as he has been variously associated with a number of different schools. Therefore to categorize Wittgenstein solely with the Anglo-American, Continental, or Logical Positivists would seem to be misguided.
Recent commentators on Literary Theory and Hermeneutics invariably quote from Philosophical Investigations and compare his thought favorably with that of Saussure, Heidegger, and Gadamer.85 And there has been a sustained effort recently to graft Wittgenstein's thought into the tree from which the modern hermeneutical discussion blossoms.86
To begin this discussion it is necessary to briefly sketch some elements of Wittgenstein's language theory. He approaches both philosophy and language from a descriptive standpoint and to this end I believe his language theory can be divided into two primary parts. First, language is for Wittgenstein functional or pragmatic in that he posits a "use theory" of language. For Wittgenstein language is what it does (recall Fish). There is no essence to language. It is system of conventional signs. Second, language has a social foundation. What he calls "forms of life" are what undergird his language theory. It follows from this that public criterion is essential to a language and conversely, that there can be no purely private language games. I will elaborate on these ideas in what follows.
Language as Convention
Wittgenstein demonstrates his pragmatic approach to language throughout the Investigations. In one of the more celebrated quotes he says, "For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday."87 By "goes on holiday" I take him to mean that when language is "idle." When it is not functioning is when we have the most difficulty with language because without a functional dimension language is nonsensical.88 For Wittgenstein language is always practical. It is intended to do something. The very idea of intending presupposes a purpose. He says, "without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. . ."89 For Wittgenstein language is a tool. And a tool may be used in any number of ways some of which are legitimate and some are not. He likens a sentence to an instrument and its meaning, the employment we give it.90 As such our language is a large toolbox with many instruments at our disposal and these instruments have various uses.
From this general approach Wittgenstein's "Usage Theory" of language arises. Again his approach is seen to be descriptive. He maintains that in most cases, "the meaning of a word is its use in the language."91 In other words, we do not ascribe definitions to words in a hierarchical fashion, instead their meaning is determined by their usage, by the conventions of the language users. Thus context is essential in determining meaning. "Let the use of words teach you their meaning."92 And because language is conventional, because the meaning of a word is determined by its use in the language, it is a constantly changing phenomenon. Wittgenstein compares language to a city with old streets and new, with decrepit sections and developing suburbs.93 "And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten."94 Because there is not a fixed, determined essence of language that has been given once for all, there is potentially an infinite number of language games.
The idea of "language game" (Sprachspiel) is possibly the best known aspect of Wittgenstein's thought. By language game Wittgenstein means an independent set of linguistic symbols with their corresponding actions used by a group of people possibly as large as a nation or as small as two. A builder and his assistant may have their own peculiar language game which, though it is independent, overlaps other language games.95 The language of science and the language of religion, while they may share some words and actions, are different language games with differing purposes as well as differing "kinds" of certainty. This does not mean that the scientist and the religious adherent cannot communicate and interact, they can. But the purpose of each one's language game differs even though they overlap. Words bear "family resemblances" as they are interrelated phenomena. We could just as well say that language games also bear these resemblances. The importance of this will be seen as we turn again to the thought of Stanley Fish. Each word bears a relationship to other words in this language game as well as to other language games depending on the conventions employed.96
Because words are used by convention there is then a certain arbitrariness to the symbols (written and verbal) that are associated with concepts in our world. Here the linguistic ontology of Western philosophy since the time of Plato comes under attack and modern philosophy has not been the same since. Wittgenstein's theory of language is anti-essentialist. He says, "We are under the illusion that what is peculiar, profound, essential in our investigation, resides in its trying to grasp the incomparable essence of language. . . . Whereas, of course, if the words 'language', 'experience', 'world', have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words 'table', 'lamp', 'door'."97 There is no metaphysical nature of language. There is no single fibre running through the entire thread.98
Why do we call something a 'number': Well, perhaps because it has a--direct--relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of the fibres.99
When Wittgenstein says that there is no metaphysical nature of language, however, he does not mean, as the logical positivists supposed and the post-moderns affirm, that there is no such thing as a metaphysical realm. Even in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein would say that it may be there, it is just the kind of thing of which we cannot speak.100
Forms of Life
The second aspect of Wittgenstein's language theory, which is inexorably connected with the first, is that language has a social foundation. Language games for him are not a disconnected web of symbols but have their grounding in what he refers to as "forms of life." Nicholas F. Gier says that it is clearly a mistake to identify "Lebensformen and language games" as has often been done.101 Because the importance of this point cannot be minimized I will therefore demonstrate it by a number of references to his later works. Continuing section 23 cited earlier from Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein elaborates, "Here the term 'language-game' is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life." He says that a language game is a part of, though not equal to, a form of life. The words we exchange and the use we put them to is dependant on the life context in which we operate. As we will see Fish makes use of this idea. They are for this reason a priori they are the givens of any situation.
In his typically enigmatic fashion, Wittgenstein says, "Thought is surrounded by a halo.--Its essence, logic, presents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought."102 Wittgenstein is maintaining that there is a correspondence between the given world and the thought or language we employ to act upon it, otherwise thought, communication, and action in the world would be impossible.103 The Investigations does not maintain, in arguing against the Tractatus, that there is no correspondence between language and the world as Derrida might argue, only that the correspondence is different than that of the picture theory. But this given's of language games is not a logocentric, metalinguistic idea. Wittgenstein would contend that the center of language is the constantly shifting and dynamic "forms of life."
"What has to be accepted, the given, is--so one could say--forms of life."104 We live in a common world and that commonality allows us to communicate about the world. Again, he maintains in On Certainty:
"An empirical proposition can be tested" (we say). But how? and through what?
What counts as its test?--"But is this an adequate test? And, if so, must it not be recognizable as such in logic?"--As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting.105
Grounds do come to an end, as doubting does. The end it comes to is our way of acting or our "forms of life." The forms of life are the a priori, the given. And these forms of life differ depending on time and place and consequently the language games reflect this changing nature. Fish takes this principle regarding language and, I believe, misapplies it to interpretive communities resulting in a constantly shifting and groundless community.
Public Criterion and Private Languages
Under the general classification that language has its foundation in a social context or form of life, are two closely related ideas, that of public criterion and the argument against private languages. Wittgenstein argues against the idea that there can be a language of one. Because languages are based on forms of life, they must relate to the external world.
The problem with the hypothetical "private language" is that it cannot conform to "forms of life." It cannot conform itself to the external world for the very reason that it is private. And anything that is to be called a language must be demonstrable in the external world. In other words, something must be observable for us to be able to verify that we are all speaking of the same phenomenon. "An 'inner process' stands in need of outward criteria."106 The difficulty with the private language idea is that there exists no external phenomenon by which we can measure the inner sensation.
We might apply this idea to the concept of authorial intent. We simply cannot get inside another's mind to demonstrate or show what is that person's intent. And here Wittgenstein has shown philosophers the way out of the fly bottle. It is not a matter of seeing into someone, but rather seeing what is public. "An 'inner process' stands in need of outward criteria."107 The inner process, "meaning" is in need of the public criteria of text. But Wittgenstein goes further than just asserting the necessity for an explicit expression of intent. "Thus the most explicit expression of intention is by itself insufficient evidence of intention."108 We can recall Fish's statement which is similar. The difference I think is that Wittgenstein would claim that the utterance or text and the act which went with it, its context, is sufficient outward criteria to demonstrate intention. Intention moves out of the jurisdiction of the private language critique when associated with outward criteria, that is with actions and utterances and texts. But Fish's problem with authorial intent lies at a more fundamental level and it has to do with interpretive communities. We will turn to this idea next.
Comparison: Or Isolated Communities
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
One of the most serious consequences of Fish's interpretive community theory is that it severs communication across cultural and historical boundaries. This is a result of his anti-essentialist position. Fish claims that "intention and understanding are two ends of a conventional act, each of which necessarily stipulates (includes, defines, specifies) the other."109 What this means is that without being part of the interpretive community in which the act is done, spoken, uttered we have no access to its "intention" nor do we have "understanding." Thus we are sealed off from the utterances of history, bound to interpret them based on our cultural assumptions and unable to penetrate into the mindset of the past. This is a radical reduction of worldview that Fish would have us confined within. The results of such a theory leave closed the possibility of enlarging one's understanding based on the presuppositions of a foreign culture, with the possible exception of actually being a part of that culture. While his determinism maintains that we can understand only what our culture makes available, any broadened perspective is then by default already encompassed within the assumptions of our interpretive community.
Fish claims that "communication only occurs within a community." The question then becomes how to join that community in order to communicate. In postulating a radical distance between communities Fish writes:
Nor would it be enough to give someone "on the outside" a set of definitions because in order to grasp the meaning of an individual term, you must already have grasped the general activity in relation to which it could be thought to be meaningful. . . . an understanding that operates above or across situations--would have no place in the world even if it were available, because it is only in situations--with their interested specifications as to what counts as a fact, what it is possible to say, what will be heard as an argument--that one is called on to understand.110
He is in agreement with Wittgenstein as far as using proofs appropriate to the language game being played and in realizing that one must understand the activity of life or context in which the language game is played. In other words, one must understand the form of life, the general activity, in order to understand the language game. However, he stands in contrast to Wittgenstein in positing that it is not possible to understand another form of life. He asks,
. . . how can any one of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community as any other of us? The answer is that he can't, since any evidence brought forward to support the claim would itself be an interpretation (especially if the "other" were an author long dead). The only "proof" of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community. . . . 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.111
Thus it is that the critic is sealed off from author, or should I say that Fish is sealed off from the critic.112 If this doesn't leave him open to the charge of solipsism, I don't know what would. One must be within Fish's paradigm to understand him because for Fish it is impossible to reason one's way in. But are not his critics, many of whom are also professors of literature, within the same interpretive community who share a particular paradigm? Fish's perspective or paradigm is rather a way of seeing. And here Fish's thought is exemplary of post-modernism.
The problem with this theory is that it proves too much. It proves that anyone who is a member of the same interpretive community will not disagree on interpretation. And indeed, if the critic were so constrained by his community that he were unable to have any latitude in interpretation, then all with similar cultures and backgrounds would agree. But as we know they do not. Fish might respond to this by saying that yes there is some freedom to have differing interpretations, but it is freedom sanctioned or doled out by the institution, thus removing himself from criticism once again, proving himself to be the slippery fellow that he is.
Wittgenstein would not agree that two differing communities are separated from communication. As we saw earlier the scientist and the religious adherent are not unable to communicate, they can communicate but the "proofs" for each discipline are inappropriate to the other. This is the point of claiming that language games have family resemblance's as it makes communication possible. Furthermore, his example of why we call something a "number" reminds us that it has a relationship to other things that have been called number and he draws the analogy of a spinning thread in which fibre is twisted upon fibre. We can use this idea to criticize Fish's radical separateness of interpretive communities: just as communities use words and concepts which overlap, so one community can "understand" another by the relatedness of their concepts bearing "family resemblance's" and the similarities of their form of life.
In the real world cultures overlap and few are completely isolated from every other. Even historically speaking our culture is not isolated from the past as our word usage, forms of life, and language games are dependant on those of our ancestors so that there is an overlap between cultures historically. Thus our culture is not completely different from that of Shakespeare, Dante, or even the apostle John. And Fish has not explained how it is that one interpretive community could stop and another begin with complete disjuncture. One of the difficulties with the notion of interpretive community is its ill-defined nature. Fish has not attempted, to my knowledge, to clearly define what such a community is. If meaning is, as Fish maintains in words reminiscent of Wittgenstein, "something acquired in the context of an activity," then why can one not familiarize herself with the context or form of life in order to approximate meaning?
Wittgenstein's idea that language games are founded on forms of life has several implications for Fish's theory. Wittgenstein says, "The common behavior of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language."113 So that another language is only understood insofar as another form of life bears commonality with our own. Wittgenstein maintains, as we have seen, that language games are not totally independent, contra Fish. Even a language that had been isolated for centuries could be interpreted or "understood" because there is commonality in forms of life. Wittgenstein implies here that there is something essential about forms of life at the very least, which implies a kind of pragmatic essentialism in humanity. If there were nothing that one culture held in common with another culture or time period, translation, let alone communication, would not be possible. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein says, "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him."114 We could not understand him because he does not share our form of life, because its activities are so radically different from ours. Fish maintains contra Wittgenstein that other cultures bear nothing in common with our own, especially those long dead. They are to us as lions. But fortunately distant cultures and time periods are not as radically different as Fish's theory assumes. Wittgenstein is correct in that there is a "common behavior of mankind."
Fish's thinking about interpretive communities leans toward a strong determinism. Fish as we saw earlier maintained that readers do not have their own strategies, rather they flow from the interpretive community and "at once enable and limit the operations of his consciousness."115 The individual is determined by his cultural assumptions and unable to step outside "of his own convictions and beliefs."
But that is the one thing a historically conditioned consciousness cannot do--scrutinize its own beliefs, conduct a rational examination of its own convictions--for in order to begin such a scrutiny, it would first have to escape the grounds of its own possibility, and it could only do that if it were not historically conditioned and were instead an acontextual or unsituated entity. . ."116
The question naturally arises then, "How do you know?" Fish's determinism is self-stultifying. If readers are determined by their cultural contexts to read with certain pre-defined conceptual grids and are unable to scrutinize their own beliefs, how would Fish ever know this? Gerald Graff makes this very point in response to Fish, he "does not see that his present position would leave him without a vantage point for coherently stating that view."117 In order to perceive that communities are historically conditioned one must have an objective, encompassing perspective--which is exactly what Fish claims we do not and can not have.
This view of the interpretive community is a much too monolithic, reductionist view which does not square with what we know by experience.118 Members of the same "interpretive community" approach a text with "an indefinite number of incompatible, mutually exclusive, conflicting, or different ways of talking that are consistent with our peculiar background assumptions or with the theoretical and practical constraints on our practice," as Battersby has put it.119
The Reader-Response Theory of Stanley Fish
How would new insights be brought into an interpretive community and how would individuals with similar backgrounds ever disagree over textual interpretations?
Fish, I believe, has failed to make his point with any philosophical rigor, nor do his theories stand up to a comparison with those philosophers who have demonstrated such rigor. Fish's theories are certainly creative but they are not internally consistent and this is the ultimate test of any theory, not whether it can stand up to a "foundationalist" critique but whether or not it can succeed on its own terms. This it does not do. This leaves me with the final task in my stated goals: to examine Fish's thinking against the sociological backdrop of post-modernism to which we now turn.
Modernism: A Sociological Approach
At this point I would like to examine some of the influences of modernism, from a sociological perspective, on hermeneutical theory and the discipline of literary criticism, especially as it relates to the work of Stanley Fish. Most of this analysis, and even the approach itself, is indebted directly or indirectly to Peter Berger's seminal work, The Homeless Mind. Following Max Weber he defines modernization as "the growth and diffusion of a set of institutions rooted in the transformation of the economy by means of technology."120 The rise of the modern state finds a number of carriers of modernity, among them are technological production, capitalism, and urbanization, factors that are also major lines of continuity between modernism and post-modernism. These institutions affect the way in which we view and interact with the world. I will attempt to examine some of the influences of these carriers of modernity on the field of literary criticism.
"Historically, the modernizing institutions par excellence have been modern industrial capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state," according to Berger.121 These modernizing factors have contributed to a shift in the understanding of concepts such as authority and truth a shift similar to that experienced in philosophy which has moved from an emphasis on universal essence to the existing individual. Sociologically these factors can be seen primarily in the political and economic arena in which power is no longer vested in the divine right to rule but with the consent of the governed.
The rise of capitalism has dramatically changed the old hierarchical institutions controlled by church and king and has given rise to modern democracy. Capitalism's ability to "universalize" the market has undermined the hierarchy of the past and brought about a new world. Jane Tompkins catalogs the change in literature, with specific reference to her reader-response perspective, as a result of the changed social order brought on by capitalism:
But, once authors become dependent for their means of support upon the sales of their printed work, the personal relation to their audience is severed and the relationship becomes more purely economic. Manuscripts no longer circulate by hand among a coterie of friends and associates; poems are no longer read aloud in groups; sonnets are not exchanged among acquaintances. Instead, literature assumes the fixed condition of print. The literary work becomes endlessly reproducible, available to anyone who can read. Hence, the possible distance in time and space between the originator of the work and its readers becomes virtually limitless.122
This certainly has implications for the way in which a work is interpreted. Anthony Thiselton commenting on the rise of reader-response theory says, "In a commercial world too, the consumer decides what is to be offered and what is marketable, and what is marketable becomes 'what is'."123 What the consumer wants becomes what is true as the power lies with the purchaser, the demand with the consumer. This brings us to the influences of democracy which follow upon capitalism and bring another set of factors to bear on the interpreter. But first let us examine some of the influences of modernity on truth and authority.
The Death of Authority
God is dead.
It is a political Democracy that most accurately reflects the conventional beliefs regarding language and truth as its laws and social mores are, at least theoretically, determined by consensus. Capitalism and Democracy having brought about the demise of the old order based on a transcendent authority, promote an authority rooted in the people. It is an authority that is universal and like the marketplace rests on capital. Thus the old authority rooted in God, in transcendent unchanging principles, has given way to a new order founded upon rationality which in a Democratic society often degenerates into popular opinion, a fear with which Plato was not unfamiliar. The new order stands against the old with its authority rooted in the transcendent. It rebels against any sort of hierarchy either in society, the market, or the academy. As Gadamer has pointed out, the denigration of authority was a prejudice established in the enlightenment.124
This anti-hierarchical sentiment finds expression in philosophical terms through the death of the Author. Nietzsche proclaimed that God was dead and it was not long after that the notion of an author lost its meaning. Thus the demise of the Author has led to the demise of the author in the field of literature. Roland Barthes has written that "to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God. . . "125. The post-modern society would prefer an unfixed, conventional view of language and truth because what is not "fixed" can be changed. And it can be changed because the power to do so resides with the society or the interpretive community.
Thus Fish is able to claim with Foucault that the author is a creation of the reader. He is a fiction which is easier to live with than without. But ultimately Fish would claim there is no author because to quote Barthes, "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing."126 Once an author is conceded then an authority figure stands over the reader, alternately approving or condemning whatever meaning the reader takes from the text. She is no longer free and equal but instead subordinate to the will of the author, an authority figure reflective of Western patriarchal society.127 Conversely, to deprive a text of its author is to deprive it of its intentionality as well as its meaning which makes it easier for a hermeneutic such as Fish's to appear.
Democracy is a value laden institution. It consciously promotes individual freedom, self rule, and equality and these values in turn affect the way we look at the world. America, especially, has seen an increased emphasis placed on individual freedom, the ability to choose one's own destiny, with its right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness" often to the detriment of social responsibility. These values affect the way we look at the world and produce an anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian zeitgeist as the power resides with the people. David Wells says that it is "not simply a political system but an entire worldview and for whom, therefore, culture and truth belong to the people."128
Privatization of Truth
In Berger's analysis of modernity he contends that the individual in modern society lives in a "plurality of life-worlds," by which he means that one's life is fragmented into various differing parts without the ability of each of those parts to interact with one another. Therefore the typical worker's occupation will seldom if ever come into contact with his family life. This scenario can be, and is, multiplied in a world of increasing complexity. "A fundamental aspect of this pluralization is the dichotomy of private and public spheres."129 Thus the distinction between public and private life becomes a reality in the modern world.
One of the effects of pluralization is, in Berger's analysis, secularization and the privatization of religion. Because religion cannot compete in a pluralistic society, while maintaining peace and harmonious relationships, it becomes increasingly a matter for discussion at home, although this is more the case for American than European communities. The same processes at work to take religious discussion out of the public arena (freedom of religion as seen in the separation of church and state is one of our most cherished values) have also worked to take notions of "truth" from the public arena. As with religion, "truth" has become privatized and expressions like "what is true for me" become commonplace. The very idea that one religion could be true for me while another is true for you, undermines the concept of truth as an objective reality, something which was highly prized under the rubric of modernism. Thus in the post-modern world, the concept of truth becomes private property or immanent. The privatization of which I am referring goes hand in hand with the values of a democratic institution.
One of the results of "cognitive bargaining" in the modern world as a result of the dichotomy between public and private worlds is the subjectivization of truth. One may wonder whether the roots of existential thought cannot be traced to the rise of modernity, which is not to say that it is an asymmetric relationship. (That is not to say strictly that modernism produced existentialism, but that each affected and fed off of the other.) Referring to the fragmentation of the modern identity due to the loss of a cohering world, Berger says, "The modern individual's experience of a plurality of social worlds relativizes every one of them. Consequently the institutional order undergoes a certain loss of reality. . . . the individual's experience of himself becomes more real to him than his experience of the objective social world. Therefore, the individual seeks to find his 'foothold' in reality in himself rather than outside himself."130 This puts the modern emphasis on existence over essence in a new light. It is not surprising then to find religion, philosophy, and literary theory placing the emphasis more on subjective experience and working to validate that experience. As W. John Harker has said:
So it was that the world seemed less certain. The philosophical reality of logical positivism the psychological certainty of behaviorism, the linguistic "common sense" of sensorially received language, and even the unassailable objectivity of scientific method all fell before competing movements in their respective disciplines, movements which had in common an appeal to the inner consciousness of man as the determiner of relative meaning, rather than an appeal to external observable, analyzable phenomena as the determiners of an objective reality.131
As truth has become privatized, knowledge has undergone a correlative process of democratization. Whereas at one time truth belonged to the transcendent realm that was fixed and unchanging, it has in the post-modern world become immanent. Knowledge, as with everything else in a capitalistic society, is spoken of in terms of "ownership." This is not a coincidence. Whereas democracy begins with an ontological egalitarianism (that is, all people are equal beings), when transcendence is lost, epistemological egalitarianism results, in which each person has an equal right to make truth claims. Thus the proliferation of opinion polls in which the opinions of those less "informed" are equal to those more "informed," in which the unreflected upon opinions are weighted equally with those that are carefully considered. And it is often these kinds of opinion polls that determine, indirectly, public policy. Likewise, talk shows have become increasingly popular as they have become increasingly ludicrous and regardless of their claim, each one is on an equal footing epistemologically as "everyone has a right to an opinion." Again, Thiselton referring to the rise of reader-oriented hermeneutics says, "Such a move also coheres too neatly with the trend towards social egalitarianism in an age which transfers any notion of 'privileged' knowledge on the part of an author or a sacred text to the shared contributions of pluralist reading communities."132
It is exactly this privilege knowledge that Stanley Fish's theory transfers to the possession of the reading community. For Fish it is the reader's perspective within his own context that is normative. As the concept of "author" has gone by the wayside there is therefore no longer any need to access what the meaning was in its original context, the reader's context takes precedent. Indeed, for Fish the reader's context is all that is accessible. It is not surprising therefore that Fish's theory would be labeled subjective by his critics, a criticism Fish strongly denies. Peter Kivy maintains that subjectivity is exactly one of the consequences of Fish's critical theory. Appropriately he says that once a reader sees things from Fish's perspective there are no longer any constraints: