Who Cares about the Text?

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<ul><li><p>Who Cares about the Text?Is There a Text in This Class? by Stanley FishReview by: Robert ScholesNOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter, 1984), pp. 171-180Published by: Duke University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1345017 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 07:00</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.</p><p> .</p><p>Duke University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to NOVEL: AForum on Fiction.</p><p>http://www.jstor.org </p><p>This content downloaded from 195.34.79.176 on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 07:00:04 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=dukehttp://www.jstor.org/stable/1345017?origin=JSTOR-pdfhttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsphttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>Review Essays Who Cares About the Text? </p><p>She said, "But was it true to the text?" "Oh, my dear, who cares about the text?" </p><p>P. D. James, The Skull Beneath the Skin </p><p>ROBERT SCHOLES (? 1983) </p><p>If it is any satisfaction to lovers of the literal, the lady who expresses such a cavalier attitude toward textual fidelity in the epigraph is in fact expunged from the book of life herself shortly thereafter, bashed to death by a relic from the Victorian period. One is tempted to draw from this sequence of events a cautionary moral-but it would be rash to do so, for the very act of drawing such a moral would raise again the spectre of textual validity. What is it that might justify me in my desire to interpret this crime of murder as a punishment for indifference to interpretive fidelity? Or, more to the point, perhaps, on what grounds could such an interpretation be confidently rejected? Why won't the text stand still so that one could indeed be true to it or false to it and know which is which? </p><p>One set of answers to these questions has been proposed recently by Stanley Fish, who says, essentially, that the text won't stand still because there is no such thing as the text, which is only and always a figment of the interpreter's imagination. One result of this is that the interpreter seems to become very important. As Fish puts it: "No longer is the critic the humble servant of texts whose glories exist independently of anything he might do." 1 This statement is in fact a bribe, offered to persuade us that we will profit by adopting Fish's view. There are two things wrong with it-in addition to the bribery-that should be pointed out. First, the power offered to inter- preters is illusory, since, in Fish's view, interpreters themselves are always already the creatures of larger entities called "interpretive communities." Totally controlled by membership in an interpretive community, the interpreter lacks freedom, power, and responsibility. The interpreter is freed from service to the text only to become the "humble servant" of his ideological group. The second thing wrong with the bribe is that it betrays Fish's own doubts about his theory, according to which we could not even have understood him on his own terms unless we were already members of his community of interpreters. One of the problems of his theory, in fact, is that it does not allow for any difference between understanding and belief. </p><p>My intention here is to offer a corrective critique of the argument made by Fish in Is There a Text in This Class?. In particular, I shall attack the notion of "interpretive communities" as vague, inconsistently applied, and unworkable. In the course of this critique I shall also sketch out a notion of the literary text and its uses. Before going on the offensive, however, I want to say two things about Stanley Fish and his theory of the text. First, I admire his learning, his ingenuity, and his consummate rhetorical ability. Second, I think that he is right-not just persuasive, but right-up to a point. </p><p>lIs There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 368. </p><p>This content downloaded from 195.34.79.176 on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 07:00:04 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>NOVEL WINTER 1984 </p><p>In particular, he is right to question the status of texts, pointing out that no text is as simply "there" as we have sometimes assumed it to be. Interpretation does enter the reading process at a very early point. And interpretation is never totally free but </p><p>always limited by such prior acquisitions as language, generic norms, social patterns, and beliefs. For a simple but fundamental example of this, we have only to look at the Book of Genesis (1:25). "And God said, let us make man in our image." The Hebrew word for "God" in this passage is "Elohim," the plural of "El." One could translate the word as a plural-"The Gods"-instead of a singular, and the plural would then agree grammatically with the other plurals, "us" and "our," which are in the Hebrew, the Vulgate, and the King James text. Obviously, we cannot introduce "The Gods" without embarrassment for all monotheistic interpreters of the text. So the word in Judeo-Christian communities will not only be translated as singular but read in Hebrew as singular. This will not prevent some interpreters from saying that the plural is really there, and that it signifies the Trinity. Sir Thomas Browne, in Religio Medici, described it as an instance of the royal "we." Others say that the text bears traces of Mesopotamian polytheism. Still others have argued that this God is androgy- nous and therefore plural. The point is that to a very real extent one's beliefs will color what one reads. For a monotheist "Elohim" is a singular. What is there, in this in- stance, depends upon an interpretive stance. </p><p>This example will serve to illustrate just how far I am willing to go along with </p><p>Stanley Fish. I hope it will also serve to indicate where I think we should all part com- pany with him. My view of the interpretive complexities of the passage was based upon its appearance in the King James Version, and a single reference to the Hebrew text. But, suppose I had chosen the modern Anchor version for my text: "Then God said I will make man in my image, after my likeness." There are no plurals in this version, us and. our having been replaced by I and my. To say the very least, this makes the androgynous and polytheistic interpretations more difficult to sustain. Given this </p><p>particular text, they can hardly even arise. But the very least is all that needs to be said here, for Fish's position is absolutely extreme on this question. He asserts, over and over again, that texts have no properties of their own, that they are always and only what their readers make of them: "Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them" (327). </p><p>Even this might be acceptable if Fish would admit that making a poem from a text is a different activity from making a text in the first place. The issue here is the extent to which a text may be said to guide or offer resistance to the things one makes of it, whether we call these products poems, works, or interpretations. If we think of printed texts only, for the moment, that come to us in the form of inked shapes on pages, is there any significant difference between a page of Paradise Lost and a Rorschach blot? At this point one could introduce a straw Fish to answer that question in the negative. But let me instead make the best possible answer that one could make, holding Fish's stated views in this matter. </p><p>This answer would say that, yes, there is a difference but it is not in the texts; it is in the ways we interpret them. I can imagine an interpreter so removed from any understanding of English that the text of Paradise Lost would carry less significance for him than any Rorschach blot. But I wonder if even an imagination as brilliantly perverse as Fish's could find an interpreter whose language proved to be that in which the Rorschach blot had been encoded, a language in which the blot could be interpreted as seeking to justify the ways of God to men. One can think of it, but even in thinking it one proves the point that it is supposed to deny. There is a difference between a </p><p>172 </p><p>This content downloaded from 195.34.79.176 on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 07:00:04 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>ROBERT SCHOLESITEXTS AND CRITICS </p><p>text perceived as encoded in a particular language and one that is perceived as not </p><p>being in any language at all. In fact, to perceive a text as a text is to perceive it as </p><p>being in a language. Fish might reply that having a language is part of what he means by being in a </p><p>community of interpreters. But I would answer by pointing out that no language community is congruous with any interpretive community. Christian exegetes, for </p><p>example, are not confined to any single language, nor are speakers of any single language compelled to be Christian exegetes. Moreover, a text is bound to its lan- </p><p>guage; it exists as a text only in and through its language. It is not so bound to any interpretive community. Nor are perception and belief as constrained by membership in either a linguistic or interpretive group as Fish maintains. When Wittgenstein said that our world is bounded by our language he did not say that we had no freedom within the boundaries. If you play chess you can only do certain things with the pieces-or you will no longer be playing chess. But those constraints in themselves never tell you what move to make. Language does not speak-any more than the law of gravity falls. Furthermore, language is changed by speech, though gravity is not </p><p>changed by any act of falling or flying. But enough analogies-let us look more closely at what Fish does mean by an "interpretive community." </p><p>In the introduction to Is There a Text in This Class? Fish says that "it is interpretive communities, rather than either the text or the reader, that produce meanings and are responsible for the emergence of formal features" (14). As Fish explains this, we can think and perceive only what our interpretive community allows us to think and perceive. He finds this totalitarian vision completely reassuring. Whatever we think will be right, because we have no choice in the matter. Nor will there be any need to respect the integrity of whatever we are thinking about. The interpretive community will decide for us what is out there and we will duly perceive it. "Not to worry," says Fish. Not to worry? I remember Mr. O'Brien inducting Winston Smith into his interpretive community in 1984. </p><p>Notice what Fish has done. First, he has asserted that readers make texts; then he has shifted his position to say, quite specifically, that meanings are produced by neither text nor reader but by interpretive communities. But he has never made clear what an interpretive community is, how its constituency might be determined, or what could be the source of its awesome power. In practice, he sometimes means simply those who share certain linguistic and cultural information: that is, all those who would understand a certain speech in a certain situation as a request to open the window. At other times he means something like all Christian readers of literary texts. The </p><p>problem is not just that the size and shape of the "community" change to suit Fish's needs, though that is a problem. A greater difficulty is the putting of such things as the </p><p>English language and Christian typology on the same plane. One may debate whether Samson Agonistes is or is not a Christian poem. But even in order to debate that one must perceive the poem as written in the English language. A Christian reader with no English will not make much of the poem. An English reader with no special Christian </p><p>interpretive bias can make a good deal of it. The point is that Fish's notion of "community" will not stand examination. He says that "a set of interpretive assump- tions is always in force" (284). I would argue that the notion of a single, monolithic set of assumptions makes the same totalitarian error that Fish makes in other places. Different, even conflicting assumptions may preside over any reading of a single text </p><p>by a single person. It is in fact these very differences-differences within the reader, who is never a unified member of a single unified group-it is these very differences </p><p>173 </p><p>This content downloaded from 195.34.79.176 on Sat, 14 Jun 2014 07:00:04 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>NOVEL WINTER 1984 </p><p>that create the space in which the reader exercises a measure of interpretive freedom. This freedom, however, is most certainly constrained by language. A written text </p><p>is a set of marks that are as they are only because a certain language was implicated in their composition. A printed text is never only on the page. It is a transaction between what is on the page and the particular linguistic code that originally enabled those marks to carry meaning. This is in fact what distingushes a written text from a Rorschach blot. Familiarity with a text's linguistic code is assumed by all who discuss the interpretation of literary texts, though some theorists emphasize this and others </p><p>prefer to ignore it. Fish prefers to ignore it, because any serious consideration of the </p><p>relationship of both the reader and the writer to language will show that the reader is more constrained than the writer. The reader's choices in "making" meaning are in fact </p><p>severely limited by the writer's previous choices of what marks to put on the page. But Fish prefers to ignore this set of constraints in order to emphasize the constraints that can be attributed to membership in an interpretive community. </p><p>The notion of interpretive communities, he tells us in his introduction, is now "central" to his discourse. It explains everything that was dark before. One thing it </p><p>explains is the status of the reader: "since the thoughts an individual can think and the mental operations he can perform have their source in some or other interpretive community, he is as much the product of that community (acting as an extension of it) as the meanings it enables him to produce" (14). The reader is simply a product of "some or other" interpretive community, and no one can belong to more than one of these communities at a time. "Members of different communities will disagree," says Fish, and, conversely, those who agree wi...</p></li></ul>