Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”


As the self-proclaimed “inventor” of reader response theory, Stanley Fish remains a controversial figure. One of many critics to overturn the centrality of the text to New Criticism, Fish nevertheless ruffled feathers even in his own community of thinkers (Wolfgang Iser wonders how Fish’s refusal to acknowledge subjectivist readerly tendencies can account for different readings of the same text). Nonetheless, his ideas remain highly influential; I am particularly interested in how a focus on the reader can help us understand the way that viewer assimilates new knowledge over time, especially in a long-form text that the reader enters and exits, and which is so clearly imbricated in the period of life they spend consuming it. It is worth comparing Fish’s “interpretive communities” to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” a term Lauren Berlant uses in The Female Complaint. 

Fish uses the Milton variorum, with its “surveying of the critical history of a work in order to find disputes that rested upon a base of agreement with the experience of a work, and argued that formalist criticism, because it is spatial rather than temporal in its emphases, either ignored or suppressed what is really happening in the act of reading” 2071.

“The facts that I cite as ones ignored by a formalist criticism (premature conclusions, double syntax, misidentification of speakers) are not discovered but created by the criticism I was myself practicing… that a bad (because spatial) model had suppressed what has really happening – loses its force because of my realization that the notion ‘really happening’ is just one more interpretation… the problem of accounting for the agreement readers often reach and for the principled ways in which they disagree” 2071.

“It was at this point that I elaborated the notion of interpretive communities as an explanation both for the difference we see – and by seeing make – and for the fact that those differences are not random or idiosyncratic but systemic and conventional” 2071.

“What if the [readerly] controversy is itself regarded as evidence, not of an ambiguity that must be removed, but of an ambiguity that readers have always experienced?” 2073.

“In other words, it is the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structures available on the page that should be the object of description” 2074.

“In a matter of seconds, then, line 7 has led four experiential lives, one as we anticipate it, another as that anticipation is revised, a third when we retroactively identify its speaker, and a fourth when that speaker disclaims it. What changes in each of these lives is the status of the poet’s murmurings – they are alternately expressed, rejected, reinstated, and qualified – and as the sequence ends, the reader is without a firm perspective on the question of record” 2078 [uncertainty]

“This, then, is the structure of the reader’s experience – the transferring of a moral label from a thing to those who appropriate it. It is an experience that depends on a reader for whom the name Bacchus has precise and immediate associations; another reader, a reader for whom those associations are less precise will not have that experience because he will not have rushed to a conclusion in relation to which the word ‘misused’ will stand as a challenge… the action of the mind which its possession makes possible for one reader and impossible for the other… [to] realize at the end of ti that he has been asked to take a position on one side of a continuing controversy” 2080.

“It would be possible to continue with this profile of the optimal reader, but I would not get very far before someone would point out that what I am really describing is the intended reader, the reader whose education, opinions, concerns, linguistic competences, and so on make him capable of having the experience the author wished to provide… it seems obvious that the efforts of readers are always efforts to discern and therefore to realize (in the sense of becoming) the author’s intention. I would only object if that realization were conceived narrowly, as the single act of comprehending an author’s purpose, rather than (as I would conceive it) as the succession of acts readers perform in the continuing assumption that they are dealing with intentional beings” 2080.

“It would appear that I am open to two objections… the procedure is a circular one. I describe the experience of a reader who in his strategies is answerable to an author’s intention, and I specify the author’s intention by pointing to the strategies employed by that same reader. But this objection would have force only if it were possible to specify one independently of the other. What is being specified… are the conditions of utterance, or what could have been understood to have been meant by what was said… The second objection is another version of the first” if the content of the reader’s experience is the succession of acts he performs in search of an author’s intentions, and if he performs those acts at the bidding of the text, does not the text then produce or contain everything… have I not compromised my antiformalist position? This objection will have force only if the formal patterns of the text are assumed to exist independently of the reader’s experience… they are in the text before the reader comes to it …[but this is] the spectacle of an assertion supporting itself” 2081.

“It is my thesis that the reader is always making sense (I intend ‘making’ to have its literal force), and in the case of these lines the sense he makes will involve the assumption (and therefore the creation) of a completed assertion” 2081. [faceting, facere]

“How easy it is to surrender to the bias of our critical language and begin to talk as if poems, not readers or interpreters, did things. Words like ‘encourage’ and ‘disallow’… imply agents, and it is only ‘natural’ to assign agency first to an author’s intentions and then to the forms that assumedly embody them. What really happens, I think, is something quite different: rather than intention and its formal realization producing interpretation… interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out” 2082.

“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” 2083.

“The form of the reader’s experience, formal units, and the structure of intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously, and that therefore the questions of priority and independence do not arise… what produces them?… if intention, form, and the shape of the reader’s experience are simply different ways of referring to… the same interpretive act, what is that act an interpretation of? I cannot answer that question, but neither… can anyone else, although formalists try to answer it by pointing to patterns and claiming that they are available independently of (prior to) interpretation… I would argue that they do not lie innocently in the world but are themselves constituted by an interpretive act, even if, as is often the case, that act is unacknowledged” 2083.

“What is noticed is what has been made noticeable, not by a clear and undistorting glass, but by an interpretive strategy… the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself… I must give up the claims implicitly made in the first part of this essay… that a bad… model had suppressed what was really happening… just one more interpretation” 2085.

“The price one pays for denying the priority of either forms or intentions is an inability to say how it is that one ever begins… why isn’t it the case that readers are always performing the same acts or a sequence of random acts, and therefore creating the same…? … both the stability of interpretation among readers and the variety of interpretation in the career of a single reader would seem to argue for the existence of something independent of and prior to interpretive acts, something which produces them” 2085.

“The notions of the ‘same’ or ‘different’ texts are fictions. If I read Lycidas & The Waste Land differently (in fact I do not), it will not be because the formal structures of the two poems (to term them such is also an interpretive decision) call forth different interpretive strategies but because my predisposition to execute different interpretive strategies will produce different formal structures. That is, the two poems are different because I have decided that they will be” 2086.

Augustine advocates the opposite, in a tradition of Christian exegesis: that every reading conform to the scripture and the love of God.

“Why should two or more readers ever agree…? …Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around” 2088. (think Marxist critics, often)

“This, then, is the explanation both for the stability of interpretation among different readers (they belong to the same community) and for the regularity with which a single reader will employ different interpretive strategies and thus make different texts (he belongs to different communities). It also explains why there are disagreements and why they can be debated in a principled way: not because of a stability in texts, but because of a stability in the makeup of interpretive communities and therefore in the opposing positions they make possible” 2088 (Althusser/ ISAs).

“The ideal is of perfect agreement and it would require texts to have a status independent of interpretation. The fear is of interpretive anarchy, but it would only be realized if interpretation (text making) were completely random. It is the fragile but real consolidation of interpretive communities that allows us to talk to one another, but with no hope or fear of ever being able to stop” 2088.

“Interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned… 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 only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” 2089.




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