Fish According to Paul Noble
For Noble, the defining characteristic of “Stanley Fish” is the assertion that an interpretive community may twist its text into any shape; this Fish can be fairly described, therefore, as an apostle of freeplay. This portrait is primarily based upon his reading of Fish’s infamous example of a ‘list’ of names on a blackboard that his students are asked to read as a ‘poem’.
"Fish’s hermeneutic entails that there is no question that a sufficiently ingenious interpretive community could not get a set text to answer, because as Fish himself explains, ‘while there are always mechanisms for ruling out readings, their source is not the text, but the presently recognised interpretive strategies for producing the text. It follows then that no reading, however outlandish it might appear, is inherently an impossible one."
Fish’s distinction between “serious man” (the foundationalist) and “rhetorical man” (the non-foundationalist) Noble clearly understands as meaning that the latter can choose which face to wear, which text to hear. Being ‘infinitely-open’ here then means that a text is open to absolutely any interpretation, a ‘relativism’ exists in which anything and everything goes!
Noble illustrates his argument against this Fish by offering examples that purport to show that texts cannot be made to mean just anything. In a typical example he states that while a “pipe” may have be seen as a “telescope” by Galileo, no-one chooses sees the pipe as “a steamroller or as a killer whale” as this Fish implies they could.
Noble also enters into Fish’s debate with Wolfgang Iser about the ‘ironic’ nature of the chapter title, Arcadian Simplicity, in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
He takes issue with Fish’s rejection of Iser’s claim that, regardless of its exact nature, one must surely accept its “giveness” as a title.
For Noble, there is no possible alternative reading and so the chapter title itself is a ‘reader-independent fact’. With this and other such objective ‘anchors’, Noble offers us a relatively secure text and guards us against the consequences of Fish’s radical anti-realist epistemology.
In responding to this portrait, there are two factors to consider. The first is that Noble’s Fish appears to be identical to the usual caricature of the mad deconstructionist, forever overturning the significance of his tax bill, his pipe, his text, his killer whale, his whatever. But since this is not a person who actually exists, this Fish is clearly not giving us an account of the mundane empirical reality we perceive. After all, we know that we don’t see a “pipe”—or a tax bill—as a “killer whale” and consider it highly unlikely that any one else would either.
The second point is that Noble’s Fish is internally inconsistent, a fact which I, at least, don’t like, preferring my theorists neat and tidy. Although the poem experiment is often read as asserting that readers can make texts mean whatever they want, the chapter in which it occurs contains both the argument that there is no such free standing reader and the statement that “a text cannot be overwhelmed by an irresponsible reader.”
Can Noble’s Fish make coherent sense of this? I think not. Should we accept such an ingenious, incoherent Fish as right (whatever that would now mean)? No, Noble is right to reject him and so should we.
Fish According to William John Lyons
In this portrayal of Stanley Fish, I would like to go back and begin at the beginning. Fish’s early work involved a close reading technique, ‘Affective Stylistics’, which slowed down the reading process so that one could see how the reader was responding to the text.
At this stage, his approach could be categorised as semi-formalist, the text existing independently of and constraining the reader. Fish later came to see such an approach as fundamentally incorrect, arguing that in his earlier work he had done
"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 my principles direct me to see are readers performing acts; the points at which I find (or to be more precise, declare) those acts to have been performed become (by a sleight of hand) demarcations in the text; those demarcations are then available for the designation ‘formal features’ and as formal features they can be (illegitimately) assigned the responsibility for producing the interpretation which in fact produced them.
Fish’s change of mind can be summed up as an acceptance of the view that every human sense perception is ‘interpreted’; as he puts it, “interpretation is the only game in town.”
To accept this so-called ‘anti-realist’ position is not to conclude that there is no raw data out there as some might have us believe, but it is to argue that there is no way for humans to encounter it directly or to use ‘it’ to adjudicate between interpretations.
From this position, Fish set out to explain the following conundrum.
"What is the source of interpretive authority: the text or the reader? Those who answered ‘the text’ were embarrassed by the fact of disagreement. Why, if the text contains its own meaning and constrains its own interpretation, do so many interpreters disagree about that meaning? Those who answered ‘the reader’ were embarrassed by the fact of agreement. Why, if the meaning is created by the individual reader from the perspective of his own experience and interpretive desires, is there so much that interpreters agree about? What was required was an explanation that could account for both agreement and disagreement.
Note here the empirical nature of the enquiry. This Fish is not trying to prescribe an absurd rule for playfulness or ingenuity, but rather to describe and explain a real situation that he regards as obvious within literary studies.
For Fish the explanation was found in the concept of an interpretive community,
"not so much a group of individuals who [share] a point of view, but a point of view or way of organising experience that share[s] individuals in the sense that its assumed distinctions, categories of understanding, and stipulations of relevance and irrelevance [a]re the content of the consciousness of community members who [a]re therefore no longer individuals, but, insofar as they [a]re embedded in the community’s enterprise, community property.
According to Fish, each person is a member of many different interpretive communities, some of which are unchanging (e.g., race) and some of which can change rapidly (e.g., religious conviction).
It should be noted, however, that his definition of an ‘interpretive community’ is somewhat ambiguous. Despite his statement above that it is “not so much a group of individuals who shared a point of view, but a point of view or way of organising experience that shared individuals”, it is clear that he does use the term to indicate both. For example, Fish writes elsewhere that “as a fully situated member of an interpretive community, be it literary or legal, [one naturally looks at the] objects of the community’s concerns with eyes already informed by community imperatives, urgencies, and goals.”
This emphasis on the way in which readers are “grasped” by the interpretive strategy of their community/ies demonstrates that this ‘Fish’ does not see his “rhetorical man” as radically free and able to make the text say anything he wants. Here, the absolute “relativism” of Noble’s Fish can only be entertained on the theoretical level because real readers are always predisposed towards specific readings.
But it would be a mistake to see this, with Elisabeth Freund, as an imprisonment within a potentially oppressive interpretive community.
The constraints operative limit but they also actualise; without them, the interpreter can do nothing at all.
And although a set of constraints must always be in place, its exact contents are not set in stone; constraints may change over time.
Nevertheless, at any given point in time, they are responsible for limiting interpretation.
For Fish, words occur only in context and are understood immediately as heard in that context; there is no gap between hearing and interpreting.
Moreover, they generally have an obvious and purposeful meaning, an “intention”. Fish writes that
"[w]ords are intelligible only within the assumption of some context of intentional production, some already-in-place predecision as to what kind of person, with what kind of purposes, in relation to what specific goals in a particular situation, is speaking or writing.
But the meaning understood, the intention constructed, is always context dependent and slight changes in context will subtly change the way in which both are understood. But this does not necessarily mean that sense can be made of a communication in any context. If a ‘text’ proves incoherent, its readers will probably attempt to reduce the dissonance created by selecting interpretive assumptions which allow them to make sense of what they have encountered—for example, “Oh, its a first century text.”
There is no way, however, to encounter a neutral text. Indeed, because the ‘text’ is always being viewed through community spectacles, it no longer exists as a separate, free entity to which an appeal can be made in order to demonstrate the correctness of one’s interpretations. As Fish puts it in his book Is There a Text in this Class?
"[t]he answer this book gives to its title question is ‘there is and there isn’t’. There isn’t a text in this or any other class if one means by text what E.D. Hirsch and others mean by it, ‘an entity which always remains the same from one moment to the next’;
but there is a text in this and every class if one means by text the structure of meanings that is obvious and inescapable from the perspective of whatever interpretive assumptions happen to be in force.…
What I am suggesting is that an interpreting entity, endowed with purposes and concerns, is, by virtue of its very operation, determining what counts as the facts to be observed.
The Hirschian text disappears, and it is the Fishian text that now appears in its place and forms the ‘object’ of criticism.
Of fundamental importance here, however, is the fact that the fishian text that is now being encountered is, in Fish’s own words, “obvious and inescapable from the perspective of whatever interpretive assumptions happen to be in force”; it is solid to the touch.
The existence of community-specific texts does not mean, however, that a community cannot encounter different readings or persuade another group to adopt its view. But since interpretations cannot be proved by an appeal to the text, other readers must be persuaded to discard their own assumptions and accept the assumptions which will lead them to see the same text.
As an example of how communication can take place across community boundaries, Fish utilises the question of one of his students to a colleague, “Is there a text in this class?”
The colleague’s immediate reaction was to say yes and name the text, The Norton Anthology of Literature.
However, the student did not mean this but was rather asking does a text exist as an objective entity?
In his discussion of this example, Fish argues that in order to hear the comment as it was intended to be heard the hearer must either already be in a position to hear or must move into a position from which the comment can be understood.
Here this can happen because Fish’s colleague is aware of a number of ‘rubrics’ within which the sense of the comment can be examined, and eventually he arrives at, “Ah, there’s one of Fish’s victims”,
a victim who can ask if the text exists objectively by using the phrase, ‘Is there a text in this class?’ If these rubrics had not been available, however, Fish writes that there would have been a need for the speaker to
"make a new start, although she would not have to start from scratch (indeed starting from scratch is never a possibility); but she would have to back up to some point at which there was a shared agreement as to what was reasonable to say so that a new and wider basis for agreement could be fashioned.
Agreement between communities will take place when they share reading strategies that enable them to see as evidence features that appear only as a result of those strategies. But because strong definitions of community boundaries are as beyond us as the Hirschian text, Fish concludes that we can recognise fellow community members only with a knowing “nod of recognition.”
In this version of Fish, therefore, it is never the case that anything goes, but rather that only what goes, goes. ‘Indeterminacy’ is now to be defined as a ‘limited indeterminacy’; readings are infinite in number but limited in scope. Nothing in such a hermeneutic even begins to suggest that Noble’s “pipe” will necessarily be seen as a killer whale, but neither can this or any other interpretation be ruled out on the basis of the “text” in itself because such a thing cannot be invoked to resolve disputes. Two points are noteworthy here. First, we might say that a particular reading could not exist because no such interpretive community could ever exist. But apart from checking every interpretive community that has ever existed or ever will exist—obviously impossible—how can we know this definitively? But, second, and more importantly, the number of readings possible, though still infinite in number, is limited and so the situation we are looking at is more one of interpretive disputes over comparatively minor topics; for example, is a “pipe” a “telescope” and not, is it a “killer whale”. But minor only in one sense; relatively small changes may still have large effects. After all, seeing a grey tube as a telescope rather than as a pipe is likely to be of considerable significance when we come to describe the scene in which it occurs.
The loss of the text as adjudicator
The hermeneutical situation described—of a limited but infinite number of competing readings—differs in only one major respect from that proposed by Thiselton, Noble, and Vanhoozer; the loss of a text sufficiently ‘available’ to adjudicate between interpretations.
Thiselton has attempted to use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of cross-cultural overlaps creating stable but fuzzy-edged concepts in order to reinstate the text proclaimed lost by Fish. According to Thiselton,
"[w]hen he looked at language, Wittgenstein observed that some language games could be thought of in entirely context-relative terms, but for the most part ‘we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing’. In other words, although social practices of given communities do indeed provide a background which contextually shapes concepts and meanings, overlapping and interpenetration also offer certain criss-crossings which constitute trans-contextual bridges. Sufficient bridging can occur for Wittgenstein to suggest that in many cases a trans-contextual frame of reference for meanings can be found in ‘the common behaviour of mankind’. It is not the case, as Fish suggests it is, that we must choose between the sharply-bounded crystalline purity of formalist concepts and the unstable concepts of contextual pragmatism. Concepts may function with a measure of operational stability, but with ‘blurred edges’. Difference of social context and practice may push or pull them into relatively different shapes but do not necessarily change their stable identity. For Wittgenstein... ‘concepts with blurred edges’ are situated on middle ground along the road from formalism to pragmatism.
Presumably, a semi-formalist text results, with gaps filled in a variety of ways by different readers."
This situation mirrors the debate between Fish and Iser mentioned earlier. Fish’s response in that debate is therefore directly pertinent to Thiselton; how are we to say which concepts are of this type? Unless we can access raw data and prove its existence directly, we cannot claim it as evidence for a necessary stability without circularity. And any attempt to demonstrate a stable concept within interpreted reality (e.g. Noble’s ‘Arcadian Simplicity’) is open to the objection that we can never check all possible interpretive communities, all readerly horizons.
Please do not misunderstand me here; I have no wish to deconstruct every concept ad infinitum or to try to prove that no concept is solid. I just see no way that the solidity of any concept can be conclusively demonstrated. And, therefore, no way that Noble’s claim that ‘Arcadian Simplicity’ is a reader-independent fact can be made good. It does seem to me, however, that the history of biblical exegesis can be accounted for quite happily by my description of Fish’s hermeneutics. All biblical texts have a number of variations that cling to them and defy all attempts to point to the text as adjudicator. Recognising this brings the history of biblical exegesis alive as a rich source for Christianity instead of seeing it as a mere repository of interpretations—virtually all of them wrong.
A Threat to Christian Theology?
What is the effect of this portrait of Fish on Christian theology? Does disaster result? Or is it a useful description of our situation? Although there is no space here for a detailed study of the impact of ‘my Fish’ I should like to counter three charges of disaster. First, is Fish a threat to the Bible? No, he simply describes and explains both the variety of interpretation we have had—and will have in the future—and why, as the history of exegesis demonstrates, the Bible has never been able to function as an adjudicator of what it means in and of itself. Second, is Fish’s anti-realism a threat to the realist existence of a deity beyond the projections of humanity? No, because the essence of non-foundationalism is its recognition that it can say nothing about what lies beyond human perception. Fish represents absolutely no threat to a theology of revelation such as that of Karl Barth. If we talk of a God reaching into Creation through whatever means, he cannot deny the possibility, except—perhaps—to claim that Occam’s razor renders it unnecessary. Finally, does Fish’s claim that we are unable to touch reality in itself mean that we cannot discern God in creation? No, because such a view would be unnecessarily dualistic. We are part of creation ourselves and therefore our interpretive lenses are no barriers to encountering the divine in the created order.
It is my conclusion then, that Fish is not the great nemesis of Christian Theology that Thiselton, Noble and Vanhoozer would have us believe but rather the opposite. Fish is the provider of an important theological explanation of the effect of humanity’s finitude upon both our biblical interpretation and our God-talk. In accepting Fish’s arguments as accurate, our greatest gains as Christian theologians may well be a more humble restraint in expressing our own views and, hopefully, a newfound desire to give heed to the voices of those we have traditionally despised.
Now published as ‘Signs of the Times: Towards a Theology for the Year 2000 as a Grammar of Grace, Truth and Eschatology in Contexts of So-called Post-modernity’, in The Future as God’s Gift: Exploration in Christian Eschatology (Ed. D. Ferguson; Society for the Study of Theology: Explorations in Contemporary Theology Series; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000), pp . Interestingly, much of the discussion of the pragmatists has been removed, presumably because of space considerations (at 54 pages, the Edinburgh paper was rather lengthy.)
Rorty’s works include Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979); Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982); Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Objectivism, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
The primary collections of Fish’s work are Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and Its a Good Thing Too (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994); Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
See, for example, S. Hauerwas, and S. Long, ‘Interpreting the Bible as a Political Act’. Religion and Intellectual Life 9 (1989), pp 134-42; cf. also S. Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981); Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Nashville: Abingdon Press , 1993).
See also his comments on Fish in his New Horizons in Hermeneutics (London: HarperCollins, 1992), pp 537-42.
The Canonical Approach: A Critical Reconstruction of the Hermeneutics of Brevard S. Childs (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995); ‘Hermeneutics and Post-modernism: Can We Have a Radical Reader-Response Theory? Part 1’, Religious Studies 30 (1994), pp 419-36; ‘Hermeneutics and Post-modernism: Can We Have a Radical Reader-Response Theory? Part 2’, Religious Studies 31 (1995), pp 1-22.
Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and The Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos, 1998).
W.J. Lyons, ‘The Words of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-9) and the Irony of Indeterminacy’, JSNT 68 (1997) 23-49; S.D. Moore, ‘Negative Hermeneutics, Insubstantiated Texts: Stanley Fish and the Biblical Interpreter’, JAAR 64 (1986), pp 709-19; A.K.M Adam, ‘The Sign of Jonah: A Fish Eye View’, Semeia 51 (1990), pp 177-92; F.W. Burnett, ‘Postmodern Biblical Exegesis: The Eve of Historical Criticism’, Semeia 51 (1990), pp 51-80.
Is There a Text in This Class?, pp 322-337.
The Canonical Approach, p 239; quoting Is There a Text in This Class?, p 347.
‘Hermeneutics and Post-modernism, 2’, p 7.
Stanley Fish, ‘Why No One's Afraid of Wolfgang Iser,’ Diacritics 11 (1981), pp 2-13; reprinted in Doing What Comes Naturally, pp 74-86; Wolfgang Iser, ‘Talk Like Whales: A Reply to Stanley Fish’, Diacritics 11 (1981), pp 82-87. See also ‘Interview’ in Iser, Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp 42-69.
‘Hermeneutics and Post-modernism, 2’, pp 17-18.
Is There a Text in This Class?, pp 331-7; see esp. p 336. The remainder of Fish’s essay on the ‘blackboard assignment’ is, it appears, seldom read. Nevertheless, it should perhaps be acknowledged that, given the large number of misunderstandings generated (e.g., D. Blakemore, Understanding Utterances: An Introduction to Pragmatics [Oxford: Blackwells, 1992], p 172; A. Pilkington, ‘Poetic Effects: A Relevance Perspective’ [UCL Working Papers in Linguistics, 1, 1989], p 121), the list/poem has often served to confuse rather than clarify the issues.
Is There a Text in This Class?, pp 21-67.
Is There a Text in This Class?, p 355. Both Gill (‘Moral Implications of Interpretive Communities’, p 53) and Thiselton (New Horizons in Hermeneutics, p 537) credit Fish with having pursued this basic insight to its fullest extent. Among the disciplines in which Fish has worked are law, critical theory, cultural studies, literary theory, and many more.
Is There a Text in This Class?, p 165. Christopher Norris argues against Fish that reality eventually breaks into our constructions of the world (Review of Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally, Comparative Literature 42 , pp 144-82). But an obvious response from Fish would be that whatever it is that breaks in to our constructions of reality, is still itself only a part of that constructed reality; it can never be an extrinsic ‘reality’ apart from all construing.
Doing What Comes Naturally, p 141).
Ibid., p 141; cf. Professional Correctness, p 14).
Doing What Comes Naturally, pp 30-32).
Is There a Text in This Class?, p 332.
The Return of the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism (London: Methuen, 1987), pp 110-11. Vanhoozer also echoes this view, arguing that Fish, “by according a relative absolute authority to interpretive communities, has created an environment that is potentially User-unfriendly” (Is There a Meaning in This Text?, pp 170-71).
Hence the title of Fish’s book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech…and it’s a Good Thing, Too.
In answer to criticism of Is There a Text in This Class?, Fish defined interpretive communities as “engines of change” (Doing what comes naturally, pp 150-52, 156).
Is There a Text in This Class?, pp 307, 310, 313, 317-18.
Doing What Comes Naturally, p 295; cf. pp 99-100.
Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p 46.
Is There a Text in This Class?, p vii.
When Jonathan Culler faults Fish for the immediate re-appearance of the text in Fish’s interpretations after its supposed demise, he is clearly confusing these two types of texts (On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism [London: Routledge, 1983], pp 71-72). It is only the Fishian text that reappears and forms the ‘object’ of criticism.
Although Vanhoozer acknowledges that Fish is not guilty of a “silly relativism”, he goes on to present a Fish who is unable to explain the ability of texts to challenge communities. He writes that “we have to conclude that there is no text in Fish’s class—no text, that is, strong enough to resist interpretation” (Is There a Meaning in This Text?, p 170). By failing to appreciate the solidity of the Fishian text, Vanhoozer effectively reverts to Noble’s version of a Fish whose interpretive communities can make of texts what they will.
Is There a Text in This Class?, pp 356-71.
Ibid., pp 303-21; but cf. also pp 329-39.
This inability to use the text to falsify readings appears to be at the core of Vanhoozer’s problem with Fish. He writes that “the distinction between text and interpretation is vital if we are to maintain hermeneutical rationality and thus the possibility of deeming a particular reading false” (Is There a Meaning in This Text?, p 297). Although this fear of ‘false readings’ drives much of Thiselton, Noble and Vanhoozer’s work, we would do well to ask ourselves if we share their fear. For the Fish that I have portrayed here clearly implies that we can always say that other readings are false, and the response that we cannot because any reading is possible is not one which we need entertain except on a purely theoretical level. We cannot help but reject some readings and our encounter with all readings becomes a process of negotiation in which we learn from some and not from others. It is the need to go beyond this, to use the text as a kind of club to still interpretation, which truly marks out Noble, Vanhoozer, and Thiselton from Fish. Why is this so important to them?
New Horizons in Hermeneutics, p 541.