Colloquially stated, this is a central question posed by Stanley Fish in his post-modern essay, “How to Recognize a Poem when You See One. ” Giving a detailed explanation in favor of this position, Fish argues that the reader imposes previously acquired knowledge on the text that he or she reads. Traditional post-modernism advocates that one thing will refer to another in a cyclical realm of endless chaotic difference.
Annulling this claim, Fish pushing the envelope farther than mainstream post-modern theorists are ordinarily willing to go. Fish’s foundation for his argument, however, proves to be highly problematic, leaving much room for debate and scrutiny. However, the focus of this essay will deal primarily with his contradictory statements regarding the level of objectivity in reading a text. In order to get the “bigger picture” of Fish’s general hypothesis, it is necessary to look at the evolution of his essay’s argument in layers.
At this point, it is important to note that this essay is evaluating only an excerpt taken from a section of his book, “Is there a Text in This Class? ” Written in the stereotypical lecture format that could be witnessed in any college forum, Fish begins his essay by laying out his main argument within the first few lines. Fish states he previously argued that, “… meanings are the property… of interpretive communities that are responsible both for the shape of a reader’s activities and for the texts those activities produce.
In this lecture I propose to extend that argument so as to account not only for the meanings a poem might be said to have but for the fact of its being recognized as a poem in the first place” (Fish 268). He follows this general claim by offering an anecdote where such a hypothetical situation could occur, postulating that a reader recognizes a text first for what type of literature it is, then moves forward to notice the distinguishing features which characterize it as such. In this manner, Fish sets the scene and lures in his audience by giving the appearance of a very cut and dry scenario.
This approach may prey upon the gullible-minded individual, but upon further examination, Fish lacks solid proof to support his position. While it is true that it makes things easier on the reader if he or she is told specifically what to look for, it is incredibly presumptuous to assume that there will not be at least one independent thinker who breaks that mold. Fish asserts that once the students were informed that it was a poem, they immediately looked with “poetry-seeing eyes”.
The students then proceeded to interpret the text on the primary basis that they were told in advance that what they were observing was indeed a poem. In discord with this notion of recognition, the argument given by traditional post-modern theorists is that the act of recognizing a text is triggered by the distinguishing features which signal what type of text it is. I would personally agree with this argument because I believe that a person of reasonable intelligence will be disinclined to follow the leader.
Not everyone will have the same interpretation of what they read, and it is here where Fish’s argument begins losing momentum. Although it is easier to yield to public opinion and check independent thinking at the door, there are those free spirited academians who will go against the grain when exploring a literary text. Moving forward from his previous point, Fish makes a poignant statement regarding the manner in which a person will read and analyze a literary text.
Referring to the example of how his students interpreted the “poem”, later revealed to be merely a simple list of words, Fish points out that their previous knowledge of poetry gave them the ability to make sense of what was on the blackboard. Fish states, “Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them (Fish 271). ” With this statement, Fish postulates that with every turn of a page, the reader is actively constructing what he or she reads in order to interpret it and assign meaning.
Which then leads him to pose the question: how do “we” as a society acquire knowledge in the first place? In contending with this issue, Fish demonstrates that we objectively acquire knowledge based on our respective interpretive communities. The problem with this view is in how one would get from point A to point B. Specifically, it exists in the method in which a person would be able to objectively acquire knowledge. The traditional post-modernist position will assert that anything a person acquires in terms of knowledge will be strictly textual..
What a person reads is subjective because it is written from the point of view of another person. Therefore, Fish’s position lacks merit in that it is extremely unlikely that people acquire knowledge based solely on objectivity Fish’s argument becomes less plausible with the transition from objective to subjective views on how a reader approaches a literary text. The first main point declares that the way in which students read a text is to “create” the text. What does he mean exactly as to how an individual reader will “create” a text?
One could take the previous statement and argue that if a reader creates what he or she reads, then it is an individualistic and objective action separate from external influence. The act of reading itself involves one person and one piece of literature, not a whole community reading the same text and all arriving at the same conclusion. It is with the birth of new ideas by rogue thinkers that help influence and evolve pre-existing concepts in all fields of study. Therefore, Fish’s explanation can be plausible if independent thoughts and ideas never enter the public sphere of one’s culture.
However, as argued by Fish, the notion of an “interpretive community” basically states that whenever a person reads, thinks, or sees a piece of literature, he or she automatically enters into a collective unconscious imposed by one’s culture. Attempting to reconcile the two arguments Fish states, “… if the self is conceived of not as an independent entity but as a social construct whose operations are delimited by the systems of intelligibility that inform it, then the meanings it confers on texts are not its own but have their source in the interpretive community (or communities) of which it is a function” (Fish 276).
At times, Fish appears to be advocating of the way in which people objectively read a text. Fish defends his objective position by arguing that meaning, “are objective because the point of view that delivers them is public and conventional rather than individual or unique. However, he then turns it on its head to conclude that neither the term “subjective” nor “objective” is particularly useful in determining the “distinction between interpreters and the objects they interpret” (Fish 277). He advocates that the reader makes up, or “creates” a text to fit his or her presuppositions and beliefs.
Therefore an individual’s conclusions, which are truly the product of meanings pre-constructed by a culturally derived “interpretive community”, shape one’s final interpretation of the text. Moreover, these meanings will be neither subjective nor objective, at least in the terms assumed by those who argue within the traditional framework: they will not be objective because they will always have been the product of a point of view rather than having been simply “read off”; and they will not be subjective because that point of view will always be social or institutional” (Fish 276-277).
Stanley Fish’s position as to how we interpret and objectify a text is complicated on two levels. First, he argues in favor of how readers objectify a literary text due to “interpretive communities” within the rubric of one’s culture. He then turns his own argument on its head by concluding that to label a text as objective or subjective only creates more problems.
Therefore, to assume that there is a distinction between readers and interpretation limits inquiry by treating both as “two different kinds of acontextual entities” (Fish 277) According to Fish, the beliefs and presuppositions people impose on a text are learned behaviors shared with their culture. However, if all people are doing is imposing shared beliefs each time they read a piece of literature, then one could reason that there would be no purpose for reading anything. It is discrepancies such as these which plague Fish’s position, slowly eroding it and leaving room for debate.