Fish, Stanley. "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One." Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980. 322-337. Summary In "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One" Stanley Fish moves from the broader conclusion that "[i]nterpreters do not decode poems; they make them" to the broader epistemological claim that "all objects are made not found," before deconstructing the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity itself (327, 331). Fish advances his social-constructivist argument by way of discussion of three examples of episodes of interpretation in action, and we may revisit each of these briefly in summarizing his argument. In the first and lengthiest of Fish's episodes, a group of students of seventeenth century English and religious poetry at the State University of New York at Buffalo is told that a list of names (an assignment from the previous class) is a poem. The students begin to unpack the poem as a typological one, specifying significances and relating them, and working toward an understanding of larger structural patterns in the poem/list in order to 'discern its central insight.' The students, representative for Fish of an "interpretive community," follow a preconceived reading "recipe" (e.g. students "look for latent ambiguities," attend to alliterative and consonantal patterns, etc.) which imposes itself on the specific formal and semantic features of the text, rendering the specific qualities of the text moot (326, 327). Fish notes that he has "duplicated this experiment" many times in universities all over the world and the result is always the same. He notes further that there is nothing special about the set of names in the original list (i.e., Jacobs-Rosenbaum, Levin, Thorne, Hayes, Ohman): any set of names will do. In response to the obvious objection that he has merely tricked people into imposing an interpretation over "material that has its own proper shape", he shifts the ground of argumentation, discussing the way in which the "proper shape" of the material, the assignment, is itself determined by a tacitly accepted interpretive code which, again, is independent of the material itself. For Fish, the differences between poems and assignments "are a result of different interpretative operations we perform and not of something inherent in one or the other" (330). Fish's second interpretive episode is that of a student raising his hand in class. Fish discusses the manner in which the interpretation of a student raising his hand is contingent on a set of institutional knowledge, and that the student's gesture could be 'read' in innumerable ways by someone unfamiliar with this institutional knowledge. In Fish's final example, he refers to Harvey Sack's observation of the way a semantically ambiguous phase is interpreted the same way by all listeners because of shared assumptions about context. Fish appeals to Sack's claim that "culture fills brains 'so that they are alike in fine detail'" (335). For Fish, the conceptions that govern consciousness are "culturally derived," and thus the self can only be understood as a social construct. Once this is accepted the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity becomes "unhelpful" as all views or interpretations, even if particular and singular, are constructed from - and can only be expressed and understood within - a social and institutional context; an interpretation is both subjective and objective as it is the product of a point of view ('subjectively' determined) but that point of view is itself social or institutional ('objectively' determined). Critique In class discussion, Stanley Fish's chapter entitled "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One," taken from his book Is There a Text In This Class?, was subjected to strong criticism by all vocal participants. Initial criticisms were of a methodological/procedural nature while further discussion led to a series of broader objections concerning Fish's conclusions. In the first instance Fish's account of an experiment in which he tricks highly competent readers in a classroom into interpreting a list as a poem was found to be lacking methodological rigor (and lacking data or appropriate evidence). Similarly, the fact that Fish does indeed dupe students into accepting the list as a poem in the first place, instructing them to approach the text as such, radically undermines the persuasiveness of the "experiment" as it is used by Fish to advance his claim (that is, the claim that "interpreters do not decode poems; they make them"; a more reasonable conclusion to draw from the experiment might be that highly competent readers will be able to read a list as if it were a poem if you can effectively trick them into doing so). It was also noted that there is a very high degree of group conformity in a classroom situation and that it might be a particularly poor environment to garner generalizations about interpretative modes, especially when all input is oral and thus more subject to potential scrutiny. Following this skepticism and dissatisfaction with Fish's "experiment," one participant highlighted the fourth point appended to the written summary, agreeing that Fish's argument is tautological and "self-immunizing." That is, when 'checked' against its own logic, the argument is found to be self-referentially incoherent; Fish's theory is itself an interpretative act with no more verifiable correlation to objective truth than any other theory. In regard to Fish's notion of "interpretative communities," we first discussed the merits of the designation itself. We concluded that even in a university graduate seminar such as ours--perhaps the closest extant example of Fish's notion as could be found--we would create a range of interpretations of a literary text rather than the univocal one predicted by Fish (though I must note the potential irony here, that in this instance we did act as a coherent community, all reading Fish's text in essentially the same way and drawing the same conclusions). Later, when granting Fish's designation of the 'interpretive community' some validity for the sake of discussion, it was noted that Fish's theory cannot account for the initial emergence of resistant or heterodox readings within a community. Moreover, we talked about the manner in which a member of one interpretive community might enter into another one, actively learning to interpret texts and phenomena in new ways that might be taken up alongside or in place of older interpretative modes. Fish's deterministic account strips agency from both the reader/interpreter and the writer/text, and perhaps more implausibly still, denies the transformative efficacy of what happens between reader and text or between interpretive communities or modes. Our discussion also touched on Fish's critique of subject-object relations, with a focus on his radical epistemological claim that "objects are made not found". At least one participant appealed to the inarguable existence of a material world, though there was consensus that a less provocative consideration of constructivism than Fish's was similarly impossible to contest--cultural and social elements are certainly instrumental in shaping reality, but participants were adamant in rejecting Fish's hard-line constructivist position.
Document created October 24th 2005