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Vol. 2 No.

2, April - June 2015 ISSN-2348-6570

STANLEY FISH: Is there a text in this class?


Ruchi Pandey
M.phil (English), Assistant Professor, Kanpur Institute of Technology, Kanpur

Stanley Eugene Fish (born 1938) is an American literary theorist and legal scholar. He was born and
raised in providence, Rhode Island. He is considered by his admirers to be among the most important
critics of the English poet. He is often associated with postmodernism, at times to his irritation, as he
describes himself as an anti-foundationalist. He is the professor of Davidson-Kahn distinguished
University, in Miami, as well as Dean Emeritus of the college of liberal arts and science at the
University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of ten books. Professor Fish has also taught at the
University of California, Berkeley, John Hopkins university and Duke university.
The Essay Is there a text in this class? Is taken from the book by Stanley Fish, IS THERE A TEXT IN
THIS CLASS? The authority of interpretive communities published in 1980 in United States of
America. This essay was written in response to the Meyer Abrams paper HOW TO DO THINGS
WITH TEXTS which Fish considered a forth right attack on the work of Jacques Derrida, Harold
Bloom and himself.
In this essay Fish provides an originally shocking, but now almost taken for-granted argument. There
is no such thing as meaning sitting around in a book waiting to be mined like a physical object. Rather,
everyone who comes to a book finds exactly what they were looking for in the first place. And the
rules for what they find, and what is considered acceptable interpretation, comes not from some
magic rule for all time but from particular groups of readers at particular times and places. Using
Milton, Shakespeare, the students from history as a literature professor at John Hopkins and various
other texts of all kinds, Fish makes a remarkable and witty argument for the stable but temporary
interpretation of literature. There is no literature except what you call literature. So the text doesnt tell
you what it means. The reader doesnt decide what it means. The meaning in reading anything Comes
from the act of reading itself, shaped by the interpretive community.

This essay is considered the background for formation of reader response theory. Reader-response
criticism arose as a critical theory in response to formalist interpretations of literature. Unlike the
latter, which stressed the primacy of the text and an objective interpretation of it based on established
criteria, advocates of reader-response criticism focused on the importance of the reader and their
individual, subjective response to the text. The influential reader response critics include Louise
Rosenblatt, Wolfgorg Iser and Stanley Fish, they argued against regarding literary works as objects.

Iser argues that text contains gaps that powerfully affect the reader, who must explain them, connect
what they separate, and create in his or her mind aspects of a work that arent in the text but are incited
by the text with the redefinition of literature as something that only exists meaningful in the mind of
the reader, and with the redefinition of the literary work as catalyst of mental events, comes a
redefinition of the reader. No longer is the reader the passive recipient of those ideas that an author has
planted in a text. The reader is active, Rosenblatt had insisted, Fish makes the same point in
Literature and the reader. Reading is something you do

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Sundries Research Mechanism


Literature theorist Stanley Fish the story of the student who after taking a class from him, asked
another teacher whether there was a text in the class. The other teacher thought at first that the student
was making a routine inquiry about textbook assignment, but it soon become clear that she had a more
fundamental worry on her mind. What she was asking was whether given Fishs emphasis on the
creative role of the reader in interpretation, the literary text actually restained any meaning or
relevances of its own. Or, as she puts it I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it
just us?
In response to the above story the Stanley Fish discusses the charges by M.H.Abrams on the new
reader which claims that the literal or normative meanings are overridden by the actions of willful
interpreters
He again returns to the discussion of beginning and try to answer the question, Is there a text in this
class? He finds that above mentioned at utterances may have two meaning either the literal meaning of
utterance or multiple meaning according to readers.
By the story Fish argues that there are two literal meanings of the txt. First meaning is insisted by
author and another what reader assumes according to circumstances. Fish goes further then the two
literal meanings and says that both assumed and intended meaning will not be available to understand,
even a native speaker of language who has never seen the situation of class or who is already aware of
the disputed issues in contemporary. Such reader will have a meaning and in this way infinite meaning
are possible. He concludes that every utterance has an infinite plurality of meanings. But he also finds
that in any of the situation the meaning of utterance would be very limited. He finds that infinite
plurality of meanings is only possible if sentences is wrong, because sentences emerge only in
situations, and have different meaning in different situations we can discriminate te meaning by being
in the situations only.
Stanley Fish finds that though there is multiple meaning of a sentence according to context bit it is not
possible to rank them or consider some of them more prominent then others. But he ones again
considers the questions Is there a text in the class? And finds that though the meanings can never be
ranked but in a limited sense one is more normal in context and its meaning is obvious to more
readers.
Fish takes the argument of Abrams and E.D.Hirsh and cites a sentence of Hirsh, The air is crisp.
He says that although Hirsh suggests that the sentence is freeof context but it is written in such a way
that it is in a context and its context to the readers. Fish claims:

Thus Hirsh invokes a context by not invoking; by not


surrounding the utterance with circumstances he directs us
to imagine it in the circumstances. He directs us to imagine
it in the circumstances in whuch it is most likely to have
been produced; and to so imagine it is already to have given
it a shape that seems at the moment to be the only one
possible.

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Vol. 2 No. 2, April - June 2015 ISSN-2348-6570

He has drawn an interesting conclusion that by above discussion that reader is not constrained by
normative meaning but at the same time can give any meaning to context. He later discusses the nature
of meaning by discussing the same story. He finds that meaning of his colleague is right according to
him but not according to student. He concludes that the mistake in understanding is simply a function
of mistaken identification.
He probes deeper in the same story and finds that when his colleague was asked by student for
understanding another meaning, his colleague could imagine, Fish asks How did he get from her
words to the circumstance within which she intended him to hear them?
In response to this question he concludes that, there must be some previous information of this concept
in his memory. He contradicts his own views in previous pages that contexts creates sense and claims
that: constructing of sense leads to the identification of context of utterances rather than the other way
around.

But he again returns to the question that how did his colleague got the intended sense and postulates
another idea about context. He says: The answer to this question must be probabilistic and begins
with the recognition that when something changes, not everything changes. He applies this idea in
this situation and finds that though the intended meaning of the sentence was different but his
colleague could interpret it because he was aware of the course of other classes and particularly about
Stanley Fish. His colleague was trying to search the intended meaning in the circumstances of
academic one and the made him able to understand it.

He reconsiders the same situation and thinks that what would have happened if the knowledge of
circumstances were not available to him. He finds that in such condition, the student had to explain
him. But the explanation was not possible simply by being more explicit. She would have to bring the
listener to the same level of understanding by starting from a point where they share their knowledge.
Hence in order to understand a new or intended meaning one must have a meaning which is similar to
the intended ones. According to Fish:
The change from one structure of understanding to another in not a rapture but a modification of the
interests and concerns that are already in place; and because they are already in place; they constrain
the conclude that meanings are in correlation with each other and in order to know the unknown, the
known to all should be known.
He uses this conclusion to deconstruct the structuralist who advocates for the existence of a
determinate core of meanings. Every interpretation is right. It can be different but all are right.
He again considers his own theory and asks that if there is no determinate meaning then how
communication is possible? In response to this question, he finds that communicate occurs within
situations. Where sender and receiver both have relevant assumptions.
Fish gives a very interesting idea in response to the questions of structuralists. He says:
What by this essay Fish proved and propagated his arguments against structuralist notion of fixed
meaning and gave us very interesting concepts about nature of communication occurs always in a
context based system in which parliament have set of common beliefs and concerns.

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End Notes:
Stanley Fish, Is there a text in this class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (United states of
America: Harvard college 1980)., p.277.
Ibid. , p.277.
Ibid. , p.281.
Ibid. , p.281.
Ibid. , p.284.
Ibid. , p.284.
Ibid. , p.285.
Ibid. , p.289.
Ibid. , p.298.
Bibliography:
Abrams, M.H. Glossary of Literary Terms. Singapore: Harcourt college publishers, 1981
Fish, Stanley, Is there a text in this class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. United States of
America: Harvard College, 1980.


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