Friday, October 6, 2017

Is There a Text in This Class? / Stanley Fish - part 2

Previous: Is There a Text in This Class? / Stanley Fish - part 1

Fish is arguing that what grants us "protection" against the indeterminacy of signifiers is that they "emerge only in situations, and within those situations, the normative meaning of an utterance will always be obvious or at least accessible". This means that meaning, although determined, is always relative to the situation in which the utterance appears. What enables us to rank interpretations is that norms will almost always favor one over the other.  Understanding "is there a text in this class?" as referring to the syllabus of the course will usually come before, and be accessible to most people, compared with understanding it as an inquiry about the theoretical view of the course with a contemporary literary debate (this will be accessible to fewer people who also understand the more lay meaning of "is there a text in this class?").

Fish debates with E.D. Hirsch, holding that words do not have meaning which is independent of context since they always already embedded in context. Fish thinks that what promises us the ability to have common meaning is that there is always "a contextual setting and the sign of its presence is precisely the absence of any reference to it". Even if we hear a sentence without any context we will fall back to context in which we are accustomed to hear such utterances. Fish claims that there is no two-stage succession of understanding since an utterance is already determined by its context. This does not mean we can't misunderstand language but that misunderstanding is not of semantics and syntax but of context. In the example of "is there a text in this class?" the professor, according to Fish, "mispreread the text" and was therefore forced to make another (pre)determination of the situation.  In order to understand the student the professor had to alter the meaning of her intentions in approaching him, not the meaning of her words which are perfectly clear and intelligible in both cases, just in different ways. People unfamiliar with the literary debate on the determinacy of meaning will have a hard time reaching the proper understanding while people familiar with Fish's position in the debate will immediately recognize the proper meaning, especially when they hear the story coming from Fish himself. The professor in the "is there a text in this class?" story managed to adjust his interpretation by noting to himself "Ah, there's one of Fish's victims!". 

See also: Roland Barthes -  "The Death of the Author"

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