Friday, October 6, 2017

Is There a Text in This Class? / Stanley Fish - part 3

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

For Fish it is not about matching situation and meaning of words, since "to be in a situation is to see the words... as already meaningful". But this raises the question of what directs our understanding of a situation and language within it?. What the "is there a text in this class?" example shows is that understanding requires situational competence like the one the professor had when he (re)read the student as "one of Fish's victims". Fish also adds that the ability to practice this lingual competence is always limited to the situation, which means it's never an endless choice but a very narrow one (and this is why to professor was right on his second attempt). What sets apart understanding from misunderstanding a phrase is having an ability to process it and having to acquire one. Words themselves do not determine the meaning but rather the context, the discourse, in which they take part.

Fish holds that "the change from one structure of understanding to another is not a rupture but a modification of the interests and concerns that are already in place; and since they are already in place, they constrain the direction of their own modification". Fish links this to the question of authority over interpretation which saves us from relativistic subjectivity. He argues that while "is there a text in this class?" never has a fixed meaning, it is still perfectly clear within the situation in which it is uttered. In what may very well be the main point of the article Fish writes that "communication occurs within situations and that to be in a situation is always to be in possession of (or to be possessed by) a structure of assumptions, or practices understood to be relevant in relation to purposes and goals that any utterance is immediately heard". Norms regulate our understanding of language, and this makes it social and changeable.

But there could also be relativism of situations, not just words, which makes the plurality of subjective readings possible.  Fish holds that such criticism is besides the point since although relative, every individual is in possession of a certain paradigm which directs his understanding.  Fish says that "while relativism is a position one can entertain, it is not a position one can occupy". While subjective, we are always subjectively subjected to our own perceived authority over the situation. Fish does not fear solipsism since such perception always comes from the outside, language speaks us and not the other way around. Language is shared and so are the means to understand it. Fish's final point in "Is There a Text in This Class?" (the article, not the book) is that we all function as part of institutional communities which push back the fear of relativism and solipsism.