Friday, October 6, 2017

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

Stanley Fish's "Is There a Text in This Class?" is a classic account on the nature of linguistic utterance and the scope of possible interpretation. Fish builds his article on an anecdote in which a student approaches a professor on the first day of the semester asking "is there a text in this class?". The professor thinks she is asking about reading materials but soon learns that the student is actually asking about the statues of the text in his class, in her words: "In this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?". The professor learns that the student previously took a class with Fish, turning her to "one of his victims" in suggesting that the interpretation of a text is open and indeterminate. Fish turns this dialogue on itself in order to talk about the possibility of a definite interpretation and the relativistic dangers of reader based subjectivity.    
Although he does not quote him, Fish corresponds to Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author" where he argued that the reader, not the writer, as the authority over the interpretation of the text. Two more influences on Fish's "Is There a Text in This Class?" is Reader Response Criticism and the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Fish addresses the criticism levied against the idea of the reader being the locus of interpretation and not the text itself.

Fish wonders if not having one fixed literal meaning of a text actually means that there are "meanings as there are readers"?. He comes back to the "is there a text in this class?" anecdote to show how one utterance can be interpreted in two different ways depending on different assumptions.  Both these meanings are not indeterminate or none-normative, they are just determined in different manners and under different norms depending on how the interpreter understands the situation.

Fish argues that the two possible meanings of the utterance "is there a text in this class?" are already conditioned by the situation in which it was uttered - the first day of class. This prior knowledge is not in fact prior nor later since it is activated at one and the same time with the reception of the utterance and its interpretation. Fish holds the meaning is always constrained "not after it was heard but in the ways in which it could, in the first place, be heard". This assertion by Fish echoes with Wittgenstein's famous "the meaning of a word is its use in the language" (in Philosophical Investigations).

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