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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Interpretive Communities, Real or Not?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/23/07 at 05:22 PM

How’s Stanley Fish’s notion of interpretive communities been received? Has it been picked up and used? If so, to what ends?

I’ve been reading around in Is There a Text in This Class? and am sympathetic to the idea that meaning is grounded in communities. But Fish’s notion of interpretive communities is constructed in terms of a community of academic literary scholars where “readings” exist as formal written interpretations. I’m more interested in communities like, for example, the group of Buffy the Vampire fans who found one another on Salon’s Table Talk and then, in the TT diaspora (when TT went pay-to-post and most people left), regrouped at their own website, The Phoenix Board. I never read anything like a full-dress interpretation of an episode, but there were scads and scads of interpretive comments, and disagreements, and the use of various moves to keep disagreements from errupting into flame wars, thus preserving civility within the community. It’s not clear that Fish’s analysis—at least as he put it in Text—would apply to that group, nor what that analysis says more generally about the meaning of texts outside the professional academic world. 

Nor, for that matter, is it clear just how it applies to literary critics. As an example—in “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?”—he discusses readings of Blake’s “The Tyger,” starting with a 1954 reading by Kathleen Raine, and then a 1964 reading by E. D. Hirsh. They arrive at opposite answers to the poem’s final question—“Did he who made the Lamb make there”—and opposite readings of the word “forest.” And then he mentions interpretations more recent than Hirsch’s, though he doesn’t attribute them to specific scholars nor consider any of them in detail. His point, of course, is that these various critics belong to different interpretive communities, and that those communities have different critical standards and methods authorizing the different readings of the poem.

Just what is the interpretive community of which Kathleen Raine is a member? Presumably that community would include all those who agree with her reading of the poem. Does this community agree in their readings of all of Blake’s poems, all poems, all literary texts; is their agreement confined to this one text, or does it include this text plus others? If their agreement is confined to this one poem, that’s not much of a community; if it extents to all literary texts, that’s quite a powerful community; if it’s somewhere in between . . . Since their agreement, in Hirsch’s view, comes from their assent to the norms of their interpretive community, it would follow that they would share readings of many texts, but it is not at all obvious to me that any critical methodology is so well-defined that all or even most practitioners of that methodology would necessarily reach agreement on all or most individual texts.

Just where in the academic world does one find these interpretive communities? Certainly not in departments, though departments certainly are functioning groups of institutional structure. Professional associations? Advisory boards for journals? I don’t mind the possibility that these interpretive communities may well be diffuse and hard to identify, but I’d like to have seen Fish give more attention to the problems of identifying such groups. And, if these groups really are diverse, then Fish needs to say more about the sense in which their associated disciplinary practices are institutionalized—an assertion he’s constantly making. If they are institutionalized, then I should think it would be relatively easy to identify the boundaries of these institutions.

Later in this same essay Fish points out that the academic world works in such a way as to actively to encourage the creation of new readings and methods. That is to say, the institutional structure of the academic world breeds diverse interpretive communities in mutual difference from one another. This may well be so, but that doesn’t imply that the interpretive communities themselves are institutionalized. They might be considerably looser and more informal.

Fish opens Is There a Text in This Class? with an essay about affective stylitics, which has nothing to do with affect as it is ordinarily understood. I’m wondering whether or not his interpretive communities have anything to do with communities as they are ordinarily understood.


I always assumed that an interpretive community was any group of people who agree, often tacitly, to play a game by the same rules.  Different members might win different matches, but they all agree on how to set up the pieces, what constitutes a legal move, and what “winning” means.

So one interpretive community might be “Lacanian critics.” They all fight and disagree over what exactly Lacan meant and whether the knots defeat the mirror stage or whether kitty feels fragmented when she sees the bottom of her glass kibble bowl.  But they agree and disagree all within the confines of a set of implicit assumptions.  Which is why to the historicist, all the Lacanian debates seem ridiculous.  And which is why to the Lacanian, all the historicists quibbles seem to miss the “real point.”

So two divergent readings of one poem isn’t necessarily a sign of a clash of interpretive communities.  And perhaps two readings from two different interpretive communities could be in agreement about a lot of things.  But each community will have a different sense of (a) what consititutes literature; (b) what factors contribute to the production of literature; (c) how language operates; (d) how humans use language; (e) what constitutes valid evidence for an interpretation; (f) what one’s critical and pedagogical goals are. 

Not sure, though, that my impression here is what Fish actually *says* about interpretive communities.  Go fish.

By on 05/23/07 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Luther, pretty much. Likewise, I couldn’t say whether that’s how Fish accounted for it, or would’ve accounted for it, but that’s the kind of inflection on the concept that I’ve always given it.

The other thing I would add is that (whether or not Fish realises this) the concept of “interpretive community” emerges, in effect, from an attempt to formalise, hence idealise (or vice versa), what amounts to a very messy (fluctuating) matrix of actors, techniques, practices, etc. Interpretive communities aren’t centred or closed; and different interpretive communities “interfere” with each other, such that you would never be able to chart the limits to a specific community (not even “the Lacanians”, for example).

In other words, I would say that there are no interpretive communities as such, only interpretive events that can themselves be interpreted (albeit only provisionally, pragmatically) via a concept of interpretive communities. Putting it like that begs the question, of course, of whether we are still discussing a (let alone Fish’s) concept of interpretive communities.

By on 05/24/07 at 12:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One of the funnier comments I’ve heard about Fish’s notion of interpretive communities is from a prof I had in grad school who said that they’re kind of like the neighborhoods in NYC from when he was a kid.  Still am not sure what he meant, but if he meant what I think he did (Dodgers fans, Yankees fans, Giants fans), it both clarifies and cutens the concept considerably.  (My dad was a Dodgers fan.)

By The Constructivist on 05/24/07 at 03:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Those are reasonable glosses on the phrase “interpretive community,” but that’s not what Fish was arguing back in 1980. Back than he was both arguing against the idea of the text itself as a source of authority and against those who feared that giving up on “determinate meaning” (a phrase the recurs fairly often) means giving into chaos and giving up professional authority to pronounce on the meaning of texts.

So, authority is invested in interpretive communities and only so many interpretive strategies are legitimate at any one time. But the list changes over time. And individuals change over time as well. He never explicitly declares or denies that a given interpretive community—that is, a given set of interpretive assumptions—can yield different readings of any given text; but the thrust of his argument is that we have one reading per interpretive community.

It’s a peculiar set of essays. I’m wondering whether or not Fish changed his views, or whether the term has passed into use, but not as Fish originally elaborated it. IS the notion of “interpretive communities” much used in any sense?

By Bill Benzon on 05/24/07 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ironically, I think the idea of interpretive communities probably got its longest shelf life in my field, composition studies; in the early days, Fish’s idea seemed to be a wonderful way to explain why students had difficulty learning how to write in an academic setting. They were having trouble adjusting to the discourse of the academic community. In addition, people like Kenneth Bruffee used the idea to support collaborative learning, something that Fish himself opposed (and he wrote a fantastic essay on the subject, where he uses one of his favorite arguments, that conclusions of theory have no practical consequences, to defend a more traditional classroom). As minority studies spilled into composition, though, the idea was highly criticized for presenting the notion of some kind of “monolithic” interpretive community that agrees uniformally on a set of discourse conventions.

Now, I always thought of Fish’s idea as having to do with discourse, not necessarily actual interpretations. For example, let’s take group A, Lacanian critics. They work inside a certain discourse, so when they look at a text, they will tend to produce certain kinds of interpretations. In other words, what differentiates Raine and Hirsch is not so much the actual content of their readings, but rather the discourse that they work inside.

I like Jane Tompkins’ description of the process in Sensational Designs; when she is describing a 19th century critics take on The Scarlet Letter, he says something like, “Hawthorne’s prose moves like the running waters,” or something crazy like that (I don’t remember exactly). We can’t imagine saying something like that in contemporary academic criticism, because we no longer operate inside the discourse that bestows that statement with meaning.

I think this absolutely applies to Buffy. (I have a friend who is currently writing her Master’s thesis on fan culture, so if you’re interested in more on this subject, I could pass on her information). I’m not sure if you have ever had this experience, but sometimes when I jump into a fan community for the first time, I feel disoriented; I recently got into Commodore 64 emulation, and even though I grew up with the C64, I just don’t remember all the games that have become “classics”; therefore, in a discussion with these C64 nuts, I won’t have that common point of reference. Isn’t this kind of like academic debates? Don’t we also need to know, at least, certain names/theories before we can even start a discussion?

Now, I could be conflating “discourse” communities with “interpretive” communities, but my sense is that Fish wouldn’t have made a strong distinction between these concepts.

By on 05/24/07 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: do you think this idea of there being one reading per interpretive community has something to do with ‘discipline’?  That is, the term discipline is often used interchangeably with “field” or “specialty” or even “profession,” and when ‘discipline’ is invoked as a set of sanctioned practices, assumptions, methodologies, and authoritative texts that guide the professional activity of a distinct group, then this begins to sound a lot like an interpretative community.  This interpretative community, guided by a sort of disciplinary protocol, is going to produce more than a single reading of a Blake poem, but the shared methods and assumptions employed to attain a credible reading are predictable and thus standardized, to an extent. So “community” in this sense, is not a group whose findings and interpretations will always produce consensus among the group’s members; it is a group whose activities and beliefs are rooted in and determined by this idea of discipline.

Often, for example, in medicine, two physicians will “interpret” or diagnose a patient differently, thus the need for a “second opinion” in some cases.  It’s possible that only one of the diagnoses is accurate, but it’s also possible that they’re both accurate, just for different reasons. This is especially true with rare diseases.

My point is that an “interpretative community” of physicians, just like one comprised of critics, is guided by a particular discipline.  Opinions vary within the community, but they are united, at least theoretically, by disciplinary practices and beliefs.

By on 05/24/07 at 01:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kennie, isn’t Fish’s idea still influence at places like Teachers College, Columbia?  Bartholomae’s idea—that writing teachers should teach students to inhabit a specific discourse and not to express themselves in such Elbowian sense—remains influential.  It’s a big decision for any writing teacher.  Do we want to make “writers” or “academic writers”?  Are we teaching self-expression or how to survive in an academic setting?  Are there general writing skills that apply to all writing, or are skills context specific? 

Nancie Atwell has her students read and write basically what they choose.  She simply gives feedback on what they do.  Elbow’s work is quite similar, in part because he started thinking more about adult writing groups and less about high school or college comp.  The *Ways of Reading* group, though, is more interested in acclimatizing students to a specific academic community.  They read scholarly prose, learn how to do “critical readings,” and write a sort of hybrid of the self-exploration and academic essay. 

Back to Fish: Kennie’s reading is interesting.  Is Fish simply saying that difference schools of hermeneutics say the same things but in different terms?  Or is that more a Rortyean position?  Fish’s interpretive community is basically like a Kuhnian paradigm, right?  But a paradigm generally delimits a field to one basic worldview at any given historical moment.  In contrast, literary studies after the 1960s was all about competing critical lens—or is *that* the paradigm: pluralism?  In which case, the interpretive community wouldn’t be something like “Lacanian critics” but more like “pluralist critics,” which would include poststructuralists of all sorts.

I’m confusing myself.  I think Knapp and Michaels took on Fish in one of their “Against Theory” essays.  That might help the discussion.

By on 05/24/07 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kennie, Mike: what you say makes sense. But it’s not what Fish was saying in 1980. As I was reading through these four essays (the last ones in the book), I was wondering whether or not Fish was going to offer a real example rather than toy examples specifically crafted to lead to a certain conclusion. And then he came up with a real example, the readings of “The Tyger.” What he said then and afterward made sense as I was reading. But then I stepped back and began to think and then “one community = one reading of a given text” struck me: Did he really mean that? It’s such an implausible notion that it’s hard to believe that that’s what he meant. But that seems to be what he said.


Is Fish simply saying that difference schools of hermeneutics say the same things but in different terms? 

No, he’s not.

Or is that more a Rortyean position? 

I don’t know Rorty.

Fish’s interpretive community is basically like a Kuhnian paradigm, right? 

Seems that way.

But a paradigm generally delimits a field to one basic worldview at any given historical moment.  In contrast, literary studies after the 1960s was all about competing critical lens—or is *that* the paradigm: pluralism? 

Fish argues against pluralism, though it’s not clear to me just what he meant. “Pluralism” was a term of art at the time and I think it denoted a kind of “blind men and the elephant” position: the blind men are saying different things because they apprehend different parts of the elephant (but are unable to see the whole). That’s not what Fish argued.

By Bill Benzon on 05/24/07 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment


That’s really interesting. It could be--in fact, this is probably even likely--that the reading everybody else ascribed to him is not the one he originally put forward in 1980. I just can’t believe that he would take such an obviously ludicrous stance! I’m looking back at Interpreting the Variorium, which is also included in that collection, and he does say, “A reader other than myself who, when presented with Lycidas, proceeds to put into execution a set of interpretive strategies similar to mine . . . will perform the same (or at least a similar) succession of interpretive acts. He and I then might be tempted to say that we agree about the poem” (169). In this situation, he seems to be suggesting that if two people employ the same interpretive strategies, they will reach more or less the same conclusion. Later, he states that interpretive communities are those that share certain interpretive strategies, which seems to limit the scope of an interpretive community to the point of absurdity (when do critics ever agree on the meaning of a literary work?).

The idea of discourse communities, which many composition scholars developed from reading Fish, is still alive and well. It seems to be especially useful in WAC studies, where it explains quite nicely why, for example, scientists and literary scholars write differently. Much of post-process theory is rooted in this idea--when you move to a new discipline, you are entering a new discourse community, so you need to learn a new set of conventions; therefore, teaching students how to write is mostly showing them how to adapt to new discourse communities.

By on 05/24/07 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One way to think about interpretive communities stems from Fish’s example in, if my memory serves me right, the opening chapter of the book.

Here, he talks about coming into a classroom in which the previous professor had left a list of names and historical references on the blackboard.  As Fish’s students shuffled in, he told them that these were the extant fragments of a Restoration poem and to interpret it.

While Fish later admitted that this never actually happened, his point here is that the interpretive community is so fundamental that it *makes* the text.  That is to say, an interpretive community takes some Ding and makes it into a poem, or a story, or a historical source, or a clue in a murder investigation, or whatever. 

Here, he was arguing against Iser, who wrote that the reader activates or actualizes the latent energy of the author’s intentions.  Fish’s point is that there’s no Thing prior to the interpretive community, and so there can be no latent intentional energy.  The reader constructs the very textness of the textness, and s/he does so according to the terms of his/her interpretive community. 

At that level, then, the interpretive community is less specific than a particular school of interpretation.  Instead, it’s more like the structure of a discipline or body of knowledge.  This is an idea that goes back to structuralism, of course, and entered America in part in the education and curricular reforms of the 1950s.  Jerome Bruner wrote a lot about the need to determine “the structure of a discipline” before deciding how to arrange a curriculum in it.  The terms was as vague as it seems now.  Bruner basically meant that we had to determine the ways of thinking essential to a particular field (in the 50s and 60s, he was helping to reform American science and math education to make the US more competitive in the space race), and then begin teaching those ways of seeing and thinking at the earliest ages.  So if we want kids to reach calculus rather than basic computation, we had to teach children to understand the concepts behind the computation and not simply the mechanical/rote processes of computation.  Likewise, in science, we need to teach children how to hypothesize, how to feel comfortable guessing and testing and revising their ideas, because those are the essential structures of all the sciences. 

For me, then, the question for literature remains that of shifting interpretive communities.  On the one hand, most scholars still work within something like the terms set by the New Critics: build up a larger argument by referencing particulars about the text.  This is totally different from earlier autobiograpical and aesthetic criticism, and perhaps marks a shift in the discipline’s structure (if literature *was* a discipline as such before the New Criticism).  From that perspective, Theory wasn’t a paradigm shift but rather a shift of emphasis within the basic professional terms of the new criticism.

By on 05/24/07 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The essay you mention, Luther—“How to Recognize a Poem When You See One”—comes immediately before the one on which most of my discussion is based—“What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” In Fish’s telling, he taught both classes. The first was on linguistics in literary study and he’d placed a set of assignments on the board, simply listing the names of the authors.

By Bill Benzon on 05/24/07 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does this stuff always come up when I’m busy?

By on 05/24/07 at 10:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment


By Bill Benzon on 05/24/07 at 11:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The concepts of disciplinary community and epistemic community also seem relevant given this very interesting discussion. Interpretive communities (in Fish’s limited sense: one community = one set of interpretations) could not exist without a larger institutional structure (e.g., an English department) that broadly legitimates a set of practices, techniques, strategies that count as a ‘critical’ engagement with a text (however we define this concept). These practices, techniques and the resultant hypotheses are necessarily plural and often contradictory. We might even say that a given disciplinary community would become obsolete if it coincided with a single interpretive community: if disciplines are devoted to producing knowledge (as epistemic communities), then they produce knowledge not through definitive agreement, but through disagreement and crisis. Kuhn would be relevant here too.

In this sense, “interpretive communities” are made “real” in disciplinary or epistemic communities that animate them through their incongruity and disagreement, or a kind of intellectual friction.

Stephen Toulmin’s _Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts_ might also help make sense of the relationship between “interpetive communities” and what he calls “Institutions.” For Toulmin, “concepts” are shared by groups of scientists who also share practices that allow them to use and disseminate those “concepts.” If you take a group of scientists (or literary critics), none of them will share exactly the same “concepts” but many of them will share some “concepts.” In his view, “institutions are macro-concepts” that contain many concepts and “every concept is an intellectual micro-institution.” Applying this logic to Fish’s theory, an epistemic or disciplinary community is not defined by a single “interpretive community” but “interpretive communities” are mico-versions of the larger, more inclusive and internally divided epistemic community.

By on 05/25/07 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yet another reading: I think both “Interpreting the Variorum” and “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” concern two problems of interpretation rather than one, and it’s important to keep the two apart: the first is that of ‘interpretive cruxes’ and the question of ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ in literary criticism; the second problem is the broader implication of Fish’s solution to the first.

Let’s not forget that Fish’s examples focus on very specific questions of interpretation: What does Milton advocate in the final couplet of sonnet XX? “He who of those delights can judge, and spare / To interpose them oft, is not unwise.”—is indulgence wise or not? Or, in Blake’s “Tyger”, is the answer to “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” yes or no? In the debate between Raine and Hirsch, Fish posits that (a) both critics address that crux in Blake, Hirsch answering with ‘yes’, Raine with ‘no’, that (b) both critics cite persuasive evidence for their conclusions, and finally that (c) “[c]learly they cannot both be right” (340). (One reason why I don’t find Fish’s argument very convincing is that his representation of the debate doesn’t seem very accurate.)

Trying to solve the supposed paradox of (c), Fish goes on to argue that the critics’ conclusions do not really arise from the alleged ‘evidence’; instead, the ‘facts’ are created as a result of the conclusions. This, as Luther pointed out, distinguishes Fish from Iser. Iser’s reader-response criticism imagines a reader responding to existing literary facts, thus producing meaning. Fish, on the other hand, seems to think that the readers themselves create the ‘facts’ they engage with.

This view of what constitutes a fact leaves Fish with a second problem: if critics create the facts for their own discussions, how come we can accept interpretations such as Raine’s or Hirsch’s as feasible whereas Fish’s ‘digestive organs’ interpretation of “The Tyger” seems too far-fetched? How does Fish avoid the “anything goes” accusation? His solution is the notion of interpretive communities. I think interpretive communities, in Fish’s view, do not determine interpretations; instead, they determine what can count as ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’ to back up your interpretation within the community you’re arguing.

So from what I understand Fish is not saying “one community = one reading of a given text”, but “one community = shared ideas as to what counts as evidence/facts and what doesn’t”. Hirsch and Raine’s interpretations fall into the same community, hence there appears to be a meaningful debate; Fish’s mock-interpretation doesn’t, even though it, too, presents ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’, but somehow these facts are outside the community of academic literary criticism. Therefore, Fish concludes, it’s not the facts or evidence that determine the feasibility of interpretations, but the community. This is not far from saying that notions such as evidence/fact/truth/right/wrong are social phenomenona and by-products of discourse (Rorty?). But all in all, the concept of interpretive community in these essays seems more of an afterthought and is very vague indeed.

By on 05/25/07 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just picked up Postmodern Sophistry, a collection of essays on Fish edited by Gary Olson and Wynn Worsham. Fish replies to his critics and has some rather interesting things to say about what he was really driving at in the notion of interpretive communities. He ends up saying it’s a very elusive thing - surprise! surprise! - but that’s OK. However, it’s more than I want to try to summarize now.

By Bill Benzon on 01/13/08 at 08:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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