my 300 paper
December 7, 2004
“Seeing” with different eyes
How do you recognize a poem when you see one? What is and what is not a poem? In his book Is There A Text In This Class? Stanley Fish argues: It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities. Fish’s essay “Interpreting the Variorum” (1976; rev.1980) introduces his seminal concept, “interpretive communities,” which radically revises interpretive theory by locating meaning not in the texts but in readers, not in individual response but in the protocols of communities.
“In the summer of 1971 I was teaching two courses at the State University of New York in Buffalo. At 9:30 I would meet a group of students who were interested in the relationship between linguistics and literary criticism. At 11:00 these students were replaced by another group whose concerns were exclusively literary and were in fact confined to English religious poetry of the 17th century. On the day I am thinking about, the only connection between the two classes was an assignment given to the first which was still on the blackboard at the beginning of the second. It read:
All of the names on the list were linguist who applied the operations of transformational grammar to literary text. When the members of the second class filed in I told them that what they saw on the blackboard was a religious poem of the kind they had been studying and I asked them to interpret it.” (324-325)
How is it that they were able to do what they did? What is it that they did? The commonsense answer, to which many literary critics are committed, is that the act of recognition is triggered by the observable presence of distinguishing features. That is, you know a poem when you see one because its language displays the characteristics that you know to be proper to poems. However, Fish disagrees with this answer. “My students did not proceed from the noting of distinguishing features to the recognition that they were confronted by a poem; rather, it was the act of recognition that came first- they knew in advance that they were dealing with a poem- and the distinguishing features then followed.” (326)
Fish claims that acts of recognition, rather than being triggered by formal characteristics were his students’ source. As soon as the students were aware that it was poetry they were seeing, they began to look with poetry-seeing eyes, that is, with eyes that saw everything in relation to the properties they knew poems to possess. It was almost as if they were following a recipe- if it’s a poem do this, if it’s a poem , see it that way-and indeed definitions of poetry are recipes, for by directing readers as to what to look for in a poem, they instruct them in ways of looking that will produce what they expect to see.
This is an excellent explanation of why some people cannot recognize visual works as visual poetry or vocal noises as sound poetry. They are failing to use poetry-seeing eyes and poetry-hearing ears because they cannot see or hear words, which they know poems to possess. If they were to engage in the interpretive activity they normally use up on texts that they can identify as poems in relation to this new material, they would find that that activity of itself transformed their perception of that material and thus it would become poetry in their eyes.
“Interpretive Communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.” (2086) In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around. Those of us who are in the interpretive community which can see visual poetry and hear sound poetry will not convince those who are not in our interpretive community, because their interpretive strategies for poetry cannot recognize the material, cannot recognize found material as poetry at all. The same reader will perform differently when reading two “different” texts; and different readers will perform similarly when reading the “same” text. In Fish’s essay Interpreting the Variorum he says “The only “proof” of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: “we know” I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me (2089). If you are in “his” interpretive community you will agree. If you are not, you won’t agree and you won’t even understand.
To the question posed by the title of his book (Is There a Text in This Class?), the author has provided the answer. There isn’t a text in this or any other class if one means by text what others mean by it, ‘an entity which always remains the same from one moment to the next’; but there is a text in this and every class if one means by text the structure of meanings that is obvious and inescapable from the perspective of whatever interpretive assumptions happen to be in force. A meaningful text, in short, is the creation of a reader, or, more precisely in Fish’s terms, a community of readers. When we begin to see with poetry-seeing eyes we begin to “see” from a whole different perspective.