Lit Theory Corner: “Interpretive Communities” Explained

In discussions of literary interpretation, one controversial issue has been the question of where meaning comes from, and who or what decides what that meaning is. In his essay, “Interpreting the Variorum”, Stanley Fish maintains that “Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions” (Fish 219). In other words, Fish believes that meaning in a text comes from the perception of the reader and their various interpretive communities, or predisposed ideas about the world. This radical suggestion celebrates the fact that every piece of literature has no meaning on its own; the reader holds supremacy as their experience with a text determines its truth.

Interpretation strategies are what Stanley Fish argues “…are the shape of reading, and because they are the shape of reading, they give texts their shape, making them rather than, as it is usually assumed, arising from them” (Fish 218). In making this comment, Fish refutes the claim that one reads a text before interpreting it. Instead, he believes that the act of reading and the act of interpreting are one in the same; he creates the concept of interpretive communities to show where our preconceived notions of meaning are drawn from. These communities are characterized by the fact that they can be shared with other people, and that they are constantly being changed and shaped by conventions such as one’s education, family, friends, or religion. Interpretive communities explain why two people can read a text in the same way: for example, two students in an English class could agree that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has a theme of love, but this is not because the theme can be located within the text itself, but because the readers have been shaped by similar instruction to look for themes within literature.

New critics, such as Matthew Arnold, believe that literature has important things to teach us, and because of its spiritual comfort “…we must turn to poetry to ‘interpret life for us’” (Bertens 6). However, Stanley Fish would disagree that any interpretations or assumptions are found within a text themselves. One of his view’s main proponents is that “meanings are not extracted but made and made not by encoded forms but by interpretive strategies that call forms into being” (Fish 220). The essence of Fish’s argument is that significance cannot be pulled from the words written on a page by an author, but it is created by the way a reader understands a text using their individual interpretative communities, or “writes” it.

Fish does not deny that his radical ideas imply a world with no pure perception of truth. The standard way of thinking about interpretation is that every person can have their own ideas about a piece of literature as long as they can provide proof from the text. In contrast, Fish explores the notion that there is no need for said “proof” because meaning does not lie within the text but within the reader. The problem with this conception is that there is no ultimate truth to abide over all of the interpretations to be made. In a world where any piece of text is up for interpretation, the difference between literature and vernacular no longer exists. One is left with questions such as: What constitutes literature? What is “good”? What is “bad”? Fish squashes this fear of “interpretative anarchy” through the explanation that by being in an interpretive community with others, one can rest in the comfort that others agree with them. Whether or not this justification is enough to forget the ambiguous implications of Fish’s theory is the issue for most critics.

Although some might object that Stanley Fish’s idea of interpretive communities is too radical to be applied in the real world, it is still important to consider his implications in the realm of literary interpretation. Fish’s essay is significant because it criticizes other literary theories’ tendency to place meaning within the author’s intentions, rather than what the text means to its audience. If one were to disregard the more far-reaching parts of his claims, their perceptions about the world would still govern the way they read any piece of writing.

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. 3rd ed. Routledge, 2014. Print.

Fish, Stanley. Interpretive Communities. Print.


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