The Fisher King: "Wille zur Macht" in Baltimore

Critical Inquiry 10 (4):668-694 (1984)
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Abstract

Interpretation is an institutional activity and that may be the most significant fact about it; we are, indeed, a profession, and as such we train students to think about literature in certain ways. Membership in the community is determined by how well one masters the rules of the game. These inescapable facts may be the source of our greatest problems—or their hidden solution. Stanley Fish champions the latter alternative, arguing, in his most recent book, that “the interpretive community” is the ultimate principle of authority in criticism and is capable of resolving all the problems of interpretation.1 If we want to know what reading is, how texts achieve determinate meaning, what constitutes validity in interpretation, or how to resolve the “conflict of interpretations,” we must, Fish argues, focus on the community itself, for it is here alone that these matters are determined.Though he has had more than his share of professional attention, having developed this argument makes Fish’s work worthy of further consideration. He quite simply presents the best picture we are likely to get of the “mind” of the profession, and, in treating him at length here, I am primarily concerned with his representative status. His great achievement is to have articulated the assumptions and beliefs underlying the practices that are favored in our profession: the tacit theoretical position composed of ideas and commonplaces that are so deeply held and constantly in use that they “prestructure” both our dealings with literature and our debates over those dealings. While remaining for the most part “unconscious,” these ideas nevertheless function as self-evident and unassailable truths. If we are to move, as I think we must, toward experiencing a crisis in our discipline, we first have to know where we are. And for that, Fish is invaluable because he has set out to become the official spokesman and efender of the profession. Walter A. Davis, associate professor of English at the Ohio State University, is the author of The Act of Interpretation: A Critique of Literary Reason. The present essay is from a recently completed work on contemporary criticism. He is currently writing a book on modern American drama

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