Critical Inquiry 10 (4):695-705 (1984)

Abstract
It may seem that I am simply confirming Davis’ assertion that in my view of the critical process “different interpretive strategies create completely different texts with no point of comparison” ; but the differences are not all that complete. While many readers now see a God who is more dramatically effective than Pope’s “school divine,” they still see a God who exists in a defining relationship with the figure of Satan, a Satan who is himself significantly changed from the energy-bearing Byronic antihero who was for so long a “given” in the interpretive landscape. The point is, again, that changes do not occur in isolation, because the facts that have undergone change did not exist in isolation either. In the history of Milton criticism, any judgment against God is always and simultaneously a judgment for Satan ; and it follows that a reversal in one pole of the judgment cannot occur without a corresponding—that is, related—reversal in the other. Any increase in the literary “cash value” of Milton’s God will be registered at the expense of his Satan.In short, since literary judgments or observations are not made piecemeal, the process of challenging and changing them is not piecemeal either. That is why it is not “contradictory,” as Davis asserts, “to talk about recalcitrant features of a text” in the context of a thesis that makes the text’s features a function of interpretation . The source of recalcitrance or resistance is not the text as it exists independently of interpretation, but the text as an authoritative and elaborated interpretation has given it to us. I stress “elaborated” because the interpretation is not a single assertion but a complex of assertions; and when a challenge is made to the interpreted text at one point, its other points constitute a reservoir from which objections and “counterchallenges” can emerge. Thus, when someone offers a revisionist account of Milton’s God, a skeptical or unpersuaded reader will respond by observing that this account is incompatible with what we know to be true about other parts of the poem: the characterization of Satan, or of the War in Heaven, or of books 11 and 12. It is then the obligation of the revisionist critic either to demonstrate there is no incompatibility or to extend his new reading in such a way as to recharacterize those parts of the poem that seem to stand as refutations of the revisionist’s reading. He will then be working against resistance, but it will not be the resistance of something that stands outside interpretation; rather it will be the resistance offered by one interpretively produced shape to the production of another. Stanley Fish is the William Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include “Working on the Chain Gang: Interpretation in the Law and in Literary Criticism” and “Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Self-Loathing in Literary Studies”
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DOI 10.1086/448270
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