Monday, October 24, 2016

Once more into the breach: Interpretation IS NOT reading (contra Hartman and Fish)

Christopher Ricks, In theory, London Review of Books, Vol. 3 No. 7 · 16 April 1981. Once he gets going Ricks starts riding one of my favorite hobbyhorses, that interpretation (aka reading) is NOT (ordinary reading). And he rides it against one of my favorite antagonists, Geoffrey Hartman:
The betraying moment comes when Hartman juxtaposes real reading with what passes for it in the real world: ‘We have talked for a long time, and unself-consciously, of the work of art; we may come to talk as naturally of the work of reading ... I would suggest that as in work generally there is something provocative of or even against nature in reading: something which develops but also spoils our (more idle) enjoyment of literature. Hence the tone of weariness and the famous acedia that characterise the professional reader even when he has the force to recycle his readings as writing.’ How anybody can enjoy literature, even idly, other than by reading it: this remains unattended-to (as does the sudden use of ‘unself-consciously’ in an approbatory way, happily equivalent to ‘naturally’), because what matters is the supersession of readers by professional readers. There is, naturally, nothing wrong with the admission that a critic is a professional reader: but there is something very wrong with saying that non-professional reading isn’t really reading at all, and is the ‘more idle’ ‘enjoyment of literature’. It is this double impulse – to occlude non-professional reading, and, complementarily, to occlude the fact that writing is something done by writers prior to critics – which animates not literary theory in general but the reigning usurpers.
And then there's the "text" and the irrepressible Mr. Fish:
The attack on not just the authority of authors but their very existence is inseparable from the attack on intention in literature. Fish is very persuasive on the inescapability of interpretation, and he shows that if you seem to meet an utterance which doesn’t have to be interpreted, that is because you have interpreted it already. But it is a fundamental objection to the extreme of hermeneuticism today that, in its adept slighting of authorial intention, it leaves itself no way of establishing the text of a text. To put it gracelessly like this is to bring out that some of the convenience of the word ‘text’ for the current theorists is its preemptive strike against the word ‘text’ as involving the establishing of the words of a text and their emending if need be. For on Fish’s principles, need could never be. There are no facts independent of interpretation: moreover every interpretative strategy can make – cannot but make – perfect sense, according to its lights, of every detail of every text.

To put it at its simplest, Fish’s theory has no way of dealing with misprints.

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