23 September 2009

The Making of Meaning

I just read a really stimulating article by Stanley Fish. It does not appear to be available in its entirety online, but here are selections. You might want to skim those to get the gist of his Reader-Response approach to theory before reading my response (!) below.

This essay evoked in me a very powerful visceral and cognitive response. It is delightful, scintillating, virtuousic, brilliant—and absolutely infuriating. Fish is an extremely clever writer who knows how to play with language, manipulating it to create layers of simplicity and complexity to suit his whim. Yet although the tone is whimsical, the purpose is deadly serious: this is a logical, syllogistic apologetic for his critical approach. While it is initially persuasive, it is full of holes—and it’s tons of fun to stick one’s metaphorical fingers into these rents and tear them open.

Here’s the first hole. That student, the one who approached his colleague with the question about a text: surely she was joking? Surely she was being coy, presenting a question that she knew would have one meaning in the assumed context, just for the fun of being able to play with the professor’s mind for a moment with the delicious words, “No, no, I mean…”? Surely she knew exactly what she was doing, and presented the ambiguity purposefully?

And that, I believe, is the biggest fissure to catch Fish. He says, “Sentences emerge only in situations.” Assuredly. But the situation is not the room full of readers or the mind of the reader: the poem is the situation. The poet’s skill, experience, craft, and historical context guide the structure of the situation and therefore DETERMINE THE RECEPTION. Meaning is located not in the reader’s context, but in the author’s.

For example. If I speak the word “Batter,” with no explanation or further context, a whole host of associations will determine whether you take it as a culinary noun or an aggressive verb. If, say, you are a literature professor and you happen to know that I just gave a presentation last week centered on Donne’s poem, it is likely that you will take it as the latter. Fine. But in the poem, there are no two ways about it. There is no cookie dough in his sonnet. It is authors, not readers, who determine meanings.

Certainly, various readers will come up with various readings. But many readings are dead wrong. If, as Fish claims, meanings are the products of circumstances, well, a poem is a carefully crafted circumstance designed to convey its singular, determinate (or intentionally ambiguous or multiple) meaning(s). Fish chooses words, phrases, and sentences (from his eponymous query to Hirsch’s 'crisp air') and wrenches them out of context in order to give them his own variety of selective, various contexts: the whole poem is the utterance! Why extract sound bites in order to prove that they could mean different things given different frameworks? We all knew that.

He also omits any discussion of new utterances, neologisms, or the intentional ambiguities I mentioned above. A contemporary poet might use “batter” in both its meanings—or “wrench,” or “tool,” as in this poem by William Aarnes. If the poet acknowledges several (I won’t say infinite) meanings of a word and s/he invokes them all, where does that leave the reader? The reader does not then create meaning. At most s/he can choose among the meanings and discard others; which detracts from the poem rather than enhancing or fully appreciating it. There are bad readings. And what of new, nonsense, or purposefully defamiliarized utterances? What can we make of “ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe” without a serious gloss, in this context? It conveys no meaning to the reader’s mind without assistance. Once the research has been performed, however, it might convey one particular reading. The author (perhaps tongue in cheek) himself translated it into “It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side; all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out” ( 23 September 2009>source). I grant that perhaps Carroll/Dodgson was playing with readers here: but his game was in fooling with language to allow ambiguity; again, the multiplicity is located in the author, not in the reader.

This leads to my last big gripe with Fish. (Oo, couldn’t “gripe” be a verb there?) He claims that there is no pause, no dead space, between experiencing language and comprehending it. We could, he says, miscomprehend, but we never simply uncomprehend. I strongly disagree. I have most distinctly experienced a “two-stage procedure in which a reader or hearer first scrutinized an utterance and then gives it a meaning.” I know this happens to my students: I will read them a poem, and they will respond with a blank, “Huh?” Then I will walk them through definitions, historical relevancies, author biography, literary device, and BOOM, the poem leaps into meaning. A meaning, if a complex one.

I have experienced this myself: I will read a dense text and it will, on a first reading, convey no meaning whatsoever to my mind. There is, very plainly, almost tactilely, a mental fog where a comprehension of the text belongs. This is not merely a symptom of exhaustion or illness; it is the first stage, the necessary if painful first step towards comprehension of the text’s intended communication. If it is a complex but not particularly obscure text, the meaning will begin to take shape in my mind on a second reading. If it is more difficult, on a third. If significant patches of mental fog remain after an attentive third reading, I know the time has come for the dictionary, the scholarly gloss, the research into the author’s life and times, the search for allusion, etc.

An example might help here. I’m working on the poetry of Charles Williams, which is dense and packed with obscure allusions to both the work of previous poets and to his own idiomatic, symbolic system of theology. When I first approached some of his lines, they meant nothing to me. Here is a quote from “The Calling of Taliessin”:
The cone’s shadow of earth fell into space,
and into (other than space), the third heaven.
In the third heaven are the living unriven truths,
climax tranquil in Venus.

When I first encountered those lines (I think it was a Sunday afternoon in Blackwell’s or another bookstore café in Oxford; days of bliss), I had no idea what they meant. They conveyed no sense to my brain. I suppose I had a confused image of a shadow and of Venus. On a second reading, I could connect “the third heaven” with the sphere of Venus in the Ptolemaic system. Then I resorted to some scholars, who explained that Williams has earth’s cone-shaped shadow touch Venus in order to show how fertile Nature imprints her form upon receptive matter. Well. This gives me a Platonic sense, which aids in deciphering “the living unriven truths.” I could go on, but I hope the idea is clear. There was a moment when the text had no meaning. Soon after, it had only vague, unassociated images. Then it had snippets of unconnected meaning. It still does not convey one holistic sense, and that is due to my failure in research, not to Williams’s failure as a poet or to the indeterminate nature of language. Williams knew exactly what he was doing. And if I keep studying, I will know exactly what he was doing. Taking those lines in context helps: and the poem, Williams’ oeuvre, the body of Arthurian legend to which he was responding, and his historical times are the context. I am not the context.


Rosie Perera said...

Good for you for taking on Stanley Fish! You hooked your bait very well.

Large excerpts from his book of essays Is There a Text in This Class?, including the essays from which those excerpts were taken, can be found on Google Books here.

Rosie Perera said...

Incidentally, when I read the word "batter," my first inclination was to interpret it as neither a culinary noun nor an aggressive verb, but a noun meaning a baseball player at bat.

Also, in its culinary sense, batter can be used as a verb (to coat with batter). Gives new meaning to "Batter my heart, three-person'd God"! (Though no doubt Donne did not mean it that way.)

I also learned some new meanings of batter when I looked it up:

4. Printing.
  a. a damaged area on the face of type or plate.
  b. the resulting defect in print.


–verb (used without object)
1. (of the face of a wall or the like) to slope backward and upward.

2. a backward and upward slope of the face of a wall or the like.

Iambic Admonit said...

Sorry, I discovered that the poem by William Aarnes is truncated on that website. Here's the rest:

She almost handed it over
to the woman who responded squelch.
But for now, she's saving it
for the one who says wrench
and doesn't mean the tool.