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Talk like Whales: A Reply to Stanley Fish

Author(s): Wolfgang Iser

Source: Diacritics, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 82-87
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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"Why, Dr. Johnson, this is not so easy as you seem to think; for if you were to
make little fishes talk, they would talk like WHALES."

Oliver Goldsmith'

A Reply to Stanley Fish


First things first: I must thank Stanley Fish for Part I of his article,
which is an admirable summary of my theory. He has a genuine talent for
pr6cis-writing. Part II of his article, however, fails to display a similar
talent for commentary and judgement.
Let me begin by drawing attention to two statements, both of which
are contained in his opening paragraph:

At a time when we are warned daily against the sirens of literary

theory, Wolfgang Iser is notable because he does not appear on
anyone's list. He is not included among those (Derrida, de Man,
Bloom, Miller, Fish) who are thought of as subverting standards,
values and the rule of common sense. [Diacritics, Volume II, No.
7 (Spring 1981), p. 2]

I should like to be interested to know on whose list Stanley Fish actually

stands, but in the light of the arguments put forth in Part II, it is a relief to
note his awareness that others may accuse him of subverting the rule of
common sense.

[Iser] is influential without being controversial, and at a moment

when everyone is choosing up sides, he seems to be on no side
at all or (it amounts to the same thing) on every side at once.
:ii [Ibid.]

Well, I am sure that Professor Fish knows something of the history of

FiSHNCRkFT literary theory, and that it is often characterized by misplaced distinctions
and untenable oppositions. When intelligent men take sides, it is not
necessarily the case that one group is right and the other wrong. A new
framework of thought can embrace the rightness of both sides without

1 Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. by George BirkbeckHill, revised and enlarged

edition by L. F. Powell, Oxford 1934, II, p. 231.

DIACRITICSVol. 11 Pp. 82-87

0300-7162/81/0113-0028 $01.00 ? 1981 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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seeking to reconcile the incompatible. I do not assume that all my predecessors (and
contemporaries) in this field are incompetent, and if my theory appears to be "in-
fluential without being controversial", perhaps this is because it includes truths from
various sides. At least, I should like to think so.
In Part II of his article, Professor Fish mounts what he calls a "frontal assault" on
my distinction between determinacy and indeterminacy. The attack seems to me
rather more like shadow boxing than a frontal assault, but I will do my best to parry
the swipes and feints.
The argument begins by taking a statement out of its context and then distort-
ing it:

Each of these statements ... is a version of the basic distinction ... "be-
tween a significance which is to be supplied, and a significance which has
been supplied" [72] or, in other words between what is already given and
what must be brought into being by interpretive activity.

His "other words" are highly misleading, as is the statement that follows:

He regards the world, or external reality, as itself determinate, something

that is given rather than supplied. [p. 6]

Professor Fish's confusion is caused by the fact that he has telescoped three ideas
into two. I draw a distinction between the given, the determinate, and the indeter-
minate. I maintain that the literary world differs from the real world because it is only
accessible to the imagination, whereas the real world is also accessible to the senses
and exists outside any description of it. The words of a text are given, the interpreta-
tion of the words is determinate, and the gaps between given elements and/or
interpretations are the indeterminacies. The real world is given, our interpretation
of the world is determinate, the gaps between given elements and/or our interpreta-
tions are the indeterminacies. The difference is that with the literary text, it is the
interpretation of the words that produces the literary world-i.e. its real-ness, un-
like that of the outside world, is not given.
Professor Fish handsomely proves my point without realizing it. After dissecting
my Ivy Compton-Burnett example, he tries to draw a parallel with real life by refer-
ring to a cartoon in the New Yorker (I find it strange that he should take as his
example another piece of fiction, but he appears to have difficulty with all kinds of

It shows a man seated in a chair, staring morosely at a television set. Above

him stands a woman, presumably his wife, and she is obviously speaking to
him with some force and conviction. The captions read, 'You look sorry, you
act sorry, you say you're sorry, but you're not sorry.' [p. 10]

There then follows a piscine interpretation which offers us the actual thoughts of
the wife and husband. Here we have a perfect illustration of the reading process at
work, in all its stages, except that this particular piece of fiction offers a picture as
well as words. What is given is the man seated and the woman standing, plus the
captions. What is determinate is Professor Fish's view of the man as morose, the
identification of the woman as his wife, the attributes of force and conviction. What
is indeterminate is the link between the given elements (figures and captions) and
between the two figures as interpreted by Professor Fish. it is he who has assembled
the 'reality' of the cartoon (which is fiction) by way of its given elements and his
ideations. If he were confronted with the two figures in person-i.e. in real life-he
would supplement and possibly, in this case, even "check" his interpretation by
watching, listening, questioning etc. The fictional figures are dependent on him for
their assembled significance, and he has no point of reference outside the fiction

diacritics/September 1981 83

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It is at this point that Professor Fish insists that "perception itself is an act of
ideation." [p. 10] He then defines ideation as the "inferring of a world from a set of
assumptions (antecedently held) about what it must be like." [p. 10] I would accept
his definition, but I would not accept his implication that seeing the picture and
captions is ideation. I could only do so if I knew that when Professor Fish had eye
trouble he went to see his psychiatrist.
The next stage of the argument poses the same problem. Professor Fish mag-
nanimously agrees that reading about sunsets, wine and silk is not the same as
seeing, tasting and touching them, but he makes this concession "without agreeing
that seeing, touching and tasting are natural rather than conventional activities. What
can be seen will be a function of the categories of vision that already inform percep-
tion, and those categories will be social and conventional and not imposed upon us
by an independent world." [p. 11] I maintain that what can be seen will be there
(unless the world is to be regarded as an hallucination), and it is the interpretation of
what can be seen (i.e. how it is seen) that is a function of the various categories.
Before switching to the examples from literature that provide the focus for
Professor Fish's objections, I must confess my bewilderment that he thinks in-
terpretation a useful activity if, as he suggests, there are no givens to interpret: "
there can be no category of the 'given' if by given one means what is there before
interpretation begins." [p. 11] True, there is no unmediated given, but interpretation
would be useless if it were not meant to open access to something we encounter.
Interpretation is always informed by a set of assumptions or conventions, but these
are also acted upon by what they intend to tackle. Hence the 'something' which is to
be mediated exists prior to interpretation, acts as a constraint on interpretation, has
repercussions on the anticipations operative in interpretation, and thus contributes
to a hermeneutical process, the result of which is both a mediated given and a
reshuffling of the initial assumptions. Professor Fish, however, creates a new her-
meneutics by fusing interpretation and that which is to be interpreted into an indis-
tinguishable whole, thus replacing the given by interpretation itself. Whenever I
read Professor Fish I keep rubbing my eyes in order to make sure that I am not
reading Bishop Berkeley.
Let us look at the two examples from literature to which Professor Fish takes
exceptions. First the Allworthy example which he attacks. Here what is given is the
name Allworthy. The next stage is the significance that the reader attaches to the
name Allworthy, and whatever this may be (in most cases the idea that Allworthy
must be a good man) will be determinate. The next 'given' may be, for instance,
Blifil's piety. The link between the two factors is then indeterminate until the reader
educes a determinate significance. And thus the process continues, with the reader
supplying significances which are then altered by subsequent significances that have
to be produced in order to bridge the gaps between (a) given elements and (b) his
previous determinate interpretations.
As for external reality, yes, it is given, and no, it is not in itself determinate.
Professor Fish professes that "there is no distinction between what the text gives
and what the reader supplies; he supplies everything; the stars in a literary text are
not fixed; they are just as variable as the lines that join them." [p. 7] The reader does
not supply the name Allworthy. That is fixed. It is the qualities the reader attaches to
the name that may vary, but so long as the reader attaches some determinate qual-
ities to the name, and so long as the reader tries subsequently to link his original
view of AIIworthy to that gentleman's attitude towards Blifil, the distinction between
determinacy and indeterminacy still holds good whether or not one agrees with my
own version of interpretation of that relationship. Precisely the same argument
applies to the next example of 'Arcadian Simplicity' in Vanity Fair. The term is given.
The interpretation is made by the reader, and once made is determinate. Professor
Fish anticipates this argument, and protests that "this assumes that the words . .. are
'pointable to' apart from some or other interpretive perspective." It is here that I
believe he makes a major blunder, and to clarify it I must quote a later passage:


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Iser says "we must distinguish between perception and ideation as two
different means of access to the world" [2371 But ... that is precisely the
distinction we cannot make because perception itself is an act of ide-
ation. [p. 10]

This is like saying that because a man cannot help blinking when punched in the eye,
it is impossible to distinguish between blinking and being punched. Of course it is
impossible to perceive without ideating, but they are different activities. The words
'Arcadian Simplicity' are indeed pointable to - they are given. The moment i see
them, I will supply them with a determinate significance, but this does not alter the
fact that the term itself was given before I interpreted it.
This technique of distortion is made even clearer by the next stage of the "assault":
he correctly refers to my theory that "the world itself is'given' in a way that the world
of literary (read fictional) works are not." However,

It is only if the world - or 'reality'- is itself a determinate object, an object

without gaps that can be grasped immediately, an object that can be per-
ceived rather than read, that indeterminacycan be specified as a special
feature of literaryexperience. [p. 12]

Once again Professor Fish pretends that I use 'given' and 'determinate' synony-
mously, but nowhere have I claimed this, nor have I claimed that indeterminacy is
specific to literary experience and excluded from 'real' experience. I claim only that
the world arising from the literary text (apart from the printed pages as a physical
object) is accessible to the imagination but not the senses, whereas the outside
world exists independently of the imagination, even though in perceiving it we
cannot avoid also imagining it.
What follows is a list of assumptions attributed to me. They contain their fair
share of distortions and I will comment on them individually:

(i) The assumption "that looking at real objects is different from imagining objects
in a poem or novel." [p. 8] Yes, it is.
(ii) The assumption "that in the one activity the viewer simply and passively takes in
an already formed reality, while in the other he must participate in the construc-
tion of a reality." [p. 8]
I do not suggest that the viewer "simply and passively" takes in an "already
formed reality." I merely claim that that reality exists outside himself. It is
'given', though he himself must endow it with its determinacy. The reality of the
novel as a created world is not 'given'.
(iii) The assumption "that knowledge of real people is more direct and immediate
than knowledge of characters or lyric speakers." [p. 8]
I am suspicious of the word "knowledge," but I would subscribe to the view that
communication with real people is more direct and immediate than communi-
cation with fictional characters.
(iv) The assumption that "these two kinds of experience come to us in two kinds of
language, one that requires only that we check its structure against the already
constituted structure it reproduces or describes, and the other that requires us
to produce the objects, events and persons to which ... it refers." [p. 8] "Only
that we check .. ." - the exclusivity is Professor Fish's invention, not mine, and
check in order to do what? My argument is that the literary description has no
reference outside itself, whereas the documentary description has. This does
not mean that the documentary description can be absolutely verified - it merely
means that its reality is referable. 'Already constituted structure' is another piece
of word juggling, since I am sure Professor Fish would include interpretation as
part of the constitution, whereas I do not.
There follows Fish's recurring non sequitur:

diacritics/September 1981 85

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Underlying these assumptions, of course, is the familiar distinction between
the determinate or given and the indeterminate or supplied ...

(Here, of course, I reject totally the synonymity Professor Fish imposes on the

.o. and they fall by the same reasoning which makes that distinction finally
untenable: what must be supplied in literary experience must also be
supplied in the 'real life' experience to which it is, point for point, op-
posed. [p. 8]

It appears that there is no difference between the determinate and the indeter-
minate, because there is a parallel between the literary and the real experience.
Perhaps diacritics readers can make more sense of this than I can, but the non-
argument certainly raises points worth pursuing. I have never claimed that the two
experiences are "point for point" opposed, and indeed the parallel between the two
experiences is one I have acknowledged time and time again as far as the process of
interpretation is concerned: the reader or observer tries to make something deter-
minate out of something indeterminate. The distinction stands.
The argument continues with what seems to me a remarkable denial of subjec-
tivism in reading:

What I have been saying is that there is no subjectivist element of reading,

because the observer is never individual in the sense of unique or private,
but is always the product of the categories of understanding that are his by
virtue of his membership in a community of interpretation. [p. 11]



. .... LM
'A 0 N ':-:Z:::~::

It is quite true that membership of the community helps to prevent arbitrary ide-
ation, but if there is no subjectivist element in reading, how on earth does Professor
Fish account for different interpretations of one and the same text? (The answer to
that question is that he doesn't.)

Earlier I concluded that the distinction between what is given and what is
supplied won't hold up because everything is supplied, both the determi-
nate and indeterminate poles of the 'aesthetic object'...

(I am delighted to see that Professor Fish now draws a distinction between determi-
nacy and indeterminacy.)

... now I am arguing that the same distinction won't hold because every-
thing is given. There is no paradox here. [p. 11]

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Well, paradoxes are not to be resolved by announcing that they have been resolved.
And Professor Fish's attempt to justify his claim is not entirely persuasive. The argu-
ment runs that the categories of 'supplied' and 'given' only make sense if the entities
they refer to are 'pure' (which they are not) and so:

In the absence of that purity one can say either that everything is determi-
nate, because nothing proceeds from an unfettered imagination, or that
everything is indeterminate, because everything is produced by the activities
of the reader ...

(What was that about Iser being on no side or on every side?)

... The only thing that you can't say is that there is a distinction, at least
insofar as it is an absolute distinction between a world that 'lives and func-
tions independently' of interpretive activity and a world that is produced by
interpretive activity. [p. 12]

I will settle for a distinction, as opposed to an "absolute" distinction, along the lines I
have already laid down.
We now come to the charge of dilettantism:

A reader sympathetic to Iser might argue that he himself knows that his basic
categories are conventional rather than natural. He does, after all, say at one
point that "pure perception is quite impossible" [166]. But when he says that,
what he means is that perception is a compound of the object (purely
perceived) plus the subjective perspective of the reader; otherwise he could
not claim that "textual segments" are given and determinate. In other words
Iser doesn't take his own pronouncement seriously (if he did, he'd have to
give up his theory). [p. 12]

I do take my pronouncements seriously, but I do not think I shall have to give up my

theory. I stand by my statement that pure perception is impossible, and I accept
Professor Fish's explanation of my words apart from the slyly interpolated parenthe-
sis. The object is not purely perceived, but it is there. And because it is there it exerts
some control on what we can do with it. Professor Fish would argue that because it is
never perceived in an unmediated manner, it can offer no guidance to us. I disagree.
The textual segments are not given in their determinacy, but given and subsequently
determined. In the one instance, we have the given words or segments (e.g. Arca-
dian Simplicity), in the other we have determinate interpretations of the words or
segments. Both are or become 'objects', but in neither instance do I claim that there
is any purity of perception.
The piscine technique of putting words in my mouth and then arguing against
them is continued right to the end of the "assault". I can only assure readers that I
have never assumed that "everyday life is characterized by continuity and determi-
nacy", and I have never "defined" literature "by the presence ... of gaps."
In his conclusion, Stanley Fish attributes to me the ability Joan Weber attributed
to Thomas Brown-namely, "to embrace contradictions cheerfully (like Tertullian he
professed to believe things because they were impossible) by saying that he 'pulls
the sting from pain'. Wolfgang Iser is the Thomas Browne of literary theory." [p. 13]
After what I can only regard as an unjustified assault, I confess I feel more like
Tom Brown than Thomas Browne. But that, of course, leads to the disturbing con-
clusion that Stanley Fish may have become the Flashman of literary theory.

diacritics/September 1981 87

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