Interpretive Communities: A Brief Note

Unlike Wolfgang Iser who analyses individual acts of reading, Stanley Fish situates the reading process within a broader institutional perspective. In Is There a Text in the Class? (1980), Fish proposes that competent readers form part of “interpretive communities”, consisting of members who share “interpretive strategies” or “set of community assumptions” of reading a text so as to write meaning into the text. He also proposed that each communal strategy in effect “creates” all the seemingly objective features of the text, as well as “intentions, speakers and authors” that readers may infer from the text. Hence the validity of any text depends on the assumptions and strategies that the readers may share with other members of a particular interpretive community.

He claims that all values and meanings of a text are relative to the concepts or schemes of a particular interpretive community and that, such conceptual schemes are “incommensurable” in that there is no standpoint outside of any interpretive community for translating the discourse of one community to another, or for mediating between them. Fish suggests that interpretation of a literary text is characterised not by fixed meanings in a linguistic system, but by practices and assumptions of an institution or a community, where meanings are derived from a context rather than from their position in the linguistic system. Thus, it is the context that imparts meaning to. an utterance, and it is impossible ta separate any utterance from its context.

Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” draws from HegeI’s notion of “intersubjectivity” which was further developed by neo-liegelian philosophers, hermeneutic scholars, sociologists and thinkers like Nietzsche and Bergson. Following the idea that no fact exists independent of interpretation of viewpoints, Fish insists that “writing” the text is equivalent to grasping the author’s intention, which itself is a product of the author’s interpretation. For Fish, there is nothing beyond intersubjective agreement, and the text is reduced to merely an area of overlap of subjective responses. While Iser saw reading as a dialectic interaction between the “virtual” text and an irnplied reader, Fish reduced the textuality itself to an effect of intersubjectivity.

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