Reader Response Criticism

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Fish’s Reader Response Criticism is composed of two interdependent ideas: first, that the meaning of texts is shaped by the reading experience itself, and second, that these meanings cannot be judged to be correct or incorrect, but merely belonging to one “interpretive community” or another. The first idea may be identified as the executive aspect of Reader Response Criticism because it analyzes the act of reading, while the second idea is the epistemological aspect of the theory because it circumscribes the knowledge we can acquire about a text to the merely relative. Studied independently, each aspect of Reader Response Theory offers by itself strong arguments countervailing the formalist stance of the New Critics. But as we will see, the application of Fish’s theory as a whole creates distinct interpretive communities which can be judged for their relative truth values, which leads to a contradiction: if one interpretive community is closer to “the truth” than another, then either the executive theory is wrong because an objective text exists, or the concept of interpretive community is irrelevant because we can make value judgments about a particular interpretation. At any rate, logic dictates that Fish’s theory be internally consistent, and as shown below, this is simply not the case. We will show how Fish's theory defeats itself by applying it to a curious fragment from Marguerite Yourcenar's Mémoires d'Hadrien, a long, imagined meditation from the dying Roman emperor Hadrian. In the original French, Yourcenar writes, La chair elle-même, cet instrument de muscles, de sang, et d’épiderme, ce rouge nuage dont l’âme est l’éclair. It is possible to provide a word-for-word translation with no loss of specificity: The fl... ... middle of paper ... ...through a simple misunderstanding extract such a thing as an incorrect meaning from a text. Hence we have found Fish's “disappearing” text, a thing apart from the reader. Secondly, we have used different understandings of a text to synthetically create two antagonistic interpretive communities which we have been able to judge absolutely. The feasibility of this judgment refutes Fish's argument that literary criticism should be confined to creating and grouping interpretations, but not judging them. In effect, we have shown that the tools of executive Reader Response Criticism allow us to judge the interpretive communities created by the epistemological Reader Response Theory. We have not proven that either aspect of the theory is unviable, but we have discovered that Reader Response Theory is an incoherent whole, unable to accommodate its overreaching constituents.
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