The Persistence of the Individual in Social Formations and Interpretive Communities
In the final pages of the essays Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory and Interpreting the Variorum, Hans Robert Jauss and Stanley Fish each put forward a theory outlining the social influence latent in an individual’s reading of a text. Jauss proposes this influence occurs after the reading by means of a “socially formative function of literature,” through which the experience of reading has an effect on the individual’s “lived praxis” (951). Fish, on the other hand, suggests that the reader’s prior membership in an “interpretive community” determines his reading experience (989). Each proposes a different relation between the experience of reading and the rest of the reader’s experiences, either formative or affirmative. Despite the practical opposition of these theories, they operate on similar methodological grounds and can therefore move beyond questions of priority to illustrate the significance of assuming a functional relationship between reading experience and social experience.
While both theorists insist on a group’s shared influence or invention of a text, they also both highlight the role of the individual reader’s experience and continually refer to the act of reading as an “experience.” The categorization of reading as an experience not only makes it possible to causally connect it with preceding or subsequent events in one’s lived praxis, but it also establishes reading as an individual act, the experience of which can be different for everyone. The individual experience of the reader, though it would seem to contradict arguments that insist on a plurality of readers, is valid in these theories because each individual experience forms the social experience. However, the argument for the authority of the reader’s experience crumbles when both Jauss and Fish introduce examples that suggest moral, rather than social, change and influence. These textual examples (Flaubert and Milton) equate moral interpretations with correct interpretations, weakening their arguments for the experience of the reader as well as the compatibility of reading and non-reading experiences. Morality, supposedly a system of absolutes, takes away from the reader her interpretive freedom to be influenced by past experience (learned in Fish’s interpretive community), condemning her to sin and future failure in lived praxis if she misreads (Jauss’s socially formative function of literature). Jauss’s theory of socially formative literature falls short when he applies it to moral formation, as he does not take into account the singularity, subjectivity, and preformed experiential biases of the reader that form her reading. An application of Stanley Fish’s model, though, can provide Jauss with an understanding of preformed interpretive biases—the interpretive community. In combining the two theories one is left simply with a timeline that stretches the life of the individual reader or the reading society, and in which all experiences of reading and non-reading influence and are influenced by every other experience. This leaves the text precariously balanced between an individual’s past and future experiences and past and future communities, leaving moral choice too, when it is an issue, suspended between social constructs and individual interpretations. In the face of misinterpretation, the reader’s experience and her experiences, now justified in both future and past manifestations, invalidate altogether any proposition of morally right or wrong interpretation.
Jauss and Fish’s application of the term “experience” to the act of the reader is essential to their arguments and their belief in the individual reader. The “literary experience of the reader” and the “structure of the reader’s experience” are the formative terms of each essay, used almost consistently (951, 979). As Fish suggests, the experience of the reader does not need to be directed or constrained to techniques, but “to [be made to] signify; first by regarding it as evidence of an experience and then by specifying for that experience a meaning” (978). This suggestion reverberates with Jauss’s incitement to study the history of reception, which is both the evidence of an experience (book sales, reviews, court cases surrounding a text’s reception, etc.), and a way to specify meaning for an experience (analysis of these facts). The experience of the reader provides the basis of both arguments as wells as the basis for their critique.
The porous exchange between the experience of reading and other experiences suggest that one’s lived praxis and literary experiences occupy the same kind of time—a defensible argument. Overall, the classification of reading into a temporal system (an “experience”), rather than a spatial one, dismisses the persistence of a stable text over time (as Fish explains in Interpreting The Variorum) and replaces it with the action of the reader’s perception of the text. The “experience” of the text suggests a temporality connected with everyday experiences like going to the store, for instance, which might take you the same amount of time as reading a few chapters in a novel. The reading experience is subject to temporal practice (one can only read in time), a practice that reflects verbal utterance. Fish implies the connection between the act of reading and uttering in his inclusion of listening to poetry in discussions of reading it (“reading (or hearing) poetry”) (986). Reading, whether silently or aloud, implicates a speaker of some sort in order to activate the spatial text into a temporal existence. Because each text is subject to temporal reading, it is also subject to the voice of its reader, which can impose any subjective intentions it chooses. The experience of reading activates language into speech.
Reading—again like going to the store—involves a reader’s subjective relation to the world of the text, formed by previous knowledge. One will only buy wine if one has the intention to, an intention formed by the previous experience of enjoying wine or of being told to buy it. Units of the text are infused with the same bias of previous personal experience: “[Reading line 46 of Comus] is an experience that depends on a reader for whom the name Bacchus has precise and immediate associations; another reader…will not have that experience” (983). In admitting the varied and subjective nature of the reader’s “experience,” Fish introduces his understanding of the priority of an interpretive community to a literary experience. “These strategies [of interpretive communities] exist prior to the act of reading,” Fish explains in the final section of his essay (989). He goes on to suggest that these methods “for constituting [texts’] properties and assigning their intentions” are learned and can change over time (989). Mirroring the change of one’s experiences over time, interpretations are subject to change according to experiential knowledge. The individual experience of reading proposed here by Fish results in an interpretation subject to what previous experiences (either textual or lived) the reader uses to inform his utterance.
Jauss, on the other hand asserts the priority of the reading experience at the outset of his Thesis 7 in explaining the socially formative function of literature: “The literary experience of the reader…preforms his understanding of the world, and thereby also has an effect on his social behavior” (951). With the word “preforms” Jauss creates a causal relationship between the reading experience and an “understanding of the world,” suggesting that literature has just as much sway on experience as Fish proposes experience has on literature.
Regardless of the priority of read or lived experience, each theorist’s interpretation of the reader’s experience insists on its contextualization in society, rather than in a hermetically sealed, spatial interpretation possible in formalist conventions (expressly refuted by each theorist), a double assertion of the importance of the individual reader’s experience. Though Jauss states that the reader’s lived praxis is preformed by her reading experience, because the reading is an “experience” rather than study or exercise, the reader retains her interpretive authority as a member of society. The theory of the socially formative role of literature places meaning in the hands of all readers, not only of the time of publication of the text, but future readers as well, all of whom contribute to a ever-changing “literary evolution.” “The distance between the actual first perception of a work and its virtual significance…can be so great,” Jauss asserts, “that it requires a long process of reception,” in which multiple individual readers exert subjective interpretations that, when studied, form an objectively recordable reception or social influence (947). Both Fish and Jauss’s contextualization of the reader’s experience, whether socially formed or socially formative, allows for the subjectivity implied in the action of “experience” as the societal context of social formation and interpretive communities reinforces the authority of the reader’s subjective experience.
Through their textual examples, both Jauss and Fish demonstrate the similarity of the reading experience to a lived experience, in that the reader is bestowed with the free will to choose what she does, to choose an interpretation. Free indirect discourse in Madame Bovary, Jauss explains, has “the effect that the reader himself has to decide whether he should take the sentence for a true declaration or understand it as an opinion characteristic of this character” (953). Likewise in Fish’s interpretation of “Lawrence of virtuous father virtuous son,” the undetermined definition of the word “spare” leaves the reader “not with a statement, but with a responsibility, the responsibility of deciding when and how often – if at all – to indulge in ‘those delights’” (978). Surely the reader’s experience shall be like her experience at the store—she is presented with choices and decisions to make, and in the end she will go home with what she wanted. Both theorists’ use of the verb “to decide” certainly reflects an openness of interpretation that confers all authority to the reader, She who decides, She who will make the final decision.
But, as Jauss and Fish walk the reader through her potential choices, they insinuate that the interpretive authority she has been granted may have moral consequences if she doesn’t make the right choice. The texts Jauss and Fish employ are used to generate interpretations that rest heavily on moral choices, weighing down the experience of reading with ethics imposed by the author or critic. The use of literature as a means of didactic moralizing destroys the previously established validity of the reader’s experience as capable of authoritative interpretation.
At this point in their arguments, Jauss and Fish contradict their previously established understanding of the reader’s experience. Fish’s example interpretations of The Variorum all hinge on a moral issue. “Lawrence of virtuous father virtuous son” involves the decision of whether or not to indulge in “those delights,” which may or may not be sinful. “Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered saints” involves an interpretive choice the belief in a vengeful or a benevolent God. Fish only implies morality through these passages, but Jauss suggests outright that literature has a morally formative function.
“The relationship between literature and reader can actualize itself in the sensorial realm as an incitement to aesthetic perception as well as in the ethical realm as a summons to moral reflection,” Jauss declares (952). This statement suggests that it is only through the ethics or aesthetics that one might relate one’s own experiences to those relayed in the novel. And, as aesthetic experience involves a distanced appreciation rather than active experience, only ethics are left for the reader to associate experience. He uses Madame Bovary to illustrate this moral decision, the reading of which “was able to jolt the reader…out of the self-evident character of his moral judgment, and turned a predecided question of public morals back into an open problem,” as if the reader were concerned only with questions of good and evil (954).
Though Jauss’s utilization of Madame Bovary proves instructive in the practice of employing the history of reception in understanding the full impact of Flaubert’s work on his initial audiences, Flaubert’s heroine herself demonstrates the exception to Jauss’s theory, bringing back into view the experience of the reader, conditioned by non-reading experiences. At first glance, Emma Bovary seems the perfect character with which to illustrate the theory that literature can be formative of a lived praxis: she leads her live in accordance with the novels she read as a girl, and often feels her woes equal to those of a lost sailor, whom she has only read about, though chooses as her simile: “Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar some white sail in the mists of the horizon” . However, Emma’s novel reading does not bring her the kind of “moral” realizations Jauss suggests possible. Though she does not read Flaubert, she does read Walter Scott (among many others) , whose writings should give her an understanding of the equality of low and high class, as he wrote of both equally and tolerantly, which she certainly does not have. One may consider Scott’s famous line from Marmion, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!” Certainly Emma has ‘misinterpreted’ this very line perhaps by supplying a positive connotation to the phrase “a tangled web,” something to contrast her simple orderly life with Charles, and proceeds to form her lived praxis according to this line (deceiving her husband by having a lover). Likewise, when Emma thinks of the heroines of literature, she thinks mainly of their shared quality of possessing lovers , a prospect in which she must be interested before her experience of reading. Though the experience of reading does affect Emma’s lived praxis (to a fatal extent), her ‘misinterpretation’ of the texts relies on preconceived notions gained from experience, inherent in every individual’s reading, as every individual is necessarily a part of an interpretive community, according to Fish. Perhaps Emma’s “provincial education” has deprived her of the academic value of studying the history of literary reception, but even if she were to read Madame Bovary, one would be temped to say she would just find another heroine with a lover to admire (954).
In Jauss’s tracing of a moral lesson, or at least a moral question, that of “public morals,” onto Madame Bovary, he, like Emma, reverts to the authoritative experience of the individual reader (954). The passage that both the prosecuting attorney and Jauss employ focuses on Emma’s “glorification of adultery,” deemed immoral by the prosecution. However, as Jauss continues to explain, the prosecution had confused the ‘objective narrator’ with the “subjective opinion of the character, who is thereby to be characterized in her feelings that are formed according to novels” (953). But in this seemingly historical explanation Jauss reveals two important cases of an individual’s misinterpretation. First, the accusation itself arose from a misreading: “Flaubert’s accuser thereby succumbed to an [interpretive] error” (953). Second, Emma’s “immoral” feelings have been “formed according to novels,” a formation that Jauss has suggested is moral, rather than immoral.
Jauss also frames the trial through the dual interpretations of the two individual attorneys, Sénard and Pinard. The prosecuting attorney naively confuses the narrator with the main character, a ‘misinterpretation.’ The passage chosen for a demonstration of literature’s effect on society, curiously relates only to Emma, an individual. Were Pinard and Sénard to engage in an literary rather than legal dialogue, perhaps they would have chosen a passage more telling of the immorality of society, as, for example, the final state of the detestable Homais in the last lines of the novel. In referring back to Emma, they reinforce the power of the individual interpretation.
The possibility of moral misinterpretation suggests that a reading experience is both influential and influenced. Like the great social effect of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses on the Muslim community, which Viking/Penguin declared was due to a “misreading of the book,” Jauss demonstrates in his utilization of what one might call “The Flaubert Affair” that acts of misinterpretation are valuable in progressing social and literary change and, using the words of Fish, must be made to signify. However, with the questions of morality that Fish and Jauss raise they forget that the individual determines society’s reading and misreading. If misinterpretation is to be taken as morally reprehensible, the importance of the reader’s “experience” in its dialogue with her other forms of experience is overturned. But in the heart of essentially social, rather than moral, theories that are based on the authoritative experience of the reader in her community, they demonstrate that reading and misreading alike are subject to the whims of the individual and the study of the theorist. In making her experientially biased interpretive decision, the reader comes away from her reading with acts with which to preform her lived praxis which may be moral or immoral, but the morality experienced is one free from judgment that needs only to signify. If it is possible for an interpretive community or socially formative effects to be created around one individual’s subjective life experiences, then—in a synthesis of Jauss and Fish—each individual’s misreading, regardless of morality, must be studied as a historical moment in the ontogeny of literary evolution.