Interpretive Strategies and Formal Units

-Joe

Fish’s theory Interpreting the Variorum at first, can seem mind boggling. However once broken down and explained piece by piece, you will soon realise that not only is it quite straight forward, but also that you’ve probably been doing it every time you read a book.

Fish begins by saying “Formal units are always a function of the interpretive model one brings to bear; they are not in the text”[1]. So what does this mean then? Well firstly, a formal unit put simply is the form and structure of the text (or the form and structure you apply to the text), this is everything from the sentences to the punctuation and everything in between. Both formal units and intention are Realised simultaneously and together they constitute an interpretive act.

Fish then asks what produces these interpretive acts? Which he swiftly admits that neither himself nor anyone else knows. But what if the act is an interpretation of the text? Fish says that there are no patterns in the text until they’re created by the reader. One example Fish gives is the fact the the ‘line ending’ rule is seen as “a fact of nature”. However, Fish says that the “line ending” comes into existence because of interpretive strategies, even if this strategy has in his words, “became so habitual that the forms it yields seem part of the world.”[2]

A good joke to helped me to understand this concept is:

Is a zebra black with white stripes, or white with black stripes?

The zebra is invisible, and has black and white stripes painted on so that nobody bumps into it

Much like the zebra the text is invisible, and it’s not until we paint on its form, structure and intention that we begin to understand its meaning. Fish summarises this by saying “In short, what is noticed is what has been made noticeable, not by a clear and undistorting glass, but by and interpretive strategy.”[3]

Fish says that,

“interpretive strategies are not put into execution after reading(…)they are the shape of reading, and because they are the shape of reading, they give texts their shape, making them rather than, as it is usually assumed, arising from them.”[4]

In short the interpretive strategy one applies to a text creates the shape and meaning of a text. So, in terms of Nineteen Eighty-Four, when it was originally released amongst the tension surrounding a potential communist/totalitarian takeover, and the increasing presence of the television screen in homes, the reader would undoubtedly see the intention of the book as a warning against totalitarianism and the dangers of technology. However now, readers’ interpretive strategy would be affected more by the issues of censorship and ‘the truth’ in media, and would be more drawn to the parts in the book concerning newspeak and censorship. The fact that the meaning of the book is as fluid as the different cultures and people that read it is undoubtedly why it still remains relevant.

Drink: Brockmans Gin and Lemonade

Song: Isolation, Joy Division

[1] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.55.

[2] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.56.

[3] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.56.

[4] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.58.