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Gary Wihl WHY THE INTERPRETIVE COMMUNITY HAS BANISHED LITERARY THEORY In his most recent polemic "against theory," Stanley Fish declares, "dieory's day is dying; die hour is late; and die only diing left for a theorist to do is to say so, . . . and, I think, not a moment too soon."1 In its simplest, most affective context, diis declaration might be read as a mourning for literary theory, but such a reading would soon uncover a pretense, because for Stanley Fish there was never "theory" in die first place. The affective style of mourning is an act of baiting, intended to catch those critics and teachers who have mistakenly believed in die pseudo-independence of justifications for interpretations, theory's supposed independence from practice having been the great myth since its birth. Fish's declaration audaciously brings to an end his ten-year-long argument against that textual ghost in die discipline ofliterary studies, literary theory. For Fish, there has never been the possibility of a dieoretical distinction between meaning and intention, formal textual features and internalized readerly experience, local ambiguities or indeterminacies and large-scale stable interpretive consensus. In place of ultimately futile discussions offirst principles and governing concepts, be they aesdietically disinterested, epistemologically justified, or linguistically prescribed, Fish insists on practical beliefs, and, above all, the human agency mat makes possible die discipline of literary studies in the first place. Some of his strongest supporters, including Richard Rorty, find it convenient to call anti-dieory die "New Pragmatism"; but we could juxtapose Fish with Leavis's impressive writing on "collaboration" and die "third realm" (I am thinking especially ofEnglish Literature in Our Time) and call anti-dieory the "Old Consensualism."2 Eimer way, one might "situate" Fish, to use one of 272 Gary Wihl273 his favorite expressions, or connect him with a set of shared practical beliefs. But something of crucial importance would be lost. Consider again that mock lament for dieory. In my saying that Fish pretends to mourn theory I have not said anydiing about die sincerity or insincerity of his beliefs about the profession, or about the rhetorical persuasivenss of die utterance. Fish's utterance could easily be mistaken for a polemic, an effort to disturb die institutional complacency enjoyed by many literary theorists. But this would be to take it as a piece of rhetoric. Fish's utterance is important and deserves serious discussion precisely because it exploits a form oflanguage mat makes rhetoric subservient to a different, perhaps higher, interpretive strategy ("perhaps* because isolating and examining its loftiness is precisely the question): namely, the joining of declarations to imperatives. The declaration — "theory is over now" — appears to be arbitrary yet it gains a good deal of force by its neighbouring imperative — "there is no choice; abandoning dieory is die only thing left to do, never mind say." Fish's utterance does have force, and in the terminology of speech-act theory, this force is best defined as an imperative. If Fish were advising, or urging, or warning us to abandon theory, the force of the utterance would be very different. It would be ambiguous : why should we give up dieorizing? Because few people will listen and be persuaded? Because it is foolish, even self-deceptive, like investing in poor stock in the market in hope offinding sudden wealth?Just because Stanley Fish says so? Any one of diese speech possibilities is no less complex to define and evaluate, and discriminating dieir various forces is an equally important critical task, but they lead us away from Fish. Fish owes his confidence as a speaker to his faith in certain speech-act conventions, each with its proper force values. The socially defined conventions of certain speech acts determine their illocutionary force. All the speaker must do is execute diem properly, and diis execution, as Fish (following Austin and Searle) has labored to demonstrate so often, is beyond personality. I am suggesting that in declaring the end of dieory Fish is not expressing a wish that it end or trying to persuade us to accept its end by appealing to his honesty as a critical observer or his sincerity as a speaker; the audiority of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 272-281
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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