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 flesh itself, that instrument of muscles, of blood, and of epidermis, that red cloud whose soul is lightning.
This excerpt begins at the level of innate human concepts (flesh) and proceeds through the more concrete level of medical terminology (muscles, blood, epidermis) and onwards through an evocative metaphor (red cloud). Before the reader reaches the final clause (“whose soul is lightning”), he has built up an expectation that a culminating trope will be used to close the sentence, as is usual. Instead, the fragment ends with “whose soul is lightning” which refers not to the red cloud, but to “the flesh itself.” In other words, the red cloud is not the object of the concluding clause, but a “psychological multiplier:” the reader sees a red cloud (associated with storms) and then sees lightning exacerbated by the immediately preceding image. Now the reader possesses a clear mental picture of the passionate flesh, but the strange syntax (both in French and English) leaves him uncertain about what exactly the text has said: is lightning the soul of the flesh? Is the soul the lightning...