Also by Steven Mailloux

Inlerprelive Convenl/on.: The Reader in Ihe
Siudy of Amerleon Fiel/on
Steven Mailloux
Cornell University Press
IthacB Bnd London
I •
. 1
, I
Rhetoric and Interpretation
Rhetorical Hermeneutics
The Space ,\ct of 1958 begins, "The Congress hereby
declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities In
space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the baneRt of
all mankind." In MArch 1982, a Defense Department official
commented on a phrase used in this statute: "We interpret tho
right to use space for peaceful purposes to include military uses
of space to promote peace In the world.'" The absurdity of this
willful misinterpretation amazed me on first reading, and
months later it readily came to mind when I was looking for an
effective way to illustrate the politics of interpretation. With just
the right touch of moral indignation, I offered my literary criti-
cism class this example of militaristic ideology blatantly mis-
reading an antimilitaristic text.
"But .. . the. Defense Departmenl Is righ"" objected Ihe first
sludenl to speak. Somewhat amused, I .pent Ihe nexllen min-
utes Irying, wilh decreasing amusement, to show Ihis student
thai the Reagan adminislralion's reading was clearly, obviously,
painfully wrong. I pointed to the words of the statule. I cited the
traditional inlerprelation. I noted the class consensus, which
supported me. All to no avail. " was at this point thai I fell the
"Iheoretical urge": Ihe overwhelming desire for a hermeneutic
'''NAtionAl I\cronol1lir.s and Space Aci of 1958," United Sln'p..,. of
fWo",hinr;tlon, D.C.. 19591. vol . 72. pI. 1. p. 426: Rober. Cooper. director of
the"",c ""vitncerl Rr.SCAtch Projeds ARp.ncy, quoted in FrRnk Greve. " Pen-
taRO" Rn"earr.h Relains Vision of ' Wlnnlng' N-wor, " Miami IIcrold. 27 March
1983, sec. D. p. 4.
Rhelorlc and Inlerprelalion
account to which I could appeal to prove my student wrong.
What I wanted was a general theory 01 inlerprelatlon Ihal could
supply rules oUllawing my sludent'. misreading.
This little hermeneutic fable Inlroduce. Ihe three 10 pies of
Pari One. One loplc i. Ihe theomlicol Ihnl r.oncludos
the narrative; another Is Ihe simple plot, a brief rhelorical ex-
change; and finally there's the Inslllulional selling (a university
classroom) in which the exchange takes "Ince. These Ihmn
lopics preoccupy the sections that follow. Section I analyzes Ihe
problems resulling from the Iheorelical urge, an impasse in
contemporary criticallheory. Section II proposes my solulion 10
Ihis impasse, a solulion I call rhetorical hermeneulics, which
leads in Chapter 2 t? a rhetorical version of institutional history.
I. The Moments of Theory
The theoretical urge is a recurrent phenomenon within the
present organization of American literary studies. Within that
individual texts remains the privileged
?ct.'Vlty, and, hIstOrically, this primary task has always brought
Its wake a secondary one: critical practice inevitably leads to
Its self-conscious Justlficalion In critical theory. Every time a
new challenger to the critical orthodoxy comes along, Ihe disci.
pline's discourse renews Itself in an allempt 10 pro- rahonale for interpretation. In simplified form, the in-
shtuhonal catechism during the last forty years has gone
this: What is the purposa of literary studies as an
Inslltutlonahzed discipline? To produce knowledge about liter-
How can such knowledge best be achieved? By the expli-
cahan of texts. What is the goal of explication? To discover the
correct interpretation, the meaning of the texV Once the theo-
retical dialogue gets this for, agreement among theorists begins
Yfhls answer 15 only Implicit In the mosl popul.r form" of Amerlcen decon-
s'ruellon-what Richard Rotly call, "week pr8clilionArs
"think thai they hIVe now found the true method for analyzlnR literary works
because have now found the fundamental problr.mAtic with whlr:h Ihcl'ie
works deal : Co"sequencP.'lf of ProJlmoliam (fslloys: J972- 19ROI IMlnnP-8polis.
19H2!, p. 153: and sce ROfly. ·'Decon.!ltrucllon and Circumvention," Criticnl
InqUIry, II (September 19841. 2. 19-20. a. I. Hilli. MI"er: "Th .... dlnR' 01
dp.conslruclive criticism ere nol the willful by a of
on the texis but are coerced by the texts themselves": "Theory ami
Prachce: 10 Vincent LP.ilch," CrUicol InquIry. 6 (Summer 19801,611;
and see Miller. The of Readlnll! (New York, 19B7).
Rhetorical lIermeneulics 5
to brenk down. How can we guarantee that critics produce cor-
rect interprelations? Formalists respond, "By focusing on the
text"; intentionalists, "By discovering the author's meaning";
reeder-response crillcs, "By describing the ideal reader'8 experi-
oncn": And sn nn.
As dissimilar as these theoretical answers al'pear, they all
share n common nssumption: vnlidity In intnrJlrntntinn Is lIunr-
anteed hy th" est"hlishm"nt of norms or principles for
ing lex's, and sut:h rules ore best derived rrum UII OCCUUIII or huw
interpretation wurks in gOlterol. In olhnr words, mosttroclitionnl
theorists assume that an accurate theoretical description of the
inlerpretive process will give us binding prescriptions for our
critical practices, prescriptions that can ensure (or at least en-
courage) correct readings . The classic statement of this assump-
tion is E. D. Hirsch's in "Objective Interpretation": "When the
critic clearly conceives what a correct interpretation is in princi-
ple, he possesses a guiding idea against which he can measure
his construction. Without such a guiding idea, self-critical or
objective interpretation is hardly possible. ",
In this way. contemporary literary theory comes to focus on a
question it takes as basic: How does interpretation-the accom-
plishment of meaning-take place? Two hermeneutic posilions
have developed in response to this central question: textual
realism and readerly idealism. Hermeneutic realism argues thai
meaning·full texts exist independent of interpretation. From
this perspective, meanings are discovered, not created. The
facts of the text exist objectively, before any hermeneutic work
by readers or critics, and therefore correct Interpretations are
those that correspond to the autonomous facts of the texl. Real-
ism often views the interpreter's mind as passive, simply acted
upon by the words on the page. Though the text must be read, in
correct interpretation it speaks Itself. If the reader needs to do
anything, it is only the mechanical activity of combining word
meanings into larger thematic units and formal relationships.
This is a "build-up" model of interpretation. For hermeneutic
realism, texts are the primary source and test of readings; they
constrain and ultimately determine interpretations.
Hermenelllic idealism, In contrast. argues that interpretation
always creales the signifying text, that meaning is made, not
founel . In this view, textual facts are never prior to or indepen-
lEo n. Jr .. "Ohjoctive Inlerpretalion" '19601. In Va/idily in Interpreta-
lion (New lIaven, Conn., 19671, p. 212.
6 Rhetoric end Interpretolion
dent of the hermeneutic activity of readers and critics. IdeAlism
claims not only that the Interpreter's mind Is active butthat It Is
completely dominant over the text. There oro no semantic or
formal givens; all .uch textual glvan. are products of Interpre-
tive categories. This i. a "build-down" mo<",1 01 Intnrl'mtnlinn.
From this perspective, what counts as a correct reading depends
enlirely on shored assumptions and stralegies, nol on aulono-
mous texis. In hermeneutic idealism. 8 text rlop.!;n"
inlerprelation; ralher, communal interpretation creales the lext.
As theories of inlerpretation, textual realism and readerly
idealism share a common institutional concern: to estAblish a
foundation for validating knowledge. I call Ihis an inslilutionol
concern because traditional theorisls claim that, without princi-
ples of correct interpretation, an Institutionalized discipline has
no way of grounding Its production of new knowledge. Onee
again Hirsch Is the paradigmatic theorist. He claims Ihal, with-
oul a proper theory of correct inlerpretatlon, we cannol avoid
"subjectivism and relativism" and cannol think of "literAry
study as a corporate enterprise and a progressive discipline. '" It
follows from this view that theory serves the corporate enter-
prise by making explicit the norms and principles of valid read-
Ings. Any such theory attempts to derive these norms and prin-
ciples from Its general account of how interpretation works.
Whether the account Is realist, Idealist, or some combination of
the two, it must provide an intersubjective ground for correct
interpretation, and It is traditionally thought that only by the
establishment of such a ground can Ihe dangers of relativism
and subjectivism be avoided.
With such a high value placed on intersubjective foundations
for interpreting, it .llOuld come as no surprise that the concept
of conventions plays an important-even central-role in her-
meneutic accounts, whether realist or Idealist.. Thus, with
some justification, the following discussion tokes the conven-
tionalist version of the realist/idealist debale as a synecdoche
for all "foundationalist" arguments in recent critical theory.
Theorists of the realist persuasion have' long turned to textual
conventions to explain literary interpretation. Formalists, in-
tentionalists, structuralists, and even some reader-response crit-
'Ibid .• p. 209.
'In this book "convenllon8" refers to insloncf!s of !'>hored procficcs. See Ihe
discussion In my Inlerprerive Convenllons: The Reoder In Ihe Sfudy of Ameri.
can Fiction (lIhlle8. N.Y . . 1982), pp. 126- 39.
Rhetorical Hermeneutics 7
Icsloeale cunvAntions In a text In order to guarantee InterRubjee-
tlve foundations in their hermeneutic accounts. An especially
interesting case or realist convenlionalism can bo round in the
work 01 Monroe Beardsley, who with W. K. Wimsatt codlfted the
nr Now Crltic .. 1 III nil tllf!
live and inlentional fallacies , Wimsall and Hcardsley proposed
an "nbjective criticism" that would ovoid Ihe "flngcrs or "Im-
prp.ssinnism," "nct "rr.lnlivism."fl In his Ars,hp.' -
ies Ueardsley loter developed this lormalism inlo a fuunda-
tionalisl theory, asking, "What are we doing whcn we Interpret
lileralure, and how do we know that we are doing it correctly?"
and answering, "There are principles of explication lor poetry
in lerms of which disagreements about the correctness 01 pro-
posed explications can be sellled."1 These principles can be
summed up in Ihe realist's slogan "Back 10 the text."·
Beardsley explains his realisl hermeneutics lurther in The
Possibility of Crilicism, where he argues that the "literary text,
in Ihe final analysis, is the delerminer of its meaning.'" At this
point conventions enter into Beardsley's account. In his chapter
"The Testabil ity of an Interpretation," he attempts to defend his
lormalist Iheory by arguing that "there really is something in the
poem thai we are trying to dig out, though II is elusive" (PC,
p. 47). This "something"-the meaning in the texl - is the ob-
ject of interpretation, and Beardsley proposes to define II more
rigorously hy appropriating the conventionalism of speech-act
theory. In another place, Beardsley succinctly describes /. L.
Austin's account of language use: "To know what iIIocutionary
ection Irequesting, promising, asserting, and so onl was per-
formed is to know what action the production 01 such a text
generated by the appropriate conventions."'"
"Monrofl C. Rcanhlr.y and W. K. Jr .. "Thft Arrecllv6 Fallacy" 119491.
In The Verbollcon: S.udies In the Meaning 0/ Poetry ILexlngton. Ky.,
t.5'I. p. 21 .
7BeAnhley. in the Philosophy of Crilicism INew York.
195ft). Pil. 403, 49,
IIRcIIHi!;ley. "Textual MClmlng8nd Authorial Mconlng," Genre. 111uly 1968).
!tBeAtcl!>ley. The Possibilily of Crilicism (Detroit, 1970). p. 37 (hereAfter cUed
in text A:r; PC!.
And Jnlnrprelation!! : A FAII8C:Y Revived," In The
Ap.!l:lhclic Poi"1 of View: Sp.ler:led ed. Mich8el J. Wrer.n And DonAld M.
Calion (lIhAca. N.Y .. 19821. p. 195. The central texis on convention!! Anci speech
acl!! arc , . L. How 10 Do Things wilh Words (Oxford. 1962). and John R.
B Rhetoric and Interpretation
conventionalism can be pushed in two very diUerent
direclions: toward readerly idealism, with conventions placed
in hearers, or loward textual realism, with convention" posited
In texts. Predictably, Beardsley'. adaptation of speech-act the-
ory takes the realist route. RAther than hnv" nlllhor. or rr.adn ..
"take responsibility" for performing certain illocutionary acts
and for commilling themselves to certain conventional cOI1<Ii-
tions (for example, in promising a speaker commits 10 do a
certain act in the future), Beardsley prefers to say that literary
texts imitate illocutionary acls and "represent"that certain con-
ditions are in fact Ihe case (PC, p. 115n). This is a shrewd
instead of readers laking responsibility for conven-
Itons of language use, texis represent those convent ions; con-
venl ions move from outside to Inside the text. This realisl pi nce-
menl of conventions gives Beardsley Just what his formalist
theory requires-an aulonomous text againsl which all inter-
pretations can be tested. "I am arguing Ihat Ihere .re some
features of the poem's meaning that are anlecedentto, and inde-
pendent of, the entertaining of an Interpretive hypothesis; and
this makes it possible to check such hypolheses against reality"
(pC, pp. 57-58). And these semantic lealures Ihal test inter-
prelations include conventions embedded in the lext.
Realist Iheories such as Beardsley's emphasize that conven-
tions display shared praclices lor wriling literature and that
readers and critics must recognize Ihese textual conventions in
order to achieve valid Interpretations. Bul such theories inevita-
bly suller Irom incomplete coverage and lack 01 specificity as
accounts 01 inlerpreting. No mailer how comprehen- .1 Ines 10 be, Ihe realisl conventionalism 01 genre crillcs,
formalisls, and semiolicians remains unsalislylng as a complele
descriplion of even a single texl's Iilerary meaning. The com-
mon notion 01 an arlwork's Irreducible uniqueness reluses 10 go
away, even when a significanl portion 01 Ihe lexl's sense is
allri?Ulable 10 an lollowlng, modifying, or rejecling
Irad.tlonal convenllons. Bul perhaps Ihe literary lexl's ullique-
ness is simply all illusion foslered by Ihe humallislic Iradition,
o.n Ihe one hand, and supporled by Ihe needs 01 a critical proles-
on the olher. Even il Ihis were the case and atexl's meaning
In lacl could be explained as complelely convenlional , realisl
accounts would conlinue to be embarrassed by Iheir contradic-
Spcf!ch Acts: An Essay In rhe Philosophy of LanguoRp. (ClimbridRe.
RhetorlC81 Hermeneutics 9
lory descriptions 01 Ihe unlnterpreted givens in the lext and by
Iheir many unconvincing explanations 01 how such texlual
givens cause interpretations. Realist conventionalism only re-
olalns these e.8entiAlisl and caus.1 problems: How exactly are
thr. tnxt? How rfn !l;lIr:h tr.xt1lnlly om-
bedded (;onvontiulls dutermine Interpretnllun'? The lutlur ques-
tion usually Inads loward kind 01 corrAspnndonce
model : Ter:ognize conVfmtions in A text becALIse they
have literary cOlllpetel1ce, 811 internalized "et 01 IlItcrpretive
convelllinns." who IAko Ihls roule movo lowArd Idonl-
ist solutions and in so doing also move loward idealisl In-
In contrast to realism, Idealist theories emphasize conven-
lions as shared practices lor Inlerpreting Iilerature, conventions
prese:ll in readers and critics, not in texts. Imporlant idealisl
Iheories include those 01 Stanley Fish In "Interpreting Ihe Vorl-
orum" and JonAthan Culler In Structuralist Poetics. Fish argues
Ihal communal interpretive slrategies are Ihe only conslraints
on Ihe production 01 meaning. Texts are products 01 interpretive
communilies, which "are made up 01 Ihose who share inlerpre-
tive stralegies not for reading ... but lor writing texts, for con-
stituting Iheir properties,"" In Structumlist Poetics, Culler
more fully elaborales an idealist-oriented account 01 using con-
ventions in interprelation. Though at times he relers 10 "poten-
tial" properties "latent" in the text itself, he more often empha-
sizes interprelers' reading conventions, which determine the
sense Ihey make 01 the literary work. He talks of the poem as
ollering a str,!cture lor the reader 10 fill up, but he stresses Ihe
interpretive conventions competent readers use to invent some·
Ihing to fill up Ihat structure. He suggesls thai it is notlhe lext .
but the reading conventions that "make possible invention and
impose limits on it . "13
Whereas realist accounts posit textual conventions thai are
tlSeo. 6.1I; •• lho r.ommentlil on "literary competence"'n 8eard.!lley. AC!lJrhelic!IJ:
Problem!'! In Ihe ofCrificlltm, zd ed. (Indianapolis. 1981,. p. II ; and
8cerd:!iley. "Thr. or Literature," in Aesfhelic!'!: A Critical Anrhology.
ed. nlr: kic And R. J. Sclar"ni (New York. 1977). pp. 329- 33.
11SIAnlr.y " 'ntr.rprellng the Variorum" 119161.ln l!'l There a Text in This
The Aulhorily 0/ In'erpretive Communilles (Cambridgf'J. .• 1980).
p. 171.
nlomtihAIl \.lIl1er , S'ruclum'is' PM-lir.!i : Struclum'i!im. and 'he
S'udy of /,ilf!wlurr. fltlutcrt , N.Y .. 19751, pp. 113, 126. For A more exlreme
example of idealisl cOllvfmllonallsm. see my 'nferpreliveConvenfions. pp. 192-
10 Rhetoric and Interpretation
recognized by readers, ideAlist accounts plAce inlerprelive con-
venlions in readers, who Ihen Apply Ihem to creAte meAningful
texts, Idealists fare no better than realists, however, In using
conventions to avoid epistemological embarrAssmen!. True,
they do ovoid the realist problems connect",i with A •• nnliAlism
and causation by arguing that tho content 01 Ihe text ISllroducod
by Ihe interpretive conventions employed and Ihallexls do nol
cause Inlerpretations at all. Bul entirely new problem< arise out
01 these supposed solutions. The two most important Involve
the Infinite regress of conventions and Ihe nA-
lure of conlex!. In a particular case of Interpretalion, what deler-
mines the inlerpretive conventions to be used? Idealisls cannol
answer by proposing metaconventions, becallse to do so would
lead 10 on infinite regress within their theories. Ench sel of con-
ventions at 8 lower level requires metaconventions al 8 higher
level to delermlne the appropriate lower-level convenlions.
Then these metaconventions themselves need metaconven-
lions, and so on. One way to ovoid Ihis pitfall is to argile Ihat
context always determines the interpretive conventions to em-
ploy. But such a claim leads only to a more difficult question lor
the idealist: What constrains the use of interpretive convenlions
in a specific conlext?
Both Fish and Culler.-among others, have suggesled the im-
possibility of adequately answering this queslio·n. As they lully
realize, such a suggestion entails a critique of their past conven-
tionalist accounts of Interpretation. I will limit my discussion
here to Culler's observation that the Interpratlve conventions on
which he locused in Structuralisl Poetics should be seen as pArt
01 a "boundless contex!."'· He states his new position in Ihis
way: "Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless"
(OD. p. 123). Culler seems to be claiming two rather dillerenl
Ihings, only the first of which helps explain why the contexlual
nature of interpretation makes idealist conventionalism inade-
Culler first seems to be arguing that any full accounl of mean-
ing must include a notion of boundless contex!. By characteriz-
ing context as boundless, Culler means that any hermeneutic
I4Culler, "C'.onvention and Meaning: Denlda and Austin," New Hi!'O-
fory. 13 (Aulumn 1981), 30n (hereflfler clled In lexl 'HI eM). This r.ssfly was
rAvlsed and incorporaled Inlo Culler, On Deconstruction: Thp.ory and
ofter Structurolism (lIhftc8, N. Y., 1982) (hereafler cUed in lext as 00).
Rhetorical Hermeneutics 11
Iheory Irying 10 specify a particular context exhauslively is
doomed to failure: "Any given conlexlls always open to furl her
descriplion. There is no limit In principle to whal might be
Included In a given context. to what might be .hown relevant to
the Inlmpr"lnlinn 01 n "nrllelllnr ""nnch Acl" rr.M. p. 24). Evnry
ApedOcution is UpUII tu uskll1K rur furtlwr SIJlIdlku·
tions" 111 <lIeh on 11<:,,,,,,,,1, conventions Aro, AI "n<I, only fir.t
approximAtions of hotlnrlles5 conlflXt. Conventions bflgin the
spedfic..:utitlll of rclcvol11 (;Olltuxtuul fcuturwt, desigllullllH tho
relalion of 11m words; person., Anel r.ircnm.loncos rn'luiroel for a
speech act 10 have the specific meaning it has in a given context
(compare on, p. 121).
But conventions alone are inadequate as explanatory con·
cepls. "ilhnr the descriplion 01 Ihe conventions must reduc-
lively and arbitrarily leave out relevanl contextual lealures or
Ihe specification 01 the relevant conventions would have to be
so open-ended that conventions would become indislingllish-
able Irom conlexl and lose their identity. A hermeneulic Iheory
using conventions in conjunction with other contextual features
will lare no beller as an exhAuslive account 01 meaning. beeallse
Ihere is no limit in principle to the leatures relevant 10 the
interpretation 01 specific speech acts. Another way of putting
this is 10 soy thaI context is impossible to lormulale complelely.
Thus Any Account Ihat attempts to use "context" to constrain
Interpretation precisely and complelely has only two options:
either it must simply name " context," "situation," or "circum·
stances" as a constraint and not elaborate any further or it must
corry out an infinite listing of all aspects 01 context and their
interrelations, Ihal is, bring everything In.'· fn olher words,
"definitive" theories of interpretive context must either never
begin Ihe of specification or never end it.
Culler's first claim aboul boundless contexl agrees with what I
hAve been sayingso far: boundless context delermines me.ning,
and conlexl is boundless because it is ultimately not lormaliz-
I Ittrot(1 GRrfinkd. in F.thnomethorloloJl:Y (F.nJl:lewond Cl iff!'!: . N.J.,
19671. pp. 24 - 31. RlUi IllIherll.. Dreyfus. Whot Compulf'rsCnn'l Do: The I.imits
of Artificial InlcfliJ1,f!tlcf! , rev. ed. (Nf'w York. 1979), pp. 256- 71 .
"'On the first option. see Walter Renn Mic:hacls. "Philosophy In Klnkanja:
Eliot 's C:lyph. 8(1981). 184- 85; on Ihe seconrl. Omyfu ... . Whot
Compplcrs Cnn'l /In. I). 289. For further rli."r:tlssinn of r:onlexl AS All explanRtory
com:epl. Sf'e my "Convr.ntion and Context," New "Herory ffislory. 14 (Winter
19831.399- 407.
12 Rhetoric and Interpretation
able. Unlortunately, Culler conluses things with a second, en-
tirely different argument about meaning and context , In which
he asserts the "Impossibility 01 ever saturating or limiting con-
text so as to control or rigorously determine the ' true' meonlng"
(eM, p . 281. In this deconstructionist clAim. r.ontnxt Is hound-
less not In the first sense-thot I! Is Impossible to lormali7.e-
but in a second sense: new contexts can always be imagined lor
a particular speech act, and thus meaning is in principle radi-
cally indeterminate (see 00, pp. 124. 1281. Culler ends up using
context here as an Interpretive device for making meaning un-
decidable rather than as on explanatory concept in accounting
lor meaning's determinate shope.
Culler's two uses 01 context are not necessarily irreconcilable.
But to make them strictly consistent, he needs to give up his
assertion about the absolute indeterminacy 01 meaning. As it
happens, it would not be difficult lor him to do so, given his
initial explanatory use 01 "context." Indeed, though he claims
to be doing otherwise in his deconstructive maneuvers. Culler
actually demonstrates not that meaning is always Indetermi-
nate but that meaning has one determinate shepe In one situa-
tion and another in e different situation. Though a speech ael's
meening can change lrom context to context, this meaning is
always determinate within a given context. In the cases Culler
suggests- situations in which the proposal olan Imagined con-
text shows how a meaning could change-one 01 two things
happens: the meaning remains the some, beceuse in the present
situation the proposed context is perceived os imaginary; or
the meaning changes, because in the present situation the pro-
posed context is incorporoted into the present circumstences.
In the second possibility, meaning changes because the context
changes. In neither situation is meaning indeterminate; it is
determinate (even If ambiguousl because of tho context it is
But whichever way Culler uses "context" -as explanatory
concept or interpretive device-he goes ler beyond Simply
17Sefl Fish. b There 0 Texl7. pp. 277- 84, Rnd Fish. "With the Complimenh of
the Author: Raneclions on Austin and Derrid •. " CrilieD' Inquiry. R (Summr.r
1902).693- 121. In this analysis I have followed Dreyhls. Fish. and olherl'l in
usinK "c:onlext" and "situation" interchangeably. For 8 dl!lcu!I!l ion of
evaluation related to my analy!!I, of Interpretation. see BArbara IIcrrnsl cin
Smith. "Contingoncies of Value," Crilicol Inquiry, to (September 198:1), 1- 35.
RhetoricAl Hermeneutics
showing that "lIlanguol\e alwey. evades its conventions. it also
depends on them" (eM. p. 291. What he demonstrAtes Insteed is
somethlnR he admit. in a footnote: thetthe distinction between
convention end context break. down (see eM, p. 30nl · Indeed,
nil Idr.nlisl Ihr.nrin:<> nf illtnrprntivo 10l1d tn
destrud when Ihey adopt the notion of context to sulve their
conventionalist problems. Do eilher roalist or irloalist UROs of
then, prrviop, a full nr:r.ount of literary
tion? The ellswer lIIusl ue no, lur both theoretkul pusiliulls loll
to avoid radienl embarrassments in thoir accounts.
Nor do theories combining realism and idealism evoid the
hermeneutic problems. Typically, such theories argue that real-
ism and ideelism are each only partially right, that neither the
text alone nor the reader alone determine. meaning, that mean-
Ing Is contributed by both text and reader. This comfortable
compromise is understendably popular in contemporary the-
ory, but it solves none Jf the realistlldeallst problems." What II
does do is cegily cover up those problems by continually po.t-
ponlng their discovery. In convenllonalisttheories, for instence,
we noted how some realists move from conventions tn a text to
conventions matched in a competent critic's mind. Such theo-
ries. by moving toward idealism. avoid the realist prob.lem of
expleining textual causelion. But when those seme theOries
up agoinst the idealist problem of determining eppropriete in-
terpretive conventions in e given situation, they turn back to the
text for a solution. Thus we end up with e cunningly circuler
argument: stay a reolist unlil you heve problems. then move
toward idealism until you get emborressed, then return to real-
ism. and so forth ad infinitum. No emount of tinkering or
nating cen save realist end idealist convenlionalism lrom simI-
lar dead ends and vicious circles.
I! would be a mistake. however, to think thet any other ac-
count- objective or subjective. conventionelist or nonconven-
tionalist. or some admixture of these forms- could provide a
Reneral theory of interpretation, something we can call
with a capital T. something that could solve the hermeneutic
problems I have discussed in this section. S.teven Knap!,
Walter Renn Mi chaels have argued . Theory IS ImpOSSIble Illt.s
defined as "the attempt to govern interpretations 01 particular
"'Seethe of I!'er's phenomenologicAl theory of reaclinR in
my Inlp.rpmtivc pp. 49- 56.
14 Rhetoric and Inlerpretalion
texts by appealing to an account 01 Interpretation In generaL"'.
My critique 01 realist and idealist conventionalism is another
version 01 the Rttack on Theory 80 den ned. The solution to the
realistlldeali.t debate In hermenautlcIII not, then, the proposal
of stili another Theory. The way to answer the reoli.tllrleolist
question "18 meaning created by Ihe lexl or by Ihe reader or by
both?" is simply not to ask It, to stop doing Theory.
II. From Hermeneutics to Rhetoric
The anti-Theory argument opens up two possibilities: Theo-
rlsls can remain unpersuaded by the argument and continue
business as usual, or they can be convinced by It and slop doing
Theory. Let's take up the more likely scenario lirst. If Theory
simply continues, what will happen? According 10 Knapp and
Michaels, Theory depends on logical mistakes such as Hirsch's
separation of meaning from intention In Validity in Interpreta-
• Since to 8ee a text as meanlnglul is to posit an author's in-
tention and vice versa, a Theory built on the separation 01 mean-
ing and intention Includes prescriptions-"Discover meaning
by first searching lor Intention"-that are Impossible to lollow.
Thus, according to Knapp and Michaels, Theory in its general
descriptions is Illogical and in Its specific prescriptions is in-
But Knapp and Michaels' thesis needs to be qualified in on
important way. Certainly they are right In claiming that Theory
cannot have the consequences It wants to have, that it cannot be
a general account that guarantees correct interpretations. It can,
however, have other kinds of consequences. In advocating a
search lor the historical author's meaning, for example, inten-
tionalists promote the critic's use of history and biography,
what lormalists can external evidence. If critics are convinced
by intentionalist Theory, their interpretive methods would em-
ploy historical and biographical as wenastextuallacls and thus
'·Sleven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaela. "Against Theory," Critical In.
Quiry. 81Summer 19821. reprinted In t\Roinst Theory: Lilp,rury Studiell nnd the
New Prugmnlism. ed. W. , . T. Mllchell IChlC880. 1985). p. 11.
2nSee knApp and Michaels. "A8alnst Theory," pp. 13- 18. Sp,,, "Iso. In Cril ico I
Inquiry. 9 (June 1983). Hirsch', rebuUalln his "Against Theory?" 8nei KnAPP
and Michaels' response In "A Reply 10 Our Critics," both reprinted in Mitchell .
"goinst Theory, pp. 48-52 find 100- 104. respectively.
, !
. .
Rhetori cal Hermeneuti cs 15
could establish n meaning lor a text that was dlfferentlrom ona
in which external evidence was scrupulously ignored. Mis-
gUided or not, Theory can have consequence • .

This, tha", Is my answer to the nut quesUon, "II Theorists
continuo cloh'lI Thoory, whnl 8m thAY clolnR?" "n Thnory pAr-
suedes critics. It continues to have consequences, but such con-
sequences are not those 01 its claims. Tho Thllory has nol pro-
vided An idenlist or mnli.t Accollnt 01 interpretation thAt CAn be
successlully invuked lu udjudlcale readlllgs. II may, huwevor,
affect critical prnclice by encrlurnglng one typo 01 intorpretiv9
method rather than another: lormalist, intentionalist, decon-
.tructive, hlstoricisl, or some other. But now Ilurn to the second
question, "What will happen to theory" tha anti -Theory argu-
ment is acceplecl?" or course, Theory would end, but what CRn
take its place? What happens when theorists stop searching lor
that generAl account that guarantees correct readings? Where do
they go once they quit asking realist or idealist questions about
interpretation? '
One route to lollow tAkes a turn toward rhetoric. I take this
path by proposing a rhetorico' hermeneutics, an anti-Theory
theory. Such a hermeneutics views shared inlerpretive strate-
gies not as the creative origin ollexts but rather a. historical sets
01 topics. Arguments, tropes, ideologies, and so lorth which
determine how texts are established as meaningrul through rhe-
torical exchanges. In this view. communities 01 Interpreters
neither discover nor create meanlnglultexts. Such communities
are actually synonymous with the conditions in which acts 01
persuasion about texts take place. Concepts such as "Interpre-
tive strategies" and "argument nelds" are, we might say, simply
descriptive tools lor relerring to the unlormallzable context 01
inlerpretive work, work that always involves rhetorical action,
attempts to convince others 01 the truth 01 explications and
A rhetorical hermeneutics must, 01 necessity, be more thera-
211 t"ke up the "AJ(8in5t Theory" ergumenlln more delailin chftp. 6.
ns"p' Fi,;h, I,; Throm 0 Tp.xI?, pp. 356- 70. and " Change," South Atlnnrlc
Quarterly. 86 (Fftll 1907). 4Z:1- 44. Also. d . Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure 01
Sc:ip.nlific Rp.volulion!>. zet cd. (C.hiCll80. 1970). pp. 15Z- 59 and 198- Z06. On
""Tfl;umcnt fi cld!>" And relntrorf 5CP. Arthur Willard. Arxump.n·
lolion nnr' rhe Sociol Ground!> 01 Knowledge (University. Ala .. 1983). esp. pp. 5-
11 and 89- 91.
16 Rhetoric and Interpretation
peullc Ihan conslrucllve.
To be olherwlse, 10 conslrucl a new
accounl of Inlerprelatlon In general, would simply reproduce
Ihe same old problem. of realism and Idealism. Ralher Ihan
propo.e .tlilanolher Inlerpretlve Iy.tem on all faun with reellst
and Idealist Iheorles, rhelorlcal hermeneutic. Irle. 10 cure theo-
retical discourse of Its Theoretical lendencles. It might, then,
reslale Ihe critique made in section I: various hermeneutic ac-
counls make the Theoretical mislake of Irying to estAblish the
foundalions of meaning outside the setting of rhetorical ex-
changes. All Theories believe that some pure vantage point can
be established beyond and ruling over the messy realm of inter-
pretive practices and persuasive acts. Only in this way, it is
thought, can correct interpretation, privileged meaning, be ac-
counted for. Hermeneutic realism, for example, assumes a sta-
bility of meaning before any rhetorical acts take place. Meaning
is determinate, objective, and eternally fixed because of con-
straints In the text Itself which are Independent of historically
situated critical debates. In a strangely similar way, hermeneu-
tic Idealism also assumes stability of meaning outside situated
practices. Meaning Is determlnale, Inlersubjectlve,"and lempo-
rarlly fixed because of constraints provided by Ihe communal
conventions In readers' and critics' minds. When hermeneutic
Idealists attempl to describe Ihe syslem of Interpretive conven-
tions Ihal delermlne meaning, either Ihey describe this system
as Independent of rhelorlcal situations or Ihey do not realize
that Ihe conventions themselves are the lopic of critical debate
at specific hislorlcal momenls. In either case, idealists make a
mistake similar to Ihat of rea II sis by presupposing the pos-
sibility of meaning oUlslde specific hlslorical contexls of rhetor-
leal practices.
But polnling out Ihe problems with hermeneutic realism and
Idealism is only an Initial, therapeutic step. Rhelorical her me- .
neutlcs musl also explain why reall.m and idealism are such
attractive theories of Inlerpretation In Ihe firsl place. We can
best do so by redefining realisl and Idealist claims in terms of
Iheir rhelorical implications. What exactly do Ihese post theo-
ries leach us aboul rhelorical exchanges In interpretation? The
realist's claim about constraints in the lexl testifies to the com-
distlnctlon It' nicely elaboreted In Richard Rorty, Phi'mmphy and Ihe
Mirror 0/ Nalure (Princeton. N., .• 1979). pp. 5- 6.
, ,
Rhetorical Hermeneutics
man assumpllon In critical debates that Inlerprellve slatements
are about text • . References to the text are Iherefore privileged
moves In attempt. to lustlfy Interpretation •. The Idealist's claim
about the con.tltutlve power of critical pr".upposltlons exem·
rune!; tim common plurnli:'1I bnlinf thnl If vou r:hnnR" tho
tions being asked about texts, you t.:hongu the UBSwors you gul.
and il you cnn persuade someone elselo ask your '1l1ostionR, you
Are thAt mllr.h doser to rmrsunrlinR him or her to .c:c:ept your
interpretAtion or a spcdnc text. A rhetorical hcrlllolHHltlcs doos
not rejecl any 01 these aswmplions. In Inr.t, it IIseR their wide-
spread acceptability to explain the rhetorical dynamics 01 aca-
demic interpretation in late·twentieth·century America. But 10
acknowledge the power of these assumptions in rhelorical ex-
changes today is /101 to make any claims aboul whether Ihey are
epistemologically true. Such epislemologlcal questions are sim-
ply beside the point lor a rhetorical hermeneutics. They always
leAd bock to the dead ends 01 realism and Idealism.
Rhetorical hermeneutics, then, gives up the goals of Theory
and continues to theorize about inlerpretation only therapeuti-
colly, exposing the problems wilh loundationalism and explain-
Ing the attractions 01 realist and idealist positions. Bul a rhe-
torical hermeneutics has more to do: It should Also provide
histories 01 how particular theoretical and critical discourses
have evolved. Why? Because acls of persuasion always take
place against on ever-changing background 01 shared and dis-
pllted assumptions, questions, assertions. and so forth . Any
thick rhetori cal 01 Interpretation musl therelore de·
scribe this Iradition 01 discursive praclices in which aets 01
interpretive persuasion are embedded." Rhetorical hermeneu-
here Is the or HAns·Georg C .. damer'l' hermeneutics
with Chalm Perolman' , rhetoric. Cf. Gad.mer', analysis of Iradltlon and Inter-
preta'ion throughout his Trulh and Merhod. Irans. and ed. Garren Barden and
fohn f:nmmlns (Nnw York. 1975). e.g., pp. 250- 51. and the"hl ollradltlon
and arRumcnlatlon In Perelman and l.ucleOlbrecht:.-Tyleca. The New Rhetoric:
A Trea';!'p. on AfRumenlotion. !ran!l. lohn Wilkinson Bnd Pun:ell Weaver (Notre
DRme. Ind .. 1969), c. R., pp. 464 - 65. More generally. SP.e the "Rhetoric and
lIcrmencuth:s" !II ection of Gadamp.r. " On the Scope Rnd Function of t-tr.rmeneu·
tical RenCf:lion (1967)," IrAn!ll . G. B. Hess And R. F.. Palmer , In GAdAmnr, Phi lo·
Hermeneut ic:'> , cd. David F. . LinKe (Or.rkeley, 19761, pp. 21 - 26. AI!IIo!lP.e work in s pel!r.h cnmmllnir.alion innuenced hy Gadamr.r and ff eldcgger,
r. .g., Rohr.rt L. 5(;011 , "On Vir.wing Rhetoric a!ll Epi"lr.mir. : Tr.n Y(!Ar" (..flIer, "
Central Sioies Speech lourool , 27 (19761. 258- 66; Michael I. Ilyde And Craig R.
18 Rhetoric and Inlerprelalion
lics always leads to rhetorical histories, and it is to versions of
these histories that I turn In the next three chapters.
By presenting these narratives, I mean to illustrate how B
rhetorical hermeneutics Is composed of therapeutic theory and
rhetorical histories. More exactly, such narrAtives are not sim-
ply added onto theory; rather, Interpretive theory must become
rhetorical history. Thus rhetorical hermeneutics loins other re-
cent attempts to Incorporate rhetoric at the level of Interpretive
theory and its analysis of literary and critical practice." Such
allempts share a suspicion of Theory Bnd a preoccupation with
history, a skepticism toward foundational Accounts of Inter-
pretation In general and an attraction to narratives surrounding
specific rhetorical acts and their particular sociopolitical con-
texts. Such allampts place theory, criticism, and literature Itself
within a cultural conversation, the dramatic, unending conver-
sation of history which is the "primal scene of rhetoric."2.
Smllh, "Hermeneulici and Rhotorlc: A Seen but Unobserved Rclatlon!lhlp,"
Quarterly lourna' o! Speech, 65 (December 1919). 341- 63; and, for 8 counter·
view plul additional blbllORraphy. Richard A. Cherwll7. and ,ame:. W. fliklnl,
Communication ond Knowledge: An Inve.llsotlon in Rhetorical Epislemo'ogy
(Columbl •. S.C., 1986).
uSee esp. Terry Eagleton, Woller Benjamin. or, Towards Revolulionory Crill·
cl8m (London. 1981), pp. 101 - 13; Eesleton, "Wlttgenlteln' , Friends." New [,,!,
Review, no. 135 (September- October 1982), reprinted In hl!l As-oinl'll the Groin:
Selected Essays (London. 1986). pp. 99- 130: £asleton. Uterory Theory: An
Inlroductlon (Mlnneapoll" 1983). pp. 204- 14; Edw.rd W. S.ld, "Opponents,
Audience •• Con!lliluencle., and Community," CrUlcoi Inquiry, 9 (September
1982),1 - 26; Robert Wesl, "Note. tow.rd a Marxist Rhetoric," Oudmell Review,
28. no. 2 (1983), 126-48: .nd James A. Berlin, Rheloric and Reality; Wriling
Inslrucfion In Amarfcon Colleges. 1900- 19115 (Carbondale. III., 1981), pp. 3- 18.
AI!lo lee the works cited below In chllp. 3. n. II.
2f11Frank Lentricchla (dlscu!I!llng Kenneth Burke', fable of hilltory), CrHidsm
and Social Change (Chicago, 1983), p. 160.
-I I
The Institutional Rhetoric
of Literary Criticism
Where. Indeed, hut to rhetoric should the theoretical exam Ina-
tlon of interpretation turn?
-HAns.Georg Gada mer. "On the Scope and Function
of Hermeneutical Reflection"
If a rhetorical hermeneutics merges theory with history,
what kinds of rhetorical histories shall we have? The examples
throughout Rhetorical Power will answer this question: histo-
ries that are Interpretive, institutional, and cultural. Each of my
historical na .. atlves and rhetorical analyses builds on what has
gone before. In this chapter I begin with a schematic history of
the academic rhetoric of a once-dominant critical mode, New
Criticism. Next I analyze In more fine-grained detailth. rhetori-
cal strategies of one (nstltutlonal challenger to this formalist
discourse, reader-response criticism. Then Chapter 3 develops
the rhetorical analysis further by extending It outward beyond
the academic Institution toward the rhetoric of literature and
criticism within a cultural conversation.
L A Synoptic Rhetorical History
Increasing allention has recently been paid to the Institu-
tional politics of interpretation, and this a\lentlon has proven
salutary for histories of literary criticism.' Traditional histories
'The work of Michr.1 FOUCAUlt !lIAndl behind many recent Inquiries Inlo
criticl!!m's Institutional polillr.!I. See ft!'lpocially PAul Bovf:, fnlelledtlals in
Power: A Gr.nea'ngy 0/ Criticnl Humnnism INew York, 1986); Jim Merod. The
Political Respomihilily 0/ Ihe Criric Ilthaca. N.Y .. 1961); and
Crilico' Genealogies; 1li1>loricoi SHuolians !or Post modern Lllerory Studies
20 Rhetoric and Interpretallon
tended to minimize the importance of social, politicRl, and eco-
nomic factors in the development of Americ"n literary study
and to focus almost exclusively on abstract inteliectual history.
In tha introduction to one paradigmatic text, Literary Crillcism:
A Short History, W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooh clnimecl to
"have written a history of idea. about verbal art Rnd about it.
elucidation and criticism," slressing "thai In a history of this
sort the critical Ideo has priority over all other kinds of mate-
ria"'" Such histories of critical ideos not only downployod the
polilicaland economic context in which those ideas developed;
they also ignored the effects of literary study's Institutionaliza-
lion within the American university of the late nineteenth cen-
tury. This historical event transformed the critical tradition by
adding specific institutional requirements to tha more general
cultural and political determinations that affected the rhetorical
shRpe of American literary sludy.
More comprehensive than descriptions of critical ideRs is a
newer kind of critical history: explanations of literary study in
terms of social, political, and economic forces. In English in
Amer;co, for example, Richard Ohmann shows how "industrial
society organizes the labor of people who work with their
minds"; in The Crilicol Twi/;ght. John Fekete situates modern
critical theory within the American nelwork of social ideologies
(New York. 1987). pp. 125- 38. Foucault', archaeology ",veals tho " HIIBtion!
between discursive formalions and non-dlscunlve domAin,," luch u ImJlllu-
tlons. while hts trice the hbtory of "the effocUve forma lion of
discourse" within tnslltullons. "'he Reid of thtl non-discursive social " (The
ArchoeoloKY of knowledge and the Olscoun8 on wn8uogf!, tnms. A. M. Sheri-
dan Smllh INew York. 19721. p. 162; "The Order of Discourse," hans. 'an
McLr.od. In Untying the Text: A Post -Structuralist Reorler. ed. Robert YounR
IRo!'llon. 19811, p. 71; and "The Eye of Power," Ir.ns. Colin Gordon. In Powr.rl
KnowledRe: Selecled Inlerviewl and Other Wrflings. 1972- 1977. ed. Gordon
(New York, 19801, p. 198). More speclRcally. we might SAy th., lin In!lli'ulion
"Includes both the materl.1 'orms end mechanillma 0' production. distribution
and conlumpllon and the Ideological rules. norma, convenllons and practices
which condilion the reception, comprehenalon and appllcallon 0' dlscour!'lo"
(Vincent leitch. "Inllilullonlli Hillary and Cultural Hormeneullcs." CriUca'
Texis. 2 (July 19841, 7; leitch IIcknowledps hla debt to Foucault on p. 10n}. On
Ihe relalion 0' rhelorlcal. especially dlscunlve. pracllces to a cultural back-
ground of nondlscunlve practices, see Hubert L. Dreyfus and PAul Rabinow.
Michel Foucouff: Beyond Structura'ism and Henneneulic!'l. 2d cd. (Chicago.
2W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Shortlfislory (New
York. 1957). pp. Ix. vII - vIII.
ThelnstitulionAI Rhetoric of Literary Criticism 21
manlpulRted by corporAte capltali.m.' Such studies take ac-
count of literary criticism as part of a discipline that is situated
within an Institution, the modern university. Indeed, Ohmann,
Feketa, and others have done valuable work in reveAling the
in.titlltionnl mechnnl.m. thnl con.lmfn thA clAvAlopmenl of nr.-
ademlc Iliurnry ailidy. nut thuugh thmw hhlturl!:ul IIIIIIIYHIJR tin
acknowledge tho imporlance of con.lrninl •. ""ch
are seconclnry to their primnry interest in eco-
numic nfl(l politicnl rOrt1H1lilln:q 111 III Tlto rmHilt IN
thRt (at least in Fekete's case) such Rccounts overlook
or distort the institutional role of literary studies in the develop-
ment of critical ideology. Whereas Fekete argues that, in the
modern critical tradition, "cultural methodology reveals its pol-
itics directly,'" I would say that social and political formations
reveal themselves only indirectly, through the mediation of
criticism's place within institutions for producing knowledge-
universities generally and literature departments specifically.
That is, the maintenance, and development of
literary study in universities can be only partially explained
through of factors originating outside these institu-
tions . No easy inside/ outside distinction is implied here. More
widespread SOciAl. political. and economic formations traverse
the institutional space established for academic literary study.
Once that "pace has been established. however, the specific
interpretive work and rhetorical practices within the space de-
velop with some relative autonomy even when they are affected
by practices centered outside the academy.
Let me use the institutional history of New Critical formalism
to illustrate whAt I mean. Traditional accounts of critical ideas
and more recent sociopolitical analyses of critical practices give
a prominent plnce to the hegemony of New Criticism in Ameri-
can literary study during the 1940s and 1950s. Traditional histo-
'Richard Ohmann. F.ngliJlOh in America: A Radicnl View of Ihe Profession
(New York. HI76) , p. 4; and !lee fohn Fekete, The CrHical TwiliShl : Exp'om!lons
In Ihe Ideology of AnRto-Americon LUerory Theory from Eliot 10 McI.uhan
(I.ondon. 1977). Sep. Terry EARleton. Lilemry Theory: An Inltoduclion
19831. pr. 47- 53. For relaled histories of literary sluetie:'! in other
countries. !'Jfm Chri!'J 8aldir.k. The Social of'ish Crilici:'!m. 1848-
t93210xlord. 19831: "riA" Doyle. "Thp. Hidden History of Studies, ' · In
Re-RendjnSt F.nStlish. r.d . Petcr Widdowson (London, 1982), pp. 17 - 3 1: and Peter
Uwe lIohendahl. The of Critici!;m (ithAca. N.Y., 1982).
4fekcle, Crilical Twilight . p. 49.
22 Rhetoric and Interprelation
ries of criticism usually recount the evolution of New CriticAl
ideas but fail to explain adequately why those IdeAS CRme to
dominate literary study. Sociopolitical analyses such as those of
Ohmann and Fekete have much more explanatory power. For
instance, Fekete skillfully shows how Agrarian social ideology,
which attacked modern Industrial civilization, was easily ac-
commodated to corporate capitalism through the institution-
alization of New Criticism within English dep.rtments. But
Fekete's otherwise insightful analysis does not grant the institu-
tional selling of literary study Its full share in determining the
shape and hegemony of New Criticism; In fact, Fekete distorts
the nature of the Institutionalized discipline when he suggests
that New Criticism filled a vacuum created in the 1930s by the
failure of socialist criticism within the dlscipllne.- Actually,
there was no vacuum: literary study within the academy was
dominated by historical scholarship, which provided the disci-
pline with a professional training program, shared research
goals, and interpretive conventions for viewing literature. The
rhetoric of New Criticism was innuenced significantly by its
institutional attempt to displace this scholarship as the domi-
nant approach to literary texts. To understand exactly what was
required of New Criticism, we need to trace the institutional
history of literary study. In what follows I will brieny present a
rhetorical version of this history, emphasizing only those In-
stitutional forces and events that help explain why New Criti-
cism achieved its persuasive authority in the American study of
literature. Such a rhetorical history follows directly from the
rhetorical hermeneutics I have proposed, because in order to
understand the discursive practices of Interpretive rhetoric, we
must also underst.nd their past and present relations to the
nondiscurslve practices of institutions.
In the 1870s and 1880s the American university expanded its
collegiate curriculum to Include scientific and humanistic dis-
ciplines previously Ignored, and It relied on the model of Ger-
man scientific research for Its conception of knowledge produc-
55eo Ibid. Fekete does go on 10 ley that "the New Criticism Introduced 8
lechniclsm and an accommodation wllh science. end It athH:kcd
Rntl destroyed lefl-wing 8p.!llhelic forms. Including the lolally (orms of
hislol'"iogrAphlc or SOCiological criticism."
The Instilutlonal Rheloric of Literary Crilici!'tn
tlon." The of this scientific Ideology can be seen in the
particular way literary study was institutionalized. Various crit-
ical approaches were available to those in the university who
wanted literature to be made part of the curriculum- for exam-
morn I or dillndir. nnd !"lO-
ciAI crilldsm. Utli Ihe thul ltJut.le thn
tulionali7.otion of liternry GormAn tho
scientific study of morir.rn langllages And Alinguistir. and
ical approach to lilcmlure.
Philolugy 11m st:ifmlllh.:
rhetoric needr." to the stlHly of litorntllro Rnd
to the rest of the aCAdemic community. Though it did not go
unchallenged, this scholarship did allow the discipline to t8ke
advontage of all the mechanisms for the production and dis-
semination of knowledge that other institutionalized disci-
plines were developing." Philological study provided a meth-
odology that could be used for the classroom practices derived
from the German scientific model: the seminar, the specialized
lecture, and the research paper. It also made use of the aRencies
that the emphasis on reseArch had created for the diffusion 01
knowledge: scholarly journals, university presses, and the an-
nual conventions of learned societies.
But philology did not simply plug into an institutional com-
partment set aside for literary studies; It also effectively de-
signed the interior of that compartment. In the early twentieth
century, philology allowed the discipline to develop historical
scholarship in all its forms (source and innuence studies, exam-
inations of historical Lrlckgrounds, and so forth). Indeed, philo-
logical research provided much of the agenda for the future of
the discipline. The narrower view of philology gave literary
a recent RP,nnral hislory. The Orgonlzotion of Knowledge In Modem
Amerlc:a. 1fUlO- 1920. ed. Alexandra Ole!lon and John (BAltimore. 1979).
'See William Riley PArkr.r. "The MLA. 1883- 1953." PMLA. 68. no. 4. p1. Z
(Seplemher 3- 29. And his "Where Do English DepArtment!! Come
From?,"! F.nRlil'ih. 28 (February 1967). 339- 51; Arthur N. Applebee.
Tradilion and Reform in Ihe TP.Ochingof English: A Hll'ilory (Urbana. III .• 1914).
pp. 25- 28: And Phyllis Franklin. '''Engllsh Sludles: The World of Scholarship in
1883." PMI.A. 991M .. y 19M). 356- 70.
"See the vAhlAhle rhelorir.AI MlchAP.1 Warner. Ion
Bnlithe of UlerAlure: 1875-1900," Crilicil'im. 27 (Wlnlp.r 19ft5). 1- 28;
Bnd Gr.r .. lrl GrAH. Ulr.mlure: An Inslilutionnl Hi.c;lory IChIcARn.
1986}. 4- 6. Al:o;o :'>P.r. Michael Warner Bnd GerAld GraH. .. The
of Lilernry Siudies in Americo: A Documentary Anthology (New York. t909).
24 Rhotorlc and Interprelalion
study such basic projects as textual editing, variorum commen-
taries, bibliographical descriptions, and linguistic AnAlyses. The
broader view 01 philology gava historical scholarship its most
ambitious rationale: philology .8 the cultural history 01 na-
tions." As philology modulated into a less linguistiCAlly ori-
ented historicism in America, it maintained this ideal 01 study-
ing a country's "spirit" through Its literary productions.
In the first quarter 01 the twentieth century, then, philologicAl
research and historical scholarship dominated the institutionai
space provided lor literary studies. These communal practices
shaped and were shaped by the institutional nature of tha disci-
pline, and the lunctions they served became an important part
01 the institutional demands that the rhetoric 01 any new ap-
proach needed to address. We can now survey some 01 the ways
in which New Criticism effectively served and, in its tllrn, re-
vised instltutionallunctions when It came to dominate the dis-
cipline by displacing historical scholarship.l.
Fi .. t 01 ali, New Criticism provided an Ingenious rhetorical
accommodation to scientific ideology. As I've noted, scientific
research provided the model 01 knowledge production through
which literary study and several othar disciplines were institu-
tionalized. The prestige of science continued to grow within the
academy during the early twentieth century, but at the same
time some members 01 the humanistic disciplines grew in-
creasingly discontented with scientific ideology and Its positiv-
istic assumptions. In literary study, these two conflicting trends
came together in the way the New Critics theorized about litera-
ture and criticism in the second quarter of the century.
On the one hand, New Critics delended literature agAinst the
onslaught 01 positivist values by claiming that literary discourse
presented a kind 01 knowledge unavailable in scientific dis-
course. On the other hand, New Criticism itself Was sometimes
promoted as a "scientific" method of getting at nonscientillc,
literary knowledge. This strategic manipulation of scientific
ideology can be seen in the rhetoric of John Crowe Ransom. In
-Appleben. Tmditlon and Reform, pp. 25- 26.
InFor details of the conflict between criticism and scholanhlp In American
Illerary study, 506 Phyllis Franklin. "Engllsh Studies In America: Reflections on
the Development of (I Discipline," American Quarterly. 30 (Spring 1978). 21-
38; William E. Catn. The Cri!'iis In Crillclsm: Theory. Lilernlure. and Reform in
Studies (Baltimore. 1984), pp. 95-101: and Gran. Professing Lilerolure,
chaps. 7- 8.
Tho In.lilullonai Rhelorlc 01 Lllerary Criticism
the early t 940s, Ransom distinguished science Irom poetry,
arguing that poelry recovers "the denser and more relractory
original world which we know loosely through our perceptions
and memories. to Poetry treats "8n order of existence .. . which
r:nnnot ho Irenlml in cii:qr.our:qA,"11 rll:q-
lanced literature frurn sdcm.:e, Ransom advocated 0 c..:Iusor rola-
Iionship between lilernry criticism Anc! sdence: "Criticism mnst
become more sr:icnlifir., or precise Anc! systematic. And this
meliliS lilut illJlllsl hu tlcvtdopcd by thu t:ollm . .: tlvu Ill1ci
effort or leArned persons-which means thAt its prnper sent Is In
the universities."" Here Ransom recognized the importance or
proposing R "scientific" method of criticism to replace Ihe "sci-
entillc" method of philological scholarship dominating the dis-
cipline. In Ihis way, New Criticism accommodated itself to the
institutiol1ally entrenched model of knowledge production and
simultaneously provided a delense 01 its subject matter as au-
tonomous Rnd uniquely worthy 01 study. Actually, New Criti-
cism laid claim to only a few characteristics 01 scientific method
(technical precision, objectivity, neutrality) , but these few were
enough lor it to adapt rhetorically to the scientific ideology in
such a way that it provided continuity as well as revitali7.8tion
lor the discipline.
This revitali7.8lion included a humanistic critique 01 carelully
chosen aspects 01 scientific ideology. Some New Critics ex-
tended a humanistic attack on scientific relativism to the sclen-
tism 01 historical scholarship. In "Criticism, History, and Criti-
cal RelAlivlsm," Brooks took exception to Frederick Pottle's
hislorical study. The Idiom of Poetry, and WHS particularly up-
set with the book's historicist premises. Critical evaluation is al-
ways relative, Pottle argued, because "poetry always expresses
the basis of leeling (or sensibility) of the age in which it WAS
written," and thererore earlier poetry can never be judged by
ItJoh" Crowo Ransom. The New Criticism (Norfolk. Conn., 1941). p. 281. In
ChAP, t RAmmm wnrh out his distinction betw8ftn science lind poetry In a
crl1lf1l1ff of I. A. Rlc:hRrrl,,' pArallel dl!'lUnclion between two U!M'J5 of language
in his Prinr:i"Ip.s of literary Criticism (New York. 1925).
IlRan!'lom. "Critlc:i!'im. Inr. .... In Thp. World's Body (New York. 193ft). p. 329.
CAli for A "critical altitude" thai I! "tough, scientific. And
aloor from the literary ' illusion' which It "Strategy for
Southern nr.vicl'V. 6 (Autumn 1940),235: clled In Kermit VAnderbilt.
Amr.rico" l.ilrrolure nnrllhe The Rools. Growth, ond Malurity of a
Pro/c!>sion (philadelphia. 19861. p. 486.
26 Rhetoric and Interpretation
twentieth-century standards. "The poetry of on oge (In a collec-
tive sensei never goes wrong."" Brooks opposed these histori-
cist ossumptlons with his own lormallst claim. oboul poetic
structures thot are transhlstDrical: "lunctiDnal Imasery, Irony,
and cDmplexlty olo:titude" can be used tD evaluate !'oemsln All
oges (CHCR, p. 2091. Brooks argued lurther that a debilitating
relativism would certainly result il historical study continued
to ignore the universal criteria 01 IDrmalist evaluation. "I Am
convinced," he wrote, "that, Dnce we ore cDmmltted to critical
relativism, there can be no stopping short 010 complete relallv-
Ism in which crilleal Judgments will disappear altogelher"
(CHCR, p. 212). Attribullng Ihl. grDwlng danger 10 the lactlhal
"Ieachers DI the Humanities have tended tD cDmply with the
(scientificJ spirit 01 the age rather than tD resist It," BrDDks
argued that in literery studies we have tried "tD be mDre objec-
tive, more 'sclentific'-and In practice we usually cDntent our-
selves with relating the work In Quesllon to the cultural mAtrix
out 01 which It came," thus irresponsibly avoiding normotive
Judgments (CHCR, pp. 21 J, 198). The New Critical accommoda-
tion to scientific Ideology, then, simultaneously approved one
lorm 01 objectivity and criticized another: Ransom advocated a
"good" kind 01 lormallst obJecllvlty In the Interpretallon 01
literary works, while Brooks condemned a "bad" kind 01 hlstDr-
icist Dbjectivlty lor lailure tD evaluate those works. In this strate-
gic way, New Criticism Incorporated Into It. rhetorical appeal
the strengths 01 both scientific and humanistic programs within
the Institutionalized discipline.
New Criticism satisfied a second Institutional requirement
when it beceme an effective meonslor Increosed speclolization.
The New Critical assumpllon that literature wos an Drdered
Dbject Independent DI sDcial ond hlstDricol context entailed a
lormalist methodology that could reveal the unified complexity
01 tho! literary object. Since literary meaning was also assumed
to be Independent 01 authorlol intention ond reoder response,
New Critics stressed the details olthe text-in-and-of-itself. They.
therelore developed their methodology by locusing on the liter-
ory text in 0 vacuum, or, as they prelerred to soy, on literature as
1lFrederick A. PoUle. The Idiom of Poetry (ltheca, N.Y .. 1941). quoted In
"Crlllcism. History. and Critical RelaHvlsm." In The Well Wrought Urn:
Srudies in the Structure of Poelry (New York, 1947). p. 207 (hereafter Brooks's
work will be dted In text as CHeRI.
The Institutional Rhetoric of Literary Criticism
IiterAlure. New Crilics Ihus tried to elaborate 0 crlll-
dsm thAI derived its inlerpretive calegorles exclUSIvely lrom
IltorAture end not from psychology, sociology, or history. This
relection 01 "extrinsic" approoches Included 0 of 1110 historic"1 of
ship. The rhetoril: of the new "intrinsic" crilidsm served. the
inslitutional lund ion 01 reinforcing Iho indopondnnr.o 01 Ioter-
ary shlrty within Ihe Rr.artemy. An Ar.r.omplishmentthAI WAS pArt
01 0 genoral inslituliunal In Alllcrlcull II111vcrsltlo8
between 1910 and 1960. As Slephen Toulmin polllis out;
During those yeArs ... the academic: and
moved Inlo A new phAse of specialization. Each discipline or
"profession" was characterized by. and organized 8S custo-
dian of. its own corpus of formal techniques. Into new-
comers had to be InitiRted and accredited. as apprenllces. So,
there WBS a generAl tendency for each of the professions to pull
away from its boundaries wllh others. and to concentrate on Its
own central. essential concerns.14
In literAry study. New Criticism helped
need lor increasing dirrerenlialion and speclolozatoo
A third lunction 01 New Criticism was its uselulness es a
meAns 01 lurther prolessionalizatlon. Since
cializalion also mquires prolesslonellsm, the discipline DI liter-
ary studies nceded an Approach Ihat what Ohmann
calls "the professionRI mission 01 developmg the central body
of knowledge and the prolessional service perlormed lor cli-
ents."" New Criticism easily salisfied both 01 these profes-
sional requirements. It redefined Ihe of the
produced by the discipline; where once literary pro-
duced the historical and linguistic knowledge 01 phIlology,
they now produced lormalist knowledge about the text
In-ond-ol-itself. New Criticism also changed the Priority of
USlephen Toulmln. "From Form to Function: Phllo!ophy Rnd Hislory of
Science In Ihr. and Now," Doedolus, l06ISummer 1977).
"Ohmann. F.nglish in America. pp. 239- 40. See abo MAR81i SarfRttl
The 0/ A Sociological (Berkeley and Los I\n-
Reles. 19771, n!'lp. c:hiljl!'l. 4 anci12; and Dietrich "Professional
Autonomv Bnd Ihr. SodAI Conlrol of Expertise,"In The Soclolo,lty of the Prates-
{)odors. and Others. ed. Robert Dingwall end Philip Lewis (New
York. 19A31. PI' . 38- 58.
28 Rhetoric and Interpretation
the dlsclpline's practices as literary studies moved away from
scholarship to criticism. giving ultimate value to explicAtion of
Individual texts. The formalist a .. umptlons and textual expli-
cations presented the dlsclpllna with a new pedagogy. one that
Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Understondlng Poetry (19381
rapidly taught to members of the profession. More slowly. those
same New Critical assumptions and practices also displaced
philological scholarship a8 a methodolollY for trRlnlng And ac-
crediting the growing number of new recruits 10 Ihe profession.
The close readings of New Critical formalism represent the
fulflllment of the flnal Institutional function I will point out.
New CritIcism constituted a discursive practice for Ihe disci-
pline. one that could be easily reproduced and disseminated
within a growing profession. It gave the members new Ihlngs to
do with old texts; now they had an Interpretive machine Ihey
could operate without the traditional and lengthy training of
philology. Literary critics exploited this machine to flllthe In-
creasing number of monographs and journals the expanding
institution demanded.
In the 1940s and 1950s. New Critical formalism showed that it
could fulfill all of the institutional demands I have outlined. It
did so more persuasively than any other available critical ap-
proach. even as it simultaneously modified these demands.
Again. as with philology. the dominant critical practice and Ihe
inslltutlonal space were mUlually deDnlng. Today debales In
critical theory take place In terms set by New Critical formalism:
Is authorial Intention relevant to correct Interpretation? Is tex-
tual meaning separate from reader response? Is the literary work
independent of historical context? But even more Important
than selling the current agenda for theoretical debate Is Ihe
authoritative legacy contributed by New Critical close readings.
the detailed explications of individual texts. It is no accident
that among the most popular forms of poststructuralist criticism
are those that closely resemble the Interpretive rhetoric of New
Criticism. a rhetoric emphasizing the complexity of the unique
literary work. Thus. despite being constanlly allacked and sup-
posedly outmoded. formalist rhetoric still remains a significant
presence in literary thought and crllical practice within the
discipline of American literary studies.

1f1For userul dlscu8slons of «his New Critical leR8cy, see Frank Lenlricr.hia,
Afler the New Criticism (Chicago. 1980); Jane P. Tompkins. "The Reader In
The Inslilullonal Rhelorlc of Lllerary Crillclsm
II. Reader-Response Criticism Revisited
One problem with the schematic history of the previous sec-
tion Is IhRt Ii remains much too general In Its analysis of the
institutlonnl rlwtnrk of Acncimllir: Intnrtnnlnlion. To provlrifl
more detail. we need to focus on 8 specinc interpretive conven-
tion and its rhetorical tactics. First ond foromnst. Intorpretive
orr. ... pror..nil1rAA for
which cunsist of hermeneutic assumptiuns IIItlllHuNltltI In "1'6-
cific rhelorical moves. A critic odopts (ond is odorted hy) these
conventions in his or her ollempt to de.cribe. explicate. and
explain any discourse. whelher 1\ be one line of. poetry. a com-
plete novel. or an entire literary Iradition. The hlslory of recent
litemry criticism i. a chronicle of rhetorical chon.ges In these
shared interpretive strategies. While Ihe conven\Jons of New
Criticism domln.ted in the United States during the 1940s and
1950s. the kind of I ,xt rhetorically constituted by that critlcls?,
became known for its levels of unity. pallerns of Imagery. IrOniC
tensions. and objective meanings. In the sixties and sevenlies.
reRder-response criticism joined many Imported and domestic
chollengcrs to Ihe New Critical hegemony. and like them 1\
defined texis in terms of formal properties and literary effects
different from those identified by the old New Criticism. In the
rest of Ihis chapter. I analyze the most widely reviewed version
of reRder-response criticism. Ihal practiced by Stephen Booth.
Sian ley Fish. and Wolfgang Iser.'1
Th" ShApe of Literary Reader· Re"ponse
from 10 Posl ·Struclurailsm (8aIUrnorA. 19801. pp. 20 •
Jonathan Culler. "8eyond Interpretation." In The Pursuit of Sign. : Semiolici.
Lilemlure. (fthaca . N.Y .• 1981). pp. 3- 11: Cain. "The 1"sUtu·
tionll1l7.alion of the New Crlllclsm." In Crisis In Criticism. pp. 104- 21: end
EdWArd W. Said. The World.lhe Texi. and the CrHic (CAmbridge. Mass .• 1983).
pr. 140- 77.
"Suhsequent rderences 10 works by.the.e critics will be cited In the text a.
follows : WolfgAng The Implied Reader: Polferns of Communication In
fleli on (rom Bunyon 10 Beckel! (BAltimore. 19741 (JR): Stephen Booth.
"On the VAllie of Ham/('!t.··in Reinterpretotions of EJizobr.than Dromo: Se/ffl:ted
from the F.nllli.o;h rnstitute. ed. Norman Rahkln (New York. 1969).
pp. 137- 76 IVItI ; Stephen Rooth. An Essoy on Sonnets (New
Haveo. Conn .. 1969) IF-SS): StAnley E. FI!,h. Surprised hy SIn: The Reader In
"Pnmdi!lip. Lost, " 2rl erl . (Rerkeley. 1I11t) (SS): Stanley F.. Se/(·Commmiog
The F.xp('!rienc:e of Seventeenth·Century Lilemlurr. IBerkr.ley. 1912)
(SA). lIere J am Interesled only In these early texis of practical criticism (with
30 Rhetoric and Interpretation
In the early seventies, the critiques of formollsm gained added
force from political discourses, such as feminism and neo-
Marxism, that transcended the debates within academic literary
criticism. Similarly, In the reader-response attack on New Criti-
cism and the affective fallacy, there appenrs to he 0 connection
between the early talk of "reader liberation" and the liberation-
1st rhetoric of the New Left. Ellorts to free the reader-student
from the authority of the aulhor, lexl, or teachAr al flrst sAemml
to be allied with the more broadly based attacks on political
oppression and authoritarianism, attacks taking place on and
off college campuses In Ihe late sixties and early seventies.
This connection was made explicit by some reviewers of eorly
reader-response criticism. Objecting to Walter Slatoff's With
Respeelto Readers (1970), Harry Woelfel wrote: "In times such
as these when subjectivity has been raised to Godhead and
students everywhere are goaded to 'express themselves,' ...
Slatoff _ . . plays guru to the new cult of subjectivism." More
sympathetically, Jan Pinkerton began a 1972 review of several
books with the observation that "there are some sorts of criti-
cism that should be spiritually (if not materially) Implicated In
the recent disruptions of the American university," but implied
that Slatoff's notion of "relevance" was a positive remedy to a
naive critical objectivity and an undesirable "authoritarion-
ism."'· In "The Revolt of the Reader," Terry Engleton wittily
sums up this view of the counterculture origins of reader-
response criticism: "The growth of the Readers' Liberation
Movement (RLM) over the past few decades hos struck a deci-
sive biow for oppressed readers everywhere, brutally proletari-
anized as they have been by the authorial class. ",.
But the shift in the seventies from talk about authors and texts
their slmllerlliell In Interpretive rhetorlcl and not In the thftOretical dls"Sff!e-
menls that arose later between, for example, Fish and 15ef. For Ihe!'lB laler
dlsputes,aee Is"r. "Intervlew," Diacritic., 10 (June 1980). 72-73; Fish, "Why No
One's Afraid of Wolfgang Olacrillcs, 11 (March 19811.2-13; and ber,
"Talklng Like Whale.: A Reply to Sian ley FI.h:' Dlacrlllc., 11 (September
1981J.82- 81.
18Harry W. Woelfel III, Review of Sialoff'. WUh Rp"pP.Cllo Reade,., . Soulhp.rn
Humonities Review. 9 (Summer 19151, 339; Jilin Pinkerton. "Rp.nectlons on the
Classroom and Recent Literary Criticism." College English. 33 (February 1972).
1rrerry Eagleton. "The Revoll of the Reader:' In hi. Agoin!f Ihe Groin: Se-
leeled Essay! (London. 1986). p. 181.
. ,
The Jnatllutlonal Rhetoric of Lllerary CrJtlclsm 31
to talk Rbont rearlers and reading actually had only a very medl-
Hted connection to any radical politics. In fact, the critical shift
owed much more to lis rhetorical situation within the discipline
01 literary studies than It did to any New LeI! rhetoric active
within Ihn Illrgl!r cullurnl r:onvp.nmlion. In thp. "lnr:A, thfl
extremely divergent approaches 10 readera reading wo.uld prob-
8bly novor hRvo Imon groupod Ingothor undor tho rllhrlr. ronrlnr-
rORpnn.o or rAnclnr-nrlontnd crltid.m If It we", nnt lor tho In-
stitutional hegell1uny of New Crltkul 10rll1u Ii " 111 with It. pro-
scription ngRinst tho nffnctlve fallncy. Rondor-critir.. thom.elveo
encouraged this antilormallst framing by explicitly rejecting
and writing against the affective fallacy. However, this apparent
similarity and the shared critical vocabulary covered over very
different ways of talking about the reader and his (and, only
later, her) reading experience.
Throughout the seventies, for
example, reader-response critics began with differing concep-
tions of the relation between reader and text: Gerold Prince and
Peter Rabinowitz olten focused on the reader in the text ; David
Bleich and Norman Holland on the actual reader's complete
dominance over the text; and Stephen Booth, Stanley Fish, Bnd
Wolfgang Iser on the ideol reader's Interaction with the lexl. Or
agoin: lor Prince and Rabinowitz the Inscribed readers (th? na.'-
mtees Rnd other implied audiences) were part 01 the meanong m
the narrative; for Bleich and Holland meaning was a creation by
and in the individuol reader; for Booth, Fish, and Iser meaning
was a product 01 the interaction of readers and texts.
2"For elr.htiled comparisonlll of various reAder-response approAc:hes, 1I8e my
Inlerprf!fivc Convention!; : The Reaaer In the Siudy of Americon Fiction (Ithaca ,
N.Y .. 19821. pp. 19- 65, and Susan R. Sulelman. "Introduction: Varlelies of
Audlcnc:e-Oriented Criticism," In The Reader In the Text: E!;!;oys on Audience
and Inlerpretation. ed. Sulelman and Inge CrosmAn (princeton. 19801. pp. 3 - 45.
Aililo Sf!8 TompklnR. "An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism." In
Reoder.Respon!;c Crifici!;m, PI' . Ix- xxvi; Elizabeth Freund. The Relurn of the
Reader: neoder. Respnm:eCrillclsm (London, 1987); and Leitch. American I.iler·
ory Criticism from the Thirllp.!'II to the EIRhtles (New York. 19881. pp. 211 - 37.
252- 59. On thr.llIIlIIue of Mender anel the Identity of " the reader." AM Gender ond
ReorlinM: F.l'>soy" on nP.fJders, Tp.Jlb, and Contedlil . ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and
PAtrodnio P. Sc:hweir:kArt (RAllImore. 1986). Throughout this sec:llon I have
Attempted to U!;e the inc:lu!;lve "rcaders" and the corrcspondinR plurAl pro-
nounR. except whr.n the rr.Ader-response critic I am Quoting uses slnRular.
ma!'lf:uline form:\ .
liThe di!'ltinr.iio"" mAde here arA provisional and ApproximRte. useful only Alii
8 way of Initially mapping the reader-oriented per!;pectivp.. For example.
32 Rhotoric and Interpretation
Thus, only the slippoge of critical terminology and the conve-
nience of metacritlcal grouping mode possible Ihe collection of
such different theoretical assumptions under one critlcnllabel.
But such slippage and grouping were almost Inevitable given
the Institutional hegemony of New Criticism_ That Is, evmy I1P.W
American BpproBch to criticism In the sixties and seventies
defined Itself and was itself defined against the dominant criti -
cal discourse_ This Is one way, then, In whir.h the
situation of early reader criticism was relatively independent of
a larger cultural conversation extending beyond the aCBdemy.
Reoder-orlented criticism's obstocles and opportunities werB
demBrcated quite specificBlly by its time Bnd plBce within the
professional discourse of Bcademlc literary criticism in the eorly
This relotive outonomy Is even more pronounced for the
reoder-response criticism of Booth, Fish, ond Iser. it is probAbly
true that certain forms of subjectivist, psychologically oriented
reader criticism did achieve some Influence pedogogicolly be-
cause of on apparent consistency with liberationist rhetoric on
college campuses." And perhaps all forms of reader criticism
benefited from (or became guilty by association with) this some
Prince's and Rabinowllz'slheorles 80 well beyond talk about In"crlbed feaders;
lee Prince, NormlaloBY: The Form and FuncUonlns oJ Narrative (Berlin. 1982)
and Rabinowitz. Before Reodins: Norrolfve Conventions and rhe Pollfles of
Interpre'ation (Ithaca. N.Y., 1987). Bleich .nd HolI.nd ailio hftV6 much more
complex approaches to reading than are .ugeated by my easy dhltlncllons here: .
lee especially their more recent work: Bleich. "lnler.ubJective RoadlnR." And
Holland. "The Miller', Wife and the Pro'euon: Que.llons.bout I h ~ Tranuctlve
Theory of Reading." both In New Literary History. 17 (Spring 1986). 401 - 21 and
423- 47; Holland. Loughln8 (lthBce. N.Y .. 1982) and The' (New Haven. Conn ..
1985); and Bleich. The Double PertpectJve: Lon8uose. Literacy. and Social
Relnrions (Oxford. 1988). cr. Robert C. Holub's comment aboulthe ex post facto
labeling of "reader-response" Reception Theory: A Critical Introduc-
tion (London, 1984), pp. xII - xIII.
UI should. of course. talle. of the re-emergence of ",Bder·orlenteel criticism in
the late sixties. not only because or the long rhetorical tradition of
centered criticism and theory In the West but also because of the
century worle. of such theorbls as I. A. Richards. Kenneth Burke. Wayne Booth.
and especially louise Rosenblatl. A revised edition of RO!'lcnhlaU's c l a ~ ~ 1 c I.iff!r-
oture as Explorolion (New Yorle.. 1938) appeared In 1968 and 8 third edition in
1974. See also Rosenbhttt. The Reader. the Text . • he Poem: The Trunsoctionol
Theory of Ihr. Liferury Work (Carbondale. 111 .. 1978).
USee. c .g .. R. W. Lid and Philip HAndier. "Radical Chic and the Llberalion of
the Reader," Theory into Practice. 14 (luoe1975). 149-55.
The Instilulional Rhetoric of Llierary Criticism
Iiberationist rhetoric simply by using a reader vocabulary In the
context of the terminological slippage described above. Far
more important. however. were the institutional continuities
offered by the reader-responsecrlliclsm of Booth, Fish, and Iser.
It 15 tho inslihttionnl r.nmhtnntfnn of rormnllst r:nntlnuitlfls with
reader-oriented voriutiof1s, rot her tholl ony cy.lru-lnstHutiunol
affiliAtions with Nnw Left rhetoric, thAt Aemunt. mo.t dAcI-
.ively for whAtnvnr pn" this type of reAder-response
crilidsm attained.
In mnny specific nnd RAnArAI way., Nflw formAII.m
still influences the way American criticism rhetorically func-
tions In theory and practice. Ever since New Criticism estab-
lished the expliCAtion of Individual texts as the privileged ac-
tivity of literary study, every new approach has had to prove lis
worth by effectively applying its proposed methods In close
readings and then defending lis procedures and resulls in an
accompanying theoretical justification of its assumptions. Thus,
the rhetorical project for an emerging critical perspective neces-
sarily involves A threefold strategy: providing persuasive, de-
tailed interpretations of valued literary texts; presenting a
strong case for the theoretlcala.sumptlons underlying the Inter-
pretive method; and displaying a tight fit between the critical
theory and the interpretive procedure. As we will see wlt-h
reader-response criticism, these three rhetorical concerns in-
volve every aspiring critical approach in severAl different In-
stitutional debates at once, debates embedded In both the most
recent discussions of rritlcaltheory and the evolving Interpre-
tive history of specific literary texts. By describing the assump-
tions and tactics of one form of reader criticism, I intend my
analysis to illustrate how,though they differ In detail, all critical
approaches function rhetorically as Institutional sets of inter-
pretive conventions.
Before enacting And describing the interpretive rhetoric of
reader-response criticism, we should look more closely at the
interpretive Assumptions underlying the project . The crucial,
indeed the founding, theoretical claim of all reAder-response
critics is their explicit rejeelion of New Critical formalism and
its purported assumption of An inactive reader, a reader simply
acted upon by the texl. Since the late sixties, reader-response
critics have championed the reader as on active participant
34 Rhelorlc and Inlerprelatlon
ralher than a pas.lve observer during the reading process. In hi.
pracllcal criticism, Wolfgang Iser focuses on "gaps" In the text
thaI stimulate the "reader's creallve participation" (IR, p. 275);
and Stephen Booth's analyses of Shakespeare's sonnet. empha-
size the "reading experiences thaI result from Ihe multlpllclly of
organizations Iformal, logical, Ideological, etc.lln which, over
the course of fourteen lines, the reader's mind participates"
(ESS, p, Ix). Therefore, a typical (and, for my pur po •••,
central) act of readerly participation Is the contribution readers
make to the les80ns they learn from a text. For example, Iser
describes many reading experience. in which readers work
things out instead of being told (e.g., IR, pp. 41-45, 154), and
Stanley Fish often examines a text that "does not preach the
truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves"
(SA, p. 1).
In such practical criticism, the stage for action moves from the
literary work to the reader's mind. What Fish says of Porodise
Lost is true for most texts discussed by reader-response crill-
clsm: the mind of the reader becomes the "poem's 8cene" (SS,
p. 1). In Its strongest form, such criticism sees meaningltseif as
"an event, something that happens, not on the page, where we
are accustomed to look for it, but in the interaction between the
flow of print (or sound) and the actively mediating conscious-
ness of a reader-hearer" (55, p. x). Reader-response critics oHer
descriptions of this interacUon, descriptions that often lake the
form of talk, not about "what a work soys or shows" but about
"what It does" (Booth, VH, p. 138).
A crucial issue for these critics is the identity of the reader
whose experiences they portray: whose reading responses are
being described? Iser refers to the "implied reader" of his book's
title as a term Incorporating "both the prestructuring of the
potential meaning by the text, and the reader's actualization of
this potential through the reading process" (IR, p. xii). Iser also
refers to the "educated reader" (p. 58), a close relative of the
"ideal" or "Informed reader," whom Fish describes a8 a person
"sufficiently experienced as a reader to have internalized the
properties of literary discourses, Including everything from the
most local of devices (figures of speech, etc.) to whole genres"
(SA, p. 406). In actual critical practice, all of these theoreti-
cal constructs become indistingUishable from the "intended
. ,
'i' ,
, ,
, I
, ,
, I
The Instilutional Rhetoric oi Llterory Criticism 35
reader," the person "whose education, opinions, concerns, lin-
guistic competence., .nd so on make him capable of having the
experience the eulhor wished to provide."" in this version of
reader-response criticism, the author becomes a monlpulolor of
with nr hcr Im:hlllqlln:q RllhlhlA tho To/Hlnr 10 thn
Intended response.
To describe II1OS0 mActions, roa<.lor-r081'01190 l:rllll:9 Adopt
A I.mpnrnl moctnl of thn rAArlinll prnr.nss. Fish hns mnrln Iho
following helpful dislinctlon belween formalist and reader-
response enterprises:
The tines of plol ond argument, Ihe begtnning •. middle •. and
end •. the clusters of imagery, all Ihe formal features Ihat are ob-
serVAble when we step back from the reading experience. are,
during thet experience, components of 8 response: and the struc-
ture in which they are implicated Is 8 structure of response. In
other words. there is n' necessary relationship between the visible
form of 8 work and the form of the reader's experience- one Is 8
complex of spallal. tho other of temporal. pallerns-and since H is
In the context of the Inlter thai meaning occurs, a crillclsm which
reslricts itsell to Ihe poem a. 'object' will be inadequate to its
pretention.. ISS. pp. ix- xl
Iser and Booth share Fish's preference for a temporal over a
spatiai modei of Ihe reading experience. Booth describes a "suc-
cession of acllons upon Ihe understanding of an audience" (VH,
p. 139), while iser focuses on the "potential time-sequence
which Ihe reader must inevitably realize" (IR, p. 280).
The Inlerpretive assumption. of every criticai approAch form
the enabling beliefs upon which its enterprise Is founded. So it
is wilh reader-response critici.m. fnterpretive as.umplions
about the reader and Ihe temporal reading process provide 8
basis for the rhelorical strategies of it. practical criticism. In the
following section, I will provisionally adopt the inlerpretive
conventions of render-response criticism In order to provide a
'pecific crilical performance for further analysis. Thi. brief ex- n Tr.;J(f in This Closs? (Cambridge. .• 1980). pp. 1HO- 61 .
cr. JonathAn Culler. Siruciumli:o;f Por.lics (ithAca. N.Y .. 19751. pp. 113- 30.
on "literary r.ompclcnce," and my Inlerprelive Convenlions. pp. 94- 113 on
" Inferred intention."
a6 Rhetoric and Interpretation
ample uses In combination some of the rhetorical moves that I
will later discuss separately.
III. Learning to Read
The question of the vanishing narrator In Moby-Dlck has per-
plexed critics since the earliest reviews of the novel. The re-
viewer for the London Speclotorexpressed hi. concern In the.e
words: "1\ is a canon with some critics that nothing should be
introduced into a novel which it Is physically impossible for the
writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversa-
tion Of miners In a pit If they all perish. Mr. Melville hardly
steers clear of this rule, and he continually violates another, by
beginning In thaautoblographlcal form and changing ad libitum
Into the narrative. "2. Though the first criticism results from the
omission of the "Epilogue" from The Whole (the British edition
of Moby-Dick), the complaint about the change from autobiogrA-
phy to narrative is a precursor to later academic questions about
what happens to Ishmael as narrator in the last quarter of the
novel. Critics most often arrive at one of two conclusions: one
side in the debate claims (with the Spectolor reviewer' that
Melville creates an artistic problem by changing narrators in
mid-slory; the olher side denies thaI fshmael actually disap-
pears. Another interpretation Is also suggested: Ishmael does
vanish as narrator, but his disappearance serves an aesthetic
• My own view follows from this lasl Interpretation. I
see the vanishing narrator as R consequence of Melville's careful
rhetorical plan: teaching the reader 10 read.
Outside the pages of his fiction, Melville spoke disparagingly
of the "tribe of 'general readers'" who were most responsible for
nRevlew of The London Speclolor. 25 Oclober 1851. reprinted In
Moby-OJcJc as Doubloon. ed. Hershel Plrker Ind Hanlson Hayford (New York.
1970). p . 12.
HFor II sampling of the Inlerprellve debete. Sett Waller E. R87..8nSOn, "Moby-
Dick: Work of Arl," In Moby-Dlck Centennia' Essoy!, ed. Tyrul Hillway and
luther S. Mansfield (Oaltas. 1953), pp. 30- 58; Glauco Cumbon, "Ishmael and
the Problem of Forma' Oiscontinuilies In MohY-Dick," MLN. 76 (June 19611.
516- 23; Paul Hradlkorb, Jr., Ishmael's While World (New I-faven, Conn., 19651.
pp. 1- 10; William B. Dillingham, "The Narrator or Moby-Dick," Stud-
ies. 49 (19681, 20- 29; Edward H. Rosenberry. Melville {London, 19791. pp. 80- .
81; and John Miles Foley, "The Price of Narntlve Fiction: Genre, Myth, and
Meaning In Moby-Oick and The Odyssey," Thought, 5910ecember 1984),446.
, I
The Institutional Rhetoric of Literary Criticism 37
the ract that "it is the least port of genius that attracts admi·
ration." In his novels Melville took rorms popular with this
audience-whaling adventures, sensational Gothic romances,
picaresque travel tales-and used them for his own kind of
truth.tdlinll. "" wrnt" with n ,fisRui."n nllnl pmpo.,,: to "ntor-
tain and deceive the pupular audience with buuks that suld be-
cause they could not (,0 known for whntthoy worn hy "tho su-
perficinl .kimmer 01 paR" .... ann In the.e •• me hooks to reveol to
the "eogle·eyed rcud"r" the truth "covertiy, alld lJy slIutches.""
Thus Melville hegnn Pi,,,,,, with the inlentinn of writinR n Inlly'R
magazine romance lor the popular audience, while he simulta-
neously composed a profound psychological exploration for his
more perceptive readers.
It was on this "eagle-eyed reoder" that Melville locused his
rhetorical attention in Moby·Dick. Early chapters or the novel
prepare the way for loter ones, not simply by revealing new In-
formation but by arming the reader with Interpretive habits, spe-
cific ways of reading. In the early chapters, Ishmael (a school-
master on land) teaches his readers to see the rich significances
of the later chapters. Indeed, reading Moby-Dick is a process of
learning to read it.
From the first, in "Loomings," Ishmael encourages the reader
to "dive," to search lor the deeper meanings. As Harrison Hay-
ford observes, Ishmael "exhorts us to confront, and, if we can,to
explain the meaning of a series of analogical situations, stated in
various images."" The mysteries of the first chapter are fol-
27The Rrst quotation 'n Ihill paragraph 15 from Melville's leller 10 Nathaniel
Hawthorne, 1(?1 June t85t. All of the other quotllllons lire from Herman Mel-
ville, "Hawthorne anel 'lIs Mo!ses," Literary World, 17 end 24 August 1850.
80th of the:'le documents ere reprinted In the Norton Crlticel Edition of Moby-
Dick, ed. '""rlson Hayford and Hershel Parker (New York. 1967), pp. 535- 60.
All quotationll from Moby-Dick In this section are from the Norton edition.
2"8rlan f-ligglns And fferllhcl Parker, "The Flawed Grandeur of Melville'!
Pierre." In New Pel1tpectlves on Me'yllJe. ed. Fallh Pullin (Edinburgh, 1978),
p. 16Z.
:WJ-lImlson Hayford. " 'l..oomlnRS' : Varns and Figures In the Fabric," In Artful
Thunder, rod . Rol>P.rt ' . DeMntt and Sanford E. Marovllz (Kent, 0 ., 19751. p . 12:1.
My Interprr.tAtion of Mohy-Oid is derlvr.d from the and of
Ihlyford; hi!! rmuiinR!I haye been developed further and on to
me by J-Imshel Parkr.r. ThotlRh nr.ithr.r should 00 hr.1rt Accoun'fthle
for whAt I do with hi!llnlli iRht .. . J owe 8 RrcAt deht to hath. for they hAve tauRht mp.
how to mad Melville's mastr.rplccc. I should also note here thAt in hill Artide
"Unnecessary Duplir./tles: A Key to the Writing of Moby-Dick." in Pullin, New
38 Rhetoric Bud Interpretation
lowed by others, as Ishmael makes out 01 everything a puz7.le, a
problem: the true Identity of Ihe "Block Parliament" (chap. 2) ;
Ihe "boggy, soggy squltchy picture" In Ihe Spouler-Inn;'" Ihe
"mystifying and exesperating slorles" laid by Ihe landlord; Ihe
use of a mysterious "door met"; "whol 10 mokn of Ihi. Iwoc!-
peddling purple rascal," Queequeg (chep. J); the meaning of
Queequeg's tatoos, which were like "an Interminable Crelan
labyrinlh"; the memory of a childhood "myslnry" (r.hop. 41;
Father Mapple's dragging up of his pulpit ladder, an acl Ihal
"must symbolize something unseen"; the pulpit itself, so "lull
01 meaning" (chap. 8); and the mop to Ihe Nanlucket Try Pols
(chap. 15). At one point Ishmael makes his lesson explicil: "All
these things are not without their meanings" (chap. 7). In lacl,
all 01 these early puzzles prepare the reader lor the more compli-
caled puzzles 01 Ahab and Ihe Whale. Later, in "Moby-Dick"
and "The Whiteness of the Whale," Ihe reader's instruclion
continues, as Ishmael struggles to explain the "symbol" 01 the
White Whale, first In Its unitary significance to Ahab and then in
its multiplicity of meanings to himself.
By the last quarter of the novel, the reader's training is com-
plete. If readers have learned their lesson well, they no longer
require an explicit guide to encourage them to make a puz7.le oul
of everything. They now see the signifying nature of all things
on their own. Thus Ishmeel disappears as narrator In the laler
chapters because he is no longer needed as a teacher. The reader
uses him up by learning his lesson-the lesson of how 10 read
the novel.
The structure of the reader's response can be lurther par-
ticularized. The specific habit of mind that Ishamel encourages
in the reader is best illustrated (as Harrison Hayford has shown)
by the first chapter: the crowds (Including the reader) are con-
lronted by the mystery of the sea, and what these Inlanders
discover is not on easy solution to the mystery, not on obvious
signification for the symbol, but rather the "ungraspable phan-
Perspeclive!, pp. 128- 61. Hayford provides In plIlIfIIlnR II VAry different r.xplanA-
tion from the one I suggest for the dhJsppearance of Ishmael .. , narrator.
3"ln another reaclflf-ff'!spon!'l8 analysis of Mobr-Dick. Carey H. Kirk nolc!'! thAt
thl!! picture "provldes8 u!leful model as WCl"UI8 dl8conceriinginitiAIion forthe
would-be Interpreter of Mohr-Dick" ("Moby-Olelc The ChAllenge of Re:'!pon:'!e,"
on I..onguoge and Lilerolure. 13 (Fall 19771, 384). Cf. Morlon L. Ros!t,
"Moby-Dick as an Education," Siudies In the Novel, 6 (Spring 1974), 71 - 73.
The Instilutlonal Rhelorlc of Lilerary Criticism 39
10m ollile" (chap. 1). Readers are taught to follow Ihe example
or Ishmael (And laler Ahab) In turning "every object, situRtlon,
and person Ihey confront Inlo a problem, one which cannot be
solved, a my.lery whose lurking meaning cannol be followed to
Its IIllimntn nlllddution" (Hnvfnrd." ,. Jlfl · 121 - 22).
The pallern Iluyfurd for Ishmue!"s lJuzzlinK Is 01.0 on
accurale dcpklion 01 the mod or's oxperionce: "r.onlronlnlion-
explorntinn-nonsnlillinn of A prohlem." This pAUr.rn is repentmi
in (;haplcrt) lur huth IsllllwcI uIllllhc rcmlcr. "MolJy-lJlck,"
for example, begins with the prohlem 01 whot Ihe White WhAle
means 10 Ahab. This queslion is explored and a theory set forth,
bul Ihe chapler ends with Ishmae!"s admission thai he cannot
undersland why Ihe crew follows Ahab: "All Ihis 10 explain,
would be to dive deeper Ihan Ishmael can go" (chap. 41). Again
and again, Ishmael and the educaled reader recognize that,
though "some cerlain significance lurks in all Ihings" (chap.
99), Ihat significance cannot always be captured. The guid ing
lesson is clear: "Read it if you can" (chap. 79) .
The reader's education and Ihe pattern of his or her response
Indicate Ihe lemporal slrucluring 01 Moby-Dick, Ihe care In Ish-
mael's "cRreful disorderliness" (chap. 62). Not only does this
Inlerpretalion dissolve the problem 01 the vanishing nArrator, it
also suggesls a perspective on anolher critical conlroversy: it is
nollshmael who changes In the telling but reoders who change
in Iheir reading.
IV. Rhetorical Tacdcs
I will trust in my own readers' interpretive skill to flesh oul
this bare-bones explication. This brief demonstration of reoder-
response criticism cnn now serve as an additional source of
examples in Ihe lollowing analysis of that criticism's rhetorical
moves. But firsl some observations. Note how Ihe .bove Inter-
prelation rhetorically situates itself in the critical history of the
novel. II does not simply present a reading. Rother, it first identi-
fies an interpretive problem constituted by past critical debates.
This is a paradigmalic rhetorical stralegy in academic criticism:
by claiming Ihal past critics have argued over an inlerpretive
problem,lhe new interprelalion attempls 10 convince its readers
01 bolh Ihe significance of the problem and the value of its pro-
posed solulion. The rhetorical importance ollhistadic should
40 Rhetoric and Interpretation
nol be underestlmaled. For Irom being an unnecessary riluolln-
traducing academic Inlerprelatlons, the rehearsAl 01 past crilical
debales eslablishes Ihe reason why Ihe crilic's reader should
bolher 10 proceed furlher. Reading a texl's critical hislory In
order 10 produce an Interprelive problem CAnnot be rh"torir.Aliy
separaled lrom Ihe new reading of the textlhat solves the prob-
lem." As we will see in a momenl, reader-response crilicism
allen gives a special Iwlsl 10 this rhetoricnlll.e 01 past crilir.ism.
The success or failure of any new crilical project depends
partly on the persuasiveness 01 lis accompanying Iheory, the
loregrounding of its assumptions, illustraled In section II lor
reader-response criticism. Bul even more Imporlanl In a disci-
pline with a New Crllical legacy of close reading, Institutional
success depends on Ihe persuasiveness of specific Inlerpreta-
lions 01 specific texIs. Each new approach to liIerature therelore
develops a sel of rhelorical moves Ihal can be repealed and
inlerrelaled 10 produce Interprelations thaI appear as simulta-
neously original and persuasive-original in Ihat they allow
criticism 10 say something new aboul old interpretive problems
and persuasive In that they connect up wilh what is already
accepted as true. In this section I analyze the rhetorical tactics of
reader-response criticism 10 show how that approach attempts
to persuade its readers to accepl specific interpretations and the
critical project as a whole."
Several of the rhetorical moves below are Intricalely related to
ench other, so I will be pulling apart what always appears as a
lightly woven unity in any persuasive critical performance. Sev-
eral of these moves are closely related because they arise from
the same interpretive assumptions; for example, the description
of successive reading activities and the analysis of response
patterns both derive from the adoption of a temporal reading
model. Some strategies have an added relationship, being re-
finements of more basic moves; Ihe variations on the reader-
character axis will serve as an example. All critical approaches
manifest a similar network of strategies, strategies anchored by
an unquestioned core of premises and interrelated either as
:JISce Adena Ro,m.rin. "Ifermeneutlcs veraus Emllc.:
and Inlerpmllve History," PMLA. 100 !January 19851. 20- 37; and Slimley Fish.
"Short Peoplo Gol No Reason 10 Live," t 12 (Winter 19A3), 115- 91.
:USee SIan ley Fish. The Living Temple: Geo"Kf! Herbert and Colr.chizing
(Berkeley, 1978). pp. 170-73, and Is There 0 Text? pp. 365- 69.
The Inslitutlonal Rhetoric of Literary Crillcism 41
derivations lrom a common assumption or as varialions and
refinements of other critical strategies.
The description of successive reading activilies Is Ihe most
common move made by the reader-response critic. I am dlscus.-
ing. Thmm for:u::; on "Ihn minrlln tho nd of mnklnR SAmm,
rolher thllll ollihe sCllse it filially (a lid oftell mukes"
(Fish, SA, p. xii). Thoir desroriptions of tllA lompornl ronfiln!!
expcrienr:e of len prof:fmd section hy section. line hy line, even
word hy word . The lulluwlng exulllple III Ih" slrnh'8Y Is
lrom Fish's 0110 lysis nf A passngo hy Allgllstino: "Tho fi,"1 port 01
the sentence-'He came to a place'-establishes a world of fixed
and discrete objects, and then the second half-'where he was
already' -takes it aWRY" (SA, p. 41). Here readers are first given
something and then they lose it . By contrast, Fish would argue. a
holistic interpretation of Augustine's sentence Ignores this tem-
poral experience and provides only an impoverished meaning
extracted After Ihat experience. Booth, Iser, and others use this
same strategy on longer passages, Just as I do in my analysis of
the successive puzzles in Moby-Dick. What such a move demon-
strates is Ihat form, as Carole Berger points oul, "also has a
temporal dimension, manifest in the reader's sequential experi-
ence of 8 work. ":JJ
A related strategy is also based on this assumption of a tem-
poral reading model : any pallerns found are ploced not in the
text but in Ihe slruclure of the reader's response. For instance,
Boolh writes that "the audience's sensation of being unexpec-
tedly and very slightly out of step is repeated regularly in Hom-
lei." This pallern plays a central role in Booth's thesis that the
play "Is Insistently incoherent and justa. Insistently coherent"
(VH, pp. 140, 1391. Patterns of a similar temporal nature are
posited throughout Fish's applied criticism. In one book, he
demonstrates how the poems in Herbert's The Temple work "by
Inviting the reAder to a premature Interpretive conclusion,
which is first challenged, and Ihen reinstaled, but in such a way
as to make it the vehicle of a deeper understanding" (Living
Temple, p. 351. This pattern is a more complex version of that
descrihed in his previous book. In the "self-consumingartifact,"
the reader "is first encouraged to entertain assumptions he prob-
:tlCRrolr. "Thr. RAke end Ih" Render In Jane Novels," Siudies
in English Ulf'ralurr.. 1500- 1900, 15 (Autumn 1975), 5 .... .
42 Rhelorlc and Inlerprelatlon
ably already holds and then is later forced to reexamine and
discredit those same assumptions" (SA, p. 10). Still earlier, Fish
found a simpler pallern in Paradise Last: "mislake, correction,
instruction" ISS, p. 42). Similarly, my analysis of Moby-Dick
uses the "pallern of confrontation-explorAtion-non.oluliol1"
that Hayford sees for Ishmael as a description of the reading
experience the novel provides.
The allempt to describe these sequentiAl Activities and lem-
poral pallerns always presents itself as an allempt to close the
gap between criticism and reading. As one reader-oriented in-
terpreter puts it, "It may be truer to the reader's experience of
the text to speak of a succession of moments that yield varying
ellects_"" To be "truer to the reader's experience" is the repre-
sentational goal of reader-response criticism. Mindful of the
New Critics' allack on the "allective fallacy," reader-oriented
critics such as Fish in his "affective stylistics" try to beat the
objectivists at their own game: Formalist criticism, Fish argues,
"is 'objective' in exactly the wrong way, because it deter-
minedly ignores what is objectively true about the activity of
reading." In contrast, his analysis "In terms of doings and hap-
penings is ... truly objective because It recognizes the fluid-
ity .. _ of the meaning experience and because it directs us to
where the action is-the active and activating consciousness of
the reader" (SA, p. 401). In an Institutionalized discipline pre-
occupied, as we noted In Chapter 1, by fears of Interpretive
relativism, Fish turns aside the charge of subjective Impression-
Ism by advocating a more comprehensive objectivity. He then
enhances his objectivist ethos further by arguing that he de-
scribes the reader's experience, that Is, the responsible re-
sponses of an "informed reader" with competencies that are
polentially formallzable {SA, p. 406).3.
Thus reader-response critics claim to Identify the description
of reading with the act of criticism and purport to represent
accurately the temporal reading process In their analyses. To
convince others that this descriptive claim is valid, the reader-
response critic often resorts to the device of ciling other readers'
l4Robert W. Uphaus. The Impossible Observer: Reason and rhe Reader in
Eighleenfh.Cenfury Prose (Lexington. Ky .• 1979). pp. 17-18.
35As noted In chap. 1 above. Fish ha,glven up theseobtectlvisl prelenslonsln
his most recenllheorizlng and has himself provided a sU88estive analysis or his
earlier meta-crHlcal claims (see Is There 0 Texr1),
The 1",lilulion.1 Rholorlc or Literary Crillcism 43
reoelions. Boolh' s "Preface" best illuslrates this device 01 using
evidence external to one's own reading experience: "I have
allempled 10 demonstrate thot the responses I describe are prob-
able In a reAder Dccu.tomed 10 Elizabethan Idiom. I have also
l')lIotmf of IrmAlh from Ihr. of Iho nnrl
who hove prm;mJnu m6 In the study of the sun nets; their com-
ments, Rlosses, and emenrlallnns prnvlclo tho hosl nvnllnhlo ovl-
dencelhallhe responses I rlesr.rihe Me nol irliosvnr.mlir." (ESS,
p. x). In his dis(;lIssifJIl of lIumlt:', Buoth nlso lI!iC!i ollwr
responses in demonslraling the confusion ho c1nims 10500 in IhA
reader's experience of the play; thus he argues that it is intended
Incoherencies in the text that couse critics to propose stage
directions to "make sense of Hamlet's improbable raging at
Ophelia in IIl.i" (VH, p. 137).
I employ a simi lar stralegy in my analysis of Moby-Dick, when
I cite the perception by Melville critics that Ishmael disappears
as narrAlor. Their inlerpretotions serve as evidence for the final
Act I posil in the reader's education-the learning of Ishmael's
lesson and his resultant loss as teacher. Fish also uses such
evidence bul pushes it in different directions. For example, he
uses a critiCAl controversy over the meaning of a passage to show
that two contradiclory meanings are equally available, his usual
conclusion being Ihat the recognized ambiguity is 10 be experi-
enced, not resolved, by the reader. In fact, Ihe reader's recogni-
tion 01 ambiguity becomes the meaning (Is There a Text? pp.
150-51). Anolher slrateglc use of other crillcs' readings Is to
show an aUlhor's success in trapping the reader; thai Is, a crillc's
interpretation is taken not as the "right" response but as evi-
dence Ihat Ihe aulhor encouraged the "wrong" response so that
he could later correct the reader (e.g .. SA, pp. 219- 21). In all of
Ihese ways, reader-response critics show themselves to be espe-
cially adept at making a usable past aut of a text's interpretive
This first group of rhetorical moves derives from Ihe basic
assumption thai criticism should analyze the temporal reading
experience. Reader-response critics try to describe successive
reading activities and pallerns of response ond validate their
descriptions with evidence from ather critics' reactions. An-
other strategy is used to support nat individual analyses but the
whole enterprise 01 concentrating on the reader: the accumula-
tion of exlernal evidence 10 demonstrate aulhorial concern with
44 Rhetoric and Interpretation
readers. This strategy Is loss a part 01 the reader-oriented analy-
sis than an argument for its critical respectability. Thus wo find
Iser referring to letters in which Richardson states that "the
story must leave something for the reader to do" and other
leller. In which Thackeray showl he "did not want 10 8,IiIy his
readers, but to leave them miserable" (III, pp. 31, 116). Roger
Easson makes a similar move In his reader-response analysis of
Jerusolem, which begins: "Repealedly, In his correspondence,
in his marginalia, and in his poetry, WlIIiam Blake expresses an
abiding concern with his audience."3. My use of a Melville
leUer and his essay on Hawthorne has Ihe same rhetorical pur-
pose as these other critical move.: to prove that my emphasis on
the reader was shared by the author of the text I am analyzing.
Whatever is said at the level of the discipline's theory about the
"intentionel fallacy" or "the death of the author," references to
authors continue to purchase rhetorical leverage for one's inter-
pretation, and even a reader-oriented criticism exploits this
rhetorical tactic again and again.
A still more basic strategy is to cite direct references to the
reader in the work being discussed (seelser, IR, pp. 29, 38). Such
a text-based procedure not only justifies the reader-centered
focus but also becomes a part of the description 01 the reading
experience. The next series of moves are really only refinements
of this basic strategy. All of these moves either place the reader
in the text in some way or demonstrate correspondences be-
tween elements in the text and the reader's experience.
The firsl rheloricel move In Ihls group is 10 show Ihal the
reader's response is a topic of the story. Booth demonstrates, for
example, Ihal the "lIIogical coherence-coherent madness" ex-
perienced by the audience of Hamlet is "a regular topic of
various characters" in the play (VH, p. 172). And in Shake-
speare's sonnets, he argues, Ihe author "evokes in his read",
something very like the condition he lalks about" (ESS, p. 59).
This stretegy of demonstrating response as topic sometimes
expands inlo a claim that the subject of the text is the reader. For
Booth, Hamlet becomes "Ihetragedy of an audience that cannot
make up its mind" (VH, p. 152). For Fish, Paradise Lost has RS its
center of reference "its reader who Is also its subject" (55, p. 1).
The potential self-renexiveness of this slrategy is apparent in
:U'IRogor R. Ea!'son. "William Blake and His Realier In /p,rwmlp.m," in nlnkc's
Sublime AllflgOry. ed. Stuart Curran and Joseph A. Willrelc h. Jr. (MAdison, Wis ..
1973), p. 309.
. ,
The Institutional Rhetoric of Literary Crilici!\m
Easson' s essay: Blake's Jerusalem "is a poem about itself, aboul
the relationship between the author and his reader . .. . Jerusa-
lem may ba rAad 08 a poem about the experience 01 reading
Jerusalem" (p, 309),
I"slAmi 01 plllti,,!! thA mncinr in IhA ponm, slory, or plAY, n
relaled critical move demonstrates how seltings ond events 01-
rendy in thA text cnrrAspond In the rondAr's AxpAriAnce of th.t
text. "Jp.rusn/em mirrors the stnte of the reader," clRims Easson
(p. 314). Mure spcdfically, l'ish shuws huw In Purndi"? L " ~ t
Michael ' s teoching of Adnm in Book XI rr.sAmhlAs Mlltnn 8
teaching of the reader throughout the poem (55, p. 22); and in
his discussion of Herbert's poetry, Fish argues that "what Is
happening io the poem"-the "actions" of the speaker-corre-
sponds to "what is happening in (aod to) Ihe reader" (SA, p.
165). Booth also exemplifies this recurrent strategy when he
writes, "As the king is threatened in scene one, so is the au-
dience's understan-iiog threatened by scene one" (VH, p. 147).
A refinement 01 this last move is to point out a specific model
io the text for the entire reading experience. Here a section of the
reader's response is taken as a type of the whole. In discussing
Vanity Fair, Iser finds "an allegory 01 the reader's task at one
point io the no\lel"-a brief scene that "conlRlns a change of
standpoiots typical of the way in which the reader's observa-
tions are conditioned throughout this novel" (JR, pp. 11 0-11) .
In Hamlet 's "little poem on perception and truth," Booth dis-
covers "a model of the experience of the whole play" (VH,
p. 173). And in my analysis of Melville's novel I cite the strategy
of one reRder-response critic who calls Ishmael's attempt to
interpret the Spouter-Inn painting "a useful model ... for the
would-be interpreter of Moby-Dick" (see n. 30) . Ultimately, the
set of tactics placing readers and reading experiences In texts
presupposes a rhetorical authority given to texts by Intriosic
criticism, the domioant perspective that reader-response ap-
proaches supposedly challenge. Indeed, the thematizing of
one's critical Rssumptions, the discovery of, say, deconstructlve
or psychoanalytic premises In the literary work interpreted,
remains a powerlul argumentative move in even the most avant-
garde, "postlormalist" critical methods, a fact that testifip.s not
only to the rheloricallegacy of intrinsic Rpproaches but also to
the disciplinary assumption that criticism remains at the ser-
vice 01 the authoritative literary lext.
The next group 01 rhetorical tactics I will describe locuses on
46 Rhetoric and Interpretation
the reader's relationship to the narrator And charActers. The
simplest of this group Is the strategy (traditional In discussions
of satire) that points out implicit references to the reader's life
outside his or her present reading experience. Robert Uphaus's
chapter on Gulliver's Travels illustrates this move whr.n it em-
phasizes that the "transference from manifest flction to the
reader's (life] experience ... Is, perhaps dismayingly, insisted
upon" (p. 18). Another move for the reader-response critic is to
note how the narrator explicitly comments on the reading ac-
tivities that the critic has posited. Iser, for Instance, points out
where Fielding, In Joseph Andrews, "makes various observa-
tions about the reader's role as producer"; for Iser, this Is a
reference to the reader's filling of gaps, his Imaginative pAr-
ticipation (lA, p. 39). A refinement of this critical strategy Ap-
plies a character's comment to resdlng responses; for example,
Booth writes that Horatio's statement "describes the mental
condition evoked in an audience by this particular dramatic
presentation of events as well ss It does that evoked in the
character by the events of the fiction" (VH, p. 142).
A commonplace of much traditional criticism is the Identi-
fication of reader with characters, and, not surprisingly, reader-
response critics use this device. (See Booth, VH, p. 150, and Iser,
lA, p. 117.) More Interesting, however, are the variations per-
formed on this reader-character axis. Distinctions must be
made, for example, among critics' (1) having readers identify
their life experiences with a character's, (2) having readers be-
come self-consciously aware of resemblances between their
reoding experiences and characters' actions, and (3) simply de-
claring that a character's act mirrors the reader's activities dur-
ing the reading process with no reeder swareness of th.t resem-
blance. Fish uses the second strategy when he argues that "a
large part of the poem's meaning is communicated" to readers
through their awareness that Adsm'. experience In the poem
"parallels" the reader's experience reeding the poem (SS, p. 29).
Here the resemblance between character actions and reader ec-
tivitles Is mede a part of the reading experience. The third move
mentioned above makes no such claim for reader awareness; the
critic simply demonstrates a correspondence between a charec-
ter's acts and the reader's response, as in Berger's description of
Pride and Prejudice: "Instead of guiding us to accurate judge-
ments of Darcy and Wickham, Austen creates on experience
: , I
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, ' I
The Institutlooai Rhetoric of Literary Criticism
enalogaus to Eli7.abeth's In Its bewildering complexity and sus-
ceptibility to distortion" (p. 539). This Is the some tactic Fish
uses In his discussion of Herbert's poetry where the speaker and
reader are associated in similsr disorienting and educational
AxpArifmr.p.s: .. '1\ Tru" Hymnn' pror.p.flrls in nnrl . . . Its
stages represent in the reDder's UJldcrstUIUJing us woll 08
plotnous ill the spiritual histnry 01 the spookAr" (SA, p. 200),
Stili nnother rh"torical .trAteRY involvinR the reAder-chArac-
ter relotiun dclodw9 tho two "odurs" rroll1 mH:h otllf!r: "In tho
Phnedrlls. therr. orA two plots; SocrAtAs Ami PhAmlrns ArA busily
building a picture of the Ideal orator while the reader Is extract-
ing, lrom the some words and phrases, a radical criticism of the
Ideal" (SA, p. 13). In this move Fish does not identily reader
with character but contrasts the two. In a variation on this
strAtegy, iser shows that Vanity Fair "denies the reader a bASic
local point of orientation. He is prevented lrom sympathizing
with the hero" (fR, p. 107). Detachment from characters is a
prerequisite for judging them, even when that judgment is a
result 01 prior identification or resemblAnce; lor example, Fish
describes a version of the Herbertian "double motion" in which
"the speaker and the reader part company and the latter be-
comes a critic and corrector of the former's wards and thoughts"
(SA, p. 178).
Having the reader judge the characters is often, even in tradi-
tional criticism, only a step on the way to having readers judge
themselves. But in reader-response criticism. describing such
sell-evalUAtion becomes a central concern, and this concern
manifests itsell in a variety of rhetorical moves. In one the critic
shows how readers are pressured to judge their own Actions and
attitudes performed outside the reading of the text. Uphaus, for
instance, argues that in Gulliver's Travels the reader's attention
Is called not simply to some of "the arbitrary niceties that are the
domain of royalty" but to some of "the dubious distinctions ...
that the reader may unconsciously accept or consciously sus-
tAin" (p. 17). Here readers judge the characters in the text and
themselves in their everyday lives.
A related strategy describes readers correcting themselves but
not the characters. This move abandons the reader-character
axis, and its dnpiction here initiates the final series of critical
strategies I will discuss. In this move, readers become judges of
Iheir own reading responses. As Fish puts it for Poradise Lost,
48 Rhetoric and Interpretation
the reeder is "simulteneously a participant in the nctlon nnd a
critic of his own performance" (55, p. xiII). The object of judl!-
ment here is not the reader's everyday life but his ection. per-
formed during the reading of the text causing those action •.
Thus Iser shows how the euthor of Joseph Andrew .• encourAges
a feeling of superiority in such a way thetthe reader eventuelly
becomes embarrassed ("trapped") by the feeling (lA, p. 44). lser
does not pinpoint the moment of entrapment: rather he
that at some unspecified time following the initiol feeling of
superiority, the reader becomes embarrassed by it. In contrast,
Fish ond Booth repeatedly describe precise moments when
reader. turn on themselves because of a specific textual event or
Before describing these more precise specifications of rever-
sal,i need to explain the rhetorical tactic on which they depend:
the description of reader expectations and their disappoint-
ment. Howard Anderson provides one of many examples thetl
couid cite: "Sterne repeatedly manipulates us by deliberately
disappointing expectations of narrative form which we have
developed through our prior reading."" Shattered expectations
result in disappointment. disorientation, confusion: these ef-
fects recur again and again throughout applied reader-response
criticism. Disappointed expectations especially proliferate in
the reading experiences Fish describes In Surprised by Sin. His
description of the Guilty Reader is typical : Beginning with as-
sumptions about epic tradition and Christian myth,the reader is
startled to discover what seem. to be an admirable Satan. The
speciousness of the devil's argument becomes apparent to the
reader only after Milton's epic voice Intervene •. Then the render
admonishes himself for "the weekness all men evince in the
face of eloquence" (pp. 4- 9). This example not only illustrates
how Fish uses unfulfilled expectations in his analyses: it also
shows how he pinpoints the moment when readers become
their own critics.
In reader-response criticism a reader's disappointed expecta-
tions are never viewed as ends in themselves: rather, such dis-
orientation always becomes an authorial means for a more sig-
nificant end, such as the moral trial of the reader. In reader-
response analyses we find many statements describing this au-
"Howard Anderson. "Tristram Shandy and Ihe Reader's ImAgination,"
PMlA. 861Oclober 19711. 967.
. i
• I J
il I
I 'j
, I
'1 :
" ,
The Instllulion.1 Rhetoric 01 Literary Crilidsm
thorlal purpose: Mansfield Pork include. "a test of the reader'.
moral perceptiveness" (Berger, p. 535): In Vanity Fair the reader
"is con.tantly Invited to test and weigh the (moral( insights he
has arrived at as a result of the profusion of situation! offered
him" (lsor. rn. p. 11111: in PomdisPo I,,,.t Milton Pllts rPomlers on
Irial by "Olling lu our ilidillUtiOIlS !llId tI ":" , (:0".:
fronting us immediately with the evidence nf our fnllthlltty
(Fish , 55. p. 41\ . The last statement in this SAmplinR
the specific usc 10 which rmHltJr-rcspowitl t:rltlc::-t puiliul rlllldm H
disorientAtion: the text contradicts readers' expeclAlions as it
corrects their actions. Trial thus becomes entrapment. For in-
stAnce, after being encouraged to judge every word and act of the
devils in Hell,lhe reader of Paradise Lost conlinues this associa-
tional and judgmental practice in a totally different and in-
appropriate situation- unfallen man in Edenic Paradise. The
reader is thus "forced to admit again and again that the evil he
sees under everyone's bed is his own" (Fish, 55, p. 102). SeU-
criticism is the result. then, of misplaced assumptions, shat-
tered expectations, trial by error, and correction from the text.
According to reader-respunse critics, even self-evaluation is
not the final resting place intended for the reader. The iast
rhetoriCAl move I want to discus. is the critic's demonstration
that self-judgment is simply an authorial means for educating
the reader. This brings me to a final pair of strategies used in
reader-response criticism- the descriptions of two different but
related processes: leArning by reading and learning to read. Both
assume that the reader le.rns as an active participant rather than
as a passive observer. The reader's education is therefore- to
use Milton's words-"not so much a teaching, as an intan-
gling."'. That is, the reader becomes involved "in his own
edificalion" (Fish, 5S, p. 49). In the experiences Iser portrays,
the disappointment of expectations pushes the reader toward
discovery, and the entanglement of readers in moral conflicts
forces them to formulate solutions of their own (lR, pp. 35-45).
What lser describes here are the le8sons of the text - learning by
reading- rather than a lesson on reading that text. .
Describing this latter process- learning to read the texl - Is
the paradigmati c move of reader-response criticism. It is one I
make use of in my analysis of Moby-Dick in order to resolve an
.'I'IComplclr. Worho/ ,ohn Millon. vol . Z, ed. Ernest Sirluck (New Haven,
Conn .. 1959). p. 642 , quolp.d in Fish. 55. p. 21.
50 Rhetoric and Interpretation
interpretive crux: Ishmael "disappears" because he has served
his purpose of teaching readers to read his book. This crilical
move Is Ingeniously duplicated throughout reader-response
criticiam. laer daacrlbeatha llseaysln Tom TOMI as "guidelines"
lor showing the reader "how he Is to view the procl!8dlng." (lR,
p. 47). Discussing Homlet, Booth notes that "after the fact, the
play orten tells us how we should have reacted" (VH, p. 160).
Anderson argues that "Sterne uses the example of false judg-
ments of minor characters to guide the reader's judgment of his
major character in the future" (p. 970). And again Iser: "The
potential experiences of the first two monologues lin The Sound
and the Fury) serve to sharpen the reader's crilical eye, creating
a new background against which he will judge Jason's clear-cut
actions"(IR, p. 149),ln all these examples, critics describe how
earlier passages in a text prepare the reader to judge, to interpret,
to read later passages.
Descriptions of this cumulative training are made possible by
all the groups of rhetorical moves I have discussed: accounts of
temporal reading responses, refinements of seeing the reader in
the text, variations on reader-character analyses, and versions of
having readers judge themselves. Fish uses all of these critical
strategies In his analysis of reading Porodlse Lost. In one place
he demonstrates that the result of corrections by the epic voice
"is the adoption of a new way of reading." Token in by Satanic
rhetoric, the reader "proceeds determined not to be caught out
again; but Invariably he is"(SS, p. 14). Here the reader learns to
read so that he can be shown how difficult II is to read the text
(and the world) correctly. In this case, learning to read ulti-
mately becomes learning by reading.
The critical moves I have discussed are the most common
rhetorical strategies used in applied reader-response criticism.
It was necessary to go on at such descriptive length with so
many specific examples in order to demonstrate the fine detail
of the rhetorical activity involved in any critical project. ACA-
demic criticism, like other Interpretive practices, is rhetorical
through and through, from the macro-structures of the instilu-
tionalized discipline, discussed in this chapter's first section, to
the micro-practices of critical readings, analyzed in the last.
These micro-practices are not merely techniques employed
by critics to describe on objective text and a preexistent re-
i 'r
I I'",

The InstttulionBI Rhetoric of Literary Criticism 51
sponse. Nor are they manifestations of interpretive
that simply create that text and its effects out of nothing. NeIther
metacrllical account of the Interpretive strategies adequately
explains the rhetoriCAl function of reader-response criticism or
nny nthor nllprum:h (lind whon IIIl1ch nr.r.ol1uh,
hermeneutic theory they always tend toward realtst or Idealist
foundational ism). II would be more rholnrit:nlly m:t:urnlo 10 Rny
thnt rnnrlr.T-rm;pnnsp. r.. =Iir.i!=;m. whPon !11lIr:r.f!ssfnl. r.nnvinr.ns
readers to focus on a reading experience in which lext and efled
come inlo view simultaneously. Like All npproncho.,
reader-response criticism is a set of rhetorical slrategies Ihat
aims to persuade readers to toke on its interpretive point of view
for a given literary work. .
Moreover, s\lch interpretations (presenled as neutral descrtp-
tions) nol only funclion as appeals for specific readings; they
also serve as an argumenl for Ihe whole reader-response enter-
prise. To relurn 10 just "ne illuslration from Ihe previous discus-
sion: reader-response critics often inlerpret Ihe subject of a lexl
10 be the reRder. This rhetorical slralegy works by describing Ihe
reader's relation to the lexl(he or she is Ihe subject of II), and this
description simultaneously provides the evidence that legiti-
mizes the reader-centered focus of which it is • part. That is, the
description of the reader as sublect of Ihe lext is at the same time
a justificalion for focusing on Ihe reader. Here an inlerpretation
generates evidence that is laken as validation of Ihe attempt at
making Ihal interpretalion in the firsl place. Such a
tion of its assumptions in 8 literary work serves 8S 8 strategic
argument for the self-declared priority of reader-re.sponse
cism within the institutional competition among dIfferent crtlt-
calapproaches, lhose already established and Ihose newly emer-
gent. Indeed, every ael of criticism would persuade us to adopl
its cOllvenlions as opposed 10 some olhers and 10 "write" the lext
il "describes." If we Are convinced by on inlerpretalion, it is
finally the critic who teaches us to read.
Throughout the seventies, reader-response criticism partici-
pated in this rhetorical aelivity wilhin academic literary studies
while remaining rather unresponsive to much of the cultural
conversation in American society at large. Unlike Marxist and
feminist discourses, reader criticism tended to ignore the ideo-
logicnl debates of a wider cultural politics extending beyonrl
Ihe academy. and insofar as most reader-response approaches
52 Rhetoric and Interpretation
avoided the issues of race. class. and gender. for exnmple. they
supported conservative voices that attampted to cordon off the
university In general and IItersry criticism In particular from
directly engaging In any kind 01 radical politics. In similar ways.
oil academic Illerary crlllcism neces.arily Involve. pnrtlr.lpo-
tion-by omission or commission. as II were-In two Interre-
lated sectors of rhetorical politics: that of the professionol dis-
courses within the Instllutlonalt7.ed dlsclplinp. Rnr! thRt of the
broader domain of cultural politics reaching "eyond the univer-
There are still other political domains. Interlocking and over-
lapping with these first two. in which the rhetoric of critical
discourse engages quite aclively. At perhaps the most general
social level. literary c.iticism participates in the rhp.torical con-
struction of everyday common sense.'· For example. especially
in its early theorizing. reader-response criticism ollen assumed
a commonsense distinction between the individual reader and
the independent text. a distinction that required a theory regu-
lating their interaction. The belief In the importance of the
individual whose activities must nevertheless be carefully con-
strained Is a basic component of American common sense.'
nSee. e.g., Clifford Goertz. "Common Senstl as. Cultural System, " In Local
Knowledge: Further In Interprellve AnlhropoJ08Y (New York. 19ft3),
p. 76; Shirley Brice ' -Ieath. Way. with Words: Languoge. tife. nnd Worle in
Communilil!5 and Clolisrooms (Cembrldse. 1983)j Chalm PerelmAn find Lucie
Olbrechls-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. tnm!! . John
WllkimlOn end Purcell Weaver (NoIre Oeme, Ind., 1969). pp. 510- 14: "arold
GArfinkel, Studies In Elhnomethodol08Y (Englewood ClUb, N.J .. 19fi71. e!'>p.
chapS'. 2,3, 8; and CherleS' Taylor, "Interpretation and the ScienceS' of Man." In
hiS' PhiloS'ophy and the Human ScienceS' : PhHo.ophJcai Papers. 2 ICllmbrldRfl .
1985), pp. 15- 57. The Inler.lectionl of (heS'e lexl! S'hould be compAred to the
more explicitly political projects In Ideology Crlilque and Crilical Lefts I Sludic!J.
See. e·8 .• JOrgen I-Iabermes. "Technology and Science lIS 'Ideology.''' in hili
Toward 0 RoHonal Society: Studenl Pmtesl, Scifmce. and PoliticS'. IranS' . Jer-
emy J. Shapiro (80ston, 1970). pp. 81-122; Mark Kelman. A Guide 10 Critical
Legal Siudies (Cambridge, Me5l., 1987): and Sandra Harding. The Science Quell;
tlon in feminism (lthac., N.Y .. 19861. pp. 111- 35.
405ee Roberto Mansabelra Unger, knowledge and Politics (New York. 1975).
pp. 63- 103: Robert N. Deliah. Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan. Ann
Swidler. and Sleven M. Tipton. Hobilsoflhe Heart : Individualism and Commil-
ment in American Life (New York. 1985): Fredric ,ameson. "On Ifobits of the
IIp-arl.'' South Atlantic Quarterly. 86 (F8111987J. 545- 65: and MArk
Red. White. and 8lue: A CrHical Ano'ysj, of Constilutional Law (Cambridge.
Mass .• 1988).
I. '
',' The Institutional Rhetoric of Literary Criticism
When forms of reader criticism depended on and reinforced this
common sense and it. Ideologlc.1 rhetoric of democratic indi-
vidUAlism. Ruch criticism was necesl8rily enmeshed In a rhetor-
Ical politics extending outside the ecademy. Thusth .. rhetoric of
nny !l15"0",,0 conn !lo wnrk In mllltiple !lom.ln. of poli-
tics simullaneously. "ut the degree of its positive Involvement Is
always relalive to the historical domain being anaIY7.od.

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