It is by no means accidental that Fish's reader-response thesis has arisen in such a pluralistic age. Even in the academy there are numerous and competing schools of thought. Graff comments that "Fish's concept of interpretive communities was enormously suggestive. . . particularly in an age of competitive academic interpretive schools. . .". As this cognitive bargaining takes place between cultures and viewpoints a certain leveling occurs on the epistemological plain. It becomes more plausible to maintain such a thesis as Fish's.
Democracy is a value laden institution. It consciously promotes individual freedom, self rule, and equality and these values in turn affect the way we look at the world. America, especially, has seen an increased emphasis placed on individual freedom, the ability to choose one's own destiny, with its right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness" often to the detriment of social responsibility. These values affect the way we look at the world and produce an anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian as the power resides with the people. David Wells says that it is "not simply a political system but an entire worldview and for whom, therefore, culture and truth belong to the people."
This certainly has implications for the way in which a work is interpreted. Anthony Thiselton commenting on the rise of reader-response theory says, "In a commercial world too, the decides what is to be offered and what is marketable, and ''." What the consumer wants becomes what is true as the power lies with the purchaser, the demand with the consumer. This brings us to the influences of democracy which follow upon capitalism and bring another set of factors to bear on the interpreter. But first let us examine some of the influences of modernity on truth and authority.
There are really two kinds of Reader-Response Criticism that could be found in the writings of the American literary theorist, ; one is a phenomenological approach and the other is an epistemological theory characteristic of Fish’s later works. The Phenomenological method has much to commend itself to us as it focuses on what happens in the reader’s mind as he or she reads.
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Reader-response critics hold that, to understand the literary experience or the meaning of a text, one must look to the processes readers use to create that meaning and experience. Traditional, text-oriented critics often think of reader-response criticism as an anarchic subjectivism, allowing readers to interpret a text any way they want. They accuse reader-response critics of observing that the text doesn’t exist. Another objection to reader-response criticism is that it fails to account for the text being able to expand the reader’s understanding. While readers can, and do put their own ideas and experiences into a work, they are at the same time gaining new understanding through the text. This is something that is generally overlooked in Reader Response Criticism.
Applying Reader Response Strategy in Appreciating Literary Works
In response to critics like Hawkes, Cleanth Brooks, in his essay "The New Criticism" (1979), argued that the New Criticism was not diametrically opposed to the general principles of reader-response theory and that the two could complement one another. For instance, he stated, "If some of the New Critics have preferred to stress the writing rather than the writer, so have they given less stress to the reader—to the reader's response to the work. Yet no one in his right mind could forget the reader. He is essential for 'realizing' any poem or novel. . .Reader response is certainly worth studying." However, Brooks tempers his praise for the reader-response theory by noting its limitations, pointing out that, "to put meaning and valuation of a literary work at the mercy of any and every individual [reader] would reduce the study of literature to reader psychology and to the history of taste."
Tansactional analysis, a significant concept in Reader Response Theory, developed by t, asserts that meaning is produced in transaction of a reader with a text. As an approach, then, the critic would consider “how the reader interprets the text as well as how the text produces a response in him/ her.”
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The most significant change that has occurred in the field of literary criticism and hermeneutics is in where the locus of meaning is perceived to inhere. In the disciplines of literary criticism and hermeneutics (when hermeneutics principally referred to the methods and rules of interpretation) it was originally assumed that meaning resided with the author. Thus the purpose of interpretation was to discern the author's intention which would unlock the textual meaning for all times. After Lessing, however, a new-found distance between the present and the past caused interpreters to focus more concertedly on the text itself, because the author was no longer deemed accessible to the interpreter. The shift in the locus of meaning continued under the influence of cultural pressures and meaning came to be seen as inhering in the reader. I can unfortunately select only a few individuals to mention in this brief survey of critical theory before focusing on one of the more prominent and radical reader-response critics, Stanley Fish.