Stanley Fish
By: Tom Nealon | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Semiotics, Theory


Though it’s unclear what precise effect Surprised by Sin, the 1967 decompression of Paradise Lost by STANLEY FISH (born 1938), had on the 1968 Rolling Stone song “Sympathy for the Devil” (Mick sketchily claims Baudelaire as the influence), its impact on criticism was fundamental. The introduction of Fish’s brand of reader-response criticism into the molten morass of postmodern theory caused an upwelling of invective that has scarcely slowed to this day. Leading the reader on a word-by-word journey through Milton’s poem — as expectations are raised, flouted, and compromised, creating, destroying and rebuilding meaning all the way — Fish’s criticism was easy to parody, infuriating, and brilliant. In later years he forged his theories into a parodoxical idea of definite but immeasurable interpretive communities whose cultural position, knowledge, and assumptions are the sole powering apparatus of the meaning-making machine. While roundly criticized for their nebulousness, irrationality, and extreme relativism, it’s impossible to look at New Historicism, mainstream semiotics, or internet forums without recourse to Fish’s ideas.

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Tom Nealon runs the online rare bookshop Pazzo Books specializing in early printed books, cookery and literature. In his spare time he works on barbecue techniques in the test pit in his backyard. He can be found at pazzobooks.com and @pazzobooks on twitter.