Meaningful Selection:

The Relation Between Aristotelian Mimesis and Reader-Response Criticism



In Poetics Aristotle posits his theory of mimesis against Plato's in arguing that it is creative by nature of selectively imitating. According to Aristotle, there are multiple ways to create, or, imitate depending upon the artist's careful selection and organization. This is better known as Aristotelian, or selective, mimesis. Reader-response criticism takes this Aristotelian idea one step further and applies it not only to the act of creation, but also the act of interpretation. As Stanley Fish would argue, no text has only one "meaning" when taking into account that Aristotelian mimesis does not end with the agent accomplishing the imitation, the poet. Rather, this selective mimesis extends into the reader who imposes his own set of worldviews and assumptions every time he picks up a text, therefore creating as many "meanings" as there are interpretive communities.

In order to better understand this expansion of Aristotelian mimesis let us first clarify what it is. Aristotle agreed that artists are indeed imitators. In fact, whether it be for the purpose of learning a lesson or merely for pleasure, Aristotle believed that man differentiates himself from other animals in our natural tendency to imitate (Richter 44). Yet, these manifestations of imitations can be quite distinct from each other. Aristotle explains that:

...epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry...all happen to be, in general, imitations, but they differ from each other in three ways: either because the imitation is carried on by different means or because it is concerned with different kinds of objects or because it is presented, not in the same, but a different manner (Richter 42).

The artist, or imitator, has creative liberty to selectively choose what he feels is relevant to imitate. As Richter explains, "For Aristotle, the world was not One but Many, and investigating it meant adapting one's methods and principles to the subject under consideration" (38). Thus, man does imitate, but rather than trying to access truth by exact, stringent rules of replication, the artist chooses his methods to represent truth by selection, refinement, and organization.

Consequently, there are multiple methods of imitation. The reader-response critic extends this idea of multiplicity of expression to the idea of diverse interpretation. If an artist sees the world and chooses to imitate it by producing a work, he leaves behind a tangible product of his imitation--for our literary purposes a text. Once produced, the imitation, the text, is only perceived when another person interacts with, or reads it. But just as each artist imposed his own methodologies to produce the text, so does the reader bring with him methodologies to interpret the text.

Although Aristotle focused some attention on the audience, he tended to assume a more passive role than does the average reader-response critic. Aristotle limited most of his audience discussion to the notion of pity and fear. He proposed that one of the poet's primary tasks should be "...provid(ing) pleasure from pity and fear through imitation" (Richter 51). Will the text, upon hearing or reading, arouse these human emotions? Has the poet been successful in providing an emotional relief to the audience? Aristotle does not go much deeper into audience response beyond this questioning. He focuses more on the efficacy of the act of imitation itself.

Yet, according to Aristotle, there is no one true way to imitate. The artist may be creative. The artist must select that which is important and useful while omitting that which is not. Thus, just as there are many possible forms of imitation, it seems reasonable to assume there would naturally follow multiple means of interpretation.

It is here where Stanley Fish, the renowned reader-response critic picks up. In its most simplistic form, for reader-response critics, "...the reader + the text = meaning. Only in context with a reader actively involved in the reading process with the text...can meaning emerge" (Bressler 68). For Stanley Fish, there is no determinate meaning for a text (or language for that matter). Words, depending upon context and circumstances, vary in their meanings. A reader absorbs the information. He then, depending upon the situation, his knowledge base, and set of assumptions, places the text within his own understanding. He does this through an Aristotelian process. He organizes, refines, and manipulates that information to make sense of it in his understanding of the world. Thus, the reader becomes vital in the interpretation of a text's meaning. For two different readers may have two different interpretations. However, do not mistake Fish to be a relativist. He scoffs at the notion of an infinite number of interpretations.

For example, in his article "Is There a Text in This Class?" he gave a finite number, two, of possible interpretations for the meaning of this question. The first being, "Is there a textbook for this class?" which the professor first took it to mean. But as this was not the question the student was asking, but rather, "Is there a particular structural format in which we will be using in this class?" the student had to add a "No, no..." clarification. The professor understood the second meaning instantly after the first interpretation had been dismissed. He was only able to do this because of his background knowledge as an English professor; other listeners may not have understood. Yet this illustrates Fish's point that "...there are no determinate meanings and that the stability of the text is an illusion" (312). There were in fact two very legitimate interpretations, the second of which required some background knowledge.

There could have been other interpretations had there not been any context. Yet this is where Aristotelian mimesis becomes valuable for Stanley Fish. For example, the word "class" from "Is there a text in this class?" can also refer to one's socio-economic standing, but that would not have made sense in the classroom setting. Here one must logically select, Aristotically, based upon the situation, from all possible definitions in order to arrive at truth, or in this case, the intention of the question. Hence, a text, or language, in itself, does not have one inherent meaning, rather it is embedded in context which allows for a certain finite number of interpretations.

Because there are only a finite number of interpretive communities, there follows a certain finite number of logical interpretations. Like most other critics, Fish fears relativism. It is only within certain guidelines that different interpretations hold water. One guideline being that the interpretation fits appropriately within the situation. Another guideline being that the interpretation fits into a larger system of understanding. Fish refers to these systems as interpretive communities--"...a shared basis of agreement at once guiding interpretation and providing a mechanism for deciding between interpretations..." (317). As a result, members of different interpretive communities may come up with different interpretations of a text and therefore a text may have more than one meaning.

In conclusion, by using Aristotelian mimesis to select, refine, and organize information the reader interacts with a text to form his own interpretation. Thus, as Stanley Fish has pointed out, there is more than one possible interpretation or meaning of a text. Linguistic communication relies on both parties, agent and receptor, to sort through all possibilities and make logical arrangements based on Aristotelian mimesis.