October 11, 1999
A Fish-Eye Lens: Plato’s Mimetic Criticism Interpreted
through Stanley Fish’s Reader-Response Criticism.
Before Stanley Fish had ever conceived of Reader-Response criticism, (indeed, quite some time before Stanley Fish himself had ever been conceived of) Plato discussed the vital significance of readers’, in his case audiences’, responses to poetry. For Plato, the focus is not responses to the structure and syntax of poetry as a means for determining poetic meaning, as discussed in Fish’s "Interpreting the Variorum." Rather, he examines the detrimental nature of poetry within State as a response-oriented art form that targeted the undesirable passions. Nonetheless, the development of Reader-Response, especially by Fish, provides a lens through which to re-read Plato’s Mimetic criticism as something broader than pure mimesis. The nature of his criticism is mimesis, but it is formulated from an historic kind of Reader-Response criticism and in Book X of Republic, is in fact wholly dependent on response analysis. Plato was essentially the first kind of Reader-Response critic.
As David Richter states in The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends:
Plato…testifies to the philosopher’s concern lest the audience be corrupted by texts that imitate falsely or concentrate the attention of the audience on unworthy matters; [he] suggests that the enthousiasmós the muse grants to the poet is transmitted, like magnetic force, through the performer to the spectator (917)1.
Obviously, the audience’s role is recognizably significant in Plato’s consideration of poetry. The element of his critique, however, that most unifies his Mimetic criticism with Fish’s Reader-Response criticism is the importance of experience. Both critics regard experience as a two-part configuration of response and determine that it becomes the most essential aspect of their decisions about poetry.
The nature of experience is complex, forming an intricate relationship between poetry/texts and audience/readers. Divided into two parts, experience is firstly that which the audience/readers bring with them to the text and through which they identify with or comprehend meaning therein. Plato’s fears regarding the threat poetry poses to the State stems from his belief that the audience, identifying with the emotions they encounter in poems will sacrifice reason to their passions. Acceptance of the "honeyed Muse" would promote "pleasure and pain" to the status of "rulers in [the] State" (28). The emotion, which in men is "starved and suppressed in [their] own calamities, is satisfied and delighted by the poets" (28). This situation leads to the corruption of reason. Recognizing emotions expressed in poetry as similar to their own, audiences are infected with the "contagion" of passions, forfeiting control over them as they re-experience particular emotions through poetry (28). These emotions, familiar to citizens but undesirable within the State’s structure, find total expression and are born again through the audience’s response to poetry. In this way, poetry "feeds and waters the passions…though they ought to be controlled if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue" (28). Fish’s Reader-Response criticism addresses this type of experience in Is There a Text in This Class?, asserting that initial understanding is based on pre-existing assumptions and interests through which readers comprehend. One person is only able to understand another if they share the "knowledge of the assumptions and interests from which [ideas] issue" (314)2. Understanding of poetic meaning is founded on a reader’s experiences with the words and language of the poetry. Although this does not pose a threat to the State as far as Fish is concerned, it is the cornerstone of Reader-Response criticism. Analysis begins with the interpretations, which themselves originate in the experiences through which the reader comprehends a poem.
The second part of experience is that which audience/readers take from poetry in the form of response—passions according to Plato or comprehension or meaning according to Fish.
Plato’s argument, as stated above, asserts that poetry functions by drawing upon experiences the audience identifies with and which correlate to the emotions under consideration in the poem. The danger lies in the nature of the emotions on display; he argues that "the wise and calm temperament…is not easy to imitate or to appreciate when imitated" (Richter 27). Rather, popular poetry focuses on the more easily imitated and communicable temperament, this being the "lachrymose and fitful temper" of the passions (Richter 27). He condemns poetry on this basis; in its focus it is detrimental to rational order. Considered as Reader-Response criticism, Plato is also arguing that the audience responds to the poetry and draws a new experience from it. The audience’s understanding of the poetry produces sympathy within them and a weakness toward their own irrational emotions, which are reflected in the poem. Poetry offers the audience a kind of vicarious experience of those emotions they suppress with rationality and reason. They take from that experience the inability to continue along the rational path, falling victim to their own baser desires. Fish approaches the second part of experience through his discussion of "interpretive strategies" which he describes as contingent with the writing styles of any time period and informed by the learning "constitutive of being human" (Richter 989). Readers take away from poetry a new series of responses, a new formulation of understanding, a revised process of thought about ideas, images, details in the poem. The experience they gain by way of poetry is that of developed or developing thought, which they add to the experience they had originally brought to the poem to form a cohesive, revised understanding.
Both critics demonstrate the significance of the second part of experience by examining the reactions and responses of audiences and readers. Through the lens of Fish’s Reader-Response criticism, the vast significance of the audience’s responses to poetry in mimetic criticism is revealed. Ultimately, mimetic criticism in Book X is focused on Reader-Response criticism only because of his concern for the livelihood of the State. His entire critique of poetry is its capacity to corrupt reason, which it does because it is not real; it is not in any way contingent with the ideal world, the world of truth. It is such an abstraction and it is so focused on the negative elements of man’s being that it can be nothing but a threat to security. Mimesis, pure and simple, does not depend on the reader’s responses because it simply analyzes the connection between works of literature/poetry and reality as it is (for Plato) ideal. Plato is not a purely mimetic critic because of the connection he draws between poetry and the State. Poetry cannot be incorporated unless is serves a utilitarian, productive and positive purpose. It is interesting, however, that both Platonic-Mimetic and Reader-Response criticisms centralize on the issue of experiences brought to and taken from the texts. And this happens even though Plato’s motivation is political and Fish’s motivation is purely literary.
One specifically important breaking point between Fish’s Reader-Response criticism and the similar qualities in Plato’s Mimetic criticism is the issue of truth in meaning. For Plato, poetry is two degrees removed from the ideal even before the reader interprets it, which again estranges poetry even further from Truth. Fish would argue that the "interpretive strategies" of readers "call forms into being"—they create the meaning and find the Truth, the ideal, in their experiences (990). This divergence is, of course, one of the fundamental differences between Mimetic and Reader-Response criticisms in general. However, it illuminates a unique similarity in the two types of readings. Both consider Truth a valid construct in which poetry is confined. Of course, that construct for Plato would be ultimately fixed and for Fish it would vary depending on contemporary readership and authorship. Nonetheless, it is an interesting kind of agreement for these two typically polar criticisms.
Another significant aspect of agreement and contention between Reader-Response and Platonic-Mimetic criticism is the issue of value as assigned to poetry. Plato’s first concern with poetry is that its hearers cannot know the "true nature of the originals" which are distanced from the ideal already by poetic imitation (Richter 21). Listeners’ responses, which are analogous to every other response, are the most important outcome of poetry because of their ultimate effect on the livelihood of the State. Fish argues that responses are the most important basis for interpreting poetry, the only method of discovering the "true nature" of the poem. Though he does not assert that responses will be uniform—in fact, his whole argument is contingent on the fact that they will be various—he distinguishes interpretive strategies which formulate criticism based on "the fragile but real consolidation of" interpretations (Richter 989). Plato, in claiming the collective negative reaction to poetry among citizens, essentially determines that all men of the State form a singular interpretive community, defining one of the features of Reader-Response criticism in his argument against poetry. Herein is also revealed the method for determining the success or failure of a poem as it serves its function in the State—as it has value. Because he will admit "hymns to the gods and praises of famous men" in poetic form into the State, Plato acknowledges responses to poetry determine his judgements of their value (Richter 28). Though it would seem possible to deduce poetic value in terms of Fish’s criticism, ultimately, a poem’s value must be as arbitrary as the interpretations of any given community. However, these interpretive communities assign value insofar as their contexts and experiences determine it. Value is significant in its connections to the responses a poem generates; the readers ultimately designate the value in both systems. For Plato, value is confined by the needs of the State. For Fish, value is determined by the context in which poetry appears.
It is somewhat obscuring to read Platonic-Mimetic criticism through the lens of Fish’s Reader-Response criticism because of their typically disparate natures and purposes. It forces certain assumptions in considering elements of each type of criticism and perhaps the dilution of one criticism, in this instance Mimetic criticism according to Plato, in order to discover connections of questionable validity. The presence of Reader-Response in Book X, though, is fascinating in that it allows a reading of Plato through a much later type of criticism, which initially appears to be wholly unrelated. Closer consideration, revealing the connection between the two through the importance of experience, provides a means of re-examining Plato’s Mimetic criticism.