I think it's more, though, that Fish comes so close to Wittgenstein that we expect more, for one thing, and feel as if he is serving up mere leftover (and mangled) crumbs from Wittgenstein's table, for another. As Martin Stone says, "In literary theory, discussion of Wittgenstein and Stanley Fish often occur in the same breath, and it is often said that Fish is “Wittgensteinian” in his views." Perhaps John Holbo hits the nail on the head when he writes, in a review of an anthology called The Literary Wittgenstein, that:
Two pieces are about how Stanley Fish is the opposite of Wittgenstein, in approximately the sense that one man’s modus ponens modus tollens ponens tollensTo be fair, I should actually look at what Fish says and not just what other people say about him. Here is some Fish:
Context matters, in other words, as does our having learned what certain things mean in certain contexts. This is certainly true, but perhaps so certainly true that it does not need saying at such length. Fish presents the point as if someone might mistakenly think that the meaning of the gesture might be seen by anyone with eyes, but surely literally no one has ever thought this. A gesture or sound that means one thing in one language need not mean the same in another language and will not necessarily be understood by someone who does not know the relevant language. This should not need saying, and Fish's acting as if it does seems pretentious. And hence annoying.While I was in the course of vigorously making a point, one of my students, William Newlin by name, was just as vigorously waving his hand. When I asked the other members of the class what it was that Mr. Newlin was doing, they all answered that he was seeking permission to speak. I then asked them how they knew that. The immediate reply was that it was obvious; what else could he be thought to be doing? The meaning of his gesture, in other words, was right there on its surface, available for reading by anyone who had the eyes to see. That meaning, however, would not have been available to someone without any knowledge of what was involved in being a student. Such a person might have thought that Mr. Newlin was pointing to the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, or calling our attention to some object that was about to fall ("the sky is falling," "the sky is falling"). And if the someone in question were a child of elementary or middle-school age, Mr. Newlin might well have been seen as seeking permission not to speak but to go to the bathroom, an interpretation or reading that would never occur to a student at Johns Hopkins or any other institution of "higher learning" (and how would we explain to the uninitiated the meaning of that phrase).
He goes on:
At least if you have read Wittgenstein, and I would think even if you haven't, this is obviously true. And the truth in what Fish says is good. The obviousness of a point that nevertheless keeps being made "so many times" by the same person is annoying though. And there is also a grain of falsehood too. Newlin's gesture is not simply invested with the significance it must have given the context. There is a reason, after all, why Newlin chose to make that gesture in that context. He knew what significance it would necessarily be "given" immediately and unanimously by everyone else present. Because that's the meaning that that gesture has in that context. (This is what it means to say that a gesture "has a meaning" in a given context.)The point is the one I have made so many times before: it is neither the case that the significance of Mr. Newlin's gesture is imprinted on its surface where it need only be read off, or that the construction put on the gesture by everyone in the room was individual and idiosyncratic. Rather, the source of our interpretive unanimity was a structure of interests and understood goals, a structure whose categories so filled our individual consciousnesses that they were rendered as one, immediately investing phenomena with the significance they must have, given the already-in-place assumptions about what someone could possibly be intending (by word or gesture) in a classroom.
Fish says that, "One can respond with a cheerful yes to the question "Do readers make meanings?" and commit oneself to very little because it would be equally true to say that meanings, in the form of culturally derived interpretive categories, make readers." The cheerfulness about very little is also annoying because it seems unearned (because one is committed to so little). It is true that if Newlin had waved his hand and no one had understood what he meant then there would have been a failure of communication. But this doesn't often happen because his gesture "must have, given the already-in-place assumptions about what someone could possibly be intending (by word or gesture) in a classroom" the meaning that it has. A meaning that a word or gesture must have given already-in-place assumptions is not a meaning that is created by its audience. Or at least words like 'created' and 'made' are extremely misleading in this context. 'Confirmed,' maybe, although even that seems too strong. The inevitability created by what is already in place suggests that 'recognized' would be a better word.
It's possible that Fish thinks that meanings must be made because he thinks they must be objects of some kind and recognizes that the audience has a role to play in the process of meaning and understanding. This might be a reason to think that no word or gesture could possibly have a meaning before it occurs and is understood. But this is to think that the meaning of a word must be an object, that having a meaning must be something like having a sandwich or a coin in one's pocket, which is to ignore Wittgenstein's work. I don't know whether to think that's annoying or just weird. Has Fish not thought to read the Philosophical Investigations? If he did but struggled with it, which would hardly be surprising even for a very intelligent reader, did he not think to ask someone what it was about? Or did he start theorizing about meaning without realizing that highly intelligent people have spent a lot of time working on this issue? Or did he realize that and just decide to ignore their work? It's half irritating half bizarre. Maybe I just need to read more Fish, but I don't feel very inclined to do so.