Stylistics, Stanley Fish, and objectified conventionality. A rejoinder to Dan Shen

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Stanley Fish's relentless argumentation against essentialism leaves stylistics without an object of inquiry. If meaning is a product of social conventions and is not to be found in the letter, as Fish argues, what else could the stylistician do but fight against conventionalism by trying to find some level of meaning firmly attached to the very material with which he works - viz. the so-called materiality of language? In an article recently published in Poetics - 'Stylistics, Objectivity, and Convention' - Dan Shen presents his version of the stylistician's classic strategy against conventionalism. Instead of defending the basic premise of essentialism according to which oppositions such as subjectivity vs. objectivity, culture vs. nature are clearcut and independent of interpretation, Shen rejects the dichotomy 'conventionality vs. objectivity', to which he associates Fish's argument, in favor of a distinction between conventionality and idiosyncracy. By equating objectivity with conventionality, and subjectivity with idiosyncracy, Shen makes his argumentation as fragile as a house of cards. He makes, for instance, a totally unwarranted leap from the idea of a language as a conventionalized system of arbitrary relations to the bizarre conclusion that it is 'a subjective system of arbitrary relationships'. However, he fails to explain, among other things, how such a system - which is unquestionably public - could also be 'subjective'. As a consequence, Shen also fails to give us a reasonable theory of literature on the basis of his 'new' dichotomies. As we will try to show, it seems clear that Shen's conclusions do not neutralize the strength of Fish's arguments but are simple restatements of the very presuppositions from which he started his discussion. © 1990.




Rajagopalan, K., & Arrojo, R. (1989). Stylistics, Stanley Fish, and objectified conventionality. A rejoinder to Dan Shen. Poetics, 18(6), 579–586.

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