Wolfgang Iser sums up his theory of textual determinacy and indeterminacy with an analogy to stars and constellations:
“… two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The ‘stars’ in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable.”
(The Implied Reader, 1974: 282)
Not bad – especially if you let the analogy extend a little, and note that even the stars will look slightly different to two different people, or to the same person in two different places, and recall that the stars are gradually moving apart from each other over time. For even the relative stabilities are somewhat unstable.
Not chaotically so, however. Against Fish, but loosening Iser’s distinctions a little, the success of Iser’s theory (more broadly conceived than does Iser) does not really “crucially” depend on an absolute distinction between determinate and indeterminate meaning, but on the degree of instability allowed for in the different modes of meaning-production. Stars may move, but do so in rather predictable fashions. The joining of stars is rather less predictable, if you’ve ever tried to work out how a group of stars could ever look like a ram, or how anybody ever came to the conclusion that a group of stars not only represented a woman but that the particular woman was a virgin!
Against Fish, again, these two different modes of in/stability are not “just as variable” as each other, because they are fundamentally different in function. The ‘instability’ in the joining the dots between stars is nothing like the instabilities of the movement of the stars themselves or the changing nature of the star-gazer. Now, Fish’s criticism of Iser was quite valid on its terms (that is, Iser’s analogy about stars really does declare they are “fixed”). But a more charitable reader of the indeterminate gaps in Iser’s theory might have concluded that the basic distinction was also valid. There is something in the text which delimits meaning.