Context Stinks! 
Monday, May 7, 2012, 05:47 PM
Posted by Administrator
This has been a busy year, with many publishing deadlines and other tasks seeming to fall in quick succession, hence the lack of recent posts. One of the things one doesn’t always seem to have time for, as an academic, is reading new articles or books which aren’t immediately connected with one’s own research projects. I touched on that topic here.

One of the best pieces I have read recently – and I’m grateful to Berit Åstrom for calling it to my attention – is Rita Felski’s ‘Context Stinks!’. It resonated very strongly with our own research interests and questions, as reflected in the conference we organised on Transhistoricism a while back, and our upcoming event on allusions and recycling.

Felski’s feisty piece begins by suggesting that ‘context’ is something whose importance is unquestioned by literary scholars:

“But who, in their right mind – apart from a few die-hard aesthetes mumbling into their sherry glasses – could feasibly take issue with the idea of context as such?”

But Felski goes on to interrogate the way in which ‘synchronic historicism’, the practice of seeing texts only in relation to the artefacts and discourses of the time in which they were produced, limits the ways in which we read, write and think about books.

Instead she argues that ‘pastness is a part of who we are’ – past texts are always part of any writer’s present, and part of our own present too. The critic who pores over minutiae of the early modern context to understand Shakespeare better perhaps forgets that Shakespeare was also fascinated by long dead writers, and that they are as, if not more, ‘present’ in his works than the political and religious controversies of his own day. Felski writes eloquently:

“We are inculcated, in the name of history, into a remarkably static model of meaning, where texts are corralled amidst long-gone contexts and obsolete intertexts, incarcerated in the past, with no hope of parole.”

My own forthcoming book on allusion and the uncanny is full of example of patterns which only become apparent once you start to see texts as agents with the power to escape this temporal prison, to move backwards and forwards in time, haunting both later and earlier texts, shifting and mutating to fit a new cultural context perhaps, but never adequately explained or defined by context alone.

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