The Faint Whiff of Context

Today I finished reading Rita Felski’s paper “Context Stinks!”, following up on some work I’ve been looking at on literary ethics in contemporary criticism. Felski’s central argument is that the category of context is problematic for literary studies, as it automatically renders the text as an object which is easily adduced, subjugated or removed of its agency. She uses the metaphor of a “box” – whether historical, social or economic – into which we “place texts”. I have to agree that there is a certain safety and ritual in doing this. When teaching English Lit A-lvl, there was always a need for students to “use context” to the extent that it was stipulated by the exam board as an assessment objective. That we would tell students not to “bolt on” contextual information in their essays perhaps demonstrates the lack of critical creativity contained in a reading that treats social and historical periods as distinct, discrete boxes in which to “put” texts.

Felski relies on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory to fortify her central argument about the status of context in literary criticism. She suggests that we need to reconfigure our understanding of text-as-object using Latour’s notion of the non-human actor:

The “actor” in actor-network theory is not a self-authorizing subject, an independent agent who summons up actions and orchestrates events. Rather, actors only become actors via their relations with other phenomena, as mediators and translators linked in extended constellations of cause and effect. Nonhuman actors, then, help to modify states of affairs; they are participants in chains of events; they help shape outcomes and influence actions.

It’s a wide category to assign to a text, which might raise concern around whether thinking of the text as “actor” is really all that useful – it will be important to ask what value there is in criticism that uses such a label, although I can certainly see the potential. There’s also an unhelpful echo of the author themselves in this idea of the text as “actor” – I don’t think we can avoid the author-as-context if we’re examining a contemporary text (mainly because of the changing nature of our access to the author and their networks of influence, but that’s a discussion for another post), One way of understanding this definition is that it engenders a movement away from the ritual of reading texts as the result of their social environment towards more creative and energetic critical activity, of the kind that which understands the essential “social” nature of the text. Certainly there is an emphasis on seeing the text as part of a network, one that doesn’t allow the critic to place the text securely, conservatively into a bordered and uncommunicative past. Whether we understand this perspective as particularly radical depends perhaps upon the value you place on the historical period as a window for critical interaction. As a critic of contemporary literature, I’m attracted to the notion of seeing the text as part of a network, a dialogue which is temporally unrestrained, rather than carefully drawn.

It isn’t difficult to agree that “[a]rtworks must be sociable to survive, whatever their attitude to “society” ” and to suggest that we should recycle the boxes of historical periods into something richer, allowing for new and fluid temporal connections. This is where Felski is particularly strong, especially excoriating the arbitrary reliance placed on period-expertise when organising literature departments, considering editors for journals and other practical manifestations of critical ideology. Her use of Robbins’ idea that genre might just as well stand in for the idea of the historical period is clever, although seems to reframe the same question, considering that one of the main ways of understanding a term as slippery as genre is through its historical context. Considering that often we find genre and period coupled, defined together – e.g. the late-19th century novel, Greek Tragedy – we may find that we’re just looking at a different part of the same knot.

The idea got me thinking though – what if we’re seeing a movement away from a kind of easy historicizing in approaches to contemporary fiction, due in part to the very nature of the actor/object that we’re studying? If we want to ‘do’ more effective criticism which allows for new connections, new networks of understanding, more dialogue between texts that isn’t restrained or defined by set notions of historical periodisation, then we need to make these ideas central in the ways that we write about text and, more importantly, the ways we teach them. It seems to me that now is the time to establish a critical environment for more exciting ways of doing literary criticism., especially with a movement towards the artwork as social phenonmenon. Felski articulates that:

The significance of a text is not exhausted by what it reveals or conceals about the social conditions that surround it. Rather, it is also a matter of what it makes possible in the viewer or reader—what kind of emotions it elicits, what perceptual changes it triggers, what affective bonds it calls into being.

If we move readings away from the social conditions of a text, then we are immediately altering where we find value in the critical activity. In other words, we state implicitly the imaginative, ethical value of the texts potential to create “perceptual changes” and create new “affective” bonds. We acknowledge that texts are not clear cut in their influence, but that:

[c]ross-temporal networks mess up the tidiness of our periodizing schemes, forcing us to acknowledge affinity and proximity alongside difference, to grapple with the coevalness and connectedness of past and present.

I might go so far as to say now is the right time to do this – but suddenly I’ve brought a fixed notion of time and the social environment to bear again on critical endeavour. Regardless that it’s painted in bright colours and has stickers on it, I’ve still just built another box. The smell of context might then be inescapable, but Felski suggests here not a rejection of it, but one way of re-calibrating it. It seems to me that the spirit of these arguments is in trying to establish further creativity in critical pursuits, and so to return students to ways of reading texts which challenge their safe notions of how the world, how history in particular, is constituted.


R. Felski, 2011, ‘Context Stinks!’ New Literary History Vol.42 Issue 4 pp.573-591