Context in Literary and Cultural Studies
Edited by Jakob Ladegaard and Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen
CONTEXT IN LITERARY AND CULTURAL STUDIES
Introduction: the question of context
Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen
We rarely leave works of art or literature alone. Our ways of presenting and interpreting them almost always rely on our knowledge about the artist’s life, the historical circumstances surrounding the work’s production and reception, or comparisons with other works of art or literature.
The question of context, then, is at the heart of any critical engagement with art and literature.
And context really is a question – or a series of questions – that determines the scope and methodology of literary and cultural research on a given object.
On some fundamental level, of course, we can all agree that works of art and literature do have relationships with the surrounding world.
Art and books are material objects in a material world; they exist because of the creative work of artists and writers, and they are produced and consumed by people with certain foreknowledge and expectations shaped by their social and cultural backgrounds. But the question is: how much weight should we attach to such contextual matters in our efforts to engage with art and literature in meaningful ways?
One strong tradition in the humanities maintains that contextualisation can deepen our experience and understanding of an artwork; but other scholars worry that too much emphasis on context will make us lose sight of the unique features of a work of art or literature – that which makes it art or literature and not some other thing.
In their view, there is a risk that the process of contextual analysis will dissolve the object of study, making it disappear in the tissue and noise of history.
Art, they might say, echoing Susan Sontag’s famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’ (Sontag 1966), is meant to be experienced, not explained. Instead of worrying about what we can learn about the past from historical works of literature, Rita Felski says in her Uses of Literature (Felski 2008) that we should focus on what such works can teach us about our own present.