Context and Emergence


Ms.B86 fol.55b Poem by Ibn Quzman

by Vincent Barletta

Focused as some of us are on medieval and early modern literature, the question of context comes up a great deal. Is our work sufficiently contextualized? Where and how do modern theories of language and meaning (our inevitable toolkit) fit into our work? Are we expected to bracket off ourselves (and our readers) from our work? Is it our goal to speak of, for example, fifteenth-century poetry in terms that only a fifteenth-century reader would understand (e.g., “According to Aquinas. . .”)? Are we to train ourselves, like Borges’s Pierre Menard, to write, through the absurd force of context, the Quijote that Cervantes could never write although our text shares a word-for-word correspondence with his seventeenth-century original?

These are extreme positions, and we mostly don’t expect to write about medieval and early modern works in the same way that medieval and early modern writers did. Our readers, after all, have different expectations and needs. Modern theories and philosophies do have a place in our work, although we often have a very hard time defining for ourselves and our students (not to mention those anonymous readers who assess our work for publication) where the line that divides antiquarian fetishism and anachronism might be. Certainly citing “the Philosopher” as an indisputable authority on poetics is no longer acceptable (“Dixit Algazel in sua Logica. . .”), but then referring to Abd al-Malik ibn Quzman as some kind of Zizekian provocateur (waaaay avant la lettre) is similarly a no-no. Somewhere in between these two extremes (depending on our project, readership, and willingness to go out on a limb) is where most of us do our work.

But then perhaps the problem is our notion of context itself. Is context a static thing, after all? Most of us speak of it as a “moving target,” but is it a “thing” at all? A vessel into which text, culture, history, etc. are poured? And does context have any a priori existence at all or does it emerge precisely through all the talk and interaction (much of it mediated by writing and other technologies) for which we imagine it serves as a kind of container or platform (perhaps something like genre)? For literary scholars, is context perhaps better understood as an achievement, something that readers (and readers as writers) collaboratively strive to entail through the mediation of written texts? What happens if we take up Charles Briggs and Richard Bauman’s call to put aside our largely uncritical talk of “context” and focus instead on “contextualization,” or the processes by which participants (e.g., writers, readers, glossators, publishers, sellers, the Portuguese Inquisition, etc.) entail the ground against which their talk and interaction takes on (even if just for a moment) meaning and force?

What might such a literary research project look like? It would likely foreground the work of readers (and writers as readers). It also might have the look and feel of social history or network theory and analysis, but with a renewed focus on close textual analysis and textually-embedded forms of pragmatic signification (e.g., deixis). The results are somewhat unpredictable, but it seems right in any case that we’d benefit from a more precise and simultaneously dynamic sense of what it is we mean by “context.”

In more practical terms, it’s not that we seek to “understand” or “situate” (as a totalizing, unidirectional gesture) the poetry of (for example) Ibn Quzman; nor do we ever gain mastery OVER it. Rather, we work (and train ourselves) to enter into something like a conversation with his readers and listening public through the mediation of his poetry, to construct participation frameworks in which we ourselves intervene (as something like participant observers). Within this framework, we don’t bracket off our theories (folk and otherwise), but rather place them in explicit dialogue with (once again, returning to Ibn Quzman) Abu Nuwas and Ishaq al-Mawsili. This is a subtle shift, but it may make a significant difference in the work that we do. The results would inevitably be idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and ultimately risky, like all conversations.

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License