Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Rob Pope: Texts and Contexts

(Rob Pope is defining texts as literature here, but it should be extended to conceive of a text as being a meaningful "place," a "visual" work, an "evocative object" or "multimodal" interaction.)

It is becoming increasingly common to see texts continuously with their contexts, and to grasp literature in history, not just above or to one side of it. Conversely, it is becoming increasing uncommon to see literature as only ‘the words on the page’, the ‘text in itself’. However, con-text (literally ‘with-text’) has to be conceived in flexible and plural ways. For contexts include not only the writer’s personal circumstances and the historical events and current worldviews that helped shape and inform the initial moment of composition, but also all the subsequent moments and modes of re-production and reception. Crucially, and for each of us with great immediacy, this includes the moments in which we read and study the text now – in our own times and to some extent on our own terms. Moreover, con-texts (‘with texts’) include all the other texts around – also ‘then’ and ‘now’ –from the sources and influences drawn upon, through the genres in which the text is placed, to any other text with which it subsequently becomes accidently associated or deliberately linked. Context is thus continuous with intertextuality.

All this leaves us with the problems as well as the possibilities. Where does ‘text’ stop (or start) and ‘context’ begin (or end)? And, ‘intertextually’ speaking, how do we handle the fact that one text leads to another and another and another …? Meanwhile, if literature is in and among history and a part of it, how can we also see literature as in some sense apart from history and alongside or even beyond it? For clearly there are important distinctions as well as connections to be made between words and the (rest of the) world, between all that is text and all that is not. So we need to grasp both, simultaneously or by turns – that is, if we are to have a relatively determinate object of study together with a relatively dynamic sense of the subject of study. (6)

Pope, Rob. The English Studies Book: An Introduction to Language, Literature and Culture. 2nd ed. NY: Routledge, 2002.

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