Peter Burke, “Context in Context”

[plate printed cloth of George III and family (1784-5) courtesy of the Whitworth Gallery textile collection]

When I found this 2002 essay a while back, I was excited, because I had really liked the lucidity and accessibility of What is Cultural History? (2004).  I also liked the fact that it shared some of the theoretical preoccupations of my Cynicism book.  In Burke’s hands, Raymond Williams, the Warburg school, and de Certeau all hang together.  And of course I’d never seen or heard of this book until my own book had been published.

So Burke’s essay opens strongly when he reminds us of just how indispensable the term “context” has become for scholars working across an impressive number of disciplines.

Context is a term that has come into more and more frequent use in the last thirty or forty years in a number of disciplines–among them, anthropology, archaeology, art history, geography, intellectual history, law, linguistics, literary criticism, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, and theology. A trawl through the on-line catalogue of the Cambridge University Library in 1999 produced references to 1,453 books published since 1978 with the word context in the title (and 377 more with contexts in the plural). There have been good reasons for this development. The attempt to place ideas, utterances, texts, and other artifacts “in context” has led to many insights. All the same there is a price to be paid, the neglect of other approaches and also the inflation or dilution of the central concept, which is sometimes used–ironically enough, out of context–as an intellectual slogan or shibboleth.

I won’t repeat the details of Burke’s argument, except to say that he does indeed “re-place context in its contexts–or better, its many contexts,” beginning with a Koselleck-style sketch of its “placements” in a series of linguistic and cultural fields.  But the most intriguing part of the opening was the promise that it would detail the “price to be paid” for using this term, and to discuss at some length the limitations that this term imposes upon our analyses.

Burke’s starting-point is the Ciceronian notion of literary decorum, and the rhetorical accommodation of one’s expression to a particular occasion, meaning the specificities of time, place, and audience.  In the fourth century, however, Burke sees the emergence of a new term, “contextio,” (from L. contexere, to weave)  that describes “the text surrounding a given passage that one wishes to interpret.”  The metaphor of weaving suggests that meaning is to be found not in any isolated element under examination, but in the manner in which it sits in its surroundings, or in its relations with those surroundings, however those are defined.  Note also that this double-move aligns rhetorical production with textual exegesis, thereby providing a double-perspective for understanding language and its uses.  “Context,” the relation of what was said to the social and linguistic situation in which it was said, becomes an indispensable aid to interpretation.

What follows in PB’s argument is at once hugely suggestive as an opening for research and a little disappointing in its follow-through, because the term “context” seems to arise almost without being noticed as part of an increasingly historicist attitude towards language and meaning.  Over time, it also takes on “culturalist” assumptions of the specificities of geo-political space, especially in fields like history, anthropology, geography, and so on.  One of the tacit assumptions informing the use of this term seems to be that particular “contexts”–whether those of period, tradition, or culture–are unique and incommensurable with one another.  This means that contextualizing becomes one of the standard practices of scholarship devoted to deepened knowledge of a particular time and place.  It also means that contexts, tacit or otherwise, allow experts or connoisseurs to distinguish the vases of one dynasty from another, the style of this writer from his subsequent imitator, and so on.  So “context” becomes one more way for scholars and connoisseurs to play the game of “distinction,” in every sense of the term.

And I have to say, now that I have read Burke, that “context” has to be one of the most important and undertheorized conceptual underpinnings for the period-specialist, since contexts become a crucial way to provide specificity and content to the expertise of the period-specialist, who defines his or her expertise solely by reference to a particular (and perhaps too arbitrarily defined) period of time.  It might be worth pointing out, too, that the informal, holistic, yet openended understanding of the literary period specialist often seems less professionalized, less specialized, and closer to the older, “amateur” worlds of connoisseurs, antiquarians, or dilettantes than the stricter, more regulated worlds of professional historians or philosophers.  So one problem that follows from Burke’s essay concerns the formality or informality of such contexts, and how we might understand how they are constructed or recognized in the past or present.

Finally, as suggestive as this essay was, I wished while reading it that Burke had followed up on his initial promise, and spent more time analyzing the limitations or possible dangers of contexts in interpretations. For example, how might it be studied in terms of specific encounters (or collisions) among disciplines?  The circular nature of contexts-as-explanations-seems like another problem well worth exploring concretely, as would be the question of how multiple contexts are supposed to relate to one another (cf. 171-6).  The multidisciplinary aspect of contexts stands as perhaps the most interesting part of this story, because the concept of “context” remains one of the ways that more or less remote disciplines communicate their results to one another, while also acting as part of the self-organization and understanding of those disciplines.  But I am grateful to Burke for opening up this line of inquiry, which I hope others will follow up.



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