Tom Kindt

Oliver Jahraus

Text, Context, Culture


Full-length article in: JLT 1/1 (2007), 19-44.

The developments that have taken place in literary theory in the past two decades must be seen against the background of the debate regarding method that took place in the 1960s. In the latter, methodology – the question of how in the study of literature texts can be analysed on a rational basis – was still closely bound to the underlying interest of literary theory in the following questions: from what elements does a literary text derive its literariness, and to what extent is it these elements that should be studied and searched for in textual analysis? The result of this was that questions whose scope extended beyond the text tended to be offloaded onto other disciplines.

In the 1980s, reflection on the foundations of the study of literature shifted from methodological and text-related issues of interpretation to issues involving literary theory in the true sense of the term and relating more strongly to context. The underlying interest of literary theory in what literature and the literariness of literary texts actually are was disconnected from methodological issues and explicit enquiry into the disciplinary status of the study of literature. The mutual relationship between text and context became the primary object of attention instead. Thus, there emerged new models that treat the text as defined not so much by strictly text-internal elements as by specific contexts; such models have been particularly prominent in the wide range of developments that have taken place in literary theory from the 1980s onward. However different these models may be from one another, they all show text and context entering into a dynamic, productive, and ultimately essential relationship with each another. This development therefore presents itself, in abstract form, as representative of a general development in literary theory since the 1980s.

In the main strand of these developments, the concept of context can be expressed in terms of culture. ›Context‹ then becomes a word for a particular group of cultural phenomena that defines the literary text in any given case. It is against this background that the ›literary studies as cultural studies‹ approach developed – an idea that cannot be reduced to an integrative and generally recognized model but that unfolds with a variety reflecting the number of different concepts of culture(s) there are. The following article identifies three categorially different and categorially representative cultural contexts that structure the field. These contexts can be society (as in adaptations of the social history of literature and systems theory in the study of literature); history (as in the New Historicism and cultural poetics); or the evolutionary basis of culture, in particular its basis in evolutionary biology (as in biopoetics).

The social history of literature represents the oldest model for contextualizing literature and as such is closely linked to questions of literary sociology, yet it also has a grounding in the study of literature itself. It departs, however, from methodological issues and concentrates instead on the following questions: to what extent is the relationship between literature and society constitutive to literature, and how do conditions of the distribution and reception of the literary text constitute the text in the first place? Questions of social history are taken up again in systems theory, which not only introduces a distinctive concept of society based on communication theory but also uses communication to link literature and society in a new way . This makes it possible to conceive of both literature and society as systems and relate them to one another, as symbol system and social system or as system and environment, in terms of co-evolution. The mutual relationship between the two can then be investigated when social structures reappear as semantic structures in the literary text and can be analysed as a result.

The New Historicism has referred openly to an idea of culture as the context of the literary text since the beginning of the 1980s. Like systems theory, the New Criticism rejects the idea of the autonomous subject and an aura-like concept of the text; instead, it focuses on historical combinations of text and context. The text is seen as a historically singular yet integral part of a complex cultural context that consists of other, non-literary texts, of norms and values, social rituals and practices, institutions, and classes. Culture itself is seen here as a permanent process, as a transaction involving many different kinds of material, and, crucially, as a network of negotiations in which the literary text is always already embedded. It is precisely for this reason that it can come to represent a culture. This ability of a literary text to represent a culture in a particular historical configuration rests precisely on the fact that – so the supporters of the New Historicism suggest – history itself can be ›textualized‹ by that very text, by its composition. It is therefore the latter with which the specifically literary interest of the New Historicism is concerned. Culture in a particular historical form thus becomes the object of the study of literature. It is here, though, that the real problem of the New Historicism lies as far as method is concerned. It is a problem of ›textualization‹, the problem of how we should conceive of and analyse this textualization on which the link between literary text and cultural context depends. The composition of the text must, after all, also be readable as a poetics of culture, as suggested by the famous chiasmus of Louis A. Montrose with its assertion of combined interest in the historicity of texts and the textuality of history.

This latter point presents us with a special variant of the ›literary studies as cultural studies‹ position, one that views culture and literature as evolutionary achievements in the sense of evolutionary biology. The distinctive characteristics of literary texts are then to be sought in the biological conditions of cultural evolution. This is the central idea of biopoetics, whose very name makes clear how distant it is from cultural poetics in the sense of the New Historicism. A cultural poetics of the latter kind assumes that biological facts such as sex are, in their varied, historically specific guises, definitions, and discourse contexts, a cultural product; biopoetics, on the other hand, seeks to highlight the biological basis itself, to draw attention to it as a determining foundation, and thereby describe cultural constructs as evolutionary effects.

This underlying tendency to extend the object domain of the study of literature in the direction of cultural studies leads to a conflict between cultural studies and traditional literary scholarship. Literary theory can, though, help us reflect on this same clash by pointing out that the difference between these ways of studying literature must itself be derived from the fact that the literary text and its context, however the latter be defined, stand in a relationship that is, for example, semiotically grounded, defines them, constitutes them, and constitutes them reciprocally. Considering possible forms of the relationship between text and context can therefore help not only to defuse the conflict between cultural studies and traditional literary scholarship but also to make use of it as a productive point of view.


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Abstract of: Oliver Jahraus, Text, Kontext, Kultur. Zu einer zentralen Tendenz in den Entwicklungen in der Literaturtheorie von 1980–2000.

In: JLTonline (28.08.2008)


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