"Context Stinks!"
Abstract

This essay draws on the work of Bruno Latour to question conventional methods of "historicizing" and "contextualizing" works of art. Context is typically equated with original historical context, and the act of historicizing a text becomes a matter of linking it to other texts and events in the same slice of time. Such historicist approaches, I argue, cannot account for the transtemporal movement of texts, their ability to resonate across different periods, and the ways in which they speak to us now. Moreover, traditional models of context and its correlates (society, power, ideology, etc.) tend to downplay or actively deny the agency of artworks. What if we were to think of these artworks as nonhuman actors who modify states of affairs by making a difference? Such an approach calls on us to recognize the specificity of works of art as well as their sociability and wordliness. Artworks are not heroic actors engaged in endless opposition, subversion, and resistance; rather they are coactors and codependents, enmeshed in multiple attachments and associations that enable them to survive.


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