Because New Literary History makes a point of inquiring into received ideas, almost any of its special issues might be entitled to a question mark. "Context?" claims that title explicitly, in order to serve fair notice that we invited contributors to an interrogation. We asked them to examine what is on one hand a concept as indispensable as any in the human sciences, on the other hand a banner to which rising scholars have trooped for a full generation now. The prescriptive force exerted by contextualism among protocols for historical and cultural understanding, while it has afforded a certain clarity of method and disciplinary focus, has purchased these advantages at steep intellectual cost. As the essays gathered here maintain, historical contextualism narrowly construed has promoted disregard for dimensions of historical temporality and cultural space to which context as such opens rich possibilities of access. Eased out of its police uniform and restored to the flexibility of reference that it formerly possessed (Bruce Holsinger's contribution here shows for how surprisingly long a time), context in a sense old yet new is capable of sponsoring inquiries freshly elastic in outlook and vitally close in their findings.
"Every context is a new text": Michael Levenson's aperçu implies the critique of a strictly coevalist contextualism with which Martin Jay launches his essay, and on which Claire Colebrook also meditates in pondering the resistance that context's textual (and thus iterable) condition poses to any interpretive foreclosure premissed on the arbitrary (and therefore unsustainable) postulate that cultural formations spread a harmonically totalizing consistency across moments, regions, and audiences. Raise the theoretical ante of this postulate, Eric Hayot observes, and you meet a recursive paradox: the very context you have adduced as some text's explanatory frame turns out to be itself contextualized within a laddered "hierarchy of frames." For the authority you impute to an historical period is grounded, like it or not, in a vaster narrative correlating that period with others in series; that the chain-reaction of totalizations hereby entailed can be halted only by arbitrary fiat exposes the constitutive arbitrariness of the context you imposed to begin with. [End Page vii] Reciprocally, when you plunge down from premisses to details Levenson's formula proves reversible: every text is already a context. As the textile etymology teased out by several contributors reminds us, the back-and-forth plaitedness of texts—diction woven against syntax in a poem, palette shuttled against montage in a film—is a phenomenon intrinsically complex. The "fabrication" or "meshwork" of a text's "intratextual" components (Levenson, Jonathan Gil Harris) are contextual for each other. At closer quarters still, even the single word—that ostensible textual monad—proves relational, and not just for a Saussurean differential linguistics but also, David Greetham attests, for the practical efforts of the editor (backed by the lexicographer) on whose labor to set and parse contexts the edifice of literary scholarship rests.
"The fox condemns the trap, not himself." Whether we come at the interpretation of this gnomic epigram upwards from the verbal base, or downwards from the bibliographical and cultural matrix, we find ourselves in thickets of context at every turn. Read by itself on the printed line it fills, the sentence virtually constitutes a line of iambic pentameter, with a double recurrence of short o and e vowels on four of its five stressed syllables for good prosodic measure; yet it occurs amid a list of several dozen maxims most of which are obviously in prose. The epigram's ambiguity as to literary medium epitomizes a categorical conundrum of format and genre that typifies the entire multimedia book from which it is taken, William Blake's 1793 manifesto The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Within that book our prose/verse sentence and its congeners come captioned as "Proverbs of Hell," and are tendered as ethnographic curios transcribed by an unnamed tourist who has somehow returned from that not quite undiscovered country. At what discount to receive advice delivered in "The Voice of the Devil"—what or whom to believe under such framing contextual circumstances—is a dilemma that every reader must confront, and that the book...