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Is Context Optional in Literary Theory?

The extent to which context should be “optional” in literary theory was most forcefully articulated in two primary theoretical approaches in the twentieth century. On the one hand, the schools of Formalism and New Criticism sought to analyse “the work itself” by separating it from any extraneous detail such as biographical or historical contexts, which was regarded as falling beyond the purview of literary theory. On the other hand, critics of New Historicism and Marxist literary theory argued that a literary work could only be understood as a reflection of the material conditions which have produced it, rather than as a transcendentally timeless object. Indeed, even critics such as Harold Bloom who argue for a “Western Canon” aesthetically detached from political considerations, are themselves making an explicitly ideological statement in their refusal to view context as a contributing factor to the formation of literary works. In response to this debate, critics such as Rita Felski have built upon the work of New Historicists and Deconstructionists to disrupt rigid binaries between “text” and “context.” By drawing on Bruno Latour’s ‘Actor-Network-Theory,’ which highlights how context has been used to diminish the autonomy and influence of literary texts, Felski argues for a more nuanced understanding of context as an intricate web of influences, which enable a text’s resonance over time. Thus, literary theory must reject both the Platonic notion of “the work itself,” as a self-governed and detached aesthetic object, while also refusing to reduce the text merely to the product of its contexts, in order to show how a literary text can resonate across time, while also being able to produce aesthetic experiences that transcend reductionist accounts of its material production.

Formalism and New Criticism reacted against the dominant contextual practices of the nineteenth century (Historicism and Romanticism) by developing an objective method of literary theory which focused on the formal characteristics of the text, rather than subordinating the text to historical explanations of the author’s intentions, or to the psychological responses of readers. These mistaken approaches to literary theory were embodied in William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s concepts of the “Intentional Fallacy” and the “Affective Fallacy.” Through analysing a work as a self-sufficient unit, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that ‘the design or intention of the author’ was ‘neither available nor desirable’ when judging the ‘success’ of a literary work. Therefore, any attempts to contextualize the work with accounts of artistic intention were a fallacy; if the author intended a poem to mean something, then ‘the poem itself [should show] what he was trying to do.’ Alternatively, considerations of authorial intention were discarded completely: the work was deemed a ‘public’ and autonomous object, beyond all ‘control’ of the author. As New Critics sought to found a literary theory on a more objective, ‘scientific […] and systematic’ basis, they also discarded any impressionistic responses from the reader as a descent into subjectivism and relativism. Instead, critics focused on the specific formal aspects of the work (what Russian Formalists called “literariness”) that evoked responses in the reader, such as Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of “defamiliarization.” According to this theory, a literary text ‘removes objects from the automatism of perception’ through ‘difficult, roughened […] language,’ thereby enabling the reader to ‘recover the sensation of life’ lost through everyday experience. However, this does not mean that considerations of context were not acknowledged by New Critics; indeed, Cleanth Brooks made it clear that a text’s ‘place in [its] historical context simply cannot be ignored.’ However, such concerns ‘should not be confused with an account of the work’ or with ‘literary criticism.’ As John Crowe Ransom argued, context was employed as a means of co-opting the ‘autonomy’ of the work for political ends, such as ‘leftists’ who used ‘the literary exhibit’ as the ‘occasion of reviving the Aristotelian moral canon.’ In reaction to this, Formalist critics focused on how a text ‘remove[d] itself from history’ by rigorously analysing “the work itself,” whose form alone constituted its ultimate meaning.

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The theoretical paradigms established by New Criticism led to an emphatic re-emphasis on contextualisation as a means of providing a materialist account of how literary texts produced and maintained dominant ideologies. As Marxist literary theory became more prevalent, the New Critics’ supposedly objective approach to literary theory became viewed by critics with scepticism, since their methodology was inextricably ‘entwined with […] broader prejudices and beliefs.’ Adherence to the ideal of a wholly disinterested critic was mirrored by a ‘political inertia and […] a submission to the political status quo,’ highlighting that all forms of criticism are implicated in wider political considerations. Following Althusser’s notion of “Ideological State Apparatuses,” Marxist critics saw literary texts as ‘reproducing bourgeois ideology as the dominant ideology,’ thereby reinforcing the power of the state by coercive means. By providing an account of the material conditions which produce a literary work, Marxist critics could highlight the ‘ideological effects’ it reproduced. For example, whereas critics such as Harold Bloom advocated for the universal ‘aesthetic supremacy’ of texts in the “Western Canon,” which transcend ‘every mode of [contextual] reducing: historical, societal, theological,’ Marxist critics argued that the “Canon” is an ideological construct, invented to consolidate bourgeois ideology as universal and unquestionable. In this analysis, Shakespeare is deemed ‘great literature’ not because it is inherently aesthetically superior, but because the ‘literary institution […] constitutes him as such.’ As Terry Eagleton argues, such aestheticism (which views art as an end in itself) arose from chiefly historic circumstances, namely, the ‘alienation of art from social life,’ where it was previously employed by the ‘court, church [and] aristocratic patron[s]’ for political ends. By contextualising supposedly ‘non-political’ approaches to literary theory, Eagleton highlights that ‘all criticism is in some sense political,’ revealing that such theoretical approaches to literature as an autonomous, transcendental object are ‘simply a myth which furthers certain political uses of literature all the more effectively.’ Sarah Brouillette highlights this in a contemporary example by critiquing the Nobel Prize in Literature as an ‘institution’ which ‘plays a crucial role in circulating and universalising [literary] norms.’ By awarding the prize to individualistic ‘genius[es]’ who create autonomous literary works which transcend ‘underdeveloped’ works ‘too interested in political struggles,’ the Nobel Prize functions as an ‘expression of […] humanistic liberalism,’ the dominant capitalist ideology. Therefore, Marxist literary theory must ‘refuse the spontaneous presence of the work’ by contextualising the material conditions in which texts are created, thereby liberating a hermetically sealed text to partake in discourses with wider society.

New Historicism also reacted against the Formalist distinction between “the work itself” and other contexts through highlighting the complex networks which produce literary texts, and their historical influences from other “non-literary” texts. New Historicist critics advocated for a ‘reciprocal concern with the historicity of texts and the textuality of history’ through the application of Formalist close readings to a variety of cultural texts, revealing history to be contingent and contradictory rather than transcendentally true, as earlier Historicists believed. Drawing on Foucault’s genealogies, which revealed the unconscious framework of discourses (épistémè) that determine what is deemed true in a given epoch, New Historicists instead offered a “thick description” of literature. Through highlighting the ‘shifting pressure and particularity of material needs and interests,’ critics were able to give an account of how texts actively shape the way a historical epoch is understood. By approaching literary works with a more nuanced understanding of the interrelated material processes at work, New Historicism embodied a ‘history of possibilities’ by exposing the ‘creative power that shapes literary works outside the narrow boundaries’ of “the work itself,” as well as highlighting the aesthetic powers ‘within [the] boundaries’ of the work. Figures whose ‘writings had been discarded as ephemera’ and had therefore been ‘kept outside the proper circles of interest’ were now ‘invited in’ by New Historicist critics in order to understand their influence on canonical texts. Stephen Greenblatt’s use of the terms ‘resonance’ and ‘wonder’ further clarifies New Historicism’s approach to context. By ‘resonance,’ Greenblatt refers to a demythologizing process which rejects the ‘Great Man’ theory of history; whereby the ‘limits or constraints upon individual intervention’ are revealed through an understanding of the creative power of the ‘margins’ (historical texts hitherto ignored by literary theorists) on the ‘centre’ (the canonical works). By ‘wonder,’ Greenblatt maintains that texts have a specific aesthetic ‘power,’ which ‘stop[s] the viewer in his tracks’ by ‘convey[ing] an arresting sense of uniqueness,’ thereby defying reductionist accounts of texts as the mere product of vast, impersonal historical forces. By investigating how deeply literary works are enmeshed in a dense web of connections, New Historicism has shown how context is essential to understanding how texts are produced and continue to speak to us today.

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Following on from New Historicism, Rita Felski argues against conventional Historicism’s dependence on context, and Formalism’s rejection of context, since both theories reduce the capacity of literary works to function as “non-human actors,” (as outlined in Latour’s “Actor-Network Theory.”) Context, identified by Felski as a ‘macrolevel’ which incorporates ‘economic structure, political ideology, cultural mentality,’ has been used by literary theorists as a ‘box’ to render the text (‘microunit’) as powerless; it can merely ‘react or respond to […] preestablished conditions.’ Latour, by contrast, rejects the ‘zero-sum game’ between “form” and “context,” in favour of a ‘win/win’ conception of the ‘social’ as consisting of a complex network of ‘actors’ (defined as ‘any thing that […] modif[ies] a state of affairs by making a difference’) which form transtemporal ‘attachments’ with other actors. Felski argues that texts cannot be reduced to context since they are a part of this complex web of attachments. However, Felski also rejects New Historicist accounts of how texts ‘resonan[te]’ across time; despite revealing history as a ‘buzzing multiplicity of texts,’ New Historicism ‘den[ies] relatedness’ between ‘past texts and present lives,’ by creating ‘an unbridgeable distance […] between “then” and “now.”’ Felski instead follows Latour’s conception of texts as “non-human actors,” arguing that a text’s ‘busy afterlife’ refutes efforts to contextually ‘box it into a moment of origin,’ while also rejecting Formalist reductions of the text to an ‘isolated self-contained aesthetic object,’ since in order for texts to ‘survive’ they must be ‘sociable’ and capable of being ‘made the object of new attachments’ today. This ‘array of attachments and associations’ are not determined by ‘ideological agreement,’ as Marxists would believe, but through the ways in which the text can ‘solicit our affections, court our emotions and feed our obsessions’ (rejecting Formalism’s “Affective fallacy” as a failure for the critic to acknowledge the powerfully transformative effects of literature). By sufficiently broadening context to incorporate a plethora of social networks and interactions, Felski makes it clear that context cannot be optional for literary theory in its totality since it is essential both to the creation and continued resonance of literary texts over time.

To conclude, it is clear that the historic approach of literary theory to context has been characterized by simplistic dichotomising of “text” and “context,” wherein theories emphasize the primacy of one as a means of reducing the effects of the other. Oppositions between Formalism’s advocacy for the autonomous “work itself” and Marxism’s reduction of the text to a product of its material production, have created a seemingly insurmountable impasse in literary theory. Despite New Historicism’s more nuanced approaches to the “text”/ “context” distinction, this theory has also failed to account for the continued influence of texts across time by reducing them too rigidly to their contemporary historical contexts. Ultimately, Felski’s argument recognizes the highly contingent nature of “text” and “context” by refusing to allow context to predetermine a text’s impact, while also accepting that a text is not wholly autonomous but must depend on a network of interactions to sustain its influence. Thus, Felski’s argument does justice to both the aesthetic power of the literary text on the reader, while also acknowledging that context cannot be optional: without an understanding of the complex nature of a text’s production and re-interpretation, a text’s unique ability to achieve its transtemporal effect would remain unexplained and misunderstood.



Althusser, Louis, On Ideology (London; New York: Verso, 2008)

Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York; London: Harcourt Brace, 1994)

Brooks, Cleanth, ‘The Formalist Critics,’ The Kenyon Review, 13. 1 (1951), 72-81

Brouillette, Sarah, ‘Literature Is Liberalism,’ Jacobin, 2014, <> [Accessed 20 March 2019]

Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)

—— Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: Verso, 1998)

Felski, Rita, ‘“Context Stinks!”,’ New Literary History, 42, 4 (2011), 573-591

Gallagher, Catherine and Steven Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

Greenblatt, Steven, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990)

Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005)

Ransom, John Crowe, The World’s Body (New York: Scribner; London: Scribner, 1938)

Macherey, Pierre, et al. ‘Literature as an Ideological Form: Some Marxist Propositions,’ Oxford Literary Review, 3. 1 (1978), 4-12

Shklovsky, Viktor, ‘Art as Technique,’ in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln; London: University of Nebraska Press, 1965)

Veeser, H. Aram, ed., The New Historicism Reader (New York: Routledge, 1989)

Wimsatt, William K., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967)

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