So, after listening to Adrian talk about the death of context for half an hour, I wasn’t able to restrain myself, and wrote a post about why I disagreed with it. Here is what I wrote.
“My initial reaction was to want to write a post about this immediately, but as the case was, I had a two hour class right after the ‘unlecture’, and was unable to. This might prove to be a good thing, as my possibly emotional, and probably unreasonable reaction has since been tempered and I’ll no longer be shooting from the hip, so to speak, and might be able to argue this point better.
In essence, I disagree on several different levels, with what was discussed by Adrian in the ‘unlecture’ this afternoon. I understand his self admitted (seemingly in a keen way) position as devil’s advocate for these slightly challenging ideas, and for that reason, I assume no personal offence will be taken. I agree with some of your more progressive notions; the death of the book other than that as an object of literary study and the idea that as producers and that we are not being paid for our product but for the experience had by the consumer when using the product. Today’s discussion, however, was different. Not only because it challenged long held preconceptions about the role of an author, but because it seems to approach the argument from a limited point of view.
The main notes that I took, to help me remember exactly what heresy you were promoting, was that it is impossible for the context of a work to survive, and that an author has no control of the interpretation of the work by the audience.
On the second point, to some extent, I agree. An author is not able to control how their work is read. A Muslim will read Dante in a very different way to a Christian. A report on the success of an agricultural technique used on a farm in New Zealand will be read by an Ethiopian in a very different way to a Norwegian. That is the nature of context. Everything is subjective, and there is categorically no possible way to have perfect communication. No matter how you say something, it will be interpreted in different ways by different people. Loaded language used by journalists will mean something different to me, than it might someone who hasn’t studied media. That is the nature of language. It is imperfect. Which leads to it’s own plethora of problems, none of which I have much room to discuss here.
His other proposition, however, that context cannot survive once a work is published, or produced, is what I do have a problem with.
Context, is everything. To suggest that one should take a work as an isolated incident, removed from the author and the time it was published, it ridiculous, plain and simple. How can you possibly remove a work from it’s context. And I don’t mean that as, “How could you possibly, it simply isn’t right (morally) do disregard such a long standing tradition”, but rather, that it is not possible (literally). How can you achieve a higher objective plane where the context of a work no longer affects an interpretation of it?
I remember reading somewhere once, that to read and understand Dante, you have to be a Christian for as long as the reading takes, or at least, words to that effect. To understand the author, you must insert yourself into the context of the author, in order to best understand it. How, otherwise, would you be able to marvel at the Wright brothers achieving flight for the first time, if you refuse to allow yourself into the context that is a flightless 1903. For the whole of my life, flight has been very achievable and is done thousands of times every day across the world. Who cares if the Wright brothers did it 110 years ago? Because of the context. It is in the context of the event that flight had previously not been achieved by humanity, thus making it an enormous step forward for us as a species. It was the context, as was illustrated in an interesting YouTube video about who certain people are successful, that showed they were one of several teams attempting flight at the same time, and were by no means the most financially or materially supported. That similarly increases the significance of the event.
If context cannot survive with a work, why is it that only last semester, while studying Kafka, Linda Daley suggested to us that we read his diaries to better understand his work? And that to read more of his work, including his articles, autobiographical pieces, short stories, and other people’s accounts of him, would also help our understanding of him.”
This was unfinished, but I think the points still stand by themselves. After I wrote that, I had a chat with Eliot about what exactly Adrian might have meant, and he suggested that he might mean it more specifically in the context (HAH!) of hyper-text narratives. And with this, I would agree. That is the function of the hyper-text narrative. To remove the authors context in order to give more agency to the reader.
But still, while a reader might have 30 options as to where the story goes next, those 30 options are still somewhat a reflection of the authors own context. A hyper-text narrative written in 1890 in Texas (supposing there were any hyper-text authors in Texas in 1890) might write about an adventure across the south of the United States, and as the protagonist, you come across a seated black person on a packed bus. Your 30 options might then be variations on how you might remove him from his seat so you are able to sit down. That might be a perfectly justifiable course of action in the context of 1890’s Texas, but in the present context, we might struggle with the ethics of choosing the best way to remove a person from their seat, because they are black, from the 30 options presented to us. The context of the author then affects us today, when we read the work. We are unable to avoid our own context while reading it (as is the nature of context), but similarly, we are unable to avoid the authors context as the choices he gives us within the hyper-text narrative will inevitably be choices that seemed reasonable to him when he wrote the text.
Perhaps, as Eliot suggested, Adrian worded his argument rather too strongly, so as to best carry his point, and for that, I might forgive him. We are all prone to exaggeration on points that we believe passionately about, and as his passion seems to be the forward progression of media and cultural texts generally, it makes sense that he might push his point strongly.
Thoughts on that?