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Das Text-Kontext-Problem in der literaturwissenschaftlichen Praxis: Zugänge und Perspektiven

  • Martina King EMAIL logo and Jesko Reiling


This article begins by using representative examples to present an overview of the diverse ways in which contextualization is practiced in literary studies. Under the rubric of the terms ›universal‹ (indifferent) and ›complementary‹ (distinkt) contextualism, antihermeneutic and hermeneutic approaches are interrogated with respect to their premisses, methods, and intended insights. ›Universal contextualism‹ refers to those post-structuralist methods that operate with a relational concept of the sign and assume that all texts, indeed all the material artefacts of a culture have the same ontological status. A material manifestation of context, or intertextuality, is not assumed here; the aim is insight into regularities of discourse and into media practices. ›Complementary contextualism‹ is intended in its weak form to refer simply to making an indispensable distinction between a text and its contexts – in this case generally in the form of texts – and in its stronger, more clearly hermeneutic version to refer to making a distinction and setting up a hierarchy between a text and its textual or extratextual environment.

The focus of attention is progressively narrowed in the course of the article: the forms and manifestations of universal contextualism are excluded from the remainder of the discussion insofar as the concepts of text and context no longer function as a complementary pair if one ceases to assume a hierarchy, indeed a distinction, between the (literary) text and the connections that explain it. Approaches that go down this path may reveal the practices of discourse in a universe of texts of equal status, but they do not draw on contexts to interpret texts or elucidate the meanings of texts.

In the next step, the weak form of complementary contextualism – Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicist approach – is distinguished from stronger versions of complementary contextualism. In abandoning textual autonomy and textual authority and adopting a certain formal-aesthetic indifference, New Historicism dispenses with a strong concept of the text, even if its concentration on canonical authors means that it proceeds in a distinctly literature-centred fashion. Its intended insight, nonetheless, is not the understanding and improved understanding of the literary text in the context in which it originated, but instead ›understanding differently‹ and ›making new voices heard‹: its aim is to reveal the social and cultural conditions of possibility of canonical points of textual reference, with the texts and their generally intertextual contexts mutually conditioning one another in the sense of a ›circulation of social energies‹ and thus unable to be placed in a hierarchy. Stronger forms of complementary contextualism, on the other hand, work with a form- and language-oriented concept of the text that, depending on whether their interest is defined by authors or problems, can refer respectively to a narrow domain of canonical texts or to an extended domain of high literature and commercial literature. These forms of contextualist literary analysis, though, share premisses of understanding and textual meaning, as well as hermeneutic and philological tools with which reference is made to texts and their extra- and intertextual contexts.

Here, nonetheless, a wide spectrum unfolds. It reaches from what tend to be narrow, author-centric approaches guided by concepts such as ›intention‹, ›influence‹, ›edition‹, and ›commentary‹ to a line of research that engages in a form of contextual analysis whose perspective goes beyond the individual subject and has been broadened to address cultural history. It distances itself from strong authorial intentionalism on the one hand and the associativeness of New Historicism on the other, and is to be understood as a culturalistic extension of social history. Finally, drawing on a hermeneutically negotiated, context-sensitive cultural historiography of this kind, three possible criteria are suggested for selecting contexts of an inter- and extratextual nature: relevance, representativeness, and usefulness. They serve to limit what is per se an unlimited set of textual environments and have previously been formulated in the literature in a similar manner.

At the end of this increasingly focused research review, which draws on the whole range of contemporary approaches to the problem of text and context, before finally foregrounding a contextualism that is philologically grounded and extended to address cultural history, there follows a transition to the three individual articles in the section we have edited. They are concerned with three different possibilities for dealing with contexts of an inter- and primarily extratextual nature, are all located inside the hermeneutic and philological space we have mapped out, and can to this extent be considered an inexhaustive taxonomy of a contextualism that has been extended to address cultural history: society as a context of literature, knowledge as a context of literature, and finally the text-context relation as a bipartite combination of problem and solution. Whereas the first two approaches involve classes of context that are defined by content, the final one works with a formal definition of ›context‹ and is to this extent a more broadly conceived one, because almost all political, social, epistemic, and abstract quantities that are external to the text can be formulated as problems. The article, to conclude, is intended to provide an overview that brings order to a markedly heterogeneous, diverse research landscape, as well as to stake out a grounded position within this heterogeneous field.


Abstract translated by Alastair Matthews.


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Published Online: 2014-7-4
Published in Print: 2014-6-1

© 2012 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston

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