Thursday 10 September 2015

I thought that might get some attention.

Still, you may be disappointed, particularly if you imagine I am about to discuss the various merits of pale ales, lagers, stouts, you name it, or that I might write a piece that enthusiastically anticipates this year’s Oktoberfest in Munich.

No such luck. Instead, I’d like to return to the tricky issue of contexts, or more specifically the challenge of identifying what a meaningful context is and explaining what its significance may be.

What, then, is a relevant context? How do you know?

Well, I think the first question is relatively uncomplicated: A context, certainly with regard to texts studied in the Language and Literature course, is something that has an effect on meaning; that is, the impact is on those things that influence how a text is produced and understood. Writing about context in a blog post as recently as June I suggested that it is easier for students to recognize significant contexts when they know lots of stuff about the world. The more knowledgeable students are, the better. I don’t want to alter this claim. I haven’t changed my mind. Nevertheless, accepting this axiomatically does not make it straightforward to know which contexts are actually significant, or are likely to be significant. And that is only the beginning of the problem. If you think otherwise, consider this:

Imagine that you are a student of the November 2015 (SL) Paper 1 Language and Literature exam. As one of your texts you have a choice to comment on, you have, in its pre-crumpled state, my shopping list from last Saturday (and, no, I have no ‘inside information’).

The text reads: Please buy cucumber, yoghurt (Greek!), lettuce, milk, coffee.

Slightly further down the page, you see, in rather different, apparently firmer handwriting, the word beer.

So, what are the most important contexts that help you – the reader and student under examination – understand this text? Take your time. You have a full 90 minutes and, unlike in some previous exams, this text is pretty short.

Call me thick, but I struggle to know where to begin. One may consider the communicative context; that is the asynchronous, dialogic communicative interaction between two individuals, one of whom wishes the other to do something (in this case, buy groceries). More obviously, one may make sense of the text as an artifact that exists in an economy involving monetary exchange, or see the text as an aide memoire, implicitly recognizing the limitations of human memory. Maybe too, one can speculate, there is something meaningful one can suggest about the genre of list writing. Probably, you have much better ideas than I do, and you may be thinking that, really, I’m not doing all that well.

And maybe I’m not. Nevertheless, I think that whatever contexts one considers relevant here, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to really explain the fundamental contexts that contribute to understanding this text. And the problem, as I see it, is that the text presented here as separate from social life, can in fact only be understood when embedded into the minutiae of actual social engagement and historically constituted human relationships. The best you can do without this very intimate knowledge is to speculate. Such speculation – your method for knowing – is, I would say, a heuristic leap of faith.

And, you may say in reply, that that’s what textual analysis is like. However, as a way of knowing and, here, identifying contexts, it is rather limited.

Suppose you speculate, based on pre-existing mental schemata – or prejudicial stereotypes if you prefer – that the shopping list was written by my wife to me as a reminder to go and buy a few bits and pieces. And, suppose you speculate that I noticed that beer was not on the list, so I added it. And, for argument’s sake, let’s say that you are, so far, right. None of this explains anything about human motivation – which is surely what matters. Perhaps my wife did not include beer on the list because she hopes I will lose weight. Perhaps she has more general concerns about my beer drinking habits and my health. She may not, of course, even be thinking of my apparent needs, or she simply wishes (being married to a Scotsman) to save some money. Maybe she knows there is already beer in the fridge and if only I would look I would see it, and she remembers too that there is also beer behind the washing machine, a remnant of a forgotten party. Turning to me, why do I want to buy beer? What are my particular motivations?

The problem therefore is that the most important contexts that explain this text exist in the minds of those engaged in this particular communicative exchange; that is, in the minds of the producers and receivers of the text. No amount of textual analysis or preconceived speculation, divorced from an understanding of actual human cognition and behaviour can say much about this most significant of explanatory contexts. It’s not that there aren’t other contexts, it’s just that they are hypothetical projections that cannot trump the significance of cognitive impetus.  In other words, in your exam, you may speculate about the influence of context on meaning, but you’ll be hard pressed to phone me up and ask me why I added beer to my list, and therefore your discussion will be at best partial.

In all of this, do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming that without the contextual knowledge of human cognition – what producers and receivers of texts think – textual analysis becomes impossible. It is just much less complete. Of course, some contexts, ontologically speaking, are just too significant to ignore, as this example (below) illustrates. Listen carefully: Beer gets a mention.




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