“”Context Stinks!””

The title of this post is a quotation of the title of a 2011 article by Rita Felski that appeared in the journal New Literary History. Already set in quotation in the original, Felski’s title is itself a quotation from Bruno Latour, himself quoting Rem Koolhaas:

As Rem Koolhaas said, “context stinks.” It’s simply a way of stopping the description when you are tired or too lazy to go on. (Latour, p. 148)

Of course, Koolhaas is not famous for saying “context stinks,” but instead the more direct, “fuck context” (p. 502).

Whatever the exact phrasing one might wish to use, the sentiment remains the same: across the various disciplines represented as the quotation has moved (literary criticism (Felski), sociology (Latour), architecture (Koolhaas)), the question and importance of context remains a persistent complication. What is interesting for us in particular, is that in tracing the movement of this quote from one source to another, it (and the attendant antagonism toward the idea of context) cuts a path through areas that, in various ways, map out a terrain of concern for ambient literature. Whether in their literary nature, the social forms and habits they engage, or the way that they address the built environment around us, these are works are are bothered, in some way, by the question of context and the wide mandate that such a question engages.

In her article, Felski lays out a reconsideration of the idea and importance of context in literature. While her aim in the article seems largely to introduce a Latourian reading of actor-network theory to literary studies, her intervention is particularly interesting in the ways that, with no intention of her own, her text points toward a cluster of aims found in works of ambient literature as they engage various contextual determinations.

Building her argument for a reappraisal of how we should understand the various contexts which guide our understanding of what might be considered canonical literary texts, Felski is not concerned with ideas of ubiquitous computing, locative narrative, electronic literature, or any of the other touchstones that ground our current project. For Felski, the importance of context is in the tension that exists between the work of literature itself and the historical frame within which it is understood. As Felski puts it, “[w]e cannot close our eyes to the historicity of artworks, and yet we sorely need alternatives to seeing them as transcendentally timeless on the one hand, and imprisoned in their moment of origin on the other” (p. 575). In this, there is a concern for how the context of a work’s creation comes to implicate our understanding of the textual object of the work and how that object comes to serve as the locus for this history.

What this sets up for ambient literature is to press us to think about the way in which these kinds of works rely on the context not only of their authorship and the issues invoked in our contemporary moment, but also rely on the contexts of their reception. These works are neither defined best by their historical moment or by the object that they are, but by the way that this particular historical moment is able to result in literary artifacts which actively engage the context of their reception. As much as It Must Have Been Dark By Then responds to issues of climate change and land use, or as Breathe engages our response to migration, they each do so in a way which refactors the context of their initial composition into the present as they exist in the hands of readers. The span of the question of the historical context within which these works are understood is expansive and variable. They are works which deliberately incorporate mechanisms which, while not eradicating it entirely, at least complicate the question of how to place the context of the work, as it exists as an object within history. They function, as Felski says in describing Latourian agents, as “not just channels for conveying predetermined meanings, but configure and refigure these meanings in specific ways” (p. 583).

In developing this perspective of context, Felski highlights the agency that works of literature have, as objects, through an account of Bruno Latour’s version of Actor-Network Theory. They are not just works that sit back for us to read, but instead “only survive and thrive by making friends, creating allies, attracting disciples, inciting attachments, latching on to receptive hosts” (p. 584). In this, texts can be understood to be “actors” (or “actants,” depending on your preferred level of anthropomorphism or anti-humanism), themselves playing a role in the creation and implications of their context:

An actor, in this schema, is anything that modifies a state of affairs by making a difference. Nonhuman actors do not determine reality or single-handedly make things happen — let us steer well clear of technological or textual determinism. And yet, as Latour points out, there are “many metaphysical shades between full causality and sheer inexistence,” between being the sole source of an action and being utterly inert and without influence. The “actor” in actor-network theory is not a self-authorizing subject, an independent agent who summons up actions and orchestrates events. Rather, actors only become actors via their relations with other phenomena, as mediators and translators linked in extended constellations of cause and effect. (Felski, p. 582-583)

For Felski, in keeping account of the gap that exists between those who would want to understand literature historically and those who would address the formal aspects of a work, this perspective complicates the terms of the divide:

From the standpoint of actor-network theory, as we are starting to see, neither perspective holds water. The glory of the “text” is not to be defended by rescuing it from the slavering jaws of “context.” There is no zero-sum game in which one side must be conclusively crushed so that the other can triumph. (p. 584)

Without having any intention toward (or perhaps even awareness of) the kinds of issues that have propelled the present development of ambient literature, Felski manages to lay out a way to think about these kinds of works when she says “that art’s autonomy — if by autonomy we mean its distinctiveness and specialness — does not rule out connectedness but is the very reason that connections are forged and sustained ” (Felski, p. 584). As has been discussed elsewhere, it is the entanglement with the presence of the reader that makes a work of ambient literature what it is. These are works that, compelled by the algorithms and systems that support them, actively engage the reader in a way that makes the agency of texts that is normally difficult to recognize explicit. As Felski puts it, in asserting the agency of literary texts in general:

The significance of a text is not exhausted by what it reveals or conceals about the social conditions that surround it. Rather, it is also a matter of what it makes possible in the viewer or reader — what kind of emotions it elicits, what perceptual changes it triggers, what affective bonds it calls into being. (p. 585)

Works of ambient literature, in their explicit and conscious engagement of both the social conditions of their reception and the feedback loop that is initiated by the presence of the reader as they navigate through a landscape or interact with their phone play with this concern for context as laid out by Felski. Without meaning to describe it, the argument that Felski lays out sets up some of the key concerns of ambient literature. That is, her own text displays its autonomy is being able to be picked up here, by us, and be received and read in new ways that stand apart from the historical grounding of its composition.

In developing her argument, Felski cites the work of Tony Bennett, whose concept of “reading formations” highlights the various and sometimes complex assemblages of factors which influence our reading practices. How texts are read is defined by the matrix shaped by the text itself, the social frameworks within which they exist, as well as (and perhaps most importantly), the “cultural frameworks and interpretive vocabularies we have unconsciously absorbed” (Felski, p. 586).

What Felski highlights in Bennett’s account is, however, that in tracing out a more nuanced picture of the reception of literary works, the influence of this formation is not a one way street:

While we indisputably learn to read literary texts by internalizing particular interpretative vocabularies, by the same token we learn to read and make sense of our lives by referencing fictional or imaginary worlds. What counts as text and what serves as frame is more mutable and fluid than Bennett allows; works of art occupy both categories rather than only one; they are not just objects to be interpreted, but also reference points and guides to interpretation, in both predictable and less foreseeable ways. (p. 587)

It is exactly this sentiment that is internalized both tacitly and explicitly in the commissioned works of ambient literature: The travels that are narratively present in It Must Have Been Dark By Then refract off of readers’ own travels and vice versa; the interactive paradigms of Breathe write themselves onto the experience of the reader. They are works which bind literature to our lives in a similar (though less ostentatious) manner as alternate reality gaming binds players’ lives to the game world: it becomes pervasively ingrained within the social patternings of our lives. Where an alternate reality fictions might demand space in a reader’s life, works of ambient literature only as for a dip into the world of the user. Like Felski’s claim for the reflexive role of literature in general, works of ambient literature directly and consciously place the normally restricted economy of the text into play as part of a more general economy of social exchange.

For works of ambient literature, it is the context of the work itself, both situated and literary, that comes to be engaged in the works. Like in Felski’s account, these are works that enroll a wide variety of cultural and physical conditions in the presentation and life of the work.

— Michael Marcinkowski


Bennett, Tony. 1985. “Texts in History: The Determination of Readings and their Texts,” The Journal of the Mid-West Modern Language Association 18(1) .

Felski, Rita. 2011. “‘Context Stinks!’” New Literary History 42 (4). 573–91.

Koolhaas, Rem, and B. Mau. 1995. “Bigness or the Problem of Large.” In S,M,L,XL. New York: The Monacelli Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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