American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10


Peter Conn
Thomas Crow
Barbara Jeanne Fields
Ernest S. Frerichs
Sabine MacCormack
Richard Rorty
Catharine R. Stimpson

Texts, Contexts, and Contingency

David Hollinger
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

I suspect that we historians have more to learn about texts and contexts from our colleagues in literature and philosophy than we can offer in return, but one thing we historians can offer, I believe, is an acute awareness of the contested character of contexts. Historians have no monopoly on this insight. But the insight may come more easily to us, who have always addressed texts in relation to contexts and are accustomed to worrying about just what constitutes the salient context in the case of a given text. Scholars in other callings for whom “the context” is an exciting new discovery may be too quick to assume they know what the context is. Perhaps my remarks should be entitled, with apologies to Stanley Fish, “Is There A Context in This Class?”

I want to identify and to comment briefly upon certain conventions by which humanistic scholars construct “contexts,” especially when talking about canons and curriculum. I want in particular to talk about those conventions which have attracted the most notice from newspaper reporters, student groups, academic administrators, and government officials such as William Bennett and Lynne Cheney.

The conventions I have in mind have to do with the categories of race, gender, ethnicity, and class position. To classify an author in terms of these categories is one way to construct a context. A construction of just this sort is often implied when calls are made for more attention to works written by blacks, females, arabs, or workers. It is the author’s membership in groups denoted by one or more of these labels that is presumed to define the “context” of his or her work. If the work were autonomous from such contexts, the point of asking for more black voices, more female voices, etc., would diminish, because the voices in the texts would be less resoundingly black, less resoundingly female, etc. Hence the debates over canon and curriculum that swirl around us do translate with very little remainder into the terms of text and context.

A convenient and close-to-home example of this easy translation is the ongoing exchange between the leadership of the National Endowment for the Humanities and scholars informally authorized by the American Council of Learned Societies. The NEH’s document of September 1988, The Humanities in America, repeatedly invokes a contrast between the universal human “truths that pass beyond time and circumstances” on the one hand, and on the other, “the accidents of class, race, and gender.” It is the latter which constitute, for the NEH “the context.” In a response made under the aegis of the ACLS in an Occasional Paper of early this year, Speaking for the Humanities, George Levine and his co-authors treat as a quaint conceit Lynne Cheney’s affirmation of timeless wisdom, but they largely accept Cheney’s understanding of what it means to take time and circumstance into account. Race, gender, and class define example after example as the ACLS scholars point to the inevitability of ideological particularism, and as they espouse cultural pluralism. This same sense of what “context” really means informs the most recent contribution to the exchange, Lynne Cheney’s rejoinder to the ACLS bunch, as published in the February 8, 1989 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education and as mailed to the participants in this ACLS-sponsored conference with the cordial compliments of the NEH. If you’ve read that little statement, you may have noticed that Cheney affirms context-free “transcendent truths,” to which she contrasts the perspectives of gender, race, and class.

Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to be stupid enough to deny that these social categories are enormously important. I certainly don’t think they are mere “accidents.” It is easy to document the power of color, ethnicity, gender, and class in differentially constraining and enabling individuals, especially in determining the extent of their civil rights and their education. And it is easy to find in many texts the marks of these differentials and of the struggles attendant upon them. The study of them has been, on the whole, a great advance in humanistic scholarship. But I do believe that some people are taking too much for granted when it comes to constructing contexts out of these differentials. The problem is not that too much attention is being paid to context instead of to the universal humanity ostensibly found in great texts; the problem is in the privileging of certain contextual elements at the expense of others, and the presumption that any feature of a text that appeals beyond the lines of gender, color, class, and ethnicity must be context-free.

The privileging to which I refer can happen in regard to texts written by white males, as when it is observed portentously that Newton’s Optics was white and male, but it more often happens when the author of a text is female, dark-skinned, or associated with a recognized ethnic group. Surely there is a double standard, similar to the one criticized by Barbara Fields in her well-known commentary on prevailing conceptions of race.

Fields complained of the convention “that considers a white woman capable of giving birth to a black child but denies that a black woman can give birth to a white child.” A little blackness can go a long way toward putting a person in one race rather than another. Hasn’t the same way of thinking been applied to texts? We might paraphrase Barbara’s sardonic observation by asking, Do we consider black authors to be capable of writing texts that speak in a “voice” that isn’t “black”? There may be a spectrum of color, but we sometimes divide texts, like people, into distinctive racial categories. We continue to deny the argument made 20 years ago by Albert Murray to the effect that the American “mainstream is not white but mulatto.”

Murray’s heuristic provocation about American culture has the virtue of directing our attention to the contingent, mixed-up, dynamic character of the contexts that generate what are often called “black culture” and “women’s culture” and “worker’s culture” and “chicano culture,” and “elite culture,” or, as it is more often put, “hegemonic white male culture.” In the name of cultural pluralism these cultures are being absolutized, and to each is being implicitly attributed a comparable structure so that each may be glued into the static mosaic we are told must replace the melting pot. This threatens to leave out “the syncretistic nature of so much of American . . . life;” Werner Sollors has warned. “Instead of accepting the possibility of a text’s many mothers,” Sollors continues, “pluralists often settle for the construction of one immutable grandfather.” Advocates of “the multi-ethnic paradigm,” complains William Boelhower, “now often repeat the essentialist errors of their monocultural predecessors in attempting to trace out a blueprint of clear and distinct and ultimately reified ethnic categories.”

Happily, in my view, there are a number of signs that a post-pluralist, post-particularist perspective on contexts and texts is now coming into being. I have in mind especially some recent writings of the historian Linda Kerber and the critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates’s widely-discussed project of establishing a distinctive canon of African-American literature might seem to be at odds with the drift of my own remarks, but Gates’s book, Figures in Black, and his piece entitled “Whose Canon Is It, Anyway?” in the February 26, 1989 New York Times Book Review, both display a commitment to the more complicated context, to the more complete, messy historicism that I want to uphold against the pristine cultural pluralists on the one hand and against the Bennetts and Cheneys of this world on the other. Gates justifies a black literary tradition not simply on the basis of the color of its authors, but on the basis of analyses of the texts they wrote. He explicitly acknowledges the multi-colored ancestry of his texts, and as an anthologist of black literature he defends a “thoroughly integrated canon of American literature” just as anthologists of American literature as a whole have defended larger, integrated canons of English and of Western literature.

Kerber’s warnings against overdetermination by gender are more pronounced than Gates’s warnings against overdetermination by color. In the June 1988 issue of The Journal of American History, Kerber enters a series of powerful caveats against the idea of separate spheres, especially as expressed in the celebration of a distinctive “women’s culture.” To continue to use even the “language of separate spheres,” Kerber warns, “is to deny the reciprocity between gender and society, and to impose a static model on dynamic relationships.”

Any apparently middle way risks being conflated with one or the other of the positions on either side. The messy historicism I advocate, with its complicated contexts and its refusal to affirm the timelessness of our truths, might be seen by some as an unwitting front for cultural pluralist orthodoxy. Yet this same historicism might be feared for its potential ability to overwhelm with multiplicity and contingency the specific voices that have so recently won the ears of the academic establishment in the United States.

These risks are worth taking in the interests of neutralizing a number of suspicions and counter-suspicions visible in the NEH-ACLS dispute and elsewhere. Beyond these suspicions and counter-suspicions may lie a more thorough-going historicism incorporating the new sensitivity to gender, color, class, and ethnicity while in turn acknowledging the historicity of these very distinctions and while recognizing that human history is not exhausted by their ordinance.