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When kids are learning to read, a good teacher gives them as many tools to use.  Young readers are taught to sound out words they don’t know, words and concepts are repeated, and stories are put into a form that are familiar and warm.  All of these help us even as adults along with one more critical tool – context, a bigger whole than the details that support it.  Context comes from the pictures that support the text, either in a kids’ book or a magazine, but it also comes from the text itself.  It also happens to be something that is fading from our culture altogether in strange and chilling ways.

The word “context” means to “interweave”, with the definition given as “The parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning”.    In other words, it’s a network of connections in the text that allows us to make sense of it.  Understanding an essay or speech often forces us to get into the personality of the person who wrote it, the connections they make to prior work or, if it’s an older piece, the historical time in which it was written.  As surely as words themselves change meaning in English, context can often be tricky to establish.

Without context, statements stand on their own or borrow their meaning.  That’s the nature of the “sound bite”, or small phrase that begs the reader or listener to use a broader cultural context to make sense of what’s being said.  The more we rely on these kinds of phrases, the more we ask people to refer back to something that they already understand rather than enlighten them about a new idea – the “sound bite” is inherently conservative (small “c”) in nature.

We live in a time that is defined by this kind of speech.  What’s dangerous is that it’s happening at a time when there is a tremendous cultural split, meaning that the “sound bite” is always going to exclude one group that doesn’t “get it” right off the bat.  That’s the problem with relying on an outside context.

Ditching context is not just some right-wing trick, however.  The tendency to “re-mix” or “mashup” songs is often a deliberate way of taking a work and putting it into a new context that is completely stripped from what the original author intended.  In that case, there’s an implied context – the general hip-hop or rap scene and the need for new dance music.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  But what this re-work of old work is all about is making a scene or movement tighter and more focused on itself.  It’s also a way of excluding people who don’t get the riff, but it at least has an artistic merit – artists have been riffing off their own scene as long as there have been artists.

Lately, I’ve seen a number of “mashups” of politicians ripped from many speeches over the course of time.  It’s a handy trick that allows the person assembling the piece to place phrases out of context in a way that the original speaker never intended.  It’s also almost always used to make people look dangerous, crazy, or just stupid.  As a person who tries to push the boundaries of our perspective and make new connections,  I’m sure that anyone who wanted to totally diss me could easily go back through Barataria and find many riffs, ripped out of context, that make me sound arrogant, mean, crazy, or one dumb bunny.

These “mashups” and “sound bites” are just the most obvious examples of our political and social speech being ripped from any useful context, however.  What is the context for Balloon Boy while the story was unfolding?  What is the context of most of the stories that you see on the teevee nooze?  How often are stories unfolded in a broader context that allows them to be understood on their own?

We all learn in pretty much the same way we did when we were kids. Context is critical to how we understand our world and get whatever control we need over our lives.  The problem is that context requires either a strong cultural connection or a lot of time to develop.  Rapidly changing times and deep cultural divides are killing the first method, and one-line “sound bites” are obliterating the second.  Without context, people are left in the dark and powerless to understand their own world. That’s not a good thing for a Democracy.

14 thoughts on “Context

  1. Very much agree with you on this concept! In fact, sometimes it worries me when I watch mash-ups on the Daily Show or even news shows that pull together some disparate parts and try to associate them in a twisted way. We do ourselves a disservice when we extract a small piece of something in order to distort or distract from a larger message. I worry about the attention span, particularly of young people, when it comes to digesting a larger argument or thinking critically about what they see & hear. Without context, they are lost. So they must question everything? So we all must question everything. But then trust in our media erodes further. It’s not a good road. We need to figure out how to hold people & institutions accountable when they negate context, and encourage media “consumers” to step back & ask those questions.

  2. I get the feeling that the powers that be don’t want us to make sense of our world. I totally agree that the lack of context is very bad for democracy, but there seem to be a lot of people that are threatened by a real democracy in the first place. Maybe I’m paranoid but it all seems to add up to me.

  3. I totally agree with Janine on this one. I really like the topics you raise here, Erik, but you’re often far too easy on the culprits that are responsible for the mess. I get the sense that you’re pulling your punches.

    If the mainstream media does not give us context to understand what is going on, it is worthless. Maybe we can expect that from politicians, but to give them a free pass to get away with it is disgusting. If they want to know why they are dying they should look at what their job is and do it well.

  4. Wow – that’s a few pointed comments! I didn’t think this would be so hot.

    You know, I do pull my punches at times – guilty as charged. I’m tying to get a new perspective out into the world, and I always believe that it’s going to help get it repeated if I’m not pointing fingers in any one direction.

    That may be wrong. Besides, if you knew me in real life you’d all know I’m a LOT more blunt about things like this. And that I get myself into trouble by saying offensive things nearly constantly. As a writer, I do moderate myself rather dramatically.

    I do not believe that the mainstream media is deliberately trying to make us stupid, but I do think that (like me!) they would rather not offend anyone because their advertisers would be upset. Fox News is not, by most accounts, making money for Rupert Murdoch so I can’t say that their big experiment with slanted coverage has been a success, either – and that’s not lost on the industry.

    I do think that someone has to provide more context if we’re going to make sense of the world. That, to me, is a matter of understanding how things are connected – which will require new perspectives and a LOT of explanation of context. The noise that has to be turned down from 11 to get that word out is a serious problem.

    If I never hear the word “mashup” again – or never see another of these exercises in ripping life out of context – I will be happy. I’ll even fault the otherwise brilliant “Daily Show” for being a major force driving this exercise, too.

    Let’s just all cut it out and demand more from ourselves, our politicos, and our media. I’ll be more blunt now that I’ve described the problem and you guys seem to be on it, OK?

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  6. I think that a lot of people have come to believe that things aren’t supposed to make sense, so what is the point of context? Stuff just happens, is all.

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