Context: Meet Paratext
I remember, occasionally, the additional layer of context called paratext.
Paratext is the environment in which you’re reading the material: everything outside the text itself. It is the color of the walls of the room you’re in as you’re reading or absorbing something. It’s the weather of the day, it’s the temperature of the air you’re standing in. It’s the brightness of the screen you’re reading this on.
So, when the phrase “context matters” is said, it’s really pointing at something larger. Context is the immediate language-environment in which something is said or written. It is the relation of the paragraph to the sentence, the article to the paragraph, the book to the chapter.
Context matters, but our individual experiences of language are more complex than just the words and punctuation on the page, or syllables spoken into the air.
Poetry, so similar to visual art, can produce a range of reactions, emotions, and memories when consumed in varying settings. A poem about aging can be joyous, celebratory, or light-hearted when imbibed with a certain state of mind. That same poem can feel dim, saddening, and fatalistic when read with other ideas on the mind, with other conversations around death fresh in the mouth.
Context matters, which is why headline reading is a futile endeavor. The written piece is meaningful only when read as a whole, at the least. Larger than just a singular article, other writings from that same writer lend more meaning to any singular piece of writing. No writer’s works exist in a bubble.
In the age of videos and podcasts, it’s important to maintain this discipline. Reach further into a ‘creators’ works. Experience more largely their cannon.
Writers are not singular monoliths presenting one representation of the world, but more often represent shifting ideologies over time. This is easiest to witness in musicians, whose albums rarely remain musically consistent, but change and take new shapes as time advances.
Nirvana’s first album resembles nothing of Nevermind. Drum tracks on Dave Grohl’s latest songs are similar, however, to Nirvana tracks recorded in the 90’s. The content of his lyrics are a world apart from Cobain’s, informed by changing societal factors and politics of this day.
Listening to “In Bloom” today feels nothing like what hearing that song in my teens felt like. The paratext of that song for me today is vastly different. Many emotional, intellectual, and psychological factors that have changed over the last fifteen years allow me to hear this song, including covers of it, with a different focus. My enjoyment of it now is focused on the production of the music itself, the musicality and rhythm of the lyrics and how the whole comes together to earn its reputation of ‘iconic’.
In poetry, we have Federico García Lorca to look to. The shifting emphasis of his poems span the experience of the Spanish lore of flamenco lyricism to the personal struggles of a foreign poet in a grim-ridden, desperate New York City.
In marketing, the packaging of a product is as important as the quality of the product itself. I have received quality products in what I’d call ‘baggies’, and they worked as advertised, but those visual and tactile additions to the unboxing experience in other products did have me thinking (experiencing) ‘this is cooler’. Those added elements in the opening of something bought are also paratext. It’s the lining of the box with colors and words. It’s the feel of the cardboard. It all counts.
The color of the cover of that book is part of its paratext. The foreword, blurb, dedications are all paratext. What you ate for breakfast today before reading this is also paratext, in my opinion.
This also explains why we occasionally encounter some people with whom no conversation can be had about a given topic. Our greater (life) contexts are so vastly different, there are no common anchor points to be able to return to in agreement.
And that’s fine. I wish I could converse with the pines in the forest, but we are so vastly different this can never happen. I’ll settle for the exotic exchanges I have with domestics pets and admire birdsong.
So, as a practice I admit is no simple task, take into consideration your greater context. It’s more than a stimulating sentence. It’s often your state of being, your environment, your social circle, etc. There is so much more to enjoying good (or hating bad) writing or readings than we immediately realize.
Where are you hearing this? How are you feeling when reading this? Are you noise-sensitive in a subway right now?
If you choose to take on this kind of self-reflection, do not censor yourself in any way. Rather, do the opposite and allow yourself to witness your own reactions to things written or said that may be foreign to you or opposite to your preferred thoughts on a matter.
As a former headline writer, I can tell you headlines are written to garner attention. The same goes for the opening paragraph of almost any piece of writing online. Go deeper, and deeper again, and the truth of what is being presented to you will reveal itself, often as dull writing, but occasionally fascinating reporting, narrative, or auditory tales of life experiences.
Read in a different room, wearing different clothes, with dirty hair, with cheap jewelry. Pay attention to how these variables make the syllables and the music of some writing dance or pray or bring pity.
One song I loved three years ago, heard just the other day in the comfort of a hammock under a full moon in a consistent rain (pure comfort to me) brought me a sense of guilt and shame. We change and so do our associations with words. Revisit loved works, loved articles, favored ideas in new ways and challenge your ideas.
We are our environment, and we extend into the things we consume. Consuming those things in novel ways might just, if we are keen, bring new interpretations and solutions to nagging issues.