Friday, July 08, 2005

thinking about genre

From an article on David Markson (previously mused upon here):
There is no such thing as a great definition of genre. From Aristotle onwards, attempts to describe works of literature in terms of their shared characteristics have been limited to few, yet fundamentally different ideas. Classical genre theory defines genre in terms of regulations and prescriptions, whereas modern genre theory attempts to avoid hierarchies, genre being a matter which can only be described, for example, by identifying a set of structures in a given work. Genre however, whether purely regulated, prescribed, or described, is performative of its own mode of existence. We could say that genre manifestations occur in two modes: monologic and dialogic. When monologic, genre assumes one of the four most agreed upon manifestations: epic, lyric, dramatic, or satiric. These four, like the monologue, are most powerful when they are indicative of an inner form. On the other hand, when genre is dialogic, in the sense that the inner form of a dramatic structure enters a dialogue, for example, with a satirical element, the inner form assumes an outer expression, such as we may have in an instance of what is called dramatic irony (Empson, 1973: 38). We have a case of dramatic irony when the narrator makes direct recourse to the reader's participation in the events, for instance when the character is portrayed in a situation which to the character her/himself seems heroic, and the reader is told beforehand that there are other solutions. The character's actions are thus rendered pathetic. And most often the reader's participation is manifested in the reaction: "how stupid, the idiot is doing the wrong thing!" At this point then we can say that genre enters a self-reflexive mode, is marked by the plurality inherent in dialogism and becomes a definition of writing which is addressed to nobody. Now, this assumption is problematic in the context where genre, although considered the most culturally and historically located of categories, is also seen as fixed in the sense that it is representational rather than performative. From Bakhtin onwards genre was extended to represent not just literary forms, but also modes of subjectivity which are seen as transformative interventions in the way genres are being systematized. Emile Benveniste's "shifters" relying on the capacity that pronouns such as "I" have to combine "conjunctions of past usage(s) with present appropriation" (Benveniste, 1971: 291) point to the fact that what is at stake is also the question of how to determine generically forms of subjectivity that are not manifested in genres which are context situated.

I have enormous (if still conflicted) sympathy for what seems to be the desire to both affirm and resist at once that motivates (and often in a contradictory manner?) what might be called "good genre" writing (but is that not still like a good bad movie?)
Update: Or maybe, as John most eloquently says, Make Me Care! (What cruel irony is the current fashion of pronouncing things dead, as if this were a novel gesture! Are Panurge and Pantagruel dead?)

More than "affirm and resist at once"...maybe "good" genre writing is simply identifiable by way of its concern for the question of framing, for negotiating, exposing and in some sense commenting on (transforming, and morally, even!) the processes of framing that often, say, limit our collective, or cultural imagination. Surely some genre writing has been able to re-pose this question in both sensitive and provocative ways?

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