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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Genre : a Collection of Provocations and Koans

Posted by Matt Greenfield on 02/06/06 at 09:44 PM

I don’t agree with all of the statements that follow, and they don’t all agree with each other.  But I find them all “good to think with,” as the anthropologists say.

1.  “It might be no bad thing . . . for literary theory as a whole to be reformulated in terms of genre, rather as mathematics was in large part reformulated, earlier this century, in terms of set theory.” Alastair Fowler, “The Future of Genre Theory,” in The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 291-303, cited at p. 296.

2.  “Every true work of art has violated some established kind and upset the ideas of the critics, who have thus been obliged to broaden the kinds, until finally even the broadened kind has proved too narrow, owing to the appearance of new works of art, naturally followed by new scandals, new upsettings, and — new broadenings.” Benedetto Croce, “Criticism of the Theory of Literary and Artistic Kinds,” in Modern Genre Theory, ed. and intr. David Duff (Longman Critical Readers; Essex: Pearson, 2000), pp. 25-28, cited at p. 37.

3.  “Michel Foucault resisted the categories of literary genre because they did not seem to him to represent the divisions in the discourses of knowledge by which man and the cosmos were defined.  But if genres bear within them the marks of identity and the means by which those marks change — the very means by which civilization knows itself and changes its understanding of itself — it is surely significant that genres (not fixed categories, but interacting foci of intelligibility) became overwhelmingly important during a civil war.” Nigel Smith, Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 8.

4. “In arts other than literature, there is far less hostility to the notion of generic schemata than still prevails in literary study.” Rosalie Colie, The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), p. 5.

5. “What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art.  If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence [sic].  What is needed is a vocabulary— a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms.  The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.” Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1966), p. 12.

6. “But it is no coincidence, either, that numerical composition [i.e. “the numerological organization of the triumph”] declined in the eighteenth century, a period when universal harmony came to be imagined in subjective terms, and when kingship lost its cosmic endorsement.  One is tempted to say (in a paradox that would be only apparent) that the more formal the generic convention, the more it depends on social context.” Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 166.

7. “The elegies in Jonsonus Virbius — and most of those in Justa Edouardo King — indicate the growing hegemony of the closed couplet as a dominant metrical form, a development which Jonson had strongly influenced.  This form was to become for the Augustans a symbol of political as well as poetic order; and within five years of the composition of Lycidas Sir John Denham was to make these analogies explicit in ‘Cooper’s Hill’.  Here the couplet signifies the balance and harmony of the constitution, and it disciplines excessive enthusiasm in poetic imagination in much the same way as traditional political and religious forms curb Puritan enthusiasm.” David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (1984; rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 158.

8.  “So powerful is the force field exerted by a royal genre [the central genre of a period], argues Opacki, and so great is its transformative influence, that hybridization should be regarded not as a side effect of the evolutionary process, but as a major cause of it.  Similarly, the proliferation of ‘genre variants’, or ‘hybrids’, is often the clearest indication we have of a shift in the hierarchy of genres, or the establishment of a trend.” David Duff, headnote to Ireneusz Opacki, “Royal Genres,” in Duff, Modern Genre Theory, p. 118.

9.  “Each epoch, each literary trend and literary-artistic style, each literary genre within an epoch or trend, is typified by its own special concepts of the addressee of the literary work, a special sense and understanding of its reader, listener, public, or people.  A historical study of these changes would be an interesting and important task.  But in order to develop it productively, the statement of the problem itself would have to be theoretically clear.” Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres,” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 6th ed., trans. Vern McGee and ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), pp. 60-102, cited at p. 98.


This is a nice list. I’m not sure, however, that “literary theory as a whole to be reformulated in terms of genre,” as I don’t think genre has ever REALLY gone away, or at least it’s been a central concern throughout the 20th century. Bakhtin, Benjamin, Barthes, Jameson, etc… all have important things to say about genre.

I think the most interesting of all of them about is Nigel Smith’s. Foucault’s sort of right, genre aren’t quite “divisions in the discourse of knowledge,” but they’re also not quite NOT that either. Something like them… But it’s the differences that matter. Romance, tragedy, realism, the novel, etc… aren’t exactly analogous to biology, psychology, criminology… To articulate the similarity and difference would be provocative.

Anyway, nice post…

By on 02/06/06 at 11:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmm...Genre criticism makes this medievalist a little nervous, in part because it cuts off large chunks of medieval lit. that don’t fit nicely into genres or that belong to genres that didn’t survive.  (Which then cuts of medieval lit. studies from the rest of lit. studies.) Sure, there’s romance.  And lyric poetry.  But how many non-medievalists think about dream visions? And while I teach The Canterbury Tales as an experiment in genre (among other things) how do you classify some of those ‘genres’ in there?  Just what *is* the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale?  And what do you do with the vast, non-Chaucerian body of equally odd stuff?  Or with the unique items?  And too much attention to genre in the past has forced some things too close together or applied generic labels from other periods awkwardly to only-slightly-similar medieval texts.

Meanwhile, recent moves in medieval scholarship have made the study of whole manuscripts—in all their anthologizing generic messiness—the preferred approach, rather than, say, separating out the lyric poems from the romances from the hagiography.  It’s an approach that says, in part, maybe there’s a method to this seeming miscellaneous madness.

So, yeah, color me uneasy.  That said, nice work on collecting the quotes!

By Dr. Virago on 02/07/06 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been advocating for a work which has been ignored partly because it doesn’t fit a genre. Menina e Moca, a Portuguese fictional work, seems like it’s either a romance of chivalry or a pastoral romance. Right to start off, people who don’t likethose genres don’t like it. But it’s not a very good example of either, so romance buffs don’t especially like it either.

Someone suggested “sentimental romance”, but unfortunately this genre only had two published examples, Menina e Moca and something by Petrarch.

I’ve proposed putting into an early-modern niche with Don Quixote, Rabelais, Quevedo, Montaigne, etc., but these don’t form a genre. I even was going to throw in Descartes and Pascal.

Maybe “early modern sui generis genre” would do it.

By John Emerson on 02/07/06 at 01:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Genre as World System:
Epic and Novel on Four Continents


What would literary history look like if the field were divided, not into discrete periods, and not into discrete bodies of national literatures? What other organizing principles might come into play? And how would they affect the mapping of “literature” as an analytic object: the length and width of the field; its lines of filiation, lines of differentiation; the database needed in order to show significant continuity or significant transformation; and the bounds of knowledge delineated, the arguments emerging as a result?

In this essay, I propose one candidate to begin this line of rethinking: the concept of literary genre. Genre, of course, is not a new concept; in fact, it is as old as the recorded history of humankind. Even though the word itself is of relatively recent vintage (derived from French, in turn derived from the Latin genus),1 the idea that there are different kinds of literature (or at least different kinds of poetry) came from ancient Greece. Traditionally it has been seen as a classifying principle, putting the many subsets of literature under the rule of normative sets.

NARRATIVE, Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 2006), pp. 84-101

By Bill Benzon on 02/07/06 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Virago.
It seems that’s an unnecessary quibble. Dream visions, mystery plays, &c. as genres, lose nothing from their being closed at both ends. Instead, like any other genre, a dormant one’s importance comes from their position in the historical field of literature, and the way in which they shape that field, and the direction it forces literature to take. Even assuming a genre wholly cut off from the body of literature generally, and with no discernable effect on it, the island genre would still provoke the useful question among critics as to how the isolation came about, and what that says about genres that appear to be more historically central.

While historical genre study does not preclude manuscript-by-manuscript, work-by-work analysis, it provides its own perspective and lessons, and should be admitted as coequal to other methods.

On the other hand, if the only reason to study the Romance of the Rose is in expectation of finding a similar work in the twenty-first century to go to work on, then yes, I understand the trepidation to follow genre. I just don’t believe genre studies do or should contain the kind of exclusionary principle you fear.

By on 02/07/06 at 11:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, the Dimock quotation is a nice addition to my (our?) collection. Given the strong presentism of so many Americanists, it is fascinating and wonderful to see Dimock thinking about Homer and Dante.

Dr. Virago, I sympathize with your suspicions, but I think that the thing that you are suspicious of is BAD genre theory.  I urge you to look at chapters nine and ten of Fowler’s Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes.  Good genre theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.  Fowler talks very interestingly about anthologies (and other aggregations of smaller genres): many genres, like various species of anthology, are assembled from smaller ones.  The eclecticism of the anthologies you describe is a prominent feature of their generic repertoire.  I think a good genre theorist will have plenty to say about those compilations.  And they are certainly distinct from many other kinds of surviving manuscripts: parish records, legal documents, psalters, and individual letters, to name just a few.  To paraphrase the great genre theorist Rosalie Colie, one rarely confuses jails with banks or airport terminals. 

Good genre theory has to be able to deal with generic mixture, the invention of new genres, and unrepeatable generic freaks and monstrosities (which I am especially interested in).  Every literary work and (as Bakhtin pointed out in his work on speech genres) every other communicative act can profitably be examined through the lens of genre theory.

I also think that you are wrong about the importance of the dream vision for early modern and modern literature.  I have myself written on Milton’s use of dream vision conventions and the word “methought,” a key generic indicator, in Paradise Lost.  And there is a splendid essay by Eleanor Cook called “Methought as Dream Formula in Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and Others.” It is in her book Against Coercion: Games Poets Play (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998).

John, you are making a crucial point: evaluations of literary merit frequently err because critics assign a work to the wrong genre and then castigate the work for failing to conform to the norms of that genre.  But the antidote to this misbehavior is not to abandon genre theory: that would make us even more vulnerable to errors of this kind.  What we need, again, is a BETTER genre theory: more flexible, more capacious, and more sensitive.

By on 02/07/06 at 12:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On flexibility in categorization, see:

Richardson, Alan. “British Romanticism as a Cognitive Category.” Romanticism On the Net 8 (November 1997).

British Romanticism as a Cognitive Category

Alan Richardson

How does canonical Romanticism constitute its “others,” and to what extent has the category “British Romanticism” resisted wholesale incorporation of these “others,” even in a period of widespread canon revision? In pursuing these questions, I find myself in fundamental agreement with Laura Mandell, who analyzes the resistance of British Romanticism to fundamental change in her recent essay “Canons Die Hard,” remarking in passing on the “unconscious” kind of canonizing that goes on in the heads both of anthologists and of the classroom teachers for whom they anthologize. However, I wish to pursue the notion of an “unconscious” sort of canonizing in a quite different manner, drawing on the growing body of research that seeks to elucidate our largely nonconscious repertoire of scripts and models, concepts and categories. Discussions of how British Romanticism has conventionally been defined and delimited have made surprisingly little use of the large body of research and theory on categorization and cognition that has appeared over the past twenty-five years, and yet a cognitive approach may have much to tell us about the endurance of canonical British Romanticism and the manner in which canon revision—at least in relation to this field—has tended to proceed.

Cognitive categorization theory departs decisively from the classical notion of firmly bounded categories based on necessary and sufficient criteria, as well as from the structuralist variation of the classical approach that emphasizes binary oppositions within a self-contained semiotic system. (1) The cognitive approach builds instead upon Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” categories, predicated not on universally shared criteria but instead on a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing,” allowing for category members that may have no elements in common but that each overlap with certain other “examples.” Wittgenstein displaces the all or nothing demand of the classical approach with a tolerance for fuzzy boundaries or, as he puts it in Philosophical Investigations, “blurred edges.” (2) Cognitive theorists like Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff seek in addition to account for the predominantly “automatic and unconscious” human tendency to base categories on “prototypical examples” or “cognitive reference points,” such that (in contradistinction to the classical view) some members of a category will strike category users as “better” examples than others. (3) This tendency has been replicated using artificial neural network learning programs and has been empirically demonstrated in human subjects many times and across numerous cultures (though the categories themselves, as opposed to the mode of categorization, remain culture-specific). English speakers in the U.S. will consistently choose a robin as a “better” or more prototypical example of a bird than, say, a vulture or a turkey (not to mention a penguin); a chair or table will reliably seem a better example of the category “furniture” than a chest or a lamp.

. . . . and so on . . . . .

By Bill Benzon on 02/07/06 at 12:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It may very well be that “Menina and Moca” belongs to no genre. It’s at the tail end of one thing (premodern romance of various kinds) and the beginning of something else (modernity and doubt; the lying God), but the new things don’t form a genre, and M&M had no influence or heirs.

When I was young critics would talk about “true novels”, meaning realistic novels, and things that didn’t quite fit (Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick) had some sort of damaged status.

For another reason why I don’t like genre theory: a dominant genre when I was young was the “coming-of-age novel” about a young man’s first sexual experience and his tortured relationship with his father. That field was saturated (with ethnic niches for Jews, Wasps, black, Catholic, Southern, but not Hispanic as far as I remember), and I can understand why people, including myself, went on to other things. This all might be interesting to a genre theorist, but to me the question really should be, “Are any of these books still readable for someone not at all interested in that genre?”

My answer is “Yes, ‘Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison”. I don’t like the genre, and he was misclassified as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve said before that I don’t see the superiority of the explanatory, non-normative, study of literature, and the consensus here, as far as I can tell, is that I’m full of shit on that question. If my trolling is appreciated, though, someone should say so.

By John Emerson on 02/07/06 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Literary history tends to focus on great works, and this emphasis tends to make the classics appear to be far more original and ideosyncratic than they did at the time of their first appearance. The sovereign despotism of genre only becomes clear when you read the highly forgetable writings that were the contemporary context of the famous books. Whether any amount of theoretical insight is worth the suffering involved in reading off-brand sonnets and 19th Century pot boilers is an open question, however.

By Jim Harrison on 02/07/06 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But how many non-medievalists think about dream visions?

Well I guess the answer to my rhetorical question is: at least one, Matt Greenfield!  :) Seriously, thanks, Matt, for educating me.  And I think you’re right that I’m worried about BAD genre theory, especially the kind that can trickle down into the classroom.  (Ugh. In fact, an older colleague suggested we reorganize our major in terms of genre.  In *that* case I’m pretty sure there would be no “dream vision” class unless it was a special topics class.) So yeah, that’s what makes me a little nervous.  And that speaks to Dunno’s response, too—yes, perhaps I’m quibbling, but sometimes BAD genre theory does lead to exclusion, though as you point out, good genre theory doesn’t have to.

But may I still be permitted to shudder a little at the thought of bad genre theory?

By Dr. Virago on 02/07/06 at 07:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My favorite poem—Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”—was published with with “A Vision in a Dream” as an addendum to the title. And STC—as he liked to style himself, punning on ecstasy—certainly liked reading ancient and curious lore. I wonder if he saw that poem through dream vision conventions. I have no idea whether or not that’s been covered in the literature. Well, it’s not been covered in the literature I know, but I’ve not kept up with that literature.

As for BAD genre theory . . . . Genre is typically treated as a matter of classification. Perhaps not mere classification, but classification nonetheless. And our intellectual tradition has a bias toward what I think of as essentialist classification. In such a classification system, everything has one and only one proper place. A given object cannot be a proper member of two classes. I think that prejudice needs to be put in limbo. It’s not at all obvious to me that it holds true for literature.

What’s important about a classification system is that it reflect the causal forces operating on a set of objects. Whatever the causal forces operating in the literary system, it’s not at all obvious to me that they yield an essentialist set of products.

By Bill Benzon on 02/07/06 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Virago, I myself shudder at the approach of bad, essentialist, ahistorical genre criticism, and I am very happy when others do, too.  The worst sort of enemy is a demonic parody of oneself.

By the way, a grad school classmate of mine is writing a book on dreams in early modern literature.  Her name is Jennifer Lewin, and she published a wonderful chapter of it in Shakespeare Studies. 

Jim Harrison, I personally find that even the most incompetent works written in the early modern period are always fascinating in their own way.  But I don’t feel the same way about mediocre Victorian novels. 

John Emerson, I don’t think I disagree with you at all.  I urge you to look at the tenth chapter of Alastair Fowler’s Kinds of Literature; I suspect you will find it useful and even inspiring for your work on Menina and Moca.  It will help you think about the way Eminem (if I may call it that) was assembled from materials from several genres, some of those materials used in new ways.

Bill, I couldn’t agree more.  I am attached to the idea of genres as essentially toolkits, with writers not only using the tools to assemble different sorts of object but also adding and subtracting tools from the kit, using the tools in new ways, and even merging two separate toolkits.

By on 02/07/06 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . genres as essentially toolkits . . .


By Bill Benzon on 02/07/06 at 10:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that the causal forces operating on literary objects are of very moderate interest. I don’t understand the excitement at all.

By John Emerson on 02/07/06 at 11:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I enjoyed Kinds of Literature, but “might be no bad thing” is weasel language for a weasel thought. Speaking as a certified mathematician, “in large part” is not the same as “as a whole,” and “literary theory” does not bear the same relationship to its subject matter as mathematics does to its.

From 1996, based on conversations with active genre participants, and I’d still stand by it.

By Ray Davis on 02/08/06 at 01:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me, John, that “normative” criticism and “explanatory” criticism are two different beasts, doing different intellectual jobs. They aren’t competitors for the same job. If one of those jobs doesn’t interest you, then it doesn’t.

By Bill Benzon on 02/08/06 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In recent threads the superiority of explanatory criticism seems to have been advocated. I could dig up quotes but I’m not imagining things. I am not the only one making comparisons here.

In practice, opportunity cost is always a factor in academic life, and various sorts of explanatory paradigms are already dominant in most of the university. English and foreign language departments (i.e. “literature") are among the few refuges of non-explanatory scholarship. So those of us who value the possibility of the alternative approaches tend to be a bit prickly about our remaining little patch of turf.

By John Emerson on 02/08/06 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What is with the comparision of reformulating on the basis of genre to reformulating on the basis of set theory? I don’t think the analogy makes sense if examined at a meaningful level.

By on 02/09/06 at 12:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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