Genre theory  

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"A number of perennial doubts plague genre theory. Are genres really 'out there' in the world, or are they merely the constructions of analysts? Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite? Are genres timeless Platonic essences or ephemeral, time-bound entities? Are genres culture-bound or transcultural?... Should genre analysis be descriptive or proscriptive?' (Robert Stam 2000, 14) via Daniel Chandler, [1]


It can be argued that all novels, no matter how "literary", also fall within the bounds of one or more genres. Thus Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a romance; Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller; and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story. These novels would usually be stocked in the general or possibly the classics section of a bookstore. Indeed, many works now regarded as literary classics were originally written as genre novels. --Sholem Stein

 A simple example of the inherent meaning in an art form is that of a western film where two men face each other on a dusty and empty road; one dons a black hat, the other white. Independent of any external meaning, there is no way to tell what the situation might mean, but due to the long development of the "western" genre, it is clear to the informed audience that they are watching a gunfight showdown between a good guy and a bad guy.
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A simple example of the inherent meaning in an art form is that of a western film where two men face each other on a dusty and empty road; one dons a black hat, the other white. Independent of any external meaning, there is no way to tell what the situation might mean, but due to the long development of the "western" genre, it is clear to the informed audience that they are watching a gunfight showdown between a good guy and a bad guy.
Genre painting as the nobrow expression of Old Masters.Illustration: The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck
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Genre painting as the nobrow expression of Old Masters.
Illustration: The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Genre theory is a structuralist approach to literary theory, film theory, and other cultural theories. It is related to narratology. In genre studies, genre is often contrasted to originality. Like in any taxonomic structure, boundaries are vague. To take an example from the literary category it can be argued that all novels, no matter how "literary", also fall within the bounds of one or more genres. Thus Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a romance; Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller; and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story. These novels would usually be stocked in the general or possibly the classics section of a bookstore. Indeed, many works now regarded as literary classics were originally written as genre novels.

Contents

History of Genre Theory/Evolution

Genre theory or genre studies got underway with the Greeks. The Greeks felt that the type of person an author was would be directly responsible for the type of poetry they wrote. The Greeks also believed that certain metrical forms were suited only to certain genres. Aristotle said, "We have, then, a natural instinct for representation and for tune and rhythm- and starting with these instincts men very gradually developed them until they produced poetry out of their improvisations. Poetry then split into two kinds according to the poet's nature. For the more serious poets represented the noble deeds of noble men, while those of a less exalted nature represented the actions of inferior men, at first writing satire just as the others wrote hymns and eulogies." This is all based on Plato's mimetic principle. Exalted people will, in imitation of exaltation, write about exalted people doing exalted things, and vice versa with the "lower" types (Farrell, 383).

Genre was not a black-and-white issue even for Aristotle, who recognized that though the ‘’Iliad’’ is an epic it can be considered a tragedy, as well, because of its tone and the nobility of its characters. However, most of the Greek critics were less acutely aware, if aware at all, of the inconsistencies in this system. For these critics, there was no room for ambiguity in their literary taxonomy because these categories were thought to have innate qualities that could not be disregarded.

The Romans carried on the Greek tradition of literary criticism. The Roman critics were quite happy to continue on in the assumption that there were essential differences between the types of poetry and drama. There is much evidence in their works that Roman writers themselves saw through these ideas and understood genres and how they function on a more advanced level. However, it was the critics who left their mark on Roman literary criticism, and they were not innovators.

After the fall of Rome, when the scholastic system took over literary criticism, genre theory was still based on the essential nature of genres. This is most likely because of Christianity's affinity for Platonic concepts. This state of affairs persisted until the 18th century.

At the end of the 18th century, the theory of genre based on classical thought began to unravel beneath the intellectual chafing of the Enlightenment. The introduction of the printing press brought texts to a larger audience. Then pamphlets and broadsides began to diffuse information even farther, and a greater number of less privileged members of society became literate and began to express their views. Suddenly authors of both "high" and "low" culture were now competing for the same audience. This worked to destabilize the classical notions of genre, while still drawing attention to genre because new genres like the novel were being generated (Prince, 455).

Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), had reduced data to its smallest part: the simple idea derived from sense. However, as the science of cognition became more precise it was shown that even this simple idea derived from sense was itself divisible. This new information prompted David Hartley to write in his Observation on Man (1749), "How far the Number of Orders may go is impossible to say. I see no Contradiction in supposing it infinite, and a great Difficulty in stopping at any particular Size" (Prince, 456). The possibility of an infinite number of types alarmed theologians of the time because their assumption was that rigorously applied empiricism would uncover the underlying divine nature of creation, and now it appeared that rigorously applied empiricism would only uncover an ever growing number of types and subsequent sub-types.

In order to re-establish the divine in categorization, the new taxonomical system of aesthetics arose. This system offered first beauty, and then the sublime as the taxonomical device. The problem with Aesthetics was that it assumed the divine and thus the sublime must underlie all these categories, and thus, the ugly would become beautiful at some point. The paradox is glaring.

Ever since the late 18th century literary critics have been trying to find a theory of genre that would be more commensurate with the realities of individual texts within genres. The evolution of genre took many twists and turns through the 19th and 20th centuries. It was heavily influenced by the deconstructionist thought and the concept of relativity. In 1980, the instability engendered by these two new modes of thought came to a head in a paper written by Jacques Derrida titled, "The Law of Genre." In the article Derrida first articulates the idea that individual texts participate in rather than belong to certain genres. He does this by demonstrating that the "mark of genre" is not itself a member of a genre or type. Thus, the very characteristic that signifies genre defies classification. However, at the end of this essay, Derrida hints at what might be a more fruitful direction for genre theory. "There, that is the whole of it, it is only what 'I,' so that say, here kneeling at the edge of literature, can see. In sum, the law. The law summoning: what 'I' can sight and what 'I' can say that I sight in this site of a recitation where I/we is" (Derrida, 81). By which Derrida means that not only is taxonomy a subjective sport, but due to this very fact, the place and time the taxonomical act takes place deserves further study.

Then, in 1986, Ralph Cohen published a paper in response to Derrida's thoughts titled "History and Genre." In this article Cohen argued that "genre concepts in theory and in practice arise, change, and decline for historical reasons. And since each genre is composed of texts that accrue, the grouping is a process, not a determinate category. Genres are open categories. Each member alters the genre by adding, contradicting, or changing constituents, especially those of members most closely related to it. The process by which genres are established always involves the human need for distinction and interrelation. Since the purposes of critics who establish genres vary, it is self-evident that the same texts can belong to different groupings of genres and serve different generic purposes" (Cohen, 204). This approach to genre theory is the one most widely practiced today.

When a medium is prefixed by genre-

When a medium is prefixed by the term genre- as in genre painting, genre film and genre fiction this usually has a derogatory connotation. The fact that these cultural artifacts belong to a genre - thus can be said to be generic - somehow makes them less valuable.

This is why one will find reviews stating such things as: "Although Spike Lee's latest film Inside Man is a genre film, his abilities as a director elevate it to a real auteur film." What makes Inside Man a genre film is that it fits in the category "heist movie", what makes it an auteur film is Spike Lee's artistic vision, his artistic merit, his personal vision on filmmaking.

Place and genre-theory

Place as a metaphor for genre theory: e.g. pornographic films are shown is special theaters, discotheques play club music, etc...

Mind-genres vs. body genres

In genre theory, narratology, visual culture and music, body genres refer to genres that have an effect on the spectator's body, a body caught in the grips of intense sensation or emotion. The body will display a physical reaction. The term was first brought forward by film scholar Linda Williams. Her definition did not include laughter. Generally, body genres are considered of lower value than "mind genres" (which appeal to the intellect rather than the body).

The physical reactions in body genres are:

The lifecycle of a genre

  1. a number of cultural products (paintings, films, music, books) share common characteristics, see avant-la-lettre, proto-
  2. critics notice similarities and come up with a name (see neologism)
  3. the name is accepted by the audience and a genre is born, artists and producers start to make products to fit the new genre classification see audience theory, culture industry
  4. parodies arise

Exception to these rules is the case of a art manifesto where "step 2" is not the work of the critics but of the artists themselves who make a number of statements on the proposal of a new art or a new kind of art. The first art manifesto was that of Futurism.

Don Quixote and genre theory

Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote has been called "the first novel" by many literary scholars (or the first of the modern European novels). It was published in two parts. The first part was published in 1605 and the second in 1615. It might be viewed as a parody of Le Morte d'Arthur (and other examples of the chivalric romance), in which case the novel form would be the direct result of poking fun at a collection of heroic folk legends. This is fully in keeping with the spirit of the age of enlightenment which began from about this time and delighted in giving a satirical twist to the stories and ideas of the past. It's worth noting that this trend toward satirising previous writings was only made possible by the printing press. Without the invention of mass produced copies of a book it would not be possible to assume the reader will have seen the earlier work and will thus understand the references within the text.


See also

By medium




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