Genres as Fields of Knowledge


Wai Chee Dimock asks: “If genres are vehicles that “actively generate and shape knowledge of the world” (Frow), what would students learn if literature were taught under this rubric?” (p.1383)

Far from being a neat catalog of what exists and what is to come, genres are a vexed attempt to deal with material that might or might not fit into that catalog.” (p.1378)

What exactly are genres? Are they a classifying system matching the phenomenal world of objects, a sorting principle that separates oranges from apples? Or are they less than that, a taxonomy that never fully taxonomizes, labels that never quite keep things straight? What archives come with genres, what critical lexicons do they offer, and what maps do they yield? And how does the rise of digitization change these archives, lexicons, and maps?

“Theorists from Benedetto Croce to Jacques Derrida have long objected to the concept of genre, pointing out that something as dynamic as literature can never be anatomized ahead of time, segregated by permanent groupings. “[I]nstead of asking before a work of art if it be expressive and what it expresses,” genre criticism only wants to label it, putting it into a pigeonhole, asking only “if it obey the laws of epic or of tragedy.” Nothing can be more misguided, Croce says, for these “laws of the kinds” have never in fact been ob served by practicing writers. Derrida makes the same point: “As soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity.” Such border policing is an exercise in futility, he says, for the law of genre is an impossible law; it contains within itself a “principle of contamination,” so much so that the law is honored only in its breach.” (p.1377)

Genres have solid names, ontologized names. What these names designate, though, is not taxonomic classes of equal solidity but fields at once emerging and ephemeral, defined over and over again by new entries that are still being produced. They function as a “horizon of expectations” to some extent (Jauss), but that horizon becomes real only when there happen to be texts that exemplify it.” (p.1379)

Wai Chee Dimock’s discussion of epic and how it exemplifies the problems around ‘genre’ is really interesting, but I don’t want to over-quote and don’t have time to synthesise… one point I did really like:

Switching genres is one of the most eloquent signs of political agency: the Ramayana now is a host of variants afloat in the generic pool. These effluences are just as striking outside India. As the Sanskrit epic spread to Japan, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Java, and Indonesia, it flourished as street theater, song-and-dance cycles, shadow-puppet shows, a pan-Asian vernacular tradition carried on for two thousand years and serving every conceivable political end (Iyengar; Raghavan; Blackburn). With immigration to Europe, these vernacular subgenres became European subgenres.” (p.1384)

Literary history is a history of kinship.” (p.1381)

“This kinship network, muddying temporal, spatial, and generic lines, invites us to rethink our division of knowledge.” (p.1386)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Wai Chee Dimock ‘Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge’ PMLA, Vol. 122, No. 5, Special Topic: Remapping Genre (Oct., 2007), pp. 1377-1388


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s