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


Routledge / Taylor and Francis – free articles: Shakespeare, Women’s Lit, Life Writing…


Taylor and Francis just sent out an email notifying us of some of the free article collections they have put together (on literary studies in a general sense, Shakespeare, Women’s lit, Life writing etc.) – pretty cool. They connect us to documents which organize these articles for consideration:

Modernism’s ‘Gothic Moment’ and the ‘awareness of mutability’


A Companion to the GothicIntroducing the complexities of Gothic literary history for his 2001 Companion to the Gothic, David Punter poses the question:

“Where might we […] locate the ‘Gothic moment’ in modernism? Or might we prefer to see in modernism precisely that movement of the mind that seeks to exorcise the ghost, to clean out the house, ruined though it may be, and assert the possibility of a life that is not haunted as it situates itself resolutely in a present that strains towards the future?” (pp.iix-ix)

Placing the Gothic in context of contemporary literary criticism, Punter goes on to write:

“…perhaps what Gothic and much contemporary criticism share is indeed an overarching, even a sublime, awareness of mutability, an understanding of the ways in which history itself, and certainly narratives of history, are not stable, do not constitute a rock onto which we might cling – indeed, as Gothic has always sought to demonstrate to us, there are no such rocks, there is no sure foundation. Thee is, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, only distortion – slips of the tongue, tricks of the eye, which ensure that what we see is always haunted by something else, by that which has not quite been seen, in history or in text – just as Gothic itself, we might say, consists of a series of texts which are always dependent on other texts, texts which they are not, texts which are ceaselessly invoked while no less ceaselessly misread, models of méconnaissance in the form of lost manuscripts, of misheard messages in cyberspace in the attempt to validate that which cannot be validated, the self-sufficiency, the autonomy of a textuality that is already ruined beyond repair.” (p.x)

Interestingly, having considered briefly the importance of the word to the Gothic (and I hope I’m not taking his concluding statement too out of context here), Punter ends his Introduction with the following suggestion:

“…perhaps […] archaism in some form, and especially in its pre-verbal form, is everything; perhaps we might be driven to think that Gothic, even in its most bourgeois forms – and there have been plenty of those – remains popular, remains current, because it gives permission. Quite what it gives permission for is, inevitably, never known, cannot be predicted in advance, and cannot be owned in words; perhaps there is no pre-set programme that Gothic will ‘turn on, in any of the senses of that phrase. But if Gothic has come to serve as a kind of cultural threshold, or as a repertoire of images that fatally undercut the verbal compact’ on which, among other things, the modern state rests, then more than ever it deserves and needs to be investigated. And I hope that these more political and, indeed, dangerous questions, questions that cannot be endstopped, as the unconscious cannot be endstopped, at the boundary of the word, will be in readers’ minds as they survey the material discussed in this book and the critical questions raised in the course of what remains an ongoing (even if exemplarily ruinous) debate.” (p.xiv)

Ref: (italics in original) ‘Introduction: The Ghost of a History’ pp.iix-xiv, Ed. David Punter (2001) A Companion to the Gothic. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford

Cognitive Narratology


In a (2010) discussion of recent narratological history, Monika Fludernik explains the concept of cognitive narratology. It is a really interesting discussion – and the many works she points to as relevant look particularly interesting (hence the list of references below). Fludernik explains:

“Turner and Fauconnier see metaphors as only one subtype of the cognitive strategy they call blending. Blending consists in fusing two scenarios together and thus creating new meaning effects.” (p.926)

“Blending, as Turner and Fauconnier argue, is responsible for the specifically human development of imagination and creativity. In particular, their blending theory aims at combining metaphor and narrative under one cognitive umbrella. Metaphor and narrative have been regarded as constitutive nonscientific modes of human cognition. Turner and Fauconnier depict them as two sides of the same coin, like Saussure’s signifier and signified: through blending, narrative approaches a situation in which one scenario merges with another, while in metaphor (generally acknowledged as a case of blending) the superimposition of two scenarios evokes narrative sequences.” (p.926)

“Cognitive narratology demonstrates that readers do not see texts as having narrative features but read texts as narrative by imposing cognitive narrative frames on them—for instance, by interpreting animals as quasi- human protagonists in fables.” (p.926)

“One can, moreover, diagnose an emotive turn in the humanities, which has given rise to numerous studies on the emotions and on empathy in literature.”6

“Current introductions to cognitive literary studies document the existence of a variegated set of approaches, methods, concepts, and theories that are often either application-oriented (taking one element or insight from cognitive studies in order to read one text or genre from that perspective) or theoretical and resistant to general application.7 The field at the moment resembles a group of construction sites, as some scholars concentrate on metaphor and blending theory (e.g., Gavins and Steen), others on cognitive reflexivity (Zunshine), still others on deixis (Stockwell) or space perception (Tsur). The different cognitive approaches show no sign of coalescing.” (p.927)

In her footnotes (6 and 7 are referred to above), Fludernik points to a number of works in the field:

“4. For a good basic introduction to blending, see Fauconnier and Turner, “Mechanism.” More generally on Turner’s recent work, see Turner, “Cognitive Study,” Lit­erary Mind, “Mind,” Reading Minds, and “Way”; Fauconnier and Turner, “Rethinking” and Way.
5. Turner established a research center on cognitive studies at Case Western Reserve University in 2004.
6. Let me note here the Journal of Narrative Theory 34.3 (2004) and the Journal of Literary Theory 1.2 (2007), as well as a few of the numerous books on the emotions and empathy: Benedict; Roberts; Kövecses; Terada; Hogan, Mind; and Keen.
7. For introductions see, e.g., Coulson and Oakley, Conceptual Blending and Conceptual Blending Theory; Richardson and Steen; Semino and Culpeper; Stockwell; Gavins and Steen; Herman; Hogan, Cognitive Science; Zunshine, Why We Read and Strange Concepts; and Tsur. Discussion of these problems is provided in, among others, Gibbs; Adler and Gross; and Sternberg.” (p.928)

Note that in the blurb about her, it indicates that Fludernik is “completing a study of prison metaphors in English literature” (p.924) – sounds fascinating to me!

Ref: Fludernik, Monika. ‘Narratology in the Twenty-First Century: The Cognitive Approach to Narrative’. PMLA 125.4 (2010): 924–30.

Reference is to:

Adler, Hans, and Sabine Gross. “Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature.” Poetics Today 23.3 (2002): 195–220.

Benedict, Barbara M. Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in En glish Prose Fiction, 1745–1800. New York: AMS, 1994.

Coulson, Seana, and Todd Oakley, eds. Conceptual Blend­ing. Spec. issue of Cognitive Linguistics 11.3–4 (2001): 175–358.

Coulson, Seana, and Todd Oakley, eds. Conceptual Blending Theory. Spec. issue of Journal of Pragmatics 37.10 (2005): 1507–742.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. “A Mechanism of Creativity.” Poetics Today 20.3 (1999): 397–418.
———. “Rethinking Metaphor.” The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought. Ed. Ray Gibbs, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 53–66.
———. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic, 2002.

Gavins, Joanna, and Gerard Steen, eds. Cognitive Poetics in Practice. London: Routledge, 2003.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr. “Evaluating Contemporary Models of Figurative Language Understanding.” Metaphor and Symbol 16.3–4 (2001): 317–33.

Herman, David, ed. Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: Center for the Study of Lang. and Information, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. New York: Routledge, 2003.
———. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.Richardson, Alan, and Francis F.

Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Semino, Elena, and Jonathan Culpeper, eds. Cognitive

Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Cul­ture, and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Perry, Menakhem. “Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates Its Meaning.” Poetics Today 1.1–2

Richardson, Alan, and Francis F. Steen, eds. Literature and the Cognitive Revolution. Spec. issue of Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 1–182.

Roberts, Nancy. Schools of Sympathy: Gender and Identi­fication through the Novel. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s UP, 1998.

Semino, Elena, and Jonathan Culpeper, eds. Cognitive Stylistics. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2002.

Sternberg, Meir. “Universals of Narrative and Their Cognitivist Fortunes.” Poetics Today 24.2–3 (2003): 297–395, 517–638.

Stockwell, Peter. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.

Terada, Rei. Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject.” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Tsur, Reuven. Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. 1992. 2nd ed. Brighton: Sussex Acad., 2008. Ansätze in der Erzähltheorie. Ed. Ansgar Nünning

Turner, Mark. “The Cognitive Study of Art, Language, and Literature.” Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 9–20.
———. The Literary Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
———. “The Mind Is an Autocatalytic Vortex.” The Literary Mind. Ed. Jürgen Schläger and Gesa Stedman. Tübingen: Narr, 2008. 13–43.

———. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.
———. “The Way We Imagine.” Imaginative Minds. Ed. Ilona Roth. London: Oxford UP; British Acad., 2007. 213–36.

Zunshine, Lisa. Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008. Print.
———. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Criticism and style – a comment from CK Stead


“Criticism, I have always argued, should seem to come, not from God, or a committee, but from a critic. It should have individuality, character, a personality, a voice. The opinions it engages with may on some occasions have been published, at others may be no more than a murmur from the marketplace. But there should be some sense of conversation, a community of interest.” (p.2)

Ref: C. K. Stead (2002) Kin of Place: Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers. Auckland University Press.

Critical authority: The Booker Prize and literary merit


The Booker Prize was set up in 1969 to identify and reward the ‘best novel of the year’. It is now plausibly regarded (not least by itself) as the premier literary prize of its kind in the world. Its judgements are universally taken as sound, unbiased and authoritative. Papal, almost. It takes its place alongside other ‘certification of highest quality’ prizes: the Costa (formerly the Whitbread), the Pulitzer, the Goncourt, the Orange, the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the Man Booker International Prize, the Nobel Prize (the last three are for literary careers more than individual works). How obediently does the reading public accept the decisions these authoritative prizes make on its behalf?

Are prizes reliable judges of literary worth? ….” (bold emphasis in original, p.80)

Ref: John Sutherland (2010) 50 Literature ideas you really need to know. Bloomsbury: London

Paradigm shift


The term ‘paradigm shift’ is nowadays something of a cliché (it’s a favourite among sports journalists, describing some team shake-up). A fairly recent addition to critical vocabulary it was introduced into popular discourse by the historian of science Thomas M. Kuhn, in his 1962 study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn began with a simple, vexing observation: Why do scientists quarrel so much among themselves? His ‘paradigm shift’ thesis has been hugely influential and genuinely illuminating. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions routinely figures in round-ups of the most important books of the twentieth century.

Shifts in science Kuhn’s approach is ‘meta-topical’. He looks at the history of science, in all its many departments, to observe how the discipline moves forward – which demonstrably it does. Very simply, Kuhn perceives three phases, or stages, in science’s progress.  What he calls ‘paradigm’ is central to each of them. Literally the word means ‘pattern’. Kuhn, however, prefers the overtones of the German word ‘Gestalt‘, which carries the supplementary sense of ‘meaningful pattern’. One of his illustrative ideas is of the picture that one’s eyes initially see as a duck, then, after a second or two, the image, or Gestalt, recomposes itself as a rabbit.

For scientists, a paradigm is a field (e.g. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) within a larger field (theoretical physics) within a still larger field (science). In all these fields certain constituents are held together by common variables.” (bold emphasis and italics  in original, p.72)

“The first of Kuhn’s stages is ‘pre-paradigmatic’. It’s a kind of bubbling intellectual primal soup. All theories contest among themselves without any becoming orthodoxy or consensual. The one theory establishes itself as dominant, firms up, and develops a community of co-theorists and instructors around itself. It becomes, as Kuhn puts it, ‘normal’. The energies of the community are devoted to confirmation and – more aggressively – the defence of its core belief. Careers and eminence are invested in the preservation of the ruling ‘normal’ paradigm. Disagreement is routinely seen as heresy.

This, ‘normality’ as Kuhn calls it, is the second stage. The third stage is ‘revolutionary’. So well defended is the normal that its fortifications can only be overcome by assault. If successful (not all revolutions are or deserve to be), there occurs a ‘paradigm shift’, equivalent to a scene change in theatre. A new normality will now emerge, conforming to the new paradigm. For example: until the middle of the twentieth century there was a ‘normal’ view among cosmologists that the universe was in steady state (the most famous proponent was Fred Hoyle). Then came the ‘Big Bang’ theory, and – after much quarrelling – a new paradigm. It is a tenet in Kuhn’s model that all paradigms are provisional.” (p.73)

“One of the attractions of Kuhn’s model – whether applied to science or humanities – is that it coneceives knowledge as the outcome of perpetual battle. Conflict creates light, as well as heat.” (p.75)

Ref: John Sutherland (2010) 50 Literature ideas you really need to know. Bloomsbury: London