Megamix – Time and Space in Genre Theory

Bakhtin, Mikhail.  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.  Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1981.
Publisher’s Page

Boltanski, Luc.  Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels, and the Making of Modern Societies.  Cambridge: Polity Press.  2014.
Publisher’s Page

Fowler, Alastair.  Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  1982.
Amazon Page

Genette, Gerard.  The Architext: An Introduction.  Berkeley: University of California Press.  1992.  Out of print.
Full text on Google Books

Jameson, Fredric.  The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  1981.
Publisher’s Page

Jauss, Robert.  Toward an Aesthetic of Reception.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  1982.
Publisher’s Page


Dear GOD I’ve been reading a lot of genre theory the past few days.  You’ve already gotten a bit of that with my posts on Todorov and Jackson, so I figured I’d save you hearing the same thing again and again and just wait to compile a megamix like this one.  My exams are two weeks away (oh god oh god oh god), so a lot of my subsequent posts will likely be similarly formatted just because of the pace at which I need to be reading things.  Sorry in advance?  Anyway.  The thing I guess I really didn’t expect to come out of a discussion on the implications of genre was a big debate on time and history.  Who’d have thought that would have turned out to be one of the things that concerned these guys most?  Again, I’ve already ranted about how I think genre theory needs to be attentive to the historical circumstances in which a text is written, published, disseminated, and so on in my post about Todorov, so I’ll refer you back to that if you want to hear my thoughts there.  Tonight, though, I want to talk about how that discussion links up with space.

Before we get to that, though, I should sketch out REALLY quickly where each of these authors falls in the conversation.  Basically, we can start out the timeline with Bakhtin back in the ’30s and ’40s, jamming out to Russian Formalism and saying that the novel is the only living literary genre anymore, due to the fact that it can barely be considered a genre at all because it’s so loosey-goosey with its formal conventions.  So he says that it can basically gobble up all the other genres and incorporate them into itself.  It’s forward-looking, still becoming, and dialogic in nature (that is to say, historically emplaced within specific speech acts that are aware of the negotiations they must perform with pre-existing semiotic associations).  Next we come to the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Structuralism had taken off, and we get people like Jauss and Jameson who argue that we have to examine novels diachronically (that is, through history) and compare their receptions (for Jauss) or meanings (for Jameson) in order to arrive at an authentic meaning of the text (again, Jauss) or a better understanding of history (Jameson).  For the latter, literature would be the place where we would see class conflict played out (on the level of the unconscious, at least) and thereby be able to grasp the effects of different means of production (that is, the Marxist stages of history) had on the production and reception of narratives.  Fowler and Genette, meanwhile, both essentially argued that genres weren’t fixed terms that could be examined as such, but rather ebbed and flowed across time, going into and out of vogue, up and down the value hierarchies imposed on them from without.  Most recently Boltanski has argued from a sociological perspective that genre is basically an effect of its socio-political climate, and thus that mystery and spy novels arose because of the rise of the nation-state formation, and need to be studied as literature that investigates the reality of reality under that formation.  WHEW.

So I more or less agree with Fowler and Genette (though more with Genette, who’s more committed to the idea of genres being non-hierarchical than Fowler), but here’s the thing: I’m an area studies guy.  Place matters to me.  I think it’s important to keep the specificity of place and culture in mind when studying literature.  All these scholars come from European literature backgrounds, and (characteristically) don’t think much about culture in terms of centrality and marginality, importing and exporting.  But those terms are absolutely critical in thinking about Japanese SF.  What’s a guy to do?  How do we examine the vicissitudes of Japanese SF over time as a genre when SF is constantly overflowing the boundaries we normally draw around “Japanese literature”?  And given that, what can it tell us specifically about “Japanese culture”?

This might be a lot of handwringing over nothing.  What will probably end up happening is I’ll fiat a boundary called “literature produced by Japanese authors” and examine that in order to draw some conclusion about the culture of “people who primarily read literature produced by Japanese authors”.  Just as countless others have done before me.  But I think the question still remains, and poses an interesting way to open out Japanese literary studies.  People (as far as I know) haven’t really talked about the movements of Japanese literature (especially genre literature) outside of Japan, nor the movement of foreign literature into Japan.  Hell, maybe it would be interesting to think through the container of Hayakawa Shobo, both the largest publisher of Japanese SF fiction and a major importer/translator of foreign genre fiction (did YOU know there’s an 『アガサ・クリスティー全集』?) and consider the value systems attached to Japanese SF thereby.  Given that bookstores infamously arrange their stock by publisher, do loyal Hayakawa customers think of Japanese SF as being tinged with an exotic whiff of the foreign?  Is this why the translation of 『ユナイテッド・ステイツ・オブ・ジャパン』has been all over my Twitter feed as the next hot commodity?  I think this is one of the interesting avenues for thought opened up by genre fiction in Japan in general and SF in particular: thinking about the cosmopolitan character of the reading market (and, I’d venture, of a great many people’s bookshelves at home) and the effects that has on the stability of “Japanese literature” as a useful concept.

But again: what is genre going to mean to me, and how am I going to reckon with its spatio-temporal dynamics (especially in a genre so concerned with space-time and its deformations)?  First, something I do know: I think of genre first and foremost as a thematic concept, unlike many authors here, who think of “the novel” as a genre (“SF” would enter as a subgenre for Fowler, a “kind” I think for Genette, and so on).  So already, I’m brushing aside a lot of questions, like what structural mutations are induced by the novel form vs. the magazine serialization, say.  That’s no small thing to ignore, given how many of these stories start off as magazine serializations and then get published in tankobon (or is it shinsho?) format.  I could perhaps look at the way the narrative content does or doesn’t change in that transition, and see if anything interesting pops out, but my gut feeling is that authors tend to serialize with an end goal of tankobon publication in mind, which is going to minimize the number of changes that would need to get made.

Part of the issue, I think, is that SF doesn’t has as long as history behind it as the novel, the romance, the epic.  I don’t know what kind of diachronic analysis is possible with a history of only about 60 years, for all intents and purposes.  There’s of course the ever-lurking question of digitalization and the move away from print to contend with, and maybe the high-tech (?) genre of SF would be quicker to hop on that bandwagon than others.  (I’m reminded of this image as I imagine the SF fans in the ’80s and ’90s clamoring to get their fiction through the computer.)  The other is that Structuralist “discoveries” of the “defining characteristics” of a genre feel a little arbitrary.  I mean, sure, we can say that the fantastic is a genre marked by a narrative structure of hesitation with regard to the real, but mightn’t there also be other things that distinguish it?  Other salient features, or features that become salient in different moments?  Kawana showed a potentially fruitful way to think about genres with relatively stable features (i.e. think of the texts along the lines of Azuma’s database model and look at the ways in which different authors emphasize elements of that database), so maybe rather than pointing at any one and saying “THIS is the deep structure that defines SF”, we could view spaceships, giant robots, alien planets, etc. as a series of moe elements that would give us enough stability to look for the hidden term of “culture”?  This still feels problematic, and I feel like no matter what value we come up with for “culture”, it’s going to necessarily be overly reductionist and end up flattening culture when we’re trying to give it new ruffles in our models.

These are hard questions for which I don’t have many answers right now, and I imagine I’ll need to continue thinking about them throughout the dissertation project.  In a project asking about technology, which often sees itself as international in scope due to its commodity status, the place of “Japan” has always been a tricky problem for me to think through.  (This reminds me that I think I still haven’t blogged about the industrial history books I read a couple weeks back.  Maaaan…)  In all likelihood, technology, Japan, and genre will all probably be anchor points between which I’ll bounce around in trying to thresh all this material.  I hadn’t realized I’d get this far into genre theory without hearing a peep about content and its local incarnations, though, and that seems like a gap that needs to be mended.  Do I see myself becoming a high genre theorist?  No, but maybe I can at least toss a pebble into that pond.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s