30 April 2011

Noted: Genre and Disgust

Some passages from books due back at the library...

From "The Politics of Genre" by Stephen Heath, in Debating World Literature edited by Christopher Prendergrast, Verso, 2004, pp.172-173:
The politics of genre turns on the distinctions it makes and the hierarchies those distinctions readily support: between high and low, sacred and secular, poetic and prosaic, literary and non-literary genres. To challenge and transform such hierarchies involves a range of shifts in perception and genre judgement, notably as to what counts as the proper matter and language of literature, as to what to recognize. The development of the novel provides a powerful middle class with a genre that seeks to represent the terms of its world in defiance of traditional genre views of the actual social life of men and women as fitting only for comedy or satire (the supreme genres are conceived as universal, expressing essential truths in abstraction from the contingencies of the everyday). Diaries, domestic journals, personal narratives, are examples of genres that recent feminist theory and practice has been concerned to accredit, calling into question the gender-ideological bases of existing genre assumptions (distinctions between objective and subjective, public and private, political and personal).

The various forms of the writing of women's lives could be seen as inferior genres because "female", the novel as low genre because of its readership (taking in the lower-middle and working classes and importantly including women) and the commercial nature of its production for this readership, the new "public" (it was often attacked as "democratic"). "The public is so stupid," commented Flaubert, whose own work marks a significant moment in the development of a split between high and low within the genre itself: on the one hand, the "literary" or "serious" novel; on the other, "popular" or "mass" fiction, the market standardization of genre products -- romance, mystery, science fiction, crime, best-sellers (all the drugstore shelf-headings). The split was increasingly supported by an academic institution of literature that elaborated canons of works and defined quality, while the power of genre conceptions in consumer mass cultural production only increased importance. Nowhere is this more visible than in television with its host of recognized -- expected -- genres: sitcoms, news, game shows, reality shows, talk shows, et al. Such genre domination is at once part of the hierarchization process -- high genres are seeen as full of individual works -- and a fact of an "entertainment industry" that aims to maximize profit by organizing production around a limited number of models. Non-standard programmes, those that cross over or upset genre distinctions, can quickly become sites of disquiet and political sensitivity (witness the need felt to keep documentary and drama separate, the controversies surrounding thier "confusion").

The strength of genre classifications is simultaneous with a theory and practice of writing that seeks to undermine them because of that strength, the hold of ready-made expectations of meaning.
From The Politics and Poetics of Transgression by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, Cornell University Press, 1986, p.77:
[Ben] Jonson constituted his identity in opposition to the theatre and the fair. Through the imaginary separation of the scholar's study and library from the theatrical marketplace, Jonson simultaneously mapped out the divisions between the "civilized" and the grotesque body, between the stunted quarto and the handsome folio, between the "author" and the hack, between "pure" literature and social hybridization. In the image of the fair, the author could rewrite the social and economic relations which determined his own existence; in the fair he could stigmatize the voices which competed against his own and reveal just how "dirty" were the hands which sullied his "pure" wares.

But disgust bears the impress of desire, and Jonson found in the huckster, the cony-catcher, and the pick-pocket an image of his own precarious and importuning craft. Proclaiming so loudly how all the other plays were mere cozenings, did not Jonson pursue the perennial techniques of the mountebank who decried the deceptions and the false wares of others the more easily to practise his own deceptions and pass of his own productions as the "real thing"?
p. 191:
The bourgeois subject continuously defined and re-defined itself through the exclusion of what it marked out as "low" -- as dirty, repulsive, noisy, contaminating. Yet that very act of exclusion was constitutive of its identity. The low was internalized under the sign of negation and disgust.

But disgust always bears the imprint of desire. These low domains, apparently expelled as "Other", return as the object of nostalgia, longing, and fascination. The forest, the fair, the theatre, the slum, the circus, the seaside-resort, the "savage": all these, placed at the outer limit of civil life, become symbolic contents of bourgeois desire.

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