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On Classification to and from Various Orders of Magnitude

Christina Harview's picture

I am taking a class about emerging genres and we have read a book called The Power of Genre by Adena Rosmarin. The following paragraphs are a compilation of the thoughts I have concerning Rosmarin's ideas and our class discussion.

Diversity is a completely unavoidable element of any classification system. We generalize despite the differences and thus are brought to the idea of genre. We cannot completely dispose of discontinuity among specific objects in a genre, so should the act of creating a particular genre be endorsed? Why is it that traditional genre theory aims to eradicate any disparity among the parts of a whole? To generalize is partly to ignore differences; genre criticism points out those differences which were disregarded for the sake of generalization in the first place.

But of what use are genres to us? Well, we can clearly use them as an analytic tool, we can use them to compare and contrast among and between varying genres, we can use them to organize a complex system into a more comprehensible network of similarities and differences. But problems often arise; a genre is never complete! Additionally, to generalize is to create artificial borders that don’t necessarily always have any usefulness. What use is a genre that does not describe? We can separate a group of particulars into three groups of general and name them Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3. Of what use is that to anyone but oneself? Only you have the descriptive power to differentiate between the three groups; we can assume or guess but we cannot know the original qualifications for classification. Rosmarin partially notes these problems but does not really address the issue or how it can be solved.

Rosmarin places the role of genre not as evaluation of the whole, but merely as a classification of the parts into wholly unique but generally related groups. Generalization of the particulars requires direct methods of abstraction which we do every day of our lives whether we realize it or not. In The Power of Genre, Rosmarin states that “no representation, however close its approach to ideal duplicity, can completely and tracelessly capture what it represents” (11). Yet, as I posited in class, what about a genre whose categorization is based upon a basic description of the parts it describes? To simplify my example from class, a set of the even integers between 1 and 10 (inclusively) is [2,4,6,8,10]. In this example, each integer is different from the others in the set, and they are the only ones that fit the description of the classification; this set is thus a complete one. One could argue that this set is indeed not a genre because one of the basic tenets of genre is that it is impossible to have a complete set, but I would turn and ask, 'according to whom, and with what authority?'

Yet, the aforementioned quote may apply to works of art such as literature and visual art. No matter how complete we think a set may be, somewhere in the world someone may have just added something to the genre. So what about the genre described as 'parts that can be considered to have been written by Anne Dalke'? Originally, there was discussion in the class about the influence of the environment on the words written by people. Honestly, we are more affected by others than we care to think. The reservations came with the consideration of plagiarism (intentional or not). Yet, this problem and any more can be eliminated by specifying the description and the qualifications for placement into the genre, as well as by deciding on a set definition for what ‘plagiarism’ actually is. Even if it is not considered plagiarism (such as a direct quote from a work that is cited) it may still be considered as not being written by Anne Dalke. But I think that such complications can be passed if we decide to clarify the intended connotation of the genre’s label. For example, by written, we could mean that Anne Dalke has physically written or typed the words, regardless of whether she thought up the idea herself or not. Yet, even here we run into problems. Even if we did somehow have a stockpile of all written work ever made by Anne Dalke from birth to present, technological advances may prevent completeness! What of the ‘loev’ typo that was deleted and replaced with ‘love’? Was that not meant to be part of the works written by Anne Dalke? Here, we see that the classification and generalization of complicated things in the world is much more difficult than the classification of integers!

Rosmarin says, “To choose or define a genre in order to explain seems counterintuitive” (8). I would argue otherwise and here is why: the probability of accuracy decreases as you move down an order of magnitude. In other words, it is easier to accurately describe a genre from its parts than it is to describe the parts of a genre. For example, if you have two people separated by a screen and one person sees before them three purring cats and the other three stuffed dogs (as in taxidermy), each could accurately label the set before them as ‘cats’ and ‘dogs,’ respectively. If you then told each in turn that the person on the other side of the screen described their set as ‘cats’ or ‘dogs,’ respectively, each would probably associate the other set as having the original qualities observed themselves. Namely, the person with the living cats would probably assume that the person on the other side of the screen had before them three living dogs. The person looking at the stuffed dogs would probably assume that the person on the other side of the screen had stuffed cats. The generalization of the genre brought those two people to incorrect conclusions as they were moving down an order of magnitude from a genre to a particular.

Conversely, if you can look at all items in a group to be generalized, a person would have no trouble describing several genres to which those items would belong. Moving up a level of magnitude is seemingly easier.

Yet, let us think of this from a literary point of view. Rosmarin goes on to say that “Genre is the most powerful explanatory tool available to the literary critic” (39). We previously agreed that it was easier to come up with a correct genre from a known set than it was to describe the set based on the genre. Yet, with literature, does it not seem easier to list the parts from a genre? If you were asked to list three horror stories, it would probably be quite easy. If you were asked to read three books and name which literary genre they blong to, it can be quite difficult, especially with the modern emergence and re-definition of genre. Why is there a difference between the cat/dog example and the horror story example? The answer may lie with the abstraction of each idea, in turn. A dog is a physical object that we can look at and touch and smell and taste (or not) and hear. A horror story is a direct abstraction and a mental manifestation of the literary symbols that we have named ‘language.’ It is our individual interpretation that is turned into a genre – literary genre requires the classification of a thought, a feeling, an idea.

Arguably, there are set rules and definitions that are generally used to define ‘horror’ but who made them and with what authority? If I read a love story and interpret it as a horror story, who can tell me with dignity that that story is indeed a love story and that my interpretation is wrong? One could say that the author intended it to be a love story and thus it is. But wouldn’t that mean that the genre labeling should be completely up to the author? Why would there be argument about genre in the first place if authors dictate the genre of their own books? One could say that the majority of people who read it interpret it as a love story and thus it is. But what relevance does the opinion of the majority have; I would claim an ad populum fallacy!

And ergo we have it; genre theory is anything but straightforward. Yet the discussion is imperative because we all must understand that genre is not an unwavering flag of truth or knowledge, but instead a subtle suggestion. By whom the suggestion was placed is irrelevant; all that matters is what it brings to the table. In literature, a genre essentially places an expectation on the novel. Whether the genre is a loosely defined ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as heard from a friend, or a more firmly understood ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction’ as labeled in the bookstore, the genre label brings the reader a set of expectations about the book. It is not until the person reads the book that those expectations are confirmed, denied, or adjusted.