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Jessica Watkins's picture

            "All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one .... Genre is a minimum-security prison."-- David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, 2010

            What do we want from life? Houses are nice, and so are BMWs, but material things have proven to last only so long before succumbing to the fate that befalls everything tangible. Flowers wither, bugs get smushed, the pages of books turn yellow and humans enter the realm of the dust from which they came—in short, we better enjoy life while it lasts.

            The power of the human mind is enough to provide escape from this dying world and transform the body into a sanctuary, if only for a little while. Imagination is both a blessing and a curse—it allows us to transport ourselves to any place, well, imaginable. If you want to fall down a rabbit hole and sip tea with a Mad Hatter and his furry friends, Lewis Carroll’s imagination has already taken care of that. If you want to enter someone else’s dream and get sucked into the world of transvestites, dodo birds and giant dogs, it’s no trouble at all, really; just ask Neil Gaiman to take you there.

            Even television series are used as a break from everyday life, a hiatus in the whirlwind of complexity of both mind and body that is our human experience. It is almost as if when watching a television show we are selling our souls, just for a little under an hour, to the characters that lie behind the screen. Their problems become our problems. They break up with their boyfriend, we feel the tugging at our heartstrings and the welling up of tears. To live vicariously through these untouchable, seemingly immortal, forms is to slip into a delicious trance that, though it reflects much of what happens in real life, numbs the mind and gives wings to the soul so it may soar above reality.

            Of course, all of this is voluntary—or is it? Our fingers have the power to pick up the remote control, our feet have the power to shuffle over to the couch, our bottoms have the power to sit down, and our eyes have the power to focus on the brilliantly-colored screen. But do our brains have the power to make the decision to turn away from the land of make-believe? Oftentimes the answer is no, and that is because in reality, reality is the last thing we want. This is the reason mind-altering drugs are addicting, the reason that people play video games for hours on end before realizing that they are hungry or tired. Ironically, the relatively uneventful lives most of us live from day to day are enough to drive us to the brink of insanity. 

            Enter the inner workings of the human mind in all its beauty and diversity. The imagination is a place into which we retreat when we are unsure, unsafe or just plain bored; it is a virtual fortress from which we can passively combat problems (and people) that will not go away. Like most parts of the body, it must be exercised in order to maintain working order; like any muscle, it can be overworked. 

            So much discussion has taken place in our class about genre and its meaning, but we have not fully explored the possibility of genre existing outside the literary world. If genre was not of its current, nebulous form, could it survive as something tangible? What genre do we represent as humans? Are our bodies and souls to be considered one form, or should each be allotted its own space in the genre spectrum?

            If we consider thought to be an overarching category, and for that category to exist within the constructs of every human mind, imagination is most definitely a universal genre of thought. In literary terms, imagination may be akin to fiction such as fantasy; however, it can probably be related to most any literary generic form if argued correctly, so I would love to hear opinions on this.

            Traditionally, genre is considered to be “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content,” at least according to Merriam-Webster. Seeing as all forms of art, music and literature were hatched in someone’s mind before being turned out onto the canvas, music stand or page, the relationship between imaginative (or for current purposes, creative) thought and artistic products is obvious. Mental exercise has led to the birth of countless ingenious artistic works. As long as there are brains, and human beings through which they may operate, there will be creativity.

            Thus, imagination as a genre must stand on certain platforms—the equivalent of media such as books, oral tradition and paintings. The body is the most obvious choice, as imagination and its offspring are not likely to lead to anything unless they are transformed into a form that can be shared, analyzed and criticized. Hands may wield a pen and paper, but they are nothing without the instruction that filters down from the mind. Of course once they have received this instruction these appendages are indispensable. When it comes down to it, physicality is of utmost importance for the manifestation of imagination in a form that can be widely perceived. Even blogging requires the physical act of turning on a computer and typing on its keys until thoughts are transformed into a story.

            Genres are highly dependent on each other. For example, science fiction novels would not be science fictions novels without romance novels from which to distinguish them. By definition, categories require that there be multiple of them in order to actually be a “category” among several different others. So are the body and mind utterly dependent on each other. It is useless to say that one or the other makes up the core of a human being, because one is no more or less important than the other. The mind can go on forming magnificent ideas and dreaming of ways to execute its plans, but without the body it will keep “dreaming” and never start “doing.” Similarly, the body can lay waiting for its muscles to twitch until twitching turns to full-fledged movement, but it will never rise and accomplish anything physical without the impulse of the mind.

            David Shields’ quote from Reality Hunger: A Manifesto describing genre as a “minimum-security prison” is also quite adequate in describing the human mind. Replacing “genre” with “imagination” or “the body” in this metaphor is necessary in order to understand their roles as categories. Imagination, a genre of thought, is limiting in that it relies heavily on personal experience—after all, imaginings are built on what has already been seen, smelled, touched and heard. Additionally, imagination varies widely from person to person and is thus sometimes hard to communicate or understand. Wild ideas and dreams can easily be lost in translation. The body is a genre of form, just as imagination is a genre of thought. Sad as it sounds, imagination and the body are indeed “minimum-security prisons” in the sense that they restrict, leaving both literal and figurative arms flailing from inside a flimsy cell in hopes of reaching out toward something bigger and better. The body can only remain within its physical confines, and the imagination can only go so far as thought will allow before changing direction.


 Healthy Body Healthy Mind<br />Artist : Alison Nolan<br />Title of Work: waking up strong in the morning


Anne Dalke's picture

The Human Genre

return this week to the definitions w/ which we began our course of study, asking whether--after all this time--they still seem operative to us. Among the definitions for "genre" which I gave you, in January, were the very general notions of "kind, sort, class," illustrated by these two quotations as applicable to human beings:

"But what is the genre of character...which, if in true keeping
to life and manners, should not be found to resemble any body?"

"Two very remarkable men...but of entirely different genres."

In your asking here "what genre do we represent as humans?" I see you picking up this initial idea, and tracing it further, but I'm actually having a little trouble following where you are heading. I hear you asking, "Are our bodies and souls to be considered one form, or should each be allotted its own space in the genre spectrum?" But then I hear you giving two (incompatible?) answers:

First, you say that the "body is the platform for imagination," that "body and mind are utterly dependent on each other." But then you claim that each is distinct--"body is a genre of form, just as imagination is a genre of thought"--and that, since each is limited, each also operates as "a minimum-security prison."  (But yet you also say, elsewhere, that "the imagination is a virtual fortress." What am I to do w/ that image? How am I to relate it to that of the "minimum-security prison"?)

The other keyword of note to me here is that of "soul"--though
I'm puzzled, too, about how you understand this term. Do you place that in the body? In the imagination? Or is a space separate from both, or rather the result of their interaction?

On the one hand, you say that in
"watching a television show we are selling our souls"; but on the other you describe t.v.-watching as "a delicious trance that gives wings to the soul so it may soar above reality." Is that delicious trance a sell-out? Or do you see the latter experience as distinct from the first?

I'm actually quite interested in the question of the soul, and how it is "made." Keats, in an infamous letter, asked that we "Call the world if you Please 'The vale of Soul-making.'" In the passage from William James which I shared with the class last week, education is also described as a possible vale for making the soul, both of the self and of culture --if just we could get rid of 

"the American textbook Moloch, in whose belly living children's minds are turned to ashes, and in which the science is pre-digested into ... every up to date device for frustrating the natural movement of the mind when reading and preventing that irresponsible rumination of the material in one's own way which is the soul of culture..."

Would doing so constitute, in your terms, a way to escape from "the minimum-security prison"? But how: via a "virtual fortress"? Of the textbook? Of the imagination? Of the body?