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Permeable Boundaries

sgb90's picture

The use of genre as a classifying method seems at first, and deceptively, to be a mere practical necessity--an organizing tool of the intellect to make the overly abundant world of phenomena accessible within the limits of perception and analysis. The more one considers genre, however, the more one realizes that the manner in which we make such a world accessible is not passive, rather an active selection informed by cultural imperatives. Inevitably, such selection (and selective omission) leads to categories and hierarchies that point less to the inherent qualities of the object as to human motivations to delimit and exalt certain perceived characteristics.

Stephen Owen cites a compelling example of such culturally informed classification when he discusses the controversy of labeling early non-European literary works as "novels." As he states, "the novel is so often considered a marker of progress toward modernity, a condition that Europeanists guard jealously as their own." As such, the novel's "higher status" as modern influences which texts are labeled as novels and creates divisions that, in certain instances, may only be based on prejudice rather than on objective distinctions.

By attempting to create order through genre, we inevitably impose artificial boundaries around given works whose complexity defies strict categorization. This is not to say that such categories are useless or (necessarily and always) arbitrary. Rather, I think our tendency to divide the objects around us into contained categories should be paralleled with a deeper awareness of how permeable and overlapping all categories ultimately are.


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