Jameson on Genre

Jameson on Genre in The Political Unconscious

The value of genre criticism (for Marxism) lies in “the mediatory function of generic practices (production and reception), which allows the coordination of immanent formal analysis of the individual text within the twin diachronic perspective of the history of forms and the evolution of social life.” When undertaking a genre criticism in his essay on Solzhenitsyn, Lukacs was in the historical conjuncture where he felt the urgency of the writer’s denunciation of Stalinism (the social) and at the same time the necessity to respond to the religious and antisocialist propaganda (the generic) to which the writer lent his talent and the authority of his personal suffering (the personal-individual history and experience) (105).

What does the mediatory function of genre mean?  Genre is a process of trancoding where personal history intertwines with the evolution of the social, where distinct elements in social formation relate to one another or are interdependent on one another by way of their structural difference rather than their ultimate identity.  But we must remain mindful of a pitfall in the discussion of mediation.  When the conception of the process of mediation fails to register its capacity for differentiation and for revealing structural oppositions and contradictions through some overemphasis on its related vocation to establish identities or relations, it ends up producing a homology as is often the case with sociological approaches to cultural phenomena.  For more about the notion of mediation, see pp. 39-43.

Realism, its reification, and the return of romance

The ideal of realism is a narrative discourse which in one form or another unities the experience of daily life with a properly cognitive, mapping, or well-nigh scientific perspective.  Yet in the context of late capitalism, realism loses much of its ability to come to grips with various differential layers of the real. That is, it has undergone a gradual reification in late capitalism.  It is in this context that romance, as often opposed to the realist ethos that has turn restrictive and repressive, comes to be felt as the place of narrative heterogeneity and of freedom from the reality principle. In other words, generic perspectives are something like a return of the repressed.  It is concerned with what is sealed off and contained in high realism. Romance, which for Northrop Frye is the ultimate source and paradigm of all generic modes of storytelling such as tragedy, comedy, and melodrama, offers the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms. (Jameson, 104)

For more about the historic function of realism and its reification, see also p. 152 and 193.

In high realism, narrative totality is increasingly governed by the weight of empirical and factual data, which leaves little room for alternate histories to be imagined and expressed in a variety of narrative modalities.  Yet as such alternative narrative registers begin to be taken over by a massively homogeneous narrative apparatus, alternative social worlds beneath the stifling and definitive weight of the self-evidently empirical must find representational expression and a result is the Utopian or science-fiction novel (also gothics, adventure, myth, detective stories, etc.), of which Chernyshevsky’s What’s to Be Done? remains monumental.

The scandal of a revolutionary event such as the strike that calls the social totality into question: its narrative fails when it succeeds and succeeds when it fails, thereby evading categories of literary evaluation inherited from great realism (193).

A character driven by ethical abstraction or idea can be adequately represented only by a certain narrowing of the soul, by endowing it with a demonic obsession with an existing ideal which it posits as the only and the most ordinary reality, as in Lukacs’ Don Quixote (194).

For Frye, romance is a wish-fulfillment or Utopian fantasy which aims at the transfiguration of the world of everyday life in such a way as to restore the condition of some lost Eden, or to anticipate a future realm from which the old morality and imperfections will have been effaced (110); romance is staged as the struggle between higher and lower realms, between heaven and hell, and between the angelic and the demonic → the binary between hero and villain, high and low, and spring and winter (111). The ultimate condition of figuration in romance, on which other elements such as the dilemma between high and low are dependent, is to be found in a transitional moment in which two distinctive modes of production, or moments of socioeconomic development, coexist. Their antagonism is not yet articulated in terms of the struggle of social classes, so that its resolution can be projected in the form of a nostalgic (or less often, a Utopian) harmony. Our principal experience of such transitional moments is evidently that of an organic social order in the process of penetration and subversion, reorganization and rationalization, by nascent capitalism (148).

Genres are in essence social contracts between an author and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact.  (Jameson, 104-06)

In the practice of contemporary genre criticism, we find two seemingly incompatible tendencies at work: the semantic (the phenomenological) and the syntactic (or the structural) (108-09) → We need to find a mediatory path of the two separated approaches by rethinking them dialectically and historicizing their findings so that we can gain some sense of their ideological functions.

The semantic → aims to find the essence or meaning of a given genre by posing something like the spirit of tragedy, the logic of comedy, the world view of melodrama, the vision of irony, the sensibility of satire, the philosophy of film noir, etc.  Thus for Bergson, comedy has the function of preserving social norms by castigating deviancy with ridicule, or for others, the comic serves to make the inexorable, fundamental absurdity of human existence more tolerable. Here a genre is defined in comparison with other genres. Underlying this strand of genre criticism is the question of what it means.

The syntactic → criticizes the semantic genre criticism (its desire to discover the meaning of a certain generic imagination) as intuitive and impressionistic and proposes to analyze the mechanisms and structure of a genre. Here, a genre is defined in terms of what it is not—a comedy is characterized in terms of what is not comic. What animates this type of genre criticism is how a genre works, pretty much in the spirit of (post)structuralist thinking.

The organizing principle of romance: the conflict between high and low, or hero and villain → here springs the core ideologeme in romance → the binary opposition between good and evil → this binary becomes “positional” when it relates to subjectivity formation: the good is my own position as an unassailable power center, in terms of which something is evil because it is Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar (115, 117, 234).

This positional thinking (the conflict between good and evil) that characterizes not only romance but also popular forms such as the western has an intimate relationship to those historical periods sometimes designated as the ‘time of troubles,’ in which central authority disappears and marauding bands of robbers and brigands range geographical immensities with impunity (118).

The good and evil binary is an imaginary solution to a real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can and should be thought of as being evil (118).  That is, the real clash between master and slave is not to be expressed as it is, but rather undergoes a transformation into the ethical or legal question of who is good or evil. The difference between the struggle between oppressor and oppressed and the conflict between good and evil should not be dismissed; otherwise, one would end up abandoning the fundamental distinction between oppressor and oppressed along with the desire to move beyond good and evil as in, for instance, the discontent with the victimizer-victimized binary.

One of the predominant forms of cultural criticism is ethical criticism; all ethics lives by exclusion and predicates certain types of Otherness or evil, that is, the temptation of ethics is to recontain itself by assigning hostile and more properly political impulses to the ultimate negative category of ressentiment such as evil or inferior. Perhaps the most notable form of ethical criticism can be found in the tendency of psychologization, that is, discourses (scientific rather than ethical in its old sense) on good or bad subject, where notions of personal identity (both mental and physical) stand in for older themes of moral sensibility and ethical awareness (Jameson 60; for ressentiment as the fundamental 19th century ideologeme, see also 88 and 201).

A critique of the logic of slave morality should serve to enhance our understanding of real struggles rather than lead us to denounce even fundamental social oppositions.  The latter is not an overcoming of slave morality but a return to the same slave morality in that it prevents our thinking from reaching the plane of real historical contradictions by taking the ethical conflict—or the logical antinomy—to be the ultimate horizon of history as is often the case with universalism, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, globalism, etc.

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Myth, Indexicality and Historicity

“An indexical sign indicates or attests to the existence of something”; yet “indexicality implies nothing necessary about the form of the signifier, even in relation to the referent, nothing, for example, about whether the signifier ‘looks like’ the referent. (Does a weather vane ‘look like’ the wind?)” (Rosen, Rites of Realism, 48-49) → In the beginning of Bittersweet Life, the mention about the wind blowing at a distance whose existence is made perceptible (more specifically, visible) through swinging branches of a willow tree.

A weather vane does not look like the wind.  Still, the arbitrary relationship between the weather vane (the signifier) and the wind (the signified) does not nullify the validity of the weather vane.  The weather vane is like a prism through which the presence of the wind is made perceptible.  Likewise, the Western is not the same as what really happened in the old Wild West.  Still it indicates something that is substantial, but has no immediate empirical evidence.  It is rather indicative of shared (collective) ways of making sense of history, that is, in Bazin’s term, universal myth.  For the concept of myth, see Rosen pp. 60-62.

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History and Topics in Genre Theory (Film)

Four major trends in genre criticism:

Auteurism (Bazin), Structuralism and Poststructuralism (John G. Cawelti, Jim Kitses, Will Wright in the Western), Phenomenological Approach (Philip Rosen, Change Murmmified), Dialectical Approach (Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconsciousness)

1. Genre History

1-1. The Evolution of Genre Theory in General (from “The Idea of Genre in American Cinema,” in Film Genre Reader III; pp. 12-13)

  • Aristotle in Poetics → divided poetry into categories such as tragedy, epic, lyric, comedy, etc.
  • The Renaissance turned Aristotle’s classification into a rigid system of rules → Aristotle’s genre classification became prescriptive.
  • The neoclassicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries → extended the Aristotelian tradition and divided literature into more and more categories.
  • The romantic revolt against rules and traditions → freed artists and their spirits from norms and rules.
  • The Chicago School (neo-Aristotelians) vs. the New Criticism: The neo-Aristotelians in a Chicago-based school of criticism (the late 1930s and early 1940s) revived attentions to traditions (conventions) and their impacts on something new ↔ The New Criticism repudiated any kind of historical approach to literature, and in so doing, attempted to provide the artwork with maximum freedom from tradition or history (“an artwork relies upon no reference to any external reality”).

1-2. History of Genre Criticism in Cinema (from “Introduction” to Film Genre Reader III)

♠ The rise of genre criticism: pioneers in genre theory

  • Robert Warshow’s articles on the gangster film and the western (in Partisan Review in 1948 and 1954 respectively; reprinted in The Immediate Experience)
  • Andre Bazin’s two pieces on the western from the early fifties (in What Is Cinema? 2)
  • Called unprecedented analytical attention to popular genre cinema (turning popular texts into canonical ones).
  • Impressionistic and prescriptive, but pointed the way for many central concerns of later critics.

♠ The 1960s: The era of auteurism

  • The dominance of auteur theories (director-oriented theories) thanks to Cahiers du cinema in France, Movie in England, and the writings of Andrew Sarris in the U.S.
  • A response to the hegemony of Hollywood based on industrialization and commercialization.
  • The interests in American auteurs who managed to retain their own creativities and experimental spirits in the hostile (factory-like) condition of the Hollywood studio system.

♠ From the late 1960s to mid-1970s: The era of structuralism

  • The influences from structuralism and semiotics → the increase of the concern with form and the emphasis on signification and ideology
  • A shift from the signified of films to the practice of signification, that is, from what a film means to how it produces meaning.
  • A heightened interest in the operation of ideology in art—inspired by John Berger, Louis Althusser, Bertolt Brecht, Sigmund Freud, and others—“Meaning arises from the conjunction of various discursive codes at work in the film text, of which the directorial code is only one” (xvii).
  • The emphasis on signification (structuralism and semiotics) and ideology in the 1970s renewed interests in classical narrative films and genre films: the latter became an important site of inquiry
  • The general view of the popular genre (of formula) film was that, little more than bourgeois illusion and primarily a mythic edifice at the service of the ruling ideology, it was considered essentially conservative in both theme and style.

♠ The mid-1970s and 1980s: A shift to post-structuralism

  • If one defines structuralism in a strict way (limiting in to the application of Saussurian principles only), the structuralist moment in film theory was relatively brief: as early as in the late 1960s when the theory began to gain a momentum, discontents with the approach also began to be articulated (for this, see Philip Rosen’s “Introduction” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, 9).
  • An increasing interest in cultural politics.
  • The desire to reconceptualize popular cinema as well as cinema in general for an oppositional cultural politics generated a conflict with the critically and politically suffocating premises of the structural approach and its totalized, closed systematic analysis.
  • A shift from the view of genre as necessarily mythic embodiments of the dominant ideology to the search for critical values in genre practices, particularly in leftist critics.

♠ Addendum: Philip Rosen, Introductions to A Film Theory Reader: Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (New York: Columbia UP, 1986)

  • Beginning in the mid-1960s, attempts to read analytic objects in various fields (anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literature, film, etc.) through a concept of structure derived from certain aspects of classical structural linguistics: Saussurian linguistics was applied to a general science of signs, namely, semiology (3).
  • The arbitrary connection (unconsciously and collectively legislated or established convention) between signifier and signified (4).
  • A signifier has linguistic value only in relation to other signifiers, not to a referent outside the system of signifiers → The relations between signifiers are negative ones and language is fundamentally a system of differences among signifiers (5).
  • A question to be posed is “Can the principle for linguistic signs be applicable to visual images in cinema, signs which are apparently based much more on resemblance to a real-world object than linguistic signs are and appear to have a positive (not negative as linguistic signs) relationship to objects in the real world? (6)
  • Despite distinctions between language and cinema, the findings in structural linguistics served as a starting point for the semiological inquiry into cinema. The model was considered congenial to, particularly, analyzing the conventions of visual representation and the notion of the conventionality or systematicity of cinematic image was further reinforced by the theories of narrative and ideology.
  • Hense, a turn to classical cinema (the Hollywood narrative film) and popular cinema: “the search for a systematizable object which will permit the semiotician to formulate something in cinema comparable to langue” based on a synchronic system of norms despite all the diachronic deviations in the realm of parole, the actual use of language. To that end, classical narrative cinema and popular films (particularly, genre films such as the Western and the film noir) have become a proper object (8).
  • Reactions to the trend: Formations of a cultural politics ranging from promotion of counter-cultural filmmaking (avant-garde cinema) outside the system to the emergence of doubts on the notion of investigating cinema as a system. The notion of structure made it impossible or difficult to discuss the question of historical change adumbrated or suggested through such terms as heterogeneity, incoherence, deviation, excess, disruption, fissure, lacuna, fragment in opposition to unity and totality, that is, something that remains uncontainable in a closed textual structure (11).
  • Ensuing from the question was the post-structuralism, which, already in progress by the late 1960s, made the structuralist moment in film theory in its strict sense relatively brief (11). A turning Saussure against himself in which the definition of signification as the action of difference is radicalized as far as to undermine the notion of structure as a closed system in that the latter, if strictly applied, contribute to the obfuscation of the signifying mechanism (the action of difference). This led to the attempt to rethink the concept of structure not as a completely closed system but as a fractured construct (12).
  • Central to the attempt to reframe the concept of structure were such topics as perception (in relation to the issue of subjectivity formation) and ideology (not in its traditional narrow sense, but in a more nuanced sense such as Althusserian one; often associated with debates on apparatus): here the key question was how images and sounds construct spectatorial positions in that cinema is the signification system where the process of constructing social and psychical identity is constantly in operation (169).
  • “Fundamental to any conceptualization of cinema as ideology is the question of how one relates textual operations (and/or apparatuses supporting those operations) to social formations” including subjectivity formations as well (376). However, thanks to Althusser’s ideological apparatus study, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Foucault’s genealogy, and so on, reading a film ideologically meant less finding a social determination than interrogating the evidence of heterogeneity as a scandalous symptom underlying social determinations of textuality (376). 
  • My question: what is missing in Rosen’s reconstruction of history of genre theory is the question of spectatorship, which is different from a study of the position of the textually conjectured audience, that is, the structurally constructed subjectivity which can be analyzable through textual analysis without examining actual audience responses.  Unexpected moments of deviations in the actual audience response were often proposed as a counterpoint to the textually intended/analyzed position of the viewer and the difference between the textually constructed subjectivity and the actual audience perception led critics to the question of how meanings of a text are constantly renegotiated instead of how its meanings can be determined. 

2. Perspectives in Film Genre Criticism

2-1. Bazin’s phenomenological take on the Western (see Rosen’s argument below).

2-2. (Post)Structuralist approach (the emphasis on signification; the structural analysis; the question of how it works) → Concerned more with the process of signification, that is, the operation of genre structure (the interest in history of knowledge rather than knowledge of history in Nietzschean and Foucauldian sense) → This line of criticism has been engaged with above all ideological criticism → it is also intimately tied to the question of reflexivity, that is, the increase of the interest in self-referential or auto-critical moments in a text (Klinger 77, 79).

2-3. Philip Rosen’s Revised Phenomenology: an attempt to redress structuralist legacies by returning to Bazin’s phenomenological understanding of cinematic images–particularly, to the complex temporality at work in Bazin’s image ontology and the notion of intertextuality as well.

Bazin’s phenomenological view inscribed in his ontology of film images, a dialectic of the subjective and the objective → the centrality of the intending subject (or subjective intentionality) or the process by which human subjectivity approaches the objective, the subject’s struggle for security, knowledge, and/or position: “[For Bazin,] the ‘objective’ is always inflected by the ‘subjective,’ never available except through the process of the latter…: the world can never write itself apart from the abstracting drive of the subject to find meaning; the pure, brute, concrete real in its totality and apart from the intentionality of a subject is simply unavailable as such to humans” (Rosen, Rites of Realism, 44-5; Change Mummified, 12).  In this sense, the opposite term of the subject in Bazin is not the object in itself, but the intended object, the object by and for the subject, which is why employing the notion of the arbitrariness of the signifier-signified relation to Bazin’s phenomenology: “if forms and stylistic procedures cannot provide an actual, unmediated access to the objective, then the basis for evaluating those procedures is located elsewhere than in the relation of text to its referent.  Bazin’s idea of referentiality must go back to the process of the subject, its modes of postulating and approaching ‘objectivity’” (Change Mummified, 13-14).

The notion of subjective intentionality is tied to Bazin’s turn to psychology: for him, photographic or filmic image has more to do with the desire (wish) to win over the passage of time (a preservative obsession) than with the will to likeness, which is why the notion of indexicality appears appropriate to explain Bazin’s understanding of image.  As a weather vane does not look like the wind or the notion of circle is not circular at all, an image as a signifier is not the same as its object or what it points to (Rites of Realism, 48-9; Changes Mummified, 18-19).  On the other hand, an image as an indexical sign indicates or attests to the existence of something.  The credibility of an indexical sign cannot be achieved by the immediate presence of what it refers to.  The referent or the signified of the indexical sign “was” in the past, but not any more in the present sign, which is why an indexical sign is compared to a trace, a fingerprint, a death mask, a mummy, etc.  The void in an indexical sign, therefore, should be filled in (inferred, imagined, remembered) by the subject’s perceptual and/or emotional activity.

Intentionality → the faith or belief in something for which there is no immediately empirical evidence, which is why, for Bazin, imagination, fantasy, the surreal or the magical constitutes a vital root of any true realism (Rites of Realism, 54); realism thus often becomes an act of heroism, more accurately, an act of untimely heroism → On the other hand, the phenomenological realism leads to auteurism in its emphasis on the subjective investment in indexicality (Rites of Realism, 55).

The phenomenological concern with the subject’s position is linked to the desire to counter threats to its own existence that originate from the subject’s failure to perceive the referent in real space.  That is, it is rooted in the subject’s recognition of the ultimate inadequacy of a signifier and at the same time, its demand for a control over the material in constant change.  The question of subject formation.

Bazin’s attempt to negotiate temporality through a timeless subjective intentionality has as its consequence a theoretical blank spot around history…and Bazin’s struggle is not so far from us” (Rites of Realism, 66).  The preservative desire of the subject as an ahistorical constant or something universalàis this simply an essentialist premise to be dismissed by those who oppose Bazin’s phenomenological thinking? Does it have any local validity?  Historicizing Bazin or reading the political unconscious of his phenomenological approach should starts not by asking whether accepting or denying his views but rather by when and how Bazinian questions become relevant, that is, when and how the question of objectivity in time becomes important.  Historicizing does not simply mean situating or contextualizing something with historical perspectives, that is, documenting historical conditions for its emergence; historicizing rather means reading the political unconscious, something politically suppressed in an act of representation.

One of the appeals that make Bazin’s phenomenological realism cogent for the present is the displacement of its focus from spatial similarity or dissimilarity between image and the world to issues of temporality (Changes Mummified, 16)

Bazin realizes that the question of time is central to and inseparable from the objectivity of the subject’s intention in a mechanically reproduced image.  The notion of indexicality already implies that at the core of a film image is the flow of time.

How to define “objectivity in time,” the constant validity of something in the face of the passage of time → the subject should maintain or defend itself (its identity, knowledge, and position) against the destructive or erosive effect of time → An irony is: when the subject succeeds, that is, when the subject does away with time, it becomes a totalitarian myth as in Stalinist cinema; yet when one keeps the challenge of time in account, the subject is put in a constant struggle with it.

2-4. Jameson’s Dialectical approach → Avoid an unavoidable shifting of gears between the two irreconcilable options → Historicize both approaches by relating what appears to be purely methodological issues or dilemmas to the whole critiques of the subject, which requires strong rereading of Freud (and Lacan as well), Nietzsche, Althusser, and Foucault from the Marxist perspectives (Jameson, 124) → Here, the essence is revealed to be first an idologeme, an epicenter of various activities in a narrative (Jameson, 115) → The foremost example in our times is the good/evil opposition → In the final analysis, though, this ideologeme—still materialized through individual agents—should be understood on the level of the social and historical subtext as a contradiction rooted in the class struggles (Jameson, 117).

Note: This is not to say that the category of the ethic is to be renounced; the ethical is fundamental in understanding the formation of our ideology, so we need to move from Derrida to Nietzsche, that is, from the critique of metaphysical thinking to that of the good/bad binary (Jameson, 114). When historicizing a critique (for instance, the Lacanian critique) of the centered subject, what counts is not the denunciation of the centered subject and its ideologies, but rather its genealogy, that is, how it has emerged and works (its constitution or virtual construction as a mirage).  For the lived experience of individual consciousness as an autonomous center of activity is not some mere conceptual error which can be dispelled by the taking of thought and by scientific rectification: it has a quasi-institutional status, performs ideological functions, and is produced/reinforced by other objective instances, determinants and mechanisms (Jameson, 153; see also 234).

The dialectical use of romance, the prototype of all other subgenres

  • Romance as a wish-fulfillment or Utopian fantasy of restoring the condition of some lost Eden (Jameson, 110); the core narrative logic of romance is salvation.
  • The binary of good and evil → Central to romance.
  • Romance is staged as the struggle between high and low, heaven and hell, spring and winter, or the angelic and the demonic (Jameson, 111).
  • Tied to the modern subject formation (ethical criticism based on the view of categories of Otherness as evil) (Jameson, 115, 117, 234).

The persistence of romance through modifications or the return of the magical.

  • Tragedy and comedy are already beyond good and evil in that there the boundary between good and evil is unclear; a tragic hero is neither necessarily good nor altogether bad and who is evil is by no means decidable (Jameson, 116, 119).
  • A third agency is introduced into the narrative—the fate, the extraordinary, the providential, the magical, the supernatural, etc.; yet it should be secularized and rationalized in the modern era.
  • The return of something magical in the modern era (not in the same old forms such as witchcraft, but through its modern substitutes, secularized ones acceptable in the rationalized world, such as personal beliefs, theology, psychology, etc.) (Jameson, 130-34) à symptoms (signs) of or testimony to the dissolution of an essentially bourgeois ideology of the subject and of psychic unity or identity (a modification of the experience of the subject in the modern world) (Jameson, 124-25).

The rejection of romance or the magical – absence or void

  • “In the first great period of bourgeois hegemony, the reinvention of romance finds its strategy in the substitution of new positives (theology, psychology, the dramatic metaphor) for the old magical content.  When, at the end of the nineteenth century, the search for secular equivalents seems exhausted, the characteristic indirection of a nascent modernism, from Kafka to Cortazar, circumscribes the place of the fantastic as a determinate, marked absence at the heart of the secular world” (Jameson, 134); e.g., spaces devoid of meanings, unpeopled streets, moments of silence.

2-5. Genre in New Perspectives (?) from cultural studies (above all, Gramsci), the spectatorship issue (particularly in relation to the formation of transnational spectatorship), and the globalization question.

3. Other Major Voices in Genre Theory

♠ Andrew Tudor (1973)

  • “Genre notions…are not critics’ classifications made for special purposes; they are sets of cultural conventions.  Genre is what we collectively believe it to be” (7).
  • “‘Art movies’ is a genre” → “We can meaningfully talk of, for instance, an auteur breaking the rules of a genre only if we know what these rules are” (8-9).
  • Peckinpah’s rule-breaking in his westerns—for instance, the car in The Wild Bunch—“reflects that there is, in America and in Europe as well, some considerable consensus of what constitutes the characteristic ‘language’ of a western” (8).

♠ Edward Buscombe (1970)

  • The crux of the problem neatly articulated by Wellek and Warren in Theory of Literature: “The dilemma of genre history is the dilemma of all history: i.e., in order to discover the scheme of reference (in this case, the genre) we must study the history, but we cannot study the history without having in mind some scheme of selection” (13-4) → “if we want to know what a western is, we must look at certain kinds of films.  But how do we know which films to look at until we know what a western is?”
  • Outer form (formal attributes such as the setting, the clothes, weapons, horses, trains, wooden towns, masculine bodies, violence, etc.) vs. inner form (leitmotif and author’s intention such as the nature/civilization opposition, masculinity, violence, etc.)
  • The complex relation between form and content → the western’s relation to history: “There are several reasons why it is necessary to resist the temptation to talk about westerns largely in terms of history.  First, one usually ends up by talking about Ford, who is, clearly, more concerned with it than most.  But Ford is not the western.  Second, if this is what westerns chiefly present, it is hard to see why half the world’s population should spend its time watching them.  Third and most serious, to define westerns as films about a certain period of America’s past is to misunderstand the nature and meaning of genres and how they work” (19) → Although indisputably drawing upon nascent stages of American civilization, the western has its own life and history, which, as time passes, becomes more important than its historical references; a western becomes a western not so much by its historical accuracy as by what people collectively believe it to be, that is, its conventions it has invented, developed and brought to alteration.
  • This is why genre criticism cannot be separated from cultural criticism: “Can’t we get along just as well with our present director-oriented theories, while admitting that some films are like others?…[The auteur theories are so extreme that] they assume that the auteur…is personally responsible for everything that appears in the film” (20).  But seeing Michael Curtiz’s other films doesn’t help much to bring to light the charm of his most successful film, Casablanca.  “The auteur theory is not very well equipped to deal with popular art” (21).  “Anyone who is at all concerned with education must be worried at the distance between much of the criticism now written and the way the average audience reacts to a film.  For them it is not a new Hawks or Ford or Peckinpah; it is a new western” (22).
  • The popular taste is at work somewhere in between familiarity and eccentricity, convention and innovation, repetition and difference, and conformism and nonconformism → all films with a similar structure are not successful, which implies that the audience’s preference of a specific film to others in the same cycle involves an operation of a very subtle and complex cultural taste → the miserable thing to do is confusing eccentricity or self-absorption with creativity or originality in the world where eccentricity is always already a cliché.

♠ Rick Altman (1984)

  • The semantic vs. the syntactic approach
  • “The successful genre owes its success not alone to its reflection of an audience ideal, nor solely to its status as apology for the Hollywood enterprise, but to its ability to carry out both functions simultaneously.  It is this sleight hand, this strategic overdetermination, that most clearly characterizes American film production during the studio years.”
  • The semantic/syntactic approach → concerned to elucidate the interpenetration of the semantic and the syntactic through the agency of the spectator.

♠ Judith Hess Wright (1974) – pretty much in line with Adorno’s critique of the culture industry

  • “[Genre films] temporarily relieved the fears aroused by a recognition of social and political conflicts…They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo, and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts.  When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves, so we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence the popularity” (42)
  • “[The gangster’s] tragic flaw is ambition…We are led to believe that he makes choices, not that he is victimized by the world in which he finds himself.  The gangster film retains its appeal because out economic structure does not change” (50).

♠ Mark Jancovich

  • Struggles over genre classification reveal much about how social identities are constructed through the use of cultural distinctions: “genre definitions are produced more by the ways in which films are understood by those who produce, mediate and consume them, than they are by the internal properties of the films themselves…[Genres cannot] simply be defined by the expectations by ‘the audience,’ because the audience is not a coherent body with a consistent set of expectations…Not only can the generic status of an individual film change over time, it can also be the object of intense struggles at a particular moment” (Hollywood Spectatorship, 33-4; qtd. in Stringer, “Putting Korean Cinema in Its Place,” 95).
  • Stringer: “all spectators in all cultural and historical contexts draw upon paradigms of knowledge they are already cognizant.  At the same time, it is natural for viewers also to want to draw conclusions regarding what the films they consume may have to tell them about the society that produced them” (96).

4. Major Topics in Genre Theory

♠ Repetition/Difference (Difference within the Generic System or Structure) → progressive, subversive, countercinemas

  • Althusser: “What art makes us see, and therefore give us in the forms of ‘seeing,’ ‘perceiving,’ and ‘feeling’…is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes” (Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 222).
  • In Althusser, “Art is a special perceptual agency that performs a quasi-epistemic function; it literally makes a spectacle of ideology” (Barbara Klinger, 76).
  • The text/ideology relation → rupture, break, internal distanciation, deformation → an auto-critique of the ideology / the emphasis on textual politics in the 1969 Comolli/Narboni essay, i.e., the prescription of a political value to the differences within the dominant system of representation (Klinger 77).
  • The cinema of difference in repetition “embodies a challenge to the conventional means of representing reality in the cinema in such as way as to expose those means as practice, as a product of ideology, and not as a manifest replication of reality.  The progressive generic text is, in this sense, antirealist, as it rattles the perfect illusionism transmitted by a major sector of classic cinema” (Klinger 79).
  • Generic progressivity → “Difference from the environment of conventions”; “alternative or countercinemas within the province of dominant cinematic practice”; “inflections of plot, character, and visual style which dominates at the expense of narrative coherence and comprehensible solution; auteur (individual creativity) bringing innovations to cinematic conventions; see Pam Cook and Robin Wood (Klinger 81, 85).

♠ A problem → the text/ideology approach has been strongly situated within the province of textual analysis; a radical valorization of disruptive qualities in text to ward off reductive approaches to Hollywood, popular and/or commercial films such as that of the Frankfurt School; a univocal, textual-centric consideration of the cinema/ideology relation; a marked tendency toward a sort of textual isolationism (Klinger 86-7). → The naivety of this approach is the overestimation and overvalorization of the subversive bad taste within the system of conventions which underplays the power of the generic system that circumscribes counter-cinemas.

  • In the pursuit of a countercinema, the binary between “progressive” (subversive) and “reactionary” (conformist) is repeated (Klinger 75).
  • Ideological genre criticism is substantially inflected by questions of auteur (Klinger 76) → The subversive character of a film has been identified as a singular voice of its director or cinematographer → the application of structuralism to ideological criticism helps us to wean off from reflectionist views, but it does not come without cost; in the view it is difficult to explain historical change, that is, a transition from convention to innovation, an effect of which is the text/ideology approach’s turn to such a notion as auteur.
  • The mirage of the marginal: Robin Wood → horror films have a marginal and disreputable status within Hollywood production, they are “capable of being more radical and subversive in their social criticism [in that] works of conscious social criticism…must always concern themselves with the possibility of reforming aspects of a social system whose basic rightness must not be challenged” (Klinger 80).
  • Stephen Neale “recognizes disequilibrium/difference not as a partisan component of the subversive text, but as an essential functioning element of the overall system and the classical textual system is flexible enough to allow for (regulated) forms of excess, deviation, deformation, and defamiliarization.”  The generic system does not fear difference but rather always capitalizes on something new, that is, what Neale calls “regularized variety” (89). → Licensed festival (Terry Eagleton) or administered freedom (Adorno), a regulated play of difference or variation.
  • “The critical assumptions that measure the subversiveness of a genre, based on its anticlassical formal attributes, selectively overstate the radical valency of inventional signifiers and underestimate the means through which supervising systems negotiate a normative function for even the most excessive, foregrounded, deformative textual tendencies” (Klinger, 90). → The distinction between the economic and the cultural level: the film industry has never lost its interest in capitalizing on the subversively low and bad that can turn into profit.  What is really objectionable to the film industry is a work that means no money, whether good or bad and high or low.
  • This is where the question of how to create image out of clichés, what innovation can be made in the reign of clichés in which clichés are everywhere (Deleuze, Cinema).

♠ The textual vs. the extratextual → intertextuality (a text’s relation not only to other texts but also to the context)

  • Klinger’s elaboration on the difference/repetition dynamics does not make notes on the relation between the textual and the extratextual.
  • The distinction between the textual and the extratextual → the logic of text differs from that of the real world and therefore a text is primarily about itself, not about its outside; art history is never to be confused with other histories.
  • Robert Warshow: “We do not want to see the same movie over and over again, only the same form” (The Immediate Experience, 147; Film Genre Reader III, 99) → the same order/anarchy binary in a variety of distinctive forms (East and West, town and wilderness, garden and desert, community and wanderer, etc.).
  • Will Wright (a sociological perspective): “the narrative structure varies in accordance with the changing social actions and institutions” (Sixguns and Society, 27)
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Quotes from The Square

Choi In-hoon, The Square, trans. Kevin O’Rourke (Devon, UK: Spindlewood, 1985)

“America has already been discovered. Western stagecoaches are only in movies. The Indians have become alcoholics. Where, mounted on what, and with whom, is one to produce an action scene?…At no other time has the heroic life been more impossible for man. It’s not that man has changed, it’s the conditions that have changed. When all the conditions have been plucked away, the grain that remains is beautiful superstition…All he [Myong-jun, the protagonist] knew was that the seeds [of living hero’s life and dying the hero’s death] could not flower in a dark square lit by a black sun” (53).

“As he [Myong-jun] came south on the Southern Manchurian Railway he kept crying out in surprise like a child. Although from the time he had lived as a boy in Yongkil he had a vague memory of having seen the sun go down on the endless plain that extends to Fengtien, it was indeed a spectacular sight for eyes seeing it again. The plain stretched as far as the eye could see” (94-95).

“He [Myong-jun] turned his eyes again towards the city [Hong Kong], as if fleeing from his own thoughts. The view of the port by night, a vast space filled with innumerable, burning lights, was like looking at some enormous passion. He recalled having seen a similar scene. Far away to the north. The northern border of the mass of land to which this port belonged. Dusk falling in a plain in Manchuria he had visited after going north. That passion. Above the dazzling lights of the city which lay in front of his eyes, a broad plain far away to the north, sparkling in resplendent gold, also caught his eye. The glass in the window was on fire. The distinctive dusk of Manchuria was so mammoth it gave the impression of immersing the whole world in a resplendent sea of fire. Myong-jun, in the process of writing the article he would send to the office tomorrow morning, put down his fountain-pen with a cry of admiration and went over close to the window. Sky and earth were a sea of fire. The clouds gathered in the west were a huge, golden lump of glass. The poplar trees which lined both sides of the road leading to the Korean People’s Kolkhotz office were like inverted brooms burning vigorously. It seemed as if at any moment sparks would leap in all directions. The things sparkling on the road were probably pebbles. The vast fields of corn and sorghum, stretched out in front of him as far as the eye could see, were a sea of fire. Even the air was on fire. A feast of fire…

[Now on Tagore, an Indian ship with POWs of the Korean War bound for a neutral country, Myong-jun has long lost the fire of political passion for the square] The only thing not burning was Myong-jun’s heart. It has been a long time now since his heart had lost its capacity for vibrant throbbing” (81).

“A man retreating to a cave when he was defeated in the square. But is there anyone in this world who isn’t defeated? Man is always defeated. The only think that is a problem is how ignominiously he is defeated, or how gloriously he is defeated” (143).

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Lukacs and Typology

A self-criticism on the typological method in The Theory of the Novel in the 1962 “Preface” to the book.

“[When I was writing The Theory of the Novel,] I was…in the process of turning from Kant to Hegel, without, however, changing my aspect of my attitude towards the so-called ‘intellectual sciences’ school, an attitude based essentially on my youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dilthey, Simmel and Max Weber” (12).

“[The school appeared to be a new ground of large-scale syntheses between the theoretical and the historical, and we] failed to see that the new method had in fact scarcely succeeded in surmounting positivism or that its syntheses were without objective foundation…It became the fashion to form general synthetic concepts on the basis of only a few characteristics–in most cases only intuitively grasped–of a school, a period, etc., then to proceed by deduction from there generalizations to the analysis of individual phenomena, and in that way to arrive at what we claimed to be a comprehensive overall view…[Yet] the typology of novel forms [in my study] depends to a large extent on whether the chief protagonist’s soul is ‘too narrow’ or ‘too broad’ in relation to reality…[Such an abstract criterion and an arbitrary synthesis are] far too general to afford full comprehension of the historical and aesthetic richness of [specific examples]…puts them into a conceptual straitjacket which completely distorts them” (13-4).

“Although rooted in the ‘intellectual sciences’ approach, this book shows, within the given limitations, certain new features which were to acquire significance in the light of later developments…[While a critique of] the flat rationalism of the positivists nearly always meant a step in the direction of irrationalism [Simmel and Dilthey]…The Theory of the Novel was the first book belonging to the ‘intellectual sciences’ school [and aspiring to get over its limits differently from the tendency towards irrationalism in that in it the findings of Hegelian philosophy were concretely applied to aesthetic problems:] e.g. the comparison of modes of totality in epic and dramatic art, the historico-philosophical view of what the epic and the novel have in common and of what differentiates them, etc….Perhaps a still more important legacy of Hegel is the historicization of aesthetic categories. In the sphere of aesthetics, this is where the return to Hegel yielded its most useful results” (15).

The legacy of Hegel’s view of the dialectical evolution of the world spirit is also at work in the refusal to the historical relativism in positivist kind. The positivist historical relativism in the ‘intellectual sciences’ school (above all, Spengler) tended toward “radically historicizing all categories and refusing to recognize the existence of any suprahistorical validity, whether aesthetic, ethical or logical. Yet by doing so, [it], in return, abolished the unity of the historical process: [its] extreme historical dynamism finally became transformed into a static view, an ultimate abolition of history itself, a succession of completely disconnected cultural cycles which always end and always start again” (16).

As a corrective to the irrationalism and the positivist historical relativism, The Theory of the Nobel was “aspiring to a more intimate connection between category and history” and “strove towards intellectual comprehension of permanence within change and of inner change within the enduring validity of the essence,” something like “a genuine historico-systematic method” in hopes of uncovering Marx’s real aesthetic and developing it further (16-7). Even though the study failed both in design and in execution, its intention came closer to the right solution to the problems of the ‘intellectual sciences’ school and its positivism.

A Kierkegaardization of the Hegelian dialect of history.

A difference between Hegel and Lukacs: While for Hegel “art becomes problematic precisely because reality has become non-problematic,” the idea that animated The Theory of the Novel was the complete opposite of the view: “the problems of the novel form are here in the mirror-image of a world gone out of joint…[the world where] reality no longer constitutes a favorable soil for art…[and] art has to write off the closed and total forms which stem from a rounded totality of being…[and] has nothing more to do with any world of forms that is immanently complete in itself” (17).

Lukacs’s conception of social reality (the present world) was strongly influenced by Sorel and Fichtesque idea of ‘the age of absolute sinfulness.’ “This ethically-tinged pessimism vis-à-vis the present does not, however, signify a general turning back from Hegel to Fichete, but, rather, a ‘Kierkegaardization’ of the Hegelian dialectic of history” (18). Indeed, “the Hegelian revival itself was strenuously concerned with narrowing the gap between Hegel and irrationalism,” which is clearly defined in, above all, “Kroner’s statement that Hegel was the great irrationalist in the history of philosophy” (1924) and also indirectly suggested in a Kierkegaardization of the young Marx such as Karl Löwith who detected Hegelian legacies as a common ground in them (1941).

This romantic anti-capitalism, although charged with critical energies, can turn into a reactionary practice, e.g., an easy apology for the inability or unwillingness to inquire into the present reality, a form of conformism disguised as non-conformism. This explains why Lukacs draws attention to utopianism in The Theory of the Novel: what makes the study not conservative but subversive in nature is “a highly naïve and totally unfounded utopianism–the hope that a natural life worthy of man can spring from the disintegration of capitalism” (20). Although one has every right to laugh at such primitive utopianism, it was the utopian impulse that served as salt to the romantic anti-capitialism, one fundamental ground that one can take meaningful without in any way modifying a critical stance towards its lack of theoretical principle.

The Theory of the Novel “aimed at a fusion of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology”: that is, in the study, “a left ethic oriented towards radical revolution was coupled with a traditional-conventional exegesis of reality” (21), which has become a major trend in critical theory since 1920s onward (Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno). Lukacs, however, warns us against the danger of the tendency (the synthesis of ‘left’ ethical orientation and ‘right’ epistemological form and the pessimism or romantic anti-capitalism as its effect): those intellectuals residing in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ on the edge of an abyss where the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals of artworks often spiced with a heavy dose of nothingness and absurdity heightens the subtle tastes and intellectual dignities of its upscale meditator clients. Imperative, thus, is to find out a properly ‘left’ mode of exegesis of reality that can make a ‘left’ ethics truly revolutionary in practice.

The ‘intellectual sciences’ school (positivism and abstract synthesis) → reactions to the trend

1) Irrationalism (in opposition of the rationalism of the positivist thought in the ‘intellectual sciences’ school) ↔ Lukacs’s historicization

2) Historical relativism (a radical historicization where since everything is relativized, the notion of history turns into a static concept and history itself is ultimately abolished) ↔ Lukacs’s attempts at a historico-systematic method

3) Pessimism or romantic anti-capitalism (a response to the situation that, gone out of joint, the reality of the world can no longer become a favorable soil for art) ↔ Lukacs’s primitive utopianism to be rescued in his misguided study where ‘left’ ethics oriented towards radical revolution is erroneously coupled with ‘right’ epistemology.

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Lee Chang-dong: Between Idealism and Secularism

Secret Sunshine and Poetry

An odd pairing of idealism (Shin-ae played by Chon Do-yon) and humor (Jong-chan played by Song Kang-ho), and a grotesque juxtaposition of Yun Jong-hee (an angel lost in the profane world) and the detective (enjoying obscene jokes and a sharp sense of reality) are reminiscent of the combination of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza particularly in Bakhtinian sense:

“Sancho’s materialism, his pot belly, appetite, his abundant defecation, are on the absolute lower level of grotesque realism of the humorous bodily grave (belly, bowels, earth) which has been dug for Don Quixote’s abstract and deadened idealism…This is a bodily and popular corrective to individual idealistic and spiritual pretence. Moreover, it is the popular corrective laughter applied to the narrow-minded seriousness of the spiritual pretence; it is a regenerating and laughing death. Sancho’s role in the relation to Don Quixote can be compared to the role of medieval parodies versus high ideology and cult, to the role of the clown versus serious ceremonial…[, which constitutes] the grand style of Cervantes’ realism…[and at the same time] his deep popular utopianism”

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 22.

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Reality / Verisimilitude

Tzvetan Todorov’s remarks on the concept of verisimilitude made to the effect that it should not be equated with reality, but interpreted as what a given culture takes for reality.

The Poetics of Prose (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977), 83; see also Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai, Sholay: A Cultural Reading (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., 1992), 20.

Verisimilitude as a set of cultural standards of what constitutes the real, the likely, the possible, which is distinct from the actual or factual and does not deny the imagined altogether.

Paul Smith, Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), xiv.

The cinematic imagination which often has recourse to non-realist sources such as myth, folktale, fantasy, parable, comic book, and so on is not to be subsumed the reality/fiction binary. Not shying away from the fact that what it shows on screen is definitely not what we experience in our real life, the audience accepts it as quite relevant and meaningful to their lives in one way or another. That is, it touches on the lives of movie-goers in their meaningful and enjoyable in the audience’s reception.

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