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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