Hayden White: “Anomalies of Genre”

The full title of this essay is “Anomalies of Genre: The Utility of Theory and History for the Study of Literary Genres.” Apparently, this essay comes from an issue of New Literary History which was specifically about the utility of theory and history for the study of literary genres, so White doesn’t propose his own theory here. Rather, he overviews and responds to the contributions of the scholars whose work is published in this specific issue, which includes Frederic Jameson. Thus, this is a nice summary of a 2003 issue of New Literary History, but its usefulness for me has really just been that it has pointed me in other interesting directions for my research on “genre theory” (if that’s a thing that exists?).

So, the most useful thing in this summary might be for me to just overview (as White does) the various names that come up in this issue, so that I can go look for their work and read it for myself:

Michael Prince: Apparently, there is a scholar named Ralph Cohen (who I should also look up) who says that “both the notion of (literary) genre and genres themselves appear to be ‘resistant to theory'” (White 597). This is really interesting, and I wonder how Cohen deals with Derrida’s “Law of Genre”? I don’t know how Cohen is defining “theory” here, and I certainly don’t know if Derrida would consider his talk a “theory,” per se…. but I associate Derrida with “Theory” (capital T), so I don’t know what to make of this. Anyway, Michael Prince says that if Cohen is right, then “genre’s resistance to theoretical consideration tells us more about theory than it does about genre itself” (White 597). “For if,” White goes on summarizing Prince…

For if, as everyone seems to agree, genre is an essential element or aspect of literarity, then genre’s resistance to theory implies that theory itself is inimical to literature and should not, therefore, be brought to bear upon literary artwork. Indeed, Prince holds that it may be genre’s resistance to theory that generates the endless task of literary interpretation, which has the role in criticism of mediating not only between literature and life but also between literature and theory as well. (597)

It seems that both Cohen and Prince decide that history is a good alternative to theory in the study of literary genre. If theory doesn’t work, historicize. As White says, “[a] historical treatment is typically seen as an alternative and antidote to the corrosive effects of theory in literary studies” (598). White goes on to say that the “historical approach lets you simply show the ways genre works in different times and places in the development of literature, without having to raise the vexing theoretical question of the value typically assigned to specific genres, various notions of genre, and the idea of a hierarchy of genres in both culture and society at large” (599). This discussion really confuses me. First of all, I don’t understand how “history” and “theory” are two different things. I’m not saying they’re exactly the same thing, but history theorizes and theory historicizes, right? How can one be an “antidote” to the other? They seem mutually constitutive to me… Second of all, all of the great work on the genres of sensation and melodrama that I’ve read seem to both “show the ways genre works in different times and places” AND raise the “theoretical question of the value typically assigned to specific genres” (599). Elaine Hadley’s entire book seems to do both of these things all the time, so I don’t understand the distinction being made here…

I think that the foundational idea that White is trying to gesture at is the idea that genre can somehow be “pure”–which is an idea that has problematic affinities with the notion of racial “purity” and aristocratic “purity.” So… White via Prince via Cohen is trying to say that theory exposes the myth of generic purity, therefore it has nothing else to do? Is that what’s going on here? I still don’t understand… I guess that’s really what Derrida’s “Law of Genre” does–it does identify genre as always already contaminated, and never “pure.” But I don’t see why that realization negates theoretical approaches…???

Moving on, though, I did find a suggestion that the phrase “the law of genre” doesn’t come specifically from Derrida (as I suppose I should have intuited). In Latin, it’s operis lex, and it comes from Horace. It’s a law of generic essence: “It was theory which, in defense of the doctrine of generic purity, ‘forbade’ the mixing of elements from different genres” (White 601). I guess this is why Derrida opens his speech in the way that he does, with the utterances, “Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them.” That was Horace’s operis lex–good to know. Someone names Farrell (didn’t catch the first name) says that the essentialism implicit in the law of genre is actually what goaded poets and other writers to mix genres, since the literary folk generally don’t take kindly to being told what to do.

Jerome McGann: Note to self: look up this Jerome McGann essay. It sounds AWESOME!! So I’m going to read it and write a separate post about it. But as a result of summarizing McGann, White muses, “genre theory might very well profit from a move toward something like the performative mode of addressing its object–a move which has enjoyed massive payoffs in the fields of dance, music criticism, and media studies” (608). I just think that’s funny because a few posts ago, I wrote my summary of David Kurnick’s Empty Houses in the form of a play. So there’s that.

Morson: Again, didn’t catch the first name here. White’s summary of this article didn’t interest me as much as his response to it. White attempts to solve a problem that he summarizes in Morson’s work, saying:

One way of dealing with this problem is to view the literary work as the product (in part, of course) of a kind of dialectic of genres, in which what the formalists called the “dominant” of the work is viewed as an attempted synthesis of all generic conventions used to justify the work’s claim to some kind of realism. This approach to the question of genre gets us beyond any necessity to regard certain “paradoxical” aspects of a discourse of genre as indices of a “problem” and allows us to treat them as the solution to the question of why generic conventions seem necessary to the presentation of a worldview in the first place. (611)

I’m interested in this passage because it reminds me of Winifred Hughes’s theory of the “sensation paradox.” For Hughes, the sensation paradox is precisely a mixing of genres: sensation = romance + realism. It’s paradoxical because romance is about the faraway, and realism is about the everyday; romance is about fantasy, realism is about life’s nitty gritty details. Sensation brings them together–and that’s essentially her argument. Of course, she shows how it works differently in the work of each different author she analyzes, but it’s a bit of a one-note argument. In White’s reading, the sensation paradox would be the solution to the problem of us seeing genre distinctions as “necessary to the presentation of a worldview in the first place.” The sensation paradox could be the antidote to overly-stabilized Victorian theories of genre. That’s interesting. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it’s interesting. And it could be true…


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