The Law (of the Law) of Genre

Day 17 of Emerging Genres
The Law of Genre

"...at the very moment that a genre...is broached,
degenerescence has begun, the end begins."
(Jacques Derrida)

The questions are all still before us."
(Mary Eagleton)

Ellen: (impossible!) note-taking




as soon as I was born I exceeded my mother

yet implicity, explicitly, I bore her mark

it was a matter of mention as well as use

I was said to be her child

yet no-one meeting me could tell

it always seemed to me

that I was inside and outside her

at the same time

regardless, it remained impossible

to know who or what she was

and now people remark the same of me

meanwhile, my own children

have sprung from this genre

like abhorrent possibilities

like fascinating, incorrect nodes in my brain

they go off the edges of me

and continue to disturb me

with signals directed to me alone

I create only my own ideas

in order not to notice

they are all being sent to Africa and back

they have the unkempt smell

of unfinished poetry

mother washes them or says they can’t belong

I tell her that membership here

is contingent on its lack of determination

she says, I’m your mother

and don’t you forget it

remember that the law of the law of genre

was written simply

by some other woman’s son

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what is the relationship of the mother to her son?
and whatever does this have to do with the "law of genre"?
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I. coursekeeping
papers due tomorrow (post on-line;
also submit hard copy along with paper #1)

start The Scarlet Letter on Thursday:
READ THE PREFACE AND THE "INTRODUCTORY" (& 8 chapters....?)

II. broadening your experience of
The Professor as Open Book:
the online and on-screen chumminess may not cross over beyond those realms. A number of professors said the most disarming thing of all to students is when they encounter a professor not on a Web page, but in the real world.

of literature (or, Why Major in English, anyway?):
"...English, mathematics, and foreign languages are not *about* anything in the same sense that history, biology, physics, and other primarily empirical subjects are about something. English, French, and mathematics are *symbol systems*, into which the phenomenal data of empirical subjects are cast and by means of which we think about them. Symbol systems are not primarily about themselves; they are about other subjects. When a student 'learns' one of these systems, he *learns how* to operate it. The main point is to think and talk about other things by means of this system."

...an English major is someone who is studying how to master the use of the symbol system. The student who wishes to study how particular people mastered the symbol system in particular ways for particular purposes at particular times -- say, great poets or great novelists -- are a subset of the larger English major.

James Moffett, Teaching the
Universe of Discourse
(1969)

so: how does this course fit into these categories?

  • historical depth
  • formal breadth
  • cultural range
  • critical range
where else in the bi-co might you further pursue what we've been exploring in this class?

III. further public musings....

akeefe, "Genre" to the Masses: what I am really interested here is the use of the word "genre" as referring only to a certain class of fiction, namely fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery, and romance. Also, I am interested by the idea that "good" creative writing is genreless....there seems to be a stigma in traditional creative writing classes around "genre work"....What I am finding interesting is the hierarchical nature of genre ....Some genres seem to be clearly the favored..."genre" is itself a classification.

Hannah, defending (and destroying) these genres: That's an interesting point, that some genres are privileged...then get to be immune from the stigma of genre altogether....From the interview Al talks about, it's clear that the idea of genre is still taken negatively in the creative writing world...

Derrida...might say that it's impossible to tell which works are "citations" and which are "non-citations"--it's impossible to define a genre because it is always changing (not stuck in history)... genre has the potential to morph into something different every time someone adds a work to it....Genre...is an author's starting point rather than her fence.

I'm... asking...if it's fair to dismiss some piece of fiction because it's a "genre work" if genre doesn't exist the way we think it does, as Derrida says it doesn't.

IV. Derrida, "The Law of Genre" and Eagleton, "Genre and Gender"

Two tastes of Derrida already:
archetypal example of "theorizing" in Culler's "What is Literary Theory?"

also embedded in/inspiration for Jameson's
essay on "Magical Narratives: On the Dialectical Use of Genre Criticism"

Frye drew on Derrida's work on unmasking/demystifying
naturalized, unconscious binary oppositions:
ratifying the dominant term by marginalizing the excluded one

showed that driving force of Frye's archetypal system is historical identity
romance filters out historical difference

also showed the blind spots in Propp's formalization of fairy tales
(both not abstract enough and too meaningful!)

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was an
Algerian-born French philosopher,
the father of deconstruction,
who was expelled from (and then cut) school @ 12
because of anti-Semitic quotas.

His work, which has had a profound impact both on literary theory and continental philosophy,
involved excruciatingly careful readings of philosophical and literary texts,
listening and looking for what runs counter to their apparent unity or intended sense.

Calling attention to the the aporias and ellipses,
Derrida demonstrated the unknowable complexity of any text.



Aretha Franklin, 'You make me feel like a natural woman'


she isn't a 'natural woman' but has to be made to feel like one; or:
(supposedly) natural identity is a cultural role, an effect that has been produced

Culler on Derrida on Rousseau on writing
Traditionally/common-sensically, Western philosophy has distinguished 'reality' from 'appearance', things themselves from representations of them, and thought from signs that express it. Signs or representations, in this view, are but a way to get at reality, truth, or ideas, and they should be as transparent as possible; they should not get in the way, should not affect or infect the thought or truth they represent.

In this framework, speech has seemed the immediate manifestation or presence of thought, while writing, which operates in the absence of the speaker, has been treated as an artificial and derivative representation of speech, a potentially misleading sign of a sign.

In his Confessions, the French eighteenth century Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes, 'Languages are made to be spoken; writing serves only as a supplement to speech.' Rousseau repeatedly characterizes writing as a mere addition, an inessential extra, even 'a disease of speech': writing consists of signs that introduce the possibility of misunderstanding since they are read in the absence of the speaker, who is not there to explain or correct.

Here Derrida intervenes, asking 'what is a supplement? 'Webster's defines supplement as 'something that completes or makes an addition'. Rousseau's works treat writing as what completes or makes up for something lacking in speech, repeatedly brought in to compensate for the flaws in speech, such as the possibility of misunderstanding. For instance, his
Confessions inaugurates the notion of the self as an 'inner' reality unknown to society. Rousseau's 'true' inner self is different from the self that appears in conversations with others, and he needs writing to supplement the misleading signs of his speech. Writing turns out to be essential because speech consists of signs that are not transparent, do not automatically convey the meaning intended by the speaker, but are open to interpretation.

Writing is a supplement to speech, but speech is already a supplement. Rousseau writes that children quickly learn to use speech "to supplement their own weakness...to move the world simply by moving the tongue." Derrida treats this particular case as an instance of a common structure: a 'logic of supplementarity' where the thing supplemented (speech) turns out to need supplementation because it proves to have the same qualities originally thought to characterize only the supplement (writing).

Rousseau needs writing because speech gets misinterpreted. More generally, he needs signs because things themselves don't satisfy. In the
Confessions Rousseau describes his love as an adolescent for Madame de Warens, in whose house he lived and whom he called 'Maman'. Different objects function in her absence as supplements or substitutes for her presence. But the same need for supplements persists even in her presence, which is not a moment of fulfilment, of immediate access to the thing itself. And the chain of substitutions can be continued. Even if Rousseau were to 'possess her' he would still feel that she escaped him and could only be anticipated and recalled. And 'Maman' herself is a substitute for the mother Rousseau never knew, who herself would not have sufficed but who would, like all mothers, have failed to satisfy and have required supplements.

'Through this series of supplements', Derrida writes, 'there emerges a law: that of an endless linked series, ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the sense of the very thing that they defer: the impression of the thing itself, of immediate presence, or originary perception. Immediacy is derived. Everything begin with the intermediary.' 'The more these texts want to tell us of the importance of the presence of the thing itself, the more they show the necessity of intermediaries. These signs or supplements are in fact responsible for the sense that there is something there (like Maman) to grasp. What we learn from these texts is that the idea of the original is created by the copies, and that the original is always deferred - never to be grasped. The conclusion is that our common-sense notion of reality as something present, and of the original as something that was once present, proves untenable: experience is always mediated by signs and the 'original' is produced as an effect of signs, of supplements.

Instead of thinking of life as something to which signs and texts are added to represent it, we should conceive of life itself as suffused with signs, made what it is by processes of signification. Writings may claim that reality is prior to signification, but in fact they show that 'There is no outside-of-text': when you think you are getting outside signs and text, to 'reality itself', what you find is more text, more signs, chains or supplements: "there has never been anything but writing...what inaugurates meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence." Presence turns out to be a particular kind of absence, still requiring mediations and supplements.

Derrida's interpretation shows the extent to which literary works themselves are theoretical: they offer explicit speculative arguments about writing, desire, and substitution or supplementation, and they guide thinking about these topics in ways that they leave implicit....Theory involves speculative practice: accounts that challenged received ideas (that signs represent prior realities); the demonstration that what has been thought or declared natural is a historical, cultural product.