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Narrative 14.1 (2006) 85-101
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Genre as World System:
Epic and Novel on Four Continents
Wai Chee Dimock
What would literary history look like if the field were divided, not into discrete periods, and not into discrete bodies of national literatures? What other organizing principles might come into play? And how would they affect the mapping of "literature" as an analytic object: the length and width of the field; its lines of filiation, lines of differentiation; the database needed in order to show significant continuity or significant transformation; and the bounds of knowledge delineated, the arguments emerging as a result?
In this essay, I propose one candidate to begin this line of rethinking: the concept of literary genre. Genre, of course, is not a new concept; in fact, it is as old as the recorded history of humankind. Even though the word itself is of relatively recent vintage (derived from French, in turn derived from the Latin genus),1 the idea that there are different kinds of literature (or at least different kinds of poetry) came from ancient Greece. Traditionally it has been seen as a classifying principle, putting the many subsets of literature under the rule of normative sets.
Theorists like Benedotto Croce have objected to it on just these grounds. "[I]nstead of asking before a work of art if it be expressive and what it expresses," genre criticism only wants to label it, putting it into a pigeonhole, asking only "if it obey the laws of epic or of tragedy." Nothing can be more misguided, Croce says, for these "laws of the kinds" have never in fact been observed by practicing writers (36–37).2 Derrida makes the same point. "As soon as genre announces itself, one [End Page 85] must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity." This sort of border policing is madness, he says, for the law of genre is an impossible law; it contains within itself a "principle of contamination," so much so that the law is honored only in its breach (224–5).
Keeping these objections in mind, I invoke genre less as a law, a rigid taxonomic landscape, and more as a self-obsoleting system, a provisional set that will always be bent and pulled and stretched by its many subsets. Such bending and pulling and stretching are unavoidable, for what genre is dealing with is a volatile body of material, still developing, still in transit, and always on the verge of taking flight, in some unknown and unpredictable direction. "Genre is much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon," Alasdair Fowler has suggested. Movement is key, and if this movement is vested in the concept of kinds, it is not as "permanent classes," but as "families subject to change (37,v)."
This analogy to "families" is especially worth thinking about. It reminds us that genre is not just a theory of classification but, perhaps even more crucially, a theory of interconnection. Kin is every bit as important as kind. And, by kin, what I have in mind is not necessarily a genealogical relation, but, just as often, a remote spectrum of affinities, interesting when seen in conjunction, but not themselves organically linked. Likeness here is probabilistic and distributional; it has less to do with common ancestry than with an iterative structure of comparable attributes, issuing from environments roughly similar but widely dispersed. What matters here is not lineage, but a phenomenal field of contextually induced parallels. Born of the local circumstances that shape them, and echoing other genres shaped by circumstances more or less alike, they make up a decentralized web, something like what Deleuze and Guattari call a "rhizome."
This web can be further elucidated by a concept from Wittgenstein: "family resemblance."3 Wittgenstein uses it to talk about a conceptual elasticity that classifies tennis, chess, and ring-a-ring-a-roses under the same heading—"games"—constituting this as a "family," with a largely undefined and infinitely expandable membership. Tennis, chess, and...