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New Literary History 34.3 (2003) v-xvi

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Notes Toward a Generic Reconstitution of Literary Study*

Ralph Cohen

"THEORIZING GENRES I" offered, in addition to essays on literary genres, essays that applied genre to history, anthropology, psy- choanalysis, film, and postcoloniality. "Theorizing Genres II," with the exception of Stephen Bann's essay on French painting, is devoted to studies of literary genres beginning with the writings of Plato and Aristotle.

It is appropriate, therefore, to explore how contributors to this symposium interpret "Theorizing Genres." They all assume that genre refers to a group of texts. Whether this "group" is called a class, a category, or a convention, the "group" consists of member texts. These members exist over time. In an originating genre, the initial member and those that follow closely upon it share a number of features. But this sharing becomes less rigid in time as other features are added. A genre can become transformed, leading to new genres; or it can cease to be practiced. Membership in a genre is inevitable, but whether such membership is identified as essential is not. Texts that may at one time be considered essential members of one genre may at another be considered members of several genres.

The essays in the two collections are not only concerned with genre membership; they also deal with the linguistic and social basis of genre. Ancient genres were claimed to be essential; later genre critics found them to be combinatory, characterized by change and transformation. Many of the essays that follow trace the historical changes in a genre, and they study how changes of a genre's function take place.

Essays such as "Genres of Work: The Folktale and Silas Marner" and "Herbert Horne's Diversi Colores (1891): Incarnating the Religion of Beauty"appear to address individual genre members, but these individual [End Page v] texts are interpreted as instances of generic combinations. Susan Stewart's essay on Silas Marner demonstrates that a novel can contain elements from folktales but such embedding is only one of numerous possibilities of generic combinations. Jerome McGann's essay on Diversi Colores treats the poetic collection as an example of pastiche, the genre initiated by Mallarmé. His approach stresses the contribution the collection makes to the genre by introducing the feature of incarnation of meaning. McGann's essay also functions as a contribution to critical theory. He argues for a "more comprehensive" and inclusive criticism. The pastiche includes the combinatory role of poetic and visual materials as well as critical discourse.

Every text is a mixture of components and these are not confined to formal elements. Formal elements, if defined as metrical features, are relatively few in long works like the romance or novel. But even in a short poem such as the sonnet, metrical features do not convey the social, political, personal views that constitute the significance of a text. Every text possesses features or components that connect it with a genre, but it also includes elements such as typography, illustrations, interruptions, interventions that provide meanings beyond the formal elements. But even the formal elements in, for example, Aristotle's exposition of tragedy—plot, character, diction, thought, song, spectacle—are not equally weighted, and in time many additional components are included and others dropped.

The assumption that genre expresses the norm of a particular kind leaves open the possibility that it also has components that are not pertinent to the norm. And insofar as genre exists over time, later members lessen the unity and coherence of a genre. The most obvious example of this in the present collection is Joseph Farrell's case study of the Latin love elegy from its origin to its extinction. This genre includes elements from epigram, other elegies, pastoral poetry, and stock characters from the new comedy. The Latin love elegy was taken to be a lower genre, yet Farrell points out that it included epic perspectives. In fact, it refashions itself repeatedly along the lines of different genres. Finally, in Ovid's hands it "becomes a genre of such totalizing ambition that it is...


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