- History of Narrative Genres after Foucault
Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault have explored the role played by epistemological paradigms in shaping and limiting how the world is understood and what can count as true at different times. Kuhn took the natural sciences as his subject, while Foucault focused on the social sciences. In this essay I propose to explore the existence and nature of cultural paradigms whose truth claims are less stringent than those made in the sciences, and to examine in particular the close relation between cultural paradigms and genres, including the significance of transformations within and between genres.
The initial accounts of scientific paradigms and social-scientific epistemes provided by Kuhn and Foucault assert their singleness and exclusivity, and thus seem to stand in strong contrast to the multiplicity of paradigms in the cultural field. For a number of such cultural paradigms can and typically do coexist—in some tension with each other, and possessing a greater or lesser authority and persuasiveness. In fact, both Kuhn and Foucault moved away from their early and extreme assertions of the uniqueness of dominant paradigms, even in the natural sciences and social sciences. Moreover, they recognized either the multiplicity of artistic schools or the transitional nature of artistic works and genres.
Kuhn had asserted the absence of competing paradigms in his earlier account, and even his later revision lays emphasis on “the relative scarcity of competing schools in the developed sciences.” 1 [End Page 267] There tends to be only one such school in a particular field at any time, because it must provide the framework and rationale for problem-solving by a limited and sometimes small scientific community. On the other hand, a multiplicity of available schools characterizes a field before it reaches the stage of a normal science, and competing paradigms will find adherents during a period of scientific revolution as well. In such a revolutionary period, the operations of normal science are suspended until a consensus develops among those in the field in favor of an alternate paradigm.
Kuhn points out that both the social sciences and the arts stand outside this process—the arts especially, because, unlike the sciences, they are not problem-solving activities. In philosophy and the arts, he writes, “there are always competing schools, each of which constantly questions the very foundations of the others” (pp. 162–163), and each of which makes use of a number of exemplars at any one time (p. 167). Authors of narrative, to take another example, will typically not write in accordance with a single cultural paradigm because their activity does not consist primarily of identifying and solving problems, as it does for scientists. There will thus be a number of schools of narrative at a given time, many of them residual. The appearance of a new genre of narrative may indicate an emerging cultural formation, one that might later come to dominance; similarly, the reappearance of a genre in an altered or hybrid form may reveal a shift of paradigms; and conversely, the fading of a genre from prominence may indicate the passing of a cultural paradigm.
Like Kuhn, Foucault begins by asserting that an episteme is exclusive, unique, and determining. In The Order of Things, he famously writes that, “in any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge.” 2 Moreover, in his account of the epistemes governing the social sciences from the Renaissance to modern times, discontinuity plays as great a role as in Kuhn’s account, perhaps even greater. 3 The Renaissance and classical epistemes in The Order of [End Page 268] Things are, like Kuhn’s paradigms, incommensurable. There is no progression from one to the other, and Foucault provides or suggests no possible causes for the rupture he describes; nor does he explore stages by which this transformation was accomplished. 4 It is striking, therefore, that he does give a painstaking and elaborate account of the stages by which the classical was itself transformed into the modern episteme between 1775 and 1825, noting stages and middle grounds between the two, and thus diminishing the discontinuity...