Genre Trouble

Posted by Sarah Anderson on February 17, 2011 in Blog tagged with , ,

Yes, that’s right, I did just refer to the most groundbreaking piece of theory in the universe (Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, just in case you missed it). I am that pretentious. I couldn’t help myself; I want to be Judith Butler as much as a 12 year old girl wants to be Cheryl Cole…

Anyway, this is just a short piece on the politics of Gothic and genre and the problematic nature of the academic study of Gothic as a genre. I had originally intended this to be a much more well informed piece on genre theory paying particular attention to Todorov’s first chapter of The Fantastic, but as term has started and I have a mountain of work to do I’m just going to leave that as suggested (double**, strongly recommended) further reading.

I know not everyone agrees that what exactly constitutes the Gothic genre, or that it is a ‘Genre’ at all. But, as this is my piece, I’m going to assume that it is a genre, defined by its subversive qualities; its transgressive, disturbing themes; its resistance to the main stream and its attempts to represent the unrepresentable. I choose these because I think they are what is important about the Gothic: they are the reasons I study it anyway.

But this is exactly where the problem lies. That something belongs to a genre suggests that it conforms to a set of rules or definitions- very subversive, I’m sure. Not. Well, okay, what if those rules are “must be subversive, transgressive etc.” But then there is another problem: this both implies that the gothic can be known, defined and put in its own little box, and also that certain things can be labelled as ‘transgressive’, which means that they reinforce the normal rather than challenge it. In this way, defining it as a genre starts to look suspiciously like a sneaky sanitizing of the Gothic, as a way of appropriating it into the mainstream. By defining it against the mainstream, the Gothic becomes a valid choice of literary pursuit; it becomes known and therefore non-threatening and so is easily absorbed into the mainstream. It seems that if Gothic is to survive as subversive, then it has to keep changing and developing to avoid definition, to avoid being fixed, known or limited to a set of acceptable parameters. So if the Gothic has to be always changing, then the Gothic Genre cannot really exist.

So what is it we are studying? Are we participating in sanitizing the Gothic or neutralising its subversive properties by appropriating it into the realm of academia?

I think that this is actually an issue with academia in general.  Through analysing texts, are we revealing something, bringing out a meaning, or imposing something on them? Are we telling texts how they should mean, governing how they develop and confining future examples of that ‘genre’ to the framework which we have imposed?

This also poses an issue for new and emerging research areas: as academics in a particular field, we assimilate to the accepted way of writing and accepted way of analysing in that field. By identifying something that is new and subversive (I know, for example, someone who is doing a wonderful PhD on computer games) and by using academic language to speak of it, and a particular framework in with which to analyse it, we are appropriating it into the system, defining and even creating the ways it is allowed to be subversive.

So, the question of this post is, are we degothicizing the Gothic by analysing it? As someone whose interest in academia is all about subversion I really hope that the answer is no. I do believe it isn’t that simple, but I also believe that it is something to be aware of. Knowledge wouldn’t progress if we didn’t all have academic language in common and a shared approach to analysis. But there is a fine line between working within a particular academic context and simply going through the motions; I mean, if I read one more postmodern text, underline the word ‘remembering’ and make notes of its corporeal ‘re-membering’ connotations in the margin one more time I think it’ll be time for me to take a step back from literary analysis….

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