Stations of the Ross

(Soundtrack: The Muffs)

Marc Singer offers up some interesting thoughts on the life, death and rebirth of genres (building upon an article by music critic Alex Ross, and this piece by Peter Coogan, who’s also been very active on the Comics Scholars Discussion List lately).

Since everyone seems to be using Thomas Schatz as an authority on genre, I thought I would trot out my own candidate for “scholarly precursor most likely to lead comics criticism out of the wilderness of auteur-worshipping babytalk”–yes, I’m talking about Stanley Cavell (whose Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage is absolutely indispensable to anyone who wishes to treat pop culture as something more than superstructural dross).

Anyway–here’s a Cavell quote that speaks to the point Marc raises, and which has heavily influenced my own thinking about the development of superhero comics (i.e. while Miller + Moore work overtime to isolate, reify, and deconstruct the genre, Morrison and Gruenwald elaborate upon it, with far more interesting results–in my opinion, of course!):

To assess my claim that the Hollywood sound comedy of remarriage begins with It Happened One Night, in 1934, one will have to know more definitely what I mean by a genre and what I mean by its having a beginning. I have already said that my date may be off–an earlier film may present itself for consideration, or it might be argued that It Happened One Night is not a true member of the genre, so that it only begins later, say with The Awful Truth. But I have also said that I am not writing history. My thought is that a genre emerges full-blown, in a particular instance first (or set of them if they are simultaneous), and then works out its internal consequences in further instances. So that, as I would like to put it, it has no history, only a birth and a logic (or a biology). It has a, let us say, prehistory, a setting up of the conditions it requires for viability; and it has a posthistory, the story of its fortunes in the rest of the world, but all this means is that later history must be told with this new creation as a generating element. But if the genre emerges full-blown, how can later members of the genre add anything to it?

This question is prompted by a picture of a genre as a form characterized by features, as an object by its propoerties; accordingly to emerge full-blown must mean to emerge possessing all its features. The answer to the question is that later members can “add” something to the genre because there is no such thing as “all its features”. It will be natural in what follows, even irresistible, to speak of individual characteristics of a genre as “features” of it; but the picture of an object with its properties is a bad one. It seems to underlie certain structuralist writings.

An alternative idea, which I take to underlie the discussions of this book and which I hope will be found worth working out explicitly, picks up up a suggestion I broached in Must We Mean What We Say? and again in The World Viewed, that a narrative or dramatic genre might be thought of as a medium in the visual arts might be thought of, or a “form” in music. The idea is that the members of a genre share the inheritance of certain conditions, procedures and subjects and goals of composition, and that in primary art each member of such and such a genre represents a study of these conditions, something I think of as bearing the responsibility of the inheritance. There is, on this picture, nothing one is tempted to call the features of a genre which all of the members have in common. First, nothing would count as a feature until an act of criticism defines it as such… Second, if a member of a genre were just an object with features then if it shared all its features with its companion members they would presumably be indistinguishable from one another. Third, a genre must be left open to new members, a new bearing of responsibility for its inheritance; hence, in the light of the preceding point, it follows that the new member must bring with it some new feature or features. Fourth, membership in the genre requires that if an instance (apparently) lacks a given feature, it must compensate for it, for example, by showing a further feature “instead of” the one it lacks. Fifth, the test of this compensation is that the new feature introduced by the new member will, in turn, contribute to a description of the genre as a whole …So while the genre may not care, so to speak, in what order its instances are generated, a book about the genre is affected at every turn by the order it imposes upon itself. The essays [in Pursuits of Happiness] are quite different from one another and it is clear to me that each of the readings would bear a different countenance had its order in the composition of the essays been different. Does this impugn the objectivity of my readings?

Gotta go!

Bonjour les amis!



  1. heh, I guess it’s no surprise Cavell has written about Wittgenstein, since the above could have come straight out of the his thoughts about “Family Resemblances” and Games…it’s been a few years since I’ve read any Cavell. I guess I’ll have to re-visit yet another author now…

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