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Israel, June 2001

F. Elizabeth Hart
Embodied Genre:
The Conceptual Semantics of Shakespeare's Dramatic Types

One of the principal concepts literary critics use to distinguish their discourse from others in the humanities – genre – has, like almost every other aspect of literary studies, become subject to profound epistemological scrutiny over the past three decades’ advance of postmodernism. Yet genre remains active as a concept across boundaries of traditional and contemporary theory despite radical, periodic calls for its abandonment (cf., Benedetto Croce, certain poststructuralists) and the fact that theories about genre have always tended to be (at worst) prescriptive or (at best) merely descriptive, failing and often not even attempting to be explanatory. Mass market literary handbooks give little indication of the polemics that still underlie any discussion of genre, many continuing to cite Northrop Frye as an authority decades after the eclipse of his views. These handbooks also confidently assert definitions of genre, calling it a branch of poetics concerned with literary "type" or "kind" with no acknowledgment of the many and complex issues embedded in the problems of typicality or resemblance.

The postmodern critique of genre adopts several themes. First and foremost, denying the assumption of generic "essence" or a fixed identity for any given genre, critics have attacked classificatory impulses of descriptive genre theory, noting that, as a normative rule, "every work deviates from any particular set of characteristics that may be attributed to its kind" (Snyder, 1). A related charge is that, far from conforming neatly to taxonomic labels, most texts exhibit characteristics of more than one kind of genre and sometimes of multiple kinds: "Essentialist genre theory assumes that a preconceived unifying principle is a sufficient basis for interpretation, classification, and evaluation, and this kind of genre theory simply does not entertain the possibility that there may exist such a thing as a multigeneric text" (Madsen, 8). Taxonomy as a principle is predicated on images of fixity and stasis; critics today insist that a taxonomical essentialism cannot recognize – much less explain – the evolutions and transformations that mark the history of every genre. Postmodern critics, linked closely to the varieties of Marxist-based literary historicisms, find this lacuna the most egregious of all and assert instead that "over time every work combined with all others of more or less the same kind constitutes the history of the genre: the genre is its history of individual instances" (Madsen, 9).

While I agree with these views and especially with the necessity to incorporate generic history into any understanding of genre as a phenomenon, I find that these theorists’ often sophisticated attempts to redress such difficulties are less than satisfying owing to their reliance on the tools made available to them by literary poststructuralism, a composite of theories about language, discourse, and ideology whose shortcomings are becoming increasingly apparent even to staunch supporters of ideological literary reading. Specifically, poststructuralism’s twin emphases on discourse and power as determinant forces in the construction of subjectivity have had the disorienting effect of radically disembodying the subject – of excising the body and somatic experience – from considerations of agency, cultural history, and literary history. As Bruce R. Smith describes it in a recent essay on "premodern" theories of sexuality, "Deconstruction . . . shares with new historicism-cultural materialism a radical objectification of the subject of inquiry, a distrust of experience, of which erotic desire is surely an extreme example" (325). Virtually all of the recent statements by postmodern critics have asserted that the way to "de-essentialize" genre is to re-cast it in terms of "discourse" (Jameson, Frow, Cohen, Snyder, Madsen) or of discourse-as-power-as-ideology (Snyder). This move toward discourse is progressive because it prevents the tendency to reify literary types; but because these critics conceive of discourse in poststructuralist terms, their applications also exercise the disembodiment – the retreat from experience – that Bruce Smith points to (above). Several critics have also emphasized the status of genre as "operation" (Snyder) or "process" (Cohen), and at least two have introduced the notion of the "discourse system" as a functional replacement for the concept and term "genre" (Frow, Cohen). Some (Cohen, Snyder) have even made strong claims that genre theory must somehow embrace the semantic category, which indeed they must, as Mark Turner, Ellen Spolsky, and other literary cognitivists have argued. But these critics’ claims have not reached beyond "the standard commonplace philosophical notion of a category so thoroughly discredited by cognitive studies during the past [two] decade[s]" (to quote Turner on the subject [150]), a failing that returns these postmodernists, however unwittingly, to essentialist assumptions.

The time is obviously ripe to address genre theory from the perspectives of emergent conversations about subject embodiment (occurring not just in literary cognitivism but among a range of theorists and noticeably among early modern theorists). The effort to re-inscribe the body via the embodied mind into received notions of materialist culture and history may be extended in this context now to include something like an "embodied genre," a theory of genre that emphasizes the cognitive processes underlying the phenomena of typicality, resemblance, and "belongingness" (to use Derrida’s coinage) among literary texts. My ongoing efforts as a literary cognitivist have been to demonstrate that a "cognitive poststructualism" can bridge the artificial gaps that arise within the abstractions of poststructuralist "discourse" while also maintaining many of the basic goals of postmodern/poststructuralist critique. My paper for this conference will therefore maintain the compelling emphases of the postmodern genre theorists, noted above, but it will also push these theorists’ analyses toward an embrace of a cognitive dimension to subjectivity. Specifically, I will review the conceptual processes of categorization that cognitive theory now understands to precede and enable language and hence discourse, exploring those processes as major contributors in the creation of the patterns that bind together, in multiple combinations, individual literary texts. I will argue that conceptual categories provide a necessary missing link between culture, discourse, subject, and text: Categories are not fixed or essential; they exhibit characteristics of malleability, flexibility, and multi-valency as givens of their existence; and, perhaps most important for genre theory, they shift and change, altered by and within the processes of conceptual blending, forming complex, dynamic, and yet constrained fields or systems, which themselves interact with other similarly complex systems, as the important work on conceptual blending by Turner, Gilles Fauconnier, and others has shown. These are the very traits, we notice, including the idea of genre-as-system, that postmodern critics have described but not sufficiently explained about the history and behavior of literary genres.

F. Elizabeth Hart
University of Connecticut


Works Cited

Cohen, Ralph. "History and Genre." New Literary History 27.2 (Winter 1986): 203-218.

_____. "Do Postmodern Genres Exist?" Genre (Fall-Winter 1987): 241-258.

Derrida, Jacques. "The Law of Genre." Avital Ronell, trans. Critical Inquiry 7.1 (Autumn 1980): 55-81.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. "Blending as a Central Process of Grammar." Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language. Ed. Adele E. Goldberg. Stanford: CSLI Pubs., 1996.

Frow, John. Marxism and Literary Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen, 1981.

Madsen, Deborah L. Rereading Allegory: A Narrative Approach to Genre. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Smith, Bruce R. "Premodern Sexualities." PMLA115.3 (May 2000): 318-329.

Snyder, John. Prospects of Power: Tragedy, Satire, the Essay, and the Theory of Genre. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

Spolsky, Ellen. Gaps in Nature: Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind. Albany: State University of New York, 1993.

Turner, Mark. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Turner, Mark, and Gilles Fauconnier. "Conceptual Integration and Formal Expression." Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 10.3 (1995): 183-204.

______. "A Mechanism of Creativity." Poetics Today 20.3 (Fall 1999): 397-418.






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