On the Pleasures of Not Belonging, or Notes on Interstitial Art (Part Two)

Most current academic thinking dismisses the idea that genres are stable and essential categories, that we can determine what genre a work belongs to once and for all, and that doing so tells us all we need to know about the example in question. Instead, this new scholarship talks about what genres do rather than what genres are and describes the processes by which works get classified and reclassified over time.

When these categories are deployed as a system for regulating the production and distribution of culture, The publishing industry is misusing genre theory. As music critic Simon Frith notes, “genre maps change according to who they’re for… A committed music fan will soon find, for example, that she’s interested in sounds that fit into several categories at once and that different shops therefore shelve the same record under different labels…. It’s as if a silent conversation is going on between the consumer, who knows roughly what she wants, and the shopkeeper, who is laboriously working out the pattern of shifting demands. What’s certain is that I, like most other consumers, would feel quite lost to go to the store one day and find the labels gone – just a floor of CDS, arranged alphabetically.”

So, for Frith, genre categories have some temporary use value in helping consumers find the music they want to hear. But those categories are also subject to recall and modification without notice and are often deployed in idiosyncratic ways, reflecting the personalities of the owners of different record shops or even the whims of the clerks who shelve particular titles. If you print the genres on the book jacket, you automatically limit their shelf life by restricting your ability to shuffle the pieces to reflect changing tastes and perceptions. The result will be as much bad business as bad art.

Of course, on the consumption side, we all adopt very idiosyncratic systems for shelving our books anyway: that’s the pleasure of reading someone else’s bookshelves as a map of their mind, displaying what things interest them and the perceived relationships between the parts.

You might think that this “shelving” metaphor for thinking about the cultural work of genres would break down quickly in a world where fewer and fewer books are purchased in brick-and-mortar bookshops and more and more of them are being bought online, where listings can be easily reconfigured, where the same book can be listed in an infinite number of categories.

Paradoxically, though, genres have had a tighter hold on our imagination in recent years as the range of cultural choice has broadened and audiences have fragmented. Film historian Rick Altman tells us that far from imposing rigid boundaries between genres, the old studio system depended on the idea that the same film could appeal to multiple audience segments at a time when pretty much everyone in the country went to the movies once or twice a week. Hollywood films rarely fit into some narrowly composed category: the same film had to appeal to men as well as women, the young as well as the old, by signaling different entertainment elements (“Comedy. Romance. Action. Exotic Locales. Singing. Dancing….”)

Over the course of the 20th century, however, genre categories have become ever more specialized as media industries refine techniques for monitoring and targeting particular clusters of consumers. These more rigid and precise subgenres are the product of a more general tendency towards what anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “specification.” Subcultures break down into smaller subcultures, niches become smaller niches in an eternal dance between our desire to differentiate ourselves from and affiliate ourselves with others who share our tastes. There are more different categories of books, records, and films than ever before; all that diversity produces an anxiety that is being met by more aggressive policing of boundaries. Using more sophisticated tools, media consumers are trying to find the “perfect choice,” rather than taking for granted that a work designed for a general audience is going to contain some things we like and some things we don’t.

And where the market doesn’t impose such specifications, we add them ourselves. Catherine Tosenberger has argued that the best fan fiction is “unpublishable” in the sense that it operates across the genre categories, aesthetic norms, and ideological constraints that shape commercial publishing. Fans self-publish in order to step outside those filters. Yet, the fan community also imposes its own categories, which help readers find the “right story” through author’s notes that tell us, for example, which “ships” (relationships between specified pairs of characters) are being explored, offer a rough sense of their sexual explicitness or emotional tone, warn us about vexing themes, and so forth. And if you read the letters of comment, there’s enormous anger directed at any writer who asks a reader to read a story that doesn’t deliver what was promised and, even worse, gives them something they didn’t ask for.

All of this focus on using genres to classify and shelve works assumes that we know where one genre ends and another begins and that genre works stay where we put them. Genres may be optical illusions, which come and go like mirages, depending on the ways we look at the texts in question.

In one formulation, genre classifications offer reading hypothesis: we start a book with the assumption that it will follow a certain path; we read it “as” a mystery or as a romance or as a fantasy, and as we do so, we look for those elements that match our expectations: depending on our starting point, we may notice some things or ignore them, make certain predictions or avoid them, value or reject certain elements, form or dismiss certain interpretations. Start from a different hypothesis and you will have a different experience.

Some critics are rereading familiar texts through alternative logics: so, for example, queer cultural critic Alex Doty has made the case for The Wizard of Oz as a power struggle between butch and femme lesbians, Jason Mittell has read the HBO series The Wire as a video game, and Linda Williams reads pornography in relation to Hollywood musicals. Might we see such essays as interstitial criticism?

For some readers, there is a certain pleasure in playing a game where all the parts match our templates (much as a sparrow feels more like a bird than an ostrich does). For other readers, there may be a pleasure in the unanticipated or the indeterminate. Let’s hear it for the duck-billed platypus!

Tzvetan Todorov has talked about the “fantastic” as playing with this uncertainty about classification. For instance, most ghost stories create a special pleasure from our uncertainty about whether we are supposed to believe there really are ghosts or whether we are to come up with a natural, logical, real-world explanation for the events. The pleasure, he says, is in toggling between multiple interpretations, not knowing what kind of story we are reading: there was a ghost; the narrator was crazy; or in the Scooby-Doo version, it was all a scheme by the guy who runs the old amusement park.

Even when we kinda knew where the ghost story was going, the process of hiding and unveiling can be as much darn fun as a good old fashion striptease. What if we were to imagine the interstitial as another kind of indeterminacy, one that flits between genres in the same way that the fantastic flickers between levels of reality. Maybe this is what Heinz Insu Fenkel is getting at when he writes, “Interstitial works make the reader (or listener, or viewer) more perceptive and more attentive; in doing so, they make the reader’s world larger, more interesting, more meaningful, and perhaps even more comprehensible. The reader, who has been seeing black-and-white, suddenly begins not only to see color, but to learn how to see other colors.”

Just as there are systems of cultural production where audiences express confusion if a work straddles genres, there are others where artists thrive upon and audiences anticipate mixing and matching genre elements. Take for example the so-called “masala films” that come out of the Bollywood film industry in India and are popular across Asia, Africa, and increasingly the west. The same film might move between historical and contemporary settings, might mix comedy and melodrama, might follow an intense (and disturbing) action sequence with a musical number, might mix the most sudsy romance with social uplift and political reform, and might acknowledge both Hindu and Islamic traditions. The descriptor “masala” refers to a mixture of spices used in Indian cooking. Just as one would be disappointed if an Indian dish only contained one spice, the Bollywood spectator would be disappointed if a Hindi film contained only one genre.

We are seeing greater cultural churn as more and more works move across national borders, get picked up by new artists and audiences, get combined in new ways, paving the way for nouvelle culture in the same way that the global availability of spices and ingredients has led many of our best chiefs to experiment with radical departures from and reinventions of traditional cuisines. The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has contrasted a classic understanding of cultures as so many exhibits in an ethnographic museum with a more contemporary notion of cultures as garage sales, where people push, pull, and paw over other people’s used stuff before taking it home, trying it on for size, and altering it to suit their needs.

Many young American consumers are using the web in search of Korean dramas, Japanese anime, Latin American telenovelas, or Bollywood films, anything that takes them outside the parochialism of their own culture. The result really does defy any classification: look at something like Tears of the Black Tiger which starts as a classic Thai novel, throws in a little opera, adds a much more intense color palette, and tells the man’s story as a western and the woman’s story as a ’50s style melodrama to suggest that the two protagonists are living in different worlds.

Globalization is simply one of a number of forces which are breaking down the tyranny of genre classifications and paving the way for experimentation within popular storytelling. In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson makes the argument that the most popular forms of entertainment today are popular because they make demands on our attention and cognition. For example, a television show like Lost, one of the top ratings successes of the past decade, demonstrates a level of complexity that would have been unimaginable on American television a few decades ago; with its large scale ensemble casts of characters, its flashes forwards and backwards in time, its complex sets of puzzles and enigmas, its moral ambiguities and shifting alliances, but also its uncertain and unpredictable relationship to existing television genres.

If we knew what the operative genre model was, we might figure out what’s really happening on the island, but without such a clear mapping, we remain pleasurably lost. Such dramas thrive in part because they support robust internet communities where readers gather online to compare notes, debate interpretations, trace references, and otherwise have fun talking with each other. Its interstitial qualities are essential to Lost‘s success, even as they account for why other viewers got frustrated and gave up on the series convinced that it was never going to add up to anything anyway.

Lost illustrates another tendency in contemporary popular culture towards what I call transmedia storytelling. Lost is not simply a story or even a television series; Lost is a world that can support many different characters and many different stories that unfold across multiple media platforms. As these stories move across media platforms, Lost also often moves across genres: not unlike early novels, which might be constituted through mock letters, journals, and diaries, these new stories may mock e-mail correspondence, interviews, documents, websites, news magazine stories, advertisements, computer games, puzzles, cyphers, and a range of other materials which help make its world feel more real to the reader. These transmedia works will add a whole new meaning to the concept of interstitial arts.

So, to borrow from Charles Dickens (who borrowed from everyone else in his own time), this is the best of times and the worst of times for the interstitial arts. In such a world, the interstitial thrives and it withers. It finds receptive audiences and harsh critics. It gratifies and grates. It inspires and confuses. Above all, it gives us something to talk about. It opens us up to a world where nothing is what it seems and where little belongs, at least in the narrow sense of the term. We’re going Out There!

What happens next is in your hands. Read. Enjoy. Debate. Tell your friends. But also create. Write. Appropriate. Remix. Transform. Just leave your cookie cutters and jelly molds at home. We can figure out what shelf this belongs on later.

 

Bibliography

Ellen Kushner, “The Interstitial Arts Foundation: An Introduction,” in Nebula Awards® Showcase 2005, edited by Jack Dann (ROC/PenguinPutnam, March 2005), http://www.interstitialarts.org/essays/kushner_iaf_an_introduction.php

Delia Sherman, “An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/intro_toIA.html

Susan Stinson, “Cracks,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/reflectionStinson.html

Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (University of Texas, 1982).

Heinz Insu Fenkl, “The Interstitial DMZ,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/why/the_interstitial_dmz_1.html

Barth Anderson, “The Prickly, Tricky, Ornery Multiverse of Interstitial Art,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/reflectionAnderson.html

Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard University Press, 1998).

Rick Altman, Film/Genre (British Film Institute, 1999).

Grant McCracken, Plenitude 2.0: Culture by Commotion (Periph: Fluide, 1998).

Catherine Tossenberger, Potterotics: Harry Potter Fan Fiction on the Internet, Dissertation, University of Florida, 2007.

Alex Doty, Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon (Routledge, 2000).

Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (MIT Press, 2009).

Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (University of California Press, 1999).

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Cornell University Press, 1975).

Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Reworking of Social Analysis (Beacon Press, 1993).

Charles Vess, “Interstitial Visual Arts: An Impossible Marriage of Materials,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/marriage_of_materials.html

Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You (Riverhead, 2006).

Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1988).

John Caughie, Theories of Authorship: A Reader (Routledge, 1981).

Peter J. Rabinowitz, “The Turn of the Glass Key: Popular Fiction as Reading Strategy,” Critical Inquiry, March 1985.

Comments

  1. I think the idea of “shelving” by genre (and how in some ways we consider this a part of how we consume media, albeit one that is inherently personal) is particularly interesting in the context of Award Shows and their division of film (the Golden Globes, at leas) or television by genre.

    I wrote an article (linked to the left, if it works correctly) on how the television “dramedy” has become more and more common, with traditional distinctions (like 1/2 hour = comedy, 1 hour = drama) being subverted by shows that could potentially fit into either genre. I know that Jason Mittell has written on the ways in which genre is formed through consumption, and this is especially true in television where different writers and directors put their own stamp onto a series, and viewers respond to these differences with a personal preference (Glee is a good example of a show that has so many different elements that nearly everyone has a different connection to the series).

    However, the problem is that the Emmys require classification: a show needs to decide whether it is a drama or a comedy, it can’t be both. While the Emmy voters would be lost trying to submit ballots if there were no categories at all (just like the customer in the record store), it is an example of the ways in which certain elements of the industry “force” the issue of genre and resist more open interpretations. Some shows have even switched their distinction (Gilmore Girls is the most famous example) in an effort to appeal to voters.

    Just another example of how parts of these industries require generic definition even as the content resists it.

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