Sunday, January 07, 2007

Television Genre/Film Genre

I have come across Jason Mittel's excellent TV studies blog, which I've added to the slowly-developing blogroll here. He brings up an issue I've thought about more in relation to film than television specifically, but one which is applicable to either: to what extent are critical-textual readings of genre in fact readings supplanted onto a primarily receptive-social definition-making? Forgive me if I miscategorize someone's position here, as I've not read Mittel's book on television genre. But let me start off with his response to a critique from Chandler Harriss:

I have no problem with Harriss using Propp to show how House is structured like a cop show... But I would not call such an argument a work of genre analysis - it's a study of narrative structure drawing from textual traditions tied to specific genre categories.

Am I just mincing words to police a boundary here? Perhaps. But I try to lay out this distinction on pp. 18-19 of my book: there is a crucial difference between studying genre categories and genre texts. Analyzing the genre category is to understand the meanings and assumptions linked to the genre, considering issues like perceived core attributes, cultural functions, target audiences, and social worth.


I would hardly argue for a Proppian textual analysis, but I wonder if the kinds of textual readings that scholars have typically performed on genre texts don't start from a different epistemological vantage than historical, industrial and receptive constitutions of a genre as object of study. Mittel is certainly right (if I'm reading him correctly) that textual scholars don't start with a blank slate. When Joyce Nelson proposes a reading of Mildred Pierce as overdetermined by the competing stuctures of film noir and women's melodrama in the text, she activates a prior notion of what film noir and the women's film are. And yet... neither film noir nor the women's film were genres that circulated in any self-conscious way among audience at the time: at best we can say the industry worked with some proto-generic understanding (often with different labels and categories, as Steve Neale has shown so well with melodrama) of how formulas were to be put in place depending on subject matter. It has been the work of critics to read retroactively into bodies of texts, to unearth structured meaning, to find regularized conventions out of the industry's formulas, to make genres out of cycles.

Of course that is not all that scholars do. We also look, in objectivist fashion, at the industrial history of cycles and generic terms or, in subjectivist fashion, at the way viewers themselves understood and made sense of generic categories, So I'm not extactly disagreeing with Mittel: what I do in my own research is to trace out the historically situated circulation of social problem films as "social problem films". But I'm wondering if retroactive critical practice might not be seen as a more separate activity than more widespread genrefication. And do a genre's core attributes ever clash with perceived core attributes? It's a genuine, not rhetorical, question I have.

1 comment:

Jason Mittell said...

Thanks for the commentary on my post. I think you're reading my position correctly, although I'd say that genres emerge from cultural circulation, not scholarly theorization. For me, film noir became a genre not when French critics proposed it, but when creators, journalists, and viewers started using the term & responding to the category - James Naremore's book on the genre's "cultural life" offers such an argument.

As for your genuine question, I do think that a genre's core textual features can collide with its cultural uses, or at least they can partially be obscured. In my book, I write about the history of the cartoon on TV - in the 1960s, classic WB animation was marginalized to Saturday mornings, and culturally redefined as lowbrow stuff for kids. The sophisticated cultural references, parody, and nuanced artistic design were still there in the texts, but they were culturally dormant (aside from marginal collectors & fans) until the cartoon genre was re-legitimized in the 1980s (with Roger Rabbit and Cartoon Network). Is this an example of what you mean?