Genre and Meaning

One of the most interesting comments on genre comes from Samuel L. Delaney, who wrote:

 In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible. (from Trouble on Triton)

Part of what Delaney is saying here is that, not only is it the case that a work falls into a genre the more it uses elements of that genre, but that, once in that genre, the meanings of sentences are changed by virtue of the genre.

That is, science fiction gives context to sentences like “His world exploded,” or “she was over the moon,” that informs how they’re supposed to be interpreted.

Delaney was asked why he refused to present himself as a “literary” writer and instead stuck with the as science fiction label at a time when he was being welcomed into the academic and critical discourse of literature. Notably, writers like Vonnegut and Atwood shunned, at various times, the science fiction label so that their work could be regarded as literature.

Delaney’s response was that science fiction gave meaning to sentences like “she turned on her left side” in his texts, and that the label “literature” would treat those sentences as metaphors.

Something about this reminds me of Kendall Walton’s “make believe” theory. While the theory has rich implications in metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of visual art, I want to look at only a small piece of it as it relates to the use of objects in genre.

Walton gives the following example in his book Mimesis as Make-Believe: (I’m reconstructing from memory because I don’t have the text handy, and this is a blog and not a real academic paper, and writing loosely is my favorite thing about blogging): two boys are in the woods playing a game. One says, “stumps count as bears,” and then, as they walk, when one sees a stump, he shouts, “A bear! Run!”

At one point in their game, a boy yells, “A bear!” and they start to run away, but then the boy notices that it’s not a stump, it’s  a rock that looks like a stump, and he yells to his friend, “no, not a bear, it was just a rock that looked like a bear.”

The point is that an agreement was made that certain sorts of entities had a certain meaning. Within the fictional world of the game, there is a truth-condition for the claim that a bear is present. But the interesting thing about the game is that that truth condition can fail to be met, and, since there is a condition, and it’s not the case that whatever anyone says goes, one can be mistaken about when the condition is met.

Walton extends this as an analogy for art: we pretend in a certain way in the imaginary realm of the work of fiction, following certain rules, and we accept that a world is being built based on these rules. The world that is built in, for example, Anna Karenina, has a set of rules that does not completely overlap with the rules in Lord of the Rings. Once the novel has established its genre and milieu, the reader is oriented by relating the sentences to the genre rules. So in Anna Karenina, had Tolstoy written “her world exploded” (which fits the narrative of the novel but is a little trite for Tolstoy) it would clearly not have meant that the planet earth had splintered in pieces. In Lord of the Rings, if Tolkien had written, “the forces of darkness laughed,” he might well have literally meant that Sauron and the Ring Wraiths burst out laughing. Had that sentence appeared in Anna Karenina, it would clearly have been metaphorical. In fantasy, “The forces of darkness laughed,” becomes, in Delaney’s word, a “possible image of the impossible.”

What is possible is laid out in the rules of the genre, in the counting-as that works for certain terms. “The world” counts as “this planet,” in science fiction; in literary fiction it might count as a subject’s realm of experience, the usual life that that character could expect to encounter every day, which might “explode” (where “explode” counts as “was shown to have been a lie” or “changed drastically”) in the event of a personal revelation or loss of status.

A lot of this ties into the question of world making, about which more in a future post. But the idea of different sets of rules for make-believe separating the different genres is, I think, helpful. Of course, each novel will to some extent have its own rules, but to a large extent “realistic” fiction all has the same world-rules, whereas, though there are rules common to many works in their genres, texts in certain science fiction and fantasy and some other genres have to clarify those rules within the text. So at some point, a genre author may have to make clear what a phrase like “you turn me on” counts as: if this is a story about robots, “you turn me on,” probably literally means “you turn me on,”  but if this is a story about a romantic awakening, then “you turn me on,” probably doesn’t mean that an actual switch has been flipped, though, “it was as though a switch had been flipped” is a phrase that could certainly appear in that text.

Interestingly, the science fiction case of “you turn me on,” is a more literal use, but to show that it’s not a metaphor is something that has to established in the text, and, for example, a description of an on/off switch on the back of someone’s neck would be needed to show that in this story, “you turn me on,” counts as “you turn me on.”

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