Tag Archives: narrative

Is Batman Batman?: Continuity of Identity for Fictional Characters, Part 1

Something I’ve thought about for years is the “continuity of identity” for fictional characters, especially those that have persisted across long periods of time, have handled by different creators, and/or have moved across media. In the medieval world, for example, legends of King Arthur occur in disparate, often contradictory forms, but we still have a basic idea of who the character is and what the important events in the Camelot story are.

In the 20th century, with the proliferation of printed sources, movies, radio dramas, television, comic books, and mass culture generally, we can watch characters undergo more rapid change, accretion of canon, trying out and jettisoning of variants, etc.

Interestingly, in many cases, some kind of cohesion and continuity of identity persists. Of course, this needn’t be the case, or at least not strongly. For example, the very first, pre-Action Comics “Superman” story by Siegel and Schuster was about a bald telepath, and not an alien with super-strength. They then tried out a several more variants before getting the Action Comics version out. It’s not clear what sort of continuity exists between the bald telepath and the comic book version, other than that Siegel and Schuster had a name they kept playing with.

I want to claim that some of these characters, like King Arthur and  Batman, while perhaps loosely defined at the start, have some kernel that either coheres or fails to cohere with additional elements, and that, in part, what determines which elements become canonical is the extent to which they cohere with the central concept of the character, and with the other elements that, perhaps because they cohered so well with the central concept, had become canonical. (I think this is somewhat comparable to Daniel Dennet’s “center of narrative gravity,” and I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.)

In Batman’s case, you begin with the origin story: a young boy sees his parent murdered by a criminal, then moves into a cave and begins dressing as a bat and fighting crime. In short, you have a fairly dark story, beginning as it does with a child witnessing the murder of his mother and father.

I think that’s (in part) why the “light-hearted” Batman didn’t stick very well. It wasn’t cohesive with the character (I also think that comic book fans as a group probably weren’t the sort of readers who appreciated goofball comedy).  And I think that that’s why the 1980s reimagining of Batman as even darker, grimmer, etc, stuck so well. If a central element of the character is that he watched his parents die when he was little and he blames this on criminals,  and then he spends the next ten years doing nothing but training to fight crime, it’s going to make the most sense for him to be an obsessive, overly focused, somewhat grim individual.

Ultimately, there’s a narrative for these characters, and narratives are ways of editing from the infinite possibilities inherent in what happened. Narrative writers look for stories that hang together. The Batman narrative hangs together better if we edit out the campy version. We ourselves narrativize our experience; we also edit for cohesion. “That wasn’t me,” “that’s so like me.” Are these judgments sound? Or do we think in terms of a cohesive character for ourselves and exclude “out-of-character” moments (research in “attribution theory,” notably such effects as actor-observer asymmetry and the fundamental attribution error, point to ways in which we edit personal narratives for cohesion.)

It’s important to note that in the case of a fictional character, the success, aesthetic or commercial or in critical reception, probably fuels the keeping of some elements and the jettisoning of others. But we still have to ask why the critics and fans disliked some elements, and I think lack of cohesion with the central character elements is important for the readers as much as it is for the creators. The “but Batman wouldn’t do that!” response comes from this source, I think. There’s an idea that some of the versions of Batman just aren’t Batman.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the continuity of identity of the character. Is the new Sherlock Holmes on the British “Sherlock” series, or the one on the upcoming American “Elementary” series, continuous with, in some way identical to, the same as, etc., as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes? Are they less or more the same character as the one who appeared in the Basil Rathbone films? Is the movie Batman the same as the comic book Batman? At all? The same questions can be raised with legendary figures: Is Jupiter really Zeus? Are Wotan and Odin the same god? Is the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost the same character as the ha-Satan of the Bible? We can break this down into elements: the name is the same, some characteristic is the different, this story element is the same, etc., but we still need to ask why do we make judgments of sameness here?

Part of the answer, with Batman, involves the fact that this is a character that is owned by Warner Bros; any Batman that is not licensed is not, according to Warner Bros, the same Batman. But obviously this doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes, Zeus, or Satan, and I’m not sure it really works for Batman. If there was no chance that a consumer wouldn’t identify an illegal Batman product as the real thing, then Warner Bros wouldn’t have a case, so they have to claim that there’s at least a sense in which unofficial Batmans can be identified with the official Batman.

So I think the connection to the character’s defining concepts, attributes, elements, etc., may be more important for identity than something like copyright, since that’s going to be some of the basis for even making a copyright claim. Sometimes, the name is a key defining element, but not always: Jupiter and Zeus may well be “the same god” (in some sense) in spite of the name change. And if I tell a story about a man who’s parents are shot in front of him and who then dresses up like a bat and fights crime, I don’t need to call him “Batman” for the audience to know who I’m talking about.

I’ll pick up on this in a future post, along with some discussion of  theory of descriptions, rigid designators, and the ways in which knock-off, alternate universe, and unofficial versions of characters are and are not identical with the original. Look for special guest appearances by The Midnighter, Owlman, Nighthawk, and all those pictures of Batman and Robin making out that can be found in gay bars, on the internet, and in your mom’s bathroom.

Two values in reading: plot, summary, and genre

How much of any novel that you’ve read more than five years ago can you recall? Probably in some cases you have a strong memory of the plot, maybe some lines of dialogue (though these may well not be remembered verbatim…we tend to make small changes, as in the way “quotes” like “Play it again, Sam,” and “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” replace the originals). Maybe we remember specific scenes, though again memory isn’t quite reliable enough to ensure the we remember them entirely accurately. (A search through ERIC didn’t find terribly consistent results on this, nor much of anything focused on novel reading, so I’ll just go by experience and intuition here, but I’m pretty sure our ability to recall scenes in novels is no better than our ability to recall scenes from real life, about which there are mountains of studies on our unreliability.)

It’s not the purpose of a novel, of course, to forever imprint itself in our minds, nor is the value of the novel found in what we remember of it later. It could be that we have no memory at all of reading a book that had some profound influence upon us (I remember once being reminded of a book I’d read as a young teenager and had not thought of in many years, and realizing that it had lead me towards many other books, and had perhaps shaped my sense of story, or perhaps merely answered to what I would have valued in a story.)

If it were the purpose of a novel to do so, a summary of the novel might well be more effective than the novel itself. I could fairly easily pass a test on some classic I’d never read by just reading over its Wikipedia page and perhaps a few other sources the night before the exam. So if there’s some particular value in novel reading (and I don’t think there needs to be!) it can’t be in what one remembers of the novel, or the novel would be no more valuable than a summary or ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version. Which, as a philosopher pursuing the question, I can’t rule out. Perhaps we should all just read the Cliff’s Notes. It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis, anyway.

Though I’d rather look for some value in reading the novel itself (not to dismiss the value of reading summaries.)

But it raises an interesting possibility: perhaps being memorable is not an absolute mark of the value of a novel, nor is being forgettable an absolute mark of its lack of value. Again, the novel I read as a youngster that I was reminded of might be only one of many that I’ve forgotten that was, nonetheless, valuable in some way.

Maybe the value is merely in the entertainment and distraction that it provides while being read. I don’t want to dismiss the very positive value of this; I think being distracted can be a wonderful thing. Certainly in an unpleasant life, a few moments of distraction are a gift not to be taken lightly.

But if it’s not simply the entertainment value, nor what one remembers of the novel (even if those are important elements of value) what else is the value of reading?

One possibility: It might be a combination of these things. In other words, while novels may convey ideas or instill memories, they do so with a particular style and in a particular manner that is inherently valuable because they allow for forms of aesthetic appreciation.

Another: the summary, by being brief, leaves out one of the elements that makes the novel what it is, the extension through time, and the slowing down of the story. It’s been said that the plot of any novel can usually be summarized in a page or so (I can’t remember who said that, or the exact quote, but I want to make clear this is not my insight) and that the majority of the text is doing something besides plot. Part of what it’s doing is slowing down the revelation of plot! Extension has its pleasures.

The first possibility and the second may pertain to greater and lesser extent to different sorts of novels, as well. If the emphasis is on beautiful language and “literary” qualities, the conveyance of ideas with style may be a main source of value. If the emphasis is on enjoyment of the plot, the second possibility may pertain.

And this points to what some have said is a difference between “literary” and genre works: that genre works focus more on plot. I don’t know that I buy that difference, but there may be a genre difference between plot-oriented works and works that are less concerned with plot.

And one could claim that genre works are lesser because they’re plot oriented, and plot can be summarized, whereas the literary elements of the text are lost in summary: noting that the Nabokov’s language is complicated and rhythmic and etc. is not the same thing as reading complicated, rhythmic language.

But! It’s also not the same thing to read a summary of a plot and to feel the plot stretched out and extended, information withheld for (if the author is careful) just the right amount of time. The plot doled out in proper pacing, which is what fiction that’s read for pleasure is supposed to do well, is also lost in summary. So perhaps some recapturing of the value of the story-oriented book can be had if we understand the way in which the pleasures of the plot are necessarily delayed, and how that delay is itself an element of aesthetic craft.

Personal Identity, Personal Change

Obviously, the continuity of personal identity is not the same thing as absolute identicalness. No person is purely identical with his or her past self, neither physically nor psychologically. So it’s clear that “identity” here doesn’t have a mathematical sense.

It also doesn’t have the sense it has in claims that two words have the identical meaning, or that water and H2O are identical, etc.

Rather, we’ve got a slight conflation of identity as sameness, and identity in the sense of who I am, how I and others identify me. My identity is, among other things, the parts of myself, including my moral outlook, that I would think of as essential to who I am, and, alternately, the parts of a person that others think of as essential to who that person is. The question of personal identity then is somewhat complex, and somewhat confused in bringing together identicalness with who or what I identify with, or what others identify me with.

Since we can’t have absolute identicalness of a person across days or weeks or years, what we’re usually asking is about the degree of identicalness of a personal identity. That is, when a person changes, as we all do, we sometimes need to ask“how much sameness is enough?” And that question, because of its vagueness, is not something that there’s a pre-made answer for. Rather, we have to decide it on a case by case (or category-by-category) basis, and we have to know “enough for what?”

For legal purposes, a complete change in the material component of the body is not necessarily a hindrance to sameness, assuming the old saw about changing all the parts of one’s body after seven or twelve or some number of years is true. Rather, an organismic continuity and some degree of psychological continuity are what count.

But the forensic has perhaps been overused as the paradigm for the “enough for what?” question in continuity of identity. Recently, Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols did some survey research showing that people have less identity with continuity of memory or continuity of body than with continuity of moral principles and personality (unpublished as yet; this matches a claim I made in “You Are Not the Person I Knew” in Appraisal, vol. 9 no. 1) This would be a somewhat surprising result, since most of the philosophical literature points to memory or body as the basis for continuity. But, if this research and my guesses hold true, people don’t want to identify with an entity that carries on their memory and bodies but does not carry on their moral values and personality.

This change is almost certainly not relevant for legal culpability or forensic purposes in general. So when people said these changes were not “identity preserving,” they clearly had something else in mind.

Further, some change in moral perspective will not be identity destroying, whereas some changes will be. So this brings up the “enough” question. How much is enough?

Let’s take a case:

Myra and Enid are married. At the time, both are supporters of the rights of gay women to marry each other, both are strong libertarians, both attend a Baptist church regularly, and both believe that a loving adoration of Jesus Christ is the surest path to heaven, though, contrary to some church teachings, they hold that good works can be sufficient. Further, both do charitable work every weekend, and both are huge fans of the Star Trek franchise, attending Star Trek conventions at least twice a year.

Now suppose that Myra, in her exploration of libertarian ideals, begins to believe that Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness are proper. This contrasts with Enid, who thinks that libertarians should take responsibility for the poor by doing and giving to charity, even though she thinks the government should not be involved in this enterprise. We could imagine this causing a rift between Myra and Enid, but would it be enough for Enid to claim that Myra has changed beyond recognition, or has lost the identity that Enid fell in love with?

Maybe. Maybe they still go to Star Trek conventions, even though Myra no longer attends church (as a Randian atheist, she is opposed), no longer does charitable work, and no longer believes that loving Jesus or good works are paths to salvation. Clearly, a great deal of their shared identity has been severed. There were causes and goals and ideals that they identified with that Myra no longer identifies with.

And maybe Enid will say that that’s enough, that she can’t be with Myra anymore. If so, it’s because the Myra she fell in love with has changed so much that Enid no longer sees her in the Myra she is currently married to. She might well say, “It’s like I don’t know you anymore.” And in a sense that’s true: Enid used to know Myra’s moral landscape as though it were her own. Now it’s a puzzle, and a frustrating one. It really is true, in an important sense of “same person” (though obviously not in a forensic sense) that Myra is not the person that Enid married.

So in this case, my point is, “enough” comes down to the participants. It’s not for a philosopher to tell Enid that Myra is still the same person, or is not the same person. That’s up to Enid.

But imagine that Myra and Enid both became Ayn Rand advocates. They might change together. Then this question might not arise. However, they might look back on their charitable, church-going former selves and say, “I hardly recognize the people we were.” They may indeed have trouble identifying with their former selves, feeling embarrassment at their old moral code, and no longer understanding how they could have believed such things. Again, if they make this claim about themselves, that’s up to them.

Or, they might think of their journey to Randian “objectivism” as continuous with their early exploration of libertarianism, and may think of their earlier selves as continuous with their current selves, though a bit naïve. Or they may have trouble identifying with some of their beliefs, but not others, seeing themselves partially reflected in, and partially alien to, their former selves.

Sometimes, we are asked to identify ourselves, and sometimes we can rightly say, “I don’t even know that person anymore,” when referring to a past iteration of ourselves. And sometimes we are asked to identify a friend or lover, and we can rightly say, “I don’t even know that person anymore,” when she is standing right in front of us.

One last note on change: a parent recently told me that she missed her infant daughter and mourned her loss, as her daughter was now 5 years old. It’s not that she didn’t love the five-year-old. She did! But she missed the baby that, in a very real sense, had ceased to exist. There was no great connection between the five year old and the baby. They form part of the continuous history of an organism, but there was nothing in particular about the personality, appearance, or even the physical make-up (as I understand it, children move through the matter of their bodies fairly quickly) that necessarily linked them.

So I don’t think the mother was wrong in thinking that the infant was gone. I could, distantly I guess, not being a parent, understand that one would mourn the loss of the completely needy, sweet-smelling, bald, non-linguistic creature of 6 to 10 pounds weight and less than two feet length that always wants to be held, while still appreciating the more independent, 45-inch tall child with long hair that sometimes pushes away from a hug or tries to explore on her own, shutting out the mother.

What I’d like to get at here is a sense of the “enough” and “enough for what” that reflect what we value, and how people, in daily life, divide up the world. I’d like to say more, too, about the prospect of changing together, and the way in which we do identify ourselves across change. I think Parfit’s example of the Russian Nobleman (Reasons and Persons, 327-328) is a good starting point for this: Schechtman’s discussion of this in “Personality and Persistence” (American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, Apr., 2004, pp. 87-105) and Christine Korsgaard’s discussion in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (p. 207-208; Cambridge, 1996) form interesting commentaries. I’ll try to tackle these in a later post, and expand on the question of how we maintain identity across change, while also losing identity across change.

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.”

More On Genre: Literature, Genre, Form and Content

So in the previous genre post, in which I was a bit sloppy (this post is also gonna be real sloppy as I think this stuff through!), I noted four elements of a genre work.

The first, which most genre theorists agree upon, is that a genre has certain marks, characteristics, etc, which I called “elements,” because I wanted to use a very general term (some in-use terms, like “formal markers,” seemed to specific to me.)

While a lot of classical genre theory focuses on formal elements *, I’m somewhat more interested in content-based markers, partly because I’m particularly interested in popular culture genres: science fiction, romance, superhero stories, action films, buddy comedies, etc., which are often more marked by content-elements.

So in the previous post I wanted to say that a work is part of a genre because (1) it has elements of that genre, (2) among the elements it has may be some which carry more weight in assigning the work to the genre than others (spaceships are more science fiction than pain medicine with no side effects, though both are from the SF category “futuristic technology”), (3) it avoids elements which would mitigate against its being in the genre (an action movie may cease to be an action movie if more than fifty percent of screen time is taken up with a slow-paced romance), and (4) the narrative focus of the film is centered upon, or depends upon, the genre elements.**

ll of this goes to how we classify a work as in or out of a genre, and to how far it is in some genre (e.g., it’s barely an action movie; it’s nothing but a romantic comedy.) The more it follows formula, the more it includes only elements from the genre, the more it’s in the genre.***

In popular discussions of literature there is sometimes a distinction between “genre works” and “literary writing.” There’s a way to preserve this distinction without simply looking to the canon of “literature” and claiming that these are not genre works, and then dismissing anything that is too clearly science-fiction, etc.

It may be that work that very closely hews to the properties of a genre, and includes nothing that undermines or stands outside of or comments upon or even adds to the genre, is more purely genre writing, and to the extent that a work is hard to classify as belonging to a genre, that’s literary.  Notably, one could include all of the elements of a genre and still be outside of it because of the inclusion of type 3 elements, those that expressly don’t belong in the genre (a romantic comedy probably can’t have a realistically portrayed and tragically presented scene where a terrorist murders dozens of people.)

Here’s an application of the above:

One might argue, based on this, that Raymond Carver, who was for a time the paradigmatic short-story writer for creative writing MFA programs, was a genre writer. It’s very easy to see the repeated elements in his work. There are many, but in brief: The story includes very little action; sometimes a single event, but sometimes almost none (a story that was very plot-heavy would fall outside of this genre.) It generally takes place indoors. The focus is on characters, not action. Two or a few people from different walks of life come together and have a moment, usually because of a conversation, where one or both or several of them have an epiphany or emotional realization: A baker and a couple who just lost a child are brought together, and connect emotionally even though a moment before they’d seemed at odds, and the baker shows emotional growth. A blind man and a man who is uncomfortable being around the blind man come together and connect emotionally, causing the uncomfortable man to grow and change, etc.

A lot of writers have written these sorts of stories, both before Carver, and very heavily after him due to his influence. It’s interesting that this form, I don’t have a name for it (I’m sure someone does) but let’s call it “the emotional realization story,” is accepted as literature even though it can be very strongly part of a genre. Part of this may be due to the fact that the genre wasn’t named, and that Carver had a strong hand in inventing or at least making widely known the form. The first science fiction stories obviously weren’t considered science fiction stories until a bulk of such stories had begun to appear.

So, in attempting to answer what a genre is, one thing that comes forward is that a genre is a form whose elements can be reasonably clearly delineated. When Plato divided writing into poetry, prose and dialog it was fairly easy to see the distinguishing markers. With science fiction, we can note the appearance of currently non-existent technology, the future, and forms of social organization that have not yet been tried (among other elements.)

But there’s a big difference between the genres categories that Plato gives, and those that we commonly use in popular culture, like “westerns,” “buddy movies,” “thrillers,” etc. and I think a lot of that difference is that Plato, and many classical theorists, focused on formal elements, whereas the popular understanding of “genre” is about differences in content-elements. ****

*Amy Devitt calls these “formal markers” (Devitt, Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004). Herder thought of genre as the rules and aim of the work, with the rules being purely formal elements and the aim being something like the effect the work is supposed to produce in the audience; Notably, genre theory starts with Plato’s division of literature into genres by form: prose, poetry and dialogic drama are identified by their structural or formal aspects. So some classical and even contemporary theories focused on formal, rather than contentual, elements.

**I’m speaking somewhat synchonically here. Obvious, genres come and go, arise and fall, and in the process accrue new elements and sprout new sub-genres. That’s an interesting topic for another time.

***There’s a lot to be said about the way art can use genre by breaking it. For example, the film Punch Drunk Love contains most of the elements of a romantic comedy, but it escapes the genre in interesting ways. In a rom-com, the male lead is lovable but his actions, if not put forward comedically, would seem dangerous and a sign of mental unbalance. In Punch Drunk Love the romantic lead appears to be, and even notices that he is, mentally unbalanced and potentially dangerous. Making this obvious, and presenting it in non-comedic moments, brings to light some aspect of the genre and removes PDL from the genre, because it has become both too aware of the genre (and self-awareness isn’t really a feature or element of romantic comedies) and because it has to leave the genre in order to comment on the genre.

**** I’m not saying anything terribly new here; a lot of genre theorists now focus on content-elements. If there’s a contribution in this discussion it’s not so much on point 1 as on 2-4.

Defining “Genre” in the Narrative Arts

One of the problems of defining “genre” is that the definition is not entirely consistent across genres.

Here’s a stab, though: (1) a work is a genre work to the extent that it includes elements of some given genre [I know I can’t use “genre” in the definition of  “genre,” I’ll address this]. The more elements it has, the more it is a genre work. (2) But certain elements carry more weight than others in the assignment of the genre term, and (3) some elements that are outside the genre can mediate against the application of the term. (4) Further, the extent to which the genre elements are the focus of the story increases the genre-ness of the tale

Looking more closely at these four conditions:

(1) For example: in science fiction, the elements include things like not-yet-available technology, the future, and alternate forms of social arrangement that have not yet been tried. (2) Some examples in the first and third of these carry strong genre marks: if the work includes spaceships and a hive-like form of society, those will give it more science fiction points than if it includes only two-way wrist TVs and universal acceptance of homosexuality.

(4) If the story essentially relies upon and revolves around space travel, that is, if the story includes a trip through space and the themes of the story would vanish if the story were retold as a train-trip, then it’s going to be more strongly a science fiction story.

If a science fiction story is most centrally concerned with romance, it may be considered less of a science fiction story. Again: if Zzxrt and Krznvt fall in love on a space ship, it’s science fiction, but if you could convey nearly everything about the story by switching the setting to a train trip, it’s a romance. So it could be a science-fiction/romance, or a romance/science-fiction story.

(3) In the example above, the romance could, all by itself, detract from the science-fictioness of the story. Adding comedic elements can take away from a hard-science fiction genre ranking, but probably not eliminate it. But if your romance story is heavily imbued with goofball comedy, it probably loses some of its simple romance-genre cred. I would think that romance can only tolerate so much mocking before it is self-ejected from the genre.

Anyway, this is just a rough outline for making some larger claims about genre. I think it’s notable that I can’t define genre here without using terms like “elements of the genre,” i.e., without violating a basic rule of definition, and that’s because, as noted, each genre has its own set of conditions for admission. So to define genre properly one would probably need to list a bunch of genres and discuss their conditions of admission.

Listing the genre elements for different genres would be an interesting enterprise; for science fiction, above, I tried to be as general as possible with “not-yet-available technology, the future, and alternate forms of social arrangement that have not yet been tried.” The specific instances in these categories, though, have of course been added to over time, and some of the specific instances have become hallmarks of the genre, so that it’s probably not sufficient just to say in general what the genre conditions are. Space-ships, as noted, are more science fiction than, say, a medicine which completely relieves pain while producing no other side effects, even though we currently have space ships but we have no such medicine.

Finally, it’s important that a work can be more or less a work of some given genre. It’s not wrong to say “that’s very much a science fiction film,” or “that’s sort of science-fictiony.” The more it adheres to genre rules, the more it’s in that genre.

(Here’s a review of “Prometheus” that address some questions of genre.)

The Creative Aspect of Thinking About Stuff

One of the things that most attracts me to philosophical discourse is the special kind of creativity needed to engage in it.

It’s possible, of course, to simply digest some theory and then apply it to whatever one encounters. This requires at best minimal creativity. If I have learned a good deal about, say, utilitarianism, I can look at many problems from a utilitarian perspective and see if there is some failure to apply utilitarian principles in current approaches, or show how utilitarians would deal with this problem.

We see much the same thing in say, for example, philosophers writing about what Nietzsche would think of some particular artwork, or how Kant would respond to a particular political problem, or simply applying the terms and concepts of some particular critical theory to a critique of a popular film or TV series.

But the creativity I’m interested in involves not simply applying a theory.

One instance of it comes about in counter-examples. Although it became an industry in itself, and ultimately the formula got a bit easier, there’s something particularly creative about Gettier cases. To look at a standard definition, “knowledge is justified true belief,” and then to invent a story where someone has a justified, true belief that is not knowledge, requires a narrative sense of creativity as well as an analytic skill.

Parfit’s teletransporter, Williams’ split minds, Nagel asking what it is like to be a bat, all of these are examples of the sort of fiction-writing skills needed in certain areas of philosophy. Sartre made a career out of this sort of thing; Being and Nothingness is something like a collection of philosophical fictions, imaginary cases that bring out some essential elements of existentialist thought.

I think this creativity can be taught, as well.

In my critical thinking classes, I present the following to the students:

A study has shown that beer drinkers are significantly more prone to lung cancer than wine drinkers, even when the population samples are controlled for smoking (this is from an actual study I recall reading about in Slate some years ago.) Therefore, beer drinking contributes to lung cancer.

Then I ask them: is the conclusion reasonable? At first, some agree, but then they start to come up with alternative hypothesis. Maybe beer drinkers are more likely to work in factories with malignant air, whereas wine drinkers work in offices. Maybe beer drinkers hang around in bars where people smoke, whereas wine drinkers are in restaurants. Maybe beer drinkers are poorer and live in neighborhoods that are closer to toxic dumps, pollutants, etc.

Obviously, none of these possibilities are given in the short description. They have to be invented by the students. This is not analysis, then, but creative writing of a sort.

The more I do this sort of exercise with my students, the quicker they are to come up with original hypotheses on their own.

Philosophy, and thought, in general, requires some degree of creativity. And creativity is a skill that can be practiced. My concern is that in teaching theories and positions we be careful not to let our students think that philosophy is the process of applying these theories, or saying what Philosopher X would have said about some topic, but that we show them the creative process of thought, and, with any luck, goad them in the direction of trying out that creativity.