Reading Between the Lines of What Stays Within Them: Genre Fiction, Normality, and Analysis of Structure

Oscar Wilde said that ‘nature imitates art’, as opposed to the other way round. It is through such a statement that we might be able to investigate the phenomena of genre fiction – in so many areas of culture – and its consequences. Broaching the subject invites fire from two camps, that bivouac on either side of such popular cultural manifestations; those whose very orientation comes from fidelity to such a genre (from those involved in the fantasy worlds of Twilight, World of Warcraft, certain types of metal in music, to romantics besotted with Mills and Boon novels, ‘trekkies’, X Files conspiracy theorists, Game of Thrones cosplayers, etc.), and those who are fascinated by these cultural instances, and read, watch, or interact with them in the name of a certain – supposedly disinterested – analysis; ‘isn’t it something to wonder at why Harry Potter is so popular; what is it about him, his story, that strikes people at a certain level?’ ‘Why is it that these memes do so well?’

A structural analysis, however, must exempt itself from the second attitude in order to show that its operation is in fact the same as the first, just at an ostensible remove. It is the mode of inquiry in the second stance that in fact produces its concept of a mythos. ‘What is it that speaks to us in these stories?’ ‘what is the common cultural trait that these fictions tap into?’: these questions presuppose that which speaks, and its common cultural traits, imposing them on the cultural manifestation, as a natural fact, rather than reading them against a structure (e.g., our socio-historic situation). In other words, the stance both takes popularity as secondary, rather than primary – then tries to locate its cause in some shared primary ‘common ground’ (a popular trait common to all manifestations of popular culture, and thus the same in all of them) – and it sees this popularity as completely autonomous and self-sufficient: it must have sprang up all of its own accord; because the Harry Potter series was written it became so famous and popular (other factors – of promotion, syndication, affiliation; i.e., ideology – are left out). To put it in X Files-speak (despite adhering to structuralism, this contributor nevertheless is an X-phile), this mode of inquiry wants to believe.

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To critique this attitude on these terms, however, is in no way to denigrate cultural studies, nor is it to dismiss such cultural products as unworthy of study. What is important to look out for structurally, however, is what discourses arise and maintain in particular cultural trends. To take the mass appeal of Robin Thicke and of Breaking Bad, say, as two representatives merely of popularity – that is, of both containing something that is in itself intrinsically popular – is to miss what cultural themes and values are in fact being propounded, and propagated, by each (to say nothing of these themselves).

To an extent, this represents the respective difference in the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In Freudian analysis, a subject’s discourse is matched against their given history (their socio-historic situation) in order to provide insight into their unconscious (as constituted by the structure of their life). In Jungian theory, the unconscious accords to a series of archetypes, which are always pre-existing and, therefore, imbued with all the (pseudo-)significance of religious ikons. This latter method leads, in regard to genre fiction, to a postulation of an absolute normality: the absolutely generic (a concept that art resists); that is, to Jung’s idea of the ‘collective unconscious/consciousness’, from which everything feeds. But as Theodor Adorno warns, in terms of its relation to the class struggle:

The notion of collective consciousness was invented only to divert attention from true objectivity and its correlate, alienated subjectivity. It is up to us to polarize and dissolve this ‘consciousness’ dialectically between society and singularities, and not to galvanize it as an imagistic correlate of the commodity character. It should be clear and sufficient warning that in a dreaming collective no differences remain between classes.

In terms of the hierarchy of normality, and its relation to art, then; against the Jungian method should be erected the argument that, while of course there are things that are normal, they should nonetheless not be taken as so for that reason alone; in other words, in normality there is a keen tendency towards tautology; that is, posing that things are normal because they are normal. Normality, genre fiction, accord, then, to a structure (Mills and Boon are [mythically] purported to send out writing templates to their prospective writers, according to the testimony of one such writer, for example) – a structure that will struggle to maintain itself at all costs, and that must be examined to determine to what (ideology) it is in the service – but their development, or even overcoming, can only be envisioned by recognising that they are not in fact Platonic forms, but are rather changeable manifestations determined by our own modes of interaction with them.

To extend Wilde, our nature must not rest on imitating art, but create new art (which nature will no doubt imitate). In our analyses – as the warnings in the work of Roland Barthes and Louis Althusser attest – we must always be wary of any common opinion, any ‘common sense’, any postulation of the natural; in a word, any genericism, that comes at the expense of thought.

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