Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Other People's [Insert Genre]s

I've written about imagining other people's epics and other people's mysteries. That's fun, but the real work--and I do this less often--is imagining through which genre another person's worldview would best be expressed.

Epics are pretty comprehensive; the protagonist should represent the community's values, but most of the ways it expresses worldview are historical and cosmological. It is sweeping. And epic is good for giving a whole image of a world. Mysteries, on the other hand, do not require that a single character embodies the values of a community. Instead, the workings of the community are itself on display. In a mystery, there is a sense that a social order can be ruptured and subsequently repaired through the business of justice. So in one narrow sense, mysteries are pretty conservative: they are about maintaining an existing order. They also have a preoccupation with epistemology. Meanwhile, epics are dedicated to a sense of change (though this change is normally placed in the past), since it is about the formation of something, whether the world or a gentleman or a scientific discipline.

In Shakespeare's day, poets got excited about metaphrasis, which is the process of re-writing an existing narrative in a different genres than the original. For instance, someone might re-write a prose romance as a play. The image they often used for metaphrasis was pouring water from one vessel into another. The vessels are genres and the water is content. However, this metaphor is not a perfect one because it obscures the extent to which the form changes the content. I sometimes say that forms aren't content-free, but even if they are, forms at least alter content in non-trivial ways. (This is why I find it annoying when people complain that a movie adaptation was different from the book. Of course it is. It's a different form.)

So if I'm thinking about a worldview or some other philosophical position, I not only think about what kind of epic a person could write for it or what kind of mystery a person could write for it, but also which genre would represent it best. If I'm a communist trying to improve my economic system's aesthetics, should I make a communist mystery novel, or a communist epic, or a Marxploitation flick, or a comromcom (communist romantic comedy)? (I made up those last two designations.) This is a question about the content's relation to form, but I mustn't forget that it's also a question about my audience. An exploitation flick might be insightful and critical to some but offensive to others; a romantic comedy might help one person understand but might alienate another. And so on.

I don't pretend that I actually come up with a definitive version of that worldview, or the best possible epic, mystery, etc. for that worldview. Ultimately I would far prefer to read a disability-theory epic (or a few different disability-theory epics) than imagine what one would look like because I think the possibilities for disability theory exceed my ability the imagine them on my own. But this kind of process helps me understand worldviews better by forcing me to ask specific questions about them (how would one solve a crime in this worldview? what would even count as crime? what virtues would an epic protagonist have? what is the shape of this worldview's world? which is more salient to this worldview--a comprehensive cosmology or a working epistemology?) and by forcing me to think it through on its own terms as much as possible. That, and I find it fun for its own sake!

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