genre, data, and objects

After the very busy administrative time at the beginning of the semester, I’ve been catching up on my reading. Ted Underwood has an interesting post on the relationship between data and genre as he investigates genre through an analysis of large digital collections. He observes:

The biggest problem was even less quantitative, and more fundamental: I needed to think harder about the concept of genre itself. As I model different kinds of genre, and read about similar (traditional and digital) projects by other scholars, I increasingly suspect the elephant in the room is that the word may not actually hold together. Genre may be a box we’ve inherited for a whole lot of basically different things. A bibliography is a genre; so is the novel; so is science fiction; so is the Kailyard school; so is acid house. But formally, socially, and chronologically, those are entities of very different kinds.

This concern has me thinking about an issue I’m raising in an essay I’ve written for a collection on digital rhetoric that my colleagues Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo  are editing. My essay considers the role a speculative digital rhetoric might play in relation to this kind of digital humanities work (not Ted’s in particular, but big data more generally), and that role has to do with the kind of ontological questions that Ted is raising here. Specifically what is the ontological status of genre?

This is a question that comes up in relation to species in terms of biology as well and has been extensively discussed in speculative realism of various stripes. The underlying question would be whether genre and species exist as “real” entities independent of the human discussion of them or if they are only epistemological creations that wouldn’t exist without humans to talk/think about them. So, yes, you could say that even in the latter sense, genres would still be real, but their reality would clearly be different. This argument is probably easier to swallow in terms of genre than species since genre is already talking about products of human effort. Indeed this is how one might view the activity-genre theory approach, where genre is a system of human activity. So whether one is talking about poems and novels or lab reports and stock market analysis, one is participating in some human-oriented network, or at least that is how it would be described in activity theory.

The speculative realist question is whether or not a genre is a real object (or machine or assemblage, depending on your SR brand). To think of species as real in this sense is to imagine an object with qualities and operations independent of the activities of the individual animals that are part of that species. An analogous question might arise with genre: are genres independent machines with their own autopoietic function? Do they have qualities and operations that are independent of those attributed to them by the humans participating in their activity systems? I don’t think this is a question that can be answered “in theory.” It is a question for research. That is, even within our concept of genre, there may be some genres that are “real” (in the sense of being independent machines with autopoietic function) and others that are imaginary (to put some term to the other state). However, it is probably more useful to think of research as an attempt to discern the real operations behind a genre.

Here is where I think literary studies, rhetoric, and much of the humanities encounters an impasse. As Ted writes, “Skepticism about foundational concepts has been one of the great strengths of the humanities. The fact that we have a word for something (say genre or the individual) doesn’t necessarily imply that any corresponding entity exists in reality. Humanists call this mistake ‘reification,’ and we should hold onto our skepticism about it.” I would go farther and suggest that our dominant disciplinary paradigm would insist that corresponding entities cannot exist (as such), that genre is inescapably for us. Here is where that great skepticism becomes an article of faith. Of course, this is a large part of what a realist ontology seeks to redress.

So this is where speculative realism becomes conceptually valuable for this kind of DH work. It offers an ontological foundation that holds open the possibility that all of the big data analysis might describe something that is real (whether it is genre or something else). After all, only the most steadfastly idealist would not believe that literary artifacts are real objects composed through material processes. The question then becomes can we know something about those real objects and processes? If we can, is one thing we might know about these objects is that they participate in some larger system of activity that imparts common characteristics on them (i.e. a genre)? Perhaps we will want to say (or at least some of us will want to say) that the answers to these questions will always point to “culture.” The Latourian in me is skeptical of the implied distinction here (though this points to another limit to the humanities’ capacity to be skeptical). However, this kind of conceptual approach might offer new avenues of exploration for big data analysis in literary studies.

2 thoughts on “genre, data, and objects

Add yours

  1. Thanks, Alex. This is helping me work through questions that I haven’t figured out. I think there may be multiple possible layers of skepticism here.

    The first layer of skepticism, that I borrow from scholars of rhetoric like Amy Devitt, involves resisting the kind of Platonic model of genre we used to have in literary study. (The Essence of Lyric Subjectivity, etc.) Devitt — and Carolyn Miller — helped me understand genre as a recurring social (rhetorical) situation.

    Then there’s a deeper level of skepticism (call it layer 2) that you’re exploring here. Let’s say we accept that genre is a social situation: we could still imagine those situations as things that have “real” boundaries, or as entities that are entirely defined by our role as academic observers. Here I’m kind of agnostic, because I suspect this might be partly a historical/empirical question. E.g., you can argue that people were writing science fiction before they knew it was science fiction — but there’s also a moment where “science fiction” becomes very explicit, socially, as a marketing category and an institution. People have gone round and round about these questions, but I’m trying to avoid making up my mind about them in a general way.

    Then there’s yet *another* layer of skepticism, which is to ask whether we even understand the concept of genre itself. (Not individual genres, but the whole category.) Here I’m willing to give a tentative but semi-confident “no.” In fact, part of the reason why I’m agnostic about layer 2 of this question is that I suspect the answer here is “no,” which might prevent me from answering layer 2! The boundaries between forms and modes and genres seem very blurry to me, and I suspect there might be social entities of basically different kinds — with different degrees of “reality,” if you will — involved.

    I don’t yet know whether data mining can contribute anything useful here. But I certainly agree that, if it does, it will need to work in concert with theoretical reflections like this on the nature of the entities we’re discussing.


    1. One, realist-ontological way of approaching this last question about the concept of genre that might draw in data mining would come from DeLanda’s last book, Philosophy and Simulation. Underlying that work is his claim about mechanism-independent assemblages, whereby a computer model of a tornado and a real tornado might draw upon the same process (obviously it’s more complex than that, but that’s the best I’m going to do in half a sentence on a Saturday night). The subtitle is “the emergence of synthetic reason” as the book does explore this central question of emergence that you raise (i.e., when does a genre become a genre). For example, I wonder if the emergence of genres might be investigated with fitness landscapes. That is, maybe writing practices coalesce into genres as they seek to resolve other issues related to composing. Certainly fitness landscapes play heavily in DeLanda’s investigation of the emergence of life.


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