Genres And Aesthetics In An Aging World

Yesterday in my Media Studies: Ideas class, we were talking about expression and composition in art as part of our continuing study of aesthetics. We got to this point where we were talking about genres and artistic conventions, and people asked if we humans are “lazy” because we have the same simple genres (romances, comedies) as we’ve ever had – was that the best we could do? The conversation was moving really fast and I never got a chance to talk at that point. There was something I had read that I couldn’t recall, and our professor kept trying to rein us back in before we got ahead of ourselves. But we missed a few things:

  1. Yes, there are conventions, but they are continuously growing and expanding. We talked briefly about outsider and “anti” art, about which Adorno says “even the abolition of art is respectful of art because it takes the truth claim of art seriously.” It would seem the role of such artists on the fringe is to challenge conventions, as well as create new ones.
  2. We’re really short sighted if we think “there’s nothing new under the sun” in the terms of genre and artistic form. Sure, tragedy has been around since the Greeks, but what about science fiction? Sure, there was proto-science fiction centuries ago, but as a literary genre it really came out in the 19th century and is still trying to find it’s stride. I think we had a high moment as it emerged from pulp with the work of writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K Dick, Bradbury and Vonnegut, and other authors who are only barely defined by the “science fiction” label. In these cases the genre is a vehicle for stories which are otherwise unacceptable to the society (like how 1969’s horror Night of the Living Dead was able to speak about domestic racism and cast a black man as the hero and the main protagonist). Even now there are mutations of science fiction which challenge the idea of strict classification. Midnight In Paris is a weird fantasy/romance/drama. Which leads to my next point:
  3. Genres are disingenuous restrictions on any work of art. What I couldn’t remember in class was something I read in Narrative In Media, an excellent overview of narrative theory and its application to mass media.

In the relationship between genre and ideology it can be argued that genres adapt to hegemonic changes – the way a dominant ideology secures consent to its world view, but has to keep on securing it in the face of oppositional forces… At the level of ideology it is interpreted as helping to create a new consensus or dominant ideology. In this way, genres act to articulate, in a very powerful way, what Roland Barthes calls the ‘myths’ of society. P. 138

Although hybrids of genres are out there, they are still create this idea of hegemony through these myths. What are the myths of society?

Media myths are, by and large, the myths of late capitalism in Western societies, which function to produce the coherent subjects of capitalist economies. As subjects, we are prepared to keep working to maintain the status quo of power as long as we have access to the media products and consumer items that construct and reinforce our identities.  P. 7

So it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’ve stopped being able to imagine alternatives. Slavoj Žižek articulated this very well just some time ago.

In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.

Why are we still watching the same kinds of movies, reading the same kinds of books, listening to the same music, which ordinarily must fit in some box labeled comedy/drama/romance/rock/jazz/hip-hop or some thing of that sort? Because we cannot dream anything but this “American dream.” Dreams supposed to be intensely private affairs. But more and more often, we are dreaming about the incredible way things are, rather than how they could be.  When we dream about lives as they are (wake up, get dressed, get out the door, then wake up again) we never feel as though we’ve slept well. But worse than that, we’ve lost the ability to imagine life differently then how it is.

T.W. Adorno. “Aesthetic Theory”. 1970, p. 43.

Herbert Brün, “…to hold discourse-at least-with a computer..”, 1973.

John Dewey, “The Act of Expression,” and “The Expressive Object,” in Art as Experience, Perigee Books, New York, NY, 1934, pp. 58-105.

Helen Fulton, Narrative and Media. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. 2005

Encoding/Decoding: The Drawing On Of Myth

I spent the better part of the afternoon rewriting Wikipedia’s page on “Hall’s Theory” – having read his 1973 paper on the idea of responses to the messages in a tele-visual discourse, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw there was a Wiki page on it. However, it was so short and badly written I felt it was necessary to take the time and revise.

Stuart Hall was influenced by Antonio Gramski’s notions of cultural hegemony being necessary to maintain capitalism. The aspect of reception theory he developed with Encoding/Decoding was that of possible audience responses to messages developed by broadcasters. Hall says are three positions people can take as an audience. Dominant Hegemonic, Negotiated, and Globally Contrary  positions have to do with the way that people choose to either interpret or deal with the relations of signs and their meanings as presented by broadcasters, who presumably use professional codes or hegemonic codes of understanding.

We can think of professional codes as a type of institutional knowledge, or industrial/professional psychology which would lend itself to groupthink. If this is the case, hegemonic and dominant codes (which are not determined but subject to change) are a natural facet of power structures and establishment ideology. Globally contrary positions possess the quality of being accessible only by the media-literal and critical thinkers who are capable of understanding those dominant codes, yet choose alternative frameworks and personal points of reference, which they use to detotalize the positions of the broadcaster, then retotalize into a new understanding.

It is reminiscent of Barthes Mythologies and his conceptions of myth being native to the right, a clumsy artificial reconstruction of the left which owes its usefulness to the bourgeois aspirations of the dominant parts of society.

Semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology. If our society is objectively the privileged field of mythical significations, it is because formally myth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society: at all the levels of human communication, myth operates the inversion of anti-physis into pseudo-physis. – P. 142

Myth, in Barthes conception, is a form of politicized speech which conservative elements can draw upon to make their case. It exists as a type of deep embedding of meaning, the connotative level of historical record where deep semantic codes exist and ideologies and discourses intersect, according to Hall. This is why myths are so usefully repurposed throughout history and in the literary traditions of many cultures, and why constant archetypes are repeated and drawn upon, as our oldest narrative traditions.

Stuart Hall “Encoding/Decoding,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed., Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 166-176.

Barthes, Roland (1957), Mythologies