Genres and New Media

Genre in digital literature is a many headed beast I have been wrestling with lately. Some sources for this struggle have been Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Speech Genres and Other Late Essays”, “The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre” Edited by Richard Coe, Lorelei Lingard and Tatiana Teslenko, “The Law of Genre” by Jacques Derrida, and just lately “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation” By Espen Aarseth (in Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan {Eds.} “First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game”, finally just out in paperback).

From my reading and textual experimentation I find myself agreeing with Stuart Moulthorp’s Online Response to Aarseth’s essay in wondering how we can ignore the reality of mixed genres (see also Derrida’s “The Law of Genre”). In examining the multiple genres of a single text I have been using Medway’s model (1998) based upon the writings of M.M. Bakhtin (1994). This is a four criteria model consisting of; the functions served by the texts (variation and regularity), formats taken by texts, styles employed by texts and how uptake of the texts is negotiated (1). The idea as I see it is to move through what are actually inseparable fuzzy layers, starting with the material form of the text (Flash animation, HTML, Blog template, 3D world platform etc. etc.). Then there are the generic forms, represented within the material form (such as novel, diary, report, letter, film, painting, or map). From both of these we can examine how they would have to be negotiated by the text’s eventual ‘consumer’. Finally the genred social and cultural assumptions made by the texts, much based on style (gaze, time constructions, syntax, addressivity etc. etc.).

Of particular interest to me is when a digital work contains a representation of a non-digital media form, such as a book or voice recitation. This is intertextuality at its most blatant. Sure, in the case of digital games it may not be so concerned with actual gameplay, but if one is trying to build a critical base to look at digital texts, for example as cultural products, then intertextuality is important.

For a specific take on intertextuality I have been using N. Katherine Hayles’ intermediation, the “complex transactions between bodies and texts as well as between different forms of media” N. Katherine Hayles, My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005) 7. This gives a broad enough field to discuss borrowing and blending in everything from visual theories to materiality and the narrative of the texts. I see intermediation as an example of Bakhtin’s dialogics.

But there are many problems. Following these lines back through genres is like trying to untie double knots, slow, fiddly work that craves concentration. Plus, how does one decide where to make a break between one generic presence and another as they overlap all over the place. It also seems to be so random. I may see a genre in one feature of a text that the next person may not. Bakhtin discusses this in “The Problem of Speech Genres”. It is all a very interesting puzzle.

1. Peter Medway, “Fuzzy Genres and Community Identities: The Case of Architectural Students Sketchbooks” in The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre Edited by Richard Coe et al. (Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press 2002) 125-129.