I’ve been reading John Rieder’s excellent book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. There’s lots of fun discussion about nightmare invasion scenarios, lost worlds, time travel, constructed humans, and how imperialists love being imperialists, satirize being imperialists, and more or less constantly freak out about the possibility of being imperialized.
So maybe I’ll talk about all that at some point. In the meantime, though, Rieder also has some really interesting thoughts on genre. Specifically, he argues that a genre is best understood not through a strict formal definition, but rather as a group of texts that bear a “family resemblance.” The term is from Wittgenstein, and Rieder quotes a further explication by scholar Paul Kinkaid:
science fiction is not one thing. Rather, it is any number of things — a future setting, a marvelous device, an ideal society, an alien creature, a twist in time, an interstellar journey, a satirical perspective, a particular approach to the matter of story, whatever we are looking for when we look for science fiction, her more overt, here more subtle — which are braided together in an endless variety of combinations.”
Science-fiction is then a “web of resemblances.”
If sci-fi is a web of resemblances though, that has some surprising implications. Specifically, if the genre is the web, it can’t exist before the web. There can’t be a point of origin, because a point isn’t a web. For there to be family resemblances there has to be a family. Or as Rieder puts it:
The idea that a genre consists of a web of resemblances established by repetition across a large number of texts, and therefore that the emergence of science fiction involves a series of incremental effects that shake up and gradually, cumulatively, reconfigure the system of genres operating in the literary field of production, precludes the notion of science fiction’s ‘miraculous birth’ in a master text like Frankenstein or The Time Machine. A masterpiece might encapsulate an essence, if science fiction had one, and it certainly can epitomize motifs and strategies; but only intertextual repetition can accumulate into a family of resemblances.
This has some obvious implications for the much-bruted question, What Is a Comic? Like science fiction, definitions of comics (most notably Scott McCloud’s) generally focus on formal elements — a sequence of images, in McCloud’s case. As a result, McCloud includes in his definition things like hieroglyphs, while excluding single panel cartoons.
However, if comics are seen as a web of resemblances, then the effort to look for origins or predecessors or even formal tropes starts to look misguided. Instead, it’s more useful to focus on the center — on what things are accepted as comics, as I put it in a post some time back. Comics are not a formal template; they’re a genre that has taken shape since around the early twentieth century, and which can have, like science-fiction, any number of hallmarks — including (for example) sequences of images, superheroes, cartoony art, funny animals, autobiographical storylines, humor, adventure, serialized formats, word bubbles, panel borders….etc.
No doubt some comics folks flinched up there when I called comics a “genre”. And that does bring up a possible objection. Isn’t it wrong to think of comics as a genre, like science fiction? Shouldn’t they instead be compared to a medium, like prose or art or music? And if so, how useful is Rieder’s discussion of genre? Yes, genres may be webs of relations. But aren’t mediums defined formally? Art is always art; writing is always writing — shouldn’t, then, comics always be comics, whether created by the ancient Egyptians or on the internets?
I think the answer to those question is no, still pretty useful, not really and not really. Rieder does couch his formulation in terms of genre. But it works so well for comics that I think it forces you to either decide comics are a genre, or else to decide that the difference between medium and genre isn’t as great as it tends to seem. Egyptian hieroglyphs, after all, can either be writing, art, or comics, depending on which web of relationship you want to emphasize — and once you start thinking about webs of relationships, it’s in fact pretty clear that they aren’t that closely related to any current medium. Similarly, is a novel a genre? Is it a medium? It depends on how you look at it, surely — meaning, specifically, how you look at the web of relations of which it’s a part, and how those relationships are embedded in time and culture.
Comics straddles the line between genre and medium for various reasons — mostly having to do with the fact that (for reasons of commerce and credibility) it still hasn’t consolidated its cultural position the way science fiction has (as genre) or the way film has (as medium.) It’s betwixt and between, which makes the task of definition somewhat fraught and conflicted. But surely Rieder’s discussion leads to the conclusion that drawing these lines is always fraught and conflicted. A generic designation isn’t about dispassionately fitting a model, but about the more emotional task of finding and claiming one’s relations. The downside is that comics, as an origin and a form, doesn’t really exist; the upside, though, is that that leaves so many possibilities open for what comics can be.