"Grew, shivered, and passed away": Comments for Genre / Scale Roundtable, Society for Novel Studies 2018
The below text is adapted from a short talk I gave at a seminar on "Genre / Scale" at the 2018 meeting of the Society for Novel Studies (SNS), in Ithaca, NY. I thank Jed Esty and Paul Saint-Amour for their leadership in framing the discussion, and my fellow panelists, Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore), Jennifer Fleissner (Indiana), and Yumi Dineen Shiroma (Rutgers), for their brilliant remarks and sharp conversation. The audience was great too.
“I drew a breath, set my teeth, gripped the starting lever with both hands, and went off with a thud.”
When the Time Traveler punches the gas on his machine in HG Wells’ 1895 novel, he describes what we could call the phenomenology of scale shift: as days become minutes and time begins to blur, the Traveler experiences what he calls the “peculiar sensations” that flow from a widening mismatch between the observer’s protocols for viewing and the world he views. “[E]very minute mark[ed] a day,” he says: “I saw trees growing and changing life puffs of vapour, now brown, now green; they grew, shivered, and passed away. …. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed——melting and flowing under my eyes” (25). Weird feelings follow. That’s because here, perceptual capacities fitted to one scale or speed of analysis –attuned to and comfortable in, for example, a human-scaled lifeworld, are made now to address an entirely different, geological one, where seasons pass like dreams and days stretch to the “thousands of millions” (106). For the Traveler, this caesura in phenomenological experience is “excessively unpleasant”: it causes “sickness and confusion,” a “hysterical exhilaration” (25).
Burning half of my time on Wells is its own scalar miscue, but I risk opening with this famous moment because it helps me point to what has come to interest me about the topics of scale and genre, which is how they come undone, or mismatch. Both of our title terms today name domains of more or less stable cognitive operation or perceptual fitness. If we follow John Frow to see genre as a set of socially enforced conventions that enable and constrain the production of meaning (10), then we know that genre constitutes a loose contract between reader and text and secures in that encounter a common ontological structure or world: an “implicit realit[y],” in Frow’s words, “which [a] genr[e] form[s] as a pre-given reference” (19). “To speak of genre,” he goes on, “is to speak of what need not be said because it is already so forcefully presupposed” (93). Scale, meanwhile, is “an aesthetic phenomenon,” in Julie Orlemanski’s words, one that “refers us to our specific capacities for attention, cognition, perception, and feeling”. It is, she says, “irreducibly a concept of relation” (218). Scale, like genre, conjures and then presumes a world and legislates our (embodied) place in it.
Genre constitutes a loose contract between reader and text and secures ... a common ontological structure or world
The ideological consequences for this are obvious, as readers like Amitav Ghosh and Nancy Armstrong, to pick just two, have noted: an artifact like a novel, scaled to human size and revolving around the inner life of a bourgeois subject, reproduces worlds in ways whose political limitations have long been obvious. But the diagnostic and exhumatory reading practices that would make these background states visible again, turning ground back into figure——these would need to be supplemented by the creative labor of making new forms from old ones: to show, for example, where the extant genres of bourgeois modernity stretch, fail, and go haywire, and to locate in those generative failures the possibility for new thought, new worlds. In my new project this commitment to the productive, thinking power of literary structures has led me to wonder what happens when stable lifeworlds start to fall apart.
What happens when the right-sized worlds of genre start to fracture from within?
By focusing on moments of generative collapse within generic and scalar systems, I’ve been trying to ask what happens when the right-sized worlds of genre start to fracture from within. It is just such a perceptual breakdown that makes the Time traveler nearly puke, of course, and it’s probably no accident that Wells felt he had to drum up a new genre term —scientific romance— to name his experiment, even if the presence of Weena, the “little doll of a creature,” tips us off to the fact (1) that any seemingly new genre is but a Frankensteined combination of past elements (they’re always unevenly historical); but also (2) that any form then bears within it the newly reorganized social logics of its own hybridized aesthetic infrastructure. (Here the misogynist marriage plot.) A footnote to this is that the real work of genre is properly unseeable from within the maximalizing and binaristic perceptual capacities of machine reading. That’s because what we’re looking for is not a series of examples that do or don’t fit a category but internal discord or works-against-themselves, literary performances that, like any member of a set, belong without belonging, as Derrida says memorably in "The Law of Genre."
For me lately, a good example has been Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, since Carroll's novel flips binaristically between one set of relatively stable, internally consistent ordering codes and another, above ground and below ground, and famously thinks this as a problem of scale. In a foray into book history fanaticism, I’ve so far catalogued 85 different versions of the asterisks that denote Alice’s moments of embodied transition between what we could call these two stable states. Those nonverbal graphic marks do not represent so much as perform or enact the unthinkable switchpoint or conversion moment between mutually exclusive generic registers, scalar regimes, or phenomenological states ——internally coherent worlds, I mean, where scale feels right and expectations match outcomes in a way you can bank on. To sit in the interval between such established worlds, to live in a boundary event, for example, as we do now, would be to exist between codes or genres, distended and ungrounded, “half-expecting,” as Alice does, that anything might happen at any time, or never. “What a curious feeling,” she says (14).
If the novel theory will have anything to say about our curious new present, it will need I think to adopt forms of thinking genre and scale that see individual works not as exemplars or symptoms, but as themselves containing theories, coded as an unwinding of generic structure, of what it feels like to experience collapsing lifeworlds. For in a present characterized by equally by political unwinding and ecological ruin, maybe we can learn again from Alice, who “sat down with her face in her hands, wondering if anything would ever happen in a natural way again.”