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January 1996, Week 4


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"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 20 Jan 1996 14:32:25 -0800
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        Evan Cameron's recourse to analytical terms derived from linguistic
philosophy demonstrates some of the interesting things that can be said
about film genre using this conceptual vocabulary.  I have also been working
on a related recourse to linguistic analysis in order to clarify some of the
confusions that arise around genre names and their application, and this
work perhaps has some use for talking about film noir.
        Philosophers since Russell have emphasized that there are two quite
distinct ways of picking out things in the world.  We can *describe* them,
or we can *refer to* them, where a *description* gives specific
characteristics, properties or qualities which may or may not be fulfilled
by various things, and where *referring* picks things out by their
spatiotemporal location.  (This is Russell's famous Theory of Descriptions.)
        It can be shown that the two methods of picking out objects in the
world are distinct, because, although it is quite possible to do both at
once,  it is also possible to do one without doing the other.  I.e., we can
refer to something without giving any description of it ("that
thingamabob"), and w can also give a description which picks out *no* object
in the world ("all those things which are both circles and squares").  A
further distinction appears in the fact that the objects which fit under a
given description are potentially infinite, whereas we cannot *refer to* an
infinite number of things.
        These distinctions shed a certain light on the use of genre terms.
The traditional distinction between *genres* and *cycles* corresponds in
part to the distinction between *describing* and *referring*, as the latter
category is spatiotemporally limited (a gangster *cycle*, e.g., was made
during a certain period, at  a certain studio, etc.).  Descriptions such as
"All those things which have the properties of being films with a certain
kind of lighting, plot structure, characters, etc." pick out a *class* of
films which is potentially infinite, whereas, when we talk about "certain
films made during a certain period by certain directors, studios,
scriptwriters, etc." we are *referring* or pointing to a particular group of
objects which is finite.  Thus a confusion arises when a "definition"
includes both ways of picking out films, since the likelihood of there being
any *new* films made in the late 1940's is quite slim indeed, whereas it is
quite possible that there could be a new film next week which fit under a
*description* meant to characterize film noir.
        These distinctions also helps us clarify the analytic project of
studying genre, which involves starting from particulars and extracting from
them a description.  We can move from specific films (*Out of the Past*,
*Double Indemnity*, etc.) to a description, but then the description becomes
something quite different--not simply a description of specific films, but a
potentially open-ended description of an infinite class of films.
        Further, multiple descriptions are possible for the same set of
objects.  Humans can be described as "featherless creatures" or "bipeds" or
"animals" or any number of ways, although none of these pick out *only*
humans.  Similarly, genre names (such as "film noir") when understood as
descriptions do not necessarily pick out *one* class of films distinct from
all others (such as "the gangster film", "the crime melodrama," etc.) but
may regroup films already understood as falling under different
descriptions.  Thus it is no surprise that Houston or Tourneur, e.g., had no
idea of "the film noir" in their minds, as genres-as-descriptions do not
need to be understood as being pre-given in advance, but can rather be
constructed later by various critical projects.
        The implication of this analysis is that there are as many
genres-as-descriptions as there are terms we can use to describe films, that
genres-as-descriptions are created after the fact by a critical operation of
description, and that the number of genres is potentially as infinite as the
number of descriptions.  Similarly, in this sense an individual film, once
described, would be a genre which might only have one member.
        But there is no need for genre analysis to start from particular
films and to abstract a description.  We can perfectly well reverse the
procedure and start from a description and look for films which fall under
it.  We can thus imagine genre-descriptions which have *no* members, thus
bringing a certain poetry to the rather prosaic study of genre.  We could,
for instance, take Laura Mulvey's description of classical Hollywood cinema
and invert the genders and arrive at a description which did not  pick out
*any* film (or if it did, it would be quite an interesting one!).  The point
of such a project would be that it would shed light on what kinds of films
*are* made by showing what kinds of films are *not* made--an impossible
film, a square circle.
        The project of genre studies would thus involve an examination of
what meanings are possible and impossible during a certain period.   Such
"impossible" genres are not as fanciful as might be imagined:  at one time
the description "female buddy road movie" might have been thought of as
having no members, but since *Thelma and Louise* (and some of its
imitators), it becomes possible to retrospectively reconstruct a genre which
might include *Gentlemen Prefer Blondes*.
        If this vocabulary indeed constitutes any kind of clarification, it
is merely conceptual:  that is, it does not speak to the appropriateness of
this definition or that one, whether of film noir or of any other genre, but
merely proposes criteria by which genres names can be understood as picking
out films, thus underlining the difference amongst *kinds* of descriptions
and their related critical projects.
Edward R. O'Neill
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