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Symbolism of Genres

Symbolism of Popular Culture

Symbolism of Genres

“The meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside in the unseen, enveloping the tale which could only bring it out as a glow brings out a haze.”

Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness

Genre is a symbolic system that has commonality with all storytelling forms of popular culture. When a narrative structure is involved, genre offers one of the key methods for defining the contextual symbolism involved. It has importance to symbolism because it offers a common method for categorizing symbols from various media of popular culture such as films, television and literature. It also has a long history going back to basic forms of Greek drama in comedy, tragedy, romance and satire.

Symbolic correspondences have been found between genre and cycles and genre and sequence. While genre is one of the key contextual symbols of story-based entertainment products, it may also provide one of the keys to creating common categories for other current popular product symbols in the sense that many popular products outside of strictly narrative ones in fact tell stories.

A few examples using genre for symbolic contextual analysis might help to clarify this important area and demonstrate its use symbolically. One example involves a dominant genre in American popular culture in the late 1990s. The other involves the dominant genre in American popular culture in the second half of the 19th century.

1. Dominance of the Gothic Genre

One excellent investigation using symbolic genre analysis of popular culture is Mark Edmunson’s Nightmare On Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, And The Culture of Gothic (Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, 1997). The gothic genre comes from a type of terror fiction that took off in England during the 1790s when the French Revolution was in progess. Types of gothic are terror gothic which was initiated by Ann Radclife and Monk Lewis in the 1790s; Mary Shelley's type of gothic who gave us Frankenstein and the apocalytic gothic and no less than Freud who gave us internalized gothic and the haunted psyche from 1900 to 1939.

Mark Edmunson in Nightmare On Main Street suggests the gothic genre as a broad organizing paradigm for overall culture in the 90s and final years of the twentieth century. Going beyond products, Edmunson sees gothic in all forms of culture remarking that:

"Gothic conventions have slipped over into ostensibly nonfictional realms. Gothic is alive not just in Stephen King's novels and Quentin Taratino's films, but in media renderings of the O.J. Simpson case, in our political discource, in our modes of therapy, on TV news, on talk shows like Oprah, in our discussions of AIDS and of the environment. American culture at large has become sufused with Gothic assumptions, with Gothic characters and plots."

Edmunson also sees the symbolic duality of the gothic genre when he notes that, "Rather than seeing ours as a culture of chaos, as many now do, I see it as shot through with a significant dialectical pattern, the play of Gothic and facile transcendence."

Edmunson provides a contextual scenario for the rise of the gothic genre. Around 1975, he notes, slasher films began prolierating in America with Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The Thirteenth. These original manifestations of the emergence of the gothic gnere were fringe products though. As Edmunson notes, "But these were down and dirty productions, shot on shoestring budgets and patronized by adolescents looking for quasi-sexual shivers, and by the sorts of middle-aged men who have trouble keeping eye contact."

The gothic genre moved from the fringe towards the mainstream of popular culture in the 90s. As Edmunson writes, "But then suddenly, at the onset of the '90s, an expensively produced slasher film was at the center of mainstream American culture." The film was Silence of the Lambs. "Horror,"notes Edmunson, "had reached prime time."

The 90s have seen a boom in horror fiction and film. After Silence, Coppola directed Dracula, Kenneth Branagh was in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Jack Nicholson was The Wolf Man. The novels of Ann Rice have risen to the top of the bestseller lists and of course Stephen King has beaten sales of all gothic novelists with 250 million books in print. King's commercial supremacy in the 90s has been challenged only R. L. Stine, author of such adolescent fright novels as The Scarecrow Walks At Midnight, Haunted, and Cheerleaders:The First Evil. Terror has never been so hot and lucrative.

As Edmunson notes, "The influence of Alfred Hitchcock, major Gothic artist that he is, remains omnipresent in American film. Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, and Brian de Palma, to name just a few, are Hitchcock's lineal descendants, but there is hardly a suspense or horror picture made in America that doesn't owe a debt to the Master."

Whether one buys into Edmunson's theory that the 90s are dominated by the gothic genre is less important than seeing that genre analysis can provide a powerful tool to characterizing the symbolism of popular culture.

2. Dominance of the Children Story Genre

In the slim yet important The Medium is the Message (1967), Marshall McLuhan makes an interesting observation with broad implications for a symbolism of popular culture. "When faced with a totally new situation," he notes, "we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past." Conversely, one might say that when secure in a familiar situation, one tends to venture out, away from objects and into the future.

An interesting speculation centers around genres which are past oriented and future oriented. For instance, the children's story genre can be considered a romantic, past oriented genre centered around a nostalgia for the past while the science fiction genre is a future oriented genre centered around a rejection of the past and consciousness movement towards the future. Does the children's genre dominant popular culture at times when culture is surrounded with, as McLuhan puts it, a "totally new situation"? Does the science fiction genre dominant when mass culture feels secure in the present and willing to venture into the future?

The answers to these questions could provide a good amount of insight into the dynamics of the symbolism of popular culture. While the theory remains to be tested in a number of situations, it seems to be true in relation to one period of American history which has been defined as the golden age of children's literature. In a brilliant study of American children's literature called The Classic American Children's Story, literature professor Jerry Griswold finds an obsession with and dominance of children's literature during the period from 1850 to 1914. During this period twelve key works of children's literature such as The Wizard of Oz, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Secret Garden, Tarzan of the Apes and Little Women were created.

Much of the reason for the dominance of children's literature during the second half of the nineteenth century is related directly to Marshall McLuhan's concept of attachment to the past within totally new situations. As Griswold notes, "The second half of the nineteenth century was dramatically different from the first half, when American Rip Van Winkles slumbered in a long Jeffersonian dream of pastoral tranquility and agrarian self-sufficiency." Griswold rightly observes that the "horrors" of the Civil War changed all that as Americans awoke (did Rip Van Winkle symbolically foreshadow the mass awakening of America?) from their slumber to find America being reshaped by the forces of change in the form of rapid industrialization and urbanization.

Feeling displaced by the rapid growth and change, many writers and readers, notes Griswold, longed to "recapture the past" and did so along the lines of the English Romantic poets in their celebration of childhood. "Following such horrors as Antietam and Gettysburg," writes Griswold, "Americans wished to recall the prewar bliss of their own agrarian childhoods. This may explain why the children's books of the period had such wide appeal, and why so many are memoirs...or in large part autobiographical...and have settings that are essentially rural or pastoral."

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