Genres as Self-Organizing Systems

Some quotes from Peter Bøgh Andersen’s article Genres as Self-organizing Systems (PDF). First, a quote of Tom Ryall, from the book Genre and Contemporary Hollywood by Stephen Neale (its contents looks interesting):

Genres may be defined as patterns/forms/styles/structures which transcend individual films, and which supervise both their construction by the film maker, and their reading by an audience.

To this, Andersen comments:

If genres supervise construction as well as reading, they must be said to possess causal powers. In addition, there are clearly constraints as to which components can actually be combined in a worthwhile book or film. Not all combinations are equally satisfying.

Later, Andersen explains his thesis:

I shall argue that genres are the result of self-organizing processes among texts, readers and writers, and as such are entities at a level above the individual text. [O]nce stabilized in a loose form, they influence and constrain the possible new texts, and in this way may reinforce and maintain their own existence. Thus, genres are patterns of similarities of individual texts (the nominalist position), but they have causal powers controlling the same type of texts from which they were abstracted (the realist position).

He then describes different stories as non-linear dynamic systems (see the diagram I posted the other day), which have attractors and repellers. Something happens in the story, a conflict, which causes an in-equilibrium in the system. About gangster movies, he writes, “the hero’s legal status is jeopardized [repeller], and he starts sliding in the direction of crime and illegality. However, due to his actions, the situations changes, and the legal state once more acquires its status as a stable equilibrium [attractor].” He continues:

It thus seems possible to define genres by means of the attractor type of the individual texts: the Fantastic genre must contain a limit cycle [an attractor that “moves”], whereas most of Neale’s mainstream films must contain a fixed point attractor.

Later, on prototypical products:

The existence of styles and genres presupposes that the demand of originality be relaxed, so that copying is allowed to a certain degree [here he cites Niklas Luhmann’s Essays on Self-Reference]. In fact, in most genres a set of prototypical products can be identified. They are prototypical in several senses: on the one and they embody the properties that are characteristic of the genre, and on the other, they have in fact been actual models for many members of the genre. For example, “2001” and “Starwars” are typical science fiction films, “The Stagecoach” is a typical cowboy film, and “Gone with the Wind” exemplifies the prototypical filmic melodrama.

I’m currently reading Popper on problem solving and trial and error, so the following is interesting:

[A]uthors cannot pre-calculate the meaning assigned to a text by its audience. Although some authors guess better than others, the fact remains that textual interpretation emerges during the consumption process beyond the direct control of the producers. In this sense, the production process can bee seen as a trial-and-error type of problem-solving process in a fuzzy and ill-defined problem area, where problems are defined by attempts to solve them.

Then Andersen summarizes the theory of genres, and the following points were interesting; the first point:

The main process is a circular process whereby new texts are produced by recombinations of old ones. No writer or filmmaker starts from scratch but borrows some elements and varies others; any book or film enters a network of intertextuality with overt or hidden references to other texts.

The fourth point:

There exist more or less clear prototypes that are quite often used as models for new variations. A prototype is viewed as typical of the genre. Prototypes are in some sense “central” with respect to their genre.

The sixth point:

Models for new texts are primarily selected from the set of prototypes in combination with their relevance for the unsolvable contradiction as perceived by the author.

And the seventh, which makes me think of Kuhnian paradigms:

However, not all cultural production can be explained as recombinations of older texts. Evidently, revolutionary new ideas are created from time to time; in happy circumstances, these new ideas can themselves become the centers of new genres or replace old centers and thereby cause the genres to move.

Andersen’s article is a gold mine, and there are some things I’ve left out. If these quotes are interesting to you, I recommend reading the entire article. Here’s the final quote:

According to [Yuri Lotman, in his book Universe of the Mind], the stabilization of culture is due to self-description. The ruling culture in the center of the “semiosphere” [“the whole semiotic space of the culture”] stabilizes itself by describing itself. Language is stabilized by grammars, and social norms by written laws and regulations.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on April 5, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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