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Genre Fission: A New Discourse Practice for Culture Studies

Genre Fission: A New Discourse Practice for Culture Studies

by Marleen S. Barr

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What do Amsterdam prostitutes, NASA astronauts, cross-dressing texts, and Star Trek characters have in common? Only Marleen Barr knows for sure. In Genre Fission, the award-winning author revitalizes literary and cultural theory by proposing an entirely new discourse practice of examining the points where genres and attendant meanings first converge,


What do Amsterdam prostitutes, NASA astronauts, cross-dressing texts, and Star Trek characters have in common? Only Marleen Barr knows for sure. In Genre Fission, the award-winning author revitalizes literary and cultural theory by proposing an entirely new discourse practice of examining the points where genres and attendant meanings first converge, then reemerge as something new. Part literary analysis, part cultural studies, part feminist critique flavored with a smattering of science fiction and utopian studies, it is witty and eccentric, entertaining and enlightening.

Barr expands postmodern assumptions about cultural studies by suggesting that "genre fission" is occurring among discrete literary and cultural "types" of events--mainstream novels, science fiction, historical narratives, film, paintings, and museum displays. For her literary insights, Barr turns her attention to such mainstream authors as Saul Bellow, John Updike, Marge Piercy, and John Barth as well as science fiction writers Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler and Hispanic American writers Julia Alvarez, Ana Castillo, and Cristina García, among others.

Barr moves from literary to culture studies by addressing such phenomena from contemporary mass culture as the urban landscapes of New York and Los Angeles, Jackie Kennedy, the Star Trek industry, Lynn Redgrave, Amsterdam's red light district, Lorena Bobbitt, and the Apollo astronauts--to provide only a few of the relevant examples. Thus Genre Fission attains what Barr herself designates (in describing the art of Judy Chicago and Lee Bontecou) as "utopian interweavings of difference," crossing numerous boundaries in order to frame a larger territory for exploration.

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"For several years we have been accustomed to the idea that one of the features of our current cultural moment is the tendency of different genres to slip about and seep into one another.   But—until now—nobody has progressed from just noticing this phenomenon to analyzing it rigorously and in detail.  Marleen Barr's latest breakthrough book invents nothing less than a new theory of reading, one appropriate to an era in which genres won't stay still.  Tackling prose fiction, theory, film, television, painting, and much else—and written in a lively, engaging, deliberately irreverent style—Genre Fission is an indispensable contribution to modern cultural studies." —Carl Freedman, author of Critical Theory and Science Fiction

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genre fission A New Discourse Practice for Cultural Studies
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2000 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-703-9


Max Apple, Saul Bellow, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lynn Redgrave Form a Textual Cross-Dresser Support Group

As the New York Times noted:

Desperate to end what they thought were attacks from beyond the grave, New Englanders once unearthed corpses and performed vampire killing rituals, scientists say.... [B]odies from 18th- and 19th-century New England graves appear to have been dug up within a few months or years of death and then mutilated or disrupted.... [T]his tampering with corpses was prompted by the idea of "killing" the dead to stop them from sucking the life force from the living.... [F]amily members would go into the grave and somehow attempt to kill the person again. ("New Englanders 'Killed' Corpses, Experts Say")

In light of dead fathers' propensity for speaking from beyond the grave, New Englanders who "killed" corpses provide a useful tactic for feminist critics. I imagine these critics performing "killing" rituals to stop dead fathers' master narratives from sucking the life force from living women's stories. This chapter points out that male fiction writers who create what I define as cross-dressed texts also engage in such rituals.

The at once female and male figure in Gert H. Wollheim's The Victor, attired as a woman, whose head appears as a genderless blank page, performs a killing ritual (pointedly accomplished via an arrow) on the male body (see p. 136). The male body, suspended over the figure's shoulder-bagged, captured, controlled-acquiesces to the cross-dressed, cross-bodied figure attired in suspenders crossed between female breasts. The suspended male who kisses the androgynous victor's hand is in danger of becoming a dead father.

Ellen G. Friedman might applaud what I see as Wollheim's androgynous figure's victory over the potential dead father. In "Where Are the Missing Contents?: (Post)Modernism, Gender, and the Canon," she provides material to support the need to approach Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father-the power of the dead father's word that this text represents-by attempting to kill him again. Friedman cites Jean-François Lyotard's notion that Western civilization's master narratives are the "missing contents" in modernist and postmodernist literature. She does so to argue that the sense of loss for these no longer presentable narratives is more pervasive in men's, rather than in women's, modern and postmodern texts. Women's texts of modernity look to the future; men's look to the past and, hence, more easily become canonized (Friedman, 244). Using Barthelme's The Dead Father and Thomas Pynchon's Vineland to address Fredric Jameson's response to Lyotard-Jameson's insistence that paternal Western master narratives remain present and powerful-Friedman explains that "the yearning for fathers, for past authority and sure knowledge that can no longer be supported, permeates male texts of modernity.... Although he [Barthelme's protagonist, the dead father] is buried, he is not silenced.... As Pynchon turns away from the quest for the mother, he suggests that the longing for the lost father is inevitable, because the father's order is the only one that Pynchon can imagine" (240 -241). This yearning for the father marks Pynchon and Barthelme as already "'past' [Friedman uses Gertrude Stein's term] and thus classical or, in current terms, canonical" (Friedman, 251; Stein, 514). In contrast, female modernists and postmodernists (such as Stein, Anaïs Nin, and Kathy Acker) look forward and remain "outlaws" located outside the canon (Friedman, 244 -251).

With Friedman's points in mind, I position Max Apple's "Bridging" as a woman's text of modernity. In the first section of this chapter (which pays cursory attention to Amos Oz, Norman Rush, and Philip Roth), I argue that "Bridging," which is neither "past" nor classical, does not look backward to master narratives about gender roles. Instead, the story discusses yet to be presented nonpatriarchal roles for men. After describing how "Bridging"-a male-authored women's text-suggests a new order for the father and calls attention to the dead mother's absence, I explain (in the second section) why Poe's science fiction is a precursor to male-authored texts which conform to Friedman's argument. My third section claims that, like "Bridging," Saul Bellow's recent fiction rejects the father's law and looks forward-beyond patriarchal master narratives to the new order which will exist after old categories merge at Calvino's "All at One Point" (discussed in the introduction).

I conclude by focusing upon Lynn Redgrave, a woman who seeks her dead father in terms of her own authority. Redgrave, in Shakespeare for My Father, seems to reply to men's efforts to create women's texts when she plays-and, hence, appropriates-her own dead father's role. Apple, Bellow, and Redgrave belong to a textual female cross-dresser's support group that Poe engenders. A question asked by one of the characters in The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group by Tama Janowitz is relevant here: "And what does this mean, cross-dress support?" (293). What I call a cross-dressed text is male-authored discourse which conforms to Friedman's notion of a forward-looking woman's text of modernity. Men's cross-dressed texts impersonate the women's texts Friedman defines. They defy categorization.


"Bridging" includes a dead mother whose influence reaches beyond the grave: she affects her husband's decision to lead a Girl Scout troop in order to nurture their daughter, Jessica. Instead of exalting the dead father, "Bridging" depicts an unnamed living father who critiques fixed definitions of fatherhood. Language fails to describe his activities: "We had no den father" (Apple, 549). Apple's unnamed protagonist does not emulate a particular dead father familiar to his community: "Mr. Clark was killed in the Korean War.... John [Mr. Clark's son] had that hero on the wall, his father in a uniform, dead for reasons John and all the rest of us understood" (549, 551). This protagonist, instead, formulates a new male hero: a leader of uniformed girls, not uniformed male soldiers. He is a living father who replaces the dead mother. Mainstream America does not yet fully welcome a nurturing maternal father, a father who wishes to compensate for "the years in which I paid so little attention to my daughter" (553). Apple creates an antipatriarchal fabulator, a man who wishes to rewrite himself in opposition to patriarchal fictions.

Apple's story defines "bridging" in terms of maturity: "the way Brownies become Girl Scouts" (546). He describes this growth process as a transition from yearning for dead fathers (fallen soldiers like Mr. Clark, for example) to applauding men who become heroes when they act as nurturers. Apple's maternal male protagonist is as heroic as soldiers or other absent fathers who, in regard to their families, had "never been there" (552). Mothering fathers do not receive cultural Brownie points, however; "househusband" lacks the panache of "CEO." Regardless, Apple's protagonist rejects usual male gender roles when he "swoop[s] past five thousand years of stereotypes and accept[s] ... [his] assistant leader's packet and credentials" (547). This assistant scout leader blazes a trail for future new paternal roles. Unlike Pynchon and Barthelme, Apple portrays a maternal father and describes a dead mother influencing a living father. This father views a dead mother's impact upon him as an "irresistible presence" (Friedman, 240)-or a force. Apple, then, writes in the manner of one of Friedman's female "outlaws."

"I'm learning to be a leader" (554), says Apple's protagonist. Apple himself could lead a troop of contemporary male writers whose texts resemble Friedman's description of women's texts. Instead of longing for the Western narrative tradition, some men now author fictions which cross-dress as female texts. These writers view the dead father's authority as the "'missing contents,'" the "'unpresentable' in the literature of modernity" (Friedman, 240; Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition). For example, I refer to Amos Oz and Norman Rush to position them as members of the textual cross-dresser group I describe. In the manner of Apple's attention to the dead mother and his unorthodox approach to fatherhood and heroism, Oz's Yoel Ravid, the protagonist of To Know a Woman, nurtures his daughter and mother after his wife dies. Ravid is most heroic when he realizes that his hospital orderly job is more fulfilling than being a master spy. In addition, Norman Rush's Mating, another male-authored crossed-dressed text, presents a woman protagonist's critique of a man who fathers an all-female feminist utopia.

Differentiating themselves from the male voice emanating from a female body part depicted by Philip Roth in "The Breast," male authors such as Apple, Oz, and Rush mimic female voices-produce cross-dressed texts. Rejecting such "past" texts of modernity as "The Breast," Vineland, and The Dead Father, they create a corpus of male-authored women's texts which challenge dead fathers' canonical corpses. These men, holding their own women's texts firmly in hand, thrust themselves upon the contemporary literary scene in a manner which enables them to avoid becoming categorized as the presently "past" practitioners of an impotent literature of exhaustion. They silence dead fathers, using cross-dressed texts to sever ties with the male Western narrative tradition. Poe engendered them. Bellow is now one of them.

Poe and contemporary male creators of cross-dressed texts are scouts-a troop which charts literary paths located beyond worn-out patriarchal paths. Poe and Bellow, who possess many canonical Brownie points, support other men who wish to redefine themselves as makers of women's texts, not dead canonical fathers.


In such science fiction stories as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade," "The System of Dr Tarr and Prof. Fether," and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," Poe creates women's texts and functions as a feminist critic. "Pfaall," for example, critiques the power of city fathers-"the burghers of Rotterdam" (13)-personified by one Burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk. The story describes how a balloon functions as a transport bus which enables a text (Pfaall's letter about his moon flight undertaken via balloon) to commute from the moon to Earth. Pfaall's outer space journey and letter enable him to transcend the Rotterdam fathers who position him as underdog and Woman. His departure and the letter he sends via the balloon's return to Earth are "an egregious insult to the good sense of the burghers of Rotterdam" (13). Poe critiques patriarchal reality when he imagines a machine carrying Pfaall above and beyond the burghers' systems.

Pfaall's letter, which is "so fatally subversive of both person and personal dignity to his Excellency, Von Underduk" (16), is a subversive document. Like a feminist critical text, it challenges systems which enable fathers to maintain power. Pfaall, "as poor as a rat" (17) and doomed to fall and fail, invents a means to leave patriarchal power systems when he ignites the balloon which will carry him beyond Earth: "Dropping a lighted cigar on the ground, as if by accident, I [Pfaall] took the opportunity, in stooping to pick it up, of igniting privately the piece of slow match.... This manoeuvre was totally unperceived.... I shot upwards with inconceivable rapidity" (22). Pfaall places himself on top of patriarchal systems when he very purposefully uses a cigar, that most stereotypical of all phallic symbols, as an explosive device. He literally uses energy derived from igniting a representation of phallic power to escape from the burghers' power systems.

Pfaall, a man the burghers don't see, behaves analogously to the female protagonists of James Tiptree, Jr.'s (Alice Sheldon's) "The Women Men Don't See." Like Tiptree's Ruth and Althea Parsons, Pfaall is Woman-as-immigrant from fathers' repressive systems. In the manner of the Parsons women, Pfaall, to escape oppression, leaves Earth and ventures to an unknown world. He describes his intentions with words that could appropriately apply to Ruth and Althea: he is "determined to depart, yet live-to leave the world, yet continue to exist ... to force a passage ... to the moon" (26). This man who possesses a feminist imagination and describes himself as a "madman" boldly going "beyond the confines of the possible" (26) resembles a "madwoman" venturing beyond the confines of the attic-Ruth and Althea begging aliens to enable them to leave Earth.

While floating above confining patriarchal systems, Pfaall can place Earth and the Rotterdam city fathers' power in a new perspective: "the surface of my mother earth ... was indeed over my head, and completely hidden by the balloon, while the moon-the moon itself in all its glory-lay beneath me, and at my feet" (51). Pfaall's balloon, his own construction, blocks out the patriarchal world he escapes. The usually hidden Earth, in fact, might represent the newly ineffective patriarchal father, not Pfaall's mother. His new mother, the moon, appears at his feet. Unlike patriarchal Earth, the maternal moon will not suppress him. Pfaall's balloon allows him to render father Earth impotent-to experience alternative social roles. The balloon hides Earth, positioning it as "a world placed under erasure" (McHale, 99-111). Von Underduk and his fellow burghers themselves realize that pardoning Pfaall "would be of little use" ("Pfaall," 57). Pfaall's text (his letter) effectively nullifies patriarchal power-causes this power to become of no use. "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" is a power fantasy for women, a precursor to feminist science fiction.

A feminist critical voice figures in Poe's "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade." Scheherazade tells the king stories that obviously contain lies. In contrast to her other stories, Scheherazade's last tale-which describes women's loss of subjectivity in patriarchal fictions-is true (152). This story (which is about women who use bolsters to conform to a beauty standard in which dromedary-like back protuberances are desirable) seems to cause Naomi Wolf 's The Beauty Myth to echo Poe's critique of continuously changing femininity requirements. Like feminist science fiction writers, Scheherazade exaggerates to articulate the harmful impact of patriarchal narratives.

The king describes Scheherazade's insightful story as "your lies" (153). His interpretation, of course, prevails. The story implies that Scheherazade, who "plays" for time by lying to the king, dies after telling a tale which articulates a truth in regard to women's lives (153). Although Scheherazade's time is up, Poe makes sure to suggest that it is appropriate to continue to tell stories which benefit women: "She [Scheherazade] derived, however, great consolation ... from the reflection that much of the history remained still untold" (153). Poe engenders a literary history in which men, instead of silencing women and writing about men's lives, create women's texts. His Scheherazade, who tells tales to entertain a man and to live, ultimately switches to a subversive story about women which the king does not want to hear. Many contemporary male writers follow her example. In the manner of their female colleagues, these men enliven literature; they do not become "past" creators of the literature of exhaustion. Poe's "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade" is more sympathetic to Scheherazade than John Barth's "Dunyazadiad." Poe is a lively dead father of postmodernist literary sons who choose to replenish literature by critiquing patriarchal systems.

Poe, in "The System of Dr Tarr and Prof. Fether," indicates that social systems define more women than men as insane. When the story's narrator visits an asylum, after assuming that the inmates are predominantly female, he is informed that this assumption is false:

"Oh, no-every one of them men, and stout fellows, too, I can tell you."

"Indeed! I have always understood that the majority of lunatics were of the gentler sex."

"It is generally so, but not always.... but, lately, matters have changed very much, as you see." (186)


Excerpted from genre fission by MARLEEN S. BARR Copyright © 2000 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Carl Freedman
Marleen S. Barros latest breakthrough book invents nothing less than a new theory of reading, one appropriate to an era in which genres just won't stay still. Tackling prose fiction, theory, film, television, painting, and much elseÑand written in a lively, engaging, deliberately irreverent style Genre Fission is an indispensable contribution to modern cultural studies. (Carl Freedman, author of Critical Theory and Science Fiction)
Norman N. Holland
Norman N. Holland, University of Florida

Our times astonish us because pop culture confuses wildly diverse cultural events of gender, race, and class. By herself mixing incongruous events, Marleen Barr develops a critical discourse for talking about, precisely, gender, race, and class. And she does it in such a lively, witty style you'd never dream you're reading heavy-duty cultural theory.

Meet the Author

Marleen Barr teaches science and technology studies at Michigan State University.  The author of Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction (Iowa, 1992), Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, and Alien to Femininty: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory,  Barr is a winner of the Science Fiction Research Association Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction criticism.

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