The Genre of Crime Discourse

Without nerding out too much, I think it’s important to acknowledge the term “genre” as important for this blog.

The idea of “genre” comes from the classical (e.g. ancient Greek) writings about forms: namely, that there are different kinds of forms that serve different purposes. The word “genre” comes from the French for “kind.” Aristotle’s Poetics, for example, has been an authoritative source for distinguishing different kinds of communication according to their purpose and effects.

In simple terms, genre refers to patterns or shapes which different kinds of communication (whether spoken, written, performed, or visualized) might fit into. Defining genre is a bit of a circular endeavor: we know something is a specific kind of thing, because it looks like X and has the effect of Y.  And we know about X and Y because . . . we’re familiar with the forms X and Y.

As Tzvetan Todorov suggested in the middle of the 20th century, genre is really best seen or defined when it is transgressed, because a genre is an “aesthetic norm” (“The Typology of Detective Fiction” 294) — and, like ideology, aesthetic “norms” aren’t easily seeable, because it’s what we expect to be there.

Think of the last time you walked into a room that you’ve walked into countless times before. Did you really see the room? Most likely, you only saw something that was out of place in that room: the dirty dishes on a table (which then maybe made you think about the table). The papers that fell on the floor (that maybe made you think about the papers or the floor). A discarded sock (you get the pattern).

Genre is the structural form for a set of expectations. Lauren Berlant, in 2008, connected the “expectations” of genre, and thus the aesthetics of genre, to affect, that realm of psychology that deals with the blurred phenomena between cognition and emotion:

 “[Genre] is a form of aesthetic expectation with porous boundaries allowing complex audience identifications: it locates real life in the affective capacity to bracket many kinds of structural and historical antagonism on behalf of finding a way to connect with the feeling of belonging to a larger world, however aesthetically mediated” (The Female Complaint, 4).

Thinking about genre as we think about true/crime/discourse in this project is important because my central questions revolve around social expectations, and how crime discourse might cater to, and redistribute, social norms.

And a premise of this blog is that there’s an important interplay between the genre of crime discourse and the content  or subject of crime discourse.

In other words, I want to pay attention to the things that might be taken for granted (and therefore unnoticed) when it comes to crime discourse, because that might be where we can identify or at least consider what kind of social norms are referenced, activated, and circulated via these forms.

This also has implications for thinking through the subjects of crime: who is a criminal? who is a victim? who is a cop? who is a judge? How are these categories maintained as distinct in crime discourses? When do they blur?

Many narrative theorists and cultural critics have isolated crime discourse as significant for both understanding narrative forms themselves and understanding culture. Todorov, for example, used “detective fiction” as a kind of test case to discuss his theory of genre formation and classification. And I’ll probably look more at Todorov’s description in later posts in order to consider whether and how his delineation of “detective fiction” genre rules might apply to true crime forms.

Peter Brooks, another narrative theorist, has called detective fiction the “narrative of narratives” because the central purpose of the form is to, as Dino Felluga puts it, “mak[e] sense of the traumas of life.”

And that profound idea, about the (potential) relationship between narrative forms, our unnarratable trauma, and the purpose and effect of crime discourse, is where I think I’ll leave it for now.

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