Recent discussions in genre have had one central question at their heart: how coherent is a category? There is a camp of critics who feel that it is the duty of their compatriots to provide clarity with regard to categorizations. To do otherwise is to invite sloppy thinking and the risk of error. On her essay, “How To Define a New Subgenre/Trend: The Speculative Epic and an Addendum to the “Squeecore” Debate” Cora Buhlert, a veteran SFF blogger and critic, sets out very specific criteria for how to go about identifying an artistic phenomenon citing the example of Lincoln Michel as an exemplar.
Buhlert defines very carefully what she sees as the correct method to approach this topic, saying, “I have identified a trend and here are some examples of people who have noticed it, too, as well as some examples of works that fit into that trend. I propose this name for it (a name that’s not derogatory) and it has this characteristics. It’s also part of a larger trend towards genre-bending fiction.”
She also provides a guide to what is absent from Michel’s work and which she thinks other critics should avoid saying, “What this article notably does not include is snarky asides against authors and books that Lincoln Michel does not like, buzzwords like “neoliberal” and issues that are worth addressing but have nothing to do with the subgenre in question. Also, Michel offers solid criteria for defining speculative epics and not criteria that are so vague that they apply hundreds of things up to and including Shakespeare.”
Buhlert tips her hand saying that she is very interested in, “literary trends, subgenre formation and genre taxonomy.” Now quite a lot could be said about Buhlert’s declaration of “neoliberalism” to be a buzzword as “buzzword” tends to imply a fuzziness in definition that allows a word or phrase to be used in a broad and inexact manner. The general sense I get from Buhlert is that she isn’t particularly fond of the broad and the inexact. But beyond that it’s worth noting that the word that gets Buhlert’s goat, in particular, is reference to a pervasive political ideology. It’s certainly the case that many people use “neoliberalism” inexactly. But considering that the impact of neoliberalism, with a very careful delineation of what is meant by such, is a principal concern of this blog I’d suggest that what concerns Buhlert is the idea of the political invading the dispassionate work of the taxonomer. Taxonomy is ultimately an attempt to objectively categorize a thing and define its relationship with all other things. If you care about a fixed taxonomy then the politicization of it certainly is a problem. Categorizing works in the past based on their political use in the present screws taxonomy all up.
I don’t mean to pick on Buhlert especially. I cite her as an example because she is an experienced critic with a long-standing and prolific output on genre literature however her position is indicative of a broad general sentiment within genre fiction readership that a taxonomy of fiction is something of value. And it’s critical to note, for this discussion, two things: first that science fiction includes among its readership many people with a particularly close relationship to taxonomies of fiction relative other readerships and second that this is not at all a phenomenon that arose in response to the Squeecore debate which serves as the inciting motivation behind Buhlert’s call for renewed taxonomic precision.
The Classics of Science Fiction blog attempted a taxonomy of genre fiction even going so far as to cite Linnaeus in 2019. The author of this blog, James Wallace Harris, is another long-established science fiction critic who shares some of Buhlert’s concerns regarding the politicizing of genre categorization. “To be told what my favorites should be is incredibly insulting. To me, that’s far more offensive than the Sad Puppies pushing their political agenda at the Hugos.” Harris, in particular, has a very long-standing relationship to the construction of taxa for fiction.
Jacob Ross and Jeoffrey Thane at Latter-Day Saint Philosopher also spend some effort on a taxonomy of science fiction but provide effectively no argument as to why they would do so (unlike the superior work of Buhlert and Harris) so I will only note it as being yet another example and move on from here.
I will provide a final example somewhat more useful than the LDS Phlosopher article from Clare McBride. Notwithstanding some unusual choices in categorization what makes her article about literary taxonomy interesting is in her recognition of the inadequacies of taxonomy, saying, “once we get to speculative fiction, everything gets a lot soupier.” She admits that these taxonomic exercises are somewhat subjective, saying, “But there are some foggy bits between them, of course–quite technically, I should classify Harry Potter and The Mists of Avalon as supernatural fiction, but I don’t. In Harry Potter’s case, it’s the fullness of the magical world, which probably could function quite separately from the Muggle world, and, in The Mists of Avalon, it’s simply because medieval Europe is the generic fantasy setting to the extent I can’t see past it. If it was set in medieval China, would I still file it under fantasy? Perhaps–I don’t know.”
It is interesting to note that McBride prefaces her 2010 essay by discussing the then-current discourse between Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood over what constituted science fiction. Atwood was, at the time, quite reticent to treat her many science fictional works as being within the genre as they didn’t include ray guns and rocket ships. Le Guin rather disagreed with her taxonomic criteria.
What I find most interesting is that McBride was the only one of these critics who seemed interested in what a taxonomy might be for at all. Buhlert and Harris provide taxonomies because they enjoy it. Both of these critics seems invested in the idea that precise categorization is a result of precise thought and that precise thought is good.
This should be unsurprising as both Buhlert and Harris are first and foremost science fiction critics and what is science but a treatment of precise thought as a good? It should not surprise that critics of the fiction of science should aspire to a scientific objectivity and clarity in their critique.
But this raises the question of what art criticism is, philosophy, science or art?
In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari attempt to define the boundaries between philosophy, science and art, saying of science that, “The object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems. The elements of functions are called functives. A scientific notion is defined not by concepts but by functions or propositions,” while philosophy is taken with the creation of concepts – something which they previously define at length. Art meanwhile operates to preserve, “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects.” Now of course in proper Deleuzo-Guattarian fashion we can immediately disrupt these neat categorizations by pointing out how art criticism acts as both an art – preserving percepts and affects in the form of the responsive essay and as philosophy – creating concepts with regard to art, developing novel ways to think about art, and that these novel concepts might even include the possibility of a scientific or pseudo-scientific taxonomy of the arts. The lesson that Deleuze and Guattari teach us best is that the best, and most amusing, thing to do with a category is to destabilize it, to pick at the corners and kick at the edges until the whole damn thing falls apart. Their own categories are, of course, not immune to this loving destruction.
So what use then is a scientific notion of art? We can’t just immediately discard it by suggesting that art is intrinsically different from science when a critic might be very interested in presenting functions of literature in a discursive system. But a discursive system implies a test. So if a taxonomy is testing something then what is being tested and why?
Buhlert is very explicit that what is being tested is simply this, “is artwork A part of group X?” Buhlert is very clear that group X needs to be defined such that an intelligible distinction between within group X and without group X can be made – if a category is so broad that anything can be within group X then it’s useless for saying anything about the text.
What all of the critics cited above except for McBride elide is what can actually be said about a work of art by distinguishing it as part of a category. For McBride the question becomes one of establishing parameters for art discourse. We need to know what is within speculative fiction because we cannot otherwise have a productive discussion of the qualities of speculative fiction. However this becomes something of a circular argument: we cannot discuss the qualities of speculative fiction without defining the qualities of speculative fiction but why do we want to discuss the the qualities of speculative fiction? Because they are necessary to identify what is within speculative fiction.
However the particularity of works of art operates against this. Ultimately each artwork is a unique thing. This is why mechanical reproduction is corrosive to artistic quality – each work of art preserves within itself a unique set of percepts and affects. Take, for example, Junji Ito’s adaptation of Frankenstein. It is simultaneously a horror comic, a science fiction story, a gothic, a work in translation, a literary classic and also something quite modern. Placing this adaptation even in a taxonomy of Frankenstein adaptations might be difficult enough. Was Ito more affected by James Wale, Terrence Fisher or Kenneth Branagh? Can we ignore the multitudinous cinematic adaptations he might have seen between when Shelly wrote her book and when he penned his adaptation?
And so our first obstacle to taxonomizing art is that the uniqueness of any given artwork pushes against clearly delineated categorization at all. The second is that taxonomy forces a specific shape upon the history of artwork. Taxonomies are made out of lines and breaks. You trace a line to a point and say, “here the line divides.” Working in reverse you should be able to trace a taxonomy back to the first thing within the set. In the beginning there were single celled life-forms. Then they began to differentiate. We can cut here where fish emerge, here birds, here mammals.
But there is no one first work of art. At best there is the first work of art still preserved but there is ample evidence that art emerges wherever there are people. Art isn’t arborescent. There isn’t any singular source of all art that we could trace back with to find, eventually, a complete category of all things that are art. It’s certainly true that art is in discourse with the past of art but it’s in discourse with the entire past of art. Art doesn’t operate as a tree but as a geology. Some art may occupy a valley, carved out from erosion, and its artists can see the strata of past artworks displayed on its boundaries but this doesn’t make for a full categorization of all art, just for a categorization of historic breaks within this valley. Across the hill may be something completely different. Like a geology the past, present and future of art are jammed together. The past of art might explode like a volcano and leave a new future that occludes what came before. Likewise the new might wash away parts of what came before and expose hidden truths about fiction. The history of art is not like a tree: it is far too dynamic. And categorizing objects within dynamic systems is a messy and inexact business.
When we look at cyberpunk how do we define what is in and out of it? We can set up taxonomies but if every urban science fiction where an information network and massively powerful corporations are major elements of story action is a cyberpunk novel then the Mass Effect trilogy is a cyberpunk video game rather than space opera. After all the whole Noveria plot of Mass Effect 1 is corporate intrigue, the action of Mass Effect is centered around urban hubs like the Citadel and Omega and the extranet is a pervasive story element, as are VR visualizations of data, particularly during the Geth story lines of Mass Effect 2 and 3.
Of course this is an absurd categorization. And yet.
Perhaps the problem is the urge to categorization. But of course this raises a central problem of identification. There has to be some difference qua difference for objects to exist at all. It’s an easy short circuit to make the difference a negation: it is science fiction if it is not any of the things that are not science fiction. However this gloss of science is a straight-jacket for a critic. Why would I want to talk about Jin Yong while eliding Dumas? And if we’re talking about Dumas how can we but talk about Scott and Hugo both?
But how much of The Hunchback of Notre Dame could we possibly find in The Book and the Sword? Genres and subgenres are territories on a map but they’re not mutually exclusive territories. And, of course, a territory isn’t the same thing as its boundaries – in fact a territory comprises everything that is not the boundary of it. This is to say that it is fully possible to identify that a territory exists without understanding, let alone articulating, its outline. We can see the stuff that is the territory quite clearly even if we don’t think like a state and demand a clear line be drawn around it.
Furthermore, since art criticism is an artistic response to art and since art is the preservation of affects and perceptions we cannot have an objective criticism that ignores the affective character of art. As such any identification of a territory within art will include within it affective judgments. This art fits here in part because it made me feel this way; even SF critics understood this when they valorized sense of wonder which is a fully affective reaction to a genre. And this means that, yes, some categorizations of art will be derisive in character. They are those artworks that made the critic feel derision. But this means an objective measure of art is missing the entire point. Art is that which we cannot possibly be objective about.
In the end I don’t think taxonomy is a productive use of a critics time. Our first order of business should be the creation of art – the preservation of percepts and affects, the direct artistic response to another work of art. Our second order of business should be the creation of artistic concepts – creating new ways to think about art.
This careful sorting of art into delineated categories is neither.
It is definitely good for a critic to refer to specific work. After all a percept or an affect is best preserved by being present. Zizek’s review of the Matrix Resurrections, which he did not see, is a perfect example of how this can be simultaneously reified and also destabilized. It does preserve his affect toward the film even in the process of declining to watch it, a truly artistic response to a work of art but one dependent upon reference to the artwork nonetheless. But when creating concepts it’s unnecessary to do so with exhaustive scientific precision. This philosophical mode of criticism is not science nor should critics aspire to be scientists. It’s enough for a critic to say I saw it here and here and here. There is no impetus within the form of criticism to say, “it cannot possibly arise here. It is bounded by this line.”