PROBLEM 0016: The Problem with Genre

In which the author makes some blanket statements about the genreless. In which the blanket statements are pure, unwashed wool, and therefore very itchy. In which the blanket is washed, smoothed out, and shrunk, but remains itchy. And where the brain sheds the blanket because that’s what brains do.


§. If a good movie doesn’t have a genre, its proponents will call it A Film. This loses the film a huge part of the movie-watching populace.

§. If a book doesn’t have a genre, they’ll call it Literature. This annoys the future while denigrating the past.

§. If an artwork doesn’t have a form, we’ll call it abstract. This is just unhelpful.

§. If music doesn’t have a beat, we’ll call it noise. Can’t argue that one.


La trahison des images, 1928–29

La trahison des images, 1928–29. Rene Magritte

We silly humans have a very strange need. When something has no name, we must name it, if only to give ourselves something (anything) that will let us hold on to it (babies would be impossible to care for without names—or would they? Do apes name their offspring? Do birds? Do worms? Do viruses?).

When thinking intently on something, the only way for our minds to hold that ethereal Thing before our mind’s eye is to either visualize it concretely, or to hold it by its Name (try it, it’s almost impossible—of course, you first need to find a Nameless Something to experiment on, which is harder than you’d think). Without a name, the Thing slips through our mental fingers and fights against comparison with other Things which by their names have fallen naturally into a pre-existing taxonomy of human experience.


For instance, because we know what Abstract Expressionism is, whenever we hear that a certain formless painting is labeled or from the school of or is certainly Abstract Expressionistic, we can immediately apply what we know about Abstract Expressionism to the thing itself, thus jump-starting or hamstringing our comprehension. Names and labels and groups are shortcuts to thought. We should be cautious with them. [Side note: Here is how to be cautious: take the group called “shortcuts to thought” and look at what I lumped in there: “names”, “labels”, and “groups”: now, is that label in itself a “shortcut to thought”? Isn’t most writing?]


By knowing ahead of time that X is an art film, we know immediately a) if we want to see it or b) if we are immediately annoyed by it and c) that it will never make any money ever for anyone in the world.

To name something is to make it decipherable. More accurately, naming eases the mind into fulfilling its cognitive potential in the quickest, most efficient way possible.


A work of art that is outside genre is a work of art that is supremely difficult upon first impression (take any of the existing forms of Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases, aka A Life in Suitcases). We can make assumptions about such a work of art only after encountering it, rather than beforehand. And we relish being able to use our preconceived notions as often as possible. Preconceived notions are like sleeping pills. Why drift off to sleep when you can explode into it?

Does this mean we need genres? Or pocket-sized descriptions? Or does this mean we need a method of thought that does not rely upon prior conventions? Is this even a possibility? Am I being utopian here?