The books in libraries and bookstores are organised according to genres. There’s a floor for fiction and another for science, one for poetry and one for history. This kind of structure helps to locate the book you’re looking for, but only as long the book has already been placed in a generic category, and only as long as you identify these categories correctly. You won’t find a history book in the history section unless you know that book is a history book – and most likely it won’t say ‘History book’ on the cover.
The language of textual genres is complex and often confusing. Should a book on art history be classed with history or with art?
We owe generic classification to the ancient Greeks. Classification was the first act of tidying up in view of moral living and good government. Philosophy starts with classifying things, which is a spin-off of the act of good naming – naming ourselves, naming others, naming nature. The first thing Adam did was to name the animals, to classify them.
The ancient, classical world obsessed over genres. Classical also means genre-specific – the greatest anti-classical sin is to combine genres, to transgress neat, classical classifications. It is the ultimate anti-Marxist Paradise, classes living in harmony, without conflict.
We inherited this classical view of genres, although our present age is fighting against it. It was an obsession in the ancient world, in the Renaissance, during the Enlightenment and in the neoclassical age. It is not just about art. In writing, rules concerning genre have prevailed from Aristotle to the 21st century. Resistance against the mixing of genres has been as strong as the forces in support of it. In the humanities, demarcations have kept disciplines apart, despite current attempts to converge knowledge in multi-/pluridisciplinary approaches. Political polarization is also an effect of strong genre thinking: someone who thinks A has to be an X, and not possibly a Y. You have to choose between A and B, which are self-exclusive.
The convergence of genres had a short lease of life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Classifications became less important, genres dissolved for a while – the memory of the ancient world dimmed slightly. Classical philosophy and contemporary theology converged to produce new thinking. History and chronography fused to give rise to the medieval chronicle. Natural philosophy and fiction created the typically medieval bestiary. The Middle Ages was such an innovative age because it allowed genres to feed on each other. This is something we are now re-learning, in the humanities, in arts, in sciences, in political thinking. There is always something worth seeing on the other side.