Friday, 14 March 2008

Tzvetan Todorov - The Fantastic

Todorov is mainly known in media studies for his contributions to narrative theory - his structuralist theory of 'Equilibrium' especially. However, his book on the genre of the fantastic provides us with such a clear and conscious method for studying the concept of genre that it deserves more attention. Todorov divides genre into two; historical genres that result from the observation of texts and theoretical genres that result from analysis. It is the later type that is of interest to Todorov in his study of the fantastic.
Todorov positions the genre he calls 'the fantastic' between the closely related genres of 'the marvellous' (the supernaturally inexplicable) and 'the uncanny' (the rationally explicable) suggesting that 'the fantastic' always resolves into one or the other and that the 'hesitant' delay in this act of resolving into one of these related genres is the defining aspect of 'the fantastic' as a genre.
This genre of 'the fantastic' has much to recommend it to students of the media as it allows us to comparatively consider seemingly very disparate texts. Todorov utilises 'the fantastic' to analyse Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poe's The Black Cat, Kafka's The Castle, Balzac's The Magic Skin, and several short stories by Guy de Maupassant.
As a theoretical genre 'the fantastic' is also very useful to film & media studies as it provides us with means of thinking comparatively about a range of texts that would be traditionally allocated to other genres. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's The Watchmen (soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture-event!) falls into this marvellous-fantastic-uncanny spectrum. As does Neil Burger's The Illusionist, Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (because of course The Turn of the Screw would be a key fantastic text), and
Stanisław Lem's work - especially Solaris (although Lem himself was not keen on Todorov's concept).
More parochially the BBC's sibling shows Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes would also fall into Todorov's genre of 'the fantastic'. The intrusion of the 'Test-Card-Girl' into Sam Tyler's 1973 life and of Pierrot, George & Zippy and DI Drake's daughter in Alex Drake's 1981 are clear indicators of the presence of 'the fantastic'.
Considering the range of different types of texts we can use 'the fantastic' to study it is worth us considering what other theoretical genres we can construct and use to analyse the media.

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