I’ve gotten some questions about the terminology discussed in class. Next time, if you’re fuzzy on something, please be sure to ask in class. I got tied up all day, so it was hard for me to get this posted until Wednesday evening, and I have an appointment so this is going to be quick and, I fear, a bit sloppy. In any case, a clarification of terms I discussed:

  • anxiety: simply put, this is the feeling or experience of discomfort which a society has regarding something — its own attitudes, its history or politics, its status in the world, or whatever. For example, King Kong can be argued to be “about” (or to “encode”) American social anxieties of the time it was made, regarding the status and position of blacks in America (as an imagined “threat” to white women and to social order, as social “underdogs,” as victims and underdogs who summoned up feelings of guilt, and as symbols of America’s brutal, racist history). When a society is anxious about something, it tends not to want to “talk about it” directly (ie. to confront the object of the anxiety directly) but also tends to feel an overwhleming need to represent it in indirect ways — in metaphors, for example.
  • trauma: as with personal trauma, a social trauma is the effect of a painful, shocking, or distressing event that has a deep impact  on a society and its outlook. Traumas often give rise to specific anxieties — for example, 9/11 and the immediate aftermath was a trauma that created new anxieties  (or deepened old ones) about terrorism, government control, and religious extremism. Examples of other traumas specific to South Korean society include the partitioning of Korea into North and South, the Korean War, the assassination of Park Chung Hee, the Kwangju Massacre, and the 1997 economic crisis. Each of these events has generated specific anxieties, and each (arguably) has had an important influence on the literature and popular culture of South Korea.
  • trope: a familiar, common, or recognizable structure, theme, or feature of a genre or of stories in general (in literature or cinema alike). For example, the vampire trope is recognizable to us, because we all know the traits of vampies (what kills them, what their powers are, and so on). Another kind of trope is a common theme, such as, “Boy Meets Girl” or “The Underdog Overcomes Impossible Odds,” or “The Cop Must Give Up His Gun and Badge and Go It Alone” or “If You Have Sex, You Will Die” (as in many horror movies).
  • cliché: this is a trope that is used in a lazy way, or in a way that is so predictable as to be insulting to the audience. It has a negative connotation, so that sometimes familiar tropes are called “cliché” simply because the speaker dislikes the trope. For example, many feminists would say that the “Smart Girl Learns To Become a Pretty Girl” trope is a cliché. Not all tropes are necessarily clichés, but most clichés are, by necessity, familiar enough to be tropes, or part of tropes. (For example, one cliché in cop/army films is when the soldier or cop says angrily, “I didn’t sign up for this sh*t!” and disobeys orders. This is part of the individualistic “Cop Disobeys Orders and Goes It Alone” trope, of which one form is the copy giving up his gun and badge.)

Another way of saying this is: tropes are conventional structures we see in a kind of story. (Wikipedia has a great list of Fantasy Tropes and Conventions, for example.) A cliché is a trope that is so overused as to become predictable, or insulting, or annoying — it’s basically a trope that someone has decided he or she does not like. Therefore, cliché is a personal value judgment describing a particular trope.

  • discourse: whatever I write here will not make this idea easier to understand, but the basic point is this: a discourse is the set and structure of ideas which form a kind of hidden “story about the world” (or about people, or about life, or about nature, or whatever) which can contain tropes, anxieties and the traumas they originate from, and more. If you think about tropes, anxieties, and the rest as lego bricks, then they build two stories: there’s the obvious story — like, a love story, or a story of colonization, or a murder mystery — and then there’s the deeper story about the world that is hidden inside the story. For example, to say that a text contains a “Eurocentric discourse” is to say that, whatever the story it seems to tell on the surface, there is a deeper story embedded in it which claims that European people and culture are best, that non-Europeans are somehow inferior or in need of “help” (ie. Europeanization), and so on. A sexist discourse is one where there is a deeper set of assumptions and tropes or anxieties that support them, which suggest that one sex (often, but not always, male) is better than the other, that one sex or another has limited mental or social capabilities, and so on. A colonialist discourse is one that supports colonization of other societies, often by the society in which the text was produced. Because discourses are deeply embedded in narratives (stories) they often contradict the overt story. For example, a novel that argues, overtly, that men and women are equal can still have a sexist discourse embedded in it. (For example, while King Kong seems designed to make its audience feel sorry for King Kong, and by extension for African-Americans, the film also definitely contains an unarguably racist (and sexist) discourse… among others.)

I think that’s all the major terms we discussed. I hope this helps! If not, please ask me in class next time!

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