Intervention, the Future of the Humanities
April 20, 2010

I have seen the future of the digital humanities--and it is full of hope! It is also full of many happy afternoons spent following hyperlinks into fascinating, and extremely nerdy, cultural niches. Let me explain...

What is TV Tropes?

What is (henceforth TVT)? TVT is an amazing wiki devoted to the "tropes" of television, film, fiction, and, potentially, everything. The organizing idea of the site is the trope, very loosely defined as any convention or pattern to be found in and around these cultural objects; or, as the wiki's own Trope entry puts it, "It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom... It's like porn; you know it when you see it." The wry tone, by the way, is a regular feature of the site. As a wiki, the site can be edited by any interested party wanting to add to the huge number of encyclopedia-like entries devoted to tropes, though one feels that a core group of "tropers" superintend the process. A typical trope is something like A Hero Is Born, for the common method of beginning a story with the hero's birth; on the page devoted to the trope, we find a whimsical definition and an annotated list of examples.

One of the major sources of the site's appeal comes from these examples: they are wildly heterogenous, a record of the interests of whichever "troper" happened to add to the page for a particular trope. A Hero Is Born lists, among its examples, Bambi, the protagonist of Fallout 3, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro, and Tristram Shandy (with the comment "begins with the hero's conception.") More typical of the site would be the examples in Setting Update, which includes four different anime updatings of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (including one "as a Lolicon parody"), a list of film versions of Shakespeare plays, and such literary entries as: "Reginald Hill's Pictures of Perfection is Pride and Prejudice Oop North IN THE 1990s! AS A GAY ROMANCE!"

I include the links in that last to show another essential feature of TVT: many TV programs, films and books have their own master pages, with whimsical summaries and lists of every trope on the site of which they furnish an example (for Pride and Prejudice, the wiki notes such tropes as Affably Evil [Wickham], Beta Couple [Jane and Mr. Bingley], Poor Communication Kills, and so on). This means it is possible to discover some book, film, or TV program listed among the examples for a trope, follow the link to the book, film, or TV program page, discover another trope, look at its list of examples, and follow further links, following the winds of convention and invention across a sea of culture. This is a completely mesmerizing process--or so, I hope, some readers of this post will discover!

(Oop North, by the way, refers to stereotyped ideas of the North of England. A certain number of British and Anglophile participants in the site delight in making their own cultural conventions intelligible to the presumably mostly American audience of the website. A pretty exhibition of the global potential in any wiki of this kind.)

The Moral of the Story

If you are still with me, you must be wondering why I have spent so long in an Arcade blog post describing a website devoted to a strange sort of obsessive television fandom. I want to propose that TV Tropes actually has a lot to tell us about modes of work in the humanities in the present moment--and the news is, unusually for me, more good than bad.

Most astonishingly, the basic commitment of the site is to a profoundly formalist understanding of cultural products as ingenious assemblies of conventions, patterns, and repeatable practices within historical and generic traditions. This flies in the face of the sense, fairly common among academic humanists, that formalist analysis is the last thing one might expect to find in the wilds of popular culture and fandom. Identification with characters, yes; imaginative appropriations of stories and settings, sure; but formalism? Don't we academics pride ourselves on holding court in the last redoubt of the deep, formalist understanding of cultural artifacts as constructed artifacts, as forms? Don't we think that if we don't teach this to students, no one else ever will? Yet here we have TV Tropes, based (as the title indicates) in television fandom and drawing heavily (as a brief perusal of the sight will tell you) on the subculture of fanfic, actively promoting this formalism. Better yet, the formalism isn't a narrow formalism but an infinitely flexible one in the tradition of Boris Eichenbaum's "Theory of the Formal Method": everything can be a trope, from plot and character types to clichés to recurrent patterns in the business of culture itself (as in Executive Meddling, a "trope" in the history of television programming). As Eichenbaum says, formalism can dispense with the opposition of form and content, instead understanding form as "not just the outer covering but the whole entity, something concrete and dynamic, substantive in itself, and unqualified by any correlation."

The site is also massively collaborative; no single person could create a dictionary of tropes, in any medium, as rich in examples and discussion as this one. The humanities remain deeply individualistic for all kinds of reasons, many of them valid; but a website like this one shows us the reach of collaborative work, and of the wiki paradigm in particular. The humanities needs more research ventures involving many people making incremental additions and changes to a large database containing both description and analysis.

No less importantly, the site is resolutely ecumenical in its treatment of culture. In the language of TVT, There Is No Such Thing As Notability--meaning that, unlike in Wikipedia, absolutely anything is game to make it into TVT as an example: "We consider every work notable. Yes, every one." It is hard to understate the effect of this principle. It opens the floodgates of examples from every genre under the sun--and, as the examples multiply, so do the tropes. Here we have the polar opposite of what Roland Greene, in his post on the horizons of literary studies, critiqued as the "in Shakespeare" problem. TV Tropes shows us what a cultural analysis would look like that set little store by the cultural capital of any canon.

It is not, of course, the case that TVT's coverage is universally even-handed and equally well-realized in all directions. The site's roots in television, and particularly anime and scifi, fandom, are everywhere apparent. Since the examples on each trope page are grouped by medium, and media are listed alphabetically, most tropes' example lists kick off with an amazing torrent of anime citations. A scholar of anime and the American reception thereof would find a treasure trove here. But of course it is no accident that an exhaustive site devoted to analyzing patterns in (mostly) popular culture should have been produced by a particulary geeky wing of fandom. Nonetheless, as a scifi (etc) geek myself, I am heartened to see that the geeky project of TV Tropes is capable of embracing tropes and examples from outside the field of present-day geekery. Just as promising is the availability of the meta-trope Older Than Dirt, by which the site recognizes that certain tropes have a lengthy back history. But, of course, one unique contribution scholars could make to an enterprise of the TVT type would be their much more developed historical knowledge.

But there is another point here, having to do with our (or at least my) perennial worries over who might care about the work of the academic humanities. In TVT I see a community of people amusing themselves in their free time with precisely the kinds of description and analysis that are academic humanists' stock in trade. This continuity between a casual internet community and the community of humanistic work cuts both ways. On the one hand, it means--just as media studies and cultural studies have been insisting all along--that popular culture, far from being a wasteland of zombielike acquiescence and repetition, is shot through with self-reflexivity, creative variation, and analytic thinking. Academic values and the values of other parts of culture at large may not be as divergent as we think in the darkest watches of the night. On the other hand, all this also means that academics' kinship to a subculture of fandom is much closer than we might always like to admit; our own obsessions, quite unlike those of our colleagues in (say) genetics or economics, may be irredeemably marginal, nerdy, unserious, and fun. But that is only to say that humanists play the game of a particular subfield of social life without ruling the roost in the field of power as such; it remains essential to articulate the connections through which our own labors of love actually participate in institutions and processes far larger than our own world of rarefied fandom.

Imagine, then, a version of curated and largely written by academics, institutionally supported by universities and other grants. Call it (say). The remit of such a site would be not the "tropes" of television but the patterns, conventions, and genres of all cultural forms, past and present, as they are gradually described and analyzed by Humanities Tropers. And the legitimacy of such a site would come not from the authority of high culture, nor from any claims of the special wisdom of humanists to address questions outside their own relatively narrow disciplines, but from the geeky excitement of wide-ranging, collaborative cultural analysis itself.

Or... do such sites already exist, and I've just been too busy clicking through every Firefly trope link to notice?

In future posts
(in which I return to literature and my actual areas of competence)

Disinterest and politics on the world literary stage
Boredom vindicated, in at least three parts

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