In the thin tissue of lies that my dissertation proposal is rapidly turning out to have in fact been all along, I wrote a line that has since become a bit of a sliver in my eye: "Following Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, 'old' literary forms became the contents of the 'new' organizational technology called 'the novel.' Rather than read an epic, a comedy, and a romance, for example, one could read Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, a 'comic epic-poem in prose.'Statement of the obvious that it is, I have begun to wonder if I'm not grossly misapplying McLuhan's understanding of media to matters of genre. To allay this fear requires a better understanding of media than I have.
Certainly the novel as it came to be understood in the latter half of the eighteenth-century (at least according to Watt and his ilk)--a realistic middle-class prose narrative, to be reductive about it--behaves and/or causes the sort of behavior attributed to a new technology (I'll overlook for the moment the most obvious of these being "newness" to which the novel repeatedly laid claim). The new realistic novel mediates, as I suggested above, older forms, and as McLuhan says specifically a new medium will always have an old medium for its content. Writing is a new medium that has speech as its content; print is a new medium that has writing as its content. The novel contains (and by containing, changes) the romance, poetry, essays, letters, sermons, what have you. They are mediated by the novel at the same time they constitute it--which is where I run into the perilous form/content quagmire. Is it the content that makes the novel what it is? Or is it something else? Or is content AND something else? And if the novel is a medium having another medium as its content, then what do these other literary forms mediate? How is the romance a medium, when one could argue that it's print that constitutes the medium and content that makes the romance?
Certainly Dr. Johnson seems have fallen into what McLuhan calls the "somnambulism" of the content-worrier; it's the mixture of vice and virtue that bothers him about Tom Jones. To me that reads as a man concerned about a supposedly "neutral" tool fallen into the wrong hands, like General David Sarnoff claiming at the University of Notre Dame that the goodness or badness of a technological instrument depends on the use to which it's put (McLuhan 23). If guns shoot our enemies, they're good. If they shoot our enemies, they're bad. The gun in itself is neither. The novel is out there; Johnson simply wanted Richardson behind the trigger rather than Fielding. If novels present pure pictures of virtue a la Clarissa, they're good. If they portray moral ambiguity a la Tom Jones, they're bad. This interpretation of Johnson's statement could construe "the novel" as a technology used to represent and comprehend the real world. The bigger deal--the medium being the message part of this affair, as the rise-of-the-novel folk might tell you--is that it's the "real" world that's going to be represented, as opposed to some idealized nonsense with noble heroes, mustache-twirling villains, and perhaps the occasional dragon.
I am thinking specifically here of Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752), in which the female protagonist, Arabella, is both so comically and frustratingly addled with French romances that they utterly define her reality. The characters around here, with whom the readers are clearly meant to identify, are appropriately befuddled, bemused, or beleaguered by this epistemological and ontological aberration. In technological terms, and borrowing from the lexicon of a medium oft-cited by McLuhan, this could be construed as the difference between black-and-white versus color television. The medium is the same--television--but there's a critical technological development that permits more "realistic" portrayal of an image (setting aside considerations of cinematographic aesthetics, etc.--I'm just trying to draw out a distinction; the analogy breaks down a bit quickly). We are meant to snicker at Arabella, just as we frequently snicker at someone who refuses to live in the now--the "now," as it so often is, being technologically defined. Email, cellphone, computer instead of letter, landline, typewriter. Realistic novel (Female Quixote, Tom Jones, Clarissa) instead of romance. (My friends snicker at me because I still watch television the old way--that is, with commercials--because I don't have TiVo.) The realistic novel is a technological improvement over the romance so long as realism is defined as the desirable quality. It does a better job of representing the "real" world.*
Another way of phrasing the question might be to ask how "technology" can be broken up--are there subtechnologies, the way there are subgenres. Is genre itself a subtechnology? If genre is a way in which we organize information, and if organizing information is fundamental to the self, and if technology is an extension of the self, is not then genre a form of technology? If language is technology, as McLuhan says, and if language organizes (and perhaps restricts) thought (as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis very problematically suggests), then why shouldn't genre be thought of the same way, if our understanding and communication of information is at least in part and perhaps significantly determined by genre conventions? As it was with Arabella until she got some new tools?
Here's another question with respect to language and technology. Language, let us say, is a technology. That's the thing itself--language, the capacity, the organ, the phenomenon, however you think of it. What then, is French, or English, or Latin? Each has its own rules, permits or proscribes different constructions. It's not enough to say that English is a kind of language. Is format the appropriate term? A way to convert data to information for observation and interpretation? Should I be thinking of genre in terms of format, rather than technology?
*It's worth mentioning that there's reason to interpret Arabella's initial technogeneric (you should absolutely throw rotten vegetables at me for that not-long-for-this-world neologism) recalcitrance as ironic. Her memory for the romances she reads is beyond belief, and her deployment of romantic tropes is such that it may be (has to be?) Lennox satirizing via exaggeration the establishment's concern that this is precisely the effect romances and novel-reading would have on young women. If girls really went about thinking that romances were real, they wouldn't last terribly long because we'd lock them up as lunatics. Arabella is ridiculous; we know she's ridiculous, and that ridiculousness is Lennox telling men that whatever the dangers of bad novels and romances might be, women aren't that ridiculous because that kind of ridiculousness just isn't possible.