Monday, May 30, 2005

Genre Theory I

I thought I'd drop in just a few brief notes from the summer course I'm taking: CCR760: Genre Theory in Academic Contexts.  My plan is to introduce similar entries over the next few weeks; I'll think of them, for now, as provisional and winding explorations through/around/between some of the key ideas playing out in the course. 

One of the first problems has been settling on a working definition of genre as it connects with writing.  On the first day of class (a week ago), we distinguished between the misnomer of genre as transparent, received and neutral classification taxonomies ("genre as bucket") and a--perhaps--more productive alternative: genre as social action (largely credited to Carolyn Miller's essays in 1984 and 1994).  With "social action," Miller suggests an understanding of genre as the fusion between content and form; in such fusions we are able to recognize patterns and types of recurrent exigence.  To varying degrees, the internalization of patterned rhetorical opportunity is always already involved in our action with language (writing, speech, etc.);  in genre theory, we are confronted with problems of how completely such internalizations have explicit, conscious bearing on rhetorical invention and how we respond (often by reproducing) to the configurative force of recognizable classes of communication.  Up to this point, we've read Miller's two essays, a chapter from Anthony Giddens ("Problems of Action and Structure") in which he works out some of the defining qualities of structuration, and Bakhtin, "The Problem of Speech Genres." 

For me, an initial framework for sizing up genre theory, for making sense of the "social action" model, comes from readings of Piaget, Vygotsky and related cognitive and social learning scholars who have adapted and extended their seminal work.  I'm definitely oversimplifying here, but the opening up of genre that moves it away from the preordained, top-down classification of texts (a canonical sort of table, etc.) to a more social variant in which the activity rather than the text-as-product gets typified leads me to a question of ratio between social and otherwise institutional or individual determinants--the inside-out flow and the outside-in flows of thought, language, speech, etc.  In other words, as I read some of the "social action" framings of genre, I feel a small bit of discomfort with the socially determined ordering of utterances into "relatively stable" classes.  It's a productive discomfort, I think, but I can't easily resolve the ratio.  Furthermore, structuration--"the structuring of structure" (Derida ctd. in Giddens)--keeps everything in motion.  So I suppose isolating a frozen ratio between determinants isn't altogether necessary.  In fairness, it's complicated, and although there is a considerable amount of attention to agency and to individual actors, I continue to have the impression that genre as "social action" tips in favor of outside-in or centripetal flows (a sort of social primacy, I guess, that I find too encompassing).  Of course, it's still more fluid, dynamic and enabling than the rigid top-down orderings it seeks to correct.  How much more fluid, dynamic and enabling?  Maybe later I'll play through the examples I can think of to illuminate this discomfort I'm describing so poorly; it ties in with folksonomies and also with attempts to organize blogging activity into definitive (or even usefully descriptive) classes, kinds, types.  Giddens and Miller both do something with hybrids, with blends, and so I need to look again at those sections, too.

In Thursday's sessions, the question came up: are weblogs a genre?  This question has bounced around in a few different channels; certainly some work, such as the Blog Research on Genre project, would guide us to an affirmative conclusion.  Of course weblogs are genre-lizable, genre-ously suited to classification.  But how do exigencies filter into the practice of blogging, and is what moves the blogger a relatively stable social compulsion?  It's not easy to be sure really.  When the question comes up, nonetheless, I want to know what a coordination (or mingling) of blogs and genre makes possible.  What does genre afford the practicing blogger? Or: From a grounded perspective in genre theory, what would change about what I do when I write an entry?

Here's a related question I want to carry forward into the next five weeks: If genre is social action (which encompasses language activity whether or not it directly, immediately communicates), what's not genre?  Where and under what conditions (and to whose great relief) does genre split into the individuated?

These are just a handful of the threads from my notes or from questions generated during class.  And I hope to continue blogging related pieces, sharing them here as a way to invite dialogue, write through my unfolding understanding of genre (I was thinking "genre as bucket" coming into the course; still unsure: genre as roadside telephone, genre as hegemony, genre as buoy, genre as social form-aldehyde), and tuck away a few notes that might spark me onto other connections later on.  For Thursday's session, we're looking at Anis Bawarshi's Genre and the Invention of the Writer.  I'm just more than halfway through it now; hope to have blog-ready notes by mid-week.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at May 30, 2005 9:46 AM to Genre

"... what's not genre?" Thet's question has been troubling me as I work through Barwarshi (which is making much more sense my second time through the text).

I think the answer my be tied to the "social action" friction you've identified. If we communicate by choosing (and are chosen by) genres within dynamic (pre-exisiting and created) systems, what falls outside? What isn't genre or genre-related?

To the point: "Genres are discursive sites that coordinate the acquisition and production of motives by maintaining specific relations between scene, act, agent, agency, and purpose" (Bawarshi 16-7). It seems that this boundless reflectivity can allow "genre" to lay claim to just about any form, type, method, etc. of discourse.

Not troubling, but a good question worth exploring.

Posted by: mike at June 1, 2005 10:47 AM

As I raised that question, I was thinking that it's never really stated (as far as I can tell) that genre strictly involves text(s). By default, I'd say we liken genre to types/classes/kinds of texts, but the "social action" model definitely complicates this relationship. Yet, if it opens up the relationship between genre and text, what else does it draw together? All communicative acts? Utterances? Does it bring in other social activities? As I'm running through the is-it-a-genre/is-it-not-a-genre battery of tests, I've been playing through a few implausible cases. For one, is a pick-up basketball game constituted by genre(s)? Are the communicative interactions in the on-court "rhetorical ecosystem" operating according to genre (to recurrent exigency, to reproduced structures, and so on)? Just wondering about the limits: what's just on the edge of genre?

Posted by: Derek at June 1, 2005 7:12 PM