Genre Theory II

For yesterday’s genre theory session we looked at the first chapter from Amy
Devitt’s book,

Writing Genres
, and the first and third chapters from Paul Prior’s book,

(both of which have searchable copy at
Google Print). 
Devitt gracefully works genre into an interactive model between individuals (at
a basic level); social structures, genre, and groups (at an intermediary level)
and context of culture, context of genre and context of situation (at an
ultimate level).  It’s meant to simplify a complex set of relationships, I
think, and as a model it does well to give a graphic alternative to some fairly
heady stuff.  But I’m still a bit murky on the role genre plays in scaling
between the lived, everyday activity (often communicative, often recurrent–as
in, not another grocery list) and the higher/broader orders.  Genre,
given to patterns of activity, would ask of us to point to evidence of the
relationship between the broader abstract levels and the more ornate,
idiosyncratic actions of individuals.  Forgive me though; I’m the one who’s
murky (shall I explain in a supplem-entry?).  Better to read Devitt
first-hand than to take this as a solid handle on her project.

But I will say this:  Devitt presents genre as something that, in
places, met up nicely with frame or framing. One in the same? 
At another point, I was thinking that genre–if defined by its actants (ordinary
folk rather than some higher elite)–challenges us with a problem of naming. 
Who names genres?  Is the genre named suddenly afforded the possibility of
recurring?  In other words, is an un-named recurrent activity outside the
realm of genre or, as Prior thoughtfully tabs it, genrification
Note that my fondness for genrification is purely spell-check serendipity: it’s
sub: gentrification.  Mm-hmm.  Something to it?  

Still confounding: I’m stuck on a question of the role genre plays in
producing a situation.  Devitt suggests near the end of the chapter
that the which-came-first paradox (the chicken or the text) between situation
and genre is mixed with (though not solved by) a double-action.  Genre and
situation are co-constitutive, "so tightly interwoven as to be interlocked"
(22).  Following this logic, genre doesn’t respond to a situation, nor does
it enter only after the fact.  So it’s neither deterministically a
nor a clear consequence.  In another sense, "[g]enres are
already always existing" (28).  Clear?  It’s just that it seems a
difficult move to go from the tight interlock between situation and genre and
also to go for the always already.  At moments like these, I tend to defer
to a less optimistic view of genre; I want to defer to a stance that prefers
vocabulary of diffusion and pattern.  I’m not settled on the degree to
which these distinctions are semantic, which leads me to question the extent to
which knowledge of genre as genre shapes activity.  But then as I turn to
working on something for prospective publication, does genre help (as Devitt
says it does)?  Most definitely.

I found Paul Prior’s first chapter, "Resituating the Discourse Community," especially point-on in its working through a sequence of Saussure, Ricouer and
Bakhtin to present a range of thinking from structuralism to sociohistoricism as
they, in turn (a turn taken up in the beginning of c. 3), apply to "discourse
community."  In sociohistoric orientations we find more resistance to
systematic, mechanistic treatments of form; and while this is useful for
interrogating the genre-as-bucket metaphor, it also aligns Prior with much of
the development of theories of genre in Miller, Bawarshi and Devitt.  In
mentioning "indexical socialization," Prior cites Ochs (1988)–just something to
look up later.  Genre as indexical socialization?  Perhaps not, but
the idea that disiplinarity revolves around a kind of indexical socialization is
interesting, even if it draws on a slightly different notion of activity
patterns than genre theory looks at. 

Prior’s work also gives us a nice synthesis of several Friends of Activity
Theory; in a section subtitled "From Conduits to Communities to Persons: A
Structuralist Network," he draws on Vygotsky, Wertsch, Bruner, Lave & Wenger to
suggest the complicated nexus between the social and the cognitive, between
which agency and multiplicity intercede.  Slowly and through heavily cited
prose, he sets up a way of talking about "disciplines as open networks";
eventually, he says straight-out that he prefers the concept of "disciplinarity"
to "discipline" because "disciplinarity evokes a process rather than a place or
object" (26).  Perhaps more useful, however, is Prior’s presentation of the
possibilities in regarding disciplinary formations in network terms–preferring
a more relational, networked model for disciplinarity to the more common
"discourse community" frame.