I appreciate the opportunity this week to reengage with Miller’s work on genre in “Genre as Social Action” and then to see those ideas carried forward into “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre.” I encountered Miller last semester in an historical review of EDNA-based textbooks in composition studies. Miller’s ideas on the social aspects of genre—rather than the formal or structural aspects I’d learned as an undergraduate and graduate student—opened my eyes to modern composition theory.
Genre as Social Action (Miller)
In “Genre as Social Action” this time around, I found Miller’s ideas on hierarchical levels of discourse more interesting, likely because network hierarchy is in the forefront of my thoughts after last week’s mindmap exercise. Miller identifies form as “metadata” for substance that offers instruction on how the symbolic representation is to be perceived; as a result, “form and substance thus bear a hierarchical relationship to one another” (p. 159). Continuing the hierarchical structure of genre, Miller references Toulmin to argue that context, too, is hierarchical; the result is that “form, substance, and context [are] relative, not absolute; they occur at many levels on a hierarchy of meaning” (p. 159). But not only do these aspects of discourse operate in hierarchical relationship to one another; they also take on different functions at different hierarchical levels: “Thus, form at one level becomes as aspect of substance at a higher level level… although it is still analyzable as form at the lower level” (p. 160). Miller addresses the implications of these hierarchical relationships among “particular features of this understanding of genre” (p. 163): First, genre is fluid and active; it acquires meaning from situation and social context. Second, genre is interpreted using rules. Third, genre is distinct from form. Fourth, genre can serve as the substance of forms at higher levels in hierarchies. Fifth, genre is a rhetorical means for mediating private intent and social exigence (p. 163).
Application to Network
Miller’s closing implications relate directly to networks. The interplay among form, substance, and context in discourse enables genre to exist in fluid forms and in hierarchical relationships. If a work in a genre is a network node, its relationship with other works in the genre are governed by the interaction of form, substance, and context. The genre itself can be considered a network node in a network consisting of cultural life; the genre becomes substance to the form of cultural life. I see this similar to the analogy to which I continually return of the web page to the subdomain to the domain. Page, subdomain and domain each act as node and network as the context, form, and substance relate differently to one another.
Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre (Miller)
In “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre,” Miller connects culture and community to genre in terms of “the general social function being served” (p. 69) by each. Miller claims that rhetorical communities are built on contradiction and contention, “inclusion of sameness and difference, of us and them, of centripetal and centrifugal impulses” (p. 74). As a result, rhetoric “requires both agreement and dissent, sharing understandings and novelty, enthymematic premises and contested claims, identification and division” (p. 74). To this potentially explosive community, Miller applies three forces that rhetorically “keep a virtual community from flying apart (or dissipating)” (p. 74). The first is genre, the second is analogy, and the third is narrative (pp. 74-75).
Application to Network
In this article I found the active nature of the network embedded in the contentious relationships that build virtual rhetorical communities. To these contentious relationships are applied frameworks that enable the networks to function within certain parameters: genre (to provide a contextual, localized structure for nodes), analogy (to provide language that explains difficult-to-explain relationships in more familiar metaphorical terms), and narrative (providing ways to tell the story of the relationships among nodes). These frameworks are flexible and fluid and enable organic growth and dynamic development.
Systems of Genre and the Enactment of Social Intentions (Bazerman)
Where Miller applies genre to rhetorical communities, Bazerman in “Systems of Genre and the Enactment of Social Intentions” goes a step further to create “a complex web of interrelated genres where each participant makes a recognizable act or move in some recognizable genre, which then may be followed by a certain range of appropriate generic responses by others” (p. 97). Using analysis of patent applications as his object of study, Bazerman introduces the concept of a system of genres—“interrelated genres that interact with each other in specific settings” (like a patent application).
Application to Network
If genres are networks, as suggested by Miller, then genre systems are networks of genres; put another way, genre systems turn genre networks into nodes. This conclusion is consistent with Miller’s conclusion that genres function as nodes in rhetorical communities. It’s also consistent with my understanding of the functions of websites within larger and smaller networks—the website functions itself as a network, but it also functions as a node in the larger network of the internet (or other higher level hierarchies). And there’s the return of that term “hierarchies”—networks appear to be inherently hierarchical depending on their contexts.
Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems (Bazerman)
Bazerman follows up his work on genre systems in “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems” by returning to a clearer understanding of social action, more specific than Miller’s articulation. Bazerman suggests that we can “reach a deeper understanding of genres if we understand them as psycho-social recognition phenomena that are parts of processes of socially organized activities…. They are social facts about the kinds of speech acts people can make and the ways they can make them.” (p. 317, emphasis original). Considered as ways people try to understand one another, genre becomes a means by which we construct our experiences. Bazerman theorizes genre sets as “the collection of types of texts someone in a particular role is likely to produce” (p. 318), texts that others in a similar role would likely produce and understand as well. Using this understanding of genre sets, Bazerman returns to genre system with this more nuanced definition: “a Genre System is comprised of the several genre sets of people working together in an organized way, plus the patterned relations in the production, flow, and use of these documents” (p. 318, emphasis original).
Application to Network
Bazerman concludes that a genre system is itself part of an activity system, and analyzing both a genre system and an activity system results in “a focus on what people are doing and how texts help people do it, rather than on texts as ends themselves” (p. 319). Activity systems include genre systems as nodes in its network; genre systems include genre sets as nodes in its network; genre sets include genres as nodes in its network; genres include texts as nodes in its network, and so on. Networks exist in hierarchies and change status, from network to node and back again, depending on hierarchical context.
Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business (Popham)
Susan L. Popham takes our understandings of genre and activity from Miller and Bazerman and applies them directly to a fascinating object of study: medical forms used in health care practices. She recognizes forms operating as genres in medical practices, but she theorizes the existence of boundary genres, “genres functioning as boundary objects… [that] actively participate in interprofessional struggles about hierarchies, dominance, and values, helping to create, mediate, and store tensions” (p. 283). The tension that Miller (1994) found in rhetorical community Popham finds in boundary genres; these boundary genres enable, even embody, tensions among professions and disciplines. The result of her study reveals the lack of agency that medicine and science have in the medical profession; both disciplines are distilled in the business genre forms that ultimately control the fiscal viability of the practice (p. 296).
Application to Network
Popham’s definition of boundary genres represents network-in-action, actively participating in hierarchical struggles among rhetorical texts, among genres, even among disciplines and professions. Here the genres are struggling among themselves for agency. This struggle gets presented in the OOS of medical practice forms, but the network implications to struggles among disciplines in the English studies supradiscipline are clear. A close analysis of our texts will help us identify our genres, determine our boundary objects, theorize boundary genres, and identify the specific activities that represent the struggles among genres—and therefore among the disciplines and professions they represent.
Once again, I find myself blown away by new ways of seeing discourse in terms of networks. The results are making me rethink, or think more carefully and intentionally, about grading texts, assigning texts, assessing portfolios, and writing my own texts. As I consider the course syllabus as genre, I recognize my tendency to allow the generic form to limit the activity of the text. As I require my students to collect and share portfolio objects in Google Drive, I recognize the lack of careful consideration I gave to the implications of surveillant assemblage. As I consider my textbook, Everything’s An Argument, I’m both drawn to the simplicity of the title and concerned about its willingness to place all texts into a single genre system. These are real issues that affect real students whose agency I should seek to protect. These real students have real abilities and dis-abilities, and I should seek to customize and differentiate instruction to their skills and needs. They are real texts that I should seek to read carefully and respond to with care and attention.
And Then There’s Reggie Watts
Reggie Watts bends boundaries and mixes music, speech, and comedic genres. I think Watts is a boundary genre embodiment.
Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activities and people. In Bazerman & Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (pp. 309-340). New York, NY: Routledge.
Bazerman, C. (1994). Systems of genre and the enactment of social intentions. In Freedman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 79-104). London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-67.
Miller, C. R. (1994). Rhetorical community: The cultural basis of genre. In Freedman, A., & Medway, P. (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp. 67-78). London, UK: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Popham, S. L. (2005). Forms as boundary genres in medicine, science, and business. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 279-303. doi:10.1177/1050651905275624