Thursday, December 23, 2010

Genre as Social Action

Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70, 151-167.


...genre study is valuable not because it might permit the creation of some kind of taxonomy, but because it emphasizes some social and historical aspects of rhetoric that other perspectives do not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish. (p. 151)
The result is that the set of genres is an open class, with new members evolving, old ones decaying. (p. 153)
In sum, what I am proposing so far is that in rhetoric the term "genre" be limited to a particular type of discourse classification, a classification based in rhetorical practice and consequently open rather than closed and organized around situated actions (that is, pragmatic, rather than syntactic or semantic). (p. 155).
After emphasizing a couple of features of genres--that is, genre is, action based, recurrent, open, dynamic, situated, and social--Miller writes,
Because human action is based on and guided by meaning, not by material causes, at the center of action is a process of interpretation. (p. 156)
Then she points out to the dynamic and hierarchical interaction among form, content, and context. The article ends with a note on what learning a genre means
[The understanding of genre she proposes] suggests that what we learn when we learn a genre is not just a pattern of forms or even a method of achieving our own ends. We learn, more importantly, what ends we may have: we learn that we may eulogize, apologize, recommend one person to another, instruct customers on behalf of a manufacturer, take on an official role, account for progress in achieving goals. We learn to understand better the situations in which we find ourselves and the potentials for failure and success in acting together. As a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality. For the critic, genres can serve both as an index to cultural patterns and as tools for exploring the achievements of particular speakers and writers, for the student, genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community. (p. 165) 
I enjoyed reading this article but I am not sure if I agree with Miller's definition of genre as social action. For me genre is more like a pattern emerging from actions of participants in a specific discourse community as they interpret and react to recurrent rhetorical situations. The genre itself is not an action for me because action implies a somewhat conscious actor and even if we think that the actor is the discourse community not the individual I do not think the community makes deliberate decisions and act on them. On the other hand, I agree with Miller that genre is interpreted, situated, dynamic, open, and recurrent. I think it is a very good read!

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