Category Archives: Miller

Miller time

Well, I wish I hadn’t saved her piece for last. Diagrams! Charts! She lays it down with no apologies. Once this is all over, I will want to read Halliday, and put publications like “Learning to Mean” and Language as Social Semiotic on my virtual shelf.

“I will be arguing that a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish.” Okay with me for now. She mentions Campbell and Jameison (a good name for a bar), saying “they proceed inductively, as critics. They do not attempt to provide a framework that will predict or limit the genres that might be identified. Their interest is less in providing a taxonomic system than in explaining certain aspects of the way social reality evolves: ‘The critic who classifies a rhetorical artifact as generically akin to a class of similar artifacts has identified an undercurrent of history rather than comprehended an act isolated in time’ (p. 26). The result is that the set of genres is an open class, with new members evolving, old ones decaying.”

Those critic fuddy duddies! Just like…us. As I read, I kept thinking about Hip-Hop, and how many papers I’ve read about it, and whether or not it is dead, and what is it, anyway…

“I do not mean to suggest that there is only one way (or one fruitful way) to classify discourse. Classifications and distinctions based on form and substance have told us much about sentimentalism, women’s liberation, and doctrinal movements, for example. But we do not gain much by calling all such classes ‘genres.’ T h e classification I a m advocating is, in effect, ethnomethodological: it seeks to explicate the knowledge that practice creates.” Great, and getting better.

She then drops the term “language game” and I am having visions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Phiolosophicus and Artistotelian syllogism and all the other stuff I loved in college — and continue to bring into the 1101 classroom, just because I can’t ever seem to leave them at home.

“The understanding of rhetorical genre that I am advocating is based in rhetorical practice, in the conventions of discourse that a society establishes as ways of ‘acting together.’ It does not lend itself to taxonomy, for genres change, evolve, and decay; the number of genres current in any society is indeterminate and depends upon the complexity and diversity of the society.”

Gosh, I just want to keep quoting her. It’s like discovering an ancient tomb, and you light a match and see the walls for the first time: “Hierarchical relationships of substance, form, and meaning-as-action. The combination of form and substance at one level becomes an action (has meaning) at a higher level when that combination itself acquires form. Each action is interpretable against the context provided by actions at higher levels.”

Once the dust settles on our Committee, I would totally return to Miller. At present, I am eyeball high in dust.

Miller-Genre Claims

“a collection of discourses (or a potential collection) may fail to constitute a genre in three major ways” (163).

Of course, the difficulty with this essay is considering how much time you want to spend trying to figureout the heirarchical shema that Miller lays out. I understand it on a general level, and I think that’s good enough. Things got clear for me when at the end of the post she mentions how epideictic rhetoric isn’t a genre in her schema but is instead a “form of life” that she borred from Wittgenstein. Epideictic is a more general category than a genre. And Aristotle never called it a genre. He called it one of the three branches of rhetoric, so it’s a super general category that holds genres, such as wedding speeches, eulogies, or even comedic “roasts.” I wonder whether Miller would include comedic roasts as a genre category since to make a “genre claim” requires adequately meeting three criteria: 1) there must be substantive and formal similarities among instances, there must be adequate consideration in all elements of the rhetorical situation (including audience and public exigence), and thirdly, there is no “pragmatic component,” no way to understand the genre as”social action.” I’m not sure how I feel about Miller’s classification system. I think it’s actually really useful for getting students to think about genre and then perhaps seeing how they feel about whether certain things constitute genre.

I very much enjoyed the stuff about Burke and I really enjoyed her discussion of the relationship between form and substance, in particular the stuff about sentences, (which associatively reminds me to look for my Frances Christiansen book).

The Exigence of Social Motive in Miller

Exigence must be seen neither as a cause of rhetorical action nor as intention, but as social motive. To comprehend an exigence is to have a motive… Herbert Blumer observed that “the preponderant portion of social action in a human society, particularly in a settled society, exists in the form of recurrent patterns of joint action.” Here is a rationale for the study of rhetorical genres. To base a classification of discourse upon recurrent situation or, more specifically, upon exigence understood as social motive, is to base it upon the typical joint rhetorical actions available at a given point in history and culture. Studying the typical uses of rhetoric, and the forms that it takes in those uses, tells us less about the art of individual rhetors or the excellence of particular texts than it does about the character of a culture or an historical period.    (158)

One really terrific aspect of Miller’s “Genre as Social Action” is her categorical unpacking of genre from formal constraints or conventions into a more functional evaluation of how a rhetorical text that responds to a situation lives in a highly specific social and cultural context. Her discussion and evaluation of different sets of classification systems for genre is especially illuminating for me, having learned about genre through a kind of teaching apprenticeship with John Trimbur at Emerson, in which these types of conclusions were implied and played out pragmatically in our curriculum development. We got to see “Genre as Social Action” in practice in 2nd-semester first-year writing classes, and it was fascinating to participate in and observe. Now, I am seeing much of the scholarship underpinning these more social, functional, and fluid definition of genres as collections of similar responses to recurrent types of rhetorical situations.

I was really struck by the above quote, especially the part where Miller says “To base a classification of discourse upon recurrent situation or, more specifically, upon exigence understood as social motive, is to base it upon the typical joint rhetorical actions available at a given point in history and culture,” since she’s really making the point that everything is particular. Things that we might at first glance attribute to the “genre of the short story,” for example, might be really describing a very specific type of short story that emerged during the latter half of the 20th century as influenced by Carver and Hemingway.

In this way, to me, Miller feels like the opposite of a formalist — everything is based in a culturally specific and socially motivated place, and the similarities in style, convention, and form of genres are perhaps more reflective of dominant cultural values than they are of an idealized or Platonic version of that genre. It’s definitely a lot to chew on as we consider how different genres can be used to appeal to different audiences through use of formal conventions, appeals, social contexts, and varied media.

Slippery genre (Miller)

“Genre” is one of those terms that seems simple enough, especially given human beings’ penchant for categorizing (which I think I was babbling about in my response to Grant-Davie) and classifying to make sense of ideas and, especially, kinds of texts. My doctoral work in film studies disabused me of that notion rather quickly, however, because “genre” is a very fluid term in film studies about which there is still debate. Perhaps it’s easier to see that fluidity when the story is visual, but rigid systems of conventions break down quickly when trying to explain how “Star Wars” is both science fiction and a Western.

That’s a simple example, but film studies people, without really voicing it, recognized that a film genre changes to fit the needs of the society which invokes and re-creates it. We may not do pure “Westerns” any longer, but the tropes and themes have certainly morphed to take in new technology and issues that are the subject of contemporary (or serial contemporary) society.

Transferring awareness of that kind of genre shape-shifting to the teaching of written texts is, I think, what Miller is trying to say, that a genre is a recognizable type, but it is also “based in large-scale typification of rhetorical action; as action, it acquires meaning from situation and from the social context in which that situation arose…. A genre is a rhetorical means for mediating private intentions and social exigence.”

Now I’m as guilty as the next person of talking about genre as if it were a fix set of rules, a template, especially when I’m addressing written texts as opposed to audiovisual ones, because it’s so easy. It’s also boring, both for me and for the students. Plug X into Y, and you’ve got a research paper. But even written genres do change: in the late 1970s, I wanted to do an MFA in creative writing doing personal essays; I was told the essay was “journalism” and not a “literary genre” no matter how much I threw Montaigne at the department. By the early 2000s, half of my MFA program was doing personal essay. Why? Good question, but our culture now seems to want, even need, those stories.

So the question becomes, how do we teach genre as a rhetorical action, something that can be chosen and adapted according to the context (discipline, exigence, etc.)? Not sure, but I think it’s important, especially if we’re talking about transfer.