RN#3: Towards a Methodology of Ontology in Genre Knowledge

“The urge to classify is fundamental, and although it involves the difficulties that Patton and Conley point out, classification is necessary to language and learning.  The variety of critical approaches referred to above indicates the many ways one might classify discourse, but if the term ‘genre’ is to mean anything theoretically or critically useful, it cannot refer to just any category or kind of discourse” (151).

The Big Question: Can We Classify Based on Rhetorical/Social Action (in Networks)?

Carolyn R. Miller (E-Portfolio Link)
Carolyn R. Miller – NCSU   (E-Portfolio Link)

I’ll be the first to admit that I am much, much less Rhet than Comp in the Rhet/Comp ecology, so a large part of this process for me is about exploring how much I’m able to muster an understanding, defense, or critique of a lot of what is happening in the readings this week. I think a large amount of my understanding of the topic is best filtered through the arguments made by Carolyn Miller in her 1984 “Genre as Social Action,” which I find problematic in the notion of the human categorization compulsion – which Dr. Miller both acknowledges as highly problematic (see block quote above) but also necessary.  I agree with her assessment, but view it rather as the impetus to exclude, rather than include, questions of social context from the speech act as an “archaeological” practice.

Charles Bazerman - UCSB (E-Portfolio Link)
Charles Bazerman – UCSB
(E-Portfolio Link)

Essentially, I would argue that categorization is necessary only insofar as it is a human impulse which will not be rejected simply.  However, I do not see any evidence within Miller’s argument that such categories can ever be stable enough (long enough) to function as a useful tool for comprehension in the extended-term, archival sense of “knowledge;” as such, I fear that any categorization of speech, of action, according to genre results in a lost notion of purpose and meaning.  We need look no further than the apologia for proof that even classical rhetoricians are found lacking when it comes to understanding the continuity and stability of genre forms as related to contextualized acts.  Bazerman tells us that “each text is embedded within structured social activities and depends on previous texts that influence the social activity and organization” (“Speech Acts” 311), that “such genres exist more for the process of their interaction with the reader or the details that go into the act, rather than for the act itself or the after-the-fact consequences” (“Systems” 90).

Miller herself recognizes that there are issues with stability, regulation of identity, the media divide in the modern era compared to the year of publication, and the cultural dependency of meaning (“Revisited” 56-7) which the field of genre studies has yet to resolve.

I would argue that this is because they simply cannot be resolved.  I would also argue that one of the issues with genre studies as a rhetorical enterprise and a rhetorical field of study is its dependence on positioning itself as either new or novel, or at least able to be differentiated from genre theory, which is a move which Miller makes not infrequently (58).

This is, Miller hints, in part due to an effort to segregate the agency concerns of the non-expert rhetor – a move which led to GS’s embrace in Rhet/Comp, TC, and linguistics – as opposed to genre theory’s previous focus on expert rhetors (e.g., orators, politicians, authors) (59).

In other words, there is a massive political and disciplinary exigency here, the avoidance of which serves to resolve most of the prickly little issues behind genre studies in rhetoric.  It is best if we don’t look behind the curtain.

So let’s do that.

The Diatribe: Because that’s my Genre

Okay.  The arguments made here by Bazerman and Miller, of course, imply that social knowledge has a momentum which moves through texts in a demonstrable, knowable (or at least study-able) way.  If we’re to look at genre and contextualize according to “the process of interaction,” we must locate a lens which sufficiently contextualizes the whole of the “textual” (i.e., “social”) ontology of the categorized thing.  That, of course, is impossible.  The map would be the territory.

This is why we both reject stereotypes as unfair in polite society, and yet leverage them constantly.

So, is genre a social action?  Of course!  Literally any action that exists in society is a social action.  And literally anything human beings do or think happens in society.

Is this a new notion?  I don’t know.  Is Aristotle “new?”  Or Northrop Frye, at least?

Is viewing genre as social action helpful?  Bazerman, in his section (quite helpfully) subtitled “Methodological Issues,” speaks to (and around) this issue (“Speech Acts” 319-26). His analysis is mostly spot-on, but I argue against it because his resolutions are resolutions of convenience, not theory or fact.

Are these objects of some form, and thus able to be objects of study?

Nope.  Sorry, that’s too restrictive!

It may prove noteworthy in coming weeks that this is the constant curse of (and appeal of) Actor Network Theory as well.  Bazerman and Miller, like Latour and Foucault (and there’s four names that I wouldn’t traditionally think of as agreeing on much) all found much of their argumentative precepts on the notion that collections of networks think or process knowledge in some sense, thus giving agency to objects.  For Latour, these objects are literal.  For Foucault, these objects are cultural.  For Bazerman and Miller, these objects are social.

The problem, of course, with saying “society does X” or “society thinks X” is that society doesn’t do nor think.  Society exists, and things exist in society.  Society is a context, not an actor.

Miller and Bazerman would resolve this by making genre equivalent to social action, and positing the reality of social action as reflecting the “real”-ness of society.  They are, in effect, begging for somebody to invent ANT contexts for Rhetoric.

I’m going to go ahead and strongly position myself here by informally arguing that ANT will not resolve these issues for Bazerman, especially.

The fact that genre isn’t “real” doesn’t resolve itself through Bazerman’s adjusted sample sizes or study scope (“Speech Acts” 322, 324), the old “plural of anecdote” cliche being valuable here; and Potter Stewart was providing a legal, but certainly not an epistemological, imperative (323, 325).  Furthermore, it should go without saying that all rhetorical analysis is interpretive, so “going beyond the most obvious features” can yield only a more nuanced interpretation of rhetorical agency, not a revelation, as Bazerman claims, that we can use to determine the factual (“whether or not state education standards attribute agency” etc.) (324).

Since we are approaching the question of genre through the question of category, and Miller views the lens of social action as a product of a both “genre” and “speech,” we must essentially categorize genre and speech as equivalent functions in a syllogistic understanding of the networked relation of these objects.  (This leads to an immediate categorical fallacy, because syllogism is stupid, but helpful for detecting equally stupid things.) Genre is neither concrete, nor stable, and the speech act is neither contained by genre, nor entirely defined by it – more than this, however, they are neither equal nor able to be exchanged within an equation of “social facts” (Bazerman 312-3).

I think that the damning moment for Bazerman’s methodological hand-wave, however, comes in his fourth appeal, when he argues that “to extend beyond the explicit understanding of what people in a field name, in order to see the full range of implicit practice, you can do ethnographic research […] making them extensive enough to provide substantial evidence in making claims, but not too broad to be manageable [emphasis original]” (325, 327).  Of course, ethnographic research will not allow one to see the full range of implicit practice, because no research will – the full range of implicit practice is infinite.  His hedge of this fact two pages longer reveals his awareness that to study the social machinery of meaning is to study an infinitely-regressive chain of nested meanings, acts, and genres which extend infinitely into the communicative past.

Like Capitalism, the Sun, the Old Gods, or post-1994 MTV, you can only look at “society” in your peripheral vision, or you’ll go slowly mad.

In short, socially-contextualized genre studies in “new media” are physically impossible.  There is no viable lens.  The map is not the territory.  Latour will resolve this three years after Miller’s essay by giving agency to objects, and then arguing that this agency compartmentalizes them.  Then, in 2005, he will upend pragmatism itself in order to claim that agency-wielding objects (of his own creation) metaphysically restructure reality itself in order to perpetuate his theories within the social network.  God is dead, but it’s okay; Latour’s doing a Weekend at Bernie’s thing.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m not a huge ANT advocate.


Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activity and people. What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices, 309-339.

Bazerman, C. (1994). Systems of genres and the enactment of social intentions. Genre and the new rhetoric, 79101.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social-an introduction to actor-network-theory. Reassembling the Social-An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, by Bruno Latour, pp. 316. Foreword by Bruno Latour. Oxford University Press, Sep 2005. ISBN-10: 0199256047. ISBN-13: 9780199256044, 1.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard university press.

Miller, C. (1984). Genre as Social Action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(1), 151-167.

Miller, C. R. (2015). Genre as Social Action (1984), Revisited 30 Years Later (2014). Letras & Letras, 31(3), 56-72.


2 thoughts on “RN#3: Towards a Methodology of Ontology in Genre Knowledge

    1. The Cynic in me would say that making me push back upon the categorical compulsion is a completely viable pedagogical purpose in and of itself. When we offer incomplete theories, we challenge others to either a) complete them, or b) point to the gaping holes within them and challenge us in return to address their presence. This is, inherently, a pedagogical act.

      More universally, I would argue that genre is shorthand, as is society – it is only in the transition to “real-ness” that we detect the falsity of this. Until such falsity is detected – and “acquired” into knowledge – the functions of these categorical impulses are instructional; they allow us to view society (albeit obliquely) through a lens of understanding.


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