Sunday, November 6, 2011

Genres and Agency

Back in September, Vanessa asked a very interesting question to the class: Does genre have agency? Certain writing situations recur again and again, which creates new genres. A related question might be, what kinds of power do genres have over what we read and write? I think that Miller’s “Genre as Social Action” might equip us to finally answer some of these questions.

“Genre study is valuable…because it emphasizes some social and historical aspects of rhetoric that other perspectives do not” (Miller 151). Thus, genre definitions cannot be centered only in classifying substance and form, but on the action that fusions of substance and form accomplish. Agency as Campbell defines it is also centered in action: to have agency is to have the capacity to speak/write in ways recognized by one’s community (Campbell 3). Agency and genre both require action, which accomplishes something specific.

Forms of writing – a part of genre – shape our expectations for pieces of writing, and they shape our response to certain kinds of writing, and this might be thought of as an agency. In fact, Campbell states that forms have power because they signal to readers how to categorize the form of the piece of writing (7). Since genres represent typified rhetorical action, a productive question to ask might be, does typified rhetorical action have agency? Campbell has established that the agent – the person writing or speaking – can use agency. Thus, is the action seems to be an expression of this agency.

Consider Miller’s concept of the recurrent rhetorical situation. These situations give rise to discourse, but as it is people producing/using discourse that cause the situations to recur, I am not sure that the situations themselves have agency. Miller notes that other scholars, such as Jamison and Campbell, have noted that recurrent situations provide insight into the human condition (156). Perhaps, then, recurrent situations give us insight into the kinds of agency that are happening around us, rather than being agential in and of themselves.

It is possible that genre has agency, and that this agency is separate in function from that of the author. Texts, too, have agency (Campbell 7). To say that a text has agency separate from the author is not to disregard the agency of the author – after all, someone (an agent) writes a text, which is itself an expression of agency. The text’s agency may be a result from the author’s since an author is a necessary predecessor to a text, but it separate and may function differently. Campbell notes that the agency of a text is linked the audience.

As both texts and forms have agency, it would follow that genres also have agency. This is an agency independent from that of the text, although perhaps genre agency works with textual agency to communicate something to the reader. Genres are produced by recurrent agential actions, and in the discourse situation the genre of a piece has an agency separate from the author’s, the text’s, and the reader’s. However, it is an agency that helps to shape the interactions between author, reader, and text.

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