Miller, “Genre as Social Action”

Miller, Carolyn. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70.2 (1984): 151-167. (17 pages)

At the core of Miller’s conception of genre is the idea that genre has a relationship to situations, particularly recurring situations. Miller, then, focuses her energies in fully exploring concepts of rhetorical situation, namely, she unpacks Bitzer’s exigence and Burke’s motive and these concepts relation to rhetorical situation and thus, allows for or accounts for her understanding of genre. She confronts Bitzer’s concepts of exigence and situation as a starting point, but notes that certain aspects of Bitzer’s concepts run against the idea that genre is a rhetorical action, i.e. a discursive system for the making of meaning. Namely, much of Bitzer’s constituents of the situation—like exigence—are envisioned to exist naturally in the material world. However, as she writes, “what is particularly important about rhetorical situations for a theory of genre is that they recur, as Bitzer originally noted, but in order to understand recurrence, it is necessary to reject the materialist tendencies in situation theory” (156). For Miller, the fact that situations can occur is in fact a marker of a socially constructed phenomenon: “What recurs cannot be a material configuration of objects, events, and people, nor can it be a subjective configuration, a ‘perception,’ for these, too, are unique from moment to moment and person to person. Recurrence is an intersubjective phenomenon, a social occurrence, and cannot be understood on materialist terms” (156). She continues to call the social construction of situations as definitional: the center of the action (i.e. the making of meaning) is “a process of interpretation” (156). She continues, “Before we can act, we must interpret the indeterminate material environment; we define, or ‘determine,’ a situation” (156). Genre, then, plays an important role in constructing recurrence: “it is through the process of typification that we create recurrence, analogies, similarities. What recurs is not a material situation (a real, objective, factual event) but our construal of a type. The typified situation, including typifications of participants, underlies typification in rhetoric. Successful communication would require that the participants share common types; this is possible insofar as types are socially created (or biologically innate)” (157).

Miller also discusses hierarchical theories of meaning which makes little sense to me. Rhetorical actions—of which genres are—seem to be part of this relationship between substance (“common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes” that groups of people construct—cultural logics, epistemological approaches, etc) and form (the representation of substance or information, ideas, etc). When substance and form fuse to create an utterance, the utterance must be understood in context in order to create meaning. This system of utterances and meaning-as-action then become socialized into substance of a higher level of meaning. For example, language becomes the form in which the substance of material experience can be typified: in other words, the predictability of a lexicon—or dictionary word meanings—allows experience to be understood within particular lenses of language. And language—in this case dictionary definitions of words—leads into locution or a string of words to create phrases. Typified locutions then become a speech act and so on. She proposes the following hierarchy of meaning (bottom is the most foundational):

Human Nature
Form of Life
Episode or Strategy
Speech Act

From this hierarchy, we can see that she separates simple typification from genre—genre, then, is a kind of typification, specifically that which classifies episodes of speech acts. In other words, genres are not so much classifying speech acts or responses to situations, but the socially constructed situations themselves. This is how genres are then important to define the recurrence of situations because a genre offers a way to give attention to recurrence.


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