Re-fusing form in genre study by Amy J. Devitt (2009) I

Amy J. Devitt, Re-fusing form in genre study, in Janet Giltrow and Dieter Stein (eds) Genres in the Internet, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009

The chapter Re-fusing form in genre study by Amy J. Devitt has a very clear mission: the full re-integration of the “form”, intended as linguistic form, into genre studies. In this respect, two seminal  works are re-examined under the “form” lens, namely “Genre as social action” (1984) by Carolyn Miller and “The problem of speech genres” (1981) by Mikahil Bakhtin.

In both cases, Devitt points out that Miller and Bakhtin refuse formalism but not form in their definition of genre. Formalism is intended as the treatment or analysis of the form in isolation of its contexts. In particular, Miller in her article argues for the fusion of three elements, that is substance (i.e. semantics), form (i.e. syntax) and action (i.e. pragmatics) — in the creation of a genre, even though she privileges action in her definition, possibly for a reaction against previous theories. For Miller form is guidance for readers or listeners. “Form shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction, so to speak about how to perceive and interpret; this guidance disposes the audience to anticipate, to be gratified, to respond in a certain way” (Miller, 1984: 159). Devitt explains “Form shapes textual substance in particular ways; it shapes responses to textual situations in particular directions. Without form, of course, there is no text to interpret, no action. […] The fusion of form, substance, and situation creates the generic action that people, rather than critics, practice. […] all three elements shape genres”.

Miller’s position shares some similarities with Bakhtin’s analysis of speech genres and Devitt emphasizes the common traits. First, Bakhtin too, like Miller, criticizes previous genre criticism and its inclination to privilege formalism rather than form. Bakhtin, like Miller, does not deny the linguistic basis of genres, but he stresses that both language and context are necessary for expression. Bakhtin notes that utterances are constructed from language units (e.g. words, phrases and sentences) but those language units only become meaningful in communicative context. Both Miller and Bakhtin insist on form as a necessary element of genres, but they also insists that these forms must be analyzed always in their contexts.

In the rest of the chapter, Devitt reinforces the idea that a balanced genre study should address the context and the form, or better “the form and the substance that comprise the social action”. Devitt proposes four principles for a integrated study of form in genre, namely:

1) The forms of genres are meaningful only within their full context — cultural, social and individual.

2) The forms of genres range widely, both synchronically and diachronically, and cannot be pinned down with closed or static description.

3) The forms of genres vary with each unique instance of the genre, but unique instances share common generic forms.

4) The form of genres are inter-genre-al, interacting with forms of other genres.

 After having explained the four principle in details, Devitt concludes by saying that in order to tackle genre difficulty we have to acknowledge “the inseparability of form, meaning, and action, of individual, social and cultural context, of actual genres and genre-ness”.

Devitt’s chapter is a vigorous stress of the importance of form in genre study. I completely agree that form is an essential element of genre. Although from a practical point of view it can be difficult to capture the form of a genre. Especially if we want to capture it automatically. This difficulty is well explained by Devitt’s Principle 3, which has the challenging simplicity (or complexity?) of an axiom: “The forms of genres vary with each unique instance of the genre, but unique instances share common generic forms.” This principle is well explained by the jazz metaphor: “Jazz performers operate from some shared purposes, strategies, and forms, but each performance employs those shared elements and brings in others to create a unique composition.” Each genre instantiation is unique. Each instance is created by using multiple forms in order to create a specific action. But humans share actions and experiences and create shared genres. In Devitt’s view the notion of genre is one type of categorization that humans make. I think this interpretation is plausible and intuitive. It would help, though, to have experimental data supporting and reinforcing Devitt’s principle, for example by extending to genre the widely cited experiments on colour classification by E. Rosch in her Natural Categories (1973).

I feel that the four principles well describe my own experience with automatic genre classification. I am not entirely sure, though, they explain the whole complexity of the genre notion. But, as Devitt says, this is not a closed list, but the beginning of a discussion where the genre form has its own weight. I am not entirely sure, on the other hand, that I completely agree on the importance of the “content”, or “substance” as a constitutive element of genre…

 *** Pls, do feel free to point out typos, ungrammatical sentences and awkward style in this post.

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