A Brief Discussion of Genre and Burkean Form

[I’ve been looking through some boxes of papers and found this one. It was written a year and a month ago. My definition of rhetoric has changed slightly since then, but it’s still an interesting piece. Not only that, but it also contains in it several things that I’m still thinking about and trying to piece together. I have made some very minor changes.]

I have several points I’d like to make, and I wonder if I need to have a single controlling idea other than the fact that all of what I want to say is somehow related to Amy Devitt’s book Writing Genres.

First of all, I don’t understand how literary genres and rhetorical genres can be separated. I see literary genres as types or kinds or subsets of rhetorical genres. Rhetorical genres include literary genres, but rhetorical genres also include other genres that are not literary. I see things this way because I define rhetoric as influence via symbol-using. Rhetorical genres are genres that try, in some way, to influence and identify with an audience. Not only do I see literary genres as subsets of rhetorical genres, but I also think we start to run into trouble when we separate literary genres from rhetorical genres. We run into trouble because literature really does influence people, whether people like it or not and whether people notice it or not.

But what about that second question, “Is there something about the nature of literary genres that aims for universality or transcendence, and is that something not (and never going to be) a part of ‘rhetorical genres’?”? (Wow. Two question marks at the end of that sentence.) That’s a good question. That question assumes that there may be something within literary genres that is outside of the realm of rhetorical genres. Unless, of course, there is something within the realm of rhetorical genres that also aims at universality or transcendence. Interestingly enough, this is a difficult question that I have recently been wondering about, so I appreciate the opportunity to try to put my thinking in to language. I think there is something in rhetorical genres that aims at universality or transcendence. Rhetoric recognizes that human beings are different, but we still attempt to transcend those differences and cooperate with one another. Saying yes is cooperation. And rhetoric tries to get people to say yes with each other, even though we come from different backgrounds, hold different ideologies, and see different sides of a thing.

But is that kind of transcendence different than literature’s aims for transcendence and universality? I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is because, first of all, literature is still within the realm of symbol-using. But second, and more importantly, literature enables human beings to have shared experiences with one another. And it is these shared experiences that allow us to transcend our differences. As embodied spirits, we can’t get outside of our bodies (even if you don’t agree with the first part of that sentence, you’ll still agree with the latter). But we can have experiences that allow us to share common ground with other human beings.

Anyway, that’s where I am right now in my thinking about that subject. If I may, I’d like to change the subject just a bit. I’d like to talk more about Devitt’s book. As I was reading, I became interested in the relationship between genres and Kenneth Burke’s definition of form. Devitt claims that genres cannot merely be defined by formal features, and I tend to agree with her. Although I find it somewhat amusing that, while Devitt claims that genres cannot merely be defined by formal features, she actually does define them by formal features—the act of describing and defining anything must be done by saying what it is. And as soon as you say what something is, you assert that it has some kind of formal feature. As genre is described, it becomes based on formal principles—those that have just been named. But those last three sentences were kind of an aside. What I want to do is compare Burkean form with Devitt’s discussion of genres.

Alright, I’ll be honest—I find it somewhat unfortunate that Devitt only cites one of Burke’s books, The Philosophy of Literary Form. I think she does because that’s the book that sounds like it would talk the most about genres. But what Devitt doesn’t seem to notice is that Burke once said that his entire theory was summed up in his early book, Counter-Statement. This is the book where Burke defines form very differently and very generously. He says that form is “an arousing and fulfilling of an audience’s expectations” (Counter-Statement 217). “A work has form,” he writes, “in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (124). Burke’s definition of form sounds somewhat similar to Devitt’s inclusion of expectations in her theory of genre.

Devitt says that genre is “visible in classification and form, relationships and patterns that develop when language users identify different tasks as being similar” (Writing Genres 31). From the second sentence of her book, Devitt asserts that we use genres “to meet expectations” (1), and this word, expectations, and its variations (expect and expectation) repeatedly appear in Devitt’s book. In other words, she sees some kind of relationship between genres and expectations of readers and audiences.

I see several connections between the way Burke defines form and the way Devitt discusses genres. One connection that I see is in Devitt’s discussion that genres at once both empower and enslave authors. Interestingly enough, Burkean form does the same thing. Authors can apply Burkean form by creating and then satisfying expectations and desires in readers. But an author can’t just say whatever he or she wants to say. Authors create and then fulfill desires and expectations by first getting to know an audience and coming to understand that audience’s ideologies. An author then uses what he or she knows about audience ideologies to create and fulfill desires and expectations in a target audience. This is how Burkean form both constrains and liberates an author, similar to Devitt’s discussion about how genres both empower and enslave authors. Greig Henderson has written the following about Burkean form, but I think it also applies to the way Devitt describes genres: “the rhetoric of form not only has a suasive impact upon the audience; it also has a suasive impact, conscious or unconscious, upon the author. While we are using the formal, rhetorical, and ideological resources of language and literature, they are using us” (Unending Conversations 140).

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