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).

An Explanation of the Title

Well, here we go.

I’ve decided to call this blog Name Pending, a somewhat ironic title because the title seems to be self-contradictory: how can someone name something Name Pending? Obviously, the name cannot be pending, as the title suggests, because the title itself is Name Pending! And there we have it. A paradox in the first few words of the first post of this blog. Great.

But a paradox is only something that seems to be self-contradictory and really isn’t when it is examined from a better, more comprehensive perspective.

That means we really can name this blog Name Pending without condradicting ourselves, but we need to broaden our perspective in order to see how it isn’t self-contradictory. By naming this blog Name Pending, I don’t only want to convey the possibility that Name Pending may not be the name of this blog forever, but what I’d really like to do is look to the future in a sense. What I am really doing by calling this blog by the name I have given it is asking the question, What’s in a name? And that’s a question that I hope hasn’t become cliche. Because giving a thing a name–calling it something–is naming it. And naming is strategic, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Let me illustrate with a story.

“You think way too much about it,” my friend Ron told me. I had just told him that I had been thinking about starting a blog for several months but couldn’t come up with a name for it. He asked me to share with him a few of the names I was thinking about, and we brainstormed a few more ideas together. And while we discussed ideas for this blog’s name, I suppose he got more than he bargined for because I eventually started talking about the act of naming in general.

“I think the real problem I’m having,” I told him, “is that as soon as I give the blog a name, I bind myself, since in order for that name to be accurate, everything I write under that name should be related, somehow, to that name. And I don’t want to put myself into a box.” The name is a general principle that guides the rest of what will be written, and I’d here add something one of my favorite writers once said, “Each brand of imagery contains in germ its own ‘logic'” (Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 148). I continued, “I guess the most accurate thing I could call this blog would be Jarron Slater’s Blog, since everything I’ll be saying will necessarily be filtered through my own perspective.”

“Nah. Do something better than that!” Ron countered. He was right. Jarron Slater’s Blog is pretty bland.

Well, as of right now, Name Pending seems to be the best I can come up with. Not just because it implies the possibility of names changing in the future, but also because it implies that things change in general and our perspective of things also changes over time. Just as my understanding of a car changes when I learn how to drive one and then changes again later when I learn how to perform maintenence on it, so our understanding of words, thoughts, and ideas changes over time as we progress in life. Here’s a really wordy version of that idea: my perception of what I call one thing at one point in time may change I later return to it. That’s why the name of this blog, in one sense, has to be Name Pending.

So, what exactly is this blog about? It’s about things we’ve discussed in this post. It’s about naming, perspective, and change. It’s about understanding and misunderstanding. But it’s also about something else, a word that I’m hesitating to use. We could say, if you promise to keep reading after I say the word, that this blog is about an age old word that is unfortunately used not often enough and has become taboo in some of the circles in which it is used. The word is philosophy.

But what is philosophy? That’s a question that I’ll have to answer another time. It’s also one that won’t be answered once for all time, but will continue to be answered over time, as we’ll see later. Hence, again, this blog’s title.