Miller’s “Genre as Social Action”

In “Genre as Social Action,” Carolyn R. Miller argues “that a rhetorical sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish” (151). This action “must involve situation and motive” (151). Drawing from Kenneth Burke, Miller claims that we must focus on the rhetorical situation, not on “materialist” scene that “empowers external, objective elements of situation,” because the scene can reduce action to motion (156). Agents typify rhetorical situations: we “determine” a situation by finding commonalities, similarities, or analogies among situations; once we typify a situation, we have created the recurrence. “What recurs is not a material situation (a real, objective, factual event) but our construal of a type” (157). Exigence, which is neither the speaker’s intention nor the cause of the action, is social motive (158). Because genre is not solely defined by form but by recurrence of social situations and actions, genres are fluid and there is no set list of genres, but rather “an open class with new members evolving, old ones decaying” (153, citing Walter Walter R. Fisher).

Miller writes that “To base a classification of discourse upon recurrent situation or, more specifically, upon exigence understood as social motive, is to base it upon the typical joint rhetorical actions available at a given point in history and culture” (158). Motive at the level of the genre “becomes a conventional social purpose, or exigence, within the recurrent situation”; it is not idiosyncratic or archetypal (162).

When looking for genre, we might see “that a collection of discourses (or a potential collection) may fail to constitute a genre in three major ways”:
1. Not enough substantive or formal similarities among documents;
2. “inadequate consideration of all the elements in recurrent rhetorical situations”;
3. and “no pragmatic component, no way to understand the genre as a social action” (163-164).

Miller’s last paragraph ties to pedagogy: We cannot just learn “a pattern of forms or even a method of achieving our own ends,” but rather we may learn the variety of possible ends, an understanding of the situation, potentials for failures and successes. “[F]or the student,” she concludes, “genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community” (165).

Which leads me to questions about my thesis. What is the rhetorical situation of the magazine Fag Rag? Should I choose a specific blog to compare it to? Do blogs count as a genre? Certainly they have similarities in form, but in rhetorical situation? What is the social motive for the writers of Fag Rag? What is the social motives for, say, Box Turtle Bulletin, or Queerty? How are rhetorical situations typified for zines? for blogs? Are they not typified? What are the ends/goals of zines? of blogs? How does understanding blogs as a genre and zines as a genre help in understanding blogs in the classroom. Perhaps I should return to the essays in Into the Blogosphere. Oh, questions….

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (May 1984): 151-167.

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3 Responses to Miller’s “Genre as Social Action”

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