Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Image of Declaration document, dated July 4, 1776, from commons.wikimedia.org
On July 4th in the United States, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence (in fact, the date that the Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence). Notice we celebrate “the” declaration, not “a” declaration, though the document actually calls it "A Declaration"
So what genre is a declaration?
A search on DuckDuckGo brings up these top results for the meaning of “declaration”
Declaration of independence
“An assertion by a defined territory that it is independent and constitutes a state.”
Declaration of war
“A formal act by which one nation goes to war against another.”
Declaration (Computer programming)
“In computer programming, a declaration specifies properties of an identifier: it declares what a word means.”
“In the sport of cricket, a declaration occurs when a captain declares his team’s innings closed”
“A binding adjudication of the rights or other legal relations of the parties which does not provide for or order enforcement.”
“There are several actions in poker called declaration, in which a player formally expresses his intent to take some action.”
Image of poker player from commons.wikimedia.org
So what IS a declaration?
Many scholars, including me, have declared (repetition intended) that a genre is whatever the users say is a genre. I might argue that if a user names something as a category, then it is a category. More complexly, if users share a term for symbolic actions, then that IS a genre.
If I check Wikipedia for music genres, I’ll find 45 named genres of African popular music, including Bongo Flava, Igbo highlife, and Mbalax. I find 27 genres of Blues, from African blues to West Coast blues. Under Electronic music, I find 21 genres, with so many subgenrs listed under each that I stopped counting.
Image of music genres from commons.wikimedia.org
And, of course, the multiplicity of genre labels goes beyond music to genres of literature, writing, movies, art, and more. Netflix has really enlarged the notion of movie genres with its exponentially increasing genres "you might like" based on your viewing history. (scary, as well as a complicated algorithm) According to finder.com, Netflix has 27,002 individual genres of movies. The categories of “genres” for Netflix is a topic for its own blog post in the future.
Which certainly leads to the question “What is a genre?” but July 4th is a holiday in the US, so I won’t burden myself with that blog post yet. I may have the courage to tackle it in the future, and I welcome your comments to help build such a post.
But back to what IS a declaration?
My interest in language intersects with my interest in genre with this topic. Words are often polysemous, often have multiple meanings. What is a run: a score in baseball, a thread tear in a stocking, a jog through the park? Genre labels, too, are often polysemous. Like the word “run” and so many words in English, the word “declaration” has multiple meanings in different contexts—in computer programming, law, cricket, and poker, as well as politics and American history. So there is no single category of symbolic action that is the genre of declaration. There must be different categories of action in each of these settings.
I need to narrow my genre from declaration to declarations of independence. Within politics and the meaning of declaring independence, I find some common situations, purposes, audiences, and messages.
So what IS a declaration of independence?
Some history sites give credit to the American Declaration of Independence as antecedent for many countries’ separations from dominating political entities, even if their founding documents aren’t necessarily called declarations of independence. There is a Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and it refers to the French declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Then there is The Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls conference of 1848, in which the self-evident truths are “that all men and women are created equal”
The question of what IS a declaration of independence might better be stated as what does a declaration of independence DO?
Declarations of independence assert a group’s separation from a dominating force. Their power lies in the uniqueness of each situation—the particular group being dominated, the particular unit from which separation is required—with the generic assertion that one group has the ability to declare separation, the recognized generic authority to assert the group’s right to its own power and authority.
Genres define what is permitted, what acts we can perform (in Carolyn Miller’s notable discussion). Yet each instance of the genre is adapted to the particular circumstances, the particular rhetorical situation. Declarations of independence make it conceivable to declare independence, for whatever particular group is in a situation that the group believes requires that action.
What’s in a name? The action that people perform.
What IS a declaration of independence? A declaration of independence.
Ah, each blog post leaves so much more to say, I write with hope and trust that these posts will build on one another as I tap away at one little piece at a time. But I declare nothing here, except perhaps as in cricket: I declare this blog post closed to me, but still open to your comments and additions.
Below Declaration of Sentiments read, from youtube.com