Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
walking man too, billy liar flickr.com
In Hawaii last week (my first time, celebrating a special anniversary on the wonderful island of Maui), I had an encounter that has me thinking about how we perform, know, and teach genres (and I think it’s a fun story, even if it didn’t make me think of genre).
A friend and I were walking down a narrow aisle in the ABC store (a type of quickie mart), heading toward the cooler of cold drinks. I realized someone was behind us, and I tried to get out of the way, throwing over my shoulder “Oh, sorry.”
I moved out of the way and turned around to discover a man looking as Hawaiian as I could imagine with my new-arrival stereotype. Straight black hair, burly and stocky, dressed in board shorts and flip flops, with a golden brown chest covered in colorful tattoos.
Smiling in response to my apology, he said, “No problem. I can do Hawaiian.” He then leaned his body back, hung his arms slack, and slowly sauntered down the aisle. As he turned the corner, he looked back and grinned at me before standing upright, straightening his posture, and striding away purposefully with swinging arms.
No problem. I can do Hawaiian.”
In that one physical shift, from upright stride to laid-back stroll, he demonstrated what it meant to “do Hawaiian” in his mind—or his vision of what I was doing, in my vacation-mode saunter down the aisle as opposed to my usual rapid click-clack down the office hallway. He was doing Hawaiian.
And the best way to convey what he meant was to show me—to do it. Not define the term or describe its qualities or analyze its values. He could just perform it, and with that performance I knew what he meant.
His “doing Hawaiian” strikes me as similar to “doing” a genre. We genre scholars talk about genres being social actions—action, doing something. People “do” genres. So a Mother’s Day card “does” a Mother’s Day greeting. A twitter hashtag “does” the tagging. A nominating convention acceptance speech “does” the accepting, in a particular way.
That particular way of doing is complicated and specific to the genre. Just as “doing Hawaiian” for this man was more than I can convey in my description of it—it went along with a facial expression and a particular way of walking that my words haven’t captured for you—so, too, is “doing an acceptance speech” more than any description of it can convey. The best way to get it is to do it, or to see someone else doing it.
And, just as I got his “doing Hawaiian” because of the situation—his having to wait while we sauntered in vacation mode down the aisle—the best way to get a genre is by seeing it done in its situation.
Even better is seeing multiple performances of a genre in their shared situation. The two acceptance speeches for the presidential nomination that we just saw in the US differed dramatically, as did every nomination acceptance speech ever given. But if we were to see each of those individual performances in their situation—following a nomination, after months of campaigning, in the midst of a party’s convention, and much more—the genre would emerge. We recognize its common action, what it is doing.
So if I want you to know what I mean by a genre, the best way to get it across is to show you the genre being done. Describing it gets only so far, no matter how detailed my description or how complex my analysis. If I believe that genres are actions, as I do, then they can be seen only when they’re being done.
Have I pushed the comparison too far? My Hawaiian acquaintance was, of course, making a joke. But there’s something striking to me about his doing Hawaiian, not being Hawaiian. Our texts and exclamations, papers and speeches, cards and tweets are doing a genre, not being a genre. And that makes all the difference.
No problem. I can do [insert genre here]
What do you think? I may be so jet lagged that I’m missing important distinctions as well as posting a bit late (I am doing a short blog, after all, and not an elaborated scholarly article). I hope you’ll comment below or on Facebook or Twitter to continue the conversation, because, after all, that’s what comments do.