Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
What do Frank Gehry-style architecture and Copacabana beach have in common? And what do they have in common with genre?
This post is my 30th blog post and my six-month anniversary of writing this blog. A short life for many bloggers; an achievement for me. (And we should always pause to recognize our achievements when they come, especially those of us who are quicker to criticize than celebrate ourselves.)
My very first post was actually published in August 2015. I wrote about What I Notice--And Write About and then lost my nerve. So I drafted posts for the next nine months without publishing anything, trying to teach myself how to write a blog. (I haven’t used any of those drafts, but I wrote about some of the challenges I discovered in my post on An Academic Learns to Blog.) Today I’m still learning, of course, since we’re all always learning to write. But I’m also still writing, once a week, every week.
In honor of the anniversary I’ve changed my background photo, from a Weebly-provided stock photo of a Gehry-style building to my own photo of the sidewalk at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. (See my note at the bottom of this post for more about that building image.) I think the photos may say something about my blog and me. Where we’ve been, where we are now, and maybe where we’re headed. And--surprise surprise!--they say something about genre, those ways of acting that we come to expect in particular situations.
The two photos share some features that I was looking for to represent my work and interests—especially genre but also language.
If you've read some of my previous posts, you probably see some connections to genre, especially my view of genre, already. Whether you're new to this way of looking at genre or not, here are some of the highlights that make genre so interesting and rich to me.
Every genre is a whole pattern made up of smaller parts. I can analyze a genre into those little pieces, but all the little pieces put together add up to something more than each piece alone. So I can say an apology includes the words "I’m sorry," sincerity, and a promise not to do it again. But an apology is much more than those pieces put together. It's the complete package of genuineness, regret, and the action, the whole experience of apologizing. And we feel we’ve received a good apology or a bad apology--or that an apology just won't cut it--because of the total experience, not any particular word or part.
And I think every genre is meaningful, and some are beautiful. They represent and reveal who we humans are, because we make them, whether to commemorate 9/11. Independence Day, Labor Day, or our favorite sports team. They also shape how we interact with them, whether we notice or not.
Every genre includes both straight lines and curves. You can see the direct and efficient paths that genres take as they work to achieve our goals. But every example of the genre varies from the straight path to find its own thing to say and do. A syllabus may be the most efficient way to get course information in the hands of students on the first day of class. But every teacher adds their particular take on it, their own teacher voice and personality. If I want to undermine the syllabus’s insistence on me as authority, I can throw in more curves and put the students’ names on the first page, put policies in small print at the very end, or leave blanks for students to fill in what they want the course to be.
I even think genres represent the natural as well as human world. They’re categories, and categorizing comes from the very nature of our brains.
So I see what interests me about genres in the fine architecture of a contemporary building and the mosaic artistry of a Brazilian sidewalk. (It's part of what interests me about language, too, as I’ll explain in a future post.)
I see differences, too, in the two photos and what they represent. Both are works of art, but the building is metal and neat. The only traces of humans are the visible rivets. The sidewalk instead is made of stones, irregular and pieced together manually. Some genres certainly are more mechanical and rigid, while others are more artistic and variable. Maybe the side of a metal building fits the patient medical history form or a haiku, while the stone mosaic sidewalk fits a condolence or sports fan chant.
The photo of the Copacabana sidewalk also gives a glimpse of its surroundings. You can see the street in the upper left and the beach on the right. You can see that the sidewalk could use sweeping, with bits of sand on it. Genres aren’t perfect either, with traces of the people who’ve used them in the past, leaving behind little messes for others to walk around or sweep away. Like locker room talk? And genres always exist within other contexts, and with other genres surrounding them. What’s nominated for an Emmy award as a TV comedy might be a drama in your Netflix recommendations.
Before I push this analogy too far (too late?), let me add something about the new photo and my continuing blog. One of the things I like about the new photo is that I took it. It’s not a stock photo and it’s certainly not professional. So you can see the street and the beach around it and the sand littering it. And the color is not the pure black-and-white that the Copacabana sidewalk is always described as. Somehow that day for me it was partly blue. The photo is my experience and my perspective, with all its weirdnesses and irregularities.
So I hope this blog continues for the next six months showing you the weirdness of how I see the world through my genre-colored glasses. And I hope my blog continues to include you, Readers. You've been expanding my experience and changing my perspective through your comments, whether on this website, Twitter, Facebook, or private emails. And just knowing you’re there sharpens my wording, nudges me to add another example, and reminds me to try to tell you why any of this matters to me.
At least I didn’t end with the image of us walking down the Copacabana sidewalk together, hand in hand into the future. My perspective is definitely optimistic, but it isn’t that weird.
See you next week
PS The original background image that I used on my blog, the close-up of a contemporary metal building, is not the photo I've included above. The original came from Weebly, and I've been unable to find a public domain version to share here. I also can’t find any information about what the Weebly photograph depicts. I had always assumed it was a Frank Gehry building, probably the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. But all I can say for sure now is that the building reminds me of Gehry's style in architecture and so can offer you, as I did above, an image that is similar in style.