Reflective notes (Oct 2015) on SFL, Genre Theory & Pedagogy

– My interest in Genre theory and genre pedagogy (as in SFL in general) has always been from the angle of teacher-based pedagogy, not re a theory of genres or of literary studies or theory of texts or writing studies or new literacies, etc

– ie my interest is in terms of appliability; but cf Gadamer’s notion of ‘application’ as key element in fruitful/true understanding/transformation of the Sache game

– I reject that theory should govern praxis (cf Bourdieu)

– the theoretical map of linguists is always in deficit in relation to the practical exigencies of the pedagogic encounter and game; this is not to say that it is completely useless or unhelpful. It is a guide-rail, but not a criteria of pedagogic judgement that somehow surpasses the rigour, accuracy or authority of practicing educators. To think that it comprises a superior insight or basis for evaluation and assessment of student written work in the disciplines is to fall into the scholastic illusion that Bourdieu correctly excoriates.

I’m afraid many SFL-ers seem to lean this way, especially in recent times when perhaps despairing at the lack of willing up-take of their work by educators. SFL-ers have now moved as it were from the academic theoretical field of linguistics/ discourse analysis into the practical field of the classroom itself. In the past, they saw themselves as developing ‘appliable theory’, that is, ideas and concepts that education practitioners would recognise as enhancing and clarifying their pedagogies and be keen to adopt and adapt to their classroom practice.

Even Halliday in some key statements insists on the deficiencies of judgements that are not based on a grammatics, a science of language centred on lexico-grammar. However more typically, he allows that ‘insiders’ to a Discourse or World possess more intuitive understandings of what is being said and meant, and positions his linguistics as an effort to descriptively model or map these intuitions, not question or substitute for them.

Even so, I would insist that, given its commitment to constructing a meta-discursive science of language, there is a standing temptation within SFL when approaching the scene of application to assume that its categories are already sufficient and in fact superior to the intuitive capacities of the participants. It is at this point that it is then liable, tempting, to ally itself with encompassing institutions such as bureaucracies and governments bent on formulating overarching categories and criteria of judgement. In this way SFL embarks, wittingly or unwittingly, on a path of substituting its technical metalanguage and terms into the disciplinary pedagogic field, not as a helpful gloss, clarification or distillation, but as a substitution for the vagueness and deficiencies of the existing ways of speaking in the field, as a rectification of the language which also entails a rejection of its habitus and existing forms of transmission and negotiation. In short, the substitution of a theoretical meta-language for the existing historically evolved language of the discipline. In my view, this is damaging; not enlightening. Inevitably, it simplifies what is at stake in the discipline and in engaging learners with it, stakes that reside in the very instability and ambiguities of its languages, key vocabularies and forms of discursive interchange and performance.

Placing Genre on a continuum of Instantiation between the cultural order and the instance is to some extent a slight of hand;

– genre as ‘typical actual’ is perfectly suited as object for a research project, but not for the singularity of a teacher in a classroom of diverse students

– genre as ‘typical actual’ is perfectly suited to be substituted as the goal of education for an abstracted assessment framework that tries to generalise across, and thus withdraw from, the specificities of the range of particular ‘second nature’ disciplines of knowing, understanding, comportment, and capacities cultivated within  secondary schools and universities, especially humanities oriented disciplines

– humanities oriented disciplines are intent on ‘drawing out’ the deeper, more subjective interpretative response from students as individuals in their writing thereby ‘applying’ the game to themselves and figuring a more unique inflection of comportment and habitus; not requiring an instantiation of the objective ’correct/true’ answer stated in terms of impersonal reasoning; or the repetition of the ‘appropriate’ or ‘accepted taste’.

– genre as typical actual is perfectly aligned with the kind of entities needed for research fostering evidence based on Big Data, so fits neatly as an institutional resource and element into the administration of education, especially in the neoliberal variant which requires clear, measurable assessment performances and assessment frameworks in order to structure, fine-tune and discipline the market of privatised, competing educational sites over which it exercises it governance.

– the privileging of written text was likely a matter of its ease of access as research data. However, this meant ignoring its subordination to speech as performing the true work of education and instantial, in-real time, formative evaluation of student discourse as the primary site of education. Subtly, the notion that writing was the goal and site of education was substituted for classroom conversation and activities. To my eyes, it now seems a taken-for-granted feature of much SFL doxa that the point and goal of education is to be able to write texts that ‘repeat’ the doctrinal content of Disciplines, and that writing is the best – most public, most visible, most equitable – place in which students must perform their ‘knowledge’ of the doxa of the different disciplines they are learning. Thus, being able to represent the doxa of a discipline in writing a discipline shows cognitive mastery of that discipline. I agree that writing is one site, a site with special virtues for revealing students understanding of a discipline, but this is only ‘visible’ to the trained eye of disciplinary pedagogues. It is not visible when reduced to the (primarily structural) features comprising current SFL accounts of genre, nor is it a substitute for or improvement on the interplay of in-real-time dialogic responsive teacher/student speech.

– insofar as genre theory posits a ‘kind of textual product’ ie a text conforming to the features of a genre, as the object and goal of education, this also aligns with the objectivist, measurability needs of the bureaucracy.

– by contrast I would say that there are two functions of written texts – one, a formative ‘trial/ordeal’ – which creates intense pressure on students to find more determinate and coherent ways of articulating their ideas than demanded by speech or internalised self-talk/thinking; secondly, to provide a visible sign/record for the teacher of how students have gone about/managed this in order to provide an ‘object’ (text as record) around which to structure follow-up pedagogic interchanges between teacher and student (formative evaluation); only then after a few rounds of this, should the teacher give an assessment based on professional disciplinary judgement of its success in Darstellung-ing the topography of the Discipline in relation to the specific topoi/issue set as focal; not just by examining conformity to a genre.

– focusing on written text is misleading in that, in good pedagogy, a huge amount of oral dialogic work has preceded any writing, especially writing intended as a summative formal record of student capacity for understanding. As Halliday has insisted, conversation and dialogic speech is far more attuned to the intensive interactive demands of exploring, reworking and articulating the intricacies of reasoning, compared with the more prosaic, cool monologic attunement of written text to the demands of causal explanation, definition and classification.

Sidenote: the separation of ALL and discipline teachers is disastrous: ALL focuses on genre only, thus very superficial; discipline teachers blithely unaware of the writerly issues students are facing.

Solution: We need a serious rhetoric of emergence and staging of disclosure of and positioning  within a discursive space of reasoning; one that is worked through as trans-axis operative across all strata and delicacy. (Should go back and re-look at Hoey re his work on cohesion; Martin’s simple terms of repeated, assumed, transformed text reference are too abstracted – need detailed specification for each discourse and issue/topoi/Sache. Need to follow the threads and movement forward of both disclosure and positioning as a persuasive performance that both shapes the liniments of the audiences by adducing their doxa, and rejecting other doxa. Lemke’s Thematics was also on the right path! Also check Mohan again. And Silverstein et al on indexicality

My assumption: Simply setting out the system of resources, like Jim, even if helpful, is not enough. We need to say why this choice and not those other possibles, and what meanings/effects/doxas it mobilises or foregrounds. Cf Butt on foregrounding as 21st century science of language.

– we need to produce accounts of parole, individual performances


– in short, there are deep cryptotypical alignments between SFL as an appliable science of language and the dispositifs and institutional systems of modern governance, both bureaucratic or neoliberal. Both share the enlightenment dream of rationalising praxis through the discovery and application of scientific knowledge. This is despite the conscious intentions and efforts of SFL to align itself with progressive movements seeking social justice, political equality, cultural recognition and economically decent lives. SFL is deeply attuned to both bureaucratic and computational applications, and both have been embraced, often framed within naive exclamations of seemingly-innocent expressions of anticipated utopian effects of pursuing these ventures.

– I would insist, by contrast, that it is the individual student text as a Darstellung (performance, manifestation, presentation, enactment, realisation, expression, index, Token) of their investment, understanding and positioning in reference to a Discipline bent on cultivation a ‘second nature’ that is the true ‘object of study’ and judgement for practicing disciplinary educators and ALL. It is not the text in its own right; as an instance of a genre; or as an object in relation to structures, cohesion, etc. It is ‘what shines through the text’; the text is a Token manifesting a Value(s) assembled from many Tokens manifesting many values. The text is judged in terms of whether it can forge a unitary self-consistent Subject in face of the many competing possible subject positions; whether this Subject position enables the mobilisation of insight, coverage, evaluation, selection re. the Sache (facts, arguments, concepts, paradigms, intertexts, Lemke’s thematics)

– NB difference between Darstellung as instantial re-presentation; vs the representation of object domain in science. This = understanding vs knowledge as goal of Education which shifts the role of writing.

‘in reference to a Discipline’ allows wider scope in the footing of the student; it does not have to be all ‘inside’ as it were; it will be both ‘inside’ and contaminated, meta- or outside at the same time. There will be all kinds of traces, ghosts, worlds-to-come visible in the text. These are not different in order from the internal references – they also rest on traces, ghosts, and worlds-to-come, absolutist dreams, etc.

‘in reference to a Discipline’ allows for syncretism: for layers of earlier/other discourses/worlds being Darstellung within the same text; cf Derrida – every text trips over itself, reveals at the margins its inability to form a unified Subject or unified account of the intelligibility of the Object.

Appliable pedagogy

I have always been suspicious of the idea of ‘appliable theory’ (but cf Halliday’s clarification re difference between ‘appliable’ and ‘application’/‘applicable’ (in The Influence of Marxism’).

To me, each new pedagogic site or context is wholly new. Rather than simply transferring pre-existing frameworks or practices or curricula, I prefer to try to begin with a blank slate and let the affordances and exigences of the place emerge in their own way. Thus, I do not like to begin a new pedagogic task with a preconceived palate or framing. Whereas Descartes insisted on beginning theory and thinking with a tabula rasa, I insist that that is how we should approach practice and action. We should begin with nothing formulated, but trust the interchange between our theoretically informed imagination, habitus and attunement to respond to the affordances, powers, capacities, blockages, possible openings of the pedagogic scene.

This contrasts with those who enter a new pedagogic situation with the mantle of ‘expert’ or ‘primary knower’. A stance like this cannot learn or listen: it is only by acknowledging that we don’t know and don’t even know what we don’t know, that it is possible to open up to learning from the new context. As Gadamer insists: Experience is learning that you what you currently think and habitually think is untrue.

My assumption is that any attempt to simply transfer a pedagogy from one context to another will fail. Stoically, one could gloss this by saying that you were using the new context as a test case, Popper style. However, in my experience those using this approach usually blame the context for not living up to their pedagogic scheme rather than acknowledging that it has revealed a deep flaw in their conceptual scheme. Those following this subsumptive style of acting invariably work a few small tweeks and then proceed to the next context and again try to impose their regime … again with little success. That is, they might justify their approach by arguing that it is an inductive methodology and that over time it will accumulate the features of a pedagogy that is generally applicable.

However, fundamentally this style of acting is subsumptive. It is based on a strong belief in the universality of concepts and their appliability-capacity to form, shape, dominate, and productively harness the messy conjunctures of social life to conform to the demands of the concept.

By contrast, my practice is (or was) governed by two principles: every context or instance is unique; practical success can only come from emptying your mind of preconceptions and attuning your sensibility to the meanings circulating and shaping a context or instance. This means that you are forced to reinvent your pedagogic practice from scratch: sometimes you find that you have created a wholly new pedagogy, sometimes you find that you have recreated a variation on an existing pedagogy. in either case, the emergence of the pedagogy is in response to a phenomenological encounter and entanglement with the realities of the situation within which you are hoping to form, or better, which you are hoping to shape into a form that constitutes a productive pedagogy.

Reflections on Genre Theory

SFL (systemic functional linguistics) typically defines something by relating it to a range of contexts – contexts around it, below it, or above it, [notice there has not yet been much attention to ‘before’ or ‘after’]. However, in practice we find that the notion of genre is almost never explicated in terms of what is above it. In other words, generic categories tend to function as a meta-discourse within which other categories are located, but they themselves are not explicated through a further set of categories. In effect, this amounts to the banishment of history, philosophy, psychology, ideology critique, sociology, politics and so on as ways of articulating social meaning. This has the effect of presenting us with a brute positivity – ‘This is what narrative is and what it is for, and here is how you do it; now, let’s do it’.

The problem with this is that it obscures from view what we might call ‘the moment of enunciation‘. Read more of this post

Genre theory: a critique

The Sydney Genre School (SGS) conflates two distinct theoretical lines of investigation. One is a matter of educational linguistics investigating the role of language in learning. The other is the study of language in social life generally, as-it-were in extra-curricula social life. For SGS, there is a synergy between these because both realms – education and social life at large – are constituted by genres, ‘gatherings of meaning into relatively stabilised practices’. In fact, the relationship between genres in the two realms seems to be posited as quite transparent – or at least potentially transparent if an SGS curriculum were to be implemented.

Assumed identity of genre between school and social life

Whereas van Leeuwen has emphasised that the ‘recontextualisation of a practice from one social region to another is fundamentally an act of colonisation in which the coloniser imposes its own imperatives and constraints on the initial practice, SGS has (to my knowledge) never really studied the difference between genres ‘in the wild’ and educational genres that have been stylised and streamlined to function as scenes of testing and assessment. (Note: I have not included ‘learning’ in this listing of the roles of writing in education because in general teaching and learning are engaged through dialogue, listening and reading – not through writing. This is at odds with the ‘writing to learn’ movement. I will say more at another time about some ways that I think that writing does or could figure as a scene of learning, not just assessment.)

In general, SGS is too complacent in assuming that schooled genres and wild genres are identical, and that as a result learning to write a school genre means that one will be able to write wild genres. Read more of this post

Genre is not enough


This article, drafted in 2001, attempts to articulate my disagreement with efforts to construct the goals and processes of the educative practices appropriate to Batchelor Institute (BIITE) in terms of the concept of genre. I will argue that the focus on genre is a reductive account of the goals of education at BIITE, a focus that inevitably substitutes a mono-cultural definition of learning outcomes for the richer educational commitments defining BIITE.

In the past, power in education and training was exercised at the point of ‘inputs’, in the writing of textbooks and in the design and production of curriculum resources. However, during the 90s, the exercise of power in education and training has shifted its focus to ‘outcomes’. This shift from the moment of instructional input as a point of leverage to the assessment of outcomes as the object of governmental gaze means that definitions of ‘what is assessed’ has become the key site for negotiating and contesting the purposes, modes and meanings of education and training.

What I find particularly disquieting is the claim that genre captures the entirety of social life and that therefore there is no worthwhile distinction between ‘genre’ and ‘socio-historical practice’. This means that the latter is irrelevant to the goals of the curriculum as expressed in its assessment practices. Sometimes it is acknowledged that understanding the socio-historical dimension of a genre may be a ‘teaching strategy’, ‘a means’ to mastering the genre, but still, it is insisted, it does not form any part of the content or goal of assessment. This can be captured in the claim: ‘It is the essay itself that we need to assess, not depth of cultural analysis and understanding’.  Read more of this post

Two approaches to action: Managerial & Kairotic

One of the most popular mantras in contemporary professional sport is: ‘Play what is in front of you!’ To understand the significance of this mantra, you have to fill in the background against which it makes sense, and the other mantras it is responding to.

Managerial Approach

In much contemporary sport, there is now very detailed analytical coaching and planning of plays. Plans and plays are scripted beforehand and then practiced over and over during training, so that when they are called every player knows what they must do to play their part. This emphasis on preparatory planning aligns with the planning in the military and in business. Start-ups and new businesses also invest much effort in business plans that will be used to determine their future activities.

Across all these fields, there was a belief in the value of plans, and in the value of conforming to these plans. It was as if you could see into the future or decide or predict the future, and the plan as your road-map. The plan is an analysis of the situation and predicts what should be done by tracing the causal connections and effects of different sequences, structures or combinations of actions; and playing is simply a matter of ‘following the plan as laid down’. The player’s job is simply to remember the plan and follow it; not to think or make their own decisions.

In this scenario, players are as it were tools of the coaching staff and their plan. Their job is to ‘apply’ the plan, a set of strategies and combinations of plays that has been worked out theoretically beforehand based on reams of statistical data.

The assumption in this approach to sport – or education for that matter – is that it assumes that things mostly goes to plan, that there is very little room for chance, or mishap, or surprises. The assumption is that a well-drilled team with a well-planned set of strategies and structures will triumph. The same for armies and businesses.

This managerial model is the approach deployed in the Vietnam War, the Irak invasion. The chaos following the Irak invasion was a surprise to US military planners because their planning was based on the assumption (based on solid evidence) that the Irak population would welcome arrival of US troops and immediately embrace a new national democratic government, enabling coalition troops to withdraw quickly.

It is a model that assumes that every possible contingency, every needed resource, can be predicted and dealt with beforehand in the planning process prior to any action.

We could sum up this approach as the ‘managerial model’. The coach, CEO or Commander draws up the strategies; the role of players, workers, and soldiers is to follow orders—not to use their own intelligence or judgment about ‘what is in front of them’ and what would be the most effective way of responding. Thus, the mantra capturing this approach is: ‘Stick to the plan; Ignore what is in front of you; We have already predicted everything that can happen in the big picture and have it covered; Just do what you are told and don’t go feral on us’.


Kairotic Approach

So, now we can understand the meaning of ‘Play what is in front of you’. It is a rejection or supplement to the managerial approach. This new mantra embodies the belief that no pre-planning can ever cover every contingency arising in a game. What happens and what to do is not a matter of precisely defined causal relations that can be perfectly dealt with by slavishly following pre-determined rules, precepts or instructions. What happens is an amalgam of the predictable and the unpredictable. In fact, the more predictable, the more important the moments of unpredictability become. It is in these moments of confusion or disruption, that a space is opened up for inspired play by players alert to ‘what is in front of them’ and able to think outside the box of ‘the plan’.

Preface (draft) to book on Adult Literacy as education into care of the world

I wish to describe things from a rhetorical perspective, or rather, to describe the world rhetorically, even better, to describe a rhetorical world. To describe the world in a way that that brings out its rhetoricity.

I am not trying to explain the world by reducing it to rhetorical principles. Rather I describe it bringing out it rhetoricity and hope that you the reader will be able recognise yourself and your world in what I describe. So that you can reply: ‘Yes, You are right. I too live in the rhetorical world you describe – even though I have never heard it described or named in this way before’.

Describing, rather than explaining: I am not wishing to show or prove that there is a simple ground or principle underpinning and explaining the world(s) we live in. Instead, I simply wish to describe the world and events and people and what people say or write – or what you do or say or write –  in such a way that brings out its rhetorical dimension.

I will use the historical tradition of rhetoric in Western and Eastern Europe as an example, an instance, a paradigmatic case, an exemplum. By describing the features, dimensions, practices, values and variety of this past world of rhetoric, I hope that it becomes clear that these very same features are also true of the world outside this past world of rhetoric.

The world of the tradition of rhetoric is a microcosm that is emblematic of our world today and of the world at large – I hope. By describing this smaller world of rhetoric I am hoping that you will recognise similarities and points of connection with your world and thereby you will find yourself more attuned to the rhetoricity of our current world: you may find yourself noticing things you did not notice before; or reacting to them differently from before; some things or events that just passed by in the background as background noise might now jump out at you and attract your attention. In short, your world, the world you live in, your world, might subtly change its shape and feel so that different things call out to be named. In this way learning the language and forms of speaking and analysing developed by a training in rhetoric, you should find that different features, different things come to prominence asking to be named or analysed rhetorically. Welcome to a more rhetorical world

If  we used the idea of fractality, then the elements and shape of the historical world of rhetoric as a discipline may exhibit the very same elements and patterns of other regions of the larger world and also of the world, or worlds, as a whole (if there is such a thing).

Now, this is not purely a matter of generalising, of induction or extrapolation from a single case to other cases or a kind of cases. It is more than this. Rather, it is a matter of how you see and stand in the world, not just what you see or know about the world. It is a matter of how you relate to the world. So, my hope is to write a text through which you will gradually find yourself changing, seeing things including yourself and what you can see or imagine doing differently. In short, becoming a rhetor, becoming someone who views matters rhetorically. Who thinks, speaks, writes and acts rhetorically. Who does not assume that the world can be captured simply in neat concepts or theories that can then be used to design social institutions, train the habits and actions of children, adults and groups, or used to develop formulas or algorithms for technologies.

So, there is a pedagogic intent to this text, not simply an informative intent. I am not just trying to tell you the facts like Wikipedia, nor simply trying to explain a theory. Really what I am doing is trying to initiate or apprentice you into being a rhetorician, to noticing and responding to issues, things, texts, and events as a rhetorician. So, my hope is that from reading this book, you will not simply know (more) ‘about’ rhetoric, but that you will become (more of) a rhetorician, that your world will take on a more rhetorical flavour. My hope is that you will find the rhetoric-ness of the world around you more pronounced, as if it was calling to you,  “Look at me!” My hope is that you come to experience the world with different ears and eyes – with the ears and eyes of rhetoric and that you will be able to respond with the speech and discourse of rhetoric too.

As well as hoping that you come to perceive the world differently, I also hope that you find your self taking up a new stance in the world—a rhetorical stance. A rhetorical stance is one that contributes in speech or action to revealing what is going on, what is happening, what people are arguing about or unhappy about. A rhetorical stance is not a matter of big noting yourself, of becoming a loud mouth or trying to out argue or shout others down. It is not about winning. It is about helping to bring clarity to a situation of confusion where everyone is seeing and feeling different things. A rhetorical stance is when you ‘put something into words’ in a way that helps clarify the meaning of what is at issue.

Rhetoric is a way of dealing with misunderstanding, disagreement, conflicting views, conflicting interests or goals, different feelings, different hopes or ambitions, different memories, different fears or hurts. Rhetoric is useful in every part of life and every walk of life: in family life, in work life, in academic life, in political life; in all forms of communication – speaking, gesturing, writing, reading, social media, broadcast media, cinema, videos, public speaking, stand up, performance art, etc, etc. In short, life is rhetoric, rhetoric is life. Life is lived rhetorically, and rhetoric is lived.

So, you have been warned: My hope is not just that this book will give you new knowledge or new things to talk about, but that it will change you into a different person, into a rhetorical person; someone who lives in a different world, a rhetorical world.

You have been warned…


(Later, in Chapter ?? I will describe all this more fully using ideas from the realm of rhetoric, along with some more recent ideas that help describe the world of rhetoric: experience (Gadamer); bildung; mimesis; disposition/ethos/habitus; affordance; attunement; book as dialogic Spiel; Bourdieu on investment in the game.)

Preliminary thoughts on Halliday and semiotics

Trying to understand Halliday’s motivation for the concept of Instantiation has impressed on me the realisation that the very concept arises from Semiotics as a research paradigm. The very idea of assigning the identity and meaning of actual items on the basis of their relationship to a paradigm of virtual possible entities, that is, the relationship between meaning potential (system) and instance (actual), is perhaps the key move in semiotic structuralism. It is the move that severs the relationship between meaning and world, thereby insisting that signs must be defined, not by reference to objects, referents, fact or situations, but relationally to each other. Thus language, as a privileged example of a semiotic system, can be exhaustively described and explained purely on its own terms, without any reference to its actual uses in social life.

It is important to point out that what is at issue here is not the claim that the identity and meaning of a sign or linguistic item is not self-transparent and is determined by a context or background, by something outside of itself as it were. This contextualism is shared across many accounts of language. For example, Heidegger would say: ‘what it is that makes something what it is resides outside itself, not inherent in it’; actually he would would have phrased that as: ‘the essence of something lies outside itself’. Similarly, the shift from the Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein was a matter of no longer insisting that the identity of names or basic propositions was grounded in their transparent relationship to atomic entities and facts, but rather rested on the unfolding of the varied and fuzzy contextual situations of social life. Thus the meaning of a term is a function of what ‘language game’ it is implicated in, and the language game a function of what ‘forms of life’ it is enacting.

So, the move to a context to account for meaning and identity is common to both semiotics and what we might call the more anthropological or praxis accounts of meaning and language by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The point of difference between the two approaches lies in the character of the respective contexts they nominate. For semiotics and systems theory, context is a relational constellation or assemblage of other virtual possible meanings, meanings that could potentially have been selected in a speech act but were not, whereas for the praxis paradigm, the context is actual ‘worldly’ social situation in which the language is figuring, and the situation itself embodies and expresses deeper socio-historical themes, imperatives and motifs.

If this sketch is even half right, what instantly springs to mind is that a deep gambit on Halliday’s part is a ‘both-and’ attempt to retain and reconcile these two competing paradigms: European semiotic structuralism and Anglo-American anthropology, as he himself phrases the difference. The global vector of Instantiation – patterns of agnation – indexes the former paradigm; the global vector of Stratification, especially its encompassing of ‘the eco-social environment’ mobilises the latter.

I picture Halliday as a Kafkaesque tight-rope artist precariously balancing on the wobbly shoulders of two giant paradigms within linguistics – the systemic and the functional.  This is to attend to the name of his linguistics – SFL: systemic functional linguistics – and note that although it presents as a nominal group functioning as a proper name, a name in which the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘functional’ are set peacefully alongside each other, in fact it may represent more an aspiration, a balancing act, than naming an actual finalised stable entity or accomplished reconciliation of the two paradigms in play.

I end this post with a number of questions for follow-up:

  • What to think about structuralism and its (continuing) role in SFL?
  • How does Halliday try to stitch together such two disparate paradigms as structuralist semiotics and praxis anthropologies?
  • What was the motive for attempting this, and how did it relate to the structural-functionalism of British anthropology at the time?
  • Was this effort simply a result of a dual interest in the Marxist oriented study of language by the Prague school and various Russian schools on the one hand, and the ethnographic functionalist anthropology of Malinowski and the American ethnographers on the other?
  • How did the shifts of British anthropology such as Mary Douglas, Evan-Prichard and of continental Marxists such as Gramsci & Althusser away from a simple, perhaps reductive, materialist and functionalists account of ‘species being’ and ‘society’ impact on the SFL account of the ‘social context’ or ‘social system’ or ‘meaning potential of the social system’?

First issue: language vs social practice

I tend to think about this by drawing on two theoretical traditions. The first is MAK Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics (SFL). (I will get to the second theoretical tradition, the German tradition, for which I will take Heidegger and Gadamer as representative, in a later post.) I will first approach this issue in relation to the work of what SFL calls the textual metafunction.

Regarding the first issue, a key question is unravelling the interface between the two faces of language – enacting social life and representation.

For me, SFL seems to construe these two functional dimensions of language (as a harmonious relationship which are woven together by a third, the textual metafunction, to produce neatly finalised totalities – texts. But this analytic construal seems to domesticate and render anodyne what I take to be incommensurable differences – ranging all the way from epochal historical motifs to sociocultural practices to micro-inflections in wording – locked in ongoing hegemonic struggle, competition and accommodation. The SFL picture reminds me of Whiggish renderings of the Hegelian dialectic in which competing meanings are neatly transmuted into a resolving synthesis.

To my mind, all discourse but especially discourse enacting teaching and learning is struggling to find a convincing relationship between incommensurable discourses/paradigms/worlds/frameworks – like these very posts I am writing now. One of the tenets of rhetoric is that all serious discourse arises from difference, from different perspectives, different interests, different values, judgements or sensibilities. For rhetoric, the object of discourse is a contested, still indeterminate issue (causa), some thing or some situation or some action or some possible action that is still not clear and agreed upon – and so needs discussion and debate in order to find and form a credible consensus. Heidegger and Gadamer in their renewal of ancient rhetoric translate causa  with the German term die Sache which means ‘what this text/discourse/discussion/court case is about’.

The significance of this for pedagogic discourse – for the reading, writing, discussion and thinking at work in teaching and learning – is that learning only happens when more than one discourse is in play. A pedagogy with only a single discourse in play is a debased, corrupt pedagogy; it is the pedagogy of rote learning, of the catechism, a pedagogy that pretends that the world both is and appears as one and the same to everyone. It imagines that students have lived with their eyes shut, but will now have them opened to see and understand the world for the first time. But in fact students come to the scene of pedagogy with pre-existing views and perceptions; and it is only by using these as footing that students can engage understandingly with what is being presented by the teacher or the texts speaking on behalf of ‘the truth’. So, rather than think in terms of ‘topics’, we should think in terms of issues, causa, Sache – matters that need to be discussed, explored, re-shaped, transformed in order to be wrought into a coherent stable entity or object.

In my view, if we as educators (and students) refuse to think of the textual metafunction as a matter of simply wrapping an extra layer of transitions, conjunctions and metadiscourse around an already determinate package of topical content, but instead interpret the metafunction as the work of trying to bring the disparate elements of a text, elements indexing different discourses, into a harmonious and plausible alignment and movement, then the textual metafunction is in fact the site of the most critical work of learning and understanding. It is the site where incommensurables and otherness are mediated, placed and positioned in relation to one another. If I am right that significant learning is coming to see the world from within a different discourse or discipline without annihilating existing discourses, then the textual metafunction will be a privileged site for observing and discussing how the tensions, relations and contradictions between the different discourses have been (could be, might be, have been attempted to be, have failed to be, have pretended to be, have deliberately not been, and so on) ‘resolved’ to form a coherent cohesive text.

Insofar as no text can have ‘the last word’ or encompass a finalised totality, or represent a God’s eye ‘view from nowhere’, I align myself with Derrida in viewing all texts, but especially pedagogic texts, as ‘essentially’ incomplete, unfinalised, riven by contradictions, grounded in incommensurable, elusive competing traces. And my suggestion is that it is in the textualising metadiscourse that this will show up most clearly.

A practical implication for language and learning educators: It may be that the rubrics currently proffered to students regarding conjunctions, metadiscourse, topic sentences, modality and so on when taught as a given, conventional feature of academic writing or of English discourse does a serious disservice to students. They present the textual metafunction as simply a matter of convention, not as a matter of the dialectical struggle at work when incommensurable discourses, concepts or worlds are in play. This means that any lapse or clumsiness in textuality is interpreted, not as pointing to an unresolved integration of die Sache, of that which is at issue in what the text is addressing, but as merely a failure to conform to a conventional feature of English academic writing. Worse, if disciplinary educators were ever to be persuaded to read these lapses in this way, they would be depriving themselves of a key site from which to observe and disclose where a student ‘is at’ in trying to grapple with the conflicting perspectives in play.