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’.

Mode of address

This book will take up the same rhetorical stance as its proposes be offered to adult literacy students—or any and all other students for that matter. That is, it will put forward its views, ideas, theories and and stakes always with the thought in mind that this is only a perspective, and that there is always more to be said both from other points of view and in clarifying or deepening my own point of view. This is rhetorical dialogism: the claim that we are always ‘on the way’ to knowing; that full and complete knowledge (‘the truth, the whole truth and only the truth’) is always just out of reach. What makes it more reachable, even though still out of reach, is the response of others.  Read more of this post

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.)

Towards a shared ALL praxis of reading student writing

I find myself constantly returning to the thought that Academic Language & Learning support seems to be drifting further and further away from any sustained attention to language itself or to the language problems students face in grappling with academic discourse and its protocols.

In relation to language, ALL seems to have settled on attending to the two extremes of the spectrum of issues students are juggling: generic structure as the shape of a larger textual units, detailed conventions ruling citation and punctuation; and a  micro-grammar of such matters as tense and articles. What is missing from this three-fold optic is any attention to the actual movement, rhetoric, flow and patterning of both wording and meaning at a more intermediate plane. Language has been sidelined as a key element in the progress of students by the institutional, social and cognitive features of students, features that are more accessible to data collection. In fact I don’t think it unfair to claim that there has been a fairly systematic erasure of language as a key medium for addressing and redressing the academic progress of students. (And when language is considered, it is often with a quite simplistic or reductionist framing.)

I am encouraged by the scattered but still weak signs pointing towards a renewed interest in matters of style and invention, that is, a renewal of what was the dominant focus of the field prior to the disruptive intrusion of ‘Theory’ in the 80s. Thirty years later, having had time to engage with, digest and learn from the theoretical concepts and dispositifs of philosophical and social critically reflection, surely we can once again take up a renewed, reinflected and richer engagement with language issues facing students. To me it seems time to fumble our way towards a more shared toolkit of ways to attend to, make visible, proffer advice, and demonstrate practical tools/ resources for students to explore and deploy in writing or re-writing academic text.

In short, what we need now is to develop a pedagogic stylistics, a rhetoric of academic discourse that can function as both diagnostic and praxis.

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.

What do I want from Schatzki?

Over the last few days, my mind has been turning to Schatzki and forming a desire to re-read him more extensively and more carefully. Why? Why detour from the three master thinkers/ paradigms I have been most concerned with in recent times: Halliday and his systemic functional linguistics; Heidegger (Gadamer) and their ontological hermeneutic phenomenology of Dasein; and Laclau and his poststructural rendering of hegemonic politics? Not forgetting, of course my long standing interest in Rhetoric, more particularly Perelman’s New Rhetoric with its foregrounding of solidarity-building epideictic discourse.

Three elements of Schatzki’s work keep entering my mind:

  1. his privileging of social practice over language as the ground of intelligibility;
  2. his grappling with the complexity of the notion of ‘context’;
  3. and finally, his exposition of an ‘event’-based notion of ‘timespace’ for framing history, action and social causality.

If my memory serves me right, each of his three books is dedicated to these issues in turn:

  • Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social (henceforth, SP) to the first topic – social practice over language;
  • The Site of the Social: A Philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change (henceforth SS) to the second – context: and
  • Timespace of Human Activity: On Performance, Society, and History as Indeterminate Teleological Events (henceforth THA) to the third topic – ‘events’ as the ground of social life.

Knowing the way my mind works, I am sure that there will be many detours along the way, but grappling with Schatzki carefully as a way of wrestling again with thinkers who have been constant companions to my own thinking will hopefully be a productive strategy for provoking a fading and lazy brain.

Warning: As Tony Abbott warned, most of what I will write in the early blogs will be provisional and speculative, thus open for revision or retraction. So, don’t hold me too strictly to anything I say or any particular phrasing. Hopefully, over time my judgement, grasp and language will tighten up, becoming more incisive and insightful – and thus worth engaging with. In short, the early blogs will be principally addressed to myself as provocations; hopefully the later blogs, if I can find some footholds, can be addressed to a wider audience.

Defining Academic writing

Notes towards a critique of Genre Theory

When I think about defining academic writing, it is easy to shift too quickly to thinking in terms of SFL grammatics, and to define it in terms of features like grammatical metaphor, abstraction, technicality, etc. Or in terms of the genres deployed in assignments such as essays, reports, etc.

But this ignores the ‘rhetorical situation’ contexting academic writing.

I do not believe that the SFL notion of genre captures what is happening in academic writing. It’s notion of ‘institutional purpose’ is too thin, and there has been no real effort to thicken it up over the years – despite using phrases like ‘configuration of meanings’.

There are two issues: one, thickening the description of the institutional scene; and, secondly, acknowledging that educators are focused on the individual text and what it signifies about the understanding of the student author.

Re one: Genre theory has no category ‘above’ genre with which to describe the institutional context and its history of language games

Re two: Genre theory focuses on types, the generic case, not the unique or individual case.