Genres & digital media

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Genres are an ever-moving target; “dynamic [and] evolutionary in nature” (Miller & Shepherd, 2004), they are subject of an immense body of research into which I barely dipped a toe this week when reading for my course “Rhetoric & Digital Media.” The readings demonstrate the close relationship of form, genre, and narrative. I’ll attempt here to explore briefly some of the major issues discussed in our readings and take a stance on what genres are, what emerging issues for genre accompany the developments in digital media, and how we, as budding digital media scholars, can examine them.

To begin, Burke’s Counter-Statement (1968) takes form as a central tenet, and the selections we read reflect his initial exploration of form (“Psychology and Form”) and the subsequent addenda to and corrections of his ideas (“Lexicon Rhetoricae”) In the former, Burke demonstrates Perelman’s (1982) “dissociation of ideas” to distinguish between form and psychology. To Burke, rhetorical form is the creation and fulfilling of desires of the audience, their psychology. It is dynamic: the reader anticipates, the writer delivers, and the text satisfies, creating a profoundly social and rhetorical view of form, as opposed to the traditional aesthetic view used within literature at that time.

Burke’s early ideas of form and human action lead us directly to Miller’s (1984) discussion of genre as social action. She explains that form, combined with the substance of discourse, permits “that symbolic structures take on pragmatic force and become interpretable actions” (p. 160). She makes clear, however, that form does not mean genre, instead suggesting a definition of genre that has become the discipline-standard for scholars: “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (p. 159). Thus, genre is not a property of a text, but a function. Genre organizes constraints on textual production and meaning-making. In outlining this new way of understanding genre, Miller responds to the exigence that hardly any scholars discussed genre similarly at that time, seeing a need for a more stable way to define and analyze genre within the field. In developing what she calls a “rhetorically sound definition of genre” (p. 151), Miller places emphasis on the pragmatic component of texts (as opposed to syntactic or semantic) and gives rhetorical critics a new standard for evaluating genre.

Miller & Shepherd (2004), in “Blogging as Social Action,” use methods that we can consider for genre analysis. Using the semiotic terms from Miller’s (1984) “Genre as Social Action,” they examine at the generic semantic content, the formal features of the genre, and the pragmatic value of blogs as social action, deducing that the blog as genre “addresses a timeless rhetorical exigence in ways that are specific to its time.” This study demonstrates the work that we may do for this course or for our dissertations. We see through the blog example that digital media engender new genres. The Internet was able to accommodate the cultural exigence, and thus the genre emerged.  So, as digital media scholars, how can we explore emerging or evolving genres? It seems that many of the rhetorical concepts we are covering this semester are useful for this type of study: determining the kairotic moment for genre emergence, looking at the form (formal features) of text, and the exigence out of which the genre develops, just to name a few. Miller & Shepherd identify a key problem that we may encounter in our studies: they identify blogs as “a rapidly moving target,” reflecting on the constant evolution and adaptation of digital media and genres. How can we identify generic features if they are constantly changing?

Upon re-evaluation a few years after their original study, however, Miller & Shepherd (2009), conclude that blogs are not genres, but a medium, hypothesizing, “when they were new, the medium was the genre; but adoption and experimentation led to differentiation and the multiplication of genres anchored in the same medium” (283-4). Now, the blog medium, with all of the tools that a person needs to create and maintain their own blog, carries blog genres: political blogs, photography blogs, academic blogs, family blogs, and many more, each of which can serve as a subject for genre analysis in their own right.  Miller & Shepherd show that while media can carry genres, they are not genres in and of themselves. Genre and medium seem to have a symbiotic relationship, but it is important to distinguish between the two concepts to determine where a medium simply provides affordances for a genre, and where the true social action through discourse takes place. Placing a genre in a new medium – for example, taking a novel and making it available online – would not necessarily create a new genre, as the exigence and social action of the genre has not changed. Are there instances where this does happen? How does the Internet create new kairotic moments or alter social action? Can a person create or “design” a genre? This last question would assume, perhaps, that a person can also create a rhetorical exigence for a new genre.

It may seem that genre criticism is a difficult or futile exercise if genres consistently change and adapt, but as Frow (2006) argues, genre is important to the reading of every text. Genres are real classifications that we use to organize our culture. We rely on genres to establish constraints on how we produce and interpret meaning in texts. Shifting and emerging genres raise important questions of social, technological, and economic change that we as rhetorical critics have the privilege to address. So, if we are going to analyze digital genres, we must think critically about how we can effectively do so. Can we ask the same questions for digital genres as we have about print genres? I don’t think we can. Certainly, print genres may be the antecedents for some digital genres and some similarities may exist between them, but we also have new issues to consider with digital texts. As we’ve established in previous class discussions, we have new exigences to respond to, new ways of constituting audiences, and an overall highly complex rhetorical situation.


Burke, K. (1968). Lexicon rhetoricae. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 123-183.
Burke, K. (1968). On psychology and form. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 29-44.
Frow, J. (2006). Genre. The new critical idiom series. Ed. J. Drakakis. London: Routledge.
Jasinski, J. (2001). Narrative. Sourcebook on rhetoric. Rhetoric and society, ed. H. Simons. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 389-404.
Miller, C.R. (1984). “Genre as social action” Quarterly journal of speech 70, 151-76. Accessed Jan. 24, 2010, via Communication & mass media complete.
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2004). Blogging as social action: A genre analysis of weblogs. Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved Jan. 21, 2010, via
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2009). Questions for genre theory from the blogosphere. Theories for genre and their application to Internet communication. Eds. J. Giltrow and D. Stein. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Perelman, C. (1982). The realm of rhetoric. Trans. W. Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of ND. Original edition, 1977.

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