Thursday, January 01, 2004

(Reading roundup: Devitt, Bazerman, Yates & Orlikowski on Genre Assemblages)

Originally posted: Thu, 01 Jan 2004 11:35:45

So I've been reading a variety of genre-related articles and chapters lately, gearing up for the big genre discussion in the book I'm working on. If you know my previous work, you know that I'm really very interested in how genres are brought to bear on activities and how they jointly mediate them; I've been using the term "genre ecologies" to discuss these complexes or clouds of genres. Well, others have used terms to describe assemblages of genres as well. Until now I've sort of vaguely nodded to this other literature, but I think that genre ecologies do work that they don't. So finally I'm going to draw some distinctions.

To do that, I've been reading about genre sets, genre systems, genre repertoires, and (of course) genre ecologies. On first glance, they all seem to be interchangeable. But poking around in some of the canonical texts of each, I see some fairly important differences.

Amy Devitt's 1991 essay "Intertextuality in tax accounting: Generic, referential, and functional" is the canonical text on genre sets (at least as far as I know -- it sure is referenced often). In her examination of how accountants get things done, she posits that texts form networks of interaction for the accountants. Each text connects to the previous text in a chain of actions. "In examining the genre set of the community, we are examining the community's situations, its recurring activities and relationships." And she adds, "This genre set not only reflects the profession's situations; it may also help to define and stabilize those situations" (p.340). Her focus, in fact, tends to be on that sequential and stabilizing work (p.341), and that leads her to examine the official (disciplinarily developed, stabilized, and regulated) texts that do the most to perform this work. Although she counsels us to "examine the role of all texts and their interactions in a community" (p.354, my emphasis), she only examines the "products" of the work -- memos, correspondence, tax provision reviews -- not unofficial genres such as transitory annotations, notes, aides memoire, etc. These official genres bound and enable professions, in Devitt's account, but they appear to serve serial and strictly communicative functions, not self-mediational ones. Remember when you were doing math in high school and the teacher told you not just to write your answer, but to "show your work"? Genre sets don't show the work; they don't expose the unofficial genres that play such a large part in distributing cognition. They're scriptures, not scribbles. Objects, not tools. They are asymmetrical in Latour's sense.

They are also, as Charles Bazerman points out, focused on individual perspectives. In "Systems of genre and the enactment of social intentions," he seeks to extend the notion of genre sets by talking about genre systems. "These are interrelated genres that interact with each other in specific settings. Only a limited range of genres may appropriately follow upon one another in particular settings, because the success conditions of the actions of each require various states of affairs to exist" (pp.97-98). Like genre sets, then, genre systems are made up of sequences of genres that hand the baton of communication onward. Each genre is required in order for the next one to be produced and used. That, of course, once again implies official genres and focuses away from the informal, unofficial assemblages of genres that we often bring to bear on our work. Unlike genre sets, genre systems involve "the full set of genres that instantiate the participation of all the parties" (p.99) -- but that "full set" appears not to be so full when we consider that unofficial genres are squeezed out.

JoAnne Yates and Wanda Orlikowski develop this notion of genre systems in "Genre systems: Structuring interaction through communicative norms" (2002). They still share Bazerman's view of genre systems as sequences of interrelated communicative actions that structure collaborative work (structure is particularly important to them), and they see these genres as being "linked or networked together" to constitute "a more coordinated communicative process" (p.14). Indeed, genre systems do not just support a social activity, they comprise it.

But this sequential understanding is not enough, for clearly people bring assemblages of genres to bear simultaneously on a problem. In their 1994 article "Genre repertoire: Structuring the communicative practices in organizations" (yes, there's that word "structure" again), Orlikowski and Yates mention that genres do not just sequence, they overlap. Through these two sorts of coordination, genres work together to produce a more communicative practice. Members of a community "tend to use multiple, different, and interacting genres over time. Thus to understand a community's communicative practices, we must examine the set of genres that are routinely enacted by members of the community" (p.542), and this set of genres is what Orlikowski and Yates term a genre repertoire. The authors recognize that this repertoire changes over time as new genres are improvised or otherwise introduced, and they suggest that explicating these changes over time can help us to understand changes in the community's communicative practices and organizing processes.

Orlikowski and Yates edge away from the rigidly sequential understandings of genre sets and genre systems here (although you notice that they return to that conception in 2002). The notion of genre repertoire is developmental and accounts for overlapping as well as sequential communicative actions. But at the same time, genre repertoires emphasize individual and group communicative performances: you perform a genre, but it doesn't perform you. That is, they still reflect an asymmetrical understanding of genre that exclusively deals with communication rather than mediation or (more broadly) distributed cognition. And because of the firm emphasis in communication, particularly communication in repeated enactments across a group, genre repertoires still emphasize the official rather than unofficial genres.

Looking at these frameworks has helped me to clarify some of the things I've been trying to do with genre ecologies. I find Orlikowski and Yates' distinction between overlapping and sequencing to be useful, though oversimplified. My genre ecology work has tended to emphasize the overlapping aspect. It has also emphasized mediation rather than communication -- and in doing so, has explored unofficial and idiosyncratic genre use more thoroughly than has been typically done in these other frameworks. At this point I won't go into the articles on genre ecologies that Mark Zachry and I have written, nor the related concept under the same name that Freedman and Smart wrote about in 1997. But in their emphasis on compound mediation, genre ecologies deal with a quite different phenomenon than do genre sets, systems, and repertoires: they deal with activity, whether individual or group. Any person or group can make connections and build assemblages (or ecologies) of heterogeneous genres to mediate their own or others' activities. Notice how communication drops out here, at least as a separate category, because mediation includes influence over one's community as well as oneself. This is an interesting but terribly underdeveloped point, and one that I'll have to think about for a while.

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