BOKE / rhetoric / genre

FROM AN ARTCLE BY Tatyana Yakhontova
Bakhtin at Home and Abroad
selected and (quickly) rhetorisized by BOKE

... Bakhtin's concept of genre is built on the idea of the communicative function of language -- the central notion of all his philological heritage. According to Bakhtin, language realizes itself in the form of utterances (vyskazyvanija), relatively stable types of which he called genres. For Bakhtin genre is a social phenomenon born by the specific goals and circumstances of human communication: "A particular function (scientific technical, commentarial, business, everyday) and the particular conditions of speech communication specific for each sphere give rise to particular genres. . ." (64). This functional task and particular sphere of communication determine genre as an inseparable unity of thematic content, style (linguistic choices) and compositional structure.

Extremely important is Bakhtin's idea of the constant interaction and mutual influence of speech genres, their endless dialogue within the common fields of their functioning: "Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere . . . Each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of the sphere of speech communication"(91). But every genre is related, as Bakhtin says, not only to the author of a concrete utterance but to its actual or potential recipients; participants of the act of communication, and this responsiveness (its orientation to the possible reaction) is an inherent feature of every genre, every utterance.

Here Bakhtin turns to the question of the degree to which genres are, as he says, "mandatory" and at the same time individual, creative utterances. "Speech genres are much more changeable, flexible and plastic than language forms are," remarks Bakhtin , but he considers them nevertheless to be normative, given for the speaking individuals, and not completely freely combined by them (80). The logical conclusion of this statement has a direct relevance to educational needs; as Bakhtin states, "to learn to speak means to learn to construct utterances" and, further, "the better our command of genres, the more freely we employ them, . . . the more perfectly we implement our free speech plan" (78, 80).

Thus, a full mastery of generic canons and conventions paves the way to free, individually marked but still contextually adequate manifestations of one's intentions; consequently, genre appears, through all its constraints (and actually by virtue of their power) to be a means of expressing individuality and creativity (to an extent, determined by the purposes of concrete genre users).

The nature of genre, therefore, is static and dynamic at the same time.
Genre is a model, or a scheme, because through its normativity and regularity it serves as an example for constructing new utterances of the same kind; but any newly born utterance inevitably modifies the model adding some new features but still preserving its most essential ones. So genre is predictable and probabilistic, it is a product and a process, a canon and, simultaneously, its everlasting and creative renewal.

Although formulated more than half a century ago, Bakhtin's vision of genre as a social, goal-oriented, contextualized phenomenon is consistent with contemporary concepts. The rich amount of literature on genre, its origin and nature which has appeared since the 1970s, presents rethinking and reconceptualization of genre framed by socio-rhetorical, -cognitive and -cultural views. To a great extent, these reinterpretations have developed as an opposition to the "classical" notion of genre as formal and textual regularity; as Amy Devitt points out " the new conception of genre shifts the focus from effects (formal features, text classifications) to sources of those effects" (573).

The current notion of genre as a social action embedded in a wide sociorhetorical context was expressed in the most concise form by Carolyn Miller, whose definition of genres as typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations has become a starting point of the majority of papers dealing with genre as a social construct.