In this review of literature, Iwill define and explain the main concepts of genre criticism. I will includeexamples of both traditional and more recent methods, and how critics haveapplied this method.Critics have always sought after ways to classify discourse, and while the concept of “genre” has changed over the years, so have the perspectives of rhetorical critics. A genre specifies categories, which are based on generalizations between multiple texts. There must be a strong indication that each artifact shares an important characteristic. All classifications are products of human thought (Harrell & Linkugel 266). Classifying a specific group of things as a genus depends on recorded observations, which indicate that “one group of entities shares some important characteristic which differentiates it from all other entities” (Harrell & Linkugel 263).
Artifacts are typically perceived within a de-facto classification, or “common-sense classification,” in that usually a certain genre is understood by the audience to have similar generalizations. In this classification, the critic relies on direct, “face-value” observation as the primary means of classification. An example of this would be classifying certain presidential speeches as “inaugural speeches” or “farewell speeches,” depending on when they are given. De-facto classifications do not require the critic to view the speeches. Harrell and Linkugel use the example of commencement addresses.
A critic does not need to see or read the speech to know that this genre is typically performed during a graduation ceremony (Harrell & Linkugel 263). Another way to classify an artifact would be a structural classification, in which the “patterns of language” are observed. Genres reflect how we use language in society. (Harrell & Linkugel 264). An advantage of generic criticism is that it “permits the creation of intrinsic standards for rhetorical discourse without losing sight of the audience” (Fisher 299).
In Aristotle’s time, the speech was the main form of rhetoric, and speeches were directly involved with calculations of cause-and-effect (Fisher 289). Over time, rhetoric and discourse became less limited, and was expanded to include other artifacts. Examples include, but are not limited to: speeches, essays, poetry, eulogies, books and film. The most well researched genre is the concept of “apology” (Fisher 291). Kenneth Burke wrote, “where there is meaning, there is persuasion.” It is safe to say that most critics have moved away from studying single speeches. In Conley’s essay, he references Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and indicates that genre criticism started here (Conley, 47).
Traditional genre theory identifies recurrent situations in which discourse occurs, analyzes historical texts, and describe the common features inherent in that situation (Beniot 179). Kenneth Burke’s approach to genre criticism is considering four ratios: the purpose, the situation, the rhetor, and the agency of the artifact. The purpose of the discourse is the defining piece of the genre in question. The situation will discussed later in this paper. The critic will take into consideration the characteristics of the rhetor, this means the rhetor’s essence influences the discourse produced by the rhetor. Finally, the agency determines the form of the message, and is the most important part of genre criticism (Benoit 180). The term, “rhetorical situation” was coined by Lloyd Bitzer in the 1960s. According to Bitzer, the rhetorical situation is categorized by an exigency.
Rhetorical situation invites a response, but the response must be appropriate for that particular need, and relevant to the specific situation. For example, we have each formed an idea as to what constitutes a eulogy. We have certain expectations to what a eulogy should be. Bitzer also expresses: “any exigence is an imperfection…it is a defect, an obstacle.” When an exigency becomes strong enough, we must remove that exigency through discourse.
According to Walter Fisher, there are “recurrent rhetorical situations” throughout history (Fisher, 293). If a critic is working with the genre type of rhetorical criticism, he or she should compare what changes over time compared to what has permanency. Critics must use caution when selecting artifacts. He or she must be sure that they do not dilute the meaning of a genre. For example, a critic may decide to analyze speeches only made by women.
He or she then may decide to narrow the focus to speeches by conservative women, specifically. Benoit makes the distinction that too many of these break downs would “essentially result in an individual analysis…which would defeat the purpose of trying to make generalizations through genre studies” (Benoit 198). Typically, critics will view generic research as involving three components: generic description, generic participation, and generic application. Generic description identifies the motivational patterns of the genre and maps the normative factors within that genre.
Generic participation consists of determining which speeches belong in which genres. The critic must test the discourse in question against the generic description. Generic application consists of the “application of factors derived from the generic description to specific discourses which have been defined as participating in a given genre” (Harrell & Linkugel 265). One of the more common artifacts studied by critics are presidential addresses. These may include inaugurals, eulogies, pardons or State of the Union addresses. Each president uses prior rhetorical resources to better respond to current events during their presidency.
Rhetoric has been fundamental in creating a presidency since the country was founded. Most presidents tend to “borrow” from the same arguments as their predecessors (Ryfe 240). Benoit says that a presidential candidate may applaud himself or engage in self-praise.
The Donald Trump presidency is a key example of this. Never before has a sitting president praised himself so robustly. Mr. Trump’s will borrow rhetoric from other Republican leaders, but differs in delivery and intention from his presidential predecessors. There are some limits to generic criticism. The field has not yet developed a synchronized perspective for generic methodology.
By its definition, generic research investigates rhetoric within selected categories. If a critic investigates the same genre as a colleague, it seems likely he or she should be able to identify the genre the in the same way as his colleague. “Otherwise, there is a risk of conceptual slippage in the development and application of generic descriptions…generic research can be no better than the accuracy and consistency of classifications made by individual researchers separated in time and space” (Harrell & Linkugel 278). If the shared characteristic of a specific genre significantly differs from another, it cannot be considered to be in the same genre.
Conley says it is almost impossible to define “significantly” in this context (52).William Benoit also contends that traditional genre theory has its limitations. He argues that “it oversimplifies the production of rhetorical discourse by highlighting a single factor in the inherently complex rhetorical event (178). Conley draws attention to the way that genre theory can emphasize similarity and conceal difference.
Conley reminds us that we should remain cautious of genre components, when it can be revealed that “genres limit or even distort the artifacts being examined” (Conley 50). In simpler terms, genre theory does not acknowledge the complexities of rhetorical action, and thus remains limited.