Reflections on Genre Theory

SFL (systemic functional linguistics) typically defines something by relating it to a range of contexts – contexts around it, below it, or above it, [notice there has not yet been much attention to ‘before’ or ‘after’]. However, in practice we find that the notion of genre is almost never explicated in terms of what is above it. In other words, generic categories tend to function as a meta-discourse within which other categories are located, but they themselves are not explicated through a further set of categories. In effect, this amounts to the banishment of history, philosophy, psychology, ideology critique, sociology, politics and so on as ways of articulating social meaning. This has the effect of presenting us with a brute positivity – ‘This is what narrative is and what it is for, and here is how you do it; now, let’s do it’.

The problem with this is that it obscures from view what we might call ‘the moment of enunciation‘. Genre pedagogy implies that mastery of a generic structure is identical with mastery of the meanings circulating within a domain of social practice. But producing a generic text requires an understanding of the relevant discourses and the ability to imagine oneself as a source of enunciation within that region of discourse, and this means engaging with the inter- textuality, concepts and thematics organising and construing that region – not simply a mastery of textual ‘schematic structure’. Genre pedagogy seems to assume a totally free subject who can or should simply enact a ‘purposeful activity’ by following a procedure. It does not open up for discussion or reflection the fact that positioning oneself as the author of an exposition entails being able to speak from a position of authority within a domain of social life and that this may feel phoney, wrong, oppressive, authoritarian or an act of betrayal against one’s own kind.

Nor does it allow us to explore and articulate writing as a site of conflicting discourses and subject positions. And yet it is precisely this conflict, this heteroglossia, that invests the scene of writing with its power to work on both us and the society as a whole – as well as enacting its generic structure. In short, writing is not just a way of ‘getting things done’, it is also and more fundamentally for our purposes as educators a way of doing work on ourselves and on the discursive social terrain upon which we live.

So yet again we bump into the question of purpose: do we want our students to ‘learn to write’ or ‘write to learn’? And to learn what? – a type of writing, a body of knowledge or a way of being? Each of these purposes implies a different literacy pedagogy, a different way of using writing as a context for educational work.


About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

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