Bawarshi's "The Genre Function"

Bawarshi, Anis. "The Genre Function." College English, vol. 62., no. 3, 2000, pp. 335-360.

Bawarshi defines genres "as typified rhetorical ways communicants come to recognize and act in all kinds of situations, literary and nonliterary," and argues that "communicants and their contexts are in part functions of the genres they write" (335). Bawarshi responds to Foucault's "What is an Author?" by saying that genre frames communication and values in every context, whereas Foucault's idea of the author-function was about how an author's name transfers value to a text, while less privileges texts don't have authors (336). Bawarshi places the idea of "author-function" within the context of literary genres, and continues to look at the overarching function, which is genre function, "which constitutes all discourses' and all writers' modes of existence, circulation, and functioning within a society" (337).

Bawarshi notes that awareness of genre function can help illuminate how actions and identities operate in various contexts, or, in Bawarshi's words: "how we reproduce these realities and ourselves within different kinds of texts" (339). Bawarshi describes genre as "constitutive" (expanding Foucault's "author-function" which was "regulative"), meaning that "genre reproduces the activity by providing individuals with the conventions for enacting it" (340). 

Bawarshi then explores three examples of how genre is constitutive. First, he uses Jamieson's example of how the State of the Union Address enacted the very ideology it aimed to separate itself from, a testament to the power of antecedent genre in shaping social action (341).  Next, Bawarshi examines Dubrow's example of the excerpt from Murder at Marplethrope, which demonstrates that readers create meaning differently based on their interpretation of genre clues (342). Bawarshi surveys perspectives from literary criticism to show that a key point will consider a text's relationships--not only to itself or to readers, but also to other texts within or outside its genre (344-345).

To further explore the idea of texts as part of a network, Bawarshi considers Fishelove's metaphor that "'genres are social institutions'" (345). Bawarshi, paraphrasing Fishelove, writes, "just as social institutions assign social roles, so genres assign genre roles" (347). While Fishelove wrote in the context of literary studies, Bawarshi again widens the net with the Bakhtinian perspective that all utterances are dialogic, in relation to what is experienced (348). In examining how genres act as social institutions, Bawarshi uses Beebee's concept of genre's use-value, explaining that genres carry "ideological information" through defining what is possible and valued within the genre (349).

As Halliday uncovered, Bawarshi writes, we come to understand and experience "social reality" through language (349). The "semantic system" Halliday describes involves the potential for creating meaning as well as how meaning is actually created; social norms form and are formed by recurring "situation types" that involve cultural cues, enacted through language (350). Halliday describes language features in situation types as "registers" which involve "field" (institutional setting), "mode" (what language is doing), and "tenor" (who is involved) (350). Bawarshi uses this framework to note that genre is the "vehicle through which communicants interact within a situation type"--not subordinate to any point in Halliday's framework but a critical factor enabling its existence; for Bawarshi, a genre is a "social semiotic" (351). By considering genre as semiotic, Bawarshi places genres into what Russell calls an "activity system" that can both "constitute" and "regulate how participants interact with one another" (351). Because different situation types can host multiple genres, considering them within an activity system reveals how various genres interact (352).

Next, in the section on social identity, Bawarshi considers Giddens' thoughts on how actions are recursive, in that they "produce" and "reproduce" the means of reproduction (352). Bawarshi uses the example of a physicians visits and responses to death to show how systems of genres enact social values (353-356).  He notes that even the idea of exigence is a "a form of genre knowledge," as, with other recurring situations, it informs what action is to be done, and who, in a social role, might be expected to perform it (357).

Katie Ancheta