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October 01, 2004
Excellent response on genre and weblogs
I am reposting this listserv posting with permission of the author John Walter. The post is in response to a previous thread, on the techrhet listserv, questioning "what is a book?" Among the list of artifacts in question are a hand-written diary, a comic book, a catalog, and a unpublished paper-based manuscript. Are these books?
This reply caught my eye because of much of the rhetoric I've heard and read in the last 9 months about genres and blogs. You can see it in the posts of academic blog and in the definition of weblogs used in academic papers, and you can hear it at conferences in the presentations and discussion all of these forums present a yes/no dichotomy of genre and weblogs. In essence the argument is weblogs are more then one thing therefore no one should talk about genre and weblogs, or weblogs are based upon specific technologies (Movable Type, Blogger, LiveJournal, etc.) each with separate genres specific to their environments.
As Alex Halavais so rightly said at AoIR last week, academics need to step away from their personal blogs and really take a long hard look at what nonacademics are doing with the technology. In other words, what is the average blogger doing, talking about, thinking, performing, and constructing.
Take some time to think on Walter's comments and posit your own thoughts on the topic.
- Date: Thu, 30 Sep 2004 10:50:20 -0500 (CDT)
From: John Walter
Following Marcy (reflecting backwards to early Web pages) and Nick (using a butter knife as an analogy) here, I'm going to argue that yes, each of the items above are books. They are all riffs of the technological breakthrough that was the codex. (A typed manuscript is an unbound codex.) The problem I see with trying to define a tool (screwdriver, codex, Web page, email, blog, as genre is, as Marcy and Nick have pointed out, tools are always full of multitasking potential. A screwdriver may not make an ideal hammer or weapon, but it can serve that purpose in a pinch. In addition to containing information, books can be used as doorstops, as a booster seat, or as kindling for a fire.
I've come to balk at when we talk about digital writing technologies as genres. It's just never panned out. Email isn't a single genre. Email is a delivery system that is put to many rhetorical purposes. The codex/book isn't a genre, it's a delivery system. Likewise, blogging software isn't a genre, it's a delivery system. Genre is a rhetorical function, not a technological one. Technologies can favor particular genres or generic functions, or rhetorical purposes, but technologies don't define them. We, the users of the technologies, do that.
This impulse to define a technology as genre isn't new. In fact, we can see it as far back as the Parry/Lord discussions of oral poetry. In _The Singer of Tales_ they posited that *all* oral poetry worked the same way. That, in effect, we could talk about oral poetry as genre and this assumption lead to categorical assumptions about all traditional oral performances such as all traditional oral performance is the same, use of formulas in a text = oral text, that an oral poet could not be literate, and that there is no such thing as verbatim recital (among many other things). A good 50 years of study in oral poetics has discovered that all of these assumptions are wrong.
They went wrong, as did the early claims that email was a genre or that the personal home page is a genre, or that New Media is a genre is that they focus on surface features, on what one can do with the technology, rather than on how the technology works. Lev Manovich's _The Language of New Media_ is so brilliant specifically because he avoids the traditional impulse to chalk surface features up to genre.
This gets more complicated because we have among us a group of people who have a very particular notion of blogging as an activity, a notion of blogging as practice that allows Richard Long to write:
"Using blog software isn't the same thing as blogging. Nor is a discussion board a blog, even though it looks like one and is using blogger or MT. Using blogger for prompt-response writing assignments isn't the same thing as blogging. It's great that it's easy to use blogging software, but often it's used to do other things more easily. Discussion boards, for instance. Or it's used because other ways of doing are objectionable. WebCT or Blackboard, for instance. But using isn't the same as doing."
I won't disagree with this. Richard is here making a clear distinction between blogs/blogging as technology and using that technology and blogging as a specific ritualized practice, just as we might make the distinction between playing with a soccer ball and playing in a World Cup football match. This ritualized practice (I'm using ritual here very loosely to essentially mean a set of formalized practices that may have at one time been descriptive but have become prescriptive) can be a genre. As a genre, however, it will have the potential to exist outside of blogging software, just as, I might add, an "oral poem" can have its entire existence from composition through performance in writing (see, for instance, John Miles Foley's _How to Read an Oral Poem_).
These distinctions are tough to make and can seem illogical on the surface (blogging without blogging software? oral poems composed and performed in writing?), which is why it's so much easier to fall back on the traditional impulse of equating technology with genre. We need to make these distinctions, however. It could be that we are wired in such a way that we need to start with technology as genre in the same way Parry and Lord did, but even if this is true, we need to move beyond it, we need to be aware that it it's a surface level analysis that doesn't cut it in the end.
Posted by prolurkr at October 1, 2004 09:59 AM
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