The major focus of this week is narrative and the range of different ways that it can be employed as a mode of criticism. The “Foundations” section draws attention to several important theorists of narrative, although they are often better known for their other theoretical contributions. DeCerteau is particularly noteworthy for his distinction between space and place in The Practice of Everyday Life, which also contains a novel theory of rhetoric. Bakhtin is also notable for his theory of the carnivalesque, in which roles are inverted during an aesthetic performance as a mode of criticism that speaks truth to power. Todorov is a structuralist whose quest for a deep structure of narrative mirrors de Saussure’s account of language and Austin’s account of performative acts. Taken together, these readings each gesture to important conversations on the status of narrative as the subject of criticism (see also: Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha) as a mode of criticism in its own right (see also: Stanley Fish, Wayne Booth, Walter Fisher) and as the (im)possibility of developing a universal narrative grammar (Kenneth Burke, Jonathan Culler, Peter Brooks, Mieke Bal).

The “Other of Narrative” readings develop a range of problems as related to the Other as the issuer and the subject of narrative. Alcoff’s distinction between “speaking for” and “speaking of” encourages us to wonder whether one can -- or refuse to -- speak ethically on behalf of a subaltern or colonized people. Spillers describes the role of structuralism -- a language developed by colonizers, if not colonizing in its own right -- in the critical description of African-American narrative. Foley, finally, uses a key set of rhetorical terms to describe the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial as an active and retroactive narrativization of the story, employing a precise timing to develop public suspense. Across these readings, rhetoric inheres as hermeneutics or reading strategy of narrative. As with Butler’s analysis of the judicial speech act, rhetoric is contained within narrative as a structure of its unfolding. In the readings, rhetorical terms function as a way of de-composing the text, of attending to the important juxtapositions or movements of the narrative object under consideration.

The “Genre” readings describe how rhetorical theory employs this taxonomic language, beginning with the influential “Genre as Social Action” by Carolyn Miller. This essay introduces us to genre as a theory of both what narrative means (the constellation of elements) and what narrative does (its illocutionary force). It offers basic requirements for a genre (it relies upon a recurrent rhetorical situation) and demands we consider a version of Bitzer’s “exigency” that takes issue with his notion of “imperfection.” Honig and Gunn offer two different ‘takes’ on genre. Gunn establishes that genres are both capacious and perverse, following a path of analysis that seeks less to fit his text of choice into an established set of categories than to describe the way that it bends and extends conventional genre distinctions. Honig, by contrast, compels us to read the text of political philosophy -- and therefore democratic life -- within the constraints of generic convention (Gothic Romance). Whereas the social action (what is ‘done in the saying’) of Gunn’s “Maranatha” is the performative widening of generic conventions, social action in Honig consists in the difficult task of assuming an alternative narrative frame for our democratic institutions.  

What is Narrative?

What is Rhetoric?

Narrative Foundations

Heteroglossia (Bakhtin)

Structuralist Grammar (Todorov) 

Writing of history (de Certeau)

Rhetoric is here often a formal structure of narrative, a hermeneutics or reading strategy

The “other” of narrative

Speaking for and speaking of (Alcoff) 

The merging of structuralist and (Afro-American) cultural frameworks for literature. (Spillers)

The serialization of public media coverage (Foley)

Rhetoric is a formal structure of narrative, a hermeneutics or reading strategy. These readings tend to concentrate upon the level of meaning (rather than doing) and employ rhetorical terminology as terms within the narrative text. The exception is Foley, who talks about narrative kairos as a constitutive rhetoric (doing rather than meaning) that brings an identity into existence.

Genre Theory 

Social action, coupled with a novel formulation of situation. (Miller)

The expectations we bring to political theory, shaping how we understand democracy. (Honig)

A “perverse” collection of formal elements that defy convention through imitative references (Gunn).

As social action, rhetoric is both meaning and doing, the latter (doing) depends on understanding situations as recurrent. Rhetoric is both an “experience” and a “practice” that has illocutionary force, or does something (creates a new set of conventions) in the saying of narrative.

Part I: Foundations

Presentation by Jessa Wood

  • Michel DeCerteau, “Introduction” from The Writing of History, 1-14.
  • Mikhail Bakhtin, “Heteroglossia in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination, 301-339.
  • Tzvetan Todorov, “The Grammar of Narrative,” The Poetics of Prose, 108-119.

Bakhtin, Todorov, and de Certeau each engage in the project of defining narrative. In so doing, they also provide insight into why narrative can be construed as a rhetorical object – thus bringing narrative from the realm of literary studies to the realm of rhetorical study and, in the process, expanding the field of objects we could consider rhetorical. They also explore what narrative can accomplish rhetorically, with specific focus on the ways in which narratives can present and create diverse meanings and maintain multiple layers of meaning simultaneously (akin to the fourth persona, but with additional and more multiplicitious meanings allowed here).

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Heteroglossia in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination, 301-339.

Writing in the context of Soviet Russia, Bakhtin was interested in the ways in which texts might contain layered, multiple, or hidden meanings and that writing might be used to obfuscate meaning. In this piece, Bakhtin explores the concept of heteroglossia, a term referring to the simultaneous presence of multiple meanings or expressed viewpoints in a single text. Bakhtin summarizes it as “double-voiced discourse,” saying heteroglossia is “another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (p. 324). He presents four ways in which authors can employ heteroglossia in writing and explores the significance of heteroglossia for the novel and for judgments of meaning and truth in novels.

Bakhtin presents four ways authors can employ heteroglossia in texts. First, they can integrate the voices (dialects, discourse) of characters directly into the narrator’s text as a way of parodying or commenting on that character and discourse. Bakhtin’s example of this practice is Dickens, who frequently parodies the speech of his characters by integrating their tone in his own text – for example when he parodies Merdle through his description: “‘O, what a wonderful man this Merdle, what a great man, what a master man, how blessedly and enviably endowed – in one word, what a rich man!’” (qtd. p. 304, emphasis original). This serves to obfuscate the author’s stance:

“The stratification of literary language, its speech diversity, is an indispensable prerequisite for comic style, whose elements are projected onto different linguistic planes while at the same time the intention of the author, refracted as it passes through these planes, does not wholly give itself up to any of them. It is as if the author has no language of his [sic] own, but does possess his [sic] own style, his [sic] own organic and unitary law governing the way he [sic] plays with languages and the way his [sic] own real semantic and expressive intentions are refracted within them” (p. 311).

Similarly, Bakhtin argues, authors can obfuscate through heteroglossia when they cast a particular character as narrator, thus refracting the author’s own commentary through the lens of that character’s language and belief system. Of this case Bakhtin writes that:

“A particular belief system belonging to someone else, a particular point of view on the world belonging to someone else, is used by the author because it is highly productive, that is, it is able on one hand to show the object of representation in a new light (to reveal new sides or dimensions in it) and on the other hand to illuminate in a new way the ‘expected’ literary horizon, that horizon against which the peculiarities of the teller’s tale are perceivable” (p. 313).

As an example, he offers authors who cast “commoners” as narrators in order to create contrast with a traditional style, for example Pushkin’s Belkin or many of Dostoevsky’s narrators. This application of heteroglossia complicates the meaning of the text as the author speaks “not in language but through language, through the linguistic medium of another – and consequently through a refraction of authorial intentions” (p. 313). This leaves us to “puzzle out the story itself and the figure of the narrator as he [sic] is revealed in the process of telling his [sic] tale” (p. 314), again meaning the author’s intentions are obfuscated. (Of course, both of these forms of heteroglossia raise questions about the problem of speaking for others, as Brandi is discussing later).

Bakhtin extends the concept of heteroglossia further, however, arguing that heteroglossia is created “even where there is no comic element, no parody, no irony and so forth, where there is no narrator, no posited author or narrating character,” even when “the author’s voice seems at first glance to be unitary and consistent, direct and unmediatedly intentional” (p. 315). This is because the author’s text can still contain “speech diversity” that creates style. The “distances between the author and various aspects of his [sic] language … smack of the social universe and belief systems of others. We acutely sense in various aspects of … language varying degrees of the presence of the author and of his [sic] most recent semantic instantiation” (p. 316). Here, Bakhtin is observing a phenomenon I’d call authenticity: the ways an author’s ethos is reflected in a single text and the ways in which the bounded temporality and scope of a text, as well as the cultural context limiting an author, necessary limit that authenticity. Although Bakhtin limits his analysis to the novel, I’d argue it applies to many forms of writing, especially those with more rigid genre criteria. This connects, in my mind, to present arguments about code-meshing and translingualism which acknowledge the ways in which one author’s combining of multiple discourses can enrich the meaning of a text, but is also often avoided because of cultural judgments about “appropriate” language (Horner et al., Young).

Finally, Bakhtin notes heteroglossia can also take the form of “‘incorporated genres’” in a novel (though, again, I would argue for applying this more broadly to other texts). For example, Bakhtin explores how authors can incorporate genres like the letter and poetry into the novel. This incorporation of new genres expands possible meanings that can be created by the text – as, I would argue, does willfully ignoring the “rules” set by the text’s primary genre (the novel, in the case of Bakhtin’s objects). (We’ll pick this up in Mark’s presentation later today.)

All of these applications of heteroglossia create layers of meaning within a novel, obfuscating the author’s intentions and message. In so doing, they also change the way we judge meaning and truth in narratives. Our judgments move away from direct assessments of the truth of individual claims in the novel – everyone reading accepts that “Don Quixote loved Dulcinea” is false (or at least, not true of any “real” referents), but nevertheless that there is some truth (define that as you’d like) to be pulled from the text. Bakhtin’s observation of this feature of narrative thus enriches our understanding of rhetoric by explaining how narratives can function rhetorically to make meaning, especially in ways that are different from rhetorical objects studied previously. This expands the scope of objects of rhetorical criticism, provides tools for rhetorical criticism of narrative works, and – though Bakhtin does not explore this implication – provides a new lens for analysis of traditional rhetorical objects such as public address that incorporate narrative.

Tzvetan Todorov, “The Grammar of Narrative,” The Poetics of Prose, 108-119.

Todorov attempts to identify a core, universal “grammar of narrative” that would allow readers to both recognize and deconstruct narratives. This project adds to a rhetorical understanding of narrative both because it helps to define narrative and explore how narrative functions rhetorically. This includes applying one rhetorically-salient feature of writing we have not discussed yet in class, rhetorical grammar, to the narrative (Kolln & Gray).

Todorov introduces a number of concepts meant to explain how narratives might function grammatically. For example, he argues that “a minimal complete plot consists in the passage from one equilibrium to another,” illustrating this with an example from the Decameron. This is a project he also picks up in other texts, for example when he distinguishes fabula (the sequence of events as represented in a narrative) from szyuzhet (the actual temporal order of events) to explain how it’s possible to present the end of a story at the start of a narrative.

Todorov notes that his method is descriptive rather than explanatory; he was interested merely in describing patterns of language he saw, not “‘explicat[ing]’” it (p. 118). Yet his method does inevitably rely on aesethetic judgments of language, since he argues “language can be understood only if we learn to think of its essential manifestation – literature” (p. 119), a category for which he evidently has some definition in mind. Given, then, that his characteristics of narrative might be treated as exclusion criteria for and/or bases for aesthetic judgment of ‘literature,’ it makes sense to ask what value judgments about writing and communication Todorov’s descriptions embody.

Todorov’s work here is deeply connected to the modern project of identifying a “universal grammar” that applied to all languages. He is similarly motivated by a formalist desire to break down and understand the structure of narrative. He is thus an example of a particularly modern and positivistic approach to narrative in his attempt to identify a single structure that transcends and applies across time and place. This similarity also points to a parallel criticism. Todorov’s connection to the “universal grammar” project suggests that contemporary postmodern concerns about the unresponsiveness of a universal grammar to cultural variation might also be raised in response to Todorov’s work. Just as we might question a universal grammar because it falsely suggests all languages function similarly or identically, by extension, we can question Todorov’s universal grammar of narrative for failing to account for variation in narrative structure across languages and cultures. In fact, such an interpretation is supported by documented cross-cultural differences in narrative patterns (Writing Across Borders).

Michel DeCerteau, “Introduction” from The Writing of History, 1-14.

de Certeau’s essay defines historiography as a narrative process and, by extension, is rhetorical. This expands the definition of narrative presented by authors like Bakhtin (to include a form of discourse typically perceived as “more objective”). In so doing, it also expands the field of rhetoric (both by providing additional reasons we might view narrative as rhetorical, for those unconvinced by arguments like Bakhtin’s, or, once we’ve accepted that narrative is rhetorical, by expanding the definition of narrative).

In contrast to a traditional view of historiography as recording a single history, de Certeau argues that historiography in fact involves the “making of histories,” where histories are competing narratives. Historians must construct images of the truth from limited available information, and multiple competing interpretations (narratives) are always possible, with the result that history is rhetorical rather than wholly objective. The practice also relies, according to de Certeau, on other constructed elements of our ontology, including a distinction between the past and the present (p. 3) and the “construction of the group (or the individual)” through the construction of a contrast with some “other” (p. 5) – a practice reminiscent of ritual scapegoating.

de Certeau’s insights also reveal how culturally bounded, and specifically bounded to the present, historiography is. de Certeau writes, “the past is the fiction of the present” (p. 10). The present is the context in which the narratives of history are created, meaning it inevitably informs that historiography. de Certeau writes:

“Nor could anyone believe, as much as historiography might tend to have us believe, that a ‘beginning’ situated in a former time might explain the present: each historian situates elsewhere the inaugural rupture, at the point where his or her investigations stop; that is, at the borders demarcating a specialization within the disciplines to which he or she belongs. In fact, historians begin from present determinations. Current events are their real beginning” (p. 11).

This move has important epistemological implications as it changes our understanding of the truth in historical claims, pushing us towards a view of history as rhetorically-constructed or even intersubjective rather than obvious and objective: de Certeau writes, “‘truth’ changes its status, slowly ceasing to be what is manifest in order to become what is produced” (p. 12). Gradually, the narrative comes to seem natural and even indubitable: something “must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility” (p. 4).

de Certeau’s analysis also illuminates the ways in which shaping narratives, and especially a dominant or public narrative, requires and enacts power. This happens in a few ways. First, the historian relies on the power of narrative to create the past (p. 10) and enable counterfactual conjecture, giving the ability to ask “what the prince ought to do” in retrospect and from a perspective other than the prince’s (p. 8). Second, those with political power control who is able to record history and what narratives they can record through patronage relationships (p. 7), especially with the advent of written text that are valued as sources but only reflect a narrower, and generally more privileged, range of perspectives (p. 5). The political climate in place in historical events and contemporarily also shapes the definitions of the places and events that are the subjects of history (p. 9) and even the epistemologies available to historians (p. 6, and revealed by de Certeau’s analysis of the development of Western epistemologies of historiography, e.g. p. 3). With historiography presented as a process of examining history in a disconnected way and distancing oneself from the subject of analysis, at least in the modern period, privilege was endowed by, but also required to maintain, that supposed, and much-valued, “rationality” (p. 10). This characterization of historical work demonstrates that the work of the historian-as-rhetor is inevitably political rather than blandly objective, raising questions akin to those we asked about rhetorical critics in political epistemology and problematizing an insistence on “objective” historiography.

At the same time, de Certeau’s observations about the narratively-based structure of history also provide an opportunity for activism against the hegemony of powerful discourses in historical work. Although historians might blindly perpetuate the “victor’s” image of history (e.g. high school American history textbooks that largely ignore Native Americans’ experiences), de Certeau’s conception of history creates a space for historians to challenge existing power structures by creating narratives that highlight the perspectives of marginalized groups by shifting the focus of narratives (e.g. Howard Zinn’s work) or employing heteroglossia as Bakhtin describes.

Notably, historiography is both de Certeau’s method and subject; thus de Certeau simultaneously explicates and practices historiography, moving from defining the history of narrative and historiography (see especially pp. 2-4, 11-12) to analyzing historiography as a practice. His conclusions, then, are arguably self-referential, raising important questions about the ways in which de Certeau’s own positionality impacts his understanding of the historical development of historiography and his practice of the method.

Discussion Questions

  1. What conclusions do you draw from these readings about the rhetorical status of narrative? Is narrative a rhetorical object? A strategy? Something else?
  2. What did you find useful in Todorov’s grammar? What criticisms does it face, and how do those criticisms relate to broader critiques of the modernist and/or positivist project?
  3. Does de Certeau have different epistemological implications (because he is analyzing historiography) than Todorov and Bakhtin (examining novels)? Why?
  4. How do you think conclusions from these readings could be applied to other genres/texts that interest you? (Public address, academic papers in fields other than history, etc.)


These Readings:

  • Bakhtin, M.M. “Heteroglossia in the Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, au. M.M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, 301-331. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Todorov, T. “The Grammar of Narrative.” In The Poetics of Prose, au. T. Todorov.
  • de Certeau, Michel. “Introduction: Writings and Histories.” In The Writing of History, au. Michel de Certeau, trans. Tom Conley. New York: Columbia University Press.

More from these authors and about these themes:

  • Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (1985)
  • Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (1975)
  • Seymour Chatman, Reading Narrative Fiction (1993)
  • Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (1982)
  • Catherine Palczewski et al., “Narrative” in Rhetoric and Civic Life, 2nd ed. (2016)
  • Valentin Volosinov*, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929)

*Volosinov was a pen name of Bakhtin’s.

Interesting writing studies pieces related to this topic:

  • Horner, Bruce, et al. “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” College English 73, no. 3 (2011): 303-321.
  • Kolln, Martha, and Loretta Gray. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects, 8th ed. Pearson, 2016.
  • Writing Across Borders. Produced by Oregon State University Center for Writing and Learning. See for more information.
  • Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (2010): 110-118. Accessible at

Part II: The Other of Narrative

Presentation by Brandi Fuglsby

  • Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others” in Cultural Critique 20 (1991-1992): 5-32.
  • Hortense Spillers, “Formalism Comes to Harlem” in Black, White, and in Color, 81-92
  • Megan Foley, “Serializing Racial Subjects: The Stagnation and Suspense of the O.J. Simpson Saga,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 96 (2010), 69-88.

This segment’s topic, the other of narrative, in many ways resembles that of the speech topic from last week. In fact, narrative theory and rhetorical theory constitute more similarities than differences; perhaps most notably, they both rely on a structure based on traditional theories. However, their differences are apparent, as well. In some frameworks, narrative is more concerned with the text or with the author’s intent, while speech is more concerned with the effects the piece has in a broader context. For instance, last week we read Butler’s analysis of a legal team’s speech acts within a court case and considered how the speeches affected both the case, specifically, and racial inequality, generally. This week’s Foley piece, by contrast, analyzed not the Simpson court proceedings, but the media coverage surrounding the case; in other words, she analyzed the narrative produced by the various media sources. Overall, this week’s segment focuses on the ethical issues that arise in the narrative of the other, when someone speaks for another.

Describing the Main Arguments

Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” Cultural Critique 20 (1991-92): 5-32.

In “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” Alcoff questions whether some circumstances warrant one to speak for someone else. She begins her essay by acknowledging two of the problems of speaking for others since the current zeitgeist contends that “speaking for others is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate” (6): First, people speak from a specific positionality that no one can assume; second, people in privileged positions speaking for those in oppressive positions often make matters worse, thus counterproductively perpetuating oppression. Prompted by the problems mentioned, she eventually generates two premises (15):

  • Premise 1: Positionality and context are always relevant to a message.
  • Premise 2: Certain contexts (which are always unpredictable, in some way or another) ally themselves with oppression or resistance to oppression, thus perpetuating inequality.

The first premise requires that the speaker research in anticipation of the situation, as Alcoff points out, yet no amount of research reveals the eventual context at play. The second premise describes the hierarchy of power; it deals with “rituals of speaking,” which “are politically constituted by power relations of domination, exploitation, and subordination” (15).

Alcoff also distinguishes between “speaking for” and “speaking about” and relies on this phrasing throughout her essay. While, alone, these phrases speak for themselves, Alcoff insists that one cannot speak for another without speaking about them; likewise, one cannot speak about another without speaking for them (9).

After describing the problems that speaking for others presents, Alcoff then explains the problems of not speaking for others, including retreating, avoiding responsibility, eschewing criticism, and maintaining immunity. First, she argues that if people must speak for themselves (and themselves alone), then the result will be “a retreat into a narcissistic yuppie lifestyle in which a privileged person takes no responsibility for her society whatsoever” (17). If one can only attest to one’s own experiences (which she calls an “illusion”), then that assumes one person’s life has no bearing on other people’s lives (20). Yet, as Alcoff argues, removing oneself is not a neutral stance, for it allows oppression to continue (20). Overall, then, she argues that “[t]he declaration that I ‘speak only for myself’ has the sole effect of allowing me to avoid responsibility and accountability for my effects on others” (20). Through assuming this “narcisstic” approach, they place the importance of a speech at the hands of the author’s intention, not on the effects of that speech (21), an argument certainly reminiscent of Butler’s claim. Alcoff calls out the problem of this avoidance: “it is both morally and politically objectionable to structure one’s actions around the desire to avoid criticism” (22), yet the retreat approach allows just that—an immunity to criticism.

After establishing that some instances require the need for speaking for someone (especially since dangers in retreating exist), the last main section of her essay provides four suggestions that one should consider prior to speaking for someone else, including the following:

  • Analyze why speaking for someone else is necessary, especially to avoid asserting dominance over the situation.
  • Consider our own positionality—without using it as a disclaimer.
  • “[R]emain open to criticism” (26)
  • Analyze the effects of the speech, “where the speech goes and what it does there” (26). This final suggestion echoes Butler, who analyzed the St. Paul court case and how the courts ignored the context surrounding the issues.

Hortense Spillers, “Formalism Comes to Harlem,” Chapter 2 in Black, White, and in Color (2003).

Spillers begins her essay by introducing Simple, Langston Hughes’s character who shows up in various stories throughout Hughes’s writing career. Spillers explains that Simple, who “embodies the place called Harlem,” expresses wisdom in masterful ways. Rather than being “stunned, embarrassed, or enraged” (82), Simple’s wisdom takes on a solid sense of “self-knowing” (82). This example leads to Spillers’s exploration about whether readers can use a critical theory framework (like formalism) to analyze narratives.

Critical theory, in the past, has ignored narrative works and thus leaves out many voices. More specifically, traditional critical theorists have ignored Afro-American literature and often for two reasons, as Spillers points out: they are considered stories about “mute social categories” and they are considered narrow in vision, even naïve (83). Spillers, however, argues that narration and, specifically, Afro-American literature, can be analyzed by critical theory for this reason: critical theory analyzes “the literary work [that] describes, or carves out, an arena of choices” by the author, who has “suspend[ed] definitive judgment” (84). In other words, narrative literature represents a certain set of choices that the author presents to readers, who can then interpret the piece in an attempt for “definitive judgment.”

Traditionally, formalism has focused on the text itself without addressing the context attached to the topic. However, Spillers argues that formalism can be broadened to include context because “[t]here is little evidence to suggest to me that the methodology of formalism contravenes historical perspective or deep political commitment when it is clear that formalism itself arises at a particular moment, or series of moments, in the development and advancement of the idea of linguistics, and literary study. In short, a method is not inherently ahistorical, or endemic to a fixed, or divine, order” (85). In other words, Spillers argues that formalism is not bound to its traditional label affixed by past critics. It can be expanded and, if done, could be “preeminently useful” (85). While Spillers thinks formalism could work as a critical framework for analyzing Afro-American literature, she says it is not the only approach that can work for Afro-American literature.  

Without paying attention to the “Black Experience” as being worthy of critical theory, a work that describes the Black Experience becomes “a museum piece, an artifact, something you visit or slumming, and, above all, it has no integrity of its own, no integrity to be regarded against revised patterns of living relationships (86). As an example, Spillers uses Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to conduct a formalist reading. She focuses on Morrison’s use of metaphors, juxtaposition, analogy, and more to demonstrate alienation—both psychological and social—but also inclusion.

In the end, Spillers argues that criticism and narration can harmonize and that keeping them separate is costly, for it leaves many groups unrepresented and separated from the critical conversations taking place. To meet Afro-American literature at a place where they can harmonize, formalism must expand somewhat to include context. Doing so would invite Afro-American literature into critical theory and would encourage Afro-American writers to “speak freely in my choice of crucial and creative forms” (92) that readers then interpret (and re-interpret) as deep-rooted, long-lasting, relevant pieces.

Megan Foley, “Serializing Racial Subjects: The Stagnation and Suspense of the O.J. Simpson Saga,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 96 (2010), 69-88.

Foley’s essay talked about the “rhetoric of whiteness: the normative disavowal of white privilege and the passionate attachment to white privilege” (70) and demonstrated these claims through her formalist analysis of the O. J. Simpson “saga.” She quotes Flores and Moon as having described the “racial paradox” of not only “exposing the social construction of race,” but also “recognizing the materiality of race as a fundamental organizing construct” (70). This paradox “suggests a corollary tension between the contingent construction and chronic force of racial rhetorics” (70). Throughout her essay, Foley uses that construction and force to convince her audience that the O. J. Simpson saga resembles tv drama, specifically, soap operas. She relies on popular media—journalists, news networks, etc.—to lay out a timeline of the Simpson case(s) that displays the re-circulated drama (chronos) and the new episodic developments (Kairos).

In her analysis, Foley uncovers a telling switch over the course of the saga, from separation to unification. Throughout the 1995 trial, when Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman, the media pitted Americans as “racially divided” (74). Foley reveals that the polls indicated that about ¾ blacks agreed with Simpson’s non-guilty verdict while about ¾ whites disagreed with it. The media used these statistics “as instruments of rhetorical normalization that reduced racial groups to statistical averages and essentialized, ‘characteristic’ opinions” (74). In other words, one could determine another’s race simply by asking whether they thought Simpson was guilty. The media, thus, created a rhetorical racial divide.

Later, in the 2007 trial, when Simpson was accused of robbery, the media switched the narrative: “these media portrayals re-coordinated racialized American subject-positions by converting their rhetoric of racial division into a rhetoric of national unification that implicitly privileged whiteness” (74). Foley offers numerous examples of newscasters and journalists stating that Black Americans had switched sides. The media presented Simpson’s legal troubles as a “kairotic opportunity to reconstitute ‘black America’ in line with the white subject-position” (76); in other words, the black collective was presented as “gradually coming around to the white point of view” (76). The media, likewise, presented the story as Simpson deserving to be in prison and as if all Americans agreed. They claimed that race, this time around, had nothing to do with the 2007 trial. Through repetition, the “media chorus” (80) produced a “fatigue” (76) that made the soap opera no longer interesting; now the media just wanted “rhetorical closure” (78)—this time in the form of a conviction. In the end, the “rhetoric of whiteness,” the serialization of the saga and the presentation of the serialization of the saga, impacted the public’s view of O. J. Simpson (the person), the trial (the event), and race relations in the U. S. (the broader context).

Key Terms used throughout

  • Alcoff: speaking for, speaking about, representation, responsibility, retreat response, reductionism, rituals of speaking
  • Spillers: Afro-American literature, Formalism, differentiation, self-knowing, Simple
  • Foley: essentialism, temporality, subject-position, representation, White privilege, media chorus

Connecting the readings
These three essays connect in two main ways. Most obvious, they all address the other in narrative and the ethical implications of speaking for others. Alcoff describes the other in more theoretical ways but offers examples at times. She opened her essay with three anecdotes that she later assessed using the framework she establishes in her essay. Spillers identifies Afro-American literature as the other left out of critical theory. Finally, Foley describes the media as fashioning Simpson’s story, making Simpson the other in this case. Sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of the interaction order claims that people characterize the other in a dualistic way: as either categoric or individual. These characterizations assign an identification to others, either placing them in “one or more social categories” (categoric) or viewing them as having a “uniquely distinguishing identity […]” (individual). The interaction order acknowledges this duality as “critical for interaction life” (4). Goffman’s theory perhaps helps explain why viewers were comfortable accepting the collectivization tactics of the media’s portrayal of Simpson. Without the face-to-face encounter that allows one to individualize, viewers accepted the categorization of the other.

In a related way, all three essays address representation and relate it to the differential power structures apparent in media presentation. Alcoff describes speaking for and speaking about as “engaging in the act of representing the other’s needs, goals, situation, and in fact, who they are” (9). While Alcoff argues, overall, that speaking for is a necessary act at times, she does acknowledge that dangers can arise when speaking for since it creates a version of one’s identity. Yet representing others is similar to representing oneself, for “[i]n speaking for myself, I (momentarily) create my self—just as much as when I speak for others I create their selves” (10). Spillers, too, covers representation without explicitly using that term; she describes Simple as representing Harlem, and in her essay he also personifies formalism. For Spillers, the power comes in the form of critics when they choose the works they’ll analyze. Finally, Foley describes how the media represents white privilege and how collectivizing groups facilitates tension, the drama needed to keep viewers invested in the stories they present.

Interestingly, two of the readings this week alluded to some of last week’s readings, specifically J. L. Austin and Judith Butler. Foley explicitly cited Austin’s definition of a sequel—“‘a second act’ that follows from the rhetorical force of an earlier action” (73)—to describe Simpson’s 2007 trial. Once again likening the Simpson saga to a tv show, Foley explains that the serialization of the Simpson trials resembled that of a series of sequels, which “revisit an initial speech-act in a subsequent speech-act” (73). Judith Butler’s work isn’t explicitly acknowledged in the pieces, but some of the writers’ passages seem to hint at Butler’s argument. For instance, when Foley is explaining the media’s tactic of collectivizing races, she says that “[a]lthough subjects do not preexist language, they must appear to do so” (71). Here, we see Butler’s similar argument that “through being named,” “[o]ne is, as it were, brought into social location and time” (29). In this way, the media can produce subjects that have “always already” been subjects (71). Foley calls this “pre-rhetorical.” Alcoff, too, alludes to Butler when she acknowledged that focusing on the intention of a speech fails to capture reality, for it ignores the effects of the speech (21); Butler, too, focused on effects as opposed to the speech itself in her analysis of the St. Paul court case.

Centering Rhetoric
All three authors attended to rhetoric in two similar ways. First, they all used prominent rhetorical terms to conduct their analyses. In her discussion of privilege near the end of her article, Alcoff emphasizes “reconceptualiz[ing] discourse, as Foucault recommends, as an event, which includes speaker, words, hearers, location, language and so on” (26). This acknowledgement identifies the many rhetorical elements—context, audience, rhetor, and text—that make up the topics of analysis for rhetorical studies scholars. Spillers, likewise, uses the term event to describe “the American event of race” (87) and to liken it to grammar as “arbitrary” (87). Foley discusses chronos, “the time of history” (71), and Kairos, “the time of contingency” (71), at length, as, together, they form her argument of the serialization of Simpson’s trials. The media reminded viewers of the episodic developments, the Kairos, throughout the chronology, or chronos, of the story.

Second, they attend to rhetoric by questioning how critics choose their materials for analysis, for “[w]ho is speaking, who is spoken of, and who listens is a result, as well as an act, of political struggle” (Alcoff 15). More specifically, Spillers questions why literary theorists avoid narrative works, particularly Afro-American literature, and Foley identifies the media’s interpretation of certain statistics (over others) that work in their favor for creating drama.

A third way in which two of the essays attend to rhetoric was through the inclusion of Kenneth Burke’s claims. Spillers, when attempting to name the concept for which she’s reaching, mentions Burke’s summative label of logology; unfortunately, the term falls short for Spillers’s purposes. Foley mentions Burke’s “trope of irony,” “when ‘A returns as non-A’” to describe Simpson’s eventual conviction that “reversed and replaced what came before it” (81). Following from the previous paragraph, even the incorporation of Burke’s name situates their pieces as rhetorical.

In conclusion, the three essays addressed the ethical issues associated when speaking for others—for Alcoff, through the anecdotes she provides where the speakers attempted to speak for a group of people; for Spillers, through her argument that narration and formalism are not opposed (Afro-American literature need not be an other to formalism); and for Foley, through the media speaking for the participants in the Simpson trials. Interestingly, all pieces digressed from the current zeitgeist of avoiding speaking for, in favor of a framework that accepts it under righteous conditions. Alcoff even ends her article by quoting Loyce Stewart: “Sometimes […] we do need a ‘messenger’ to advocate for our needs” (29). The ethical issues identified, like differential power, representation, and retreating, are all dangers when speaking for others. However, assessing the motivations and potential effects of speaking for helps to cut down on the dangers and can lead to change in the form of justice.

Discussion Questions

  • Does any circumstance call for us to ethically speak for others?
  • As well-educated individuals or as rhetoricians (or in any other role), do we have an obligation to speak for some?
  • Foley talks about the media’s repetition of the Simpson case as creating the “fatigue” that lost him his supporters. Is this a danger that looms for other important movements, like Black Lives Matter and #metoo?
  • How do you choose the materials that convince you? How do you choose the materials that you analyze in your work as a scholar?

Additional Sources

  • Erving Goffman, “The Interaction Order: American Sociological Association, 1982 Presidential Address,” American Sociological Review 48, 1 (1983). 1–17.
  • Stephanie Houston Grey, “The Statistical War on Equality: Visions of American Virtuosity in the Bell Curve,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 85 (1999).
  • Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and Interpretations of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988). 271-313.

Part III: Genre

Genre Presentation by Mark Brenden

Writ 5776, Spring 2019

  • Carolyn Miller, "Genre as Social Action,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70 (1984): 151-176.
  • Bonnie Honig, “Genres of Democracy” in Democracy and the Foreigner, 107-122.
  • Joshua Gunn, “Maranatha,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 98 (2012): 359-385.


The three readings on genre can be seen as a fundamental literature review and subsequent call toward rethinking genre (Miller) and two applications of genre: to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (Gunn) and to understandings of democracy (Honig). As a group, these readings provide ways for thinking of genre as social action (Miller), as relating to affect and perversion (Gunn), and as a lens through which we see political and social conventions (Honig). The usefulness of genre in the field of rhetoric is clear, as scholars have continually worked to evolve the term to make room for new kinds of fluidity in its uptake. In other words, genre is useful not as a taxonomy of symbols, but as an ever-changing way to look at how rhetorical situations recur in the world. This presentation will summarize all three readings, draw connections between them, and finally attempt to center rhetoric in the discussion of genre. The writer, here cloaked in the third person because the first person has not yet appeared in an introduction, hopes that this presentation fits into the genre established thus far in the living document.

Carolyn Miller, "Genre as Social Action,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70 (1984): 151-176.

In “Genre As Social Action,” published in 1984, Carolyn R. Miller responds to two problems that she sees in the field of rhetoric’s formulation of genre. First, that rhetorical critics had not adequately defined what genre is and how it works, and second that genre had been rejected in the field as being too reductionist, rule-governed, and taxonomic. To respond to these problems, Miller builds on Campbell and Jamieson’s work with genre as it emphasizes “social and historical aspects of rhetoric that other perspectives do not” (151). Miller argues genre studies shouldn’t focus merely on substance and form, but rather on “the action that [genre] is used to accomplish” (151).

Drawing on Burke and Bitzer, respectively, Miller discusses motives and situations to demonstrate how genres recur. Notably, she breaks from Bitzer in her thinking of exigence, as she finds his definition too material and objective, a pre-existing circumstance tantamount to a kind of “danger” (156). Rather than a mere defect that exists out there in the world and must be addressed accordingly by a rhetor, exigences are socially constructed and “must be located in the social world, neither in a private perception nor in a material circumstance” (157). In the example of Ford pardoning Nixon, Bitzer argues that Ford viewed the exigence to be protecting the nation’s interests, while others saw it as justice that needed to be delivered. Miller, however, saw the exigence as “what served the grounds for Ford’s doing anything at all—the need to establish a relationship with the previous administration” (158). What matters to Miller about rhetorical situations is their recurrence, and that they inform genres socially, not objectively or subjectively.

So what is genre? It is not simply a taxonomy of form and substance (e.g. this is a eulogy because it honors the dead and contemplates life) but rather it involves social action (socially, we decide what a eulogy is and it is subject to change or even deteriorate). Miller finally defines them as “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (159). Recognizable genres (she mentions eulogies, technical manuals, lectures) are so recognized “by our determination of the typified rhetorical situation” and can be examined according to a “generic fusion” of substance, form, and situation (159). Put another way, they are determined socially. A rhetor may respond to an exigence that they determine calls for a eulogy, but because of an audience’s perception of various gaffes committed by the rhetor, it becomes a comedic monologue (my example, not Miller’s).

Genre, also, is discrete from form, which exists on a broader scale. Rather, genre is “a fusion of lower-level forms and characteristic substance” (163). To give a simplified example, film is the form, whereas as romantic comedy, western, horror, etc. are the genres (again, my example). “Genre,” says Miller, “is a rhetorical means for mediating private intentions and social exigence; it motivates by connecting the private with the public, the singular with the recurrent” (163). The rhetor may intend to deliver one type of genre (the eulogy) but the social exigence created another genre (comedic monologue): They just needed to laugh, not cry. When these situations are mobilized out of isolation by recurrence of similar speech acts or texts, they become genres. Genres, in other words, are fluid; they “change, evolve, and decay” (163).

A “collection of discourses” fails to become a genre in three circumstances:

  1. There are not significant formal or substantive similarities.
  2. There are not similarities in all aspects of the rhetorical situation (e.g. similar in exigence, but not in audience, or vice versa).
  3. There is not a “pragmatic component” or “way to understand the genre as social action” (Miller gives the example of Environmental Impact Statements, which are not a genre despite substantive and formal similarities, because of too many competing exigencies and an inability to interpret them “as meaningful rhetorical action” (164).

Miller concludes with a turn to pedagogy. A study of genres allows students to “[understand] how to participate in the actions of the community” (165). Given that genres are socially constructed, not privately or objectively, they equate to a kind of “cultural rationality” and allow us to take up genres—amend them, repurpose them, create them—for social action.

Bonnie Honig, “Genres of Democracy” in Democracy and the Foreigner, 107-122.

In Chapter Five of her 2003 book Democracy and the Foreigner, Bonnie Honig looks at genres as lenses for viewing the world, particularly as they relate to democracy and foreignness. Specifically, she groups Rousseau’s Social Contract, Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, the Bible’s Book of Ruth, and “the myth of an immigrant America” together, in so doing constructing a genre. She wonders if the genre of democractic theory leads us to an “us vs. them” attitude toward foreignness. Via Northrop Frye, she notes that historians tend to tell historical events in genres, such as romance, comedy, tragedy, etc. Usually, when writing about democracy, theorists view it through “the mode of romance” (109).

Honig wonders what would happen if we switched the genre for interpreting and telling the story of democracy, in this case to a gothic romance (or female gothic). In this genre, “troubling questions … are allowed to disturb the reader’s romantic assumptions and expectations” (109). Rather than the kind of facile love story or “happy marriage” that the traditional romance encourages, the gothic romance

provide[s] us with not a sense of paralyzing paranoia in the face of monstrous forces beyond our control, nor a clear distinction between the forces of good and evil, but a healthy caution to be wary of authorities and powers that seek to govern us, claiming to know what is in our best interests. From female gothics, we get a valuable exhortation to take matters into our own hands. (118)

This level of agency does not only come as a result of this switch in genre, but it is in the very spirit of genre that Honig advances in this chapter (“female gothic heroines are takers” [118]). Put another way, genres are not fixed constructions that dictate our view of history, but lenses—almost myths—that we have agency to tweak in order to change our mindsets. Genres are a way of viewing history, a kind of epistemology. Democracy, through the lens of a horror gothic, is a frightening place where innocents are violated by outsiders. Through the lens of a Whitman-esque romanticism, it’s full of “daylit cheerfulness” (117); it’s a song. For Honig, we are compelled to understand democracy through generic lenses, and it’s possible to change these lenses to lead to social transformation.

Joshua Gunn, “Maranatha,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 98 (2012): 359-385.

In “Maranatha,” Joshua Gunn shows how meaning is altered when we view objects through different genres. In this case, Gunn is looking at Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ not as a Christian film or as an ancient biopic, but as a porno. Fittingly subverting the generic conventions of an academic intro, Gunn employs a lengthy (five-page) description of the violence the film enacts upon Christ (played by Jim Caviezel) at the end of his life. He goes on to argue how genre criticism allows us to view The Passion of the Christ as a porno, also advancing a psychoanalytic reading of genre that incorporates affect and emotion. Genre, in this case, is “perverse” in that it does not tell the story of Christ in a traditional sense, but rather uses cinematic tropes the audience recognizes as pornographic in order to heighten the experience of “feeling” Christ’s pain during crucifixion.

Gunn points out that since the 1970s, rhetoricians have looked at genre as a “relatively stable, textual category that references a patterned response to a particular situation” (10). According to Campbell and Jamieson, genres are not “in” texts “like some ghostly structure” but reside in the audience’s imagination (10). In this way, genres are repetitive and addictive. Who can’t relate to the allure of, say, a true crime program or a formulaic romantic comedy. On this matter, Gunn warrants extended quotation:

Genre emerges at the point at which the symbolic meets the body; genre, in other words, is form delivered to language, form succumbing to the insistence of languaging. This explains why critics and artists alike often bristle at discussions of genres, for the forms they attempt to name are protean and dynamic and the function of genre is to fix. As genres stabilize the forms they name, they begin to accrue symbolic value, deviating from feeling over time. This is why we can speak about them and why the emotions they connote seem to lose, gradually, a sense of potency (11).

Viewing the crucifixion, then, through the lens of the porno, does not lose a sense of potency, so to speak. The porno exists along with horror and melodrama as what Linda Williams calls The Body Genres. Horror films cause us to squeal or cover our eyes, the melodrama makes us cry, and the porno arouses. Gunn gets into obscene detail regarding this latter point (indeed, it might dawn on the reader halfway through the essay that Gunn is engaging in a kind of scholarly comedy [new genre??]), but what is important is less that the Passion is a porno than the way Gunn uses it as an object for rhetorical study, as a way to explain the relationship between genre and affect.

Gunn writes that affect and form are the “body-in-feeling,” the physical response to an object, whereas the emotion and genre are “the way in which we make this meaningful” (11). We might have a reaction to a film that causes us to cry (affect) and afterward we name that experience as a melodrama (genre). What Gunn shows us is that genres, like human sexuality, can be perverse in the sense that they give us language and encourage us to make meaning of affect in various ways. In other words, the connection we might consciously or unconsciously draw between crucifixion and pornography is a perversion that extends to our view of other objects, such as art or advertisements.

Connecting the readings and centering rhetoric

In Miller’s text, we get a theoretical literature review badly in need of an example. Gunn and Honig, though not directly in relation to Miller, give us those examples—models for how we might apply genre as a lens through which to analyze an object. Where Gunn gives us an example of Miller’s theory in action, Honig does something different. Gunn takes a text (The Passion of the Christ) and places it in contexts we might not have understood before (the porno). He shows how genres are social constructs. For Honig, genre is a theoretical lens through which we can interpret social life. Miller and Gunn’s inclination is to start with a text and move to genre. Honig, though she looks at specific texts like Rousseau’s Social Contract and the Book of Ruth, starts with genre, and endeavors to move to a different genre (romance to gothic romance).

Genre studies is not just interested in the formal features of a genre, as a constellation of lower-level forms, but in thinking about how and why those features came about in the first place and what effect they have when they are taken up. The implications for rhetoric, of course, are significant. Miller’s essay was a watershed moment in this conversation, as it encouraged scholars to think about genres as fluid social constructs that result in social actions. This way, she makes what I think of as a Postmodern turn away from Bitzer’s Modernist, objective way of looking at rhetorical situations. Honig’s application of genre to theories of democracy shows that genres are rhetorical in an epistemic sense; they are inherently persuasive ways of knowing. Thus, they are similar to Burke’s comic and tragic lenses: modes of seeing and interpreting historical events. Honig’s suggestion that we can achieve social transformation by moving from one genre to another has clear rhetorical implications, as a change like this requires persuasion via discourse.

Miller’s ideas have made a major pedagogical impact on the field of Composition and Rhetoric as well. Scholars like Barwashi and Reiff have delivered substantial work in Rhetorical Genre Studies, and the rhetorical genre analysis has supplanted the rhetorical analysis as a signature assignment in many First-Year Writing Classrooms. Where once genre was ostracized as a too simple, too rigid taxonomy, it is now a formidable subfield of our discipline with a growing body of scholarship. By golly, that sounds like a rags-to-riches story to me!

Discussion Questions

  1. Do genres classify speech acts/texts or do they generate them?
  2. Where do you find the room for social justice action in Miller’s formulation of genre as rhetorical action?
  3. Miller’s text is thin on examples. Can we think of an example of a genre and pass it through her categories of socially constructed exigence and social action, as well as her categories of failure?

Additional Sources

Barwashi, Anis S. and Mary Jo Reiff. Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy.

Campbell, Jamieson, Black, Kansas Conference on Significant Form in Rhetorical Criticism, Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs, Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Speech Communication Association, and Black, Edwin. Form and Genre : Shaping Rhetorical Action (1978). Print.

Colombini, Crystal Broch. "Composing Crisis: Hardship Letters and the Political Economies of Genre." College English 80.3 (2018): 218-46. Web.

Wignell, Peter. "Genre across the Curriculum." Linguistics and Education 6.4 (1994): 355-72. Web.