Genre

Generic studies of texts consider the structure and content of messages and place them into distinct classes. Each of these classes exert a constraint on both the speaker/writer and the audience. For example, the novel is a broad genre of prose. It may be further focused to include such categories as westerns, science fiction, and romance. In each case, the genre has a specific structure and content that defines it.

Political speeches are no different. My interest is the presidency and the genres unique to it. The two clearest examples are the Inaugural address and the State of the Union address. Each has specific expectations in structure and content. To veer from the genre is to risk disaster. Think for a moment about the inaugural addresses you have heard. You will discover that, for the most part, the inaugural address attempts to unify the country behind the new president. To do so, the president must speak of broad themes and values familiar to most Americans. That's why an inaugural address is often so sweeping in scope and grand in tone. To deliver a policy address, much as Carter did in 1976, is to invite disaster by creating division at the very moment the new president needs consensus.

Journalism also has its genres, too. The three main classes are: news, features, and editorials. Within these three classes are still more genres. For example, an op-ed fits in the editorial class. But, unlike the editorial, it is the opinion of generally one writer. The personal pronoun 'I' is key to creating a strong voice and identity for the genre of the op-ed. A newspaper editorial, on the other hand, attempts to create an institutional 'we' that buries the individual personalities of an editorial board.

To study genre is to study the form and content of a message as appropriate to a rhetorical situation. From the form and content of genre we may read patterns that can tell us much about the speaker and audience. The patterns of a genre may reveal social and political truths. For example, the Inaugural address is a distinct genre because a new president must begin creating consensus in order to have an effective first year in office. To divide his audience ideologically from the outset is to invite political fights that will end the so-called "press honeymoon" early.

Genres preserve social order by constraining the speaker and the audience with accepted norms, tastes, and values. And this is exactly the reason why the rhetorical critic must be sensitive to genre.

To consider genre as part of a rhetorical analysis, use these questions as a guide:

1- What is the rhetorical situation? Is the situation a standard event or a unique event? What does the audience expect from the speaker/writer?

2- What verbal and structural patterns emerge from the text? How do the speaker's tropes and schemes create these patterns? What values, norms, and tastes do these patterns defend?

3- What genre does the text appear to be? How clear are the generic constraints? Are the structure and content of the text expected? Are they idiosyncratic? If unexpected, what might be the purpose of the speaker's deviation from the expected? What appears to be the effect of the deviation?

4- May the effectiveness of the text be attributed to the genre, i.e. does the text/speech seem powerful or masterful because it fits the expected genre or does it attempt to transcend genre?


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