“A Theory of Literate Action makes a significant contribution to the field and enriches
and deepens our perspectives on writing by drawing together such varied
and wide-ranging approaches from social theory and the social sciences—from
psychology, to phenomenology, to pragmatics—and demonstrating their relevance
to writing studies. While much has been made of the ‘social turn’ in the field of
Rhetoric and Composition, the impact of social theory and social sciences on rhetorical
theory and literacy studies has not been as fully explored—nor have these
approaches been gathered together in one comprehensive text, to my knowledge.”
— Mary Jo Reiff
“I have followed Chuck Bazerman’s thinking closely over the years, but seeing it
all together allowed me to see what I had not seen in it: how cognitive psychology
(even neurobiology) intersects with social psychology and then sociology; how attentional
processes and motive/emotion relate to genre; the historical insights; all
up and down, macro micro meso. This work leads in so many productive directions.
I’ve taken pages of notes.”
— David R. Russell
Charles Bazerman, Professor of Education at the University of California,
Santa Barbara, is the author of numerous research articles and books on the
social role of writing, academic genres, and textual analysis, as well as textbooks
on the teaching of writing.
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Introduction 3
Chapter 1. The Symbolic Animal and the Cultural Transformation of
Writing as Learned Activity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7
Activity, Work, and Transformation of Consciousness . . . . . . . . . . . .9
Biological and Cultural Evolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13
The Transformed and Extended Here and Now . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14
Non-Symbolic and Symbolic Cognition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16
Language as Situated, Embodied Utterance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .19
Language, Literacy, and Cognitive Development . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21
Chapter 2. Symbolic Selves in Society: Vygotsky on Language and
Formation of the Social Mind 25
Linguistic Structure and Literary Affect: Vygotsky’s Catharsis . . . . .26
Goals, Obstacles, and Empowerment: Vygotsky’s Adler . . . . . . . . .28
Cognitive Tools . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30
Second Order Symbol Systems and Consciousness Development . .34
Interaction and Self-Regulation: Influencing Others and Influencing
the Self . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
Places of Play, Self-Articulation, and Development . . . . . . . . . . . . .39
Chapter 3. Active Social Symbolic Selves: Vygotskian Traditions 43
Activity, Object, Affect, and Social System: Leont’ev . . . . . . . . . . . .44
Complex Activity Systems: Engeström . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47
Written Genres in Activity Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52
Reflectivity in Individual and Group Writing Activity . . . . . . . . . . .55
Meaning, Consciousness, and Activity: Luria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56
Chapter 4. Active Social Symbolic Selves: The Phenomenological
Sociology Tradition 65
Schutz, the Problems of Economic Behavior, and a Unified Social
Science . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66
Schutz’s Typification . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68
The Typified Internal and External, and the Falling Away of the
Untypifiable . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .71
Relevance in Consciousness and Externalized Mediations . . . . . . . .72
The Natural Attitude and the Pull of Typified Consciousness . . . . .73
Critiques of Social Construction and Ways Out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .76
Typification, Novelty, and Particularized Meanings . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
Typification and Particularity: Appreciating the Music of Life . . . . . 79
Schutz, Berger, and Luckman and the Social Production of the
Everyday . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
Chapter 5. Active Social Symbolic Selves: The Pragmatic Tradition within
American Social Science 85
Philosophic Pragmatism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86
Pragmatism as a Perspective for Social Understanding
and Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87
The Differences and Commonalities of Early Pragmatisms . . . . . . . 88
Peirce’s Semiotics with Interpretation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89
James’s Psychology of Experience . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
Dewey’s Thinking about Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
Dewey’s Learning through Active Experience . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
The Problem of Living with Others: Mead . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93
Mead in Relation to Other Traditions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94
Mead, Chicago Sociology, and Symbolic Interactionism . . . . . . . . . 97
Legal Institutions and Legal Practice as Experiment: Holmes . . . . . 98
Pragmatic Influences on Sapir and Linguistic Anthropology . . . . . 100
Sullivan’s Pragmatic Interpersonal Psychiatry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
Language and Writing as Interpersonal and Self-Forming . . . . . . . 104
Chapter 6. Social Order: Structural and Structurational Sociology 107
Merton’s Social Structure through Individual Choice-Making . . . . 107
The Mechanisms of Choice Making within Opportunity
Structures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
Terms for an Agentive Structural Sociology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110
Merton’s Relation to Structurationist Accounts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112
The Relevance of Meso-Phenomena and Theories of the Middle Range
for Rhetoric and Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115
Chapter 7. From the Interaction Order to Shared Meanings 121
The Interaction Order . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122
Proximate Interactional Orders and Distant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 124
Fragility of Written Interaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
The Invisibility of Fragility . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127
Creating Alignment and Readability in Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
The Interactional Potential and Challenges of Evoking Novel
Meanings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131
Chapter 8. Linguistic Orders 135
The Importance of the Orderliness of Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
Creating Orderliness of Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138
Keeping Language Orderly: Housekeeping and Prescription . . . . . 140
Learning Transcription . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 142
Words and Lexical Orders . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 144
Syntax and Grammar, Ordering Word Relations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 146
The Educational Uses of Rules . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 148
Chapter 9. Utterances and Their Meanings 151
Volosinov and His Circle’s Proposal for an UtteranceBased
Linguistics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151
Utterance to Speech Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153
Social Facts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156
Meaning in the Situated Speech Act World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158
Meaning from an Utterance Perspective . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160
Sense-Making in Everyday Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162
The Sense-Making Difficulties of Literate Interaction . . . . . . . . . . 164
Socialization into Literate Worlds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165
Chapter 10. The World in the Text: Indexed and Created 169
Locutionary Acts, Ideational Functions, Chronotopes . . . . . . . . . 170
Genred Ontologies and the Work of Expanding the
Worldview of the Genre . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171
Epistemology, Accountability, and Trust . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173
Scientific Epistemologies, Methods, and Visible Phenomena . . . . . 174
Pointing at Other Texts: Intertextuality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 176
The Intertext as a Resource and a Contended Topic . . . . . . . . . . . 177
Intertextuality and Socially-Formed Consciousness . . . . . . . . . . . . 178
Intertextuality and Individuation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 181
Reasoning and Theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183
Trust and Prior Belief . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185
The Insubstantial Pageants of Meaning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 187
Chapter 11. The Writer on the Spot and on the Line 191
The Problems of Spread of Shared Understandings and Action . . . 192
Literacy and the Organization of Society . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 193
The Challenges of Learning to Write . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195
References 199


Aristotle set the terms for rhetoric over 2500 years ago. Classical rhetoric
established a powerful, useful, and enduring set of concepts for producing and
critically evaluating persuasive statements in the public sphere. Its concepts
provide means of reflective understanding and choice-making relevant for the
class of language productions it arose from—namely high stakes, public, oral
performances on matters of deliberative and judicial governance and occasions
of commitment to state enterprises. As a consequence of the success of the
institutions it reflected on, modern institutions of governance have tended to
rely on and replicate the forms of citizenship embodied in classical rhetoric,
thereby giving enduring relevance to rhetorical categories.
Yet the world imagined by rhetoric is far from the whole social and
communicative world. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, the same agora where
rhetoric was established contained discursive worlds of sales and contracts. And
when rhetors went home, they engaged in a variety of familial and intimate
discourses. All of these would have gained from a reflective understanding and
informed choice making, but they were not the subject of rhetorical theorizing.
Furthermore, institutions and forms of social participation have expanded
greatly in the last two millennia, in large part fostered by the affordances of
literacy. The presence of literacy over the last five thousand years has given rise
to many new genres, has transformed social life, and has given rise to new forms
of social organization dependent on writing as a communicative infrastructure,
a repository of knowledge, and as a collection or recorded commitments.
Academic work, scientific disciplines, and government bureaucracies are held
together by the reading and writing of texts. Only a small part of these texts could
conveniently be labeled as persuasive in any traditional sense. Even law (which
in the courtroom can be seen as paradigmatic of rhetoric) now is much a matter
of libraries, filings, briefs, and case files as it is of dramatic courtroom oratory.
At the end of chapter one of the companion volume, A Rhetoric of Literate
Action, I rapidly reviewed the history of rhetorical theory’s attempts to address
the problematics of writing and produce a workable rhetoric to guide us in
navigating the literate world. I concluded there that we still have yet to reconceive
rhetoric fundamentally around the problems of written communication rather
than around rhetoric’s founding concerns of high stakes, agonistic, oral public
A further reason to rethink rhetoric is the emergence of social science over
the past century, to provide us new understandings of individuals and societies,
and how individuals interact and participate in societies. The social sciences
now provide strong tools to reconceive what it is we accomplish through writing
and how we go about accomplishing it. In this volume I explicitly present
the conceptual grounds for the theory I propose in terms of major schools of
contemporary social scientific thought. Most basically, I draw on sociocultural
psychology, phenomenological sociology, and the pragmatic tradition of social
science. Based on an account of human sociality and communication that arises
at the intersection of these, I consider the kinds of orders embodied in texts and
on which texts rely—social, linguistic, textual, and psychological. I particularly
attend to the problem of communication across time and space among humans
who biologically evolved social and communicative capacities in face-to-face
activities. With the emergence of literacy as part of human cultural evolution,
new kinds of relations and activities formed that have created structures of
participation in larger and more distant organizations, relying on accumulating
knowledge and mediated through genre-shaped texts. It is for these activity
contexts that individuals must produce texts, mobilizing the resources of
language, and it is within these contexts that the texts will have their effect.
Near the end of the book, at the end of Chapter 10, I summarize the theoretical
path traveled in the book in a way that can also serve to guide us on the way:
1. developmental theories of self and consciousness arising in social interaction
saturated with language in order for social creatures to seek life
needs and satisfactions;
2. phenomenological sociology, which finds the emergent order of everyday
social activity resting on processes of typification and recognizability;
3. pragmatic theories of self and society, seeing self, society, institutions,
language, and meaning constantly being transformed to meet human
4. structurational sociology, which sees larger structuring of events and relations
emerging interactionally from the local actions and attributions
of participants;
5. anthropological and psychological studies of discourse practices as situated,
distributed, and mediated;
6. speech act theory, which sees utterances going beyond conveying meaning
to making things happen in the social world;
7. theories of discourse as dialogic, situated, and heteroglossic; and
8. a rhetoric oriented to content, purpose, and situation as well as form
and style.
While this theory may make some conceptual breaks with the rhetorical
tradition in its focus on the problematics of writing and its grounding in
contemporary social science, I still draw on many of the founding concepts of
A Theory of Literate Action
rhetoric, which are discussed throughout both volumes. More importantly, I
maintain a commitment to the practical rhetorical project of providing tools
for reflective, strategic use of language. I hope that others will entertain the
new concepts offered here as within the rhetorical tradition, but providing a
new direction for the way forward as we begin to address the practical needs of
composing communications in new media. To do that, however, we must first
come to terms with the world of writing which has become infrastructural for
modern society, even as modern society is venturing into new digital ways of
I have been working on these two volumes in one form or another for a
quarter-century, with two early promissory notes sketching early versions of the
theory and the need for it (Bazerman 1994a, 2000a). It has been a struggle to
tell the theory of these two volumes clearly while still respecting the complexity
of writing. To accomplish this, I have made some choices. In order to maintain
focus on the underpinnings of the theory proposed, I have not engaged with a
full discussion of the rhetorical tradition, but rather have used concepts from
the tradition as they are usefully integrated into the theory I propose. Similarly,
while there has been extensive contemporary research in writing studies, I have
cited such research only insofar as it aids the exposition of the theory, even
though much research could be cited in empirical support. I have discussed
these findings extensively in my other publications and have aided their
dissemination in numerous sites, including the Handbook of Research on Writing
(Bazerman, 2008) and several book series I have edited.
This and the companion volume can be read separately. While there is,
I hope, consistency across the exposition of practical considerations in the
Rhetoric of Literate Action and the theoretical exposition of this Theory of Literate
Action, there is no one-to-one correspondence of the chapters, as each book
follows its own logic. Nonetheless, some core concepts of the former volume
do have fuller expositions in specific chapters of this volume. The issues of
spatial and temporal location raised in chapters two and three of the Rhetoric
and motivated social action in chapters five and six of the Rhetoric are examined
extensively throughout the first seven chapters of this volume, as I present the
location and situated action choices within communication at a distance as the
fundamental problems of writing. Genre, which helps solve these problems,
appears throughout both volumes but has its most explicit treatment in
Chapters 2 and 8 of the Rhetoric and Chapters 3, 4, and 10 in this volume. The
role and nature of intertextuality discussed in Chapters 4 and 9 of the Rhetoric
are the topic of Chapter 10 here. The problem of representation of meaning in
Chapter 9 of the Rhetoric, here is addressed in Chapters 9 and 10. The temporal
experience of texts discussed in Chapter 10 of the Rhetoric is here theorized in
Chapter 10. Style presented in Chapter 11 of the Rhetoric is examined from the
linguistic perspective in Chapter 8 here. The issues of writing processes and the
accompanying emotional and cognitive issues considered in Chapters 10 and
12 of the rhetoric receive theoretical treatment here in Chapters 2, 4, 5, and 11.
As with the companion volume, I am deeply grateful to the many, many
people over the years I have learned from, shared ideas with, and worked with
as I struggled to make sense of the complexities of writing. Most recently,
for their thoughtful reviewing of the latter stages of this manuscript, I thank
Anis Bawarshi, Joshua Compton, Christiane Donahue, David Russell, Sandra
Thompson, and the anonymous reviewers of the WAC Clearinghouse. Finally, I
could not have come to these thoughts on writing without the good fortune of
having met a partner over forty years ago who shares the passion and adventure
of writing, Shirley Geoklin Lim.
Writing, as all life is, is activity. When writing, humans are doing things,
purposeful things, things that transform themselves, their relation to each
other, and their relations to the material world. The reason for inquiring into
writing is to understand what we are doing, to learn how to do it, to learn to
do it better—and to help others do, learn, understand. Writing is a skilled,
invented, learned, historically emerged sociocultural activity—not instinctual,
not programmed directly into genes and stimuli-released hormones. Homo
sapiens emerged perhaps 200,000 years ago with strong social orientations from
prior species and with newly emerged language capacities. About 5000 years ago
(Schmandt-Besserat, 1996), however, we found new ways to enact our social
and language capacity within a new symbolic environment for us to attend to—
fostering new skills and capacities to meet new challenges and opportunities.
By participating in and through this new symbolic environment we have been
able to transform our meanings, relations, identities, and activities. While there
are strong arguments to suggest that our general language capacity biologically
evolved in dialectic with the development of our means and practices of
language and social interaction—that is, nature and culture co-evolved—the
introduction of writing has been so recent and its general spread to the great
majority of humans only within the last few centuries, that there is no reason to
believe that there has been any biological adaptation to favor writing. Writing
relies on biological machinery thoroughly in place before literacy, assembled
for non-literate purposes—such as our visual discrimination, our hands able
to manipulate fine objects, and engage in small operations, and our capacities
to use language and other symbols (See Deacon, 1997; Donald, 1991). Since
written language is apparently a sociocultural evolution without the benefit of
any specific biological evolution selecting for skill in writing, any biological
variation in the way we participate in written language, would depend on
variation that is not specific to written language, such as variations in eyesight
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
or general processing capacities in the pre-frontal cortex, or abilities to imagine
and respond to non-present situations.
Writing from its beginnings relied on human invention, an invention that
we constantly extend and elaborate, that we learn to do new things with and
work with more deeply. Writing is an invention we are still learning to exploit,
learning to carry out new activities with. Likewise, any rhetorical theory of
writing is a new invention, a means of reflective understanding of the choices
to be made in order to extend our abilities to use writing. A rhetorical theory
of writing is a bootstrap to do and see more, a way of acting at different levels,
incorporating new considerations.
Inventions occur in the course of humans trying to do things—such
things as coordinate life in a society, improve agriculture, extend and exercise
authority, keep track of property and property transfers, inform others of the
great deeds of leaders and forebears, enlist cooperation with the authority of
leaders, encourage particular values and attitudes, keep each other amused
and cheered, or provide services for which others would provide goods in
return. Every time writing has been used and therefore developed through
expanding uses, it had functional use within an activity. Even play, which
seems so separate from the goal-directed activities of life, enacts human desires
and frustrations and explores behaviors, meanings, skills, and tools that seem
effective in the lives of others and might become effective in some imagined
life of the people at play. Play activities are what they are because of their
relation to the more directly goal-bound activities of life. So just as every
manifestation of language is an instance of situated language use, so every
manifestation of writing is an instance of use of writing by some individuals
in some place for some purpose.
Setting about the act of writing requires high focus, intention, and motivation.
Even at the physical level, gathering the materials for writing, placing ourselves
in a physical environment that makes writing possible, focusing our visual
attention on small sign and manipulating our writing tools with fine motor
skills require preparation and long skill development. All these preparations
require intentionality even when we use convenient electronic devices that we
can operate in almost any environment. In the past, when we actually had to
buy paper or even prepare parchment, fill our pens, locate a desk apart from
the winds of the fields, and form legible characters, the barriers of material
and skill preparation were even higher. Material considerations aside, cognitive
intention must be high to compose messages to those not physically present, to
anticipate difficulties, to organize extended statements, to gather thoughts and
facts, to build coherence, and to face the risks making our messages available
to be examined later by others. These are not faced lightly and we must have
A Theory of Literate Action
strong purposes to motivate us to such inconvenience, physical and mental
effort, and risk.
Therefore, a theory of writing must also be founded on a theory of activity,
but it must also distinguish itself as a particular form of action, realizing its
action in particular ways. I will present writing as a form of mediated, learned
activity that carries out social activity at a distance. Writing works through
cognitive means that align writer and reader to common perceived locations
of symbolic interchange and then carry out specific interactions within that
space. In that space the writer offers temporally and spatially organized
representations, transformations, and acts in an attempt to influence the
cognitive state, disposition, and mental organization of the readers, but which
the readers attend, to interpret, evaluate, respond to, use, forget, or remember
from their own positions, situations, and interests.
It is in the art of rhetorical writing for the writer to increase the influence or
effect of the sort the writer desires on readers. It is in the art of rhetorical reading
for each reader to locate, interpret, and evaluate what is being offered from the
positions, interests and understanding of the reader, for the reader’s purposes.
The interchange mediated by writing is complex, potentially making available a
cognitive meeting ground in shared representations that is nonetheless entangled
with individual differences of location, situation, interests, material conditions,
material engagements, knowledge, beliefs, commitments, skills, and motives.
Writing—the making of texts—is a form of work aimed at transforming the
thought and behavior of others, and thus coordinating relations in the material
world, through inscribed language, transmittable through time and space.
The theory here is grounded in Marx’s view of work as transformative
of nature, including the nature of humans. Culture, in turn, consists of the
accumulated tools and mediational artifacts we employ in our labor (See
Fromm, 1961). Work does not consist only in the reductionist sense of paid
work and the accumulation of cash value, a very particular and local historical
means of organization of labor. Rather work comprises all we do to make
our lives together as social and material creatures in our social and material
circumstances. This labor of transforming the conditions of our life in accord
with our desires, aspirations, and imagined possibilities, is itself a product of
our consciousnesses that arise out of our orientation to our material and social
conditions. Our consciousness is directed toward achieving our objects or goals;
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
that is, those transformations that we strive for. Our consciousnesses are part
of the activity of living and are action directed. Marx, following Hegel but
in his own way, presents human consciousness as historically changing, thus
giving meaning to the project of phenomenology. Marx sees the history of
consciousness tied to our changing forms of labor—that is, the ways in which
we transform nature to make it our own, and make it knowable to humans and
part of human life.
Rhetoric and writing are deeply implicated in the formation, orientation,
and activities of our consciousnesses—as we form much of consciousness
through our participation with others through language, and we learn to make
meaning (that is states of consciousness in ourselves and others) through these
culturally developed mediational tools.1
Through language we learn to influence
others’ consciousnesses, make sense of the consciousnesses around us, and gain
tools for the development of our own minds or consciousness. With literacy
we have more extended, contemplative, and potentially eclectic resources
for the formation of consciousness. Just as we make up our minds in talking
through our impulses and ideas, we make up even more elaborate states of mind
through the writing of extended texts that also potentially influence the states
of consciousness of others, insofar as they attend to those texts as part of some
activity of their own, an activity that may be part of a conjoint project with us.
Because we transform our world and ourselves through our labor, and the
labor of language is particularly transformative of our consciousnesses and
interactions, language work is essential to what we have become as a species
and as individuals. Further literate interactions facilitate more sustained
engagement of consciousness, are a major means of aggregating and making
accessible the historical products of cultural evolution, and are also implicated
1. Marxian critical analysis of language is most often directed at false consciousness, where
individuals are interpellated into ideologies serving the interests of others, leaving no room for
agency (Althusser, 1970). These forms of critical rhetorical analysis typically consider such issues
as the power to control discourse, the interests served by various ideological structures, silencing,
and other means of enlisting and coercing people into discursive formations not of their
own making and not of their own interests, so as to be deprived of their own linguistic instruments
of self-making (Derrida, 1981; Foucault, 1970). Marx however had an agentive view of
individuals working within available circumstance and of forming ideals and objects and goals
within and from their circumstances, so constantly inventing/creating an ideological sphere of
their own making, not necessarily false except insofar as they have been alienated from their own
true interests, desires, and concerns. Without alienation language can be seen as a realization of
human potential, a realization of ways of being. A Marxian rhetorical analysis of non-alienated
language would be phenomenological and ideational, considering the situated forms of self and
social realization made possible within circumstances and available linguistic tools. These forms
of expression have the potential to serve as fulfillments of the individual and group’s impulses
towards self-expression and actualization, as Volosinov began to sketch out (1973).
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in the formation of complex modern human institutions which change our
relations and attentions and goals. Consequently, any rhetoric and theory of
literacy need to be attuned to the history of consciousness and the history of
social organization and interaction. Each literate interaction is embedded within
particular moments in the changing possibilities of human consciousness and
Although Marx is generally recognized as the primary vehicle of historically
evolving consciousness seated in material conditions, and therefore this stance
towards language and consciousness is generally associated with socialist political
positions, the same perspective was equally present in the founding of western
democratic capitalist thought. Adam Smith expressed a similar thought almost a
century earlier, when he noted that the knowledge and experience of each person
was shaped by the conditions of work (Smith, 1976, 1978). Smith further notes
the modes of thought available to each was conditioned by that experience, and
further this was differentiated and organized socially and economically through
the division of labor and formation of classes. Smith’s observation grew out of
Locke and Hume’s recognition of the individuality of formation of mind out of
each person’s history of experiences that underlay the set of associations. Smith,
as a rhetorician and social theorist, was early on concerned with the difficulty
of communication given that we had such individuality of experience and
association; he then took that recognition of variety as a resource in building
understanding. Only by sympathetic reconstruction of the position of the
other and understanding of their situated state of mind could one begin to be
persuasive to others (see his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith, 1983),
understand human reasoning and knowledge (see his History of Astronomy,
Smith, 1980), or begin to act responsibly and morally with relation to others
(see his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith, 1986).
Smith, along with the other Scottish moralists sees the ground of morality
as seeing ourselves as others would see us (as his contemporary Scot Robert
Burns put it), even though there are limits to how much anyone could put
oneself in another’s positions, so that ultimately we are thrown back on our
own reconstruction of how others might see it if they knew all that we knew
and saw it from our position. Yet it is the generally available patterns of
experience that at least provide a beginning of understanding of the range of
experiences and positions likely—and thus class, trade, social group, and other
large forms of social and economic order can tell us much about the range of
experience, thought, and position of individuals in a society. More particular
understandings of individuals then grow out of the particulars of their lives.
Thus we understand, as best we can and within limits of knowability, each
other’s minds as historically located within life interests and conditions. This
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
is the beginning of communication, social order, and production of humanly
useful knowledge. By becoming reflexively aware of these operations of society,
Smith argues, we can philosophically order and make improvements on human
arrangements. In all these perspectives he is very close to Marx, and together
they point to a historical understanding of consciousness constantly emerging
in the changing conditions and arrangements of life and the forms of work
by which we attempt to meet the necessities of and improve our lives. (See
Bazerman, 1993b for a more detailed analysis of Smith’s understanding of
language and rhetoric).
The rhetorical need to understand ourselves and others to communicate and
cooperate locates the consciousness formed by reading and writing even more
within social and historical circumstances. Each text comes from a moment in
cultural and social history—a history of interactions in pursuit of human life as
it is then currently organized, as conceived through the forms of consciousness
of writers and readers in their moments. These forms of consciousness are
expressed in and through the forms and typifications of language as used
in realizable projects in those historical circumstances. Similarly, each
utterance is located within the history of each person’s life, within located
activities within that life, and it is received by equally situated people. For
people’s consciousnesses to meet over meaning, therefore, some recognizable
mediational place must be established in which minds may find a common
ground, across time and space. People, to paraphrase Marx (1963), make their
own utterances but not in linguistic, historical, and material circumstances of
their own making. However, through linguistic invention they are able to create
new communicative circumstances at some levels of remove or abstraction or
extension from their current immediate circumstances, thereby transforming
their own immediate sense of place, sublating or transforming it to be viewed
and communicated with from some more idea-lized position. They are also
able, therefore, to form new social relations through the mediation of language.
As we will explore throughout this work, literate use of language provides more
extensive tools for the transformation of circumstances and the institutions that
develop on the bases of these texts. Literate use of language also provides greater
opportunities for contemplative and reflective understanding of our utterances
and more extensive possibilities for the elaboration of consciousness, as well
as for the material circulation and persistence of texts.2
Thus, the history of
2. The themes of literacy supporting reflection, elaboration, and durability were initially
explored by the first generation of theorists of literacy and orality, including Goody (1977),
Havelock (1981) and Ong (1982). More technologically determinist versions of this argument
have been criticized as “the autonomous model of literacy” by Street (1985), on the grounds
that different societies use literacy in different ways, no particular consequence is pre-
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literacy and sites of literate interaction are an important part of the history of
consciousness and therefore the transformative work of making human life.
But before considering the transformations of human life and the creation
of new locales and situations of interaction accomplished through writing, it is
worth examining more deeply the early biological and cultural transformations
that were part of developing the language capacity.
The view of the effects of language use and literacy presented in this chapter
is evolutionary and follows in a Darwinian mode, but sees cultural evolution
as an extension of and intertwined with biological evolution. It is only because
of the social and cultural nature of humans, the possibility of which is a result
of biological evolution, that cultural evolution is possible. Human learning and
symbol making allow us to transform our experience of nature and create novel
relations to both nature and each other. Learning, symbols, and consciousness
also allow the transformation of goals and activity, so that we pursue novel
ends (not directly determined by our biological inheritance though indirectly
supported by our inherited biologic capacities) with respect to nature and
each other, thereby further transforming culture, society, and nature. Finally
our ability to create artifacts and employ them as part of our transformative
work with each other gives a robustness to cultural evolution and an elaborative
complexity to our learning, as each generation grows up into changed material
conditions incorporating the new artifacts of the prior generation and the
changed social and material practices and relations employing those artifacts.
Language and literacy are major elements in this cultural evolution creating
artifacts of great power to change consciousness, social relations, and material
Cole (1996), Deacon (1997), and Donald (1991) among others have
integrated the literatures of psychology, neural and brain science, anthropology,
paleontology, archeology, and biological evolution, to create accounts of the
intertwining of biological and cultural evolution. Their accounts suggest that
not only did biological evolution set the conditions for cultural evolution but is
determined, and many of the functions attributed to literacy can and are carried out in oral
cultures. Nonetheless, not all versions of the transformations of literacy argument require
determinism, uniform uptake, or absolute divides. Rather, the needs, desires, and opportunities
of societies shape how they will see and use the potential affordances of writing to facilitate
and extend prior functions, eventually to establish new modes of social organization and new
potentialities of meaning.
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
intertwined with it, as earlier forms of sociality and culture proved biologically
advantageous setting the stage for primates to become biologically equipped for
increasingly complex social interaction and cultural production, in a spiral of
cultural-biological change of at least two million years.
Deacon and Donald both tie the development of language to prior
developments of symbolic behavior that serve, among other things, to
transform social relations. Deacon particularly ties symbolic behavior to
the marking of social roles and hierarchies serving to transform the natural
order in social constructions that carry organizational weight even when they
cannot be recreated at every moment. That is, a mate does not have to be there
every moment to announce the attachment if the relationship is memorably
defined through ritual and symbolic markings. The symbolic not only copies
or represents nature—it transforms it and creates meanings. Deacon’s account
of how the brain selects, reinforces, and strengthens connections between
perceived objects and their symbolic remarking or transformation suggests how
the human brain adapted to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the
new means of language to elaborate and reorganize social life. This suggests the
neural mechanisms by individual as they develop internalize cultural tools, as
proposed by Vygotsky (discussed in Chapters 2 and 3.)3
This transformation of perception and meaning facilitated by language
marks the here-and-now in new symbolic ways and allows the development
of more intricate forms of cooperation and social organization and identity
and role within the group—and the ability to operate within larger social
groupings. Even more, language facilitates the representation of distant objects
3. Donald emphasizes more the mimetic transformation of episodes as prior to further
semantic transformation. This semantic mimesis allows us to give particular meanings to our
life, meanings that reshape our perception, behavior, and decision making, transforming and
to some degree obscuring our own pre-verbal means of knowing. Deacon, on the other hand,
sees us as idiot savants of language, with the expansion of the prefrontal cortex which we
then largely organize for symbolic activity and symbolic transformation of preverbal activity.
Previously nonsymbolic, unreflective neural activity is then controlled through conscious
reflection in language. Both are very close to Vygotsky in seeing language as the means of
reflection and in transforming prior forms of cognition. All three see the language capacity
as developed phylogenetically and ontogenetically (as species-wide competence develops over
many generations and as individual skill develops during a lifetime) in social conditions for
social purposes, creating social meanings that become part of enculturation as people learn to
work with these terms to mediate their social interactions.
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in the intersubjective here-and-now of talk. That is, an ape when confronting
a task may remember a previous moment seen as similar and may search for a
tool that is part of that memory. A dog may remember a spot where a bone is
buried. But neither can enlist another creature in that memory and in the search
for the object. It cannot represent that non-present or non-simultaneous object,
cannot call it to the consciousness of another, and thus cannot bring something
distant into the current activity, short of somehow bringing the other and
placing the distant object in front of them, as ants compel their peers through
pheromones to visit the site of food. The fact that a few species have developed
elaborate but limited symbolic means to direct the attention of peers to distant
objects, such as the honey bee dance, only indicates the great value of having a
flexible ways of expressing the nature and location of distant objects and events,
and the development of neural means of processing these varied and flexible
symbolic representations.
With the development of language, what then becomes considered relevant
to the here-and-now is constructed by participants through language. Through
talk, one person calls objects and events to mutual attention through symbolic
marking. The terms and concepts in which these accounts are cast themselves
mark out categories, ontologies, ideologies, perceptions, and perspectives on
activities and the world. These terms and concepts put us into symbolic and
reflective relation to the world, and this reflective relation is socially shared
and confirmed. Just as body markings or adornments mark someone as a
mated partner or a tribal chief, so words begin marking out an idea-saturated
landscape in a process that has come to be called the social construction of
reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Through talk we become interpellated
into each other’s accounts of reality, in pursuit of the activities we share. That
is, people tell each other things and evoke in others’ imaginations objects and
events presented as locally relevant, thereby enlisting, orienting, and providing
necessary information for the other person(s) to take part in a shared activity.
Others can of course challenge the relevancy or accuracy of any account, or
can distance themselves from the activity they are being enlisted into. They can
even attempt to negotiate the task and activities by putting forward their own
accounts and assembling their own set of relevancies to place before others.
They can as well recount the events and relevancies in different terms, so as
to make the setting and its assembled context different, thereby making it a
different situation. Eighteenth century Scottish philosophers (including Smith,
as discussed earlier) in particular noted the role of peoples’ accounts of their
situations as a means to sympathetic understanding of their positions and the
beginning of cooperation and social cohesion. This was a theme picked up by
the American pragmatist school of social sciences including Dewey, James,
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
Sullivan, and Mead—each of which provided the foundations of developments
in education, psychology, philosophy, psychiatry, and sociology (see Chapter 5).
Nonetheless, these representations of the extended world not otherwise
visible and pressing in the here-and-now are only brought to attention in the
here-and-now of the participants, as perceived relevant to the here-and-now
situation. With awareness that society grows out of the action of participants in
the local here-and-now constructed by the participants, conversational analysts
begin their examination in the micro-interactions of social talk, first of all in
the turn-taking system—who gets the floor to assert his or her activities, his or
her version of the world and relevancies—and then next in the membership
categorization devices that assert the ideologically relevant world invoked
by participants. Similarly, the linguistic anthropologist Hanks (1990) sees
the deictic system of language as central in constructing the perceivable and
attended-to world that participants think and work in, particularly in socially
cooperative or socially organized systems. Even more, he (along with a number
of other sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists) sees the very meanings
of all terms as indexical, tied to the mutually accepted and constructed hereand-now
of the communicative situation; the meaning of words cannot be tied
down except within the situation as perceived by the participants (Collins,
2011; Gumperz, 1982, 1992). Thus both linguistic anthropologists and
conversational analysts only find meaning in the unfolding interaction which
attributes meanings to what has been said, and takes those meanings as given in
further actions both linguistically and in the material world acted on. (Clark,
1996 provides a psychologist’s version of the same theme.)
These socially constructed meanings through symbols serve to displace and
transform our existing forms of non-symbolic cognition, though they do not
erase them entirely. Research on color-coding for example has had two kinds
of findings. Most salient is Rosch’s (1977) findings that our prototypical colors
encoded in language and understood by the users of those many languages tend
to be organized around the colors made biologically salient through our visual
receptors. Even earlier it had been noted that while culturally encoded colors aid
recall of colors, we are able in real time to perceive and match colors for which
we have no name. That is, we can immediately perceive in ways that do not rely
on symbolic transformation, but without the support of symbols the immediate
physical representations fade rapidly. Further we can act in immediate physical
and social coordination without symbols. The newborn infant and mother
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coordinate care-giving activities without symbols through mutual recognition
of presence and sensory experience and bodily coordination with each other.
In our daily life we engage in many non-symbolic acts of motor coordination
and instinctive adjustment, too quick for conscious thought or for which we
have only weak and pale vocabularies that cannot capture all we experience.
Experiences of food often go well beyond the vocabulary of the eater.
As we develop experiences in the human symbol-saturated world, these
moments of non-symbolic cognition become limited, often embedded and
called upon within complexes of symbolically constructed social realities.
A person playing soccer engages with non-symbolic embodied thinking in
response to the ball entirely in a private perceptual-motor kind of thinking, but
if the player has been coached, even that immediate activity becomes influenced
by self-regulatory words. Even more, to organize such individual activities in a
game and to focus one’s energies on developing these embodied skills over time
require a large set of social meanings enacted in language that give reality to the
game and establish social value and rewards for participating in the game. This
symbolic work establishes the here-and-now of the playing field during the time
of action of the game and the times of practice, confirming the camaraderie
of players on and off fields, creating meanings for victory and defeat, and
establishing the social prestige and economic rewards which have meanings well
beyond the time and place of the game.
As our more embodied experiences, actions, and thoughts become
enculturated into social frames of meaning offered by available language and
other symbolic systems, our very experience becomes transformed, as the
taste experience of a trained chef or an oenologist has become transformed by
internalization of elaborate systems of taste categorization and knowledge of
the components and production of the food and wine. Enculturation of a child
is also part of the process of cultural terms becoming salient in monitoring
behavior, directing attention and perception, sizing up situations and initiating
responsive action. Learning language is part of learning to do things, and using
language is part of entering into the available and desirable social activities
in which language is implicated. The child’s request for “more” or “no more”
facilitates feeding as well as creates a child who learns to use language to assert
needs, desires, and preferences. Learning to tell jokes is an extension of sociality
and bonding among family and associates; it also forms a new kind of activity
that could not be carried out without language.
Yet, even while symbols refigure and transform much of our experience,
symbols are still created within embodied motives and experience through
talk or other significative physical action to another human to whom we are
orienting. Language emerges as part of human beings in co-presence, attending
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
to each other, and doing things together. Speech, though symbolic, engages
large parts of our biology in its production and the entire body’s orientation and
participation in a situation—cries for help as one is struggling in ocean waves or
the coordination of a work task through rhythmic instructions. Equally, though
more subtly, people engaged in as abstract a symbolic activity as arguing over the
truth of a proposition can enact all the passions and postures of opposition—
though transformed through the etiquettes of literate civility.
Literate symbolic activity is no less a total body experience, though often it
is not accomplished in the presence of other humans, and although much of the
external forms of behavior fade away as the distanced world of the text overtake
the orientation of one’s nervous system and one’s attention turns away from the
immediate world surrounding the arm chair. The history of writing and reading
is filled with traditional embodiment. Many early texts were memory aids for
spoken events to be re-enacted, whether by a nuntio reading aloud the words
of a king to a distant governor, or the script of a speech to be memorized and
performed, or the words of a legal code invocable in court, or the words of a god
to be regularly read aloud as part of liturgy and study.
Even without oral performance of the read text, literacy is still associated
with the vocal apparatus of speech. Whatever the first act of silent reading
may be (whether as some folklore has it by Alexander the Great wanting to
keep a message secret from his troops or Ambrose witnessed by Augustine in
fourth century Milan, or some other unrecorded occasion), it clearly was not
a general practice until the time of monasteries. Until the medieval script of
Carolingian miniscule, reading Roman scripts required reconstruction of words
from a text without spaces to aid word recognition. Similarly consonant-only
scripts (Abjads) such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, require reconstruction of
the oral word from memory. Reading aloud to children and children learning
to read aloud themselves remain crucial parts of literacy education—with a
particular emphasis on reading with expression or feeling as an indication that
one gets the meaning of the words. Disability such as deafness or blindness
which interferes with the association of written and spoken words creates special
challenges in learning to read and write (Albertini, 2008).
Animating meaning of words in one’s mind is an act of animating oneself,
as one’s imagination, emotions, and anticipations become engaged in creating
meaning as a writer or reader. No matter how much the activity is carried out
internally in seeming bodily repose, various parts of the nervous system are
influenced by even the most calming text. Moreover, even the most civilized
readers or writers find moments when anger or pleasure arises, when they can’t
keep their bodies from tensing or they burst out in laughter. If you watch younger
readers and writers who have not yet learned to hold most of the literate action
A Theory of Literate Action
inward you can read the somaticism of literacy in the postures and movements.
And if you watch writer’s struggling with their words, getting up for cups of
coffee or muttering to themselves, you get some indication of the insuppressible
engagement of the neural system in the production and processing of text.
This view of the capacity to use language places meaning at the center
of the language competence, makes the value of language inseparable from
meaning, and places meaning in the minds, motives, and actions of people.
Even Saussure recognizes the centrality of meaning for understanding language
when he defines the sign as a unity of the signifier and signified. Yet for analytic
purposes Saussure distinguishes langue (a system of language) from parole (the
motivated uses of language in situations), and then makes langue the object of
linguistic study. While this move has been successful in creating an extensive
linguistics, it ultimately is misleading about language, for language exists only
in the utterance, and any attempt to abstract a language apart from its uses
obscures the concrete functioning of language in evoking meaning as well as
those complex processes by which we come to understand each other (this point
is elaborated in Chapters 7 and 8 of this volume). Saussure’s related move of
distinguishing the historical change of language from an abstracted system of
contemporary langue (the diachronic/synchronic split) obscures the historical
emergence of language as a regulated system (through social negotiation and
through such inventions as schools and grammar books).
The view I adopt here places societal and individual language development
as part and parcel of our other activities in providing a new tool for their
realization, thereby transforming them. Understanding language in this view
requires understanding the activities it is part of and the meaning systems that
evolve as part of the language-using activities. It also suggests plasticity of the
brain and language processing as the person’s language and brain develop as
part of social participation mediated through language. Further, individuality
(of experience, social situations, momentary needs, and motives) results in
individuality of each person’s experience of language and developing language
competence, even as all individuals may orient towards the quasi-stabilized
socially available forms of language they encounter. Neurologically and
evolutionary plausible accounts present syntax itself being the consequence of
the growth of semantic knowledge (Elman et al., 1996), with syntactic learning
of the available ordering and morphology of the sentence predictably occurring
only when vocabulary reaches a certain size, of around two hundred words—
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
so that far from language being characterized and led by a pre-programmed
syntactic competence, that syntactic competence is a situational way of ordering
and using an extended vocabulary within activity-based utterances.
Wherever the debate may go over the nature and origin of language and
associated human capacities, the formation of a semantic relation to the world
around one is clearly formed within the social interaction, the activity contexts
where one begins to exchange symbols with each other as part of conjoint
activities, ultimately emerging as something like conversation. Further,
language develops to fit the use of people in real circumstances in relation to
material contexts. As a number of commentators have pointed out the problem
of reference cannot be overcome by an autonomous language within itself, but
must be attached to perceptions of concrete objects (Goodwin, 1994).
Whatever parameters of language are set by our neural apparatus, language
evolves to fit these constraints and opportunities. If it is biologically hard for us
to work with a linguistic structure, or a means of pronunciation, or a conceptual
structure, we will search out a linguistic means that makes communication easier
to produce and process. Each child in learning the language transforms it to
meet his or her needs and capacities. Similarly, as material conditions and social
projects change such that new terms are needed, new activities and operations
need to be indexed, or new complex structures need to be elaborated to carry
out the actions, linguistic means will be invented to facilitate these needs. If old
linguistic practices are no longer intelligible because of change in social activities
(the vanishing of oral epic or qualitative verse) or material circumstances (the
need to coordinate several people in the capture and harnessing of wild horses)
the particular linguistic means associated with them will wane or become
transformed to have new meanings useful in the evolving social world. Political
speeches, for example, may become transformed to rely on the linguistic
techniques and tropes of mass media entertainment and advertising instead of
the heroic cadences of epic.
The particular interactions, activities, symbolic resources, interactive and
material challenges in which people learn to use language are inscribed within
the neural system of the growing child, as human brains strengthen and pare
neural connections over the life of the person (Gogtay et al., 2004; Petanjek
et al., 2011). Further the acceleration of myelination particularly within
left hemisphere prefrontal cortex during adolescence (Paus et al., 1999) is
especially associated with many of the intellectual functions of language that
are introduced in writing instruction at this age in some social and educational
settings. Our brains form in interaction with the material, social, and symbolic
environments. Our minds grow to be able to use the tools of language, and
more recently writing, just as they grow in learning to manipulate the legs and
A Theory of Literate Action
hands or the attention and coordination of the eyes. Thus the child in a sense
builds itself, or neurologically adapts itself, in relation to the current moment
of culture, society, and economy that it finds itself in.
As Smith, Hegel, and Marx suggested, consciousness indeed changes
throughout history in relation to the material, social, economic, and cultural
arrangements, as our minds form to cope with the world we are born into.
Modern neuroscience is starting to show us indeed how this changing
consciousness forms itself into the very organization of the brain. It is at this
point that Marx and Darwin meet.
When we first do start to discover the power of symbolic communication,
much of our social interaction and material perception has already developed
along particular pathways which our language then enters into—to elaborate,
work with, and to transform it, but always in interaction. Thus the child who
is color-blind has extra work to accomplish and arcane adjustments to make
in order to learn to speak in the standard language of colors suggested by the
society (Sacks, 1996). The child who has a playful interaction with parents is
likely to develop a playful and creative linguistic repertoire to elaborate that
play. The child whose parents allow their gaze and attention to be influenced
by the child’s gaze and attention is likely then to be able to build linguistic
techniques of sharing experience and entering into conjoint activity that
include the child’s state of being and interests, in contrast to a child who can
only gain the attention of the parent by learning to align themselves with the
parent’s gaze. On the other hand, in some cases the development of language
provides means for the realization of activities that were not possible through
previous means—such as playing rule-governed instead of ad hoc games. The
child’s learning of the word no is well-known as providing great power to selfdefinition
and choice making—though the cultural opportunities to explore
and extend the applicability and range of this aspect of consciousness and social
behavior is very much shaped by the cultural practices and behaviors of the
people surrounding the child. That is indeed why in western nations there has
been a cultural campaign in recent decades to valorize the child’s learning of no
as an important developmental task instead of treating it as a sign of willfulness
and disobedience.
Although emergent literacy experiences, such as playing with paper
and talking about books may happen as early as talk initiates, actual visual
recognition of words and meaningful inscription usually happen a few years
Chapter 1 The Symbolic Animal
later, when many of the fundamental pathways of behavior and language
use are already well established. This means that literacy sits as an add-on to
an already developed cognitive architecture, which it can draw on from the
beginning. The presence of books around the house, the integration of literate
activities into daily acts, the way in which this occurs are important to the
ways in which literacy becomes deeply embedded within the child’s notion of
the life the child is developing into. How a child relates to the world indexed
in the text is dependent on the earliest and most fundamental ontologies and
relationships the child establishes with the world and with other people (Heath,
1983). Children with wide experiences with many people of many views and
personalities can more readily recognize a range of views represented in reading,
while those who experience only an adult-authoritative rule-governed world
may find it harder to explore the range of worlds texts have to offer. Further,
if literacy and books are part of daily life, children will be better prepared to
see the power of literacy and to adapt it to multiple circumstances, while those
who experience literacy only within the school walls for formal educational
activities will not immediately see the purposes of reading and writing beyond
the fulfillment of school requirements. Later experiences may extend their
experience, and transform their understanding of use and literacy, but this
means moving beyond patterns that have already taken hold.
Much can be said for the kinds of social bond developed around the hearth,
or the forms of social interaction and physical health fostered by a youth spent
wandering the woods or on the baseball diamond. These are possibilities of life
world and deep values to be expressed through human development. But insofar
as the world appears to children to be permeated with books or computers
which offer attractive sites of interaction, then an early literate environment
is likely to have deep transformative effect in children’s organizations of their
minds so as to make sense of and interact through these symbolic media. If we
wish to promote these as mediating tools appropriate to the adult way of life of
our society, the early and deeper the participation, the more pervasively the full
range of the child’s experience is likely to integrate and be transformed by these
symbolic communicative opportunities.
The rest of this volume examines theory and research that help us understand
more fully the way language and literacy mediate the development of our minds,
experience of life, social activity, social goals, and social organization. The first
half presents three social science traditions that emerged in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries—Russian sociocultural psychology, European
phenomenological sociology, and North American pragmatism. The latter half
of the volume, building on these three traditions and enlisting more recent
social thought, examines the kinds of order we create, participate in, and use to
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make meaning in our writing: social order, interactional order, linguistic order,
temporal order, and intertextual order. These various orders converge in genre
as a recognizable invocation of these multiple orders and recognizable place
that each of our utterances take within them to assert our unique, situationally
relevant meanings. In the companion volume A Rhetoric of Literate Action,
directed towards our immediate practical needs as writers, genre appears front
and center as it focuses the location of our work as writers. Here, however, in
order to show why genre is such an important concept for writing, we must
first examine the underlying conditions of human cognition, sociality, activity,
and communication that pose the need for recognizable and familiar locations
for literate interchange and then how that recognizable location organizes the
work that happens in that place. This broader theoretical groundwork for genre
supports a more comprehensive understanding of genre recognition as a human
communicative process. Thus genre lurks everywhere underneath this volume,
to regularly poke its head above the surface (particularly in Chapters 3 and 4),
but only to take topical centrality in the final three chapters.

Lev SemyonovichVygotsky’s examination of the processes and effects of symbolic
participation on the formation of the human mind provides insight into how the
symbolic organization of human consciousness is part of our integration into
socially shared forms of expression, meaning, and activity. Vygotsky’s work, carried
out in the early years of the Soviet Union, was neglected in the West and elements
were suppressed under Stalin, but since the 1960s the power and significance of his
work has been increasingly evident both in Russia and the West. There have been
numerous explications and interpretations of his work, which I will not attempt to
reproduce here (See, for examples, Daniels, 1996; Daniels, Wertsch & Cole, 2007;
Kozulin, 1990; Van der Veer, 2007; Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991; Veresev, 1999;
Wertsch, 1985). Rather, I will explore how his approach to psychology connects
individual cognition and affect to social role, activity, and consciousness as a social
being—and therefore one’s reflective engagement with the world, particularly as
that engagement is mediated by language and writing.
The work of Vygotsky will provide a meeting point for much of the work I
will describe in the ensuing chapters, but not because that work follows directly
from Vygotsky. Only a distinct part of it was done with any significant awareness
of Vygotsky or even working from common sources. But rather Vygotsky’s
interdisciplinary style and the particulars of his ideas invite the synthesis of social,
psychological, linguistic, and historical concerns. I have over many years found
his work to be ever fresh because it is so open—despite many aspects of the work
undeveloped, others barely gestured at, and others inaccurate about particulars
we have later discovered as we have gained more data about sequences of child
development and the cognitive capacities of other animals. Nonetheless, his
ideas allow us to move back from the largest issue of society, culture, and history
back into the complexity of human selves, thoughts, feeling, and development
as we engage with the world. From the point of view of teaching, learning, and
development, his theory respects students’ motivated and autonomous selves,
yet recognizes how deeply those selves are saturated with social interactions and
resources and how those selves grow into the possibilities of the worlds available
to them. Similarly, from the point of view of writing, his theory provides a way
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of understanding the formation of deep interiority and individuality of meaning
within a world of communicative interaction and social exigency, and it provides
a means for accounting for meaning that arises in forms not yet attached to
words and then becomes transformed as it takes shape in meaningful language—
without resorting to ill-defined wells of thought entirely separate from language.
In the turmoil of Russia between revolutions, Vygotsky simultaneously
attended two universities, gaining a degree in law following a traditional
curriculum at Moscow State University while simultaneously earning a degree
in literature and aesthetics at the alternative Shanyavskii People’s University
(Wertsch, 1985, p. 6). Then taking a position teaching language and literature
in a high school in his home village of Gomel, during the early years of the
revolution he became an active member of cultural life, publishing widely on
cultural matters (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991; Veresev, 1999). Vygotsky
became interested in the psychological effects of literary works, in particular the
relationship between the literary structure of the work and affective states aroused
in the reader. Even as an undergraduate student of literature he saw a crisis in
aesthetics torn on one side by a purely individualist psychology of perceptions
and imagination of the audience and on the other by an idealist philosophy
that considered the “nature of the soul” and not the material facts of reader
response. When he returned for an advanced degree in psychology in the early
1920s, he continued to work on the same problem, arguing in his dissertation
on the Psychology of Art for a more situated and embodied view of the response
evoked by texts that are historically situated within ideological structures of
their time. In this work (Vygotsky, 1971), he himself does not provide any
concrete socio-historic analysis; in fact, at this point he sees the sociological and
historical study of ideology as distinct from psychology. He, nonetheless, does
pursue detailed analyses of how texts can evoke particular states of emotion,
and thus mediate experience. While he was later to see ideology as bearing on
the material conditions that shape psychological response, for the time being
he was content to consider the audience located in the act of reading the text
or witnessing a play as the right level of analysis to understand affect. Indeed
throughout his career he was to maintain focus on the individual acting within
a limited situation, usually mediated by specific available artifacts.
In the primary example of a psychology of art, a detailed analysis of Bunin’s
story “A Gentle Breath,” Vygotsky directs our attention toward the contradictions
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built in the story between the dismal facts of life of a young woman and the
light-hearted, though misguided, spirit that carries her attractively through life.
The narrative rearrangement and selection of events and the movement through
the consciousnesses of several characters brings to poignancy the attractive
delusions that lie behind the woman’s dismal fate. It is in the affective poignancy
of the tension that the story achieves its aesthetic power.
Similarly, in considering Hamlet (reworked from an earlier school essay on
the subject) he looks for the logic of Hamlet’s wavering and erratic behavior not
in a psychological explanation of the protagonist’s character, but in an aesthetic
of motive and digression that places the audience in a state of emotional tension
and contradiction. The words, the logos, of the play do not present a coherent
logic of an argument but rather comprise a device to arouse the audience’s
emotion. He points to an additional level of affect that arises when we look on
or reflect on this character who seems so to tease our emotions and not resolve
them: we are left in a state of puzzlement. Most critics pursue this puzzlement
directly by trying to find an answer to the “Hamlet problem,” the explanation of
Hamlet’s behavior. Vygotsky sees these critics as responding to an external logic
imposed on the play’s events rather than understanding it. He would rather we
ended where the play ends, overwhelmed with the contradictions and conflicts
that resolve only in a tumble of conflicting and absurd actions.
Vygotsky considers his wedding of formalist, structural accounts of texts
with an analysis of the affective states of the audience evoked by these structures
as a theory of catharsis—“a discharge of nervous energy” resolving conflicting
affect aroused by the work of art. Consciousness is not directly dictated by
the ideological contents of texts, but rather consciousness is activated and
placed in troubled spaces. Consciousness and the affect that infuses it arise in
the problematic tensions the mind struggles with; thus he finds a way to link
consciousness with the material structures of language and the materiality of
the cognizing being, yet nonetheless granting the individual a personal place
of responsive consciousness which is not a mysterious other arising from in an
ineffable core of individuality. Although he is concerned with response, he is
careful to note that since we do not know the minds and affects of readers and
writers we can only attempt to understand the emotion-evoking devices in the
texts. We do not necessarily feel what Shakespeare felt, or Bunin, or what any
onlooker now or in the intervening centuries may have felt, yet if the play or
story does affect us, it is by the devices in the artistic artifact designed to arouse
our embodied emotions.
In this early work, we can already see Vygotsky’s interest in states of
consciousness as influenced by textual devices; he sees language mediating
experiences. He sees his psychology of art as a materialist form of interpretation
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rather than an idealistic one, a realistic psychologically serious correction of
the purely intellectualized symbolic analysis of the formalists. For Vygotsky the
symbolic constructs of ideas serve to arouse bodily sensation of emotion rather
than simply evoking more ideas. He includes introspective observations of his
own breathing rates in reading the story, and was soon, in his first psychological
experiments, to measure breathing rates of subjects reading the Bunin story
(Van der Veer, 2007).
At about the same time Vygotsky completed the Psychology of Art as his
Ph.D. dissertation in psychology in 1925, he was delivering his first papers at
psychological conferences, arguing for the need to study consciousness, but with
the behaviorist caveat that language was itself not to be interpreted as a direct and
reliable introspective report of consciousness, but rather as part of the process of
reactions involving consciousness (Vygotsky 1925, 1999). That is, language and
utterance were to be considered as behaviors in relationship to consciousness,
rather than as the contents of consciousness. Just as he had considered the
lack of attention to the affective states aroused by art as the cause of a crisis in
aesthetics, he viewed the lack of attention to states of consciousness in relation to
behavior the cause of the crisis in psychology. Further he argued for practice, the
application of psychology to real world problems, as the necessary motive and
test of psychological theory and research. That is, the human needs confronted
in application call into question abstracted theory and unrealistic findings by
re-embedding research into the complex and concrete processes of life, at the
same time as people engaged in practice need strong theory and research to guide
their work. The result of the interaction of research and practice will be stronger,
more useful, and more concretely grounded theory. Vygotsky’s own thinking
was deeply influenced by his foray into practice, in the area of defectology (a
term jarring to contemporary sensitivity about stigmatization), the field we
would now call disability studies or special education. He was deeply engaged in
practical work in this field from 1924 until 1930, when the institutional base of
his fieldwork collapsed in the face of political decisions (Veresev, 1999, p. 127).
Vygotsky’s attention to consciousness and the tensions within it helped him
cast a new perspective on the fate and struggles of the disabled in attempting to
live their lives. Rather than seeing the psychology of the disabled as just a matter
of what capacities they had and didn’t have, LSV paid attention to the way in
which people reacted to their limited abilities and the kinds of social positions
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they were cast into by their disability. At this point in his intellectual journey, he
was also particularly attracted to the work and thought of Alfred Adler who was
concerned with people’s desires to reach their goals and to overcome obstacles
or frustrations in reaching those goals. Adler considered people as active agents:
you could not understand people’s behavior only on the basis of biology
and history. Rather you had to know what they wanted and then what they
understood they needed to do or overcome in order to get what they wanted.
Adler as well posited a general developmental desire of all individuals to gain
increasing power over situations, particularly in comparison to others who might
be viewed as potential competitors, models, comparators, or obstacles. This is
especially true of children who seem relatively more powerless than other people
around them, but are biologically, neurologically, and cognitively in a period of
development—with the promise of them becoming more capable and more able
to equal or best those around them. This modeling and competition has a strong
sociological component, as the developing child draws the range of desirable
goals, opportunities, possible means of action, and possible competences from
what she sees around her. The child develops into the social relations and socioculturally
formed situations and roles around her (Adler, 1907).
These issues of desire for competence and power over one’s life are particularly
poignant in relation to the disabled who find themselves in a world designed
by and for the typically abled, and a social world that additionally stigmatizes
and creates limited roles for the disabled, as Vygotsky began noticing. While
the disabled may directly attempt to compensate for or overcome their disability
by other means (whether by appliance like the blind man’s stick, increased
attentiveness and reliance on other faculties, or social cooperation), Vygotsky
noted they also needed to overcome the kinds of social roles they were cast
into by others—whether as objects of scorn, pity, or paternalism, all of which
limited and framed the possibilities of action, relations, and situations they
could participate in. Further the disabled need to overcome the difficulties of
a world designed for the convenience of the abled—a world that puts curbs on
roads, places steps at the entrance of buildings, and organizes space and activities
through visual cues such as street signs and traffic lights (Vygotsky. 1993).
In line with these observations about social roles and material obstacles, Vygotsky
recognized that the desire for power to participate competently was not driven so
much by a generalized sense of desire or lack, but more drawn by the concrete
opportunities available in one’s society. People set their goals and possibilities from
the available choices, and thus frustrations occur when people cannot be part of
what is going on around them. This is very much in line with what sociologists
would consider reference group behavior and social modeling (Merton, 1968b)
and what Bourdieu (1993) would consider the social field of action.
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While Vygotsky first held more closely to an Adlerian view of direct supercompensation
for perceived inferiority which would lead the disabled person to
try to overachieve in just those areas they found themselves most challenged, he
moved to a broader view of the restructuring of mind, personality, and organism
around the conditions and opportunities the person found themselves in. Thus
over-compensation (finding alternative pathways to the same goals that others
have) became not the only possible dynamic, but rather a reorganization of
the self to deal with the circumstances one found oneself in. As more recent
neuroscience has suggested this can be seen even at the most basic level of
neurocognitive organization developing in the young child. As will be discussed
in the next chapter, Vygotsky had an interest in the neurological foundations
of what he was noting and with his colleague Luria began to study medical
neurology. Luria was to become one of the pioneers of modern neurology
in which he was to take what he called a “romantic” view (Luria, 1979) not
just as biological facts, but of the organization of a personality coping with
circumstances and neurological conditions.
Some of these means of reorganization could entail organizing new tools
into consciousness, as the blind person learns to gain visual information
through a stick, or through collaboration with the seeing-eye dog, or through
alliance with others with a different range of skills. Here we can start to see the
growth of Vygotsky’s awareness of how much the mind grows in relation to
mediating tools and relations. These extensions of the self he saw as becoming
part of the organization of the self. This went beyond his earlier recognitions in
the psychology of art that cultural artifacts such as poems can create temporary
states of consciousness that then activate bodily sensations or reactions. Here the
tools and relationships are actively taken on and employed in pursuit of one’s
desires and life, empowering, but also organizing consciousness and personality.
One learns not only how to attend to and control the stick or dog, one learns to
sense through them, to perceive the world through them, and to think through
knowledge gained via these media. We just don’t pass through a poem for a
temporary sensation; insofar as that artifact becomes a long term mediating
tool in our life, we come to live through it, making it part of our fundamental
orientation, activity, means of sensing, and acting.
All these issues poignantly and strikingly evident in relation to the disabled
provided Vygotsky a way to rethink the development of the more typically
abled. In the early 1920’s at the beginning of his career as a psychologist while
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he was still learning the field he had written a volume on paedology (excerpted
in Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994). Toward the end of the decade he returned
to issues of development and education, in a series of publications that were to
come to stand for his cultural historical theory and his distinctive contribution.
This work has been extensively summarized and is available in English through
several translations of Thought and Language, and the collection Mind in
Society and in a less refined version in Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape,
Primitive, and Child (Vygotsky & Luria, 1993). My discussion of this work will
emphasize particular lines growing out of the earlier work and pointing towards
its relevance for symbolic communication, cultural evolution, formation of the
cognition in relation to social communication, and particularly literacy.
In this more fully developed theory he took an interest in cognitive tools that
extended or externalized our thought, allowing us to carry on symbolic activity
outside of ourselves: the knot tied around the finger to stimulate memory,
the abacus to keep track of and manipulate numbers, the South American
quipo used to record messages and history, and ultimately language, spoken
and written. To investigate how we used these external symbolic tools to carry
out cognitive tasks, he conducted experiments using the technique he called
double stimulation, in which the original task stimulus was supplemented by
a secondary set of stimuli which the experimental subjects could use to help
carry out the primary task. For example, in the forbidden colors task, children
were asked a series of questions about the color of objects, but in their answers
told they could not mention two colors nor could they repeat a color used to
answer a previous question. When they were given a deck of color cards to
assist them in the task, children of age five to six years either did not use these
cards, or if they did, the cards distracted them from the primary task. Children
of eight or nine years old used the cards to identify the color names that were
used and forbidden or to identify the colors still available for answers, but they
were inconsistent (or not fully disciplined) in using them. Children of ten to
thirteen years used the cards in a consistent, disciplined strategy and made few
errors. Adults made few errors whether or not the cards were available, as they
were able to keep track mentally of the disallowed and allowable color names
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 41).
From such experiments Vygotsky identified what he called the second
stimulus system, the set of signs which we learned to use to regulate our
behavior. The process by which these signs were internalized was observed
through watching how young children seemed to talk to themselves. Earlier
such private speech had been thought as simply egocentric, but Vygotsky noted
how the utterances coordinated with the tasks that the child was carrying out
as well as imitated prior conversations with others as together they carried out
Chapter 2 Symbolic Selves in Society
similar tasks. That is, the child was drawing on remembered social resources to
reenact privately an activity coordinated or directed through language. Just as
an adult had attempted to direct the child’s behavior through language, now the
child directed his or her own attention and activity through similar language,
though increasingly fragmented over time as the fuller forms of language
no longer seemed necessary for self-direction. With time the reliance on the
external device of language seemed to vanish as the child could carry out the
task without spoken self-regulation. Vygotsky hypothesized that the language
turned inward and became the basis of symbolic thought, changing its form as
it became internalized.
By such mechanisms we can see how prior experiences of language become
formative elements in the development of individual thought—not by direct
importation of a language symbol or ideological system, but because the child
first interacts with the language in the course of activity and then redeploys that
language as part of self-regulation in tasks including his or her own interactions
with others. That is, language becomes the child’s own as he or she uses it
in particular circumstances of life, fulfilling individual needs at the moment.
Out of this process the individual creates personal meanings. In use, language
becomes transformed into meanings which influence perceptions and actions
and which become the bases of novel communications with others, so that the
individual populates those words with his or her own intentions, as Bakhtin was
to write later (Bakhtin, 1981). Personal use of language, however, is saved from
solipsism because when it is used again to communicate with others, the need
to be understood by others disciplines it towards social norms of meaning, as
George Herbert Mead was pointing out on another continent a few years before
(Mead, 1913).
While Vygotsky considered the expression of personal meaning within the
social sphere in the last chapter of Thought and Language, his psychological
interest in the development of mind was more directed toward how language
moved inward as signs to direct self-regulation and self-organization. Because
of this interest he distinguished signs as different from tools, because he saw
language as most significant in regulating the self as signs became internalized.
Following this interest and characterization of language as sign rather than
tool (See Vygotsky, 1978, 19-30), he was able to develop a rich system of selfdirected,
self-monitored consciousness based on the internalization of socially
received language which comes to transform the self. Because of Vygotsky’s
concern with the development of the self, he does not develop as fully the ways in
which our mind continually is transformed in more mature social interactions,
how we come to develop our impulses and thoughts by externalizing them
and thereby become socially committed to them in our identities and actions,
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and how our participation changes the social field. Nonetheless, much of his
evidence is drawn from how people deploy their symbolic resources within
tasks. Further, his analysis of a child’s learning scientific (or schooled or socially
disciplined) concepts examines how children’s spontaneous concepts come
to be transformed by organized interaction with received knowledge coming
from a history of cultural and communal testing, validation, organization
and reasoning (Vygotsky, 1986, Chapter 6). However, he tends to treat that
scientific knowledge as fairly fixed—neither reinvigorated nor transformed by
new participation. He did not yet make the link between individual personal
development and larger cultural development, though he does recognize culture
itself as resulting from a human history of invention.
Yet even from Vygotsky’s limited social and cultural account of knowledge
formation, we can see the importance of the particular symbolic systems and
activities one participates in and internalizes in shaping the kinds of tasks one
can carry out and in the organization of one’s mind in relation to the tools and
tasks. The historical accomplishment of a culture is made available to each new
child as he or she finds meaning and use in the available tools and artifacts
which can be redeployed for the child’s own purposes in the social settings and
activities he or she finds themselves in. The discursive and activity landscape the
child perceives provides an opportunity space for the child’s development and
participation. While Vygotsky largely seems to be thinking only of broad sociohistorical
cultural movements as shaping the available forms of cognitive growth
available to the child, he seems at times to be aware of the multiplicity of socially
organized positions people find themselves in, as he considers for example the
role of stigmatization in shaping the interactions of the disabled and thereby
channeling cognitive growth along particular paths (Vygotsky, 1993).
More fully, however, we may consider the effect of having available specific
kinds of cognitive tools associated with particular groups or professions, in
carrying out specialized tasks. People who engage in the legal tasks of corporate
law in the United States in the early twenty-first century carry out substantially
different tasks and thinking than biochemists working for those very same
corporations. Their tasks require them to do different things; the cognitive
tools they must learn and think with support different kinds of work and are
themselves differently organized; the kinds of symbolic interactions with their
interlocutors are significantly different; and they organize their own thinking
in different ways in relation to these tasks, tools, and relations. Koranic scholars
in sixteenth century Baghdad, court poets in Elizabethan England, preColombian
Mayan scribes each follow their own line of cognitive development
in relation to tasks, tools, and relations they participate in. We do not need to
look at the highest ends of literacy in radically different circumstances to see the
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impact of differentiation of cognitive development, but need only to consider
the way young children’s engagement with ball sports or drawing or word
games will focus their attention, modes of thinking, and self-reinforcing social
relationships within others engaged in those activities and associated social
arrangements. These experiences, activities, and relationships shape sets of skills
and cognitive orientations that initiate trajectories of competences throughout
their life. Within the worlds of literacy we can see the differing consequences
among the children who have a taste for fiction, a taste for political biographies,
or a taste for books about zoology.
Developed cultural practices and forms, identifiable as distinctive genres,
discourses, disciplinary languages and tasks—the typified practices that
characterize the differentiation of our social and cultural worlds—can be seen
in Vygotskian terms as particular sites of activity deploying particular cognitive
tools and supporting different lines of psychological development. Individuals
in learning and internalizing these cultural forms, use them to regulate their
own perception, thought and ultimately participation with others. Medical
doctors, for example, within the typical settings, events and communicative
forms of consulting office, hospital and professional meetings, use their medical
knowledge to examine, diagnose, and administer treatment to patients who
may have little understanding of medicine.
Alphabetic writing, Vygotsky notes, is a second order symbol system that
offers a visual sign for the spoken word, rather than directly representing a
perceivable or an imaginable object. The words in speech provide a symbolic
representation of the events and objects discussed at only one remove, except
for reflexive second order speech that references words as language (“What do
you call this tree?”). Writing, however, creates a second order representation.
That is, written words are symbols of spoken words. This of course is most
pronounced in alphabetic languages where written words record the sound of
a word, which then has an attributable referent or meaning. However, even
pictographic or ideographic or rebus languages use the symbols to represent
the word (despite some possible graphic association with the objects or events
referred to). Pictographs are highly stylized and selected around a limited and
typified vocabulary—that is what distinguishes them from simple drawing.
They then can be used to create hybrid and elaborate complexes, again with
standardized word associations rather than open-ended complexes of non-
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linguistic associations. Even where the immediate language is not spoken,
but visual, as in a sign language, the written representation again provides a
somewhat durable second order representation of the immediate transient word.
Writing’s second order nature abstracts writing out of the immediacy of
perceived, unfolding experience, and creates a need to reconstruct some indexical
relation to an embodied reality, beyond that required in spoken language
which can typically draw on the material context of utterance to ground its
indexicality. That is, what one talks about is often visible or can be pointed
toward or gestured about, but in writing it is typically harder to tell what the
text is talking about. Further, the writing only indexes the spoken language and
thus all meaning must be indicated through the relation to the spoken, with
the spoken further stripped of its material context. Thus the relation of the
written to the spoken presents a problem almost as soon as a writing system
develops beyond the most concretely iconographic. This is perhaps the reason
that one of the earliest forms of knowledge to emerge in most written languages
is some version of linguistics (Bazerman & Rogers, 2008a). Writing transforms
more immediate, situationally and viscerally prompted use of language into
an independent linguistic object that can be more easily and reflectively
manipulated and managed, and is therefore more easily and more pressingly
studied, for purposes of strategic and precise effectiveness.
Writing as a means of reflection and self-regulation can transform the local
in relation to distant situations; even more, writing can create new places for
symbolic participation that transform the participants and provide new venues
for self- and mind-making in interaction with other literate participants. Some
forms of writing do stand in immediate relationship to on-going embodied
experiences, such as the shopping list that guides mall behavior or the series
of instructions that regulates the preparation of pre-packaged food. But other
forms of writing enact social relations and activities that operate at a reflective
distance to our daily activities, such as reporting and commenting on political
events, contemplating principles of effective leadership style, or playing with the
possibilities of imagined romance. Through these second order reflections on
more immediate experience, created in a second order medium already abstracted
from more immediate symbolic practice, writing interaction can enter in and
through consciousness, influencing the writer and readers in ways that may not
be quickly forgotten or dispensed with. Unlike spoken language where words are
inspired or compelled by the immediately unfolding events and then leave no
trace to prompt or constrain memory, writing leaves an external mark for us to
look on later, transforming our attitudes and perceptions of the utterance.
As we get drawn into literate interactions we recognize and seek out the
textual places where they take place. For some these sites of literate interaction
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became major sites of identity and interaction, drawing on increasingly intense
cognitive and affective engagement, thereby shaping their literate minds and
personalities, in accordance with the domain of texts and interactions they find
most engaging. Because of the visibility of the linguistic artifact and the removal
from daily time and space, such spaces are conducive to creating reflective
distances and stances towards material events, the literate events one participates
in as a reader and writer, and the texts that mediate those events. Writing
thereby facilitates interiority as we commune more with other literates than
with the people around us. With interiority we orient toward the interaction
played out in our mental construction and reconstruction of the meaning of
our texts and the texts of others. Additionally, writing facilitates interpretation,
criticism, irony, and other stances that put us at a questioning distance from
our interactions. But interiority and questioning also foster creative behavior,
allowing us to return to our embodied world with fresh perspectives, ideas, and
resources to address life problems and challenges.
Understanding language as both interactive and self-regulatory suggests
an often-confusing dialectic about language. Theorists of language and
particularly writing often see language as deeply personal, formative of
character and expression, tied to our deepest experience and thoughts.
Vygotsky notes how we build our thinking and transform our experiences
(including the kinds of presymbolic experiences and eidetic memory and
thinking available to children prior to development of language) through our
growing linguistic experience, and he himself in the final chapter of Thought
and Language has deeply poetic reflections on language as fragments of our
innermost thoughts. On the other hand, others see language and writing as
rhetorical and interactive, shaped by social purpose and effect, little driven
by anything like an essential expressive self. Vygotsky also suggests such
perspectives when considering how the parent uses language to help the
child solve a puzzle or the blind gain through social means information not
available through eyesight. Finally there are those who suggest that language
is a meaningful system that exists outside any of the participants or particular
utterances or usages, whether that language consists of stable resources and
rules or that language is a locally produced, ad hoc artifactual construction.
These three perspectives align with three major approaches to writing—the
expressive, the rhetorical, and the linguistic.
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Vygotsky gives us a way of understanding how all of these are operative
simultaneously as we develop cognitively through social participation, using the
available language purposefully. Language is simultaneously within, between,
and outside people. Writers need to look externally to the communicative
forms, to the organized relations with others, and the ad hoc communicative
and rhetorical problems of the moment; and internally to the self, organized
and attentive to the evolving discursive situation in order to develop ideas,
communicative intentions, and meanings.
We can see how these issues come together in considering perhaps the most
well-known of Vygotskian concepts—the Zone of Proximal Development (often
called ZPD). In his writings he articulates the concept most clearly in relation
to assessing a child’s capacity for learning. He states the most important thing
to measure is not what the child can do by him or herself (say, in the traditional
paper and pencil IQ or achievement test) but in measuring those things that
the child can do with assistance of an adult or more skilled peer. This identifies
the area of learning a child can engage in leading to development (Vygotsky,
1978, Chapter 6). This ZPD identifies activities where students can enter into
novel or challenging collaborations, guided or regulated by the speech or other
actions of the more skilled other—speech and actions that can then go from
interpersonal regulation to intrapersonal regulation. In this way the child can
learn new practices, principles, concepts, and activities which later he or she
may be able to carry on by him or herself and ultimately internalize within his
or her cognitive repertoire. Further, at some point the elements learned within
the ZPD reorganize and coalesce into a new functional system, changing the
relations and functions of the previously acquired parts, reorganizing perception,
reasoning, and activities. This transformation to a new form of thinking which
reorganizes previous ones constitutes development, in contrast to learning. For
this reason Vygotsky says learning leads development (Vygotsky, 1986). This
process of reorganization based on conceptual development (in Hegelian terms
called sublation or aufhebung) provides a way that both genres and mentorship
can induct one into specialized forms of perception, reasoning, and practice,
such as those associated with scientific and academic reasoning, as well as
professional practice (See Bazerman 2009, 2012).
The more skilled participant in ZPD interactions has already internalized
the disciplined functional system that constitutes expertise in the activity. This
disciplined functional system provides structure to both partners’ contributions,
making available to the less knowledgeable partner hints about a different form
of consciousness available for perception, reasoning, and action. While the
student at first may hear and even heed the comments of the adult or more
skilled partner, these are at first only taken as specific pieces of guidance or
Chapter 2 Symbolic Selves in Society
information. At the moment of development, however, the learner comes
to see events, activities, or relations from the perspective of the more skilled
partner, and the learner reorganizes his or her way of functioning and thinking:
consciousness has been raised. The ZPD can, in theory, identify both what
is next to be learned and the depth or extension of what can be learned (that
is, how far with help the learner may reach beyond him or herself and still
participate in comprehensible activity). Further, awareness of the learner’s
developmental challenges within the ZPD can attune the more skilled partner
to providing the kind of support that may be needed to maintain that learner’s
participation. Even more, the skilled collaborator can become attuned to the
learner’s changing states of awareness, perception, and conceptual grasp (that
is, forms of consciousness) and can recognize whether and when learners have
made developmental leaps—that is, whether the learners have internalized the
higher mode of thinking. Teachers regularly talk about when students show
such moments of insight, or “when the lights go on.” Such moments are often
accompanied by changes in bodily posture, composure, and facial expression.
Writers regularly use the support of cultural tools of genre, of the ideas and
information of others, the challenge presented by others’ ideas, as well as the
constraints of the task at hand to learn how to create the text, which in turn
may bring about a change of personal consciousness. The pressures of the social
situation and availability of cultural resources help writers to extend beyond
what they already have thought, said, or written. Writing under the pressure of
new thoughts composed for the situation out of words and ideas from within
and around the writer can seem a deeply felt personal expression of the self at
the same time as it contributes to social identity and agency, articulating the
writer’s self onto the social stage—a self-creating act. As writers draw on the
common resources of language available to all and familiar to the readers, they
become the writer’s words, words meaningful to the writer. As the challenge of
the interaction stretches the writer, he or she may also reinvent aspects of the
language—seeking new words, phrases and metaphors, combining genres, and
forming new concepts. Further, the organizational and argumentative challenges
of texts that extend over paragraphs, pages, or volumes, can stretch the writer
to reorganize thoughts and knowledge. Additionally, the devices of exposing
textual organization (like outlines, section headings, and transitional statements)
may provide ways to think through organizational problems in composition and
revision, creating new coherences in reasoning. The process of writing, using
common resources, leads writers to make up or compose their minds, sometimes
in ways that bring new thoughts to the social sphere of discussion.
For this dynamic of linguistic, cognitive, and social learning and development
to occur, enriching the social and personal and linguistic resources, the task
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must be neither so humdrum and familiar that repeating familiar formulas is
sufficient nor so difficult to be beyond the writer’s comprehension, articulation,
and participation. The situation, support of others (perhaps teachers, coaches, or
editors), and resources in the culture and language must be sufficient for the writer
to maintain goals and directed activity, while still being able to think new thoughts
and write new things. If the writer is asked to address something beyond what he
or she can even inchoately make sense of, the learning and creation collapses, and
the writer either gives up or reinterprets the task in more familiar terms.
These textual artifacts once produced are commitments of the self: phrases
the writer has worked through and terms for private purposes and social effect.
The textual artifacts are also potential spaces of meaning for others. Writer’s
words can populate other people’s minds with thoughts and associations,
can provide new things for them to consider, and new ways to rearrange and
reorganize what was already available to them. Or writer’s words can simply in
a new context remind them and reinforce thoughts and emotions they have
already held. The text may present a forced march of logic and evidence for
readers or it may open up large areas of speculation and association, tapping
into the readers’ own concerns and meanings. In that or any other event, the
text acts as a potential support and extension of their own thought. But just
as for the writer, for the reader also the task and words must be meaningful—
that is, readers must be able to attribute meaning to the signs, viewing them
as neither too trivial nor too difficult to attend to and enlisting them into
concerns that hold their attention. A text that works to project the writer’s
meanings into the reader’s mental space in a sense then acts as a zone of
proximal development for the reader—a space of symbolic exchange, a space
of participation that activates behavior, sensation, thought, bodily emotional
response, and ultimately new ways of seeing issues and selves. In this process we
can see echoes of Vygotsky’s earliest observations from the psychology of art on
the cathartic effect of literature, where he recognized that the textual structure
in evoking aesthetic response gives release to latent tensions within the reader
created by the sequence of textual meanings.
Vygotsky’s theory of aesthetic catharsis also has its echoes in his later
theory of play (Vygotsky 1978, chapter 7), in that both literature and play
to him set in motion frustrations or unfulfilled motives that are in tension
with one’s circumstances or other motives. Vygotsky particularly notes that
Chapter 2 Symbolic Selves in Society
play is driven by desires for development and empowerment that cannot be yet
realized in worldly activity (that is, world-transforming work), often because of
the child’s lack of developments, skill, capacities, or social role. In Vygotsky’s
characterization of the motives for play we see the influence of his work with
the disabled and his Adlerian recognition of the motive to gain specific forms
of empowerment to participate in the opportunities of the world. Children
play parents or teachers or drivers of automobiles trying on those roles not
available to them in life. Children may also play at being themselves if they
want to mitigate the consequences of their actions, or to explore the regulations
or expectations the self-consciously conceived role seems to impose. LSV cites
the case of two sisters, aged five and seven, who proposed to each other that
they play sisters, and in so doing invoked rules as to how they thought sisters
ought to behave toward each other (Vygotsky 1978, pp. 94-95). The play
involves establishing a set of “as if ” rules that define game obligations and
become guides for regulation of the other and self in the game. Insofar as the
child becomes engaged in the game, the child becomes committed to the rules,
activities, motives, and moves of the game. More developed games in fact have
motives built into the rules, such as “The goal of this game is to place the ball
in the opponent’s net by various legal maneuvers. ” Further, satisfactions are
gained through one’s participation in the game, which take one beyond the
motives that first drew one into the game.
We can see literature, the arts, and other forms of entertainment as particular
places of play, each of which create their own organizations of activity and
consciousness that provide place for enacting frustrations, desires, tensions, or
other emotions transferred from other spheres of life where they cannot be directly
enacted. In the course of play there is not only a release, but a reinvention of the
self, developing into new possibilities of being that seemed blocked at first in other
domains. These new possibilities of being can then be resources brought from
the play domain into non-play situations. These resources can include enhanced
individual skills, confidence, and reworked motives, but also the invention of
new concepts, ideas, and actions that provide useful tools in other domains or
that provide a perspective on other domains transforming conceptualization of
activities. Thus we have the continuing critical roles literature, art, and humor
have played on society and individual lives. We often see new ideas of social and
material possibility tried out, envisioned and communicated through literature,
as in socially projective novels of George Elliot or the worlds of science fiction.
Or we have unpleasant and socially unrecognized realities portrayed under the
playful cover of art, as in late nineteenth century realist literature. In another
vein of social transformation in play, we can see the communal cohesion forged
over a sports team sometimes mobilized to civic or corporate ends. And we
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see with adults the constant trying on of meaning of life and events through
fictions, as well as fantasies of what might be.
Art and entertainment as well become their own disciplines which individuals
affiliate with and in which they develop identities, modes of thought and feeling,
perceptions, and ways of life. These disciplines and social domains become sites
of transformative work and take on economic and institutional presence in
the form of industries (such as book industries, sports industries, theme park
industries) and socially supported cultural organizations (such as theaters and
schools) which serve the fantasy, projective, and developmental needs of large
publics and become major parts of the cultural landscape, supporting modes of
being and forms of consciousness.
Yet the role of play and imagination, and writing’s role in creating it,
extends beyond the more overtly recognizable imaginative and playful genres
of art. Writing is often produced in situations at some distance from where it is
communicatively presented—that is we can work at our own desk long before
it is presented to readers, or as part of a collaborative team weeks before a report
must be presented to a group of managers. We have time to play around with
possibilities, represent alternative realities and plans, organize and reorganize our
textual goals and plans, interpret and reinterpret data. We can try out alternative
strategies in the face of intractable arguments and resistant audiences. This playing
around with the possibilities of our textual creation means that the process of
writing allows us to explore different possibilities of meanings we can project
into the social world. Indeed many of the disciplines of knowledge and theory
formulation have extensive play spaces for speculations and hypotheses based on
the exploratory possibility of “what if” an idea were true or useful. Hypotheses
and speculations born in the “what if” mode can become the motivation for
gathering evidence, doing experiments, or engaging in other modes of inquiry.
If the speculation turns out to be persuasive, it can turn into the knowledge,
inventions, and projects of the future, transforming the shared life of society.
Although Vygotsky’s approach to communication may suggest that talk and
writing may begin in immediate social and material needs of the individual and
community, it also offers possibilities of writing transforming consciousnesses,
knowledge, and society. A realistic understanding of the role of play in life
and the activity systems built around play, leads us to a more extensive view
of writing in our world, which helps explain why some forms of writing are
associated with extending human imagination, feeling, and perception. Many
of the forms of writing people may think of as mundane have that same
transformative effect, whether to develop a school curriculum, or to project
a corporate financial reorganization, or to develop a rehabilitation plan for a
released prisoner.
Vygotsky’s fertile starting place for understanding the formation of individual
conscious within social activities mediated by the culturally available tools gave
rise in Russia to two direct lines of work of rather different character, developing
different potentials within Vygotsky’s work. One associated with his student and
collaborator A. N. Leont’ev elaborated the idea of individual and group activity.
The other associated with his other major student and collaborator A. R. Luria
pursued the development of individual consciousness within the interaction of
neurobiology, language development, and functional production of behavior.
Each of these traditions brings an important perspective to issues of writing
though neither addresses writing as directly as Vygotsky did. Though Leont’ev
does not consider writing or even language much, beyond his recognition that
language mediates activities and provides a vehicle for social learning, his work
extends and elaborates the notion of activity and its relation to larger systems
of social organization. His framework, particularly as elaborated by Engeström,
helps us articulate the ways in which writing dynamically mediates communally
organized activities. Though Luria specifically focuses on spoken language, he
provides ways of thinking about the interaction of language and brain within
dynamic activity that have consequences for literate production and reception—
writing and reading. Luria’s work suggests the deepest mechanisms by which we
absorb and use language—mechanisms which have continuing currency within
cognitive neuroscience, a field he is recognized as pioneering. These mechanisms
have consequences for how we look on our own language formation and
interpretation processes, including writing and reading, and therefore how we
reflexively manage them. He gives us means for extending Vygotsky’s analysis
of consciousness as acts of agency incorporating and building on our linguistic
experiences, in relation to our material and biological conditions. While Luria
several times identifies writing as beyond his scope of interest by suggesting
that writing opens up entirely new domains and dynamics of consciousness
because of its removal from immediate circumstances and its particularly close
bond with inner speech (Luria, 1959, 1969, 1970, 1976), his analysis of spoken
language and consciousness provides an important basis for understanding how
further structures of consciousness can be formed to deal with the removal of
communication from immediate circumstances.
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
Alexander N. Leont’ev’s line of activity theory attends to the activity of the
individual and group, which gives focus and meaning to cognition (Leont’ev,
1978). Conscious orientation to an activity distinguishes impulse from
irritation. Cognition is motivated by desire and impulse that fastens upon an
object—that is, a concrete thing or state of affairs one wishes to bring into being.
The realization of this object forms the activity one is engaged in. Because the
activity arises out of fundamental impulses, it is saturated with affect and desire;
it is the very expression of what one wants to have and to be and to do.
This impulse to bring something material into being dialectically raises an
emergent consciousness or cognitive awareness of what one desires and how to go
about obtaining it. This state of heightened and directed consciousness oriented
to specific ends makes one particularly receptive to perceptions, information,
relationships, and other intimations of things in one’s environment that are
perceived as somehow relevant to that end. One’s awareness of these relevancies
shapes one’s perception of the situation and one’s opportunities within which one
may frame specific actions that pursue the activity. These instrumental actions
may be at some distance from the initial impulse and the affective drive; they
may be more planned, reasoned, and distant, with perhaps lessened affect. They
are more workmanlike. So an impulse to prepare an exquisite meal for a friend
(perhaps saturated with complex socially and culturally shaped identities and
desires) may lead one (at this historical moment in cultural taste and economic
distribution of goods) to contemplate and plan a menu with awareness of what
hints one has about the friend’s taste and range of gustatory experience, available
new fashions in food that one may have read about, currently available produce,
and a dozen other things that might appear relevant in light of this task. One
may even start writing down menus and shopping lists. One goes shopping,
cleans the kitchen, checks the cookbook, sets the table, chops the garlic, and
undertakes many other actions. While each of these actions are imbued with
motives that have set one in motion, they have a consciously planned aspect
requiring a more instrumental mind set, perhaps affectively surrounded with
pride in one’s workmanlike efficiency and competence.
In the course of these consciously planned and consciously monitored
actions, one employs many habitual behaviors or operations that one needs
hardly think about, such as how to form the letters and spell the words in
making the shopping list. While in chopping an onion one may need to attend
to the particular shape of the onion and the way the outer skin is or is not
pulling off, yet the holding of the knife is likely to take little of one’s attention.
A Theory of Literate Action
The distinction Leont’ev makes among activities, acts, and operations
is a key to the conscious attention and affective load demanded by various
components of activity. Activities arise from impulses that take shape and are
realized through the activity and thus carry the deepest weighting of motive
and affect. While the object realizes the emergence of impulse into action and
crystallizes one’s mental impulses, it may not be fully known and monitored
consciously nor is it necessarily open to complete reflective understanding. The
object may be more of an emergent phenomenon, only coming into conscious
awareness as it coalesces around a knowable project.
The middle level of actions is what we are most aware of and reflect upon, so
as to carry them out in the most effective and efficient way. They can be creative
in the pursuit of goals, drawing on resources we are only dimly aware of, but
as we draw these resources and creative means of accomplishment we become
to some degree aware of what we are doing and how our actions are chosen to
carry out our intentions. By implication, we may also say, though not explicitly
stated by Leont’ev, that the emotions that attend actions are correspondingly
more distant and reflective—somewhat separated from the original motive and
aware of how well we are doing.
Operations—those tasks that are so familiar and routinized within one’s
neural system that one can do them without conscious thought, carry little
creativity beyond immediate adjustment to the local circumstances—the
placement of the chopping block and our fingers as we cut. We are likely to have
little attitude or awareness of what we are doing, and the emotions, if any, will
be such as the comfort of doing the familiar or the tedium of repeated actions
that have become distant from their motivation. Nonetheless, under the right
circumstances, operations can come to our attention, as when we notice the
knife getting a bit too close to our fingers and we readjust.
These categories of activity, action and operation, are fluid ways of
differentiating motivating, focal, and peripheral attention that can change from
person to person, event to event, moment to moment. Learning to transcribe
the alphabet may well be the primary activity of a young child extending the
limits of motor skills, perception, and conscious attention; writing letters may
encompass the child’s total orientation to a situation. Later, the transcribing of
a letter may be an action in spelling a word, with the recording of a cherished
word defining the main activity. Both transcription and spelling later will likely
become thoroughly operationalized, as the child attends to creating a meaning
or making an impression. In the pursuit of goals we may carry out many levels of
work with different levels of intention and complex relations of superordination
and subordination. In each case of writing we need to unpack the work in
relationship to the complex of events and cognitive acts. Often bringing the
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
textual object into being is the realization of the activity—a realization that one
does not fully grasp until one has realized it as a material object and as a cognitive
commitment. This phenomenon has given rise to the many statements of the
sort “how do I know what I think until I write it.” Sometimes we may not fully
realize the total meaning of a text until long after we have written it, perhaps
months or years. Nonetheless, despite not comprehending the full implications
of what we have written, we can understand each of our sentences and carry
out the larger structures of our text in a workmanlike way. Recognizing the
appropriateness, timing, and techniques of each of the actions of text-building
helps us realize vaguely perceived intentions with some sense of craft, efficiency,
and effectiveness. It is just the total object we have made that escapes our full
comprehension. In a sense we are learning, structured by the work of text
making, but we have not yet developed sufficiently to comprehend what we
have written. Our externalized meaning making has not yet crystallized into
an internalized set of structured relations that would make the text fully and
immediately transparent.
On other occasions, however, the text to be written is easily anticipatable
and can be produced entirely in a workmanlike manner, with no surprises about
what we have made. Perhaps when we write an email to colleagues to arrange
a committee meeting, the email text and meaning is fully predictable. In that
case, perhaps, the activity is only emergent in the work of the committee—we
do not quite know what the committee will end up proposing; nonetheless, we
seem motivated to get there.
To identify just those activities that present the greatest challenges at the
moment, but are most driven by the desire to develop our capacities, identity,
or mode of being, Leont’ev (1981) elaborates Vygotsky’s (1967) concept of
leading activity, particularly with respect to school settings. The leading activity
identifies, within the zone of proximal development, the activity which captures
the imagination of students most, and which they are working most centrally
on mastering. Individually or in a group, we might say this is the thing that we
are trying to work out as we engage in the activity, the particular way we are
working towards expanding (in Engeström’s 1987 formulation).
Leont’ev, from a materialist perspective, was particularly interested in activity
as an external working out of innerly-driven impulses. Even mental activity he
sees originally situated and driven, no matter how distantly, by some material
object in the world, though embedded in cultural history and social practice.
He would dissolve the mind-body distinction by seeing mind as an embodied
capacity we have developed to be better able to cope with a material world. But
mind is not reducible to body, for consciousness having developed then influences
the embodied behaviors; mind brings objects into being through activity.
A Theory of Literate Action
The development of mind and its realization of impulses occur not just
in the material circumstances of individual lives, but in the social life of the
commune. Leont’ev points to the regularized social activity systems that give
meaning, value, and intelligible familiarity to the activities of individuals. He
cites the example of the paleolithic hunt of mastodons, where the activity of
one group of people is to be beaters, making noise and shaking foliage. The
activity of these people seems senseless as a way to capture creatures, which they
are most clearly scaring away. The noise making only makes sense in relation
to the activities of other people, such as those who build corrals and those who
guard and close the corral (Leont’ev, 1981, pp. 210 – 213). Activities emerge in
groups, and actions are negotiated and assigned to individuals, employing their
separate capacities. Operations also occur on the group and individual level, as
people’s response to each other’s signals in coordinating the hunt becomes as
routinized as the technique of hitting the drum for the individual. People learn
to form goals and activities in relation to the activities of others as they emerge
historically in stable and anticipatable forms that allow people to organize work
in ways that coordinate with the work of others. The sense arises within the
system in which individual takes part, getting meaning from participation in
larger collective activity.
The developed functional systems of actions and operations, group and
individual, that regularly pursue repeated activities express regularized orders
of behavior and activity organization that in turn comprise a social order. A
functional system perspective provides a basis for seeing how individual acts
of writing and reading, shaped within the regularities of genre, participate
in larger social systems of activity, rising above individual acts into carrying
out larger social endeavors. Thus we have a link here between the inner
contents of consciousness of people engaged in acts of reading and writing, a
phenomenology of literacy, and the largest social orders of activity within which
we organize our lives.
Yrjo Engeström, starting with problems in the coordination of work in
organizational settings, has elaborated this idea of socially formed activity
systems, functionally organized to carry out particular activities through
conjoint work. The work and coordination of various participants to produce
a shared object is aided and organized, materially and socially, by division of
labor, rules of work and participation, and the tools available to carry out the
work. To help analyze the operations (in the Leont’evian sense of unreflective
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
automatic practice) of any organization, Engeström has developed a heuristic
diagram, which makes visible and open to reflective readjustment processes
that have been so long in place they are not usually consciously attended to
(Engeström, 1987). Engeström’s model is based on Vygotsky’s triangle which
interposes consciousness in the relation between stimulus and response, or
subject and object.
Engeström, following Leont’ev elaborates consciousness as communally
formed in shared activities, refiguring the triangle accordingly—the individual
working in relation to a community in the functional pursuit of a communal
goal or object.
The subject’s relationship to the community is shaped historically by the
rules that identify roles, responsibilities, transgressions, expectations, rewards,
penalties, exchange arrangements, etc. The subject’s relationship to the object is
mediated by the cultural tools (created through a history of social interactions)
by which the object is produced. And the community’s relationship to the object
is mediated through a division of labor which both distributes and aggregates
the total work in production.
A Theory of Literate Action
This heuristic helps parse the factors usefully brought into consciousness for
intelligent reflective choice-making in what Engeström calls stage III activity
theory. Stage I he considers the unreflective interposition of consciousness
within a stimulus response of an individual, as investigated by Vygotsky. Stage
II activity theory is the placing of individual consciousness within communal
activity, but without reflective understanding of the activity system as a whole
or one’s place within it. Stage III brings to reflective consciousness the social
activity system, so as to allow one’s reflective adjustment of the system and one’s
actions within the system.
In any particular case these arrangements are historically emerged both in
the larger pattern and the local instantiation. Hospitals, courts, schools have
long histories that establish large patterns of arrangements, but each hospital
and perhaps each ward, each court, each school and each classroom have
developed their own particular set of tools, rules, and division of labor in
the formation of local community. Further these are constantly changing in
relation to problems, contingencies, opportunities, changing resources, change
of personnel, new tools, and so on. So an analysis of any given organization
could examine the historical process of emergence of the system to understand
the forces the current arrangements respond to, the operations of the current
system, and the impulses to change the system.
Engeström has been particularly interested in historically emerged
contradictions within activity systems that act as forces to bring about reflection
and change. That is, insofar as organizations operate by ingrained and historically
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
emerged habits that do not seem to have any sticking points, they have little
motive to change or even to look upon their operations, except as routinely
monitored in the systematic operations. We might take this as an analogue to
Kuhnian normal science, where puzzles are solved, but only as paradigmatic or
made typical and habitualized in the system (Kuhn, 1962). So the management
of a paper clip manufacturing company would likely monitor sales, inventory,
supplies, number of employees, and the like to adjust the level of operations,
but they might not contemplate changing the way of doing business, replacing
the machinery, changing the product line, or any other element that might
reorganize the activity system in a serious way. Only when a contradiction in
the system arises—such as workers being unable or unwilling to follow the work
rules, or when the machinery breaks down and cannot be repaired according
to operating procedures, or when new machinery no longer demands the same
division of labor, or when markets shrink for the product—are participants in
the organization likely to problematize and rearrange the practice in a more
satisfactory way. It is at these moments of emerged contradiction and tension that
organizations become smarter, or learn by expanding their reflective awareness
of their operations (looking on them as actions), perhaps even reconceptualizing
and reorganizing their fundamental object and activity.
Engeström has carried out a number of intervention studies to assist
organizations (or activity systems) to learn by expanding their awareness of their
operations, and thereby rearrange their world to carry out their functions more
effectively or even to adopt more powerful functions. He has had all workers
within a hospital analyze their own activity position within their organization,
using his heuristic triangle as a guide to consider for example, who provides
them the tools, who authorizes the tool purchase and distribution, who sets
rules and who monitors them, who sets the distribution of labor, to whom are
these various procedures are accountable, and so on (Engeström, 1987, 1993).
These questions allow participants to reflect on how the system operates and
whether adjustments may be made. Tensions exist in the organization if, for
example, nurses must request equipment and supplies from a supplies office
which is accountable for holding costs down by a financial office, but they
must take their work orders from doctors who demand certain procedures
requiring supplies be administered, at the same time the nurses are driven by
their perception of the object of patient care. Such discoordination leads to
multiple contradictions that call for reflective understanding and resolution.
Engeström has also studied instances where individuals who are empowered to
initiate reflective actions (such as judges who can revise the rules of procedure in
their own courts) spontaneously note some difficulty in procedures and engage
various participants (opposing lawyers, social workers, other officers of the
A Theory of Literate Action
court) in problem solving to come to novel or flexible arrangements (Engeström
et al., 1997). These reflective activities focus attention on the renegotiation of
practice within the activity system.
Writing occurs within historically emerged, but constantly changing,
circumstances and arrangements. Writing also makes information and textual
objects visible for reflective contemplation, opening possibilities of noticing and
resolving of contradictions. An important functional element of most activity
systems involved with writing is to bring new information or viewpoints into
some kind of group contemplation, information sharing, or coordination
of perspective. Thus writing regularly offers opportunities to attend to
contradictions and tensions, resolving them through wise choice-making
in what to include, how to represent and reason with the inscribed material,
what stances to take toward the material and readers—all of which goes in to
deciding which words to include and how to put them together. The act of
writing also usually affords time for thought, the ability to look on and revise
earlier plans and revisions, and distance from the place of text circulation—all
heightening the opportunities for reflection and process monitoring. Writers
and readers, therefore, are regularly in a position of “learning by expanding”
(to use Engeström’s 1987 term), meeting new challenges of texts and gaining
some sense of the contexts or systems within which their reading and writing
operates. This opportunity, however, is not always taken and contradictions can
remain hidden, often by unthinking adherence to long-standing conventions
and practices. Engeström’s heuristic in such circumstances can help the writer
identify and address the activity contexts it contributes to, and how the text may
be brought into greater coordination and effectiveness, perhaps even resolving
tensions within the system.
Engeström has pursued another aspect of Vygotskian thought as elaborated
by Leont’ev—the emotional attachment we have in the realization of our
objects. Objects engage our committed effort to bring something new in the
world, fulfilling our needs and desires. In particular, Engeström & Escalante
(1995) have studied the systemic contradictions that may arise from the
different emotional attachments people have to an object. In studying an
electronic vending kiosk as produced by an entrepreneurial company, as
actually used by consumers and as considered by other workers at the site of use,
Engeström & Escalante found that participants had different and conflicting
sets of motives, attitudes and emotions. These conflicts ultimately were part of
the failure of the device in becoming a regular consumer tool. The producers
of the sales kiosk were deeply attached to the technology they had developed
under government contract to test for long-term adoption by the post office,
for it was the realization of their designs, plans, and action. They, like most
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
makers of technology, were in love with what they had made and assumed
others would share those sentiments. Consumers, however, only using the
machine in the course of other daily activities, assessed the machine from a
different perspective, and found it frustrating to operate. The postal workers
at the office, whose good will and cooperation could help support consumer
use and aid the adoption of the system, saw in the kiosk a disruption of their
orderly activities, a reorganization of the distribution of labor, and ultimately a
threat to employment. They became antipathetic. Such systemic understanding
of emotions is applicable in thinking about the attachment or disengagement
people feel for texts they produce and use. Deep attachment is often necessary
both for the production and the effortful recreation of complex meanings,
but writers’ strong attachment to their words are not always matched by the
emotional stance and commitment of their readers. The success of a text is
dependent on how use of the text contributes to the readers’ objects and their
engagement with the text.
If we conceive of each act of writing as a reflective participation in an activity
system, then we can see how each act of writing is an historically embedded act
of coordinating with others. In these acts of literacy our focus of attention, our
objects and goals, may be various but they are directed towards human systems
of communication and activity. A writer may be obsessed with developing the
narrative technique of an unreliable narrator as a distinguishing characteristic
of her fictions or may be most interested in tapping her own depths of
subconscious. On the other hand, the writer may be primarily concerned with
selling a product or asserting new scientific findings. But in all cases these various
literate activities, actions, and operationalized skills only make sense within
socially organized systems—whether of literary entertainment or commerce or
scientific knowledge production.
Genres are designed for social action, designed to bring about changed
material states in the world, transforming our social and material scenes of
existence and being. Thus the genres within which people frame their utterances
can be seen as also being vehicles for participation in historically emerged
activity systems and their ongoing maintenance. By learning to write in the
typified forms available at one’s time and social place, one learns not only means
of participation but the very motives and objects one might have, as Miller
(1984) pointed out. Genre—conceived as the form discursive action takes—
is part of the larger social activity structures within which action takes place.
A Theory of Literate Action
Insofar as those social structures are discursively constituted and maintained by
the circulation of discourse, the genres themselves are major constituents of that
social activity structure, and every individual’s use of those forms carries those
systems forward. Insofar as individuals orient to those structures as the sites of
their actions, and thus find their objects, goals and motives by participation
within those social activity systems, their very forms of action emerge as
meaningful. Genre-shaped utterances themselves become then vehicles of the
production, reproduction, and evolution of the systems within which the genres
are meaningful.
My investigations of the emergence of the experimental report in science
(Bazerman, 1988, 1991) found that the activity of trying to assert what one has
seen—in order to create an empirical account of the material world—required
people to learn to argue for the validity, accuracy, and meaning of their claims
within the emerging social space of scientific correspondence, societies, and
journals. The particular characteristics and dynamics of journal publication
provided rhetorical challenges in terms of the publicness of the audience, the
enduringness of the text, and the temporal sequence and pacing of articles and
responses (contrasted on one side with spontaneous on-the-spot oral response
in a small group and on the other with the appearance of books years apart).
The typical features of the emergent and evolving form of the experimental
report represented rhetorical solutions to the problem of asserting one’s findings
within such a structured and contentious field. This activity was carried out
with great passion and commitment by a number of the early modern natural
philosophers such as Isaac Newton and Joseph Priestley, who themselves were
major rhetorical innovators and influences in shaping the genre. The normative
rules, roles, tools of investigation, production of journals, the positioning of
scientists with respect to other contemporary socio-cultural entities, and other
aspects of the social and activity structure of science evolved simultaneously
with the discursive forms of participation—with major consequences for how
knowledge was produced, what forms it appeared in, and what counted as
Devitt (1991), similarly, was able to identify the activity of working tax
accountants with the production of a set of genres of tax letters that sat in
particular relation to the tax code and the client’s financial records. Each of
the letter types was positioned somewhat differently with respect to client
and government documents and needs, carrying out a different action, in a
distinctive form. Yet together, in comprising a case file, they together defined
the actions taken on behalf of a client in a case. Schryer (1994) similarly has
examined the way alternative reporting forms for veterinary care are tied to basic
alternatively different versions of what the activity of veterinary care is about;
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
she also notes how adherence to one or another form covers over unresolved
tensions and contradictions in the field.
Certain central documents may take a major role not only in defining the
terms of a social activity system, but in organizing the genres of surrounding
discourse. McCarthy (1991), for example, has examined how in psychiatry
the Diagnostic Statistical Manual in its various editions and revisions was
intended precisely to be such a vehicle of disciplinary organization and has
succeeded in creating a common nomenclature and nosology (taxonomy of
diseases or disorders), and has influenced all other documents of the field from
the production of case notes to admission documents, case write-ups, patient
records, and insurance reporting forms. A follow-up study (McCarthy &
Gerring, 1994), however, also reveals how political negotiation of nomenclature
leaves fundamental medical contradictions unresolved beneath institutional
decisions. This is similar to the findings in Bazerman, 1987a that institutional
regulation of the forms of reporting in experimental psychology achieved
through dominant groups in the American Psychological Association in the
middle of the twentieth century, kept unresolved contradictions in the field that
became visible again in the latter part of the century as theoretical interests in
the field opened.
Related genre work (reviewed in Russell, 1997b and Bazerman, 2008) makes
similar points. In order to provide some theoretical model for these organizational
coherences, I presented a model of how genres stand in recognizable relation
to each other within social groupings, often with implications for typical
and coherent sequences of production of documents within social structural
constraints (Bazerman 1994a, 1994b). Thus, for example, in classrooms,
syllabus sheets assigning readings are typically followed by students reading those
assignments in advance of lectures and discussions; these are then followed by
paper assignment sheets, submission of papers, and teacher comments. All ends
with exams and grade sheets. Any missing or weakly performed component
in this sequence disables the continuation of the genre sequence and learning
activity, and disorganization of sequence can lead to incoherence in the activity.
Russell (1997a) explicitly ties this notion of systems of genre to Engeström’s
model of activity systems, with attention to the particular problem of
understanding the relationship of classroom activity systems with various
public and professional discourses related to the course discipline. My book
on the Languages of Edison’s Light concretely attempts to trace the historical
development of the discourse activity systems Edison must engage in and then
locate his interventions within specific moments and sequences of utterances
within these activity systems (Bazerman, 1999a).
A Theory of Literate Action
Because writing is embedded within social systems, both the activities and
the systems are open for reflection at each juncture. Indeed almost every act of
writing requires reflection and thought—in part because the writing is likely
to occur at some physical and temporal remove from the exigencies that drive
it and the people who are to be influenced by it. Only in very immediate and
brief writing, such as when we are asked to fill in our name on a form by
a clerk standing next to us, might we carry out writing with little thought.
Rather, acting through a second order symbolic system with signs on the page
to contemplate, we are likely to think about what we are doing even though the
depth of contemplation and understanding may vary,
This reflective cognition opens up the opportunity for rethinking our aims
and our place within the activity system. Each new act of reading and writing
reinvigorates and in a sense remakes the activity system, carrying it forward.
The more we are able to reflect on the system, the greater the possibility for
adjustment, change, remaking, and reinvigoration. The reflection may be
directed at any aspect of the activity system, whether the choice between two
near-synonymous words to evoke different sets of associations or the choice
of fundamental strategies to engage audiences in issues they have not been
attending to. Even attempts to transgress, surprise, or disrupt require reflection
on the usual patterns of discursive activities so as to know where one might
most effectively plant one’s provocations and disruptive surprises.
At the same time as refection allows potentially broad-ranging contemplation,
creativity, and reconfiguration of activities, the orderliness of activity systems serves
to reduce the necessary sphere of contemplation, perception, and cognition—as
suggested by Edwin Hutchins’ (1995) study of navigation techniques in traditional
cultures and modern naval systems. In the cases Hutchins studies, the techniques
and tools of navigations focus the individual navigators carrying out specific
limited tasks which are then collected and coordinated by other collaborating
individuals. Each person only has limited tasks to accomplish. For a deckhand on
a naval aircraft carrier this may mean aligning an identified site point to a cross
hair in a sighting tool and then at designated moments calling out a number
indicating the placement of the crosshair on a scale on the navigational tool. Such
numbers permit the captain to align a caliper-like tool on a map, marking the
position of the ship and setting a line for the continuing course of the ship.
For writers, the orderliness of genres constrains and focuses the writing
task. A person writing a research report on a psychological experiment knows
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
specific things should be attended to and specific kinds of information should
be reported in the text according to a fairly stable and recognizable organization,
deploying standard formulations, techniques, and phrases. One hardly has to
create a text ex nihilo or search the whole world for relevant material and phrases.
Similarly, someone reading that report can approach it with a fairly focused set
of expectations of what to look for and what interpretive and critical techniques
that need to be deployed (Bazerman, 1985, 1987a). Writers and readers can,
therefore, limit their conscious reflection and choice-making to a few issues,
unless they uncover serious contradictions, problems, or limitations that
challenge the standard way of doing things and taken-for-granted knowledge.
Such contradictions and disruptions may lead writers and readers into what are
considered the deeper questions of the field. In research and knowledge-producing
fields these deeper questions concern assumptions, standard investigative and
argumentative procedures, the codified knowledge relied on from the literature,
theoretical predispositions, and the very social organization of the epistemic or
activity field. Each of these questions has consequences for writing. Similarly, in
business fields such issues as basic economic relations, marketing and production
strategies, organization and task structure, and representation of products all
have consequences for reshaping writing and organizational collaborative writing
practices to carry out one’s business effectively.
The third member of Vygotsky’s troika, Alexander Romanovich Luria,
focused on functional systems within the individual rather than within the
social activity system, as Leont’ev had. Luria became widely known in the West
for his work on cognitive neuroscience, which grew out of his work on brain
damage and aphasias. But his work was directed by interests that preceded his
work on brain physiology, and his findings in neuroscience are consistent with
his findings from psychological and developmental studies. He viewed the brain
not as the aggregate of specific locales each with discrete knowledge or directing
a discrete skill (nor did he take the extreme opposite view that the brain operated
only and always as a whole), but rather he viewed the brain as the differentiated
neural ground on which functional systems developed as the child grew through
activity-driven social experience and learned language which mediated most
social activities. The development of spoken language was particularly crucial
for the development of higher mental processes and functions. These functional
systems brought into dynamic relation multiple parts of the differentiated
brain directed from the cortical regions. Spoken language provides the means
A Theory of Literate Action
for conscious and voluntary action and is implicated in all higher mental
functioning (see Vocate, 1987).
We can see Luria’s interest in role of language most explicitly in the twin
study (Luria, 1979; Luria & Yudovitch, 1959). A pair of five-year-old male
twins, as a consequence of delayed phonological development, had only limited
and idiosyncratic language development, and largely communicated only with
each other. They mostly played with each other in embodied action, rather
than language-guided interaction. When entering a kindergarten they did not
play much with peers and had limited abilities in such creative tasks as blockbuilding
or role playing. They had almost no narrative or planning speech. After
investigators separated the twins to aid in their social, linguistic, and intellectual
development, the one with the least language development was given special
instruction in discriminating and articulating sounds and in engaging in adult
speech. After ten months of separation both children had developed in their
general use of language and in their use of narrative and planning speech. Even
more strikingly, the more backward child who received special instruction
wound up using more narrative and about the same amount of planning
speech as the child who was originally more advanced linguistically. Both the
planning speech and narrative speech of the child with extra training were
more likely to apply to objects not in the immediate environment. Further, this
child had a greater ability to comprehend complex grammatical constructions
and inflections. The growth in language of both twins correlated with major
changes in their play incorporating objects into their plans and game rules. The
play became restructured around verbally formulated projects and articulated
objectives. The child with additional training, although previously the follower
in the twins’ play, had become the leader, learned more rapidly, and assimilated
more easily new learning into his activity.
Throughout his career Luria carried out a number of similar studies, from
his early studies with Vygotsky on the use of signs to aid in the organization
and regulation of tasks to work in the 1950s on verbal regulation and inhibition
of behavior. In these latter experiments, for example, two-year-olds, holding a
rubber bulb, when told to squeeze the bulb when a red light appeared, would
immediately squeeze upon hearing the word “squeeze.” Further, they would not
squeeze when the red light appeared. Children at age three and four, however,
were able to follow instructions, regulating their behavior accordingly. Further
complications appeared when children were given two differently colored
lights to respond to or were given instructions not to press. Not until age six
could the children consistently regulate their behavior according to complex
verbal instructions, although even the youngest child subjects could repeat
the instructions and apparently understood them at a verbal level. Children
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
with learning disabilities had greater specific problems with these tasks through
later ages. Luria interpreted his results around the development of higher
order regulation of complex behaviors based on the internalized meanings of
words gradually overtaking “natural” responses regulated by immediate stimuli
(whether material or verbal) (Luria, 1961).
These studies provide some insight into Luria’s longitudinal study of
someone with an extraordinary memory begun in the 1920s and continuing
into the 1950s (Luria, 1968). The subject’s powerful eidetic memory worked
through direct images, associating words with verbal images, synesthesia, and
direct sensory perceptions or associations, but the memory seemed unordered,
unregulated and undirected by verbal means. At times the subject even failed to
notice the sense, meaning, or logical sequencing of material he memorized. He
constructed complex eidetic schemes where a simple noticing of symbols, such as
a numerical or alphabetic sequence, would serve. His typical method of ordering
was to place various images along a mentally imagined road or a hallway, and
then to mentally walk down the road calling out what he saw. These memories
were so powerfully planted as direct sense perception, as eidetic memory, that his
mind became cluttered with unforgettable images, particularly as he earned his
living as an entertainer performing prodigious feats of memory. He tried various
devices of sensory imagination to expunge these memories, such as erasing a
mental blackboard or covering it over with a canvas. However, such devices
frequently failed and memories of images from previous memory performances
would return. He then attempted to write the material down which he wished to
forget, under the reasoning that if it were written down he would no longer need
to remember. But even this did not work. Only when he noticed that a memory
did not appear and he was able to tell himself it was because he didn’t want it
to appear that he was no longer bothered with unwanted memory. Although
this process, as Luria notes, is somewhat mysterious, the verbal regulation of his
mental process, announcing to himself that he did not want to remember these
images, was an important part of the process.
The role of consciousness as substantive parts of people’s life is thematic
in Luria’s work. Investigating the role of consciousness in a person’s mental
operations and behavior led Luria to what he called a romantic science, which
attempts to understand human mind and behavior in all its richness rather than
to reduce psychology to abstracted principles. Thus his study of a man with a
war-time brain injury (Luria, 1972) was not so much the story of a reduced
capacity as of how the person coped with the new conditions of mental life he
found himself living with. Within the capacity and tools available to the self, a
person must create functional systems to carry out the operations, actions, and
activities of life. Under normal circumstances many of the functional systems
A Theory of Literate Action
arise in a preconscious coordination of the parts of brain and behavior—
though complex functional systems may develop later in life, building on
early established functional systems and integrating tools, artifacts, and social
organization. Under more extraordinary conditions, the individual must
consciously create new functional systems to do what other people do without
conscious thought, such as relearning to read after parts of the visual processing
mechanisms having been destroyed by brain injury. In recent decades Oliver
Sacks has pursued romantic science exploring individual personalities coming
to live with atypical neuropsychological or perceptual conditions (See O. Sacks,
1985, 1989, 1995, 1996).
One of the important implications of functional systems and their
reconstruction incorporating tools, artifacts, and social organization is that the
specific cognitive functional systems involved in reading and writing need not
have evolved over a long biological heritage nor be present and activated in the
early development of embryo and infant. Rather, they may develop late within
human history in concert with the historical emergence and elaboration of the
potentials of written language over the last five thousand years, although built
on upon earlier and longer-standing human biological capacities and social
inventions, such as language. The functional systems associated with language
become transformed and reconfigured as they are applied to written language.
Thus, while directives and even principles of justice could be articulated in purely
oral conditions, only with the emergence of written laws could the relationship
of large and complex sets of laws be readily examined, compared, regulated, and
ordered. The cognitive functional systems of modern legal thought would not
only be of little use under oral conditions, they would have little occasion to be
used and therefore to develop.
Similarly, in each child organized approaches to reading and writing emerge
only well into a child’s development, typically at the fourth or fifth year or
later, building on earlier biological capacities, cultural resources, and social
experiences. Even at the level of visual perception, eyes need to be trained to
focus on small marks on a page (which the young child notices older children and
adults orienting towards), scan in the organized path of the particular writing
system (such as right to left and then down the page), make fine discriminations
between letters, organize letter perceptions within words, and then regulate it all
by assigning meaning to the collections of marks. Similarly, learning to inscribe
letters requires the development of functional systems that are dependent on
cultural practices embodied in the writing system (such as alphabetic, syllabic,
or ideographic), the technologies of inscription (stylus, pencil or keyboard),
and the associated motor skills. Beyond these most basic skills are the many
systems of interpretation, contemplation, personal association, evaluation,
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
stance taking, synthesis, and idea building which may occur largely internally
(though having their origin in some interpersonal experience and training). The
development of our cognitive capacities employing literacy is a major theme of
the entire educational system.
Since literacy is such a late arrival in human evolution, it is unlikely
there are biologically determined pathways for the cognitive development of
the fully functional systems of literate participation, although some lowerlevel
components such as visual discrimination and motor control do have
biological substrates. Consequently there is no biological guarantee that literate
systems will regularly develop in different individuals in the same way. That
is, individuals may address the challenges and solutions of meaning making
from signs differently. Each person building on biological constraints and
affordances, must innovatively build their own functional cognitive systems out
of their experiences, instructions, and the existing prior relevant systems they
can bring to bear to the task.
Because literacy involves such a later-adopted restructuring of consciousness
around newly developed functional systems that embody and adapt to new
cultural tools, Luria clearly distinguished between spoken and written language
and had only limited comments on writing, primarily to distinguish it from
spoken language and to identify its onset as a new stage in development. In
an early article, from 1929 (Luria, 1978), he points out that children first
learn writing only as a series of scrawls, thinking that this external practice
is the full extent of what is entailed in writing, and only later does the child
start to develop an understanding of how signs are distinguished and meaning
mediated by them. Thus the process of understanding meaning transmission
and construction within literacy does not flow directly and naturally from
an understanding and use of spoken language, but develops through the
formation of new functional systems. Writing near the end of his short life
Vygotsky (1978) has similar but more developed comments about the way in
which children move from a sense of writing as an external practice to a sense
of graphic symbolic communication through drawing and then only after the
transcription of sounds that themselves convey meaning—a sign of a sign, as
Vygotsky says. That is, in alphabetic languages the letters signify sounds and
then the sounds are the vehicles of the meaning.
Following this perception that different functional systems must be developed
to process meanings embodied in written language, Luria says that higher mental
processes have two distinctive components that differ in origin, function, and
structure. Among the differences that Luria notes between learning speech and
writing is that the embodied physical context that usually accompanies spoken
language aids in its interpretation, whereas written language must typically
A Theory of Literate Action
carry more of its situation and meaning through its own verbal presentation—
thus adding a conceptual abstraction of situation to the abstraction of phonetic
expression and the relation of phonetic expression to meaning.
Because of this removal from the immediate situation and the engagement
with texts that seem to draw us out of our immediate behavioral contexts,
written language is much more deeply implicated with inner speech than
spoken language. While reading and writing may originally have been associated
with spoken performance and rehearsal of texts—scripting of speeches and
communication of personal messages through letters read aloud—yet over time
written language use moved inward as people read extended texts to themselves
whether or not they vocalized the words or adopted the later practice of silent
reading. Similarly, writers as they gain in skill develop ever more extended texts,
prepared at their isolated desks to be delivered for other people’s contemplation.
The semi-privacy and delayed release of writing has created extended space for
composing processes of interaction with one’s own emerging text, available for
planning, reflection, evaluation, self-censorship, revision and refinement. These
composing activities support the development of more elaborated and extended
consciousnesses. Luria noted this very close association between written
language and inner speech, and suggested this as another reason writing needed
to be considered separate from spoken language in its effects on cognition and
consciousness (Luria, 1970).
In order to explore this new level of consciousness that Luria and Vygotsky
associated with the onset of literacy, they undertook some expeditions in the
1930s to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia in order to understand the
reasoning processes of peasants with little experience of schooling or literacy.
Using ethnography, interviews, and puzzle tasks, they found that those with
less schooling tended to answer questions and solve puzzles more on the basis
of their own experience and immediate knowledge than on logical abstractions,
deductive reasoning, superordinate categorization, and similar devices associated
with uses of literacy in schooling. While they attributed the differences primarily
to the acquisition of literacy, there was no attempt to disentangle the effects of
cultural experience of schooling from the learning of literacy, nor was there any
attempt to document the particular experiences and uses of literacy within the
lives of the communities and individual studies. Rather literacy was treated as
an undifferentiated new stage of consciousness. The studies of Scribner and
Cole (1981) disentangle these effects more precisely, and point toward how
culturally specific the uses and practices of literacy are and correspondingly how
specific and varying the cognitive consequences are.
Scribner and Cole’s studies were in response to a large number of studies
during the sixties and seventies that explored the cognitive consequences of
Chapter 3 Vygotskian Traditions
literacy (by such people as Goody, 1977; Havelock, 1971, 1981; Ong, 1958,
1982) that considered the consequences of literacy to be general and uniform.
When this earlier work is reinterpreted through lenses of cultural specificity and
social history (as Goody began to do in the Logic of Writing and the Organization
of Society, 1986), this opens up an analysis of how human cognition has changed
in relation to the emerging functional social systems of literacy (Bazerman,
2006) as well as the cognitive functional systems of individuals (Bazerman,
Since literacy itself is an historical cultural accomplishment, we would
expect cultural practices to loom large in guiding individual development, such
as the Jewish practice of placing honey on letters so the child can associate
written words with basic biological pleasures. The frequent ritual oral repetition
of certain communal texts in public can shape the functional systems of literacy
as can extensive, structured phonics instruction, or the ambient profusion of
texts incorporated in daily life activities. Our ways of incorporating literacy
into our cognitive practices can be influenced by a cultural expectation that
we use literacy to memorize and hold texts precisely fixed or that we use it
for creative projection of personal meanings. Equally, social environments of
argument over texts, or of fear of the power of words to control one’s life, or
of irreverent humor supporting heterodox culture will all influence how the
individual orients toward literate activity and constructs functional systems to
Our functional systems of literacy develop in relation to social circumstances
and practices and in relation to our capacities evoked in such circumstances.
Even within homogenous cultures, individuals may come to interpret texts
differently and to write different texts, both within the bounds of orthodoxy
and on the transgressive edge of heterodoxy. When cultures support profusion
of experiences and novelty of expression, the individuality of development
flowers into great differences of interpretation and expression in many
domains, from poetry to business plans to theories of fundamental particles.
The styles, relations to audiences, text organizations and processes proliferate
as individuality of literate experiences is supported and rewarded. Writing
development, rather than moving towards a single ideal, proliferates differences
and the most developed writers write the most uniquely, even though some
limited aspects (such as spelling, grammar, or even preferred style) may be
regulated by cultural norms. The importance of both culture and individual
experience in writing development bring together Leont’ev’s social approach to
functional activity systems and Luria’s more individual approach to functional
systems. Individuals develop their internal functional systems of reading
and writing while participating and establishing roles within the communal
A Theory of Literate Action
functional activity systems in evolving societies. This interconnection between
individual and social development should caution us against over-generalizing
about the cognitive systems engaged in literacy, even though reading and writing
are fundamentally cognitive acts of meaning making.
The elaboration of Vygotsky’s work by his collaborators and heirs, Leont’ev
and Luria, helps give further shape to our understanding of humans as active
social symbolic selves, developing consciousness in relation to language uses
that arise within our organized social lives and employing our historically
developed cultural tools. Spoken language and then written language transform
consciousness and allow us to participate in more complex and reflective
activities and actions. In the next two chapters we will explore some parallel
developments in European and American social science that provide different
perspectives on the forms of expression, consciousness, and social organization
that have been intertwined with the development of literacy.

By reading and writing, people act socially and symbolically, constituting
themselves, their orientations, attention, relevancies, and consciousnesses in
relation to social communicative interactions. The Soviet Russian psychological
tradition, as we have seen in the previous two chapters, provides some means for
understanding how the individual within social interaction develops the means
for self-regulation of behavior and for carrying out social interaction, forming a
cognitive organization and a consciousness built upon the neurobiology of the
brain that becomes elaborated through participation in social activity systems.
In the course of developing such social selves individuals are also building a
social world, a world saturated with meaning and human activity. Reading and
writing are means not only of building individual consciousness and shaping
individual action of the literate person, they are also means of the developing the
collective thoughts and interactive organizations of the societies within which
individuals develop their lives and consciousnesses. Thus there is a dialectical
relationship between the psychological and sociological.
For example, the texts of popular political parody, government constitution,
political theory and analysis, and the like provide the terms within which
politically oriented youth develop their personal thoughts and in which
politically engaged groups develop their ideas and plans. They are also the
means by which individuals and groups engage in political action, attempting
to influence candidates and issues. Politically oriented youths affiliate with
groups, extend their awareness of the texts viewed relevant, and seek to
make their ideas more widely known and directly realized in the workings of
government. In doing all this they contribute to a climate within which further
new generations will form their political consciousnesses and engagements. Of
course, immediate face-to-face interaction, experience, need, and passion are
important shapers and drivers of political culture. Nonetheless, in a literate
world through texts individuals learn facts about situations occurring outside
their immediate observation and gain access to ideas and experiences of nonpresent
others. Texts, additionally, can be used to plan and coordinate work
of local and more extended groups. Further, modes of thought and analysis
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
characteristic of literacy are likely to influence political stances and shared texts
are likely to be discussed and form common bonds among the politically active.
Even more, the reach and delivery of political words and news of actions are
extended and transformed through the circulation of texts, so that individuals
and groups orient to larger political units beyond the local town such as the
province, nation, or international bodies. Thus the nature of political individuals
and political culture change through the communicative means which form the
medium of knowledge, thought, expression and action for both individual and
The next four chapters explore some theoretic grounds for understanding
the relation of psychology and sociology by examining several related traditions
of European and American sociology arising out of phenomenology and
pragmatism. Along the way we will draw some connections with Russian sociocultural
psychology. The aim of examining these several traditions remains
the understanding of the modes of being that are developed, carried out and
transformed through the inventive means of written language. While this account
may at times appear to extend some distance beyond writing, we will regularly
return to consider implications for literate modes of interaction and being.
Miller’s (1984) move to see genre as an instance of Schutz’s typification
process (Schutz 1967b; Schutz & Luckmann, 1973) provided a key link in
our understanding of text as social action and as constitutive of the social
order. Miller’s recognition was paralleled independently by Schutz’s followers
who considered genre as a typifying force. Here we will be looking into the
problems and reasoning that led Schutz to his central concept of typification
and to some of the extensions and implications he drew. This examination of
Schutz will provide resources for understanding genre as typification and its
role in constituting individual consciousness and social order. This examination
will also provide a vehicle for understanding the relation of contemporary
genre studies to the several lines of sociological research that have been deeply
influenced by Schutz.
Alfred Schutz (1899—1959) was a banker, economist, and social
philosopher, first in Vienna and then migrating to New York in 1938 when
Germany annexed Austria. As a member of the Austrian school of economics
he was much concerned with grounding issues of economic behavior and,
by extension, grounding issues of the social sciences. After immigrating to
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the United States he continued his career as a banker but also affiliated with
the New School, becoming the foremost spokesman for phenomenology
and phenomenological sociology in the post war period, influencing many
developments in microsociology, ethnomethodology, conversational analysis,
and interactional analysis (Heritage, 1984), to be examined in Chapter 7.
While most commentators see Schutz’s career in banking and economics
as separate from his philosophic interests, Prendergast (1986) persuasively
identifies the roots of Schutz’s interest in processes in social typification lying
within problems of economic behavior that troubled him and his colleagues
in Austria at the start of his career. The problem may be stated as follows: The
principle of marginal utility (the most distinctive contribution of Austrian
economics) rests on a simplified model of human behavior as dictated by a
rational calculation of self-interest, based on knowledge of markets in relevant
goods with few extra-economic, extra-market considerations. This model
is the well-known homo economicus acting with other rational self-interested
individuals in a market which contains all information necessary for acting
within it. The concept of homo economicus stands behind much of modern
economics and dates back at least to the time of Adam Smith: it has also been
from the beginning regularly critiqued as a narrow fiction. Schutz wondered
how it was that this clearly fictive assumption that reduces the complexities of
human behavior in patently unrealistic ways still produces accounts of behavior
that are highly predictive for economic behavior within markets. Further, he
wondered, given that we have no direct and unmediated access to the thoughts
of others, how can we with any confidence make any assumption about their
motives and the meaning of their choice making.
In grappling with these problems, Schutz turned to Husserl’s phenomenology
(1964). In so doing Schutz transformed phenomenology from a philosophic
inquiry into a sociological method and ontology, as a way to understand how
individuals came to act and attribute meaning according to socially constructed
ideas and structures. One of the major vehicles for this transformation was a
synthesis with Max Weber’s sociological method of ideal types, which Weber saw
as the fundamental method of sociology. Schutz (1967a) argued that ideal types
were not only an analytical method of sociologists but also the practical method
by which individuals made sense of their social world, developed guidelines for
their own choices and behavior, and came to attribute meaning to their own
actions and the actions of others. In proposing a solution to the problem of
economic behavior using a general philosophic method of phenomenology and
a general sociological method of ideal types, Schutz developed an approach to
understanding all forms of social behavior and a general model for a unified
social science.
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
His proposal, in short, was that individuals, in order to participate in what
they see as a meaningful or useful social arena, take on what they believe to be
principles of that arena. They then use those principles to guide their own behavior
and to make their behavior meaningful and intelligible to other participants.
Whatever their underlying motives and thoughts are, as the impulses become
realized within social action, impulses take on the forms of social types. Those
types in turn provide a cognitive orientation for the individual, establishing
patterns and principles of thought and identifying relevant knowledge that the
individual brings to bear on the circumstances. Thus if you depend on a market
where you trade goods and money based on their perceived value to you, you
will begin to adopt a perspective of marginal utility, calculating which goods
would grant you the greatest satisfaction of desires, given the relative prices
of goods, the amount you already own, and the additional cost and pleasure
attached to each increment under current market conditions. Further, you
will gather information relating to goods, desires, the desires of others with
whom you would buy and sell, and so on. In short, you would develop the
consciousness of a rational economic actor in the market in the course of
making choices within that market. The principles of economic behavior are
therefore not essential and unchangeable facts of human psychology—they are
rather patterns of behavior associated with particular market formations which
individuals orient towards and adapt themselves to by acting typically within
such markets. Even if individuals are not at first oriented towards markets but
find themselves living within market economies, where to meet their needs and
desires they by necessity must adopt a market orientation, they are drawn into
a nexus of economic reasoning which may come to dominate their life-world.
Thus laborers as much as capitalists are drawn into the cash nexus. In a cash
economy, monks are freed to contemplate other matters only if they have a
protective institution that takes care of economic matters for them.
Although Schutz seemed unaware of it, Adam Smith, a century and half
before, advocated the idea of rational economic behavior as a social fiction that
if adopted by all people would provide a basis for an economic socio-political
order. Thus Smith attempted to enlist people into the very capitalist system
of economic behavior that Schutz was grappling with. Smith hardly believed
that humans naturally operated as homo economicus; rather, he followed Locke
and Hume in seeing individuals having idiosyncratic experiences leading them
to developing idiosyncratic sets of associations, with consequent divergent
perceptions, desires, beliefs, behaviors, and guiding principles. Smith did,
however, note that the general patterns of life and economic circumstances—
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the activities and forms of production one engaged in as well as the particular
circumstances and dilemmas of individual lives—provided some clues on
which to construct a sympathetic understanding of the range of thought and
knowledge as well as the particular choices they might make. He further noted
that humans had the unfortunate tendency to affiliate with and be deferential to
those whom they perceived to “be their betters,” those who stood hierarchically
above them in contemporary systems of social order. People, nonetheless, also
had a tendency to want to better themselves within those same circumstances
and orders. Humans in Smith’s eyes were hardly rational creatures. They
tended to remain committed to hierarchical societies dominated by church
and monarchy, despite the exploitation and lack of needs satisfaction they
experienced within those social orders. He did feel, however, that they would be
more likely to pursue their own interests more consistently and rationally (and
therefore participate in a society more directed by local knowledge and providing
for a greater satisfaction of their perceived needs), if they were convinced to
pursue their impulse to better themselves and if there were available a universal
mechanism of exchange that would allow them to pursue their own individual
notions of betterment (Smith, 1978).
Money and markets were to be that mechanism. If people could be convinced
to see money as the universal means to satisfy their diverse needs, desires, and
interests, then they would all pursue those interests through economic exchange
within markets, which would then provide a universal site of social ordering
and affiliation. As Marx (1909) would say, all would be drawn into the cash
nexus once they adopted this economic attitude, and this nexus would be selfregulating
and universally motivating, and thereby be so powerful as to provide
a compelling alternative to hierarchical forms of social domination.
Smith’s project to enlist people into market behavior directly implied
the Schutzian concept of typifications. The types of behavior appropriate to
markets would frame modes of consciousness, into which desire and motive
would be channeled. Schutz, however, generalized this idea beyond the
economic rationality that one engages in to participate in markets to the forms
of consciousness one develops in participating in any specialized domain. Thus a
chess player in entering into a chess game adopts certain motives and principles
of choice-making that comprise the typical attitude of the chess player. As a
person becomes more serious in their orientation and psychic commitment to
the game, that person takes on the typical motives and consciousness of a chess
player. We can readily specify the kinds of things the player wonders about, the
kinds of plans they make, and the kinds of choices they confront. As the person
moves through various levels of skill, we can even begin to specify some of the
different levels of consideration they are likely to process rapidly or even know
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
automatically. We can as well identify some of the new areas of consideration
where they are likely to attend to more consciously and intently as they advance
in their skill. Indeed learning at the higher levels in part means learning to
attend to the kinds of considerations the better players attend to. These levels
are historically emergent as newly discovered principles of useful strategy; thus
the history of chess thought is usually recounted by the types of strategic and
tactical thinking introduced in each period. Further, as chess becomes a larger
part of a player’s life, such as among professionals, we can specify the kinds of
concerns and orientations they adopt in building a chess career and adopting
the chess way of life.
Equally we can say that the fourteenth century Venetian entering into the
world of courtiers, or the late nineteenth century educated New Englander
entering into the world of poetry, or the twenty-first century web designer
entering the competitive workplace each absorb the modes of thought and
action they perceive as typical of those domains, even as they attempt to innovate
in their interests and establish their distinctive qualities within the criteria of
excellence of their times. This is the insight developed by Bourdieu in analyzing
the fields of artistic production and the ways one distinguishes oneself to adopt
a unique position within a structured field of endeavor (Bourdieu, 1984, 1993).
Insofar as the person is immersed within a specific domain and activity system,
we can begin to describe the orientation, motives, organization, and typical
contents of her or his consciousness, and describe her or his individuality in
dialectic with the typicality of the time, place, and domain.
Further, our familiarity with that domain and the cognitive orientation of
the other participants allows us to understand and appreciate what others do.
People in an economic market can make deals with each other because they know
reliably what kinds of actions the other will take along with their motives and
reasonings. Thus they can shake hands on a deal, knowing paperwork, products,
and payments will follow in what is considered a timely and appropriate way.
Of course, they are also aware of the kinds of ways others may attempt to take
advantage of them and are on the lookout for the forms of cheating that have
developed in those domains. At the same time, experienced practitioners will
be in a position to recognize what might count as a reliable partner and a good
deal. They can also appreciate the truly novel or clever move in their world in
the way outsiders cannot. Similarly, skilled chess players are able to understand
the moves of players at or just above their level, and even appreciate a move
that pushes the play to a new level or escapes the bounds of the expected to
gain an unanticipated advantage. The meaning or value of that admirable move
would escape players at a level that has not yet introduced them to the way if
thinking that makes the move intelligible. Courtiers can understand what other
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courtiers are doing, as can people initiated into particular poetic worlds best
understand what poets in that world are doing, and experienced web designers
can understand the meaning and motive of an innovation.
The many practical guides to participating in a field (whether how to invest
in the stock market, be a courtier, play the middle game in chess, or design web
sites) provide information for people entering into a domain, before they have
internalized these typical orientations and guidelines into their own practice.
Such guidebooks attest to the strong impulse we have to reflexively understand
and articulate the principles of acting within particular spheres and the need for
training in specialized modes of thought to maximize performance. Similarly,
the many interpretations and appreciations—whether accounts of exemplary
courtiers, analyses of chess games, interpretations of poems, or critiques of
web-designs—suggest how specialized knowledge of the typified act aids
understanding and appreciation, thereby expanding our consciousness within
the realm, giving us more resources to think with when engaged in that realm.
This understanding of typifications never lets us into the full stream of
consciousness of the individual, as Schutz points out. Rather, it only lets us
anticipate the general outlines of consciousness, and then read back from
the particulars of public performance, behavior, or accomplishments what
the individual was likely to have contemplated and intended specifically. The
thoughts that the person rejected as irrelevant or the thinking about other
things (worrying about Uncle Joe’s health while playing the chess game) that do
not obviously derive from the activity or resources translated from outside the
domain are opaque and invisible. In the emergent production earlier thought,
contemplated behavior, and mood fall away, and we are only left with what the
person brings into the public arena in the form they bring it. The individual
acting too is left with the emergent public product as a public commitment and
identity. Ultimately all that mediates between us is what has been externalized
(See Thomason, 1982).
Our prospective motives of what we might desire to do, furthermore, are
directed by our understanding of the way the action realm works and what
actions are typically successful. We can only anticipate going to market to sell
our agricultural produce if a marketplace exists, and we can only desire to learn
the musical instruments we have seen and heard. Even if we are to innovate
in organizing a public square to transform prior irregular trades or to create
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
a new stringed instrument, we still work from what we have seen and heard
before to imagine improved possibilities. Just as we form our own participation
and orientation out of what we internalize from the activity world around us,
what we add to that world is only what we manage to externalize. It is those
externalizations that provide information for others to understand our behavior
within its typified realms, and for them to construct their constantly evolving
and emergent notions of what is typical in those realms, thus orienting their
own behaviors and consciousness. They now can organize their lives to come
to the regular Tuesday market, or they can learn to play a new instrument and
explore its musical potential. Further, our own reflexive awareness of our actions
within that typified realm provide us information about our own identities,
commitments, and actions, upon which we may base our after-the-fact accounts
of motives. We become merchants or mayors, violin players or composers, as we
participate and succeed in our activities and carry on future actions based on
our experiences and successes.
This dynamic dialectic of internalization of existing social forms to provide
the grounds of action and the externalization of material actions with material
consequences that remain after the evanescence of our internal processes creates
some of the deepest puzzles and tensions of writing. This dialectic is in the
difficulty we have in locating or composing the state of mind from which our
meanings will flow; it is in the feeling that our words do not fully reflect what
we feel; it is in the surprise we find to read what we have written; and it is in
the surprise we have when we find others understand something different in our
words than we intended. This dialectic is also in the contradiction between the
conviction we may have that the meanings we get from texts seem so profound
and robust and yet the recognition that written language is a fragile vessel for
evanescent cargos of internally perceived meanings. (For an elaboration of
internalization and externalization processes from a Vygotskian perspective,
with specific attention to the role of concepts and concept language in writing,
see Bazerman, 2012).
The specific resources, knowledges, memories, and other contents we bring
to bear in constructing these externalizations and that we represent within these
externalizations are driven by our sense of relevance for the project at hand. We
assemble what we think we need, based on what we think we are doing, shaped
by the typified project and the typified rules that we adopt as part of engaging in
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and understanding the project. Of all those things that might potentially come
to our mind or that we might search out in the library and world, our attention
focuses on just those things we view as enabling us to do what we are doing, as
we understand what we are doing (see Bazerman, 1985 for an example of how
writing intentions influence reading choices), and it is just those things that are
then available as we assemble our actions. For the process of writing this means
what we bring to bear as we assemble the text and what we display in the text
arises from a project-shaped consciousness. We are thinking to write and we are
writing with the contents we have mentally assembled as relevant within the
typified understandings of our projects.
A second kind of motive for identifying relevance occurs after the fact when
we need to give an account of our actions and the conditions that gave rise to
it, to justify or explain or take lessons from our actions. What is considered
relevant in such accounts, both in what enters our consciousness and emerges
within our externalized accounts, is what we understand to be relevant to such
accounts and which we believe our audiences will accept as relevant—and
thus we are accountable in typified ways. In our original projects, in fact, we
may anticipate such accountability needs by acting so as to provide evidence
of the “appropriateness” or “reasonableness” of our actions. Some projects
within their typifications already establish the need for such accounts of their
coming into being, as a scientific experimental paper requires an account of the
theory, previous findings, experimental methods, and laboratory events that are
claimed to have brought the experimental investigation and consequent paper
into being. That these are cleaned up to make more coherent and acceptable
accounts in the final externalized version (see Medawar, 1964; and Bazerman,
1988) is precisely to be anticipated given the Schutzian observation about the
emergent shape of typified behavior and consciousness, and the slipping away of
those things viewed as irrelevant, outside the project, or non-normative within
the activity world. Typifications in this way control our horizon of attention
and what is viewed as unproblematically appropriate to such actions, and
accordingly obscure those things that might be perceived as not worth thinking
about or being discussed as part of the project we are engaged in.
Typification and relevance are so strong in shaping our consciousness and
horizons of attention as we are drawn into realms of activity and relationship,
that it is hard to remember that we could be thinking, perceiving, or doing
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
in any other way. Berger and Luckmann (1966) elaborate the reconstructive
nature of autobiography and memory to make sense of our lives. Further,
we tend to see things from the normalized perspective of their after-thefact
accomplishment rather than their in-the-making assemblage. Latour
(1987) in considering the difference between accounts of science-in-themaking
and science-already-made shows how much is obscured by viewing
completed projects as accomplishments rather than still open puzzles. What
we patch together through contingent choices thus comes to appear as the full
recognizable, natural, and complete acts rather than shaped by an historical
process of social construction of typifications.
This inability to see beyond the habituated typified order has been called the
natural attitude by Husserl (1964). This is particularly true of socially pervasive
practices which we are drawn into from earliest childhood, such as systems
of morality or family relationship or street navigation or communication
through language. Only through some unusual experience, reflective position,
or intentional inquiry are people able to step out of their naturalized world
to begin to perceive its arbitrariness, to see that there can be fundamentally
different ways of going about things, and to recognize those other ways are not a
priori inferior or unnatural. When a person starts to learn another language and
then finds in it different potentials of meaning, for example, then that person
can start to see the limits and particularity of the first language. Similarly for
writing there are many understandings and expectations of writing so deeply
tied to our primary places of learning of written language and reproduced in
institutions and practices of literacy throughout our society, it is hard to see
them as anything but natural, the only and right way to proceed with writing
and reading—whether at the level of spelling uniformity and adherence to
prescriptive grammars or at the level of what constitutes proper topics and selfrepresentation.
The practices, situations, and evaluative criteria of schooling
have been especially influential in creating our naturalized view of writing.
It is not only the early and pervasively engrained that can be the basis of
the natural attitude. When we spend a long time engaged in any practice it is
easy to forget that things could be otherwise. Even if in some moods we know
that alternative practices, projects, and relevancies are possible, an impassioned
commitment to a community or project may foster intolerance of alternative
domains of meaning that can be evoked by other approaches to writing. Many
scientists, lawyers, or even poets, so clearly engaged in historically emerged
literate practices which they themselves only learn in adolescence or later, believe
there is only one right and natural way to pursue their projects. Their views of
writing correspond to what they believe they ought to be doing as competent
practitioners, despite doubts that they cannot in every or any instance live up
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to the normative typified expectation. Self-castigation against an extreme and
inflexible typification of competence and the way things ought to be is rampant
in many domains of writing. Developing a comparative or historical interest, or
engaging in wide and varied practical experiences writing in multiple domains,
however, provides a way out of the “naturalness” of current modes of practice to
understand the arbitrariness and historical choice making that make expected
practices something other than eternal moral truths.
This process of taking culturally developed principles and typifications
as commitments for actions and thereby making them concrete in their
consequences is the process of reification (Thomason, 1982)—making the ideal
or ideological or conceptual materially consequential and factual within life.
Reifications of social practices become social facts. This social construction of
reified, naturalized orders, however, need not be taken as creating delusions,
although in some cases social facts may obscure facts readily apparent to those
adopting other perspectives. Reification only means our orienting to, taking
part in, and therefore bringing further into being some regime of activity,
relations, consciousness, and meaning associated with the invoked world.
We need not be blind to what is happening and how we construct the world
we live in. I can be quite well aware that I am entering into a world of chessplaying
or music making or legal argument, can be aware of the principles,
beliefs, and commitments I take on, and can notice the shifting weights of
relevance associated with this world. Equally I can notice the changes that
happen to my experience and thoughts as I become more heavily involved in
those domains. Indeed, people often reflectively notice and comment on just
those changes in themselves and their experiences at moments of transition. On
the other hand, we may enter into many regimes of reification long before we
have the reflective tools to notice, that we forget our prior states and moments
of transition as we move into compelling and encompassing regimes. Or we
may lack the motive, opportunity, or position to reflect upon our position.
Under such conditions our worldview may become so dominated by the artifice
of the regime and is so supported by the perceptions of co-participants, that
we become blind to the fact that our investment in this world was elective or
accidental. Rather, we attribute those investments and meanings as something
natural and eternal, grounded in a moral order that is beyond the human.
Violations of the expectations of such unreflective reified practices can be seen
as moral outrages and those who commit them as uncivilized, uneducated, or
otherwise seriously faulted and needing correction. A reflexive awareness of the
reification and naturalization processes that have established school practices
and social beliefs about writing can relieve us much of the sense of rectitude and
moral outrage that surrounds our view of our own and others’ writing.
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
Nonetheless, the whole idea of social construction has been met by some
with a kind of moral outrage, that it is akin to anarchy and nihilism, casting
us into radical relativism, throwing all meanings into skeptical disbelief (Sokal
& Bricmont, 1999). Even worse, recognition that all statements of knowledge
are socially constructed raises the fear that the material world is unknowable,
or rather that adherents of social construction are enemies of the scientific and
philosophic projects that attempt to know the world outside of our constructed
meanings. There have of course been many books and articles written on this
epistemological debate, both throughout the history of philosophy (starting
with Plato’s quarrel with the Sophists in the Gorgias) and more recently in
what have been called the science wars. Without engaging this full debate and
sidetracking the concerns of this volume, I just point out that Schutz was very
careful to make his concept of reification only a methodological principle, an
extension of the phenomenological epoché—a bracketing to hold in suspension
those things we take as natural so as to investigate how we take them to be
natural. He remained avowedly agnostic on the actually knowability of social
and material reality (Schutz, 1967a). The pragmatist tradition, the topic of the
next chapter, provides another way of conceiving this issue that get us outside of
dichotomies between socially constructed language and the experienced world
outside the world of representations. Pragmatism recognizes that we use language
as part of our living in material and social worlds with which we have extended
experience and in which we have continuing interests. This issue of how we
represent our experience of the world is for writing more than a philosophic
worry about the status of knowledge; it is a practical problem, as much writing
aims at some representation of the world around us. More particularly, writing
often draws its force and authority from its claimed accuracy or truthfulness of
representation of the world about us. Much writing, moreover, is specifically
driven by the attempt to create useful or accurate or truthful accounts of the
world we live in and experience.
Finally, it is sometimes claimed that reification (as further obscured by
naturalization) necessarily puts a wedge between the created meanings we
commit ourselves to and our true natures, creating a false consciousness and
giving rise to alienation. However, the view of reification here provides pathways
for the realization and development of ourselves; through participating in
socially typified projects, adopting the associated reifications, we realize social
and cultural possibilities. Reification threatens alienation only if we are drawn
into or compelled into typified actions that are not the realization of our
own impulses, but the impulses of others at odds with or inattentive to our
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needs and desires. The problem is not in the making of social meaning and
the participation in the socially constructed meaningful activities; it is in the
relationship between that activity and our own impulses and development, or
the organic evolution of social groupings we are part of to respond to changing
situations, needs, and possibilities.
Being able to articulate our own position and interests within available
genres and the associated activity systems can make those genres and associated
activity systems continuing sites for our own articulation, development
and expression of motives, thereby decreasing alienation from the ensuing
discourse. In articulating our interests we bring the particularity of our selves,
situations, knowledges, and resources to bear, which introduces novelty in the
genre. Participation in many discursive regimes may even require some degree
of novelty; it is one of the expectations of newspapers that they make us aware
of recent previously unreported events and of scientific papers that they propose
fresh findings or ideas to advance communal knowledge. Certain discursive
orders may cause us to bring in other resources, other thoughts into the activity
in ways appropriate to and intelligible within the type of the activity system
and mode of consciousness associated with it. Thus the novelist may draw on
personal experiences or historical accounts or new literary theories to make the
new novel fresh and different, while still being intelligible and marketable as a
novel. However, in becoming part of the world of the novel the original material
takes on rules, meanings, and functions appropriate to the world of the novel.
Yet no matter what combination of regimes is drawn on, no matter
how individual and subtle these are, they are nonetheless dependent on our
mechanisms for meaning making and interpretation in concrete circumstances.
This kind of complexity of multiple systems and specific contents is what
Geertz considered in his thick description (Geertz, 1980). The building of
complexity and novelty of meaning from the fundamental mechanisms of
situated understanding is also most relevant in understanding the particularity
of individual written statements. People are constantly doing new things
through writing, and readers are, with varying levels of motivation and success
grappling with new meanings, while still drawing on typifications. Schutz,
however, in a number of his most prominent publications has only a single
vaguely described mechanism for moving beyond the most gross and distant
typifications: getting to know an individual more personally and intimately. He
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
characterizes personal knowledge as something entirely different from typified
knowledge, eventually displacing typifications in cases of personal relationship.
He sees our relationships on a spectrum ranging from the most typified and
anonymous to the most individual and personal, with the great majority of our
relationships in the world as being highly typified and anonymous. We know
the postal clerk as a postal clerk and relate to that person as a postal clerk. In
our office we adopt the role of our professional position and relate to others
through those roles. As we develop more personal relationships with others and
move out of the realm of the anonymous, we treat them and understand them
in less typified ways.
While there is a general descriptive truth to this, I find it unfortunate in
implying that in getting to know people, situations, and utterances in greater
detail, we put aside our systems of meaning making, rather than invoking them
more complexly and with higher degrees of locally relevant information. As a
teacher, for example, my knowledge of most students does remain typified in
terms of the teacher-student role within educational activities, though when I go
from one university to another, I need to develop new models of what kinds of
students each campus has, what moves and motivates them, what projects they
are engaged in, what backgrounds and skills they have, what local sub-cultures
they divide into and are part of. Further I need to learn more about the culture
of the classrooms in each place, what students expect to do and experience
in different types of a class, how they attend to different activities, and how
they evaluate and relate to various kinds of instructors, instructor personalities,
instructor statements, and instructor interventions. So getting to know what it
means to be a good teacher on a campus means developing through experience
and observation a more finely tuned set of typifications which helps me to relate
better and more closely with students even if I do not know the particulars of
any one of their lives.
In fact, I do gradually learn a certain number of particulars about all of
the students, and a great number of particulars about some as our studentteacher
relationship develops. We become familiar in the ways appropriate to
students and teachers, filtered through our understanding of the expanded types
of mentoring relationships. I also learn particulars of their lives that extend
beyond the classroom—family difficulties that may interfere with their school
work, experiences that motivate them, ambitions shaped over many years, the
multiple factors that influence their career choices, the underlying interests
that motivate a particular research project. Similarly students learn particulars
of my life and interests as I make reference in instruction and more informal
circumstances. They may learn about ideas I have had, things I have written,
trips I have taken, career choices and struggles—these all may come out in
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direct interchange in classroom examples, advising, or mentoring situations.
Or students may find out more on their own as part of personal curiosity about
what kinds of persons professors are or about this one individual that is taking
a role in their lives. This familiarity framed and motivated by the typifications
of teacher-student relationship—a set of typifications that I think it ethical to
keep strictly in force and not to confuse with other forms of relationship that
would be tainted by the powers and motives inherent in and generated by the
teacher-student relationship. All the personalized elaborations of it employ
sense-making mechanisms built on typifications of an increasingly refined sort.
How do I make sense of a student’s motivations in light of their autobiography?
How do they make sense of being a student as they recount their lives to me?
How do we orient toward each other’s comments so as to provide direction for
continuing dialogue that carries each of us further down the path of growth and
learning that gives meaning to educational relationships?
In his essay on “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationships,”
however, Schutz (1951) provides us a more profound insight into how we become
attuned to the most novel and subtle sharing of the contents of consciousness
with each other. The processes of deep and particular understanding he
describes depends on much socially shared typified knowledge at the same time
as allowing particular communion over an intricate and moving object that
inhabits our mutual consciousnesses to provoke similar attentions, meanings,
and motives. Although Schutz draws his examples from nineteenth century
classical music culture, his arguments are easily extended to musical traditions
even without transmission of written scores, and then to many other forms of
Schutz points out that a skilled pianist trained in the European tradition,
even when playing an unfamiliar nineteenth century sonata from a written
score totally new to her, relies on familiarity with sonata form, piano music
of the period, and many other typifications to begin to make sense of the
piece and express an understanding in performance. The pianist brings out the
particularity of the music by relying on a large stock of culturally developed
knowledge concerning the structure, sound, and movement of music of the sort
she is performing as well as on the embodied technique of piano performance.
The more the pianist locates the music within its traditions, the more tools for
understanding and interpreting she has, as well as for noticing and bringing
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
out what is thematically new or striking in the piece. Thus the pianist with
familiarity can heighten the particular character, sound, or pleasure to be found
within each piece. The more, in fact, performers work on music of similar
types—whether  of the same decade, genre, and nationality or of the same
composer, or even period in the composer’s life—the more precisely she can
develop an interpretation in and against the typical motifs and organization of
these more finely tuned types. Even increasing familiarity with that one piece of
music and its performance by different artists creates a most local type within
which theme and variation, foregrounding and backgrounding can take on local
shape against expectations and the environment created across the moments of
the piece.
Equally we can say in any music tradition every learning of novel pieces relies
on training within the tradition, learning its types, organization, techniques,
thematizations, and structuring of the sound space and temporal experience.
The more the performer gets to know what the music sounds like and how to
produce it, of course the better she can play the most typical of music, but even
more, the more refined, complex, surprising, pleasing and interesting effects she
can bring to being within the type of music. The typification is not only in the
overt forms that can be described abstractly, but within the complex realm of
practices of listening, understanding, and performing.
The listener of each kind of music also engages in a process of learning to
attune to this music, learning what to listen for, how the sound is organized,
what the formal rhythms are (as might be described in a music appreciation
book), but also in actual embodied experience of listening to the music—
actually immersing oneself in the sound of the kind of thing that is going
on, and letting that hearing shape one’s consciousness. In that process one
becomes in a sense a typical listener, an anonymous listener, but a fully
formed anonymous listener, able to hear the music with all that is produced
following the motives and motifs and intentions put into the music by the
composer and performer. The more one learns to listen to a kind of music,
and a particular piece, the better able one is to experience a special moment,
different and evocative the way no other moment has been, deeply interesting
in its particularity, even seeming to evoke one’s own most personal of internal
sentiments and meanings.
The result of this production and listening of music by the culturally
knowledgeable musician and listener is the joint attention over a period of
time—not only the externally clocked time of performance, but over the
internally experienced time of the music. Indeed, within the range of variations
of attunement and experience and knowledge an entire audience can share these
moments of attention and the shared sensation of the passage of consciousness
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through time. This is as true of villagers gathered in a temple in Bali to hear a
monkey chant as it is of a modern American teenagers attending a rock concert
or of King Friederich listening to Bach’s latest organ invention.
It is not a far analogy to apply Schutz’s analysis of music to literacy,
which also calls for mutual alignment to produced meanings and the giving
over of consciousness to performances that draw on detailed knowledge of
typified realms. The more refined the writer’s and the reader’s knowledge
of the communicative domain, the greater the potential for refinement of
meaning and experience. One of the great powers of literacy is the handing
over of our consciousnesses to meanings evoked by others, the re-creation of
others meanings in our own minds. Nonetheless, some differences between
music and writing might limit the analogy. First, music as an activity is often
taken as an activity in itself. We listen to music to enjoy it, to appreciate
the performance, to give ourselves over to it (though it may be secondarily
embedded in other social occasions, whether of personal relationships
or nationalist bonding, where participating in a musically induced state
of consciousness has implications for participating in other systems and
activities.) While some reading is as purely for enjoyment as listening to
music, our reading is often more subordinate to other projects we may have,
whether keeping up with the news as part of political engagement or looking
at consumer information to decide which car to buy. Thus in reading we are
less likely to be entering into an autonomous area of activity whose meanings
are primarily embedded within that activity; rather we are likely to be engaged
in any aspect of life, from health or the spirit to work or recreation. As we
read in those domains, words will call on our knowledge and experiences of
those domains and will expand and reconfigure our understanding of those
parts of the world, whether of law or insurance, of geology or international
relations, of entertainment celebrities or personal relations. Even in reading
for enjoyment we engage our knowledge of the world and its domains, and
our thoughts and feelings relevant to those domains.
Writing’s complex interplay of typification, social and cultural knowledge,
experience with the world, and the making of individual meaning is powerfully
at play in the experience of poetry, where the common linguistic medium
is precisely chosen and shaped to evoke powerful personal meanings and
emotions—such as the way a Shakespearean sonnet in its well-crafted words
become the container for the reader’s individualized sentiments of loves and
longings as well as perhaps memories of specific moments and relationships
we associate with it. Equally, such seemingly different languages as that of law
or scientific specialties, evoke experiences of the social and historical worlds in
which the individual develops and acts.
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
Schutz provides us a philosophic understanding of the relation of individual
consciousness and meaning to socially patterned structures of meaning.
Although Schutz started out with the problem of specialized economic behavior,
he generalized to the everyday world which we are socialized into before our
reflexive understanding develops. This everyday sense of what is natural is so
deeply habitual that we don’t realize the social understandings and practices
that create it. His students such as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann who
co-authored the widely influential Social Construction of Reality (1966), took
the inquiry in a more sociological direction, examining the processes and
patterns of social organization that create structures of individual consciousness
and individual’s perceptions of their lives and themselves that in turn influence
They have since pursued the practices of forming life accounts, by examining
what reconstructive genres, where individuals create public memories of
events that have allegedly previously occurred. Gossip and story telling
are reconstructive genres, and we may note have some relation to fictional
literary narratives. Bergmann has explored genres of gossip at some depth in
his book Discreet Indiscretions (1993), where he notes that gossip is filled with
ambivalences, denials and ploys to cope with its dangerous violations of the
public and the private, the discreet and the indiscreet, the taboo and the envied,
the intimate and the condemnatory, and other social boundaries. In doing so,
the social genres of gossip create a special recognizable social discursive place
where gossip occurs and into which gossip partners must make entry, even
as the person gossiped about must be excluded. Nonetheless, the creation of
this holiday from usual social norms reconfirms the speaker’s commitment to
everyday morality about which the gossip so carefully plays. Moreover, gossip
creates accounts that evaluate everyday behavior and to which the gossipers
thereby make themselves accountable. Here we see the importance of genres
for formation of attitudes and we see how social relations and groups are built
around the moral recounting of daily life. These are issues of some interest for
the practice of literature.
More broadly, Luckmann (1995) has specifically drawn the connection
between genre and the construction of daily life:
The elementary function of communicative genres in
social life is to organize, routinize, and render (more or
less) obligatory the solutions to recurrent communicative
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problems. The communicative problems for which such
solutions are socially established and deposited in the social
stock of knowledge tend to be those which touch upon the
communicative aspects of those kinds of social interactions
which are important for the maintenance of a given social
order. . . . Different societies therefore do not have the same
repertoire of communicative genres, and the communicative
genres of one epoch may dissolve into more “spontaneous”
communicative processes, while heretofore unbound
communicative genres congeal into new genres. . . .
At any particular time in any particular society the repertoire of
communicative genres constitutes the “hard core” of the communicative
dimensions of social life (Bergmann, p. 182; see also Bergmann & Luckmann,
Günthner and Knoblauch (1995) further refine the idea of repertoire of
communicative genres to a communicative budget which attends not only
to the available range of genres, but how these genres are socially distributed
(according to characteristics such as gender, caste or office; according to
institutional domain such as gender or religion; and according to heterogeneous
groupings such as family and leisure groups). The communicative budget gives
concrete form to Bourdieu’s more general notion of a linguistic field (1991),
specifying the kinds of linguistic acts available to the various participants, thus
shaping their roles and forms of interaction, and contributing to the formation
of their habitus.
Schutz’s phenomenology also stands behind other recent micro-sociological
examinations of social order created by mechanisms of meaning and sensemaking
in concrete interactions, including ethnomethodology, conversational
analysis and Goffman’s presentation of self, as we will examine in later chapters.
In all these approaches social structure can be seen as concretely enacted in
micro-events created by individual agents, acting in typified circumstances.
Genre thus can be seen as a way of bridging traditional macro-sociology of
roles, norms, and classes with more recent micro-sociology, which in looking at
the details of concrete interactions has been skeptical about traditional macrocategories
that are not easily identifiable at the level of unique encounters among
Genre provides a means for individuals to orient toward and enact
4. Conversational analysis, for example, in trying to give a precise empirical grounding to social
observations, has tended to set aside any abstractions about context, event, or organization
that individuals may bring with them to situations. They have attended to the smallest details
which might indicate a kind of syntax of interaction, with most attention to the way in which
Chapter 4 The Phenomenological Sociology Tradition
situations in recognizable ways with recognizable consequences. Genre thereby
establishes a concrete mechanism for structurational theories, that suggest that
social structure is constantly remade in every interaction which reenacts ordered
relations (Giddens, 1984). Luhmann (1983, 1995) has further suggested that
society exists in the communications that go between individuals rather than
in the aggregation of individuals, who always act as individual agents, and thus
social structure is to be found in the structuring of communications, which in
turn structure social relations.
Schutz’s phenomenology provides a philosophic means for understanding
how we achieve mutual orientations and attitudes towards meaningful
utterances and their contexts, giving shape to our motives. But just as it has been
the task of sociologists to see how these communicative practices concretely
shape social relations and give rise to social structure, it is the task of specialists
in rhetoric and writing to understand the production, reception, and use of
texts within concrete social circumstances in order to produce specific socially
shared meanings and knowledge. Because text production and use are so deeply
enmeshed in the formation of individual and group consciousness, Schutz
provides us a fundamental means for considering the ways in which texts orient
our minds towards social worlds of action.
To put it another way, texts are vehicles of articulating meanings within social
spaces, externalizing inwardly conceived impulses and relationships into social
actions to influence the consciousness of readers through the meanings conveyed.
The typifications and social-symbolic understandings that are brought to bear
in the course of externalizing and internalizing meanings are strengthened (in
both a neural network sense and a personal identity sense) in the course of their
active rehearsal. Each time we invoke sets of social understandings, we become
that much more engaged with, oriented towards, and committed to those
social arrangements, practices, and forms of consciousness being rehearsed. We
turn them into stronger social and phenomenological realities. We strengthen
the reification. This is a view consistent with and elaborating Vygotsky’s
understanding of the role of language in shaping mind and regulating activity
(see also Russell, 2010). Through participation in social spheres of discursive
action, attending to the objects of that sphere in the ways appropriate to that
sphere, we develop our minds and modes of thought in socially mediated ways.
turn taking is negotiated. However, in examining how people manage to gain the floor for
longer turns, Schegloff (1996) considers larger recognizable turn units—which are something
like recognizable genres. If someone is telling a joke, you know to let her continue until the
American pragmatism developed contemporaneously with the Vygotskian
activity theory tradition and the phenomenological sociology tradition, and
has many affinities with both. Historically, there were some connections
among them: all had common roots in Hegel; Vygotsky read and cited James
and Dewey; Simmel and Husserl read and cited James; Thomas and Park did
dissertation work under Simmel in Germany; Schutz interpreted James’s theories
(see Joas, 1993). Nonetheless, each pursued its own path. Each developed
different dimensions of a picture applicable to understanding what it means
to write; yet, the pictures they draw can be usefully brought together to create
a multidimensional portrait. The connections will also reveal why researchers
and theorists from these several traditions have been increasingly finding each
other’s work of interest.
The Soviet Vygotskian interests are in psychology, creating an understanding
of socializing individual development and the development of meaning and
consciousness in relation to the publicly available activities and mediating
symbols and tools. The European phenomenological tradition highlights the
formation of socially evolving typified meaning systems that help individuals
make sense of situations and frame individual actions which others can make
sense of through the socially available repertoires of types. This phenomenological
perspective forms an alliance with Wittgenstein’s (1958) ideas of meaning
representations being parts of active forms of life.
American pragmatism, rather than looking inward to the mind, locates
meaning and communication in creative problem solving by people responding
to the changing contingencies of their times. Starting as a philosophic
response to a crisis in traditional meaning systems, pragmatism directs our
attention to detailed historical and social knowledge of the conditions and
perceptions of groups that give meaning to their orientations and choices.
Philosophic pragmatism has influenced the formation of a number of the
social sciences in North America, leading most directly to social psychology
and symbolic interactionism in sociology. The approach methodologically
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
fostered ethnographic sociology that attempts to recover the meanings and
intentions among people acting within particular social systems. Pragmatism
also influenced the formation of anthropology and linguistic anthropology,
was instrumental in progressive social activism, and was in dialogue with
interpersonal psychiatry. Each of these disciplines has important things to say
about the act of writing, the social forums and activities within which we write,
how we make sense of our own and other people’s writing, and the relation of
writing, emotions, and identity.
Pragmatism has its roots in philosophic crises of the nineteenth centuries
and many scholars still see pragmatism primarily as a philosophic movement,
to be discussed and evaluated within philosophic discourse. The founders of
pragmatism, Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert
Mead all at some point found their employment in philosophy departments.
For all of them, the social upheavals of the latter half of the nineteenth century
in the United States—the Civil War, industrialization, and urbanization—
upset the sense of continuities and verities which underlay North American
values, belief, and security in the world (Menand, 2001). While pragmatism
went into an eclipse within philosophy departments in the middle of the
twentieth century, it reemerged in the closing decades of that century as a way
out of epistemological battles fought on the shifting, alleged border between
modernism and postmodernism (see, for example, Rorty, 1979).
Insofar as pragmatism is represented as a way out of philosophic and
theologic dilemmas—issues that certainly motivated Peirce, James and Mead
throughout their careers, and Dewey for the earlier part of his career—it is
caught up in complicated arguments and semantic wrangles within those
highly conceptual domains. The irony in being caught up in theologic and
philosophic terms is that pragmatism suggests there is no ultimate epistemic
authority to be found in theologic or philosophic abstractions. Rather
pragmatists see these endeavors, as they see all human endeavors, as emergent
historical creations to serve human needs. A further irony to being shackled to
existing philosophic and theologic terms is that pragmatism values exploration
and sees the human practical and intellectual worlds as experiments. It therefore
reflexively encourages reaching towards ideas through only partly formulated
and unstable terms. Dewey, James, Peirce, and Mead have all been accused of
slippery terms. Moreover, each is highly exploratory in different directions,
taking the starting point of a loosely related set of orientations and applying
A Theory of Literate Action
them to a range of projects and problems. Each of these versions of pragmatism
has its particular set of concerns and attempts its own form of argument. None
has a strong motive to create a stable, coherent set of rock-solid claims, in part
because the pragmatist approach suggests the futility of coming to knowledge
that rises beyond human time and situations. Pragmatism as a philosophy is a
loose and baggy universe.
My interest here is not, however, in the philosophic arguments that go under
the banners of pragmatism and anti-pragmatism, whether at the beginning or
the end of the twentieth century. Rather I am interested in pragmatism as the
source of a number of fairly straightforward premises that underlay many of
the developments in American social science, which are directly applicable to
literate rhetoric. Although rhetoricians, in their millennia-old skirmishes with
philosophy, are ever tempted to see philosophic issues as their own (see for
example Gross & Keith, 1996; and Harris, 2005), philosophy can be applied
to rhetoric in a more practical way through the visions various philosophies
propose about who we are, how we communicate, and what the consequences
of communication are. In particular, pragmatism orients our attention to
concrete human actions and communication as action, formative for human
thought, interaction, and social organization.
The founders of pragmatism and their early associates were engaged with
forms of practice and research in the social sciences and social services: Charles
Peirce with language studies; William James with psychology; John Dewey
with politics, psychology, and education; Jane Addams in the formation of
settlement houses and community development; George Herbert Mead with
sociology; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., with the law. Dewey and Mead
particularly were influential in fostering the climate within the new University
of Chicago (opening in 1892) that was to be so generative for all the American
social sciences, even though the strongly identifiable “Chicago schools” in
only some of disciplines (notably sociology and anthropology) showed direct
affinity to pragmatist understandings. Dewey’s prominence in education and
as a public figure also brought his ideas into a general climate of understanding
under the banner of progressivism that far exceeded any clearly defined lines of
direct influence, and indeed a number of Chicago departments became known
for their community involvement, from the time of Jane Adam’s Hull House
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
Although historians of philosophy debate who was the proper founder
of pragmatism, pragmatism was already a climate before it was formally
articulated by Peirce, James, Dewey, or anyone else. The facts that Dewey was
able to gather so rapidly so many like-minded people when in 1894 he became
chair of the department of philosophy at Chicago and that he and Mead were
able to establish so many interdisciplinary connections suggest just how fully
their orientation was compatible with many then in the U.S. academic world.
Pragmatism has been reasonably said to grow out of interrelated developments
in nineteenth century US: the forging of a new society, great opportunities for
action and social change, belief in individuality and optimism, technological
transformation, economic growth which was bringing about new social roles
and forms of organization, the many religious and communal experiments, the
great depredations that came along with the assertion of the new economic
power, the newly made social wrongs that needed so visibly to be righted, the
many immigrant cultures mixing in new cities, and the practical orientation
of this society on the make. When new more democratic universities arose
in the post-Civil War American Midwest (such as the land grants under the
Morrill Act and the independent University of Chicago) they confronted the
domination of European thought with a research culture tied to practical
needs of a rapidly growing society instead of reproduction of social elites. The
intellectual conditions, needs, and opportunities of the time made a pragmatic
orientation easily imaginable and attractive.
The various philosophic issues, research, and practical projects, and spiritual
and ethical concerns that gathered in and around pragmatism drew on a cluster
of related premises:
• that human knowledge and belief depended on the humans who were
making them;
• that human belief, knowledge, and perception were always interpretive;
• that the interpretations come not only from the social and historical
position of the person, but from their engagement in projects to satisfy
their needs, desires, and value-laden senses of fulfillment;
• that these projects were shaped by perceived problems and sought
• that these projects and the perceived problems were always necessarily
social and material;
• that ideas, discussions, and reasoning developed within situations appearing
as problematic;
A Theory of Literate Action
• that values, beliefs, knowledge, perception, interpretations, and identities
arose out of material and social projects, and were consequential for
their solution;
• that there were ethical choices to be made about projects, based on the
kinds of consequences that we might project flowing from those choices.
Thus, pragmatism saw history and knowledge as emergent and never fully
absolute or predictable, but rather exploratory and creative. These views have
significant consequences for how we understand how people communicate, how
they use language, what language in fact is, and how language influences how
individuals and groups develop. Writing, in particular, provides new potentials
for creative communicative, enduring and transportable linguistic artifacts, and
restructuring of group relations.
Charles Peirce, among the founding generation of pragmatists, looked most
directly at language and semiotics, making some first steps towards articulating the
implications of a pragmatist view for language and language use. Most importantly,
he recognized a major role for the interpreting speaker and interpreting hearer
in the meanings conveyed by communication, rather than assuming meaning
was immanent in an abstracted language system (Peirce, 1958). It is people who
attach meanings to experienced worlds and issues of concern. This recognition
of the importance of interpretive processes might lead to an investigation of how
differences in individuals and groups of individuals might influence the bases and
procedures of interpretation within specific situations (potentially a psychological,
sociological, anthropological and even historical inquiry). Peirce, however, chose
to seek clarity through a semiotic taxonomy of the relations among signs, objects,
and interpretants (that is, interpreted meanings), a taxonomy that he kept
adjusting throughout his life. His account does suggest some of the instability of
semiosis, as meanings are dynamically produced through interpretation, which
is potentially infinite; nonetheless, he seems to believe that this instability can be
contained by establishing an abstract philosophic vocabulary about the relations
of signs, objects, and interpretants. His taxonomy does not provide any specific
leads about how we might inquire into the psychological or sociological variables
of meaning making and interpretation. In not pursuing the motives of the
individual nor the development of the individual in satisfying needs within the
social and material worlds, Peirce leaves us with a mystery of the individuality of
interpretation creating indeterminacy of meaning, with no way to get back to the
sources, needs, and mechanisms for meaning making. Yet it is these underlying
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
forces that drive all utterances including writing and lead to the proliferation of
new texts, new genres, and new fields of literate interaction. Pierce, therefore, does
not yet provide us with an understanding of how and why people use language to
produce the creative inventions that are at the heart of the pragmatic worldview.
William James in his psychology does, however, provide first steps towards
a way of understanding individual sense-making, choice-making, and language
use. His psychology is founded upon experience rather than separate sensations,
systematic thought, or a rationalized view of language as a stable meaning
system. He presents people as embodied creatures acting in the world, with
horizons of interests, knowledge, and attention. People he sees as responding
in the moment to situations driven by desires and immersed in feelings (1890,
1, chapter 10). Thus people’s ideas and perceptions are typically vague in a
philosophic sense, only sharpened and clarified insofar as it is necessary to
act in the world (1890, 1, p. 218). The implication is that use of language
is only precise as it needs to be—perhaps to elicit cooperation, or to sort out
action paths, or whatever other purpose is at hand. Language does not have
any meaning apart from people’s uses and uses are only precise as the situation
and interaction with others require it to be. Whatever degree of communal
precision and clarity of language that does exist results from a communal history
of developing linguistic practices. Individuals then each have a developmental
history of linguistic practices in interaction with members of the community,
within the accomplishment of those tasks available and motivating within that
world of practice (James, 1912). Those specialized domains seeking clarity of
sensation and reasoning, such as science or philosophy are equally driven by our
sense of the problematic and are limited by our stance of perception and action
in the world, even as they rely on written language to reflect on, sort through,
and evaluate claims.
Dewey pursues this situated action perspective by arguing our perception and
reason are based on our sense of being in the world and the projects we pursue
as creatures in the world. We do not have a pure, disengaged consciousness;
our stream of consciousness is not random. Our powers of consciousness only
arise as a means to reflect on and resolve situations where we perceive a problem
A Theory of Literate Action
(1896, 1910). Communal thought and action he sees equally as arising from
perceived problem situations that are seen as needing response. While James
finds in vagueness a space for intimations of religious experience outside the
realm of science, Dewey finds in vagueness a creative force for the constant
invention and change of human experience and increasing clarity, as we address
perceived problems and try to look more intently and coherently at those
things we sense as problematic (1910). Thus Dewey and his followers tend to
be politically and socially progressive, insistent that individuals and societies
address problems and seek improvement of the conditions and practices of life.
They believe that in resolving problems, individuals and societies will grow
toward more satisfying modes of existence.
Dewey himself was so forward looking, ready to seek social change to
resolve felt difficulties in society, that he spent less attention than he might
have on the particular forms and relations embodied in existing conditions,
the history of how they got to be that way, or the mechanisms by which social,
economic practices occurred. In retrospect he seemed to have a political naïveté
about the degree and speed at which change could be brought about and
suffered a chastening and withdrawal from activists (Feffer, 1993). Similarly
in his own work there is little detailed analysis of the social mechanisms of
the current world or the historical processes by which current problems and
tensions emerged, although he often called for such analysis and emphasized
the importance of studying history in the schools. He also talked about the
importance of knowledge, existing disciplines, and human accomplishment as
basis for building on and transforming. As the progressive education movement
developed he was distressed to find that there was not always adequate attention
to the available resources already developed by humans, and he often had to
explain in later years his commitment to discipline and knowledge. However,
his own discourse provided few examples of how that integration of knowledge
of the past and new action might occur, and his own advocacy for change rarely
included such close attention to the complex of things that have already come
into being. Nevertheless, he saw that the motive for action, perceived problems
calling for solution, and the felt discomforts of life all came from the social
understandings, practices, and histories that informed people’s motives and
views of situations.
Because Dewey saw education as forming the individual with the skills,
knowledge, and disposition to participate in activities and problems to be solved
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
in society, he saw education as the most important site for social intervention and
contribution to society. Dewey saw learning as motivated growth arising out of
the situation and experiences of the child, which educational projects needed to
speak to if they hoped to enlist the most active engagement of the child (1897,
1947). Thus he argued for a substantive connection between the activities of the
school and the life in the community from which the students came. He and
his followers advocated project-based education addressing the perceived needs
and opportunities of the time and place (Kilpatrick, 1951; McMurry, 1920;
Tanner, 1997). For Dewey, in education as in life, the key to activity, growth, and
accomplishment is motivation, for knowledge and growth and projects have to
speak to the possibilities, opportunities, and needs in front of one.
If motivated agency is located in the possibilities one can identify in the
moment, and successful agency requires a responsiveness of the material and
social situation, then understanding one’s situation is an appropriate object for
educational inquiry so as to be able to evaluate potential action. Further, if
learning depends on motivation and perceived problem—that is, felt need for
action—then learning occurs within the tensions of perceived problems. The
learner and the researcher are driven by the urge to intervene and transform—
no matter how much the inquirer distances him or herself from the object
studied through canons of objective study, under a belief, often well-founded,
that to act too soon is to act with inadequate understanding. Yet, we should
not mistake the distancing of responsible inquiry for total disengagement from
future benefit. Rather Dewey would have us think of a deferred engagement
(1896). With a total disengagement or perfect objectivity, objects lose all
interest, value, and desire.
Dewey’s views on problem-solving, agency, motivation, and learning are
directly applicable to writing, and in fact have been repeatedly applied over the
last century in various inquiry, project, and discipline-based writing pedagogies
and the thematic orientation towards authentic writing tasks which engage
students’ interests and concerns (Russell 1991, 1993). Once the connection
of personal engagement in meaningful problems is made, the task becomes an
expression and development of the self, even if no overtly personal material is
discussed and even if the writing task seems objective, technical, or professionally
cool. After all, no one is as passionate about statistics as a statistician. Outside
formal educational contexts, Dewey’s construction of learning through
problem-solving means that writers continue to grow as writers through the
various challenging tasks they take on throughout their lives in the domains of
importance to their lives.
Dewey’s educational philosophy met two kinds of criticism: on the
conservative side from those who felt that education should pass on the
A Theory of Literate Action
tools of knowledge already developed and on the progressive side who saw
him providing a rationale for accommodating people to the existing way of
life, preparing them for factory and office work of industrial corporatism. In
response to the conservative critique, Dewey regularly insisted on a middle way,
respecting and passing on the historical legacy, but always harnessing that to the
needs and motives and situations of people, for that was the very mechanism by
which people were motivated and grew. In response to the progressive critique
he argued that effective and meaningful change must be situated in the reality
of situations and the problems situations present. Accordingly, he believed
change was evolutionary within the continuing forces of life and that there is
no absolute of value or of practice that could warrant a radical rupture from
current ways of life.
Dewey’s principles stood behind his collaboration with Ella Flagg Young in
creating the University of Chicago Laboratory School (Tanner, 1997). Young
was to continue to actively shape education on these principles as principal of
the Chicago Normal School and later Superintendent of the Chicago public
schools, and eventually president of the National Educational Association.
George Herbert Mead, a colleague of Dewey, both at Michigan and
then at Chicago, also saw how people addressed the problems of life as core
to understanding and improving society. Mead aimed to understand how
individuals came to see themselves within the social relations and social
understandings of their times, particularly through learning of gesture and
language. In coming to learn to use meaningful symbols, the individual has
to be able to anticipate how others might perceive the symbols and perceive
him or herself in using the symbols. Skilled communication requires that a
person needs to learn to anticipate how others might take meaning from any
word or gesture, and how that meaning might prompt response and consequent
actions. Further, as a person observes the response of others to comments and
behaviors the person gets further data to help project how one is seen by others
and thus understand the social self one is projecting. That is, in learning to use
meaningful symbols, the person learns to take the perspective of the other, both
particularized others and a generalized other. This perception of how others
see one forms a sense of the self. Mead sees taking the part of others as part
of learning to be in society and as a major theme in children’s play. Thus, in
learning to live within society we learn to see ourselves and judge our own
behavior as others might—a process that might be considered internalization
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of social norms. Yet, since we are constantly solving novel problems in novel
circumstances and our motives extend far beyond just fitting in, or being
secure our learning to take the part of the other hardly limits our creativity and
originality. It simply maximizes the possibility that others will understand and
cooperate with us without misunderstandings that lead to violence or other
forms of social control (Mead, 1913, 1934, 1936).
This formation of the self and articulation of identity within the social field
applies precisely to writing as we come to understand the force and meaning of
our writing in the presence it creates for others. The process of seeing what sense
others make of our writing helps us understand what our texts do and do not
accomplish and what social presence we are creating for ourselves through our
texts. The response of others also gives us information about how we can revise
or reshape our statements, or create new statements, so as to bring that presence
more in line with our desires. Simultaneously we become committed to the
intelligible presence we have taken on in our writing. We can examine our
texts apart from ourselves and learn to take the part of the other in evaluating
and improving our text as we become more experienced writers, with less naïve
attachment to our first sketchy formulations. Yet we also come to understand
that the texts represent us to others and therefore they become an extended part
of ourselves. Especially as we write to people at a greater temporal, geographic,
and social distance from ourselves, to create an intelligible presence we must
use the common language recognizable to others, but through that language we
create the individuality of our statement.
Just as Dewey worked with the Laboratory School, Mead worked with Jane
Addams in Hull House. Addams (1997) viewed the settlement house as a way
of being of an entire community to change people’s view of themselves and
capabilities to act in society. It was aimed at social change based on people
being empowered to identify and act on problems in their lives through
jobs, education, and access to social services and other forms of support. The
settlement house in many ways was the concrete realization of Mead’s thinking
about the formation of ourselves as actors in society.
In some senses Mead was following on the heels of the Scottish moralists
(such as Francis Hutcheson, Dugald Stewart, and Adam Smith. Smith’s Theory
of Moral Sentiments (1986), in particular, described the conscience which guided
moral behavior as a perception of how others might perceive and evaluate one’s
actions if others were to have the full knowledge of the situation as oneself (or
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see the situation as one perceived it). Mead apparently was familiar with Smith’s
writings and had written an undergraduate paper on Smith while at Harvard (T.
V. Smith, 1931; see also Blasi, 1998). Mead, like Smith, recognizes that no two
people have the same set of experiences or knowledge so they never quite see
the circumstances exactly like another—thus there is always an individuality of
judgment, evaluation, decision, and action. Mead, like Smith, equally recognizes
that one’s judgment, perception, thoughts, and capacities are very much
influenced by things like education, occupation, class, cultural background,
family organization, prosperity, and historical moment—and these influences
might conflict with an unencumbered understanding of one’s interests.
In the years between Smith and Mead, Hegel and Marx also noted the
influence of social ideology on beliefs and actions. Marx sees the socializing
impulses to be so strong as to potentially blind oneself to one’s needs, desires,
and impulses in favor of fitting in with the reigning thoughts and formulations,
or ideology (Marx & Engels, 1971). Smith similarly recognized a tendency of
people to admire hierarchy and the perceived power of the dominant class,
which can obscure perception of one’s best interests; nonetheless, Smith
suggests that the individual is in the best position to know what he or she
needs and wants and what the local opportunities are, if they are freed to make
unencumbered judgments in one’s own interest. Mead characterizes this tension
between social belief and individual perception of interest in a different way.
Mead sets the socialized me in tension with an impulsive I (like Freud’s id and
ego) which regularly surprises oneself by its spontaneous assertions of desires
and perceptions, with a result that individuality and agency cannot be fully
suppressed. This agency sometimes acts within the bounds of the socialized self,
but always is ready to push beyond the bounds of what one might anticipate
others seeing as acceptable or intelligible (1934).
Thus both Smith and Mead see great variety within the socialized selves
of any time and place, arising from the variety of positions, experiences, and
spontaneous expressions of interests and desires. Consequently both saw
institutional and other organized aggregations of activity as complex, embodying
the multiple motives and activities of participants. Mead, along with other
pragmatists, was particularly interested in the creativity of problem solving, as
each person brought new resources, perceptions, and problem definitions to
situations to remake the social order. Smith, on the whole, was more cautious,
even pessimistic about change, in light of what he saw as peoples’ desire to
stick to older ways and to respect the elites who had an interest in maintaining
arrangements that granted them privilege.
Mead’s recognition of the role of language processes in the formation of
the socialized self and the mind, however, clearly sets him apart from the
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Scottish Moralists or Marx, and puts him nearer to Vygotsky. Mead sees the
mind formed in learning to make meaning with and for others, as one sees the
effects of communications on others. For both Mead and Vygotsky, though in
slightly different ways, self and mind are products of language use in society.
For Vygotsky and Mead, speech is a form of act, not a disembodied meaning or
truth, but always formulated in action, as part of action, and therefore acting
in the world. Thus the meanings we develop in interaction and the thoughts
we ponder are saturated with the shades of prior action and the anticipations of
new actions. The formulas of unconsidered, unproblematic, habitual utterances
are part of those activities we think we know so well that we don’t have to think
about or contemplate—all we need to do is produce the prefabricated words
that carry out the old solution (though we may well find ourselves wrong, or we
might do better if we stopped to think afresh). Thoughtful speech—the words
that make us think or that we feel we need to think about before we speak—is
a creative action prompted by a perceived unresolved problem to which we
are responding (Blasi, 1998, p. 167; Mead, 1934). Writing is paradigmatic of
thoughtful speech as it readily affords planning, examination of alternatives,
choice-making, and review and revision.
This problem-solving activity, however, does not necessarily put us in the
realm of pure individualistic utilitarian instrumentalism as a number of the
critics of pragmatism have asserted, for Mead’s communicative mechanism of
learning to take the part of the other draws us into social relations as part of our
participating in the world. In learning to talk with each other we learn about
common values and norms. We develop social consciousness and orient towards
the maintenance of the group. We learn our own interpersonal needs and the
ways other persons enter into our own needs. We learn of the importance
and power of social bonds, and we learn to recognize those who think well
or poorly of us—and adjust our behavior and relations depending on how we
evaluate their opinions. We recognize whom we can talk to about what, with
what kind of support and seriousness. Obtaining and maintaining the positive
opinions of others, particularly those on whom our daily life depends and who
are partners in our daily life and daily needs satisfactions, becomes itself a social
motive—as elaborated by Harry Stack Sullivan, discussed later in this chapter.
Similarly we learn to enter into the larger orders of publicly organized systems
of meaning and community, such as investigated by Durkheim. While Mead
does not pursue this line of reasoning, and Durkheim even sees pragmatism as
threatening to obscure the social production of values by being too individual
and instrumentalist, there is no necessary incompatibility between Durkheim’s
more macrosociological considerations and the ethnographic tradition, as
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numerous ethnographic studies have since recognized, starting with RadcliffeBrown
(1922, 1931) and Mauss (1922) (see also Joas, 1993).
Further, typification processes, as discussed in the previous chapter, allow
individuals to build senses of more or less generalized others who operate within
recognizable systems of typifications (for discussions of Mead’s relations with
phenomenology see Natanson, 1956; Pfuetze, 1954; Rosenthal & Bourgeois,
1991). Micro-processes of self-recognition in interaction thus have the potential
to scale up into larger social orders, particularly as the interactions are mediated
by the more enduring and transportable means of writing (as will be examined
in Chapter 6, see also Bazerman, 2006). Indeed, as Joas (1985) discusses, there
is no necessary incompatibility between Meadian processes of self-formation
and certain forms of structural functional sociology, which often are built
upon mechanisms of orientation to the other, such as role theory and reference
group theory, as to be discussed in Chapter 6. Indeed orientation to others
is one of the areas that there is much cross citation and cross acceptance of
findings between symbolic interactionists and structural functionalists. We may
indeed see in such hybrid researchers as Erving Goffman, discussed in Chapter
7, the power of such conjunctions of micro and macro considerations around
phenomenologically drawn individual problem solving.
Mead’s understanding of the formation of the social self is the direct
antecedent of those branches of sociology that emphasize meanings people
attribute to situations, themselves, others, and actions. Social psychology and
symbolic interaction see themselves as direct heirs of the Meadian tradition
(see Bulmer, 1986; Faris, 1979; Matthews, 1977; Tomasi, 1998; but Joas,
1985; T. V. Smith, 1931 and others argue that far too much has been made of
Mead’s influence). As we will see in the next chapter, other concepts of other
aspects of American sociology are grounded on Mead’s view of the socialized
self-perceiving its own position through the eyes of others, or at least what it
can glean of the eyes of others. Participants’ definition of situations (which
involves their definitions of selves and others within particular action contexts)
has become a key element in most programs of empirical and theoretical
As both Blasi (1998) and Joas (1993) point out, Chicago sociology has had
a widespread, diffuse but pervasive approach on interpretive, qualitative and
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
empirical sociologies that examine the individual’s perceptions of self within
social groupings and activities. The sociology department in the University of
Chicago dominated American sociology in the field’s formative years. Prior to
the Second World War that department produced the majority of PhDs in the
field and many of the most prominent. The American Journal of Sociology
(founded at Chicago in 1895 and still there) was until 1921 the only major
journal in sociology and remains one of the dominant journals of the field.
Chicago sociologists were instrumental in founding the American Sociology
Association in 1924, and of the first twenty-five presidents of that organization,
fifteen either taught at Chicago or obtained their PhD’s there. The relevance for
this study is to suggest that many of the assumptions underlying the profession
of sociology have their roots in a pragmatic orientation, even though only some
schools claim an explicit descent, and others seem to arise from polar theoretical
To the usual quartet of founders of pragmatism, Menand (1997, 2001)
adds a fifth: the jurist and legal theorist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who is
known as the founder of legal pragmatism. But his presence in this group is
contested, not least by his own followers who rightfully draw many distinctions
between legal pragmatism and philosophic pragmatism and further find longdeveloping
roots of legal pragmatism within the legal system (see for example,
the essays by Posner, Grey, and Luban in Dickstein, 1998). Indeed, although
Holmes as a youth did sit at some meetings of the Metaphysical Club 1870-
1872 in Cambridge with the young Peirce and James, and where presumably
some proto-pragmatist ideas were discussed (Howe, 1957, p. 152), Holmes did
not have kind things to say later about either Peirce or James (Pohlman 163-
164). Yet there remain some striking homologies between legal pragmatism
and philosophic pragmatism, as Menand (1997) argues. Holmes considers
law a continuing and changing experiment that shapes all the conditions of
our life, just as the philosophic pragmatists consider life and society ongoing
experiments. Holmes sees law as a series of uncertain actions trying to anticipate
judgments to be made in the future. Law offers no final truths or ultimate
principles to Holmes, only anticipation of what might be taken as determinative
principle by the magistrate, or future magistrates. Yet history and precedent
have created models and patterns that future individuals are likely to adhere to,
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particularly as they themselves are held accountable by others to the common
body of precedent.
Situations and people, nonetheless, are always different; and actions speak
to the perceptions of the moment. Further, the future brings unanticipated
changes, with new meanings and precedents. For such reasons, to foster
experiment, Holmes was a great advocate of the freedom of expression and the
first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He spoke of the importance of the
marketplace of ideas and of limiting judicial interference in even apparently
unwise actions so as to let experiments to run their course. The law only sets the
conditions for social experiment, but does not judge it. Further he was willing
to change precedent whose only continuing warrant was that it was precedent,
as conditions change and make prior wise decisions irrelevant to changing ways
of life. Yet these changes and new experiments are always accountable to the
realistic conditions of the new way of life. Experiments have to pay their costs
in the marketplaces of life, and judicial wisdom comes in seeing the conditions
of life that warrant reevaluation of precedents. All these views are consistent
with philosophic pragmatism and the social activism of the pragmatists, though
Holmes’ politics were more conservative than reformers like Dewey.
Holmes views on freedom of expression to address changing conditions of
life and propose new directions for society speak directly to the importance of
writing as a mode of reasoning about current conditions, developing new ideas,
and arguing for new social arrangements. He provides a warrant for the writing
within the public sphere, both in its more traditional forms of journalism,
commentary, and advocacy publications and in the newly evolving forms
of digital public discussion. From his perspective this work does not simply
represent, rehearse, and persuade fixed interests and views, but rather provides
the medium for social innovation, new relations, and novel solutions. As we are
seeing with new technologies, this innovation goes beyond specific ideas and
arguments to the very organization of public community, the kinds of bonds
that may be formed among citizens, and the ways they may act individually
and as groups to influence public discussion eventuating in policy. But Holmes
also points out that public discourse and proposals have to face the judgment
of the marketplace of ideas and survive only if they seem attractive and useful
to others.
Holmes’ views also bear on the more specialized communicative domain of
lawyers. As a practical lawyer and jurist, he is concerned with the preparation of
briefs and opinions, concrete utterances, concrete symbolic acts, filed on pieces
of paper as the very material out of which the law is composed. His organic view
of the law invites analysis of the preparation, presentation, and circulation of
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
concrete communicative acts in the formation of the law and its life in shaping
and adjudicating life actions.
Holmes’ views are significant for communication because of the kind of
practical influence he has had on the development of one of the overridingly
important institutions in the United States, and on the attitudes many people,
lawyers and citizens, take toward the law. Thus reflexively, pragmatic beliefs
about the evolution of law and society are now built into the views of many
lawyers, legislators, and citizens, and have gone into the constructing of legal,
governmental and political action, despite others who hold more essentialist
views about law. Thus the very way of life studied by American social scientists
itself is being built in part on pragmatic assumptions. If law and society are living
and evolving as the pragmatists believe, then reflexive understanding of this
allows an even greater monitoring, evaluation, and support of these processes,
as well as a climate of public belief that favors pragmatic formulations and thus
a public ideology of change and experiment. Such pervasive views support a
view of legal texts and texts within all domains of society influenced by the law
as contingent, situated, and evolving in meaning as conditions change.
The pragmatist approach to understanding socialized individuals, individual
and group action, the role of language in individual and group formation,
and thought within situated activity also influenced several other parallel
lines of development within American social science (See Bulmer, 1986,
Chapter 11), including anthropology and linguistics. Edward Sapir, the
linguistic anthropologist, is the most direct vehicle of that influence in both
fields. After fifteen years as the chief of the Division of Anthropology for the
Canadian government in Ottawa, he arrived in 1925 in the small combined
department of anthropology and sociology at the University of Chicago, where
he remained until 1931 when he went to Yale to found the department of
anthropology there. Although his name is now best known through the SapirWhorf
hypothesis of linguistic relativity, he had a more moderated view than
Whorf about the influence of language on cognition. Sapir was interested in
interactions between language form and use and such things as social interests,
activity, culture, physical and social environment, thought, and personality
(see for example his essay “Language and the Environment,” 1912). One could
more properly say that, unlike Saussure and other linguists who wanted to
isolate linguistic phenomena from social, historical, rhetorical, situational and
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psychological issues in order to make linguistics and autonomous discipline,
Sapir wanted to understand language in all its complexity and in its relation to
all other aspects of being human, so that language necessarily should be studied
in relation to all the other social sciences (see Sapir, 1949). While only some
detailed influences between him and his sociological colleagues in Chicago can
be concretely traced (Darnell, 1989, p. 214), Sapir clearly shared with them an
interest in the activity and interactions within communities, and he provided
a means for exploring that interaction through what Mead and Dewey had
seen as the key vehicle of social and psychological formation—communicative
language (see Sapir, 1935).
Sapir and his teacher Boas are viewed as the founders of linguistic
anthropology, and Sapir was one of the founders of the Linguistic Society of
America. Linguistic anthropology generally views language as coming to be
in interaction, and in doing so becomes a primary vehicle for the creation of
social realities and personhood within social-cultural circumstances (see, for
examples Bauman, 1986; Duranti & Goodwin, 1992; Gumperz, 1982; Hanks,
1996). One area of concern for linguistic anthropologists is pragmatics. While
the term pragmatics within linguistics has a technical meaning distinct from
philosophic pragmatism and should not be confused with it, the study of
linguistic pragmatics is based on the assumption that people do things through
language, and manipulate the common stock of symbols to interact, form
relations, modulate social relations, manage impressions others have, and carry
out activities, and thereby make their social world and their own place within it.
Sapir also identifies another point of conjunction for a comprehensive
understanding of language practice within a complex social science inquiry.
From early in his career he was interested in psychiatry and the formation
of personality, and he reviewed books, for example on Freudian and Jungian
psychology (for examples, Sapir, 1917, 1923). He saw societies and cultures
both as formative of personalities, and formed by people with individual
personalities. This interest in psychiatric inquiry took more concrete form after
his meeting the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan around 1925, forming a close
personal friendship for the remainder of his life. They were to collaborate on
many project including conferences, grants, the creation of the interdisciplinary
journal Psychiatry and the founding of the Washington School of Psychiatry
(See Bazerman, 2005).
Through their friendship, Sapir gained further direction and impetus for his
interest in the relation of personality and culture. Sapir was to write a number of
papers on the interaction of psychiatry, language and culture (see 1927a, 1927b,
1934a, 1934b, 1938). Sullivan in turn was brought into conversation with the
Chicago sociologists, gaining a more concrete sense of the cultural variability
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of life conditions, the ways individuals emerged within social relations, and the
role of language in the formation of the individual.
Sullivan formulated his distinctive theories during the time of his friendship
with Sapir. Through Sapir, the political scientist Harold Lasswell, and other
acquaintances in and around the University of Chicago, Sullivan became familiar
with the ideas of Mead and other pragmatists. Contact with pragmatist theories
provided the means for Sullivan’s ideas to mature through the remainder of his
career and reached their fullest expression in a posthumous reconstruction of his
lecture courses The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (Sullivan, 1953). In fact, in
that work he discusses the ideas of Mead and his colleagues for several pages (16-
19). In the Interpersonal Theory Sullivan draws a developmental picture of the
child trying to satisfy needs and forming social relations in a social and cultural
world. The infant’s most fundamental and deepest learning occurs in activity
situations with primary caregivers, in which fundamental perceptions of the self
and relations to others are formed. In coordinating such activities as feeding, the
child learns to integrate in shared events, satisfying mutual needs. Part of that
coordination is the sensing of anxiety within the caregiver, which in turn raises
anxiety within the infant, for the caregiver’s anxiety indicates possible difficulty
and uncertainty of outcome. It is out of discovering the emotional spectrum of
security, interpersonal unease, and terror in interaction that the child forms a
sense of the self (the good me—the range of action and interaction in which
I will feel secure), the boundary areas of insecurity and anxiety (the bad me),
and those interactions and activities so deeply imbued with extreme anxiety
that they are beyond coherent perception and possible participation (the notme—the
realm of uncanny sensations). The infant also learns means of coping
with or avoiding those situations that raise anxiety. As the child grows into
an adult and moves out into the world, filled with people and situations that
may challenge an already developed sense of secure situations, a sense of self
may expand by experimenting with new ranges of interaction. Nonetheless,
most people spend much time in security operations, keeping at bay the anxiety
aroused by life’s variety.
This model of development is consistent with the pragmatist account of active
selves engaged in purposeful need-satisfying interaction. Moreover, Sullivan
provides a mechanism for self-formation very closely allied to that proposed
by Mead. According to Sullivan, the individual begins to sense a self in relation
to the response of others and how one then acts to elicit favorable response.
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Thus the individual is motivated to make interactions go well and anticipate the
responses of partner, so as to elicit the cooperation of the other. Sullivan adds to
the pragmatist picture the development of the anxiety system that defines the
areas of comfort within which the person operates and the areas of discomfort
that make it difficult or even impossible to operate. The development of the
self system means that one’s sense of self formation is saturated with affect, as
some behaviors feel more comfortable and secure, while others raise anxiety,
and still others are insurmountably aversive, no matter how strong the need,
impulse, desire, or attraction. We can then see socialized behavior as a kind
of emotion-laden tropism, where one is drawn to anticipated satisfaction by
positive anticipation and repelled by the discomfort of behaviors that seem
fearfully disruptive of the social bond with partners, based on one’s history of
interactions. In this pull of needs and desires and push of aversions, one finds
a way to act, although the conflict of these forces may cause one to abandon
either the need or the security.
Sullivan considers development occurring within interactions over the life
course unlike the Freudian view which sees life as irrevocably fettered to the
earliest sets of social relationships within the family—primarily with the parents,
and barely even with siblings. Sullivan, while recognizing the importance of the
earliest relations in learning to coordinate fundamental needs and establishing
starting points for trajectories of social participation, still observes that the
course of life brings us into important and motivated contact with others.
The expanding cast of characters we meet in life presents new developmental
challenges, but also allows us to explore new possibilities, and learn new forms
of interaction. New relations may also expand the domains of the self that had
been bounded by anxiety, as trusted partners help us sense security in situations
where we previously had sensed only impending difficulty. While early selfformation
and the power of anxiety forcefully lead us to keep replicating early
behaviors, that is not necessarily the end of the story.
These complex life trajectories and transformations of the self are driven in
part by biological imperatives, but also are responsive social, cultural, economic,
and material conditions. Culturally learned patterns of child rearing, widespread
taboos and anxieties, and concerns about the good opinions of community
and family influence parental interactions and emotions with children. Social
arrangements and beliefs affect the range of people one is likely to meet at
different junctures in life (at school, in summer camp, on the job) and the
patterns, social meanings, and restraints on forming friendships and sexual
attachments. Economic opportunities and challenges of daily living focus our
energies, turn our attention away from other endeavors, and influence whom
we interact with, under what conditions, and for what purposes.
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
The relevance of such issues for language and writing should be apparent
in that language and writing are media of expansion, learning, and interaction.
We use language at the point when our motives meet the motives of others in
interaction, always with some challenge and growth as we confront different selfsystems
with their divergent understandings, motives, attentions, and anxieties.
If communication follows well-worn and familiar tracks that everybody knows
exactly where things are going and is perfectly comfortable and secure, the
challenges and risks are less. If not, the communication, mediated activity, and
learning are rife with possibilities of crossed purposes, misunderstandings, and
disjunctions that will lead to ruptures or redefinitions in the communicative
Language is learned in use within a developmental history of relations and
anxiety, and the meanings and uses a person finds in language are colored by
the emotions of security and anxiety. We all learn to disrupt situations that
make us anxious by changing the subject, leading the situation down alternative
paths that protect our security, or otherwise being disjunctive of the trouble we
sense coming down the road, thereby transforming the situation into one that
alleviates our anxiety, even if this means turning away from needs and desires.
In the most extreme cases, people who have had consistently unfortunate and
anxiety-raising experiences learn to use language far more to ward off anxiety
by placating or misleading or distancing others than to communicate in pursuit
of the satisfaction of needs. Where anxiety rules, there develops a radical
disjunction between, on one hand, a person’s needs and embodied experience—
that is, the self one knows as one withdraws from the anxiety of relationships—
and, on the other, the face one presents to the world to keep anxiety at bay.
This social learning, of security and anxiety, of self-definition and taboo, of
language used to modulate and fend off anxiety, adds another dimension to
the social learning of language and interaction to those more typically noted by
Vygotsky and socio-cultural psychologists. Additionally, the personal anxiety
system described by Sullivan adds another dimension of aversive and mindclouding
affect to the goal-shaped affects of motive and frustration noted by
Vygotsky (see Bazerman, 2001a, 2001b).
Sullivan was aware of and interested in the work of Vygotsky, though after
Vygotsky’s death in 1934. Sullivan was instrumental in publishing in 1939 the
first translation of the last chapter of Vygotsky’s Thought and Speech (Vygotsky,
1939). Sullivan also wrote a commentary on a Vygotsky article in a 1944 volume
(Kasinin 1944). While Sullivan sees the origins of the self-system developing
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out of prelinguistic sensations of anxiety, he sees the development of linguistic
reflection on the self as extremely powerful in the extensive construction and
monitoring of identity and in choice-making as one grows older. In short,
language, for Sullivan, as Vygotsky, is the chief tool of reflective action, although
Sullivan allows for the interference of security operations to warp the processes
of reflective choice making, to provide for indirect or even dysfunctional terms
for reflecting on one’s needs and desires, and to create distances between one’s
public expressions and one’s inner sentiments. Sullivan, as Vygotsky, gives
an account of the development of internal linguistic thought through an
internalization process in which language goes sub-vocal and private, a process
that Sullivan characterizes as reverie formation (1953, pp. 184-185).
For Sullivan, in addition, language is a means of sharing our perceptions
and emotions, validating those individual formations of self, knowledge,
and perception. In receptive environments we may have a strong impulse to
share how we see ourselves and the world. This sharing of experiences can
expand our vision and repair the idiosyncrasies of our experience and personal
interpretations. This social validation can impact our constructions of algebra
or gravity or the meaning of a John Milton poem as well as our sense of what
is socially appropriate to mention to a friend, our perceptions of the emotional
reactions of others, and our evaluations of how much risk or pleasure a situation
may hold.
Language for Sullivan, as for Vygotsky, is also a means of organizing
learning and thought. The developing child, according to Sullivan, as he or
she learns language and thereby learns to give shape to thought and coherence
to perceptions of the world, moves through stages of prototaxic, parataxic,
and syntaxic modes of thought (Sullivan, 1953, pp. 28-29), which are closely
congruent with Vygotsky’s stages of children’s thought and perception 1) prior
to the reorganization of thought through language, 2) as the child makes
associative connections while using language to organize thought (Vygotsky’s
sub-stages of congeries, complexes and collections, and pseudo-concepts), and
3) when the adolescent develops coherent systems of language characterized
as true concepts, and accommodates thinking to the disciplined and schooled
systems of concepts presented through the formal learning of the society—or
scientific concepts (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 110-124).
Sullivan’s developmental model of persons learning to act (in large part
through language) in fulfillment of needs in interpersonal relations—within
the cultural conditions of a time and place and within the particular dynamics
of a particular relationships—allows us to consider the role of language
development and expanding literacy competence, without being caught up
in particular cultural or historic forms of participation taken to be natural.
Chapter 5 The Pragmatic Tradition
We can see language development and literacy development as taking many
courses in relation to the historical and social moment, the particularities of
the person’s prior experience and current motives, and the particularities of the
communicative system and situations.
Sullivan, like Vygotsky, shows us an optimistic potential for growth into
and beyond the available social and cultural arrangements and activities of one’s
time and place. Sullivan, however, does not see that growth as necessarily easy,
as we must constantly face the anxiety of those things that stretch us beyond
that which we are comfortable with. This discomforting anxiety makes it
difficult to see what lies in front of us and around us and leads us to want to
turn our eyes and thoughts elsewhere, back to the worlds we are comfortable in,
where we find a familiar self-definition and perception, in interactions where
both ourselves and our partners are secure. Further, in participating in growthoriented
relationships, we must not only persuade others of the innovations we
create as useful to their own ends, we must address their anxieties, uncertainties,
terrors, and senses of where self-security lies.
Although Sullivan never specifically raises issues of writing, he provides
a framework of thinking about writing issues as anxiety, formulating and
synthesizing knowledge, the anticipating audience, the changing roles for
writing as one moves through one’s life course, and the cultural variation
of literate tasks and its relation to personality and personality development
(see Bazerman, 2001b). Sullivan in this way can provide us means to see why
writing may be so difficult, why we may resist and struggle with some modes
of expression, why we find some audiences easier to address than others.
At the same time he provides ways to account for the self-expansion, selfformation,
discovery, reflection, and growth that people regularly report as
the result of writing. Finally, he allows us to see these processes as within the
difficulties and rewards of integrating in social relations with others as part of
social projects.
Overall, the pragmatists help us see writing as part of social problem-solving,
invention, and evolution. Through writing we address our current needs and
concerns and create new arrangements that change our way of life. In doing so,
we assert identities and recognize ourselves through what we contribute. We
see ourselves reflected through our presence in writing and the presence that
writing takes in society. Our challenges, emotions, and difficulties in writing
are as much about the place and actions we take in society through our writing
as they are about manipulating the technical means and resources of language.
Addressing our present circumstances and making our futures means we are
never fully sure about where our writing is taking us, how others will see us, and
what the consequences will be.
The social field on which individuals take action to satisfy needs and desires
is created by humans in the relations they form, interactions they enter into, and
organizational arrangements they construct or accede to. Further, those human
arrangements transform the perceived material field for action through the cultural
meaning, attention, and value assigned to the material environment and the
work which transforms the material into a built environment of resources and
possibilities. To understand how individuals act and interact (and thus how they
use spoken and written language), we therefore need to pay attention to humanmade
social and material orders. These are not orders hypothesized by social
theorists as abstractions, but are rather emergent historical orders, recognized and
engaged in by participants.
To be more explicit, built material orders exist because people build them and
social orders exist because people act in certain ways with respect to each other.
Those built orders and ways of behavior and interactions are dependent on the
ways people understand and orient toward the world. Those understandings are
based on the individual’s life experience and observations, the visible signs provided
by others, human-made artifacts embodying social practices and beliefs, and the
words used to describe, discuss, evaluate, and regulate the social and material words.
Human beings in trying to make sense of their worlds so they can act, in using
their propensities for individual thought and socially shared thought and social
interaction, perceive order in the social world, and by perceiving that order help
produce and reproduce that order, for those orders are constructed of social facts.
As W. I. Thomas (1923) stated, drawing on G. H. Mead, what people believe to be
real is real in its consequences. Social analysis, however, can make social orders more
salient and reflective to participants, influencing how participants act (a process
Giddens (1987) calls the double hermeneutic and Merton (1948) calls reflexivity).
The sociology of Robert Merton will be our starting point on this survey
of accounts of social order because his sociology finds social order in the
Chapter 6 Social Order
process by which individuals make choices among alternatives they perceive
as socially structured (see Stinchcombe, 1975, for a perceptive analysis of
Merton’s core themes). That is, the social facts people perceive provide the
field upon which they conceive, shape, and choose actions. In so acting they
advance their own perception of the socially structured world, reinforcing
that vision within the externalized world for others to interpret and respond
to. The self-fulfilling prophecy (a phrase coined by Merton) exemplifies this
theme starkly (1948).
The relevance of this approach to social order for rhetoric is clear. Rhetorical
action creates representations of the social world so to influence the audience’s
perceptions and consequent actions. Productive rhetoric directly takes this
position for the shaping of new discourse while critical rhetoric attempts to
recover the position and assumptions of those criticized to uncover their intents,
choices, meanings, and actions. The rhetor’s perception of relevant genres and
their appropriateness to the situation provides structured sets of alternative
choices for action, and then the genre choice structures further choices to be
made. In making utterances, in essence, rhetors project social orders. In their
speech rhetors make visible how they see the world (or at least would like to
have others see the world) and attempt to enlist others into that worldview by
seeking coordinated responses.
Mertonian sociology is particularly relevant for literate rhetoric. Situation
and the related concept of kairos are fundamental to rhetorical analysis, but the
perception of situation is particularly problematic for literate communication.
Writing and reading enact social situations that are usually not visibly present
and offer few immediate, visceral prompts to direct response. Rather, they
must rely on their social typifications, including genre, in order to understand,
make choices, and act. Thus the situation both in its specific circumstances
and its embedding within larger social orders is dependent on the writer’s and
reader’s typified construction of the situation and relevant social arrangements
encapsulated in the perception of genre. The literate rhetor constantly recalls
and uses social facts to maintain a sense of the situation.
Merton provides an appropriate starting point of our consideration of
social order in relation to rhetoric for a further reason, for he integrates the
orientation of the individual to a complex picture of social organization. The
writer’s orientation toward the social group he or she is writing toward is the
basis of the writer’s stance and the individual specificity of the communication
being written. The account I have provided of active, social, communicative
selves has drawn on three major traditions that have had great force in shaping
sociology: the Marxist, the phenomenological, and the pragmatist. In working
with these various traditions Merton invented a precursor to structurationist
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sociology which offers an integration of phenomenological micro-sociological
investigations with larger structural accounts of the perceived and reproducing
and evolving organization of society (1968b). But to structurationism he adds a
particular lesson from Durkheim, in that large social appearances/data can serve as
indicators of psychological orientations (1968b, and personal communication).
This allows him to harness observation and quantification of large social
phenomena to a kind of social psychology, considering how individuals orient
towards collectivities and to comment on the larger organizing structures
that shape our modern world of action and relations, though with constant
awareness of the difficulty of indicators and of differential position, perception,
and interpretation (Merton et al., 1979). This complex view allows us to see the
individual writer and the writer’s intentions within larger conflicted dynamics
of social organizations. However, in order to better present this complex social
picture, the middle of this chapter will focus on social theory with only a few
passing mentions of writing; the last section of the chapter will discuss more
explicitly the relevance of this theory to writing.
Merton developed his view of social structure through a long career of
theoretical, historical, and empirical investigations from two vantage points—
considering the patterns and mechanisms of perceptions, self-positioning,
and choice making of individual agents, and considering the larger enduring
historically emergent group structures, which actors perceive as providing
the fields and opportunities for action and which influence constraints and
outcomes. The first consideration bears some similarity to what we now
consider micro-sociology, the detailed observation of individual action in local
circumstances, but Merton considers that local actions are conditioned, shaped,
and oriented towards larger organizations of society. The second bears some
similarity to what we now call macro-sociology, which considers the larger
structures of society as ordering lives from the top down, but Merton viewed
these structures as emergent by choice making, by the ways people have oriented
to the situations as structured and the institutions they have created from those
orientations. Thus Merton’s work identifies a meso-sociology, a middle range of
mechanisms by which the micro occurs with respect to macro and the macro
emerges from and is realized in the micro.
Merton, in a widely cited chapter, calls for theory of the middle range
(1968b). By this he means theory
Chapter 6 Social Order
to guide empirical inquiry . . . intermediate to general
theories of social systems which are too remote from
particular classes of social behavior, organization, and change
to account for what is observed and to those detailed orderly
descriptions of particulars that are not generalized at all. . .
. Middle range theories deal with delimited aspects of social
phenomena. One speaks of a theory of reference groups, of
social mobility, or role-conflict, and of the formation of social
norms just as one speaks of a theory of prices, a germ theory
of disease, or a kinetic theory of gases. (Merton, 1968b, pp.
These theories of the middle range are potentially compatible with a number
of different systems of macro thought, in that they specify concrete mechanisms
by which events unfold, but do not necessarily dictate the largest scale picture
that can be drawn of society.
This methodological focus on theories that can be grounded in observable
phenomena and can be generalized, points toward the kind of concepts
that would be researchable and reliably warrantable, and perhaps practically
useful. They are theories concerning the mechanisms that link individual local
behavior with apparent large patterned organization. Theories of the middle
range point toward the mechanisms of the middle range. They are mechanisms
in the sense that they show how things regularly happen, organized in patterned
ways. As such these mechanisms provide anticipatable pathways for participant
orientation, perception, and choice-making. If one has the concepts right,
identifying how events, interactions, and relations become organized, one can
see them operative in various circumstances, identify choices that can influence
events, and anticipate how some events would be likely to unfold. Reflective
knowledge of orderliness helps one make choices with a greater power.
In elucidating the social field from the point of view of the individual agent
needing to make choices, Merton has developed the following key concepts,
some drawing on existing sociological work and some his novel invention.
• reference group—the choice of social fields one orients to for value, affiliation,
identity, life trajectory (1950a)
• norms and values—the perceived set of behaviors and commitments that
are part of affiliation with and participation in reference groups and in
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the performance of roles. These are both what one perceives as part of the
fulfillment of that form of life and what one perceives one will be held
accountable to in various interactions (1938a, 1973)
• role and role set—specific forms of interaction and interpersonal obligation
one enters into as part of one’s social positioning (1957b)
• role conflict and ambivalence—the difficulties one enters into because of
the multiple roles and relationships as well as multiple statuses and reference
groups and incoherence within the values, norms, and perceived
behavioral possibilities (1963, 1976)
• conflict mediation and resolution—as emergent phenomenon, leading
to further chosen patterning as favored patterned solutions emerge.
• opportunity structure—the perceived patterned affordances of various
status’s roles within reference groups as well as obligatory relationship
and structures for the fulfillment of needs, desires, enactment of behaviors
and goals (1959).
• anomie—the disaffiliation from reference groups that one still remains
bound to, the patterned unconventional choices one may make to negotiate
the incoherences of values and behavioral opportunities (1938b, 1949a)
• recruitment and socialization—the mechanisms by which individuals
are attracted to reference groups and come to learn and behaviorally integrate
into the roles, norms, values of a social group.
At a second level he has had a strong interest in the historically emerged
patterned structures and institutions which provide the opportunity structures
for the affiliation and development of individuals and which provide for the
larger social organization of life and the carrying out of social activities and the
meeting of needs of society and the individual. At this level key concepts are
such things as
• institutions and bureaucracies
• professions and science as socially organized activities
• value and norm systems associated with professions, bureaucracies, sciences,
other regularized systems (1938a, 1973)
• patterned behavior and character-behavioral types within institutional or
professional space (1940).
• forms of socialization and training that produce professionals of particular
dispositions, orientations, and perceptions (1957b)
• differential positioning of individuals within system and with respect
to specific needs, perceptions, and opportunities for individual action
(1940, 1945, 1950b)
• socially organized patterns of evaluation and advancement (1968a,
1971, 1995)
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• socially organized events having a tendency or trajectory to particular
outcomes (1957a, 1961)
• functions and dysfunctions, manifest and latent (1968b)
• unanticipated consequences as emergent social order or disorder (1936,
His account of forms of organization as historically emergent from
individual choice making over long periods of time has gone hand in hand
with his historical studies, beginning with his first book about the relationship
between the rise of modern science as a form of patterned activity within the
social beliefs, norms, values and patterned economic and political activity of
Renaissance and Restoration England (1938a). Considered the founder of the
sociology of science, his studies of science have regularly had a deep historical
character, all directed toward understanding what has made science a particular
field of endeavor that evokes behaviors different than those of other forms of
social life, while accomplishing work upon which many domains of modern
society have come to rely (1965, 1973). He asked similar questions of other
modern professions, especially in the health area (Merton et al., 1957) and
bureaucracy (1940, 1945)
Merton’s view of structure as constantly produced and reproduced through
the actions of agents, through their individual perceptions shaped by prior
experience, affiliations and choices, is consistent with later structurationist (see
Giddens, 1984) and related accounts (Bourdieu, 1977, 1990), but he provides
a more articulated account of the mechanisms by which individuals perceive,
orient toward, and make conscious choices within their social worlds.
Structurationist accounts, on the other hand, point more directly to
habituated behavior and the dispositions of socialized agents. Typified action
is more a matter of habit, affective security, and compulsion than it is of
understanding and conscious choice making. Typification, unless it is brought to
consciousness for active choice, can be the vehicle of naturalization. Genre and
other forms of typified behavior would be chosen and reproduced in most cases
automatically, as one would move toward those repeated behaviors that one was
most familiar with and one felt most secure within. Giddens, drawing on the
interpersonal psychiatrists Erikson and Sullivan, particularly associates repeated
forms of social behavior with habits developed within early senses of the secure
world, reproducing and extending those secure senses of the world—what he
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calls ontological security (Giddens, 1984, p.125) and holding at bay the more
anxiety-provoking circumstances of the unknown or threatening possibilities of
the world (Giddens, 1984, 51 ff). Thus habit is motivatedly reinforced by the
anxiety system, and typification is not only a strategic ordering of the world but
an affective dynamic that maintains social order through repeated action. More
reflexive and intentional strategic orientation toward life is built only on a sense
of security that allows one to consider one’s circumstances more broadly, so as
to restructure one’s relations and actions.
Bourdieu has a similar account of deeply seated habitual judgments and
actions, bred through early experience. He calls the sum of these habits the
habitus or “durable, transposible dispositions, structured structures predisposed
to function as structuring structures” (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 72; 1990, p.
53). Bourdieu’s views are unclear on the ways in which one’s repertoire of
perception, judgment, and behavior might be extended either through later
sets of experiences within new circumstances or through reflection. Bourdieu at
times states that reflective observation of one’s habitus may permit some degree
of freedom from simply habitual reproduction. At other times he allows for
complex and multiple sources of habitus, stemming from many periods in one’s
life as one enters into new cultural and social fields, introducing variety and
change, though not necessarily reflexive choice (Calhoun, 2006).
While reflection on action and reflective action are important categories for
Giddens, Bourdieu, and Merton, only Merton provides an extended exposition
of the way reflective action is structured. The others consider structured action
as pre-reflective, which reflection frees one from. In contrast, Merton’s residual
category of those things not reflected upon consists of those things unanticipated.
Insofar as these unanticipated consequences have functional consequences for
the reorganization of social relations they can be seen as the agents of social
structural change and the precursors of latent functions, systemically part
of the dynamics of social relations but not anticipated or by design, will, or
approval of the participants. Most of Merton’s social reasoning, nonetheless,
respects the perception, planning, choice-making, reflective understanding of
circumstances, and reasoned adjustment to situations of participants acting in
a world of social facts.
Thus while Giddens and Bourdieu provide deeper appreciation for the role
of habit (as do Dewey, 1922, Mead, 1929, and James, 1890) in the compulsive
and naturalized patternings of social behavior leading to enduring social orders,
they do not provide extended accounts of the reflective choice making available
as the individual’s reflective perception, judgment, maturity, and emotional
security develop so that they are open to more of the possibilities of the world
while needing to act in that world. Merton through the idea of reference group
Chapter 6 Social Order
provides a way to deal with the multiplicity of choices and orientations a person
has available in the modern world, and the way the person negotiates among
them or finds conflict and ambivalence (Merton, 1976). Habits and habitus
can be seen as limit cases of Mertonian social structure where the individual is
severely restricted in the orders he or she can perceive and act on in the world,
and thus is repetitively and forcefully drawn down repeating paths of behavior.
With only a single dominant reference group one is drawn into an affectively
powerful set of behaviors, perceptions, and evaluations.
Because Merton’s work consistently understands the role of patterned
individual perception and choice making, as well as the large perceived patterns
of social field upon which one acts, he provides a way to consider how the
contribution of recent microsociological work can be integrated into the longer
tradition of macro and institutional sociology. Understanding that people make
structured choices within fields perceived as structured gives force to such
traditional sociological categories as status and roles, institutions, identifiable
and structured groups, without turning people into sociological dopes, as
Garfinkel (1967) phrased his accusation of macro-sociology. In a Mertonian
world individuals are not simply driven to follow norms, nor are they limited to
the security of early habits of relations. Rather the adoption of norms, behaviors,
and evaluations is part of orienting toward, becoming part of, and participating
in chosen social groups that provide perceived opportunity for the satisfaction
of desires and needs, that carry out appreciated functions, and that provide a
place for one. Larger social forms are not just analysts’ categories that impose
determinative claims; they emerge out of the practice of individuals attempting
to live in a world they need to perceive order in, in order to act. They are, users’
categories, in the same way Schutz turned Weber’s categories inside out. The
theorist and researcher only elucidate what people have made and how they
relate to what they have made.
The pragmatic, phenomenological, and Marxist perspectives on human
agency that we have looked at in previous chapters all point toward historically
emerged social orders and structures and contemporary processes of social
organization and ordering. These orders exist only in the enactment, as people
orient towards them, respect them, and act as though they existed. They
do not exist in some abstract realm of ideal form apart from their practical
accomplishment. Certain enduring artifacts may bear markings of social orders
perceived at their time of construction, such as architecture or laws, and further
these artifacts may facilitate continued enactment of these orders in even more
robust ways than before, as when a stadium facilitates and perhaps economically
necessitates the production of sports and entertainment events, or laws and court
decisions codify practice and provide new penalties for violation. Bureaucracies
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usually embody not only architecture and laws, but budgets, paychecks, forms,
files, organizational charts, and a myriad of other material and symbolic artifacts
that are integral to the social order. Yet the moment people stop going to the
office to do the work or the government loses its legitimacy, or the paychecks
stop coming, all those artifacts become empty shells and the bureaucratic social
order vanishes. For writing this means texts live only when they are written and
read, only when they are in people’s minds as part of their activities. The textual
artifact at the bottom of a drawer has no social force until it is rediscovered and
someone finds it significant and signifying. This is why rhetoric needs theories
that tie together the individual and social structures at the point of action and
choice making.
Rhetoric is a reflective, agentive, choice-centered perspective on social
action. Accordingly rhetoric seeks to articulate strong forms of orderliness to
guide people in practice. Any theory that helps specify the social landscape,
the roles and relationships authorizing and enacted in rhetorical utterances,
also helps enrich our understanding of what constrains, motivates, shapes, and
is realized in any socio-rhetorical action. As rhetoricians, we need some such
structural theory to give us means to consider the larger forms of organization
that we know skillful writers orient toward, and we can’t leave it all to local
interaction and general tactics. A purely local approach to rhetoric has the
paradoxical effect of making rhetoric universal, treating all situations basically
alike in character beyond local accidents, and offering the same repertoire of
tools and understanding to serve for all circumstances. Only by developing some
account of the differentiation of the life worlds that people participate in can we
begin to understand how and why forms of writing differ, the dimensions along
which they do differ, and the differential means of action in each. Merton’s
theories of the middle range help elucidate one’s position on a rhetorical field
and those patterns that can structure rhetorical choice. From this perspective,
genres create opportunity structures for action, providing choices and directing
energies for the realization of our interests.
This need for a structural theory is particularly important for a writing
centered rhetoric, where the writer is typically removed from an audience in
time and space, where documents may travel across situations, where print
reproduction makes multiplication and dispersal even greater. Electronic
technologies now further increase the multiplication and dispersal of times
Chapter 6 Social Order
and places of contact. In face-to-face rhetoric we can see, hear, and smell the
situation and monitor the reactions of the people we are talking with—even in
ways that lie below conscious thought. The immediacy, even without reflective
tools, may carry us very far in talking appropriately and understanding; yet
even under those face-to-face conditions rhetoric offers reflective advantage.
In writing situations, our need for rhetoric is all the greater as we may have
little immediate situational information and even less immediate visceral feel,
so we need to rely on our patterned understanding of how situations go, the
organization of social endeavors, the roles and relationships of participants, and
the interests and norms of audiences. We need to understand the social systems
and actions the texts are part of with all the complexities of affiliation and
disaffiliation, conflicting reference groups, multiple sets of norms and attitudes.
An understanding of how bureaucracies, epistemic communities work, or
institutions and organizations work helps us understand how texts work to
carry out the relations and activities with these social configurations.
Further, we gain a deeper understanding of our writing choices if we
understand how texts produce and reproduce particular structures through
genres’ participation in activity system, making some patterns more salient or
more dubious, or affect the perceptions of future readers about the social field.
Each of our rhetorical acts goes beyond the immediate message it delivers within
an ordered social world to continue and modify that order. That continuous
enactment or modification of the social order may be indeed as an important
consequence of our rhetorical work accomplished by our reading and writing as
any specifics of the particular message.
For example, consider the ways our reading and writing in particular genres
enlist us in certain identities, roles and relationships (Bazerman, 2000b; Smith
& Schryer, 2008). In filling out a government form we become a client of a
social service agency. The writers of the form themselves take on the voice of
the institutional inquirer, with legitimized power. If the responder does not
comply there will be organized consequences. If the responder does accept the
assigned role, he or she then must reveal personal information, and become
an acquiescent supplicant dependent on the rules and procedures of the
bureaucratic order. The bureaucratic reader of this document produced by an
asymmetrical collaboration is in an evaluative role. The reader further becomes
institutionally empowered to act on the information and requests presented in
the document. The roles, activities, and relationships we may say are brought
into being by the documentary matrix (created by long institutional histories).
Imagine how difficult it would be to institute an entirely new form of required
governmental reporting on, for example, one’s healthful and unhealthful
behaviors. How many new roles and relationships would be brought into being?
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How much social resistance there might be by people who do not want to be
drawn into this new social regulatory matrix?
Scientific articles make claims, but also make the author and text accountable
to the critical reading of the profession. As well, the articles contribute to the
communal project of advancing specific sorts of knowledge. The writer must be
of a certain status to legitimately adopt the role of claim maker and have hope of
being published and read, but that role then affords particular kinds of relations
of knowledge exchange. Similarly in reading an article, one enters into a complex
set of roles, relations and interactions, depending on one’s differential position
and location in time in space—whether a competitor proposing a similar claim,
someone doing related work wanting to borrow arguments and techniques, an
historian later seeking to reconstruct the development of ideas and techniques,
or a neophyte seeking to learn from the most prominent articles.
In adopting the role-appropriate forms of reading and writing, individuals
enact the values and projects of the community or profession by interpreting,
selecting, evaluating, and using the meaning of the text in carrying out the
valued projects of the field in light of typical assessments made within the field.
To write and read as a financial analyst means to value what financial analysts
value; even more the act sustains the very activity and value system of financial
analysis, keeping the domain alive in the world.
Nonetheless, value ambivalences and role conflicts may arise both in writing
and reading because many people may read any document, each with multiple
roles and relationships. Because the texts we write are likely to be visible to
multiple audiences, we are often caught in role conflicts as writers—how do
we manage dealing with different readers who will evaluate the meanings and
persona we project from their various perspectives. Writers may be faced with
the traditional concerns of embarrassment and betrayal at a revelation, as when
the novelist’s families and friends see traces of their lives and the attitudes of the
author toward them in a roman á clef. Role conflicts, however, may be more a
matter of rhetorical complexity, such as when a corporate report writer needs to
be persuasive with the managerial part of the audience on the basis of managerial
clarity and financial acuity, attractive to the client part of the audience through
responsiveness to their needs, and reassuring, supportive, and appreciative to
the employee part of the audience. Role conflict theory has useful things to say
on how people manage conflict and develop conflict-mediating mechanisms (
Coser, 1966, 1975; Goffman 1959, 1963, 1971; Merton, 1945, 1963, 1976).
In turn the regularly structured conflicts and other interpersonal difficulties
engendered by the circulation of texts may give rise to regular structures of
communication, interpretation, valuation, and use that help ameliorate or
even transform the difficulty into a new set of values, norms and relations.
Chapter 6 Social Order
For example, the emergent complexity of roles around scientific publication
created situations where the same small group of people may be claim makers,
critical readers, referees, editors, and claim adopters or rejecters with respect to
each others’ work. To mediate these role conflicts new norms and values arose
since the seventeenth century that changed participants’ stances toward difficult
situations: an obligation towards criticism, a commitment to a higher goal of
communal project of science, a commitment to empirical proof. Appropriate
attitudes towards conflict thereby became part of the value system of science. In
short, commitment to science trumps, buffers, and reframes the personal insults
that are built into the game (Bazerman, 1988).
Written documents often enough become enduring parts of a social system—
as a continuing record of past acts, agreements, ideas, and established facts.
These records are potentially invocable for new uses and actions. Intertextuality
(see Chapter ten) invokes a historical social context accessible to all, influencing
the continuing behavior of all. Written laws, court precedent, and court rules
all shape ongoing judicial activity. The written journalistic record creates
social facts that politicians and government officials must take into account.
The documentary records of the health care system structure the behavior,
information gathering, and judgment-making of health care providers as well
as the opportunities for interaction and service for clients. Utterances are acts
that condition the landscape for all future actions, but written documents
particularly stay more visibly and enduringly on the landscape, may travel
further through time and space, have greater stability, and may be multiply
reproduced (Bazerman, 1997). For such reasons written texts frequently attain
special legal or epistemic status and may gain higher degrees of social attention.
Merton’s sociology points to the statuses and roles one holds with respect
to the audience, the specific roles one is enacting in the utterance, and how the
multiplicity of roles and relationships with parts of the audience may create
conflicts. Rhetoric needs to have as much a sense of the disaffiliations and
anomie that may condition an audience’s response as the forms of identification
and subsumption. Mertonian sociology also points to the ways in which the
relation with the audience provides an opportunity structure for certain kinds
of needs, interests, and actions that can be realized through communication. It
additionally points to the structured advantages certain rhetors accumulate and
the relative disadvantage others are put at, which Merton labeled the Matthew
Effect (Merton, 1968a, 1995).
Finally, if writing mediates social processes, learning to write is a process
of socialization into the practices, relations, positions, and activities of social
collectivities. Writing in any domain is more than a matter of gaining technical
mastery, although that technical mastery may be an important part of becoming
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a successful participant in the group. We would do well to start looking at
writing in relation to socialization theory and socialization mechanisms. There
are already a few forms of educational theory that work on a socialization
model, particularly those concerned with an apprenticeship model, such as
Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998)
which is concerned with integration into communities of practice, and other
theories that are concerned with the formation of learning communities, but all
these could be aided by a more detailed account of how individuals are recruited
and socialized into groups and adopt groups as reference for behavior. Writing
itself provides the means of creating social presence in literacy-mediated social
groups; this situation suggests that we need further writing-specific accounts of
socialization. For all these reasons rhetoric can use theories which can articulate
complex role sets, complex activities, differential social positioning and goals,
role conflicts and conflict mediating mechanisms, unanticipated consequences
and other emergent social phenomena as they pertain to writing.

One lesson of structurationalism is that social order does not exist in an
abstract space above and beyond the actual sites of social relations, but rather
must be constantly remade and maintained in lived spaces of interaction.
Accordingly, any larger patterns of social order and organization that may
exist must be constituted and built on patterns and relations played out at the
concrete level of individuals in individual events. This recognition extends
beyond simply seeing evidence of social orders in concrete data, as the
consequences or ramifications of more abstract orders. Rather structuration
directs us to look at the interactions as themselves the site at which order is
The grounding of society in concrete interaction suggests that social order
can be effectively studied in concrete individual interactions. The advent of
recording technologies has facilitated researchers in capturing interactional
data, examine them, slow them down, and analyze their social realities in
great detail. Conversational analysts study social orders through microanalysis
of synchronous talk interaction, either face to face or telephonically (Lerner,
1993; Schegloff, 1987). Yet writing facilitates and connects people, events,
and interactions across time and space, creating objects for co-orientation,
co-relation, and action that do not rely on co-presence. Further, the
typifications, patterns, and social organization of communication that
facilitate communication at a distance foster and structure larger social and
organizational aggregates. The textual, symbolic, and concrete objects that are
multiplied and travel across time and space, furthermore, provide a concrete
means of understanding how social order at a distance is possible; further, the
study of how people produce, engage with and use these objects can open up
some of the fundamental mechanisms of larger social orders. Nonetheless,
the project of grounding social realities in the concrete interaction is a
powerful one that provides us guidance in pursuing larger “at a distance”
orders in concrete ways. Therefore, before we consider how interactional
order is enacted in the literate world, we should first consider how people
studying face-to-face interaction have pursued the project of understanding
the interactional order.
Chapter 7 Shared Meanings
There is no more powerful and fundamental investigator of the interactional
order than Erving Goffman. Fortuitously for our purposes, he has also considered
communication in somewhat less personal circumstances, such as in lectures, over
radio, and even in print, providing bridges to the literate interactions that are the
focus of this volume. So it is with a discussion of Erving Goffman that we begin this
chapter, and particularly with his essay “The Interaction Order” (Goffman, 1983).
In many ways this posthumously published essay is the culminating theoretical
statement of his career, framed as the 1982 presidential address for the American
Sociological society, but never delivered in person as he was battling cancer.
In this essay Goffman starts from the premise that we spend much of
our life in the presence of others and that the conditions and needs of life
ensure this. For us to cohabit this shared space successfully (that is to meet our
individual and shared needs without undo conflict) we need to make plausible
and appropriate surmises about each other’s status and relationships, but even
more about intentions and goals. We get much information for coordination
visually from observing each other’s actions, orientations, gaze, and appearance,
including both ritual and spontaneous elements. Speech greatly facilitates and
makes more efficient these coordinations. Further, this information is gathered
and used within the concrete situation perceived by the individual. As Goffman
notes, “It is social situations that provide the theater in which all bodily displays
are enacted and in which all bodily displays are read. Thus the warrant for
employing the social situation as the basic working unit in the study of the
interaction order” (1983, p.4). We may equally say it is within situations that
speech is heard and interpreted.
Significantly, Goffman’s fundamental attention to the social situation
mirrors rhetoric’s fundamental concern for the rhetorical situation or kairos.
It is through the recognition and construction of situations that people find
order in interaction, so as to be able to anticipate that actions will be effective.
To do this they must have a way of perceiving the specifics of the immediate
situation in the here and now as it unfolds and of associating that with what
they perceive as repeated patterns of events. These perceivable patterns need to
be shared with other co-participants to the degree that their understandings
will coordinate or align in producing interactions that can unfold in ways that
make sense to all participants. That is, if they do not have sufficient alignment
in understanding the event, conflicting definitions will produce behaviors that
others will not be able to make sense of or perceive as cooperative, putting the
event in danger of disintegrating. Schutz might call these shared patterns of
perceptions typifications, while Goffman calls them cognitive presuppositions.
A Theory of Literate Action
To use the metaphor drawn from literacy that Goffman himself invokes,
the situation and people’s behavior must be read (1983, p. 4) and, therefore,
must be readable. To use a less literate imagery, one must be able to make sense
of one’s immediate surroundings and the behavior of others in a way that is
sense-able, that is, accessible to human sense-making procedures. Some microsociologists
indeed argue, people need only that immediate sense-making to
operate within the world, and that the meso-and macro-social structures are for
the most part constructs of analysts and not the real world in action. Goffman
actually holds a contrary position, saying that larger social structures have an
independent influence on our lives, though they may bear on the micro and
the micro might bear on them. He cites the example of being informed by an
employer or a spouse that your services are no longer needed. Although the
particular form of the sharing of this news may have some short term emotional
consequences, the fact is that a day or a week or a month later, the change
in business or personal arrangements will far outweigh the amicability of the
termination interview. Nor, as he points out, do amicable interactions seriously
change the underlying inequities of class, race, or gender.
Nonetheless, the concrete mechanisms and consequences of these larger
social arrangements must play out and be delivered in a sequence of real settings,
as sites for local action. These patterns, typifications, or cognitive assumptions
are operative in a number of ways: through the belief and orientations that
focus perceptions of situations calling for action; in the means and resources
available to be deployed in the situations; within the artifacts and arrangements
which provide the grounds of local interaction; and in the significations
deployed in the moment-by-moment improvisation of behavior within the
situation. Social life and the enactment of meaning exist only as they concretely
happen during evanescent wisps of unfolding moments as perceived by the
participants. Yet these vanishing moments leave a residue of enduring artifacts,
texts, arrangements, and habits that create a complex mutable order that gives
some shape and predictability to future moments, which are themselves equally
concrete and evanescent, saturated by semi-stable, attributable meanings. While
artifacts and memories may travel across situations, yet they exist in people’s life
world in the evanescent here and now formed by attention, meaning-in-action,
and interaction. While there may be some aspects of human existence that may
be understood to a significant degree without reference to the unfolding moment
(such as the structure of organic chemicals found in the body—but even bodily
chemical states are responsive to our neurological attunement to situations),
almost all the questions about language and writing (once you get beyond the
chemistry of paper and ink), depend on meanings given and taken by people
in the moment. So rhetorical force is directly and irremediably enacted at the
Chapter 7 Shared Meanings
interpreted moment, no matter how much textual artifacts may endure across
multiple situations and circumstances to provide a commonality of situations
and conditions. Nor does even a fixed text mean the same thing in all situations
and to all participants; the physical existence of documents just results in the
document being available for inspection or other use by multiple participants
in multiple situations (including legal evidentiary, analytic, and academic
situations). In each new situation the meaning of the text is reenacted within
the habits, practices, interests, and arrangements available to the participants.
Goffman identifies two reasons for our being attentive and compliant
to the interaction order—that is, the set of understandings that allow us to
cooperatively create situations within which our behaviors make sense to others
in ways that align with the sense we wish them to make. One (which Goffman
calls the “social contract” reason) is that we have much to gain by respecting this
order at small cost and much to lose if the interaction order dissolves. That is,
by recognizing and framing our behaviors within the order, we are able to act
with others, and if we do not attend to the order we would lose that ability to
act with others and would gain nothing. As Goffman points out, even criminals
and others who normally violate the norms of the interaction order, rely on
those norms to locate their targeted violations and to hide their misdeeds from
easy notice. The second reason (which Goffman calls the “social consensus”) is
the unthinking assumption that what one sees around one is how people act
and there are no plausible or sensible alternatives—this is similar to what the
phenomenologists would call “the natural attitude.” The social contract and
the social consensus both lead to the conclusion that the constraints that apply
to oneself also apply to others and that one should submit to them (except for
conscious and focused violations, such as by criminals).
Goffman’s focuses on the immediate, proximate space with its temporally
unfolding events visible to the participants, even as what is attentionally
relevant may expand or contract as events unfold and as definitions of the
situation change through shifting frames attributed to the visible, audible space
and towards which the participants align. This shared alignment defining the
situation, Goffman calls footing. His well-known essay on “Footing” (1981)
and his volume Frame analysis (1974) elaborate these ideas most explicitly.
This proximate face-to-face space creates an urgency, because we are visible to
others and open to their evaluation. If we are not responsive to the interactional
order, others may project their interpretations and reactions onto the space. If
A Theory of Literate Action
we violate the presuppositions or typifications or frames active for others in that
space, or if we do not discipline our behaviors to be readable by others, we may
be hailed to attention, rebuked for inattention, accused of failing to respect our
responsibilities to the moral order, or even cast out as irrelevant, irresponsible,
or insane. Goffman by the end of his career even placed this aligning to the
interpretable public order of those immediately around us as driven by the
desire not to be deemed insane. This position resonates, with a punitive clarity,
with Adam Smith’s understanding of moral sentiments arising out of our seeing
ourselves as others might see us and G. H. Mead’s view of our forming our
sense of ourselves through the eyes of others so that we can make ourselves
understood by them.
Yet while Goffman makes a strong contrast between immediate social
spaces of the interactional order (defined by mutual visibility imposing mutual
readability) and structural social order (where we must be responsive to forces
and people not within our immediate sphere of mutual visibility and mutual
real time readability), he himself examines some interactions that had more
tenuous holds on full immediate reciprocality—such as scripted lectures (where
audience responsiveness and attentiveness may influence delivery, but rarely
disrupts the flow of talk) or radio addresses (where people’s attentiveness and
reactions are invisible—even to the extent as to whether any listeners are tuned
in) (Goffman, 1981). In these cases Goffman looks at the speaker’s or author’s
anticipation of the audience’s interpretive frames, and the author’s attempt to
shape, mold, and invoke those interpretive frames and footings. Accordingly,
while Goffman’s typical sites of investigation—people managing pedestrian
traffic on a crowded sidewalk, maintaining face in a business meeting, or
managing roles in a psychiatric ward—may be viewed as being on one end of a
spectrum of immediate visibility and moral accountability, they are not divorced
from other points on the spectrum where our financial life is shaped in our
interaction with institutional statements, monthly payments, and readings of
our bank balances; or our citizenship life is framed around periodic encounters
with ballot boxes; or our intellectual life is formed by our reactions to the words
of authors within the journals we read. All of these interactional spaces must
be readable and read, and our presence depends on our participation, stances,
alignments, and frames.
In writing, however, the problems of attentiveness and alignment are far
greater than in face-to-face interaction. Without full, embodied co-presence
Chapter 7 Shared Meanings
the channels of communication are more limited, the opportunity for noting
response and making adjustments to retain attention and alignment are rarer,
and the compulsion for attention and accountable response is more tenuous.
The largest issue is that many people do not even look at or read (in the narrow
sense) another text, even when there might be some expectation they do. Even
personally addressed letters go unread, let alone group memos. Books that “all
citizens should read” may sell a few thousand copies, with many purchasers
never opening it or putting it back on the shelf after a few pages; only a few may
read it cover to cover.
In written communication, rarely does a text press itself on us demanding
attention, unless it touches an inward compulsion. Of course there is the
letter from the Internal Revenue Service or bank or other powerful social
institutions that a person dare not ignore. These cases of high compulsion and
accountability identify strong interpretive frames that demand attention and
limit the likely actions. The letter from the IRS is likely to have only a few kinds
of gists—requesting further information, commanding further payment, calling
for an audit, presenting a refund. These gists correspond to form letters and
narrowly framed genres. Individualized messages from the IRS are contexted
within regulations, past communications, and personal finances that locate the
meanings, actions, and urgency of attention. Even then there are some people
who throw away such notices unread, claiming they will have nothing to do
with the IRS, until the IRS sends out the police to take physical possession of
the people or their assets—thereby compelling attention.
More often in reading, though, texts are self-selected. Even at the office,
which files we deem relevant and then examine are a matter of judgment.
Unless we decide to go to a file, or pick up the morning newspaper, or click
the link to a website, there is no interaction. The text remains unreadable in
the interpretive sense because it is unread in the decoding sense. Attention is
not just a random matter, for what constitute our interests or what strikes us
attractive or meaningful, depends on the sense of meaning we are building
about our lives and the world. That sense of meaning of our life world includes
evaluations of the kinds of meanings we believe various kinds of documents will
contain for us: “Oh, I never read magazines like that, because they don’t have
substance . . .” or “I used to read it, but then I grew up,” or “that stuff is too hard
to understand,” or “it may serve the interests of managers but not consumers.”
Even after readers pick up a text, attention may wander, and interest
may fade. Many documents are fallen asleep over, skimmed, put down. In
short, readers escape or diminish the text’s presence and withdraw from the
interaction before the relationship, the cognitive attention, the effort to create
shared meaning goes very far. It is as though people walk away from you as you
A Theory of Literate Action
start speaking, or turn away to look at the TV, or demand you jump ahead to
the point. Even in situations of structured accountability, students do not get
through the assigned reading, managers do not read the reports in any detail,
users don’t follow the instruction manual, and applicants don’t attend to the
regulations for submission.
Even if people read a document all the way through, they read at varying
speeds with varying levels of attention and retention, from the perspective of
their own understanding and goals. Variation in reading becomes visible in
those unusual circumstances when people actually compare their readings, as
in classes devoted to discussing specific texts, whether of poetry, philosophy,
or social theory. Under such circumstances differences in what people take
to be the meaning are likely to emerge along with disagreements as to what
seems most important or salient to each reader. Advanced training in specific
disciplines of reading, whether literary, theological, legal, or philosophical,
may serve to proliferate alternative readings, even as training excludes certain
naïve or inattentive ones. No matter how well crafted a text may be it is always
porous, even in the law—that is why we have lawyers and courts. This is the
puzzle the hermeneutic circle tripped over (De Man, 1983; Gadamer, 1975;
Shklar, 2004), that reader response theory (Fish, 1980; Iser, 1980) attempted to
account for, and new criticism attempted to ameliorate through close reading
(Richards, 1924, 1929), even though new criticism quickly became a means to
proliferate even more readings (Brooks, 1947; Empson, 1947).
The fragility of face-to-face communication is often hard to detect because
participants regularly adjust to each other to carry situations forward, and repair
when minor breaches appear to occur (H. Sacks, 1995). Often our interlocutors
anticipate breaches and adjust for them, even when we do not perceive any
threat of rupture; we call such behavior apologetic, accommodating, or anxious.
We work hard to hold situations together and maintain at least the appearance
of mutuality, as the ethnomethodologists noted by identifying “let it pass” as
one of the primary methods people follow in attempting to make sense of each
other and situations (Garfinkel 1967, p. 3).
We notice the fragility, however, when situations fall apart, hard feelings
ensue, and people create unpleasant characterizations of former interactants
and the behavior which violated expectations. Garfinkel’s notorious breaching
experiments revealed how even small deviations from normatively expected
behavior can lead to very large social ruptures (Garfinkel, 1967). Such
Chapter 7 Shared Meanings
experiments test the limits of expected behavior and reveal the depth of moral
importance we place on others holding up their part. Such experiments also
reveal the pressures on us to follow expected behavior.
The fragility of literate interaction is even more invisible, because the rupture
happens out of sight. People rarely let us know if they have not read what we
wrote, if they lost interest, or were so outraged they stopped reading. Nor, even
if they finish, do they report back to us the meaning they got from the text.
We happily go along believing they read what we wrote. Ask any author who
is lucky enough to be widely reviewed or discussed in other publications about
how well their readers understand their work or even if their readings seem
at all plausible, and you may see another side. On the other hand, it is rarely
in the author’s interest to contest the readings, for at least the text is being
read and discussed. The common wisdom of authors is to let the text speak for
itself. For the most part people hold their reading privately within themselves
as part of their own amusement, intellectual development, curiosity, formation
of beliefs, or accumulation of information for action. If they compare readings,
their comments may be sweeping or vague, so that rarely is anyone likely to
contest in detail what they gleaned from texts.
Only in limited cases is there in fact any exigency for us to come to shared
readings of any text in any detail. Immediate operational needs can necessitate
shared interpretation, such as a group making sense of a manual to carry out a
repair, but the readings match only to the level needed for immediate practical
purposes, which then gets taken over by the exigencies and materiality of the
action and artifacts themselves. Embedding reading practices in complex sets
of shared social practices may also help align readings. Although students first
encountering a chemistry textbook may have all kinds of unusual understandings
of the text, if they solve enough problems, do enough experiments, discuss
enough phenomena, and engage in enough other professionalizing activities over
years, their readings of chemical texts will align with the readings of those who
have become their colleagues. Specialized practices of asserting understandings
of readings before commenting, such as associated with Rogerian argument
(Rogers, 1961), or the review of relevant literature in scientific work are
attempts to create shared communal alignment to prior texts to then carry
forward discussion. When people have significant stakes in comparing readings
in detail, professionalized forums and disciplined technical practices may arise
and may be honed in interpretive debates—such as in law, philosophy, literary
studies and theology. Sometimes in these forums the discussion leads to people
to consent to more aligned readings, as Fleck (1979) in his observations of
thought collectives, and Fish (1980) in his interpretive communities. Yet even
in professional forums no exigency may press for resolution, with people simply
A Theory of Literate Action
refining and arguing for the validity of their particular readings. Only when
there is a judge or jury to determine the authoritative reading does that settle
the question, but even then usually under duress and with muttering of those
who feel they have to buckle under to the state.
When texts fail to create reasonably congruent meanings adequate for
cooperative practical purposes we have many ways of accounting for the
breakdowns, hiding the fragility. Easiest and most common is blaming either
participant. Either the writer can’t write or the reader can’t read. Other kinds
of stigmatizations and consequent hostile elaborations can hide the breakdown
such as accusations that the other person lacks understanding of the issues or is
misguided philosophically or is cynically driven by ulterior motives. This is not
to say that such characterizations are not sometimes warranted, nor to suggest
that critical reading or rhetorical savvy are bad things. Yet these characterizations
can be mobilized in instances of communicative breakdown.
Such characterizations masking the breakdown of literate relations are made
more tempting because of the semi-privacy within which we usually carry
out literate activities—just us and the book or computer terminal. In mental
semi-privacy we can tell ourselves stories that remove us from the challenge
or difference of the text we are reading or from the difference of those who
might read our text. The fact that education and reading are so surrounded
by a hortatory ideology of opening up the mind, entertaining difference,
and learning the other side, suggests just how difficult and exceptional it is
to address texts that do not match comfortably with our preconceptions. On
the other hand, the common experience of becoming more sympathetic and
understanding of a writer once you hear them read or talk in person suggests
just how much the isolation of literacy limits our alignment to others’ words
and stances (See Inglese, 2010 for a study of how showing video interviews of
famous writers to students improves the students’ understanding and sympathy
for those writers’ texts). This value for seeing the writer as a person is matched
on the writer’s side by the well-known importance (and difficulty of obtaining) a
sense of how readers actually respond to what the writer has written. Yet writers
often resist accepting any but the most laudatory response from the readers.
Even experienced authors must struggle to receive comments with equanimity
and to evaluate them evenhandedly.
Characterizations of faulty readers and writers usually assume that an ideal
text—well written, carefully read by competent writers and readers—should
carry all the burden of successful communication. We tend not to think of the
text as a fragile mediator in a complex system within interpersonal human space,
and that breakdowns might occur or ramify anywhere. Certainly attending
more intently at the mediating artifact with skilled tools of interpretation is
Chapter 7 Shared Meanings
useful, because texts are the scene of transfer of action. Yet the text only sits in
the middle of a process, no matter how well and skillfully the text is attended
to. So we must view the processes of sense-making within social configurations,
rather than taking the text as a universal conveyor of meaning, accessible to all
in any circumstance.
The fragility of written language puts great pressures on writing to be
understood as situationally relevant to the reader, worth attention, readable,
interpretable, and useful for the readers’ purposes—all within the context of
a limited asynchronous communication channel of words (and graphics or
other enhancements) on paper or a screen. Despite difficulties, a successful
text must evoke in the mind of the reader meanings congruent enough to
the intentions of the writer and supportive of the desired actions to be taken
by the reader so as to complete a satisfactory transaction. While the worlds
of meaning evoked in the reader by literary texts are sometimes considered
in literary theory, worlds of meaning are in fact pervasive in all literate
interactions and not easy to accomplish. They require high degrees of work by
both reader and writer, cooperative stances between them, and a willingness
to discipline selves to the technicalities of inscribed language, including
the most basic tools of written language such as forms of handwriting and
inscription, orthographies, grammars, and punctuation conventions, to be
discussed in the next chapter.
One of the key mechanisms of attaining alignment is to cast messages in
familiar terms and typified forms. The need for intelligibility thereby reinforces
reliance on genres. If, for example, you need comparable specific information
from a group of respondents, you are likely to use questionnaires with questions
in familiar formats, so respondents know what you are asking for and how they
might respond if they so choose. The more unusual the information you seek
and the more open-ended or unusual the format, the less reliably people will
know what to answer, and the more difficult their responses will be to interpret
and compare—and the lower response rate you are likely to get.
Other devices for locating and aligning participants are narrative
reconstruction of the situation of writing or of likely reading use, reminding
readers of shared information, and explicitly identifying relevant shared
intertexts. Familiar designs, appropriate publication venues, familiar phrasing
and a narrowly defined technical vocabulary, or other presentational variables
A Theory of Literate Action
can also help readers identify and align with the meanings projected in the text
and tap into the representations they already have at hand.
Formulations that rely on familiar community beliefs for their coherence
is what Aristotle referred to as enthymemes, used as a persuasive device. If a
speech doesn’t make explicit all assumptions and logic, but relies on the listeners
to make the connections and provide the facilitating beliefs, the listeners will
evoke feelings and meanings already in their mind and which they feel are their
own. They will also find the speaker to be of a like mind and therefore to be
trustworthy. Further, insofar as they must think actively to gain the meaning,
using what they already know, conclusions become their own, for they have
thought it through. Thus the entire shared performance is likely to create a
common bond between speaker and listener. In writing, this sense of common
meaning and reasoning is even more important to maintain sense of situation,
attention, and meaning. But if enthymemes and familiar genres define the
total domain of meaning aroused, then one never brings the reader beyond
the familiar, as in the tiring diatribes of partisan journalism or the repetitive
celebrity “news” varying only in the names and locations.
On the other hand, writing creates opportunities for more elaborate
individuation of opinion, extended originality of statements, and more finely
honed articulation. The reflective, extended process of writing can remove the
writer even further from the reader and the likely contents of the reader’s mind.
This puts a high burden of mutuality and hard work on both reader and writer
to create meaning across the thin stream of inscribed words. This mutual hard
work starts at the level of reference, to ensure both interlocutors identify closely
enough the objects in the world and concepts evoked by the words to go down
sufficiently similar thought paths. Even terms for common objects, such as chair,
have a range of mental associations, each of us picturing a prototypical version
of each (whether an upholstered easy chair or a fold-up metal utility chair)
and having a range of easily imagined variations (some would readily include a
natural rock formation and others a multi-seated bench as chair, while others
might have to think a bit to understand these variants as chairs). Pronouns and
other deictic terms typically cause problems for less experienced writers because
they are not as skilled in directing readers to the thing they want to indicate.
Further, what is readily attended to and accepted as part of the scene includes
Chapter 7 Shared Meanings
a cultural deictics of attention and boundaries. H. Sacks’ (1995) analysis of
membership category devices, Hanks’ (1990) analysis of cultural deixis, and
Bakhtin’s (1981) consideration of chronotope all elucidate the cultural and
genre horizon of expectations about what a scene is likely to include.
The problem with alignment of concepts is even greater than of material
objects. The exact class of events covered by a concept, how a concept
operates in relation to other concepts, what system of reasoning the concepts
are related to, personal idiosyncratic use of terms within private cognitive
worlds, and similar concerns present problems in alignment of imagined
meanings by writer and various readers. Disciplinary training attempts to
alleviate some of these problems, by long enculturation into disciplinary
knowledge and practices that restrict ranges of meanings; yet even within
disciplinary discussions theoretic disagreements, misunderstandings, and
other misalignments create slippage in conceptual meanings. Particularly as
people are trying to articulate novel concepts they are likely use key terms in
ways that may not always appear fully coherent to peers as they reach towards
new frameworks of perception.
The problem of alignment in meaning-making goes far beyond the
identification of individual concrete or conceptual terms, as texts create large
networks of meanings that must be understood within the structure of the text
and in relation to other meaning structures that might be brought to bear to
understand and evaluate the text. How each claim, each sentence is related
to each other, what larger structures of meaning emerge from texts, and how
that meaning fits with other existing frames of thought present problems for
both readers and writers. This problem appears at ever more sophisticated levels
as readers and writers become more skilled and engage in more specialized
domains with more subtle distinctions and reasoning, drawing together larger
complexes of ideas and evidence. Even though the text may unfold temporally
in a sequence of sentences, the meaning emerges only as the reader keeps the
whole meaning structure in mind simultaneously. Similarly, the meanings
evoked when referring to prior texts can be problematic. Readers may find
different issues salient in each prior text cited, interpreting them differently,
assigning different evaluations, and relating them differently to each other. Even
keeping track of who holds what opinion in an article that cites multiple people
is difficult, let alone what position the writer holds with respect to all the texts
discussed and the overall topic under discussion.
Genres and other typifications can serve to align and limit interpretation, but
the more typified and common, the more they restrict the potential meanings
that can be made. Genres may even have the perverse effect of limiting the
precision of message, as there are standards of approximation good enough for
A Theory of Literate Action
typical purposes built into genres. Thus if a genre typically has only broad nonquoted
references to sources it encourages a belief that the source texts are clear
and univocal in their meaning and only the most familiar meaning is to be
drawn from them. Similarly, the use of standard sectioning of an argument
decreases the burden on providing an explicit rationale for the continuity of
the parts and the architectonics of the whole. For this reason we often find
a paradoxical consequence that the most typical articles (the ones that are
closest to conventional expectations), although the most easily read, may not
be the most influential, because they bring little novelty to the discussion.
Sometimes highly influential texts within disciplinary or professional contexts
are hybrid, bringing unexpected resources and modes of representations to the
communal reasoning. These hybrid contributions cannot abandon or ignore
disciplinary expectations, but they bring in and integrate other recognizable
modes of discussion to supplement the conventional meanings. These hybrid
supplementations may be controversial and some may view them as hard to
understand, inappropriate or irrelevant, but others may see the necessity for
the new meanings. Such controversy and simultaneous expansion of reasoning
occurred in the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board
of Education of Topeka where social scientific evidence of children’s selfconceptions
was brought in to argue that legal principle of “separate but equal”
was faulted because it led to unequal consequences.
The complexity of novel meaning can create cognitive and emotional
strain on both writer and reader. Writers find it hard to think in the new ways
their arguments demand of them, sometimes not sure of where their ideas are
headed, because their own prior beliefs and knowledge no longer provide firm
guides. Further, they may be appropriately anxious that others will not follow
them to their new meanings or will reject them for writing such strange and
heterodox things. The reader as well needs to struggle against preconceptions
to follow new meanings without rejecting them out of hand as being unclear
or outlandish. Often enough I have heard people complain of the difficulty
of texts and claiming the texts are poorly written when by all obvious textual
measures of vocabulary, sentence complexity, cohesive markers, or paragraph
and text organization the texts are not in any way exceptional. But the meaning
was unusual, introducing unfamiliar material, putting familiar material in
unfamiliar perspectives, or looking at issues in greater detail than usual. These
problems of articulating and understanding unfamiliar meaning can occur at
any level: when a high school student must write an essay that goes beyond
plot summary and a teacher must help the student identify the nascent thought
being born or when a Wittgenstein is trying to articulate a new philosophical
perspective and readers are trying to absorb it. The problem remains the same
Chapter 7 Shared Meanings
of how writers and readers can align well enough over a text for adequately
congruent meanings to be evoked.
An interactional perspective helps us understand more deeply how creating
congruent constructs of the communicative situation are essential for aligned
participation and meaning-making, yet how difficult creating congruence is
in ways that go far beyond technical skills of inscription, orthography, and
grammar. While face-to-face talk affords many devices to hold the interaction
together despite transient misalignments and threatened ruptures, literate
interactions at a distance have only attention to the written word, in production
and reception, as a mediating mechanism. Literate meaning-making attention,
carried out in the imaginations of the separated participants, is fragile, pushing
participants to engage in the most normative activities and meanings in order
to increase the chance for robust alignment of understanding. Yet the potential
of writing to create novel meaning tempts the writer to be more ambitious
and challenging in what the text attempts to convey. Successfully conveying
substantially novel meaning requires both writer and reader to attend carefully
to the nuance and architectonics of the text. Even with high commitment and
skill on both sides, the level of co-alignment and mutual understanding is often
much less than the fixedness of the inscribed text might suggest. Substantially
novel texts, if they convey fresh meanings perceived of potential value to the
readers, reveal their success in evoking extensive discussion among readers as
to the meaning. The meaning is not fully obvious and univocal from a plain
reading of the text. The complexity of constructing an effective interactional
order helps us understand that the aim of writing is not a “perfect text” but
maximum alignment of meaning construction between writer and reader,
creating meanings for the reader in a way that is congruent to the meanings the
writer desires to evoke and that lead to the desired consequent thoughts and
actions that the writer hopes for.
The socially and psychologically complex interaction between writer and
reader is, however, carried out through the thin line of words transmitted on the
page. From a writer’s point of view the task, is, as Hemingway famously said,
“getting the words right” (Hemingway, 1958). Words are the material we work
with, what we inscribe to create our meanings and influence the readers. When
we are done writing, they are what remain on the page for others to see.
Multimedia technologies, of course, do now extend the resources which can
be mobilized on the page, but still language remains central to the craft of
writing. While some of the same issues of communication at a distance discussed
here may be applicable to them and their integration with the written word also
pose important issues, I will not attempt to subsume these other communicative
arts into principles developed for writing, and I leave the analysis and theory of
multimodal representation to others.
Since words are essential to the craft of writing, it should be no surprise
that the disciplines of language, written signs, language order, and language
manipulation have been central to writing practice and pedagogy. Grammars,
handbooks, dictionaries, thesauri, books of sentence and genre models,
vocabulary builders, and exercise books have emerged in the last few centuries
as the practice of writing spread and became organized into larger systems
of influence through schooling and printing. Language reference books
have become the companions of writers and editors. Reference books create
a common coin of mutual understanding and easy interchange, disciplining
the idiosyncrasy of each of our language choices and expanding the repertoire
of communicative tools and expressive potential. It is not an accident that
young writers become fascinated by books of phrases and figures, stylebooks,
grammars, and dictionaries of their own and other languages. Nor is it surprising
that parodies highlight the lexicon and structure of different genres and styles.
Nonetheless, these reminders and regulators of the linguistic order often evoke
deep ambivalence in writers. Regularity and commonality may seem the enemies
of creativity, meaning, and authenticity. They remind us of the conventional
against which we create the particular, unique, and urgent within our texts.
Attention to the tools rather than the message seems to detract from the
communicative impulse. Resorting to the familiar invites cursory reading and
rapid categorization rather than immersive engagement. Further, the regulated
orders and disciplines of language necessary for mutual understanding suggest
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social histories of class, power, hierarchies, orthodoxies, and other forces that
favor “proper” language and restrict speaking rights to those already privileged.
Stigmatizing the language of others as disorderly and improper provides a ready
way to discount discomforting meanings, affiliations, and actions.
This tension between order and novelty is necessary and productive for
writing as we must struggle with our tools to construct the words that will
capture our meaning impulses and open the minds of our readers to those
feelings, ideas, and actions we wish to evoke. We must work with a medium
others understand, but we must evoke a freshness of attention to make meaning
come alive to activate the spirit at rest. If the reader is already in action we must
then speak the common language with an uncommon relevance. Such tensions
excite linguistic creativity to push the boundaries of the sayable, ever inventing
fresh tricks to use what we have in new ways, to propose new language by
analogy and metaphor, to borrow and transfer from one domain to another.
Human cleverness and responsiveness to situations push language to its limits.
Insofar as we articulate orders to facilitate and regulate language use, others
will use that order for reflective creativity, using the very terms of order to
violate and transcend. The very articulation of an order creates a new abstracted
position from which to play and innovate.
It is, paradoxically, both impossible and easy to overstate the importance of
the orderliness of language in the emergence of modern forms of human life.
Language is entwined with almost all we do and how we think about what we
do. Written language has then entwined those actions and thoughts into larger
enduring sets of representations and meanings spread across broader and more
distant groups of peoples. Language and its progeny writing provide the means
to construct cooperations, meanings, knowledge, and the interactional space to
enculturate youth into the content and practices of interaction. Thus the orders
of language order human relations, belief, and knowledge while focusing the
processes and practices by which we commune with each other. The orders of
language can be seen as infrastructural to human community and consciousness
and, therefore, important to understand for strategic reflective choice making
for enlisting cooperation, creating knowledge, and refining thought. How then
can we overstate the importance of how the orders of language pervade human
Yet, this importance may delude us to believing that language contains all
thought, experience, meaning and knowledge of the world—that all is to be
A Theory of Literate Action
found in language. We are tempted by the search for universally wise texts and
Borgesian libraries that inscribe all of knowledge and will answer all questions
we may have and all questions yet to be asked. Indeed, within fundamentalist
communities, belief in the universality and infallibility of one or another sacred
scripture precondition stances towards the textual world of secular knowledge.
Nonetheless, language is not all of life and does not preexist life. Sophisticated
non-human biological and social creatures without language have experiences,
cooperate, and share attention and orientation toward their environments (see
for example, Johnson & Karin-D’Arcy’s 2006 and Tomasello’s 2006 reviews
of non-human co-orientation). Further, we attend to, consciously respond
to, and even mutually co-orient to many aspects of our experience without
attempting to express them in language or inscribe them in our books. Even
less linguistically articulated are those aspects of our experience we react to
unconsciously. And even those things humans cast into language only get their
meaning if people engaged in action attend to and make sense of the linguistic
Spoken language is nothing in itself except disturbed air and written
language is nothing except dark pigment on wood pulp or electrons on a display.
Those traces would not be there unless people intentionally created them and
invested them with meaning. In this respect whenever we consider language
and its orders, written or spoken, as autonomous and meaningful in themselves
without considering how those orders are understood, developed, and used in
practice by human beings in situations, we are overstating the force of language
orders. We can overstate the importance of language if we claim it as absolute,
autonomous, and determinative.
In another way, it is very easy to understate the importance of the orderliness
of language and written language, not noticing how infrastructural they are for
all we do. Language and its orders are so pervasive they become invisible, lost
within the activities themselves. We think thoughts without wondering about
the language that expresses the thought, let alone about how the particulars of
our language and its ordering principles prompt, constrain, and focus thoughts
and actions. We think about our knowledge without questioning the material
out of which it is made as the amateur appreciator of sculpture might not notice
or think about the stone, its properties and the chisel marks. We are so engaged
in the actions enabled by language we may not even notice the way language
shapes forms and guides those actions. Though lawyers and economists spend
much of their days processing and producing texts, they will likely say they are
arguing the law or making economic projections rather than reading or writing.
Nor are they likely to reflect the way the formulas of their language create
the means of making the expressible thoughts of their field. Likewise, in our
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everyday activities, all of us will likely say we are shopping rather than writing
shopping lists, reading packages and labels, and mentally calculating costs.
Yet again, it is difficult in another everyday way to forget prescriptive orders
of language, as we are constantly being held to norms of language. As children
we are instructed and corrected by teachers, parents, and other adults. As
adults we are constantly held accountable for speaking and writing the “right”
way, whether we are being held accountable to status dialects and prescriptive
standards of edited prose or to affiliational social and cultural dialects.
So our difficulty is to develop a balanced view of linguistic orders that
respects their tremendous power in creating common understanding while still
unlocking the potential for more knowledgeable, reflective, skillful, critical,
creative practice that participates in the contingent and evolving nature of
Literate interaction is transacted over the page, on the computer screen,
and on the inscribed surface where the writer places words for readers to find
them and engage with in the kinds of social and cognitive work discussed in the
prior chapters. Yet the order we create in each textually-mediated interaction
is not a spontaneous assemblage of newly created parts. It depends on the
order of inscription symbols that has developed over time for each language.
This written code typically indexes a related spoken language that is often (but
not always) familiar to the user; however, this written code also then develops
characteristics diverging from the spoken language. The independence of the
written language from the spoken is indicated by such obvious logographic
features as conventions of spacing and punctuation, but also by such subtle
features as non-phonetic spelling indicating word histories or semantic relations,
and syntaxes only decipherable on the page and not by ear (Harris, 2000).
The order of words we create in each utterance depends on communally
shared orders of words available for our use and principles and practices for
assembling them in ways intelligible to others (for historically grounded accounts
of the emergence of linguistic patterns, see Bybee, 2010; Hopper & Traugott).
The need for mutual intelligibility puts pressure towards normalization.
Patterning allows us to create more variety with fewer linguistic elements and
allows combinations that are easier to understand, in contrast to using random
variation with no regularities to aid formation and interpretation. The greater
familiarity and depth of knowledge a writer has with the language or languages
shared with the readers, the more resources the writer has at hand, the larger set
A Theory of Literate Action
of choices, and likely the greater ability to reflect, compare, and choose among
options. Linguistics, philology, and lexicography have taught us much about
the resources we have available and the logics by which these resources can be
organized. The knowledge they have made available forms a useful part of the
education of each writer, revealing a deeply subtle and delicate instrument of
Yet the centrality of written symbols and language as the medium of written
communication may mislead people to mistake knowledge of the medium to
be the whole craft of writing—leaving all else to mysteries of artistic genius.
Such an approach can lead to two dialectically opposed forms of fetishism—
of unregulated imaginative genius or of obsessive rule-seeking. Both forms
of fetishism detach language production from the social processes that bring
language into being and vivify its use. With genius alone we have only the
privacy of the individual imagination as a motivating source and an organizing
power with no sense of the interpersonal force of language. With regulation
alone we have only knowledge of the tools of language, without a strategic sense
of when, where, and why to use them. We only have collections to no purpose.
The sources of the orderliness of language have been attributed to the
sacred origins of language, the nature of language, the nature of human
sound production and reception, the nature of the mind that produces and
understands language, the biology of breath and vocal production, the nature
of inscription systems, the social processes that create social cohesion and
alignment, historical accidents, and the historical production of regulatory
texts and institutions (often associated with schooling, publication, and record
keeping). In fact, speculation over the nature and origins of language and the
attempt to understand the orderliness of language are some of the earliest forms
of knowledge fostered by literacy, as written language presented puzzles of how
best to accurately inscribe the spoken language, how to speak accurately what
has been written; further, written language provided a stable object to collect,
organize and study. Writing language down provides the opportunity and need
to discover and regulate its orders. Early uses of writing for government and
financial record keeping created exigency for orderliness and regularity. The early
use of writing in transcribing the divine word provided exigency for accuracy
of transcription and oral performance as well as interpretation (Bazerman &
Rogers, 2008a, 2008b; Prior & Lunsford, 2008).
While no definitive, fully-evidenced story has emerged concerning the
origin of language and the orderliness of language, it seems likely to occur at the
intersection of physiological, cognitive, sociological, linguistic, and historical
processes, for each seem to present a strong prima facie case for influence.
Spoken language necessarily occurs within the physiological limits of human
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voice production and control along with aural discrimination. The palette of
spoken language follows the volume and pitch range of our production and
reception. Similarly, the typical size and differences of written characters
matches our visual discrimination at about an arm length and the fine motor
control of writing implements at the same arm length. Our cognitive processes
of memory, categorization, and selection in the moment of use seem to ensure
that we will impose order on language. Sociological processes of creating coalignment,
mutual understanding, and group cohesion would strongly suggest
that orderliness, local standardization, and typification would emerge out of the
need to be understood by others. We would not expect it to be any different:
since spoken and written language were developed by humans, it is reasonable to
expect that the media of expression would match our physiological, biological,
psychological, and social capacities, and would carry out functions that would
engage all these capacities.
Much of the development of language is lost in pre-recorded time (writing
of course is the key instrument for making a record of time). Yet literacy
has influenced the need and opportunity for orderliness and regulation. The
emergence of literacy had an effect on gathering and organizing what we
know, which in turn had a regulatory effect on future productions. Print and
the broader circulation of texts extended the need for greater regularity. The
association of language with nation states and the rise of education systems
based on standardized literate languages led to further ordering of language
forms, training of users, and regulation of practices. The historical emergence
of regulatory texts, such as grammar books and dictionaries, became essential
tools of editorial, educational, and social prestige processes, providing strong
means for language codification. All these ordering forces will be embodied in
the received language, there for us to discover and make sense of as we grow up.
Without conscious ordering and various social mechanisms for maintaining
consistent order, language, both spoken and written, tends to evolve within
generations, perhaps faster. Consider how rapidly vulgar Latin in creolization
with other languages formed the varieties of Romance languages—each of
which has its own pull of differentiating dialects that have persisted despite
national political and educational regulation, such as we see in the Spain where
not only the Gallic Catalonian resists Castilian hegemony, but Galacian sits
both geographically and linguistically between Portugal and France (which
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have each centralized their own dialectical Romance varieties under national
and educational regulation). Asturian, Leonese, and Aragonese and others
also maintain some distinctive linguistic status. Even the written and learned
Medieval Latin rapidly evolved in spelling, grammar, and vocabulary (following
the transformations of dialect) until regularization to classic norms was enforced
through schooling in the Renaissance.
Prescriptive normalization has been especially intense for writing in the last
few centuries, supported through reference books, school books, school practices,
national linguistic academies, publishing and copy-editing standards, broad
circulation of documents, and other devices. The force of this prescriptivism is
troubling to a scientific linguistic point of view on several grounds. Since the
time of Saussure (1916/1983) and Bloomfield (1914) linguistics has adopted
a descriptive rather than a prescriptive stance, to reflect actual uses. Second,
following Bloomfield, linguistics has taken spoken language as its primary data,
seeing the spoken as more natural. Third, following Saussure, linguistics has
largely (though not exclusively, particularly recently) pursued synchronic orders,
removed from particular time and particular instances of use. Nonetheless, the
process of prescriptive ordering is a deeply historical one, with formation of
institutions to influence historical processes (often to resist historical change) in
order to regulate uses, particularly since the advent of writing.
Writing in itself brings systematicity and regulation in the order of signs
used to transcribe language, as has been studied by numerous scholars, starting
with Gelb (1952) and more recently Daniels & Bright (1996) and Coulmas
(1996). Scholarship on language systems highlights the differences in principles
and form by which language has been transcribed from iconographic and
hieroglyphic to syllabic and alphabetic. We can see the very impulse towards
creating language studies as a communal attempt to make orderly sense of
the rich and expanding resources of language. Most of the history of such
inquiries has something of a housekeeping impulse, whether accompanied by
the prescriptivist fist of social authority and sanctions or the velvet glove of
the helping hand. Even purely descriptive linguistics as practiced in the last
century (adopting a hands-off orientation that requires substantial training in
professional objectivity) still relies on a belief that the order is there to be found,
and that discovering and articulating the order that is already there in nature can
help us learn, preserve, and understand the dynamics of the language. Despite
the descriptivist stance of most theoretical linguistics, we still find regulatory,
normalizing, or even prescriptive grammars, orthographies, and dictionaries
remaining at the heart of our educational, editing, and professional writing
practices (even to the point of now being embedded in the software by which
we now typically write). Language is too large and complex for us not to make
Chapter 8 Linguistic Orders
order of for our own use and to facilitate group communication. If language
production appears frequently as fully spontaneous, it is only because we have
internalized so much of the order that we can deploy it skillfully and rapidly in
response to situations we perceive ourselves to be in.
The richness and complexity of language presents an organizational problem
for the language learner, as the child must make sense of all the phonological,
prosodic, interactional, lexical, and semantic information in her ambient
linguistic environment and coordinate that with her own means of production,
whether the child is aided by a specific neurobiological language device as
proposed by Chomsky (1965) or the child’s brain creates emergent orders in the
interaction with learning as argued by Bates and Goodman (1997 and 1999).
Learning written language also requires coming to terms with systems built on
histories and practices of regulation and prescription. Even as children become
aware of the social functions of writing they also are introduced to the ordered
symbols of their cultural legacy. In alphabetic languages this is taught through
devices such as the alphabet song, alphabet bestiaries, and normative phonics
(even though the letters may have only a loose approximation for the phonetics
of the language being transcribed.) These orders as well are observable in the
ambient communicative universe, as children experiment with form as a means
of expression.
Studies of emergent literacy present complex stories of children attempting
to make sense of, learn, and deploy the literate behaviors they see around them,
with highly particular, local, idiosyncratic personal constructions by children
embedded in local circumstances, but which also triangulate towards normalized
uses of culturally ambient forms (Rowe, 2009). Letter formation and invented
spelling at first are only loose approximations to the standard, for example, but
over time normalize through a combination of personal regulation to achieve
observed forms and external regulation of schooling and correction by adults,
peers, and software (Sharer & Zutell, 2003). Similarly the available orders of
syntax and morphology become to varying degrees normalized, particularly as
associated with advancement through schooling and school tasks. Schoolbooks,
self-help books, and other guides introduce and reinforce forms and practices.
Similarly students and other writers in development are introduced and
normalized to the genres that form the repertoire of the school, the workplace,
and social life—each with their separate methods of induction, modeling, and
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For people writing in alphabetic and syllabic languages where the symbols
are limited and abstracted from meaning units such as words, these principles
are imbibed early in their training and are not necessarily a matter of reflection
or subtle expressive choice (except when perhaps defamiliarized as in some
poetic contexts or writing in dialects). Depending on the language and the
instability of the phonetic correspondences, alphabetic transcription may be
variously problematic for literacy learners, but is usually resolved by primary
school years. Spelling may also contain etymological information as well as
morphological features tied to grammar and syntactical issues. These may be
called to students’ attention as they are learning more advanced spellings and
are being held accountable for grammatical correctness. Even when moving
between two languages using an alphabetic system with Roman characters,
there are challenges of phonetic mapping and spelling—issues highlighted for
example, when singers must perform scores in different languages. In some
consonantal syllabic languages without vowel pointing (such as dialects of
mid-Eastern languages), understanding and using the transcription system
properly is intertwined with lexical, morphological, and syntactic issues as
well as meaning, such that a high level of expertise is necessary for accurate
transcription and reading. Further, in languages which have complex mixtures
of iconic, pronunciation, and disambiguation elements in the characters, such
as Chinese, the study of characters and their differentiation remains a complex
concern throughout one’s literate life, intertwined with extended vocabularies,
meaning potentials, allusions, and fresh combinations. So in choosing or
forming a character a writer may be invoking cultural histories, textual
resonances, regional differences, or meaning associations of the sort that in
other languages occur at the word, phrasal, and intertextual levels. So while in
some languages the orderliness of the writing (or character) system is relatively
unproblematic and thus usually not foregrounded, in others distinctions within
the transcription system remain important carriers of meaning and thus call for
conscious attention.
This learning of the transcriptional orders of language goes hand in hand
with developments of visual perception and discrimination, as well as motor and
attentional control, for both reception and production. Eyes must learn to focus
on small symbols with minor stroke differences, and these must be perceived (at
least in alphabetic, consonantal, and syllabic languages) as sound equivalents.
Fingers must come under control in coordination with visual feedback and
productive intentions to produce letters and words. Dots and punctuation
marks must be noticed and seen as worthy of attention in production and
reception, along with morphological markers. Such issues as placement on page,
genre markers of format, and sustained attention for multi-clausal statements
Chapter 8 Linguistic Orders
and logical relations, continue throughout one’s maturation as a writer, as one
encounters new forms of suspended sentence, appositional phrases, sentence
rhythm, rhetorical figures, and the other elements we associate with advanced
style. Deficits caused by injury and aging may also require adjustment of
the most basic regularized motor production skills and visual recognition, as
well as to the more advanced cognitive skills necessary for attending to larger
organizational structures.
It is seductive to imagine that the lexicon of any language, in the manner
Saussure proposes, is an orderly system of differentiations of paired or
neighboring terms. In pursuit of this vision, various language reformers have
proposed creating more orderly and univocal vocabularies for a language, where
each signifier designates a unique signified and each signified has a unique
term; further, in some systems such as Bishop Wilkin’s (1668) system of real
characters only things he considers to be true are designated signifiers and no
signifiers are afforded anything that might be considered phantasmagorical.
For some languages, national academies and other regulators attempt to keep
the vocabulary orderly and spelling constant in the face of neologisms and
incursions from dialects or other languages. They also may attempt to protect
signifier-signified relations from ambiguity and duplication. These academies
have their origin in the Florentine Accademia della Crusca, founded in 1582,
which provided the model of the Académie française founded in 1635. The
Vocabolario della Crusca first published in 1612 was one of the earliest national
dictionaries and current editions still maintain an authoritative role in defining
the official language, as does the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (first
published in 1694). In 2012 there were over 85 such bodies around the world,
many of them having official government status (List of Language Regulators,
Even in officially unregulated languages like English, dictionaries provide
censuses of the common stock of language. English has no single official
dictionary, but since Samuel Johnson created his A Dictionary of the English
Language in 1755, several competing dictionaries have shared authority for
British and American versions of this language. Although most contemporary
lexicographers consider themselves to be descriptive rather than prescriptive,
the dictionaries they produce limit and focus meanings, establish authoritative
spellings, and slow the adoption of neologisms. Dictionaries put some order into
the welter of social, historical uses and roots of words, variations of spellings,
A Theory of Literate Action
multiple meanings of words, and relationships of words bearing having related
referents. In the face of the fecundity of language extending processes, they
create logical distinctions among words, and put order in the complexity of
features and dynamics associated with words. The more authoritative of these
dictionaries are used to regulate print and educational contexts, and copy
editors, teachers, examiners, and similar language guardians have the task of
enforcing not only words, but spelling and grammatical forms and usage as
well. Dictionaries and related references such as thesauri also help guide writers
among the alternatives to make choices that are not too idiosyncratic and are
intelligible to others. Yet, even though authoritative dictionaries can slow word
change and can provide a reference point, they cannot stop innovation and
change, through borrowings from other languages, neologisms, simplifications,
hybrids, and the need to respond to new concepts and objects on the landscape.
New words and locutions also serve ever-present needs for social affiliation,
differentiation, and saliency.
The complex and evolving relation between meanings and the available
words is reflected in the long discussion of the relation of lexicon and semantics
that bridges linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. Within linguistics the
idea of creating a fully ordered semantic field, or possible meanings against
which words can be measured, has turned out to be quixotic. As languages
grow and cultures change their knowledges, the semantic possibilities change
and extend both for individuals and members of the community. Lexicon and
semantics grow through both an inward conceptual expansion and a probing
outwards into the world to identify possible things to be indexed and turned
into meaning through the form of words, often using shards and analogies of
previous words and meanings. As a result dictionaries become baggy collections
where disparate meanings and word relations are stored and made evident. Yet
for reference purposes this disorder is contained within highly ordered systems
of representative devices, such as the conventionalized form of dictionary entries
and the arbitrary arrangement of alphabetic order, itself based on the oddities of
spelling and conventional ordering of letters in any language.
Specialized words and meanings of particular fields, whether theological,
sports, criminal, or academic also expand in complex ways the resources of
a language. Chemistry provides a very striking example, as it has developed
a highly technical esoteric nomenclature for the naming of elements and
compounds and has transformed general vocabulary words to technical ones,
such as bonding. Unless one is to some degree a part of the epistemic community,
one has little idea of the meaning of words and the relation to others. Learning
the lexicon goes hand in hand with learning the theory and knowledge of the
field. Within these specialized worlds, authoritative bodies may periodically
Chapter 8 Linguistic Orders
attempt to clean up and order what they know, disambiguate terms, and lay
out theoretical and concrete relationships of terms. Again consider the example
of chemical nomenclature where each word part conveys a specific and fixed
meaning about constituent elements and molecular form, which in turn
exhibits familial relations among compounds. Even here, however, changes in
knowledge and theories can destabilize tightly tuned systems of nomenclature.
When we are writing within such carefully honed domains of ordered
meanings and words matched to them, our meanings are determinative of our
words and our words of meanings. We must be carefully attuned to always
getting the word choice right, on penalty of being viewed as ignorant and
unpersuasive—as well as not being understood accurately. Expressing new
meanings or meanings that cut against the grain of the knowledge system
can be difficult, if not impossible. On the other hand, when writing across
domains or in less highly constrained epistemic arenas, we have at our call such
a heterogeneous collection of words that choosing the right word to evoke in
the reader the meaning we hope for can be a puzzle.
What this means for the developing writer is that expansion and refinement
of vocabulary is a constant challenge, even late into one’s career. Writers look to
discover the relations among words, how they evoke meanings in combination
with each other, the meaning worlds they take the readers to, and how words
may be applied to particular circumstances to identify particular states of
affairs. Often vivid meaning is most effectively accomplished not by exotic or
unfamiliar terms but by apt choice among the most familiar stock, but in a way
that freshly animates meanings, so people are attentive to the particulars evoked
rather than normalizing the message into the familiar and unremarkable.
As with the different lexicons and semantic possibilities of each language,
each language also offers a different range of morphological markings and
syntactic relations. Verb morphology, for example, can provide strikingly
different possibilities for expressing time relations as well as number, mood,
voice, and epistemic evaluation. With respect to only one of those dimension,
verb tense, some languages offer only limited options, such as a simple present,
past, and future, while others offer finer distinctions such as in the last few
minutes, earlier today, the remote past, or dream time. Some languages offer
perfect or continuous markings to express completed or ongoing events within
different time frames, and so on.
A Theory of Literate Action
Similarly, the syntactic patterns available in each language have consequences
for what relations among lexical items are expressible and with what emphasis
(Slobin, 1987). As prescriptive grammars attempt to regulate and hold constant
standards of correctness, they also work to restrict meaning potentials, but
writers driven by meanings may seek to stretch the boundaries of regulation.
This is visibly so where written dialects and registers may carry in their
morphological and syntactic features messages of social affiliation or reference,
stance, power, cognitive and affective domain, or other salient meanings.
Correctness according to the rules of reference book is only authoritative in those
domains which take them as authoritative, such as in school or formal edited
publications. Prescriptive grammars articulate and make more predictable the
morphological and syntactic systems of languages which may evolve and lose
distinctions without regulation. For example, even with attempts at regulation,
the subjunctive mood is vanishing in American English and becoming less
recognizable to readers. From the perspective of writers, familiarity with the
regulated and prescribed morphology and syntax provides a range of expressive
potentials which may be mobilized, but this must always be tempered by an
understanding of changing usage and what is likely to be familiar and intelligible
without undue cognitive strain by readers.
While the study of grammar and debates over the orderliness of language
go back at least to the Alexandrine grammarians in the third century BCE, the
authoritative prescription of grammatical rules does not seem to have emerged
until the late medieval school which changed the curriculum from immersion
in classic texts to the systematic presentation of principles of language. The
earliest popular grammar codification was the Doctrinale of Alexander of
Villedieu, written in 1199 in verse as a mnemonic. In English Robert Lowth’s A
Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) appears to be the first widely used
prescriptive grammar. The rather late arrival of prescriptive grammars is tied to
standardizing practice for education or publishing purposes. While ordering
processes of language arise from practice (whether driven by psychological, social
or cultural forces), self-conscious linguistic regulation is only a late comer to
help standardize practice with particular historical problems, such as Medieval
Europe being confronted with an influx of ancient Greek and Latin texts or
political desires to impose a standard educated dialect over a large region. The
orderliness of language exists prior to the regulation, and the attempt to meet
regulated norms is rarely a core motive of writing, except in school examinations
or contexts where one may be severely stigmatized for using non-elite forms.
There is also a history of advice for larger units of text organization from
paragraphs to whole texts. Books of models and forms for letters, going back
Chapter 8 Linguistic Orders
to the medieval ars dictaminis and Renaissance style books, but these are always
in the form of advice, potentials to be mobilized at the writer’s choice. In
schooling sometimes these forms are taught (such as modes of comparison,
contrast, narration), and some examinations presume certain forms as the
most effective solutions—five-paragraph essays. Similarly, examinations
for career advancement, such as in the Chinese Imperial examinations, can
enshrine expected forms, such as the eight-legged essay. Training for particular
professions sometimes includes practice in stylized versions of genres currently
in use, with some conservative reifying effect in the face of evolutionary forces
in actual practice. Economic or legal stakes, and even legal regulation, can also
be extremely strong in defining, for example, what must appear in a patent
application, contract, or other document with legal and contractual force.
Forms and questionnaires also represent attempts to regulate representations,
but even such forms vary and evolve.
Evidence indicates that direct instruction in language rules outside of the
context of need and practice has dubious value for first-language speakers
(Graham, 2006; Hillocks, 1986). Significant gains have been observed in student
writing when they are relieved of the pressure of producing “correct” language.
Indeed it is unclear how much conscious or explicit invocation of rules usefully
occurs during composition by competent writers familiar with a language, at
least until the later stages of sentence crafting, editing, and proofreading.
On the other hand, it is impossible to produce utterances longer than
fragmentary phrases without a sense of the orderliness of language; moreover,
some highly-skilled writers use conscious knowledge of lexical, grammatical,
and syntactic distinctions and patterns to extend their expressive potential.
The extent to which writers gain that sense of orderliness from neurological
constraints, interactional experience, internalized early learning, wide reading,
or other mechanisms is still uncertain, as is how that knowledge is best
invoked in instruction, composition, revision, and editing. What is clear is
that historically our explicit documentation and regulation of the orderliness
of language came after our ability to use writing. Thus the pedagogic strategy
of attempting to habitualize, normalize, and regulate the repetitive elements
of language apart from the acts of creating valued meanings may have human
processes backwards.
The motive from the learner’s perspective is always to make meaning, or at
least master the tools of meaning so as to become a more competent meaning-
A Theory of Literate Action
making creature. As G. H. Mead points out, we regularize ourselves to an
intelligible social identity in order to be understood and understandable by
others. We then look on this identity and from it construct a sense of the self,
the self that resides in social relations to others. Therefore, the learner’s sense
of the self as a writer depends on how he or she is induced into these orders.
If these orders are learned and practiced within a wider set of meaning-sharing
practices, the learner comes to recognize a self that can create meanings through
skillful and technical use of the tools of written language. On the other hand,
if the learner experiences these orders as something to be followed for oneself
alone, and comes to see his or her primary competence as the ability to follow
the rules and produce correct utterances, the learner will have confidence only
to produce the most conventional and normalized of utterances, always under
the anxiety of failure of propriety.
Any detail or difference of language can be the bearer of meaning.
Language users have an incentive both to create novel variations and to recover
the potential of variation of those aspects of language that have become so
routinized and stabilized so as to become in a sense invisible, routinely not
calling attention to themselves. Indeed at the higher level of skills, such recovery
and attention to detail is of great importance. Thus while letter forms are
taken for granted by most of us and their recognition and production are early
habitualized in children, graphic designers lavish attention to the development
and selection of type-faces, whose meaning and value is only appreciated by
a few, although design consequences may be felt subconsciously as comfort
and discomfort by the inattentive reader. The detail of definite or indefinite
article can have important meaning consequences if one is paying attention
with a level of precision, as is highlighted in Dorothy Parker’s reputed quip
about Lillian Hellman “Every word she writes is a lie, even a and the.” We may
say the same about sentence rhythm, sequencing of lexical images, deployment
of prepositions. The more skilled the writer is, the more the writer attends to
such details with care.
Variations that call attention to themselves by violating conventional orders
are even more visible and can contain strong effect to wrench messages outside
propriety. If rules and orders become habitualized, routinized, and engrained
as moral order then every attention-getting and novel meaning-making
variation may be viewed as transgressive or even repellent. The taboo borders of
vocabulary, politeness and face devices, and syntactic familiarity put constraints
on individual expressiveness, but they also create the possibility to experiment
with shocking meanings and messages that are just over the border.
The orders of language we teach are themselves artifacts of literacy—
produced, recorded, and spread through literacy and largely arising from literate
Chapter 8 Linguistic Orders
practice, such as creating relations between phonology and letters, making
dictionaries, or writing grammars. Much of what we teach as order does not
come from the simple need to create common language, but is tied to histories
of political power, control of educational systems, centralization of printing,
class stigmas, xenophobias and ethnocentrisms, hypercorrectness of regulators,
linguistic ideology, reformist zeal, or idiosyncrasy. Insofar as these then establish
a public standard they are real, but they are freighted with much baggage which
the learners may not be aware of and which may influence their perception of
themselves as writers.
Consequently, teaching and learning of linguistic orders must always
draw on and serve the learner’s sense of meaning making; if language learning
becomes purely a matter of forming habits without purpose, then the learner
will have little motive beyond obedience and will not know what the learning is
good for, except rote repetition or fetishized evaluation.
Meanings are constructed situationally by the participants in interaction, as
they construe intent in each other’s uttered words. A well-known story (said to
be a favorite of both Vygotsky and Bakhtin) tells of a group of sailors having
a nuanced exchange by repeating the same expletive to each other, but with a
different intonation and timing at each turn. This polysemousness of words
is equally to be found in an office memo announcing a change in reporting
procedures that leaves the recipients wondering what the real meaning is—from
enacting a corporate shake-up, to disciplining a co-worker, to a power-grab by
a manager, to simply creating an efficiency. Much water-cooler time may be
devoted to examining the nuances of expression or sharing other contexting
information until a stable social meaning is agreed on, which will then guide
the behavior of all concerned. To put it explicitly, meaning is not a property of
language in itself, and is not immanent in language. Meaning is what people
construe using the prosthesis of language, interpreted within specific contexts of
use. To understand meaning, we need to take utterance and people’s construal
of utterance as our fundamental units of analysis.
Volosinov in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929/1973),
foreshadowed by comments in his earlier work on Freud (1927/1987), argued that
linguistics should be grounded in utterance, rather than in the formal structure
of language. Utterance was the natural unit of speech and communication,
with each utterance taking shape within a recognizable form (that is, a speech
genre), directed to a specific audience (what Bakhtin, 1984a, 1986, was to call
addressivity), and in response to prior utterances. Volosinov’s St. Petersberg
colleagues during this period further elaborated this utterance-centered view of
language. Medvedev (1929/ 1978) placed utterance-based genres at the center
of sociological poetics. Afterwards, in the 1930’s and later, Bakhtin pursued
genre, addressivity, and responsivity to other utterances in relation to the novel
and other literary texts as forms of ideology and consciousness. In the 1950s
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
Bakhtin developed a social theory of speech genres as situated utterances, but
his most widely-circulated essay on the subject “The Problem of Speech Genres”
was not published in Russian until 1979 and English until 1986.
The view of language shared by Volosinov, Medvedev, and Bakhtin is
dialogic, grounded in human interchange. Utterances respond to prior
utterances, so that “each utterance refutes, affirms, supplements, and relies
on the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them
into account” (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 91). In responding to prior utterances,
each new utterance transforms and further populates the landscape within
which new utterances will be added. As actual situated communication, these
utterances (and the sequences of utterances they refer to) rely on and carry
forward personal, interpersonal, institutional, sociocultural, and material
histories. They enact relationships and social forms of life within the actual
circumstances of life. They are charged with emotions, motivations, stances,
evaluations, and concrete intentions, which color the specific semantic content
of communications and provide the basis for interlocutor interpretations of
each utterance and the overall unfolding of events. The utterance is a process, a
form of co-production, a circuit that is complete only when actively produced
and actively received. Volosinov pursues the dialogicality of language in the last
part of his book on the philosophy of language through a technical analysis
of reported speech. Explicitly representing the words of another and adopting
a stance towards them overtly places the new utterance within an historically
emergent social dialogue. The syntactic and grammatical means a language
provides for reporting on and taking a stance towards another’s language
supports the forming of particular kinds of social relations and interactions that
unfold over time in conjunction with linguistic change as a part of changing
social relations.
This analysis of language to reveal specific social meanings created through
the situated use of evolving language sharply contrasts with dominant forms
of linguistic analysis initiated by Saussure who decomposed langage (language)
into langue (the system of language) and parole (any particular situated use of
language), and taking langue only as the concern of linguistics, because parole
(and by extension langage that united langue and parole) was too multifarious,
multi-dimensional, and multi-causal to lend itself readily to scientific analysis.
Likewise, Saussure distinguished synchronic (in the single current moment)
analysis of langue from diachronic (over time) analysis, taking only synchronic
analysis as the proper scientific subject of linguistics. Saussure, through these
two moves, directs the study of language toward the study of an abstract object
out of time, out of interaction and use, and not subject to the changes brought
about by individual situated use and invention.
A Theory of Literate Action
Volosinov criticized Saussure’s approach by saying that such a concept of
langue does not correspond to the actual appearance of language in the world,
which is as a constantly evolving set of uses within particular situations. The only
place such an abstract construction of a langue could actually exist would be in
the consciousness of an individual, but that individual when confronted with
an actual communicative situation adapts and improvises to convey a meaning
directed toward the addressee (p. 85). Volosinov expresses the mutability and
purposeful use of language by noting “what is important for the speaker about a
linguistic sign is not that it is a stable and always self-equivalent signal, but that
it is an always changeable and adaptable sign” (p.68). He continues to consider
the perspective of the listener by noting, “the task of understanding does not
basically amount to recognizing the form used, but rather to understanding it
in a particular concrete context, to understanding its meaning in a particular
utterance, i.e., it amounts to understanding its novelty and not to recognizing
its identity” (p.68).
Volosinov’s critique of structural linguistics has been echoed by many since,
including Kristeva (1980), Todorov (1990), Harris (1981, 1987), and Hanks
(1996). Others have more recently attempted to explain aspects of even such
fundamental organizing elements of language as grammar and syntax on the
basis of interaction and unfolding dialogic sequences within real unfolding
communication (Ochs et al., 1996; Selting & Couper-Kuhlen, 2001). This
research aims to understand morphosyntactic and prosodic patterns in terms of
social action and social processes of organizing communication.
This view of meaning as construed by participants through the use
of language in the course of interaction is consistent with Wittgenstein’s
examination of language as meaningful in specific contexts, where participants
take up meanings in the course of activities rather than directly translating
meaning from an abstract system of language with stable semantic referents,
existing outside concrete historical interactional events. As is well known,
Wittgenstein’s (1958) adoption in Philosophical Investigations of a situated view
of language embedded in interactional events reversed his more youthful project
of creating a mathematically consistent logic in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
(Wittgenstein, 1922).
Austin and Searle, in developing the concept of speech acts, sought to
elaborate just what this action-oriented view of language might mean. Austin
(1962) begins the early lectures of his volume on How to Do Things with Words
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
with an analysis of the most salient kinds of actions accomplished through
words, such as making a bet or naming a ship. This analysis leads him to
identify all the contextual and attitudinal conditions to be met so that action
would be interpretable, trusted, and sufficient; these he calls felicity conditions.
At first these have the appearance of being universal and general, as though
these orders of actions could be universal and logical, apart from histories, local
circumstances, or social arrangements. However, by the later lectures he returns
to a much looser definition of felicity conditions that depend on individual
construal of local circumstance and particular historical and institutional
arrangements that establish conditions. Additionally, in the early chapters of
his analysis he distinguishes between locutionary meanings and illocutionary—
that is, between the action part of the utterance and the representation of affairs,
which we might call the semantic meaning. However, by the closing lectures he
identifies representation itself as a speech act, and therefore dependent on the
local construal of conditions, social positions, and interactive trust. Thus even
the successful representation of states of affairs depends on local situational
and institutional histories and conditions: “The total speech act in the total
speech situation is the only actual phenomenon which, in the last resort, we are
engaging in elucidating” (original emphasis, p. 148).
Searle, however, in his book on speech acts (1969) does not turn back from
the attempt to domesticate the social and historical unruliness of speech acts
into a rational order. Searle reduces rules of felicity conditions into a logical
calculus for each of the major categories of acts, and in further work continued
to put this into formal logico-mathematical calculus, as though Wittgenstein
were not as revolutionary as purported, but had simply identified another
dimension of meaning which could be brought to full and stable order in its
own logical terms outside of human time but with the purity of mathematical
space (Searle & Vanderveken, 1985). Similarly Searle maintains the integrity of
the locutionary act as a place where logic also holds sway in the representation
of things. He does, however, later (1983, 1992) introduce a concept he calls
“the background” which refers to the knowledge, tendencies, dispositions,
abilities, and capacities people have through their experience of living in human
communities. This concept of the background opens up the possibilities of
variation of human experience, understanding, and interpretation outside of
the formal representation in language.
While I am in no position to evaluate the philosophic correctness of Searle’s
claims, Austin’s account better resembles the contingent, socially changing,
phenomenological, rhetorical world of human communication, where people
constantly make sense of each other’s words in historically evolved and evolving
A Theory of Literate Action
circumstances, for purposes at hand, without rigorous calculation and evaluation
of claims’ logical terms, but drawing on their experience and situated construal
of meaning. That being said, Searle does provide insights into the dynamics of
interpretation and evaluation of some of the felicity conditions that maintain
for the success of acts in certain circumstances.
While Austin and Searle were concerned with short spoken utterances
(of the length and character of “I bet you that . . .” and “I declare you guilty
of the crime of . . .”), longer written texts can be understood as carrying out
social acts as well, though some cautions and qualifications are necessary in
carrying out the details of analysis, particularity concerning the univocality
and determinability of the act (see Bazerman, 1994b). That is, a long text may
signal multiple acts to the readers, with some appearing hierarchically more
important, and since a written text may travel to many different situations
and engage various users, the perlocutionary effect (uptake) of the acts may
vary even more greatly and unpredictably than in face-to-face circumstances.
Thus the interpretation of the speech acts in an extended written text may
be more difficult and equivocal. Nonetheless, each user will find the texts
accomplishing or failing to accomplish specific acts. Genre recognition then
provides means for typifying and recognizing the meaning and import of texts
as well as the situation and activity the texts are part of. As people come to use
and understand the textual artifact in particular ways, the genred text becomes
a crystallization of an action, with the consequence that writing an article or
finishing reading a novel may become an end in itself (or the object in activity
theory terms—see Chapter 3, this volume). As with all mediating artifacts that
serve as tools for accomplishing participants’ objects, while genres may suggest
and support particular typical objectives, they can be used flexibly depending
on each participant’s personally framed objects (Cole, 1996; Wertsch, 1998).
Yet, through the sufficiently mutual alignment achieved through the mediating
artifact, speech acts are accomplished, for people come to some sense(s) of
agreement on the meaning, interactional force, and consequences of actions.
Genre, by shaping the roles of participants in a situation, also frames the
addressivity of those texts that realize the genre. As Volosinov comments, “The
word is oriented toward an addressee”(Volosinov, 1973, p. 85). This orientation
to communication with an external audience in a specific situation brings
about a transformation of the internal word to a dialogically interpretable
utterance and act. As Volosinov explains, “the word is a two-sided act . . . the
product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser
and addressee”(Volosinov, p. 86). This dialogic situation, the emergent inner
impulse, and the need to be situationaly effective, “determine—and determine
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
from within, so to speak—the structure of an utterance” (Volosinov, p.86).
Bakhtin specifically ties addressivity’s determination of utterance structure
to genre, which enacts recognizable and familiar roles, relationships, and
interactions: “Each speech genre in each area of speech communication has its
own typical conception of the addressee, and this defines it as a genre” (Bakhtin,
1986, p. 95).
While texts may arise to express the needs, character, purposes, and thoughts
of individuals, how the texts express themselves and the social presence they
take on are framed by the situation, roles, and actions they are engaged in.
An immigration official inspecting applications adopts the values, evaluative
practices, and decision-making concerns appropriate to the role and the
document being inspected. Insofar as the official varies from these generic
understandings, he or she may be said to be acting unprofessionally, violating
expectations of appropriate situational action. Even when individual judgment
is a central expectation, such as intellectual judgment involving advanced
theoretical knowledge and critical evaluation, perhaps in a symposium
response or a journal review, the idiosyncratic message still must be expressed
appropriately to the genre, framed within the evaluative practices, empirical
criteria, and theoretical constructs appropriate to that line of work and
constructively carrying out the collective work of the domain with awareness of
the evolving situations of the collective work. Additionally, the comments need
to reflect the respect, status differentials, and acceptable dialogic stances towards
colleagues, maintaining professional face of participants.
The acts accomplished by genred utterances in turn establish social facts and
reinforce all the underlying social facts on which the new act depends. Social
facts are those things people believe to be true, and therefore bear on how they
define a situation and act within it. The sociologist W. I. Thomas (1923) states
it so: “If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
Thus the worlds successfully evoked and enacted in the genred utterances can
become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1948), or a deictic evocation
and shaping of a life world (Hanks, 1990, 1996).
That documents create social facts is most easily seen in texts like contracts,
applications, and business orders. In such cases the text provides the basis
for further action (e.g., job interviews will be scheduled and products will be
shipped) and holds parties accountable for the commitments made in the text
A Theory of Literate Action
(e.g., that I will complete the contracted work or that I will accept delivery of
the product ordered). However, less obviously behavioral statements can also
be seen as acts and consequent social facts. As Austin and Searle both point
out, assertions are also acts. Assertions do not necessarily need to be taken as
true to be taken as a social fact that they have been asserted. If an appropriately
credentialed member of a profession presents a controversial research paper to a
professional audience, delivered in an appropriate form and forum, then people
do not have to accept the claims as true for them to recognize that the claim was
made. The intellectual landscape of that profession will have been changed to
the extent that the author has gotten people to attend to that claim.
Indeed if the statement is extremely controversial, then there will be many
consequences and further acts from the social recognition that the person
has made this claim. It may become very difficult for the controversialist to
erase the opprobrium that comes from the social fact of being associated with
especially dubious claims. It may even be the case that the author never hoped
for agreement, but only wished to challenge current even views and create a
discussion. In that case, the author would have created exactly the desired social
fact. Every text that is attended to or otherwise finds place on the discursive
landscape can be said to create some kind(s) of social fact, even if only to leave
an objection on the record.
Of course, the textual act might not be recognized for everything the
author would wish it to be, but then what conditions would the author have to
meet in order to carry out the desired act? What new evidence or experiments
would the author need to produce in order to stave off a particular objection?
On the other hand, what maneuver can the opponents make to undermine
the apparent accomplishment of having an experiment accepted as valid and
definitive for the theory in question? These conditions that have to be met for
an act to be successfully realized may be seen as forms of accountability. If a
condition is not met—a legal document is not filed before a requisite deadline,
confirming experimental evidence cannot be found for a chemical claim, a
political claim does not resonate with the interests of the electorate—then
the speech act will be called to account and fail. Of course, if the author can
provide an additional account that puts the accounting back on the positive
side of the ledger—a lawyer successfully argues that an extension be granted
on the deadline, the chemist convincingly describes the limitations of the
experimental apparatus, the politician appeals to nobler motives that bestir the
electorate to rise above their interests—the speech act might still be retrieved
(Bazerman, 1988, 1997, 1999a; see also Latour, 1987; Latour & Woolgar,
1979 on facticity in science).
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
At times the significant meaning taken up by a recipient may entail very little
attention to the specifics of the message embedded in the text. A watchman
patrolling a building may routinely send periodic message on a hand-held device
or at a station, reporting time and location. The typical meaning is only in the
routine filing of the text, and the construal by the supervisor that all is well.
The message is minimal and hardly attended to, unless there is some anomaly,
lapse in reporting, or non-routine elaboration which may lead the message to
be examined in great detail, even concerning the exact time or variation in
phrasing to be matched to other information from security cameras, reported
information by others, broken windows, and other crime-scene evidence.
Then the message or its absence may be construed in a way so as to reveal new
Much of what we communicate on a daily basis demands only a modest
amount of attention, with much of it directed toward the adequate, timely,
appropriate fulfilling of the expectations of a genre: we have filled in the
government form with a valid address and we have signed it correctly, an email
from a friend tells us all is going well in perhaps more detail than we want to
think about at the moment, we skim the main bulleted points in the executive
summary of a report and follow up on only a few points which touch our
interests. Readings are often perfunctory with less information passed than we
might imagine.
Yet under some conditions we do read more attentively and have high
expectations of the detailed content to be conveyed through text signaling. At
times these expectations may have to do with the density of information to be
conveyed by the document, sometimes with the anticipated pleasures or rewards
that attentive reading will reveal, sometimes with importance in mediating
important contested social meanings requiring extensive interpretation, and
sometimes with important interests at stake. The first kind of careful reading
from text density, we might archetypically see in students with textbooks,
technicians with repair guides, or anyone attempting to fulfill regulations.
The second kind, careful reading for pleasure, is often exemplified by literary
texts, biographical narratives, or historical accounts of personal interest. The
third kind, from contestation of ideas, might involve a policy deliberation or
philosophic issue where we are trying to understand and evaluate each other’s
position to assent or offer a counterargument. The last kind, of high interest
stakes, is exemplified by reading of the laws in a legal case or the reading of a
sacred text when we feel as though our souls are at stake. In each of these cases
we put great weight on the contents of the texts and how those contents are
A Theory of Literate Action
bound together in a single text. Such a commitment to the text is facilitated
by a simplifying belief that meaning is carried directly through the text and its
language, that language carries absolute and clear meanings, and attention to
the word will get you to clear and definitive meanings.
Traditionally, theories and practices of textual interpretation have relied on
such an assumption of meaning being immanent in the text. Peirce (1958) in
the late nineteenth century, however, pointed out that meaning derives from
acts of interpretation. Heidegger (1962) further noted that meaning was created
only within the reader’s life-world and was dependent on subjective positions
and personal contingencies of experience. The hermeneutic circle, that suggests
that every interpretive meaning is based on earlier sets of interpretive meanings,
implies there is no fixed, solid position from which a single, authoritative
meaning of a text can be determined (De Man, 1983; Gadamer, 1975; Shklar,
2004). Much of modern interpretive theory has struggled with this scandal of
the lack of certainty and fixity of meaning.
Viewing texts as mediating situated activity, consistent with the postHeideggerian
view of hermeneutics, places meaning within the life-world of
actors. In the text-as-mediator view, meaning is embedded in the activities of the
participants and their construction of the situation and activities; thus meaning
is interactionally created between text and writer or reader—and ultimately
between writer and reader through the skeletal mediation of the textual artifact.
If readers and writers imaginatively construct and reconstruct meaning from
the thin and fragile clues of texts, then meaning is an evanescent phenomenon.
Meaning exists only as long as readers and writers attend to the text and only
in the ways they attend to the text for the moment. Meaning evolves as readers
move through a text or retrospectively look back on texts read.
The importance of attention to the text, its specific contents and phrasing,
and the meanings mediated by it, consequently, presents challenges to an
utterance perspective which locates meaning in the writers and readers rather
than having meaning immanent in the text or language. We will now try to
develop an account of meaning from an utterance perspective that warrants
close attention to the details of a text and which can suggest how texts can
serve to co-align writer and reader on specific contents, reasoning, and meaning
despite their individual and socially patterned differences in experience,
cognition, attention, and interests. Without such an account it is hard to justify
a pedagogy of attention to the text, a responsibility of readers to read carefully,
and the legitimacy of social systems that rely on hermeneutic practices, such
as the law. Unless we have a persuasive account of why it is worth paying close
attention to a text, we have little motive to pay close attention to one another’s
words and little basis to hold others to account for inattentive readings.
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
Some thought has been paid historically to the problem of how texts or
language mediate alignment of meaning across minds. The dependence
on participant understanding was recognized in classical rhetoric by such
concerns as the nature and role of enthymemes, the character and disposition
of audiences, figures of thought, and the psychological underpinnings of
arrangement. Persuasion, as a movement of the mind, was seen as dependent
on individual sense-making even though this dependency isn’t always made
explicit for analytic scrutiny, as rhetoric remained largely focused on the
rhetor’s strategy embodied in the text. Rhetoric’s attitude toward sense making
is shaped by rhetoric’s origins in oral performance, which leaves no artifact
(except for the occasional script or transcription that Plato has so much fun
with in the Phaedrus). Oral rhetorical performance confronts rhetors with
embodied audiences whose minds they have to move, and confronts audiences
with embodied rhetors who appear to be thinking about one thing and then
a moment later thinking about something else. The fleeting meaning held in
the rhetor’s mind communicated to the audience transfigures and unites them
momentarily, to be soon dissipated as thought and attention turn elsewhere.
Such is the flow of life noted by the sophists.
The earliest principled attempts to develop a literate rhetoric in the medieval
ars dictaminis (Murphy, 1971), to provide guidance for correspondence within
the church bureaucracy, carry that same concern for socially located sensemaking,
even though transmitted over distances of space and time. The ars
dictaminis advise embedding the communication within social hierarchies and
situations so that requests appear within well-defined social circumstances and
relations, maximizing the reader’s favorable sense-making orientation toward
the letter and the letter writer. Proper modes of address invoke and respect
institutional role hierarchies and evoke socially shaped benevolence. Other
tactics strengthen the benevolence of the relationship, the good will of the
receiver, and the respect granted to the reader, to make a favorable reading
more likely. Further, narration serves to establish the situation—building
an interpretive frame by placing writer and receiver within social positions
and events that construct sense-making standpoints. Finally, arrangement is
presented as psychologically motivated, modified to fit the particulars of the
letter situation (Bazerman, 1999b ; Perelman, 1991).
Eighteenth-century rhetorics, aimed at facilitating participation in newly
powerful print culture, are very much concerned with the problem of how the
writer can use description to evoke sympathetic sense-making by the reader.
A Theory of Literate Action
Adam Smith, for example, caught up in the psychological conundrums posed
by Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, sees sympathy at the heart of community,
communication, and ethics (Bazerman, 1993b). Similarly, Joseph Priestley
sees the force of description in sharing the experiences and perceptions
of humankind so as to transcend the limitations and idiosyncrasies of
individual souls (Bazerman, 1991). This mid-eighteenth-century concern for
evoking understanding through sympathetic reconstruction, however, led
to belleslettrism, as literature became the mechanism by which we were to
understand each other’s perspective and develop our sympathetic sense-making
imagination. The turn to the literary text combined with romantic notions of
genius was accompanied by an increasing trust in the words of the artist, which
were taken to be meaningful and out of time, space, and social transaction.
This trust in the word of the artist reinforced belief in meaning residing in the
text. Much of literary criticism and literary education from the mid-nineteenth
through most of the twentieth centuries, can be understood as attempts to
increase the ability to appreciate what the text offers. This attention to texts
culminates in the new criticism, which was originally motivated to improve
student attention to texts (Richards, 1924, 1929). New criticism offered a way
to unpack high degrees of textual subtlety (Brooks, 1947), but also led to an
awareness of the ambiguities of texts (Empson. 1947) and ultimately to the
gaps in meaning and reasoning of texts (Derrida, 1981). The reliance on the
text also led to an explicit rejection by some of authorial intent (Wimsatt &
Beardsley, 1946) and readers’ emotions (Wimsatt & Beardsley 1949). Readerresponse
theories, deconstruction, and a return to historicism were reactions in
literary studies against the over-reliance on an abstracted text and its limitations
in conveying meaning, but this has left literary studies with a scandal of
indeterminacy of textual meaning, undermining the stability of the interpretive
project and its allied vision of social order through cultivation of the individual’s
Through the mid-twentieth century, the cultural trust invested in the
imaginative literary experience to be found in the literary text as re-performed
by the expert reader carried the implication that all texts that did not embody
or evoke forms of literary imagination were less interesting, hardly requiring
sense-making, and certainly not expert sense-making. Non-literary texts
were considered transparent in their meanings, requiring little interpretation,
imagination, or educated sensibility. Even the higher reaches of non-literary
or non-humanistic disciplinary literate practices were largely treated as
unimaginative. There was a minor tradition of practitioners of high prestige
professional fields asserting the special imaginations of their professions—the
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
legal imagination, the sociological imagination, the scientific imagination, the
technological imagination, the mathematical imagination. But this always has
been presented as something of a surprise and an argument for recognition
of the extension of imagination in these unexpected places. We rarely hear
of the dentist’s imagination, the accountant’s imagination, the bureaucrat’s
imagination, or the merchandiser’s imagination—except perhaps as a joke or a
criticism of bourgeois life.
From the phenomenological perspective deriving from Schutz (see Chapter
4) and elaborated concretely for communication by Goffman’s interactional
order (see Chapter 7), however, it becomes clear how much imaginative work
each person performs in understanding, aligning to, and transforming everyday
situations through recognizing, responding to, and using social typifications
to create sites in which people can co-align to actions and meanings. Each
different potential footing for an event brings to bear interpretive and
participatory sets of understandings and identifies a repertoire of expressive
tools that may be appropriately drawn on. Gumperz (1992) has noted further
that we use contextualization cues to signal the kind of event going on, what
footing we are communicating upon, and thus the dramatic frame in which we
are continually improvising our actions and in which we interpret the actions
of others. However, the footing or phenomenological context of a situation
is not automatically established uniformly for all participants. Even from
the perspective of a single participant, sense-making may be multi-layered,
heterogeneous, and opportunistic, using any clue at hand to reach a usable set
of meanings and orientations to events. Gumperz (1982) has been particularly
concerned with mismatches of contextual understandings, particularly as these
mismatches are culturally patterned, so that we do not recognize that the person
we are talking to is engaged in a very different situational drama than the one
we imagine we are part of. As well, the conversation analytic notion of the floor
(i.e., the group framing of the communicative circumstances) highlights the
contention or negotiation that occurs to establish any one person’s control of
the turn and the temporary definition of the situation. The situational definition
that momentarily holds the floor provides an opportunity space or participation
frame for actions and meanings (Goodwin, 1984; Hanks, 1996).
New remarks not only add to and redirect the discussion, they reframe and
affect the meanings for all that came before. As conversation analysts are fond of
A Theory of Literate Action
saying, meaning is created in the uptake, or how people respond to utterances.
Thus meaning is what people take the meaning to be, which they then react to
in their further utterances and actions (H. Sacks, 1995). In their perlocutionary
force, as Searle might say, utterances get taken as specific kinds of acts, as things
having been done that then populate the intertextual landscape for ensuing
utterances (Bazerman, 1999a; Latour & Woolgar, 1979). This emergent,
retrospectively-established context of things having been said, acts having been
felicitiously accomplished, provides an intertextual (Bazerman, 1993a ; Swales,
1990) equivalent of kairos (Bazerman, 1994c ; Miller, 1992).
What is relevantly noticed as part of the context—those things attended
to—is also at play. References in discourse are indexical; that is, they indicate or
point to something outside the utterance. Thus utterances rely on construal of
elements of context (including the framing social contexts that define the footing)
to establish their meaning. References even construct the relevant physical and
social places within which the talk occurs by identifying what is salient in the
ambient world and what are the boundaries that organize local space—what
counts as here or there, inside or outside, us or them (Hanks, 1990). Even such
luminous and linguistically marked objects as lighted exit signs vanish from
view as we enter into the footing of the seminar which indexes other realities
for our cognitive attention. The exit signs only reappear to attention if we are
summoned to an emergency footing by an alarm or if our minds wander from
the seminar, looking for any other possible mental stimulation no matter how
accidental and trivial. Relative distance and time are noticeable as particularly
plastic in situations, but indeed the whole world that is discursively held in
imagination and reconstructed as the landscape of our action is constructed
in the talk (Chafe, 1994). Thus what things are talked about, how they are
brought to minds of the participant, in what aspect and with what evaluation
and purpose are all part of the typification of the interaction and social space.
In face-to-face communication all this adds up to a co-construction of context,
reality, and meaning system, using socially typified frames and culturally laden
symbols that allow each participant to make sense of a potentially “sensible”
projection of meaning and the realities within which those meanings take place.
This co-construction is constantly evolving through interaction which makes
relevant the sense-making of all the participants. People literally collaboratively
perform the world they are making sense of, the world they attend to, the world
they are acting within. The social and material worlds humans are aware of are
constantly being remade in the changing uptakes, footings, floors, frames, and
indexical references. It is within this evolving world that thought collectives
emerge, working in characteristic thought styles (Fleck, 1979).
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
This co-construction of a world to be attended to and made sense of also
happens in literate communication across space and time, though it is faced
with additional difficulties. In the semi-private experience of reading and
writing, the clues writers offer to readers to reconstruct meanings are thinner
than in face to face interaction. The referential space itself is a projection of
the text as perceived by the reader. Without the shared here and now of faceto-face
interaction, literate action must rely even more heavily on genre to
conjure interactional space and define content expectations (which Bakhtin,
1981 identifies as the chronotope, as we will discuss in the next chapter), and
on other more explicit identifiers of what objects of attention will appropriately
be attended to and from what perspective.
In non-co-present writing we have to construct the virtual meeting space
and then enact congruent meaning performances entirely out of shared social
cloth. We may snip and re-stitch from several available social cloths, but never
so much as to make the patchwork unrecognizable, for then we lose our way
as writers and readers. We must create the recognizable footings and grab
recognizable floors—otherwise the floor evaporates, just as much as if everyone
leaves a meeting. The selves and acts we create are in constant dialogue with
anticipated and actual uptakes. In writing, though, information on how
audiences respond to our utterances is typically less frequent, in circumstances
far from those of the original utterance, and more attenuated than in face to
face talk. Similarly, our reperformances of others’ meanings through reading are
not easily corrected or focused by others; we have only continuing attention to
the text to search for clues to meaning to adjust and refine our readings to align
with the breadcrumb trail to meaning left by the author.
Further, in non-co-present reading and writing, ambiguity or uncertainty as
to the place, purposes, and participants of social meeting may do strange things
to our sense of anxiety. Engaged with texts in private, we may perceive ourselves
removed from the social constraints and uncertainties of every day face-to-face
interaction. Privacy may free us to explore meanings and sentiments that we
are afraid might cast us beyond the pale of acceptable public identities and
acceptable relations with others. In reading we can explore the taboo under a
plain brown wrapper. On the other hand, the lack of immediately reassuring
others may allow anxieties to numb our processes of meaning-making. In
reading we become afraid of who might see our books or catch us entertaining
controversial thoughts, and in writing we worry whether we can dare put our
forming thoughts to paper lest potential readers condemn us for what we write.
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To some extent all writing puts us on the line, asking us to perform novel selves
which may have unanticipated consequences. Writing then leaves our words
open to readers’ interpretations and reconstructions that we might not be happy
The production and reception of texts are caught in a tension. In writing
and reading we have the space to define situations and activities as we would
see them. Yet to make ourselves intelligible to others and to gain the wisdom
of others, we have to discipline ourselves to using signs and making sense in
socially intelligible ways. Through shared tools of sense-transmission we make
our separate senses, and thus define sensible differences. But those differences
in turn stretch limits of linguistic sharing.
Literacy education aims to introduce students into culturally formed
practices of making sense in and of texts. In schools children are taught
particular tools of inscribing information, experiences, and thoughts in texts
and gathering information and reconstructing ideas from texts. They are also
introduced to forms of literary interpretation and engagement. Outside of
school, widely available texts, puzzles, games and other artifacts depend on and
reward specialized forms of sense-making and engagement, relying often on
school literacy practices. Those who may be avid readers but not so well trained
in disciplines of schooled literacy may make sense more idiosyncratically, though
perhaps more interestingly. At times we all engage in creative non-standard
readings in pursuit of our own meanings and motives, but we can be held
to account for more normalized readings of the texts within particular social
circumstances. When we haggle over the obligations a contract has imposed we
are often forced to read a text together, with our divergent readings accountable
to adjudication by the courts. When we proclaim on the basis of a news story
that the latest notorious figure is guilty, a contentious friend may ask how we
can possibly come to that conclusion from what we read.
Similarly, writing gains expressive force not by going down purely private
subjective paths, but by gaining wider command of the culturally available
resources and by deploying these resources to create recognizable circumstances
and enactments. Again the undisciplined writer sometimes may make very
interesting texts, but their texts may be idiosyncratic and hard for others to
orient towards in meaningful or at least consistent ways, so uptake either
evaporates or rapidly wanders far from the vectors of authorial impulse. Within
some genres of texts, often literary or advertising, movement away from the
Chapter 9 Utterances and Their Meanings
socially recognizable into the personally desired is indeed encouraged, but in
other genres projection of our own meanings and desires needs to be focused
and contained if we are to make intelligible sense of each other’s words.
To gain a sense of readers’ meaning making, writers have regularly sought
local readers and editors to respond to their writing. Modern writing pedagogy
has emphasized feedback; rapid cycling of responses by teachers; teacher sensemaking
roles extending beyond evaluation on purely formal grounds; peer
response and evaluation; and writing for varied, real, local audiences. Writing
pedagogy and writing practice have also developed procedures for reading one’s
own text so as to take the part of others, particularly in revision processes.
Rhetorical analysis also provides tools for seeing one’s verbal productions from
the outside, as they might affect others. All these techniques deepen attention
to the interactional reality of the text and the meanings evoked in the minds of
the readers.
The difficulties of making texts that will bring to readers’ minds meanings
that the writer seeks to evoke highlight how meaning is a result of evoking
and organizing attention within specific textual interactions. Knowledge,
information, beliefs, or other contents not brought to mind do not enter
the communicative transaction and co-construction of meaning. While the
world may exist richly and robustly outside our acts of communication, only
those parts of the world brought into the communicative act are part of the
meaning evoked. Even though vocabularies may be collected in dictionaries,
and reference books may document the findings of various specialties, they bear
on our conversations only insofar as we are familiar with them and they are
present in the moment of communication.
Knowledge is not absolute, but only what circulates. What distinguishes
disciplines of knowledge are procedures for warranting claims, standards of
comprehensiveness in attention to sources, and practices of evidence gathering.
The communal expectations and procedures to hold parties accountable form
a larger context of relevance and attention for every utterance. Insofar as a
member of such a knowledge community does not remember or pay attention
to something everyone in the field should know, he or she loses credibility and
authority. If a historian forgets the established sequence of events in narrating
a revolution, statements lose their sense and are discounted as meaningless.
However, the historian may not be expected to pay attention to sociological
findings on social movements. On the other hand, the sociologist’s statements
about the same revolution lose meaning and credibility if they are not attentive
to relevant sociological theories and findings.
In these cases of disciplinary knowledge as in other cases, meaning arises,
relies on, is evaluated, and is constrained within social processes. Meaning is
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evoked by utterances which carry out speech acts and establish social facts.
Utterances in written language take their form in the produced and circulated
texts, but they only gain their meaning and success in the transaction mediated
by the text. Meaning arises, contingently and locally, as one person speaks
to another through a thin line of words; the art of writing is to make this
holographic magic happen across time and space through the fragility of words.
In those written words we see a world represented.

As discussed in the previous chapter, what is indexed (pointed toward) in the
utterance identifies what is noticed, thought about, acted upon at the moment.
What is indexed is the intersubjective content of the interaction, insofar as
each participant is fully attentive, and accepting the range of attributions and
interpretations that might be made as to what the words refer to or index. The
things indexed are the social facts represented, relied on, reinforced, created,
or reasoned about in the course of the utterance. Those things indexed are also
interpreted, reacted to, evaluated, taken a stance towards, or integrated with
other things on the recipient’s mind in the course of reading. The material
indexed and the connections made among indexed items are usually considered
the content or substantive meaning of the text, and provide the usual answer
to the question of what did the text say. But another way of asking that same
question is to ask what is the world assembled or represented in the text, and
what happens in that world. From a speech act point of view this asks us
about what is contained in the locutionary act. But if we remember that the
locutionary act is itself an act of representation with its own felicity conditions,
particularly in Austin’s view, we must also ask what is successfully or felicitously
established as a social fact within the textual space. Depending on the communal
or disciplinary expectations and epistemological procedures, these social facts
may also be held accountable to organized experiences of the material world,
and thus gain the status of scientific facts, legal facts, historical facts, and so
on—reportable and consequential in each of those domains.
Of course, each individual reader will bring to bear an idiosyncratic
collection of thoughts, associations, and experiences that may lead to seeing the
signs in the text indexing somewhat different ideas, experiences, or objects than
the writer had in mind. Readers thereby construct different meanings from
the text or evaluate the meaning differently, but the individualistic readings
they develop are socially consequential only if they are brought back into a
social dialogue that negotiates a communal meaning or at least creates a focused
contention over meaning. As discussed at the end of the last chapter and we
will explore more deeply later in this chapter, professions, disciplines, belief
communities, and other epistemic social groupings serve to align participants
to the same set of beliefs, associations, experiences, texts, and other materials
Chapter 10 The World in the Text
that form a relevant context for understanding and evaluating each new text.
Participants can then be held accountable to communally shared understanding
of texts they read and write.
Looking at the represented meaning of the text through the locutionary
acts creating social facts indexed in the text (which are then brought together
through syntactic or reasoning processes within the text) bears similarities to
two other projects of considering meaning represented in texts: Halliday’s
examination of the metafunctions of language and M. Bakhtin’s concept of the
Halliday’s Systemic Functional Linguistics (Halliday & Matthiesen, 2004;
see also Halliday & Hasan, 1976; and Halliday & Martin, 1993) offers an
account of how language functions to express meanings through systemic choices
available to the user. The more deeply we understand the meaning potentials of
systems of language, the more precisely we are able to express meanings. Halliday
identifies three large dimensions on which we create meaning—which he calls
metafunctions: the ideational metafunction, the interpersonal metafunction, and
the textual metafunction. As suggested by the names, the ideational metafunction
refers to the means by which ideas or contents are transmitted, and thereby the
way in which our experience of the world is represented and construed in the text;
the interpersonal metafunction mediates the social relationship between speaker/
writer and listener/reader; and the textual metafunction indicates how a text is
organized and serves communicative purposes. The ideational metafunction is
closest to what I suggest by the text indexing experiences of the world and the
textual metafunction is closest to how these indexed items are reasoned about.
As a linguist, Halliday is most interested in the form this indication takes as it
becomes represented in the text and then how syntactically these representations
become organized into larger systems of cohesive reasoning—keeping in mind
that the explicit linguistic markers of cohesion are distinct from the semantic
psychological phenomena of coherence.
Bakhtin makes a specific association between genres and particular kinds
of contents through his concept of the chronotope, or time-space. Within
the typical time-space of each genre there appear typical settings, objects, and
characters; each of these then undergo particular actions or events in the course
of the text (Bakhtin, 1981). So just as fairy tales occur in kingdoms long ago
A Theory of Literate Action
and far away, where princes overcome obstacles of dragons and evil sorcerers
to gain the hand of princesses, so do national economic policy reports include
trends in jobs, Gross Domestic Product, national indebtedness, and interest
rates, as well as projections of future growth and inflation, so as to justify policy
decisions, such as adjustments of bank rates. Psychiatric reports prepared as
part of sentencing of criminal defendants contain different chronotopes of
information, looking into the time-space of the defendant’s life, psyche, and
prognoses under different incarceration conditions. We would be very surprised
to find the information from the criminal psychiatric report in the economic
policy document, or vice versa. Even closely related documents might differ
greatly on their chronotopes based on the purpose, as the psychiatric sentencing
document would contain different information from a psychiatric journal
article on the pharmacological treatment of certain forms of violent behavior.
Thus once we are attuned to a genre we are attuned to expect and accept indexes
of different aspects of experience, to be represented and construed in certain
ways, appropriate to the activity systems associated with those genres. The
introduction of atypical contents into the genre requires extra work both to
justify the contents’ place and to translate those indexed contents into terms
appropriate for the genre.
Following Bakhtin we may note that each genre contains its typical
landscapes, actors and events, which we can consider the genre’s ontology. Each
text also has its more specific ontology: that is, the objects that come under
its purview. Thus in a newspaper editorial commenting on the actions of a
chemical company, the chemicals that are part of the story (that have been
determined to have harmful side effects, for example) may be referred to by
common names or some abbreviation, but there would not likely be detailed
chemical nomenclature nor analysis of the processes of synthesis. Chemical
formulae and reasoning through a series of chemical processes would enter
more typically into an article in a chemistry journal. If for some news-related
reason the news story needed to discuss chemical processes (such as a discussion
of how an apparently benign process has lethal consequences), the story would
need to prepare and motivate readers for this excursion (Latour, 1987 gives a
revealing analysis of rhetoric of detours) and then would need to ensure the
specialized representation would be intelligible to them.
Chapter 10 The World in the Text
Fleck, similarly, in his 1935 groundbreaking Genesis and Development
of a Scientific Fact, analyzes the representational styles that constitute the
thought styles of thought collectives. These representational styles are the
means by which facts take on textual presence. He finds ideology, theoretical
commitments, and evaluative stances in the various representational styles
of the symptoms and underlying mechanisms of what we now call syphilis
(Fleck, 1979). Indeed some objects are constituted only as they take on the
form dictated by the genre and the text. The U.S. tax form, for example
contains many objects that though they have names made of familiar words
are only specifically constituted within the forms and the attendant regulationgoverned
operations—such as “net reportable income,” or “allowable
deductions” (Bazerman, 2000b).
Conceptually-based objects that we talk about as real and tangible are only
the construct of tangible operations. For example, while we can concretely
observe money and goods exchanged between persons, the concept of an
economy requires the aggregating of many transactions within a specified
domain and reported to audiences ready to comprehend the concept. Even at
the time of Adam Smith the modern concept of an economy was not available,
and the closest term he could come up with was the wealth of nations. For most
middle-class citizens the idea of the economy only became a familiar object
of attention when it started gaining regular reporting in the newspapers, as
something bearing on the conditions of everyday life (Smart, 2008). Indeed
countries even into the twentieth century that lacked the textual means to
collect, aggregate, and report on the economy only had individuals and families
of wealth engaging in particular transactions and relationships. In order to
become international economic players they had to gather those transactions
and holdings into a picture of an economy, by establishing a ministry of the
economy and producing economic reports, where the state of the economy
could be found (De los Santos, 2007).
Thus we can associate each genre as a site for particular kinds of knowledge
that we can expect to find there. We know where to look if we need a phone
number, or government statistics on school completion rates, or latest medical
studies—and if we don’t, search engines will direct us to the kinds of webpages
that contain what we are looking for, and we can use our genre knowledge to
rapidly evaluate whether the site contains the kind of knowledge we want in the
depth, reliability, and perspective we want. Further, we know where not to look
for things or where we would be surprised to find information out of its genre
place. One way, in fact, to trace the history and social distribution of knowledge
is to trace the histories of genres in which knowledge is produced, reported, and
collected (Bazerman & Rogers, 2008 a & b).
A Theory of Literate Action
The chronotope or ontology of each genre and its appropriate forms of
representation also imply an epistemology—a way of knowing. This way
of knowing is associated with methods of observing and recording things,
experiences, phenomena or the like, thereby indexing them in the textual
world of the genres of a social world. Epistemological issues accompany even
everyday description of ordinary events in our life. If we tell a story about what
happened to us, unless we somehow mark it as a fiction or a joke, it is assumed
that we experienced the events as we reported them—we tell what we saw and
heard, from our perspective, drawing on our memories. Often we may signal
as well the timing of the events as recent or long ago, commenting on the
freshness of our memory, and identifying what we directly saw or found out
only by hearsay. Listeners will interpret what we have said on that epistemic
basis, giving it the authority of personal experience. While exaggerations are
often accepted as part of emotional heightening, readers may detect these and
factor it into the evaluation. If there is further indication of fictionalizing,
the readers also begin to take the report as less reliable (with grains of salt, as
we say informally). Even intimate reports of emotions are expected to come
from recognition of actually experienced sentiments. Suspicion of violation
of that epistemological procedure by reporting emotions never experienced,
will likely have consequences for trust and evaluation of character. Listeners
may, furthermore, recognize the possibility of different accounts from other
perspectives, and they may factor in what they might know about our emotional
set, evaluative biases, interests, or other personal elements that might define
the particularity of our perspective.
Other kinds of reports also have their implied epistemologies. Accounting
and business reports have their standards and practices of data gathering,
authentication, and reporting—historically developed and often regulated
by commercial law as well as professional licensing bodies. In the same vein,
journalism over the past hundred and fifty years has developed professional
standards for reporting, which are in essence epistemological guidelines for
gathering, authenticating, and inscribing information.
Each epistemology implies a theory of the world and a related theory
about observing and knowing the world. We have folk theories about how
people experience emotions and how those emotions are triggered by events.
Accounting principles are based on theories of accounting and how they keep
track of business dealings, making them accountable and ordered through
reporting practices; these in turn are built on theories of how accounting
improves business practices and the economy. Legal rules of evidence also
Chapter 10 The World in the Text
have epistemologies and practices that accept certain kinds of testimony and
evidentiary documents as legitimate and legally meaningful and others as not.
Over the last several centuries epistemological and methodological issues
have been at the forefront in the sciences, as science has developed methods
of observation and verification upon which to warrant claims and thereby to
formulate knowledge through empirically-grounded argument. The emergence
of modern forms of scientific argument has gone hand in hand with the emergence
of definitions and standards of what counts as legitimate evidence and legitimate
procedures of gathering that evidence. As a consequence, methodology has
become a standard explicit feature of experimental reports, both to legitimate
the evidence and to make it interpretable in relation to its procedures (Bazerman
1988, 1991). Some disciplines, such as experimental psychology, have explicitly
regulated epistemologies and methodologies through the standards of reporting
in their publication manual (Bazerman, 1987a). In all disciplines, articles are
accountable for establishing the status of evidence and the methods used to
produce it, including the theoretical assumptions behind the methodological
choices. One of the most effective ways to undermine an experimental or
observational report (and thereby undo it as a representational speech act) is to
argue that there were faulty assumptions behind the methodological procedures
or concrete errors in the material carrying out of the method, so that the data
produced does not reliably represent the underlying state of affairs one is
investigating. The most damaging criticism is to demonstrate the results were
entirely an artifact of faulty method and there was no underlying phenomena of
note thereby observed: nothing to be seen, nothing to be reported.
Further, each field has developed its particular methods and epistemologies
(with corresponding genres of reporting) deemed appropriate to its objects of
investigation (or ontologies). These methods and epistemologies in dialogue
with the empirical experience of investigations produce the data reported and
analyzed in the field’s articles—thereby constituting the objects that come to
be known and pondered by the field in its seminars, congresses, journals, and
(eventually) textbooks. Even within biology, the methods, epistemologies,
evidence, theories, and textbooks of botany differ from those of zoology; within
botany differences occur among taxonomic botany, evolutionary botany, and
genetic botany, although they at times have come to communicate with each
other and rely on each other. But every cross-specialty communication requires
A Theory of Literate Action
some adjustment and negotiation about what constitutes knowledge, how it is
to be produced, how it is to be represented, and what it means (see for example
Bazerman & de los Santos, 2005).
We can see this explicit concern with methodology and standards of evidence
production as the realistic and practical consequence of the Baconian distrust of
language and the early Royal Society injunction to trust things, not words (Dear,
1985). Yet in order to enter scientific discussion things still must be represented
in words, mathematics, or other signs. Epistemology, methodology, standards
of evidence production, along with the instruments used to produce, measure,
and record phenomena (what Latour & Woolgar, 1979, call inscription devices)
negotiate the transformation from experience into inscription. Although
Wilkinson and other seventeenth century enthusiasts may have hoped to expunge
language of any uncertainty and thus only report true things (parodied by Swift
in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels)—yet language and representation could not
be done away with. One always needed to argue for the existence of phenomena
and their interpretation. Even what could be seen by a telescope (Moss, 1993)
or microscope (Ruestow, 1996) needed theoretical argument to legitimate the
observations as data and needed theories of the workings of the instruments
to interpret their results, tell true objects from evanescent artifacts, and refine
methods. Advances in theories have been tied to advances in instruments, and
advances in instruments have been tied to arguments warranting them and their
validity as evidence producers. Further, the form of evidence each produces then
enters into the expected and legitimate forms of representation in articles to then
be considered. Even the relevance of mathematics within biological argument
required explicit argument (Wynn, 2012).
Such arguments led to ever increasing standards for observation, to make
phenomena visible and confirmable. Fleck characterized the ongoing search for
more refined, more warrantable, more precise ways of seeing new dimensions
of phenomena and making them reportable as an essential part of the culture
of science. He called this the active pursuit of passive constraint—actively
finding ways to be constrained by empirical experience in what one could say
(Fleck, 1979, p. 95). Sciences are particularly persistent in their search for ways
to produce more evidence of a more sophisticated type to test and advance
reasoning and beliefs.
Sciences have developed regular practices of interrogating evidence, and
confirming it against multiple experiences arising from multiple purposes—of
which the well-known replication of experiments is only part. Sometimes high
motivation, interests, and stakes spur direct replication attempts, especially
when there is an astounding discovery claim, such as the announcement of
cold fusion (Taubes, 1993). In the cold fusion case (as with N-rays a century
Chapter 10 The World in the Text
before, Ashmore, 1993) other scientists could not replicate the results, and the
phenomenon vanished from the literature, only to become an episode in the
history of science (although now, more than two decades later a few scientists
continue to search for confirming data). Most findings, however, are more
ordinary and less unexpected. Many are of such detail and limited interest that no
one questions them, and perhaps few even notice the article and fewer use it to
any purpose. In a sense too these articles vanish from the canon of knowledge—
except that their very ordinariness and consistency with expectations come to
reconfirm all the previous findings, assumptions, and theoretical claims on which
they are based. In that sense, the most ordinary and humdrum reports are indirect
replications of much collected knowledge of the field.
At times, though, conditions cannot be replicated, or require craft knowledge
for replication (Collins, 1985; Delamont & Atkinson, 2001; Gilbert & Mulkay,
1984) or few have the incentive, leisure, or resources to devote to replication.
Yet when researchers carry out further investigations they must select and rely
on the phenomena and evidence of others reported in the literature. When
anomalies turn up in their results, they are then led back to examine earlier
results that they relied on. The mention and use of these earlier findings as
useful and reliable keep them alive in the intertext of the field and thus their
representations stand as successful speech acts. Through continuing usefulness
results enter into the canon of knowledge in a process of rolling codification
(Bazerman, 1991).
This reliance on previous texts is part of the intertextuality that pervades
the literate world. All utterances occur in the context of previous utterances,
providing the resources of a common language, saturated by prior uses and
beliefs. Further, new utterances take a stance towards prior utterances, respond
to them, refer to them, and even incorporate them, as Volosinov noted (1973)
and Bakhtin elaborated (1984a, 1986). As writing typically creates an enduring
archive of prior documents which can be referred to, the relationships of
utterances potentially become more complex, explicit, and robust—supporting
systematic reliance of texts on each other, particularly in organized domains such
as scriptural religions, law, academic disciplines, or corporate and governmental
Among the objects brought into a text are other texts. A newspaper in
reporting an unfolding scandal may refer to previous revelations reported
in previous days’ issues as well as quotations made by accusers, accused, and
A Theory of Literate Action
witnesses. The story may also refer to revelations reported in other publications
and confirmed by still others. Then an editorial may reprise the aggregated
facts from the various news stories to comment on the events and evaluate the
roles of the various participants. Particularly embarrassing or self-condemning
statements printed in other stories may also be reprised.
Each domain has its particular universe of genres and prior texts that are
chronotopically relevant. Thus law cases typically refer to constitutions, statutes,
prior cases, and court judgments considered relevant precedent, along with the
various filings and briefs presented in the particular case. Within the relevant
domain, the textual references may additionally be represented variously
according to genre, as Devitt (1991) found out with respect to the genre set of
tax accountants. While all the documents prepared by tax accountants rely on
the tax code, the code gets quoted, mentioned, or implied in different ways,
according to the kind of document, its audiences, and purposes.
Within sciences the creation of communal knowledge through the aggregation
and building on work of the relevant disciplinary colleagues is associated with
explicit and patterned practices for mentioning the relevant prior work to set
the stage for each new piece of work (Bazerman, 1991; Swales 1990, 2004), as
well as genres directed toward collecting, aggregating, and codifying knowledge
both for insiders (Myers, 1991), and neophytes or outsiders (such as textbooks).
Each discipline and journal also adopts explicit means of representing other
texts in the form of citation.
Intertextuality does more than become an indirect way to import the
information reported elsewhere. Intertextuality can become a site of discussion,
a domain of action, and a set of objects in itself. Sequences of documents may
form the domain of a policy debate, where a cluster of related documents
contend for which statement may become authorized as policy at the end of the
discussion. These documents may be clearly structured as through the various
filings, briefs, previous court transcripts, and rulings, defined by the rules of
the court in an appellant court case (which in the US are carried out entirely
by review of the file). At the end a judicial ruling sorts all the relationship and
standing of all the documents in all future actions, subject to further appeals.
Political debates over issues of the moment are more loosely structured, and
often lack the finality of a legal judgment so that disputes and differences are
ongoing, always ready to be reprised, even after a quiescent period. But actors
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make claims and arguments, sometimes explicitly referring to and contending
with, reevaluating or even mocking earlier statements, through what Bakhtin
calls double-voicing (1984b) with the aim of changing the public’s view of
prior statements, and influencing what views should be left standing as effective
persuasive acts. Sometimes the contentions of prior documents are recounted
as personalized dramas of power, with the standing of statements going up or
down depending on how punches are landed, and how they are reported.
Even claims within sciences can be seen from this view, as people propose
claims that they believe should be considered for enduring presence in the
disciplinary ontology or that will restructure or modify the epistemology or
theory. Articles present evidence and interpretation, show value for a claim’s
continuing use, or advance alternative claims. In the end, some claims and
concepts initially indicated by citation to articles (Small, 1978) have robust
continuing presence in the ongoing investigations of a field, revealed in their
citation rates (De Bellis, 2009). Ultimately, however, explicit citation may
vanish by the implicit incorporation into the trusted knowledge accepted by
all in the field, in a process sociologists of science have called obliteration by
incorporation (Cozzens, 1985; Merton, 1973).
For those with an insider’s understanding, any intertextual domain can reveal
itself as a social drama, as proposals for a census or an accounting procedure
may reflect the interests of different groups who imagine they would benefit
from one method or another. Those in the know can track the changing fate
of interests as the status of proposals rise and fall and some gain long-term
incorporation into the accepted knowledge and thinking of a field. Through
such contentions texts enter into the chronotope of a field, becoming part of
the accepted and expected landscape of a particular genre embedded within the
larger system of genres that comprise an activity system. Any variation from
the chronotope, introducing unexpected intertextual landscapes, attracts notice
and may require additional justifying or reconciling rhetorical work.
Intertextuality occurs at the level of text, as one text relies explicitly
or implicitly on another, but it has large sociological and psychological
implications. Intertextuality provides mechanisms for forming communal
beliefs and individual consciousnesses, even while fostering the possibility of
focused division among individuals based on their selection and evaluation of
texts and the way they incorporate those texts into consciousnesses and actions.
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A history of the theoretical elaboration of the concept of intertextuality makes
evident the sociological and psychological importance of intertextuality among
people who share universes of texts and activities. The term intertextuality,
or any Russian equivalent, does not appear in the works of either Bakhtin or
Volosinov. The term was first coined by Kristeva (1980) in a work of literary
theory. Drawing on Volosinov and Bakhtin she suggests that any text is a mosaic
of quotations. She uses the concept of the textual mosaic to argue against the
radical originality of any text and to locate common cultural experience in the
sharing of text rather than any shared intersubjective state, for we always take
up individual subject positions. Orientation to common utterances, she argues,
creates the ongoing culture and evokes common objects of desire. Intertextuality,
for Kristeva, is a mechanism whereby we write ourselves into the social text, and
thereby the social text writes us.
The origins of the concept in Bakhtin and Volosinov have different motives
and forces than used by Kristeva. Volosinov (1929/1973) notes that every
utterance draws on the history of language use, is responsive to prior utterances,
and carries forward that history. In the interplay with past utterances, each new
utterance takes on a stance toward previous utterances. Volosinov, furthermore,
begins a technical analysis of how texts position themselves to each other
through linguistic systems of direct and indirect quotations. Since Volosinov sees
individual consciousness arising out of our particular experiences of language
utterance, our consciousnesses are deeply dialogic (or as we would now say
intertextual), just as our utterances are. Therefore the mechanisms of textual
relations are also part of the mechanisms of the formation of consciousness
(pp.12-13). Volosinov’s comments on the internal formation of consciousness
through dialogic experience of language are close to issues raised by Vygotsky’s
analysis of the internalization, as Vygotsky explains in a 1931 essay on the
internalization of higher mental functions:
An interpersonal process is transformed into an intrapersonal
one. Every function in the child’s cultural development
appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the
individual level; first between people (interpsychological),
and then inside the child (intrapsychological). (Vygotsky,
1978, p. 57)
Volosinov in his 1927 book Freudianism (1987) already was concerned with
the issue of inner speech. In this context (p. 21) he cites Vygotsky’s 1925 paper
on consciousness as a core problem of psychology, where Vygotsky begins his
investigation into the way language mediates consciousness and transforms
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reflexes, thus making available for consciousness and thought a form of cultural
transmission of the historical experience of humankind, as we have examined
in Chapter 2 of this volume. These ideas, however, were only sketchily gestured
at in the 1925 paper. While Volosinov’s 1927 citation provides direct evidence
of Volosinov’s awareness of Vygotsky, it is also reasonable to assume that
Vygotsky was aware of Volosinov—given Vygotsky’s extensive reading, the close
world of Soviet science at the time, and the consonance of their interests in
developing Marxist historical theories of the formation of language, the mind,
and consciousness.
Vygotsky’s ultimate formulation of an internal plane of consciousness
resulting from the internalization of language experience would provide a
more robust model of socially-formed individual consciousness and agency
than Volosinov’s formulation of inner speech and consciousness. Vygotsky, as
a psychologist with developmental interests, was looking at how the outside
(the interpersonal) got inside (the intrapersonal) in order to shape individual
thought and action. He thus elaborated mechanisms by which internalized
thought operated within the functional system of the self. The internal plane
of consciousness, formed when language experience integrates with nonlinguistic
experience, incorporates one’s earliest social and linguistic relations
and reformulates one’s prelinguistic and non-social experience and perception.
If Vygotsky shows more fully how society gets into the self, Volosinov as
a socially-oriented linguist points outward into how the self gets into society.
Volosinov’s formulation of inner speech arising out of socially embedded
utterance reaches further outward in planting individual consciousness within
a dynamic and complex social field. He points to the linguistic mechanisms
by which we become intertwined with others in social dialogue and by which
we necessarily become reliant on others’ words in talking with and interacting
among people. Because his work as a linguistic theorist and researcher did
not extend much beyond his 1929 book, he never developed further his
investigation of the socio-linguistic mechanisms of the embedding of the self
in social relations and utterances. His work, nonetheless, has set important
terms for contemporary sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics. The
strong complementarity between Vygotsky’s inward mechanisms of the sociallyformed
language-saturated consciousness and Volosinov’s outward mechanisms
of consciousness-forming socio-linguistic utterances provide a meeting point
between psychology and social studies of language and interaction.
The dialogic formation of consciousness is a theme pursued by Bakhtin
(1981), in particular concerning the representation of novelists’ consciousness
expressed through the utterances of the novel’s characters and narrators.
In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984a), a reworking of a 1929 book on
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Dostoevsky, and The Dialogic Imagination (1981), representing work in the
1930s and 40s, he associates the form of the novel with a form of consciousness.
He praises novels that recognize the variety of utterances incorporated and thus
adopt a stance of multivocality, dialogism, or polyphony rather than authoritative
univocality, monologism, or monophony, which obscures the complexity of
human language, consciousness, and relation. Bakhtin’s interest is in valuing
appreciation of the existence of others, in the neo-Kantian tradition familiar to us
in such moral thinkers as Martin Buber (1937) and Carl Rogers (1961). Bakhtin’s
moral stance starts with a morally accountable, autonomous self that must take
responsibility for individual actions, as he articulates in his early works published
in Art and Answerability (1990) and Toward a Philosophy of the Act (1993). Such
an individual moral self implies a very different form of consciousness than that
from internalization of socially embedded speech presented by Volosinov and
Vygotsky. For Bakhtin dialogism is a moral imperative as well as a fact of social
development, that we draw on the pre-existing world of utterances to provide
the resources for us to form our own utterance.
Yet while Bakhtin explores forms of consciousness that tie one viewpoint
with another, he also identifies mechanisms by which a writer distinguishes his
or her voice from that conveyed in the other voices incorporated into a complex
consciousness. Bakhtin, in works such as The Dialogic Imagination (1981) and
Rabelais and his World (1984b), considers stance, attitude, and evaluation one
utterance makes toward others, such as through double-voicing or carnivalesque.
He particularly considers parodic or otherwise critical heteroglossia as forms
of resisting or commenting on authority, power, and dominant classes. His
treatment of double-voicing highlights the complex attitudes we have towards
each other’s words as we recognize and reevaluate the character of each other’s
voice. Such complexity of evaluative attitude can serve to exclude or depreciate
the other. To keep those who are different from us at a distance, we might parody
a foreign accent or non-dominant dialect or we might mockingly repeat words
we dismiss as absurd. Bakhtin, however, attempts to maintain a democratic,
neo-Kantian appreciation of the other by limiting the targets of what we would
now call attitude. The examples of carnivalesque or linguistic mockery that he
examines typically aim to deflate oppressively powerful ruling forces rather than
to stigmatize the powerless.
Bakhtin provides conceptual tools for understanding how authors engage or
repress complexity of perspectives and establish attitude towards the perspectives
Chapter 10 The World in the Text
of the characters they represent. He uses those tools to analyze in detail how the
interplay of voices and perspectives is managed in different texts with particular
ideological implications. In a number of works he presents histories of different
forms of consciousness associated with differing literary forms and the political
struggles embodied in the replacement of one literary form by another. Later
literary critics such as Kristeva, Barthes, and Riffaterre put aside analysis of
the authorial handling of multiple voices and the historically shifting forms
of fiction and literary consciousness to engage broad, ahistorical questions of
the status of the author, originality, and interpretation. Kristeva (1980) coined
the term intertextuality to dissolve the autonomous integrity of both author
and reader into the ocean of shared cultural experiences of common texts.
Barthes (1977) took the implications of intertextuality a step beyond Kristeva’s
dissolution of authorship to destabilize the text itself, since the text rests on
the evocation of so many other texts. Riffatere (1984) sought to establish a
basis for textual meaning and interpretation within the linguistic ambience,
or intertexts, within which a text is read. Genette, however, has returned to a
concrete analysis of how intertextuality works within specific texts. In several
publications he has mapped out orderly sets of possible relations among texts,
what he calls transtextuality (the making of meaning in an ambient world of
texts), intertextuality (explicit quotation or allusion), paratextuality (the relation
to directly surrounding texts, such as prefaces, interviews, publicity, reviews),
metatextuality (a commentary relation), hypertextuality (the play of one text
off of familiarity with another), and architextuality (the generic expectations in
relation to other similar texts) (Genette, 1992, 1997a, 1997b).
Volosinov recognized that, as linguistic creatures, humans are inevitably
caught up in the social drama of unfolding webs of utterances, to which we
add only our next turn; Bakhtin then drew attention to the stance we take
towards prior utterances. How we position ourselves against prior texts sets the
terms for what we are able to do in the next step of the dialog. Volosinov’s and
Bakhtin’s understanding of language as historically situated utterance opens up
many issues of the way writing is situated within, deploys, and re-represents
the flow of prior texts, but it is up to composition and rhetoric to articulate the
complex skills and knowledge by which we manage to articulate our position
and contribution to that intertextual space. If we are to understand how we
are acted upon, how we can re-act, and how we can act freshly in this complex
literate world of ours, where major institutions and spheres of activity are
saturated by texts, we need to move toward a richer and more participatory
understanding of intertextuality.
Intertextuality is ultimately about agency within the complex, historically
evolved, and continuingly mutating landscape of texts. Even while a marine
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biologist must embed his or her contributions in the collected knowledge,
methods, theories, projects, and motives of the field, he or she must offer a
novel contribution which changes the intellectual landscape and reconfigures
knowledge. The new textual landmark creates a new point from which to
view a prior work in the field—a new perspective, a new evaluation, no
matter how small or great in novelty. Likewise, a lawyer’s brief must be
embedded in and speak to the relevant archive of the law and the courts
as well as the documents, evidence, and testimony of the case at hand; yet
each new statement must somehow add to the client’s case, with the intent
of influencing the evaluation of all that came before in order to affect the
final disposition of the case. Each contribution to a field of science or each
successful intervention in a legal case changes the knowledge, precedent,
beliefs, and ideas that are available for use and may be deemed relevant to be
attended to by future participants, thereby changing the indexable resources
and the playing field of future action.
Intertextual references do more than indicate objects and statements from
elsewhere. The various indexed ontologies and intertexts are brought together,
placed in relation to each other, and organized to create a bigger picture or tell
a story or make claim. Each text carries out some reasoning about its contents,
even if just to list items in proximity and sequence. Further the patterns of
representation, reasoning, ideas, or cluster of associations of each text stand in
relation to larger structures of thought and belief that circulate in the domain
the text is part of —what we might call theory or ideology.
The elements typical to a genre are not just brought into a space, but are put
into relations and then interactions typical of the space. A news story brings
together sets of characters familiar to readers because of their prominence in
business, government, entertainment, or other domain or because they have
been caught up in events considered newsworthy. But then the news story
identifies particular relations among the characters: one has talked to another
or made a deal or has been accused by someone else. We also expect to be
told of journalistic attempts to get comments and responses by related parties.
The reported events additionally are played out against larger frameworks of
action—such as piece of legislation being negotiated over a period of time, or a
history of suspected corruption, or a series of government reports about a series
of problems, or the drama of the rise and fall of celebrities—all of these are the
themes of numerous previous stories.
Chapter 10 The World in the Text
The genres of academic disciplines equally tell stories of the advance of
knowledge hoping to enlist readers into their view of events and accept the
appearance of the new claim or theory that is the point of the article. These
stories often begin by selecting from the generic chronotope of the disciplinary
ontology of objects and problems and creating a selective intertext of what has
been previously known—to set up the terms of an heroic adventure as Latour
(1987) calls it or establish a niche for a claim as Swales (1990) calls it. To
fulfill the heroic challenge or fill the niche, the researcher is presented as doing
something new—framing a theory, carrying out an experiment, observing
an event, performing an analysis—which carries the adventure forward and
attempts to change the disciplinary landscape of knowledge. Of course there are
many genres within each specialty with constant variations, but each attempts to
move the disciplinary discussion forward by adding new items to the ontology
or by rearranging perspectives and relations among prior statements.
In all disciplinary, professional, public, and other domains, larger activities
of the field are carried out by more detailed arrangements within each text,
walking readers down a path from one item to another with connectives to
form logical or other persuasive relations. As the story unfolds, the sequence
of events and the relations the article puts them into evoke judgments from
the readers. When one government official is reported as being charged with
payoffs, another is quoted as asking “who else has been picked up?” the readers’
views of both parties and the events reported are confirmed or transformed.
As details about the scope of an earthquake and the extent of the devastation
are described in a story, readers come to evaluate the size of the tragedy. Then
when told of the actions or inaction of various relief and government agencies
the readers evaluate the adequacy of the response and are reassured or enraged.
When told the stories of individual pain and endurance, the readers then view
the events through different emotional coloring.
The writer tries to guide the readers’ judgments by evoking values and
evaluations at appropriate points, directing attention to certain kinds of evidence
and phenomena, framing the story within particular ideas, reminding readers
of earlier stories and events. The writer may also attempt to head off objections
or alternative positions readers might hold, to answer possible questions about
methods, to show distinctions between this and other cases, to remind readers
of the importance of a distinction or to keep the readers from dismissing some
part as tedious or trivial. In short, the writer attempts to keep ahold of the
readers’ modes of reasoning, calling to attention all needed to maintain and
advance the argument and to exclude what might distract the readers from
staying within the desired path of calculation. In classical rhetoric, this concern
for sequence of thought would fall under the canon of arrangement, which
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at times was understood as setting out a psychological path to move people’s
minds and hearts, or as Bacon (1605) puts it in the Advancement of Learning,
“The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better
moving of the will.”
Because the writer seeks to have readers give their minds over to the path
of reasoning the writer sets out, establishing and maintaining the readers’
trust is essential. Activating the readers’ minds, filling them with the contents
suggested, avoiding contents that would weaken engagement with the projected
meaning, and following the path guided by the writer requires the readers to
believe in the good will, honesty, and intentions of the writer. Otherwise the
text can evoke a resistant reading, creating a counter-meaning against the text
rather than recreating the meaning offered within the text. The moment readers
find something wrong or objectionable or suspicious, they start to distance
their minds from the text; mental construction of meaning becomes conflicted
or even oppositional. The larger the causes for skepticism, the more readers’
minds veer from the place the writer wishes. On the other hand, as long as
the writer is able to bring readers along a shared path they enjoy a sense of
consubstantiality as Kenneth Burke (1950) called it, drawing on the language of
religious communion. With readers sensing a shared substance with the writers,
readers identify with the meaning, projects, and even subjectivity of the writer.
The reader attaches his or her own motives, associations, and meanings to the
words of the writer, who is felt to be a kindred spirit. Other satisfactory relations
of more limited trust are also available; for example, readers remain cooperative
or at least compliant with bureaucratic communications as long as they sense
that the bureaucracy is acting properly and believe that compliance serves their
Using the generally accepted theory of a shared domain elicits trust of readers
holding those same theories and decreases the work of establishing a common
basis for reasoning. If the overwhelming majority of newspaper-reading citizens
hold the view that wars are to be understood as personal contests between leaders
and the value of their cause can be measured by the morality of the leader,
then such beliefs can be invoked in the reporting of government justifications
for attacks and of the deeds of leaders as virtuous or immoral. Every time
this theory of war is invoked, explicitly or implicitly, it becomes more firmly
entrenched as a warrantable form of reasoning in the genres invoking them. If,
however, people see war in terms of the costs to citizens, accounts of the conflict
Chapter 10 The World in the Text
to be trustworthy and credible must focus more on the lives of people caught
up in the events and their attitudes toward the conflict. If readers hold the view
that war is a strategic intervention in long-term geopolitics, then texts must tell
an entirely different kind of story to be perceived as relevant and credible (and
not just an untrustworthy account of either jingoistic war-mongers or bleeding
hearts, as such readers might stigmatize accounts from other perspectives).
This relation between theory and what is perceived as a trustworthy account
is equally the case in the sciences as it is in the public sphere—although processes
that establish trustworthiness may differ significantly. As a scientific theory
becomes established and warranted, with decreasing questioning and challenge,
it becomes an unquestioned resource for reasoning in the field. In the first half
of the twentieth century, for example, quantum theory became accepted and
embedded in small particle physics, so that it became ever more implicitly built
into the structure of reasoning and arrangement of the article, and thus part
of the generic expectation (Bazerman, 1984a). The process of its becoming
accepted and regularly invoked was tied up with evidence, accountability, and
an emerging intertextual web of confirming studies, so that the theory became
a trusted and reliable resource for the field. A part of such a story is how the
physicist Arthur H. Compton argued over a series of articles that particular new
forms of evidence about observed phenomena were best explained by quantum
theory, supporting a larger movement in subatomic physics from classical to
quantum theory (Bazerman, 1984b). As questions were stilled, researchers
found quantum theory a useful resource to be regularly invoked in ways that
would not raise questions about their own work, but rather would support their
credibility. The theory that was once considered speculative and suspect became
taken for granted, invoked with regularity, and with decreasing amounts of work
needed to warrant it. A paper that did not then rely on the theory, overlooking
what any insider would see as obvious quantum effects, would then become
suspect and less trustworthy.
Aristotle (1991) called such beliefs held by a community that are usable
without explicit reasoning as enthymemes. Audiences are especially attached
to messages that invoke enthymemes they hold, because the enthymemes
tap unarticulated beliefs and match their own judgments. Using the implied
reasoning of the enthymemes, they come to conclusions that match the rhetor’s
without coercion or urging. They sense that the rhetor thinks like them and is
therefore even more to be trusted. This goes as much for racist diatribes against
immigrants as for hortatory sermons inspiring virtuous actions as well as for
scientific reasoning relying on shared knowledge of the field. The degree that
these assumptions when questioned can be made explicit and re-examined on
the base of evidence and reason within the terms of the domain, however, varies
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from domain to domain. As with most of the textual phenomena discussed
here, enthymemes are genre and field specific. The same audience that would
accept the racist anti-immigrant rant, when reading recipes or restaurant reviews
might entertain entirely different theories about the works and cultures of
these same populations that they excoriate in political contexts. While research
articles in particle physics would take quantum theory as a presupposition
and prerequisite for trustworthiness, research articles in psychology would not
invoke that theory, and its relevance to the reasoning of an article would take
lots of explicit justification not to be viewed as crackpot.
Certain genres and domains of communicative practice explicitly attempt to
make visible and call into question presuppositions of other genres and domains,
so as to bring them to the surface for inspection, re-evaluation, criticism,
change, mockery, or humor. If such questioning is successful, the reasoning in
the questioned field can change, with different statements trusted and different
assumptions evoked in shared thought. Ideological critical analysis attempts to
surface unspoken assumptions of cultures, often to reveal inequities or power
relations embedded in cultural practices, and thereby to make these practices
less palatable or trustworthy. Comedians, in mocking the statements of others
that are trusted by some audiences, point toward contradictions of assumptions
or outrageous implications of cultural assumptions. A public figure successfully
mocked by comedians, whether with political intent or not, has to contend with
the changed public view and must work to rebuild lost trust. Public campaigns
to change views on such policy issues as health, drugs, energy, environment,
or diversity also aim to change the underlying structure of assumptions about
which statements are to be taken as trustworthy and untrustworthy as people
reason about their life choices. But those who wish to question assumptions
in any domain, for whatever reason, must themselves earn trust among those
whose presuppositions and reasoning they wish to change. Cultural critics can
be dismissed as uninformed malcontents; comedians who transgress too far can
be viewed as nasty rather than funny; and public campaigns to change belief can
themselves be the object of mockery and disbelief.
Language is realized in the form of individual concrete
utterances (oral and written) by participants in the various
areas of human activity. These utterances reflect the specific
conditions and goals of each such area not only through
their content (thematic) and linguistic style, that is the
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selection of lexical, phraseological, and grammatical resources
of the language, but above all through their compositional
structure. All three of these aspects—thematic content, style,
and compositional structure—are inseparably linked to the
whole of the utterance and are equally determined by the
specific nature of the particular sphere of communication.
Each separate utterance is individual, of course, but
each sphere in which language is used develops its own
relatively stable types of these utterances. These we may call
speech genres. The wealth and diversity of speech genres
are boundless because the various possibilities of human
activity are inexhaustible, and because each sphere of
activity contains an entire repertoire of speech genres that
differentiate and grow as the particular sphere develops and
becomes more complex. Special emphasis should be placed
on the extreme heterogeneity of speech genres (oral and
written). (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 60)
The practice-based approach to genre we present here has synthesized
multiple lines of influence: 1) developmental theories of self and consciousness
arising in social interaction saturated with language in order for social creatures
to seek life needs and satisfactions; 2) phenomenological sociology, which
finds the emergent order of everyday social activity resting on processes of
typification and recognizability; 3) pragmatic theories of self and society, seeing
self, society, institutions, language, and meaning constantly being transformed
to meet human needs; 4) structurational sociology, which sees larger structuring
of events and relations emerging interactionally from the local actions and
attributions of participants; 5) anthropological and psychological studies of
discourse practices as situated, distributed, and mediated; 6) speech act theory,
which sees utterances going beyond conveying meaning to making things
happen in the social world; 7) theories of discourse as dialogic, situated, and
heteroglossic; and 8) a rhetoric oriented to content, purpose, and situation as
well as form and style.
This synthesis leaves us with a view of text content and meaning as transient
and unstable, a construct of readers in dialog with the signs inscribed within
the text. The construction of meaning, however, is not randomly idiosyncratic,
but rather relies on participants’ positioning within activity systems, social
groupings, larger cultures, personal histories, and immediate motives. Texts
point towards various objects in the world and collections of prior discourse,
and invoke procedures of construal and communal understanding, so as to
A Theory of Literate Action
agree on what is being pointed to—or at least well enough for participants to
continue communicating without a breach of trust.
Further, texts attempt to enlist participants into communities of shared
knowledge, thinking and activity—so that the text becomes an object of
co-orientation and shared knowledge. Texts become vehicles for forging
intersubjectivity, even as there is a projective variation in the meaning each
reader attributes to the text and to what is being indexed by the words in
the text. The degree that texts are able to evoke the degree of co-orientation
and coordination of meaning and action that they do in particular spheres is
remarkable since the coordination of meaning rests on the transient phantasms
of people’s minds—the passing dramas played out on the neural projections of
individuals’ brains. But of course, each text is surrounded by complex social,
historical, and cultural apparatuses that bring people together in common
projects and experiences, that have made them familiar with what is pointed to
in each text, and have facilitated shared attitudes towards those things indexed.
If sharing of meaning is a function of social, cultural, and historical
propinquity, then the sharing of meaning becomes more difficult the further the
reader and writer are separated by domain, period, region, project, or viewpoint.
Writing any but the simplest and most familiar meanings to one’s closest peers
is difficult. The further apart the writer and reader and the more complex
and unanticipated the message, the more gets lost to the accommodation of
meaning between worlds. Texts that are clear, strong, travel, and carry more
than the most conventional meanings deserve admiration.

Forty years ago when I began to inquire into what kind of writing students
needed to be able to produce to succeed in their academic endeavors, I was
drawn into a vortex of individual and disciplinary differences. I was led
from texts to disciplinary endeavors, to intertextual relations, to histories
and transformations of genres, to theories of society, action, consciousness,
and cognitive development. In this volume I have tried to lay out how these
various theories can fit together into a picture of individuals situated in specific
historical and social circumstances acting through writing and participating in
the social life unfolding around them. Much of my empirical work has been
about historical emergence of literate forms, the knowledge expressed within
them, and individuals acting within specific circumstances. In many of these
studies theory has been developed in pieces, and in relation to the issues raised
by each case. To complete the picture, this volume draws those various pieces of
theory together in what I hope is a coherent and persuasive account.
This volume provides an account of the local production of purposeful
meaning within textual interaction, and an account of genres that facilitates
the alignment of people in their communicative interactions, particularly
over texts. But in so doing, this volume has also proposed processes by which
meanings and the conditions of complex meaning-making spread over larger
groups engaged in activity, and how these groupings and their opportunities for
meaning-making evolve. That is, literacy facilitates communicative interaction
among expanding groups of people, and document-mediated relations facilitate
wide-spread meanings and knowledge, forms of extended social organization,
and the rise of institutions. This account does not rely on abstract, out of time
conceptions of language, society, knowledge, mind, or thought, but rather
proposes concrete processes of communicative action among individuals building
the larger structures of modern distantiated society on an expanding collection
of small inventions of language, technologies, textual representation, social and
material relations, and literate practices. The ideas here position the writing
self within historical circumstances to unpack the psychological complexity of
someone attempting to produce effective texts for his or her circumstances and
developing into a competent writer adequate to the opportunities and demands
of the time.
Chapter 11 The Writer
With the aid of this theory, I return, on the other side of the vortex, to
the complex history and social arrangements that situate each person learning
to become a writer today and which have formed the contemporary literate
world. Much of this chapter will rest on summary reviews of prior historical and
social inquiries. Rather than attempting to present that work and the related
arguments in full, I refer you to other sources, much of which is gathered in
the first two sections of the Handbook of Research on Writing (Bazerman, 2008),
specifically devoted to “Writing and History” and “Writing and Society.” I close
with some comments on the challenges a developing writer must face, based on
the view of writing presented in this and the accompanying volume, A Rhetoric
of Literate Action.
Unless we are to posit invisible and abstract cognitive structures that act above
the level of the human or deep within each organism through a preprogrammed
human genome (and not indicated in any of creatures we evolved from), it is
hard to account for the large structures of human language and activity that
we participate in, extending over the globe and indeed now reaching out into
the universe. While other animals communicate knowledge of food sources,
threats, and even modes of play through chemistry, sounds, and visible behavior
(and perhaps even limited symbols), they do not make that knowledge available
to those of their species not in their immediate group nor do they develop large
bureaucracies of record keepers and scholars whose work it is to produce, collect,
and synthesize what the species or even the local cluster knows. Further, while
other animals may pass limited information from generation to generation or
group to group, they do not develop large structured organizations dependent on
conscious regulation, information, and long cultural educations. Even humans
prior to writing lived overwhelmingly local lives, orienting to the immediate
physical surroundings and the social groups they saw daily—extended in space
by the limited oral reports they would get about the past through the traditional
lore and wisdom of their local group, distant realms that others claimed to
have visited, and the material circulation of goods and artifacts through trade,
plunder, and inheritance. Language facilitated the creation of local cultures
and societies, but literacy made possible the large structures of modernity that
distribute knowledge, orientation, and activities across greater distances than
one can imagine, fostering both greater complexity of behavior and greater
coordination that supports that complexity.
A Theory of Literate Action
Each face-to-face social encounter is local, gaining the attention of only
those present. Each spoken utterance is local and enables coordination only
among the interlocutors. Only enduring artifacts can create regularities and
organization over time. A chance physical environment such as a cliff with
caves, light, proximity to food sources, and a stable climate can create some
continuity among life in an ecosystem over years, but if the physical system
were to change, so would the life of all the creatures. Humans (even before
literacy), more than other creatures, have organized their environments to
create comfortable and continuing ways of life. In preliterate and prehistoric
times, humans even created physical environments to embody knowledge of the
heavens and the seasons on earth that would make agriculture and other living
conditions more predictable. But you have to be there, living in the village at
the Stonehenge or in the aural community surrounding it, to benefit from its
organizing knowledge.
The development of modern society needed some further mechanism to
create an organization that brought the local into larger regimes of organization
and also brought the benefits of knowledge gained from many locales,
coordinated, evaluated, and selected from. The marking of signs on stones, clay,
paper, and now digital memories—each more portable and rapidly travelling
than the previous—provided means for increasingly coordinated and extended
action as well as memory across larger groups of people over time and space.
As Goody (1986) discusses in The Logic of Writing and the Organization of
Society, writing changes the possibilities of the basic institutions of society:
economy, religion/belief, law and government. None of these transformations
are compulsory or automatic, and they play out differently in different societies
and cultures, under differing geographic conditions and dynamics of culture
and invention. Nonetheless, literate inventions facilitated greater wealth,
business, and governmental power over greater distances; greater uniformity and
predictability of laws over extended domains embodying concepts of equality
of treatment; communities of belief defined by commitment to sacred texts as
well as open to schisms over the meaning of texts; emergence of literate elites
who controlled the knowledge gathered through literacy or scribal castes who
worked in the service of other elites; and many other potential consequences
which we can recognize in modern institutional life. Tiersma (1999, 2008,
2010) has examined the technical legal consequences of textualization of the
law. Smart (1993, 2003, 2006, 2008) has considered the role of texts in the
Chapter 11 The Writer
activity of financial institutions as well as the development of the economy as a
system of textual transactions and records, and the very concept of an economy.
Dorothy Smith has studied sociologically the formation and consequences of a
documentary society with bureaucratic practices to regulate, monitor, and serve
the life of its citizens (1990, 2002; Smith & Schryer, 2008). Other social and
cultural systems that have developed on the infrastructure of writing include
journalism and news (Conboy, 2008), medicine and health (Schryer, 1994,
2002; Schryer et al., 2002), systems of professional work (Beaufort, 2008),
commerce and corporations, and literary arts and entertainments (Hogan,
2008). Even our understanding of personal relations, romance, mental health,
and spirituality have been deeply influenced and reorganized by forms of written
communication, the literate circulation of beliefs and self-help practices, written
reflective accounts of the self, and published scientific studies.
Literacy has also facilitated and become the medium for the production,
distribution, and application of knowledge along with the associated
institutions of libraries, education, academic disciplines, and research. Most of
what we consider knowledge has been produced and is accessible in the form of
written documents. As discussed in chapter ten, knowledge can be considered
as the produced contents of texts, circulating within particular social networks
through appropriate genres. The work of the institutions of knowledge is largely
mediated through the production and circulation of texts, whether within the
classroom or among colleagues. For a detailed history of the interrelation of
the institutions of knowledge production and transmission, the associated
genres, and the forms of knowledge valued and produced in various societies,
see Bazerman & Rogers (2008a, 2008b) and Anderson (2008). The medieval
invention of the university, the early modern development of the genres and
institutions of science (Atkinson, 1999; Bazerman, 1988, 1991; Gross et
al., 2002) and the development and democratic spread of schooling (Olson,
2008) are particularly important for the formation of modern knowledge and
information society.
Historically early scribal schooling taught the basic skills of reading and
writing in tandem, as the scribes were the recorders, record keepers, record
readers, and record users. However, as the archive of inscribed knowledge
expanded, and certain productions became privileged (to the point of sacred
texts being treated as having divine attribution), the maintenance and reading
of texts became more widely spread and authorship more highly valued and
restricted. Particularly in religious schooling, reading and interpreting of
received texts took precedence over writing, placing the students subordinate
to a received tradition rather than as co-creators of an ongoing culture of
knowledge. The first priority in learning was to be aware of the texts that
A Theory of Literate Action
ruled life, and only with experience and selection would some be brought into
interactive roles in producing the tradition. Most modern education is based on
the principle that students need to know and attend to the knowledge gathered
in the books, usually textbooks. Specialized school textbooks are designed for the
transmission, explanation, manipulation, and application of knowledge valued
by a society. In contemporary primary, secondary, and even higher education
much student writing is reproductive reporting of material in textbooks and
other assigned reading. Students are enculturated within a large sea of received
knowledge, which they become accountable for to succeed in schooling and
presumably in life afterwards.
Yet it takes positive acts of assertion to mobilize that knowledge for our
benefit and interests and concerns. This is much of the dilemma of contemporary
schooling—there is too much to transmit and become accountable for, so much
that the time and opportunity for learning the positive skills of assertion may
be pushed to the side. Without those skills of articulating and asserting our
concerns and acting on them, however, we are buried under the weight of
received learning, becoming the epigone that Nietszche warned us of in The
Birth of Tragedy (1872/2008).
Young people learning to write in contemporary society are, therefore, faced
with many daunting tasks that extend far beyond the issues of transcribing
letters, spelling words, and forming sentences that follow the prescriptive
grammars. They must become familiar with the world of knowledge arrayed in
existing texts and they must find how to represent that knowledge, respect it,
use it for their own purposes, and perhaps have something to say about it. This
means students have to spend many years becoming familiar with the received
knowledge in textbooks, reference works, and other assigned readings. Much
of their writing serves the learning function of familiarization with received
knowledge and demonstrating that familiarity. It is then a further challenge
to learn to think with and about that information, to have something to say
about it that is not just repetition—whether that added value is in rephrasing,
synthesis, reflective comment, personal association, critique, or new assertion
or claim. While in the early years of schooling, students have some authority or
authorship rights over their own experiences, feelings, or imaginations, and are
able to engage in tasks local to their life-world, it is only at the more advanced
levels of education and academic life that they gain gradual degrees of authority
to substantively comment on, contest, or add to the body of received knowledge
Chapter 11 The Writer
in most areas. For those students that endure that long in the academic world,
moving from the role of knowledge receiver to knowledge maker requires many
fundamental changes of stance and role.
A second level of challenge has to do with becoming familiar with and
adept in the large number of genres and linguistic inventions that are available
to write in—selecting among them and performing them competently (or
potentially highly effectively) in relation to their purposes, form, organization,
contents, appropriate lexis and register, stance, tone, and politeness conventions.
Furthermore, many of these genres are lengthy and complex, requiring gathering
and organizing of extensive material and thoughts into coherent statements
with an internal logic appropriate to the genre. In the early days of writing,
when scribes mostly wrote lists—tax rolls, inventories of property, chronicle
lists of events, genealogies—the options for text organization were limited and
highly determined by the tasks. The contents were similarly determined, though
some care might be needed in collecting the information to be transcribed.
Learning the techniques of transcription, the limited relevant vocabularies and
their symbols, and the format of lists were fairly contained tasks; once one had
mastered them one could write competently for that world. But as writing came
to include such tasks as creating poetic narratives of the works of great kings
or drafting wise laws that would be understood unambiguously across wide
domains, then issues of extended composition and logic, alternative forms of
expression, logical and associative sequencing of events and thoughts, internal
consistency of heterogeneous statements, audience awareness, rhetorical
effectiveness, and many other issues of text composition became significant.
Only a few writers would have sufficient skill to do these tasks competently,
and these highly skilled writers began to specialize in particular domains, with
increasingly few polymaths able to handle a broad spectrum of genres within
different discursive domains. Today the genres of finance are far from those of
poetry and both are far from the genres of sociology or medicine. Even our
widely read, publicly distributed genres, like those of journalism or television
scripts, are produced by a small subset of specialized writers. Although a few
individuals gain some skill at multiple genres, it is near impossible to gain
competence in more than a handful.
This brings us to our third level of challenge, as students move beyond
the academy to participate in social roles in the workplace, community,
politics, or other domains. Outside school, the purposes, tasks, the social roles
and relations, genres, relevant knowledges and intertexts, the uses made of
information, registers, and stances are widely varied and distinct from the world
of schooling. In schooling, learning and display of learning are at the center of
most transactions, and evaluation standards and procedures are largely explicit.
A Theory of Literate Action
The student’s work is scaffolded by the setting; the world the text travels in
is defined, local, and known in the classroom—with the addition of highly
structured anonymous assessments. Beyond schooling, there is little guarantee
that people will notice what you write, and little definition of the criteria by
which people will evaluate your work, dismiss it, or pay attention. Writing in
school usually has few consequences for the student beyond progression through
the system (as long as the writing does not raise health and safety issues), while
writing outside school has the potential of travelling far and having major
consequences, whether for good or ill.
Even within the contained and relatively safe world of the classroom,
students may need to learn to cope productively with anxieties raised by how
their writing will be perceived and evaluated by their teachers, assessors, and
peers. Teachers, however, can also work to create positive atmospheres for
writing, increase trust, and diminish anxiety. As people begin to write in the
larger world with substantial stakes and less supportive readers, the potential
for anxiety is greater. Anxiety, when unmanaged, can interfere with the clarity
of thought necessary for difficult writing, and can even steer a writer away from
taking on a needed writing task. The writer needs to learn to see clearly through
anxiety to gather confidence and courage to write what needs to be written.
Part of the anxiety comes from the way people make judgments about ethnicity,
class, education, creativity, and intelligence on the basis of one’s writing. But
also a large part of the anxiety is whether others will attend to, take seriously,
and understand what it is one has written, and then further whether others will
Writing, as well, puts the writer, so to speak, on the line with some
permanence and consequence. Even when filling out a familiar form, the writer
may be anxious whether one has filled in the correct dates and information on
a non-refundable ticket, or has filed accurate information with a government
agency. As a writer matures and understands how information flows and its
consequences, he or she may become anxious about expressing private beliefs
or unorthodox experiences in a document that might circulate. Even personal
writing can be used as a witness against oneself, carrying social stigma or political
danger. So management of anxiety and the wisdom to make wisely courageous
choices also presents another level of challenge.
Finally, as the writer’s resources, options, knowledge, and experience grow,
the writer needs to become more explicitly aware of exactly what he or she wants
to accomplish and how to go about it. It is one thing to fill out a few factual items
in response to a questionnaire and quite another to put together extensive legal
findings and facts into a coherent and effective legal brief structured by one’s
advocacy role for the client. It is even another, on the basis of an investigation,
Chapter 11 The Writer
to come to conclusions about the policies that would be best for a community
and then argue effectively for them. The writer must come to know his or her
increasingly complex mind, and how to pull together all the external resources,
make sense of them, and then from internal depths, externalize thoughts into a
public document. Understanding and management of writing processes must
continue to develop as the writer’s repertoire and complexity of tasks expands,
but in a way that maintains places for spontaneity, invention, and the force
of complex unconscious and intuitions to direct the core of the message. If
management of writing processes turns into mechanical algorithms, the text
can lose immediacy, message, and interest. The process must be driven by the
writer’s fundamental communicative impulses to be saying something that he
or she wants to say to a specific audience.
Learning to write is learning to navigate and act effectively within the
complex social world we humans have historically created with literacy—or
at least the small contemporary quarter of it relevant to the writer’s life. After
five millennia of writing—where literacy has become intertwined with almost
every human activity from the medical monitoring of involuntary heartbeat to
global agreements for the coordination of economies—the resources and tasks
of writing are daunting. We must seek our understanding of writing in barely
charted and swelling universes, where each new act creates new territory and
expands the universe, where each writer must find new bearings and weave fresh
nets to engage minds that transiently pass within reach of their inscribed words.
Even the simplest act of writing is not predetermined and involves choices. We
cannot then say there is any one answer about how to write. All we can do is
to try to be wise about social, psychological, and historical processes, about our
resources and responsibilities, about our opportunities and interests, to make
our best choices in the protean and evanescent world of communication. The
tasks are never ending and never the same. The results are rarely certain. Yet
each successful act of writing increases our presence, our reach, our place in the
world. And each act of writing makes the world a more habitable and inhabited
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“A Theory of Literate Action makes a significant contribution to the field and enriches
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Chapter 1. Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing 7
Face-to-Face Speech . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8
Codes and Contexts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10
Communication at a Distance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11
Rhetoric and Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14
Origins of Rhetoric . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .17
Chapter 2. Knowing Where You Are: Genre 21
The Textual Marking of Situationality and Activity . . . . . . . . . . . . .21
Conventional Forms and Inhabitations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24
Activity Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25
Texts within Activity Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27
Recognizing Genres . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29
Personal and Public Histories with Genres . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30
What Do We Learn from Experience with Genres? . . . . . . . . . . . .32
Genres as a Frame for Reading and Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32
Recognizable Aspects of Genre . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .34
Genres as a Potential Space of Reading and its Troubles . . . . . . . . . .35
So Where Are We? Have We Left the Material World Behind? . . . .37
Displaying the Material Conditions of Texts’ Creation and Use . . .40
Chapter 3. When You Are 43
Writing and the History of Cultural Moments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .46
Writing and Action Moments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47
Individual and Group Perception of Moments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .48
Typical Action Sequences . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49
Influencing the Future . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50
The Time Within the Text . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52
The Temporality of Multiple Texts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .55
Time to Produce Texts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56
Chapter 4. The World of Texts: Intertextuality 59
Intertextuality Is Like and Unlike Other Spatial and Temporal
Notions of Context . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .59
Extensiveness and Shape of Invoked Intertext . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .62
The Intertext as a Virtual Theater of Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .64
Chapter 5. Changing the Landscape: Kairos, Social Facts,
and Speech Acts 65
Creating and Influencing the Situation in the Here and Now . . . . . 65
Conditions Not of Our Own Making, That We Constantly
Remake: Social Facts and Speech Acts. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Kairos and Exigency in Embodied Face-to-Face Situations . . . . . . . 71
Kairos and Exigency in the Intertext . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72
Chapter 6. Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms 77
Typified Motives and Forms of Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
Emergent Motivations in Emergent Sites of Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
School Writing, School Situation, and School Motives . . . . . . . . . . 81
Gradual Evolution of Situation and Our Motives Within It . . . . . . 84
Chapter 7. Text Strategics 87
The Core of Strategic Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
The Crucial Ordinariness and Lack of Contentiousness
of Most Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89
The Places of Information and Reasoning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
Chapter 8. Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning 99
Well-Known Genres and Sedimented Form . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
The Work to Do Within Genres: Making of Meaning . . . . . . . . . . 100
The Work of Academic Genres: Learning Through
Problem Solving . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
Giving Shape to Thought: The Paradoxes of Form . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
Being Practical About Paradoxes: Bidding the Muse . . . . . . . . . . . 104
From the Outside In: Understanding the Meaning of Form . . . . . 104
From the Inside Out: Midwiving Emergent Meanings . . . . . . . . . 106
Back and Forth: Between External Form and Internal Impulses . . 107
Drafty Drafts and Interim Texts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 108
Chapter 9. Meanings and Representations 111
A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Where and How to Get Information . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113
Ontology and Epistemology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114
Indexing and Representing Other Texts: Intertextuality . . . . . . . . . 116
Representing the Meaning of the Intertext . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
Disciplinary and Professional Literatures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
Chapter 10. Spaces and Journeys for Readers: Organization
and Movement 123
Starting the Journey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126
Tying the Pieces Together: Cohesive Devices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127
Coherence in the Reasoning and Representation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129
The Synchronous Spatial Picture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
The Gradual Development of the Spatial Model of Meaning . . . . . 132
Looking Back . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
Chapter 11. Style and Revision 137
Emerged Meanings and Relations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138
Genre, Decorum, Register, and Activity Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139
Revision for Style and Beyond . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140
Difficulties in Adopting the Revision Perspective . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
Defining What to Look for in Revision . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
Revision and the Professional Stance toward Writing . . . . . . . . . . 144
Chapter 12. Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text 147
Identifying and Working with Writing Episodes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 148
Developing and Maintaining the Writing Orientation . . . . . . . . . 149
Resistances to Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
Prompting and Accepting the Muse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154
Trusting the Process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155
Living with Our Limitations while Demanding the Best . . . . . . . . 158
Being Prepared for the Aftermath . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159
References 163


Writing can seem an amorphous task. Writers seem to fill blank pages with
inventions of endless possibilities—from cookbooks and instructions for the
latest electronic gadget to prayer books and legal codes, from corporate reports
on emerging markets and botanic treatises on leaf veins of deciduous trees to
undergraduate papers for history courses and personal diaries of self-doubts.
How do people do this amazing variety of things through writing? What can we
say that would help us do these things more effectively?
Indeed the variety seems so great that general advice or analysis seems
quixotic, and we ought to focus only on specific kinds of writing. One might
be able to say something useful about historically-evolved cookbooks, and how
one might go about producing one that speaks to the commercial market in the
United States in the early twenty-first century. We have learned things about
technical writing, business, and legal writing that have helped inform writing
education of professionals in each of these domains. Research and pedagogy
in Writing Across the Curriculum, in the Disciplines and Professions, and in
the Workplace have guided approaches for developing writing of many specific
If the writing task is specific enough, detailed instructions can direct the
text’s completion, such as filling out a government form properly (at least in
the particular version of the form used in a particular year)—very detailed
specifications tell us what we should write in each box and our writing choices
are limited as to which address or ethnicity we might report. Even if the form
contains a more open-ended narrative, such as in a grant application, often
the material that needs to be covered and the order it should be covered in are
directed by instructions and regulations. Such narrowed focus helps direct our
work, but it also limits our thinking, expression, identities, and commitments.
In the extreme cases of filling out forms we can become powerless subjects of
bureaucratic definitions and regulations.
Yet writing can be a powerful tool of thinking, feeling, identity, commitment,
and action. In turning our impulses into words, we can reveal ourselves
to ourselves and to the world, and we can take place in important debates,
movements, and activities. Writing forms the playing fields of our literate times
and each piece of writing we do claims a place, identity, meaning, and action
on those fields of life. The more we can write beyond the bounds of constrained
bureaucratic prescriptions, the more we gain power to define and represent
ourselves in the literate world.
But the problem of writing seems so amorphous that once we step out of
highly directed, highly instructed writing situations we may quickly feel at sea,
not knowing which direction to take and without signs to help us gain our
bearings and make decisions. Even if we are released on a small confined, pond,
such as writing a paper for a university political science course on political
parties where we are told what ideas to refer to and which cases to discuss, we
may still struggle to know which direction to go in.
Of course, in writing an essay for a political science course, the more we
know about political science, the longer we have been in the course and have
known the professor, the more political science papers we have read and written,
the more we have learned the vocabulary and read the literature of political
science and the historical accounts of political parties, and the more we know
the genres of the field, then the more effectively and efficiently we can address
the task. Yet underlying questions remain about what we want to accomplish
and how we can do it in more deeply effective ways; that is, we cannot reduce
our writing just to type, but must create it anew from our interests, resources,
thoughts, and perceptions.
What would be useful in this and many other circumstances is a way of
understanding our writing situation and what we might do with it—not just how
writing is generally done in these circumstances but how we might transform
the circumstances through our participation. This volume, A Rhetoric of Literate
Action, offers an approach to understanding writing situations and how we can
respond creatively in deep and transformative ways, because we understand the
game and our moves more deeply. The first four chapters of this volume provide
a framework for identifying and understanding the situations writing comes
out of and is directed toward. The next four chapters then consider how a text
works to transform a situation and achieve the writer’s motives as the text begins
to take form. The final four chapters provide more specific advice of the work
to be accomplished in bringing the text to final form and how to manage the
work and one’s own emotions and energies so as to accomplish the work most
The advice of this book is for the experienced writer with a substantial
repertoire of skills, and now would find it useful to think in more fundamental
strategic terms about what they want their texts to accomplish, what form the
texts might take, how to develop specific contents, and how to arrange the work
of writing. While the book contains some comments identifying challenges of
developing writers and writers at social margins with an eye to how a writer
can strategically address these challenges, those topics will not be at the center
of discussion so as to maintain focus on strategic choice-making experienced
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Likewise, I will from time to time discuss collaborative writing processes,
problems of multiple audiences, and the effects of changing technologies on
writing, how to accomplish it, and what its impact is. To keep an already
complicated and multidimensional subject as simple as I can, however, I will
predominantly attend to the actions of individual experienced writers expressing
their views and interests to readers, who each read one at a time, though from
their social and organizational locations and interests. As should be evident
from the presentation in this and the companion volume, the view of writing
presented here is deeply dialogic, interactive, and social, but still writing and
reading are done predominantly in semi-privacy, as readers and writers engage
in their own thoughts in relation to the text, often for extended periods. Even in
highly interactive collaborative processes, each participant must look inward to
understand and evaluate the meanings evoked by the inscribed words. Further,
writers aim to evoke meanings in individual readers, even though readers may be
parts of teams or organizations, and readers attribute those evoked meanings as
the expression of a writer, even if that writer is buried within complex corporate
processes. In any event, what is here said about individuals can be, with care,
extrapolated to more complex group processes.
Finally, while I will make some mention of multimedia and other
communicative changes that are part of the digital age, the focus will be on
the written word. The written word still maintains importance in digital
environments, and we live in a world given shape by literacy. While the digital
revolution is transforming our communicative and social environment, it is hard
to know exactly what these changes will look like in even a few decades. What
does seem clear though, is that the written word will maintain an important role
for the foreseeable future and that the social changes will grow on a foundation
established by the literate transformation of the past centuries. So it is of value
for us to get our bearings in the written world as we venture forward into new
communicative environments.
In providing advice about how to understand one’s communicative situation
and respond strategically to it, this volume follows in the long tradition of books
of rhetoric, from the time of Aristotle until today, but with some substantial
differences, as I will discuss at the end of the first chapter. So as not to encumber
the practical orientation of the book, I will keep references to a minimum
and cite sources only when they will directly contribute to exposition of the
advice. A fully-documented companion volume, A Theory of Literate Action,
examines the sources and theoretical reasoning behind the rhetoric and places
its understanding of language, utterance, and writing within a wider social
scientific understanding of humans, society, knowledge, communications, and
literacy. While there is not a one-to-one match between the topics and chapters
of the two books, the introduction of the companion volume identifies chapters
where some of the ideas from the first volume are elaborated in the second.
I would like to thank the many people who over the years have responded
to the emerging ideas expressed here. In particular I would like to thank Anis
Bawarshi, Joshua Compton, Christiane Donahue, David Russell, Sandra
Thompson, and the anonymous reviewers of the WAC Clearinghouse for their
thoughtful readings and comments on draft chapters of both volumes. Finally
I owe endless gratitude to my partner of over forty years, Shirley Geoklin Lim.
Speech was born in human interaction. It coordinates activities (“Lift
. . . now”), perceptions (“Look at that bird”), and knowledge of things not
immediately perceivable (“many fish are in the river in the next valley”). It also
leads people to modify their own behavior and/or states of mind on the basis of
the procedures, perceptual categories, and knowledge first received or developed
in social interaction. Further, speech articulates the categories by which people
may be held socially accountable and provides the means by which people may
give accounts of their actions (“If I do this, what would I tell people?”) Such
realized potentials of language have proved of immense evolutionary advantage
and have become key elements in our sociality and culture. By providing the
means to create shared accounts of where we have been and where we are
headed, it has made history and future culturally present. The beliefs, accounts,
plans, and modes of social organization of oral cultures are cast into a different
mode when writing enters.
Although speech and language go back to the beginning of human life,
writing is generally thought to have been invented around 5000 years ago
(Schmandt-Bessarat, 1992), simultaneous with the development of urban
economies, larger political organizations, extensive religions, and many social
institutions that have come to characterize the modern world (Goody, 1986).
Human language is built on interaction and activity in context and becomes
meaningful and purposeful only in use. Internalized language as well originates in
interpersonal interactions and has consequences for our internal self-regulation,
using the culturally available categories and imperatives of language (Vygotsky,
1986). Our internal thoughts then reemerge, reformulated in processes of
externalization to make ourselves intelligible to others (Mead 1934; Volosinov,
1973; Vygotsky, 1986). People regularly experience externalization as helping
them know what they are thinking and clarifying what it is they think. Our
later inventions that facilitate communication at a distance grow out of the
same socio-cognitive resources and motivations as spoken language—whether
fire signals or writing; whether cheap paper or computer screens; whether
telegraphy, telephony, or the Internet; whether mail distribution systems or chat
rooms; whether a tyrant’s stone tablets in the center of town or a commercial
publishing industry. As the means and reach of communication change, our
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
thinking, feeling, and motives may transform and grow in response to the new
opportunities; our minds and societies are plastic and creative. But the creativity
almost always is intertwined with our fundamental communicative capacities
and orientations.
Thus to come to terms with writing and how to do it, we need to understand
it both within the human capacity for language and in the social-culturalhistorical
conditions which have developed dialectically with our writing
practices. Considering how we successfully manage to use language in faceto-face
interaction will help us understand the challenges we must overcome
in order to communicate when we are no longer in the same time and
location to coordinate our meanings and actions with each other. In short, a
fundamental problem in writing is to be able to understand and recreate the
social circumstance and social interaction which the communication is part of,
but which is obscured by the transmission of the words over time and space
from one apparent set of social circumstances to another. We can understand
much about writing if we understand how writing overcomes this difficulty,
to help us locate our written communications in socio-cultural history, where
written messages are coming from, and where they are going to.
Face-to-Face speech, the condition within which language developed
historically, occurs in a specific shared time and place. We speak to the people
in front of us, as part of the events unfolding before us, in response to the
comments we have just heard. We speak in the clothes we have worn that day
and in the roles, statuses, and relationships we inhabit among those people we
speak with. We see and feel all this in our bodies, viscerally. Seeing where we are,
we react and speak. We say hello to a neighbor, good morning to a lover, and
“I’ll take care of that right now Ms. Johnson, immediately” to our boss.
In these moments of immediate transactions we can make distant people
and events imaginatively present by mentioning them. “Remember Mr. Jawari?
You know, Jackie’s teacher. Well, I saw him over at the mall yesterday . . .” Or
we can have distant unmentioned circumstances and relations in our minds,
influencing how we talk and what we talk about. We may remember our parents
telling us how to behave in public as we meet new neighbors. Our response to
a sales pitch can be tempered by thinking about our vanishing bank account.
Similarly our interlocutors name things they want to remind us of or show
us for the first time. We may sometimes even guess (though not necessarily
accurately) the urgencies and exigencies in their own life that stand behind
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their behavior and talk (“Why are they mentioning this to me now?”). But
these non-present presences need to be evoked and mutually acknowledged in
the conversation for them to be part of the meanings and activities realized in
the here and now of talk (Sacks, 1995). That is, only when the child’s teacher or
the empty bank account are mentioned and oriented to by the people talking
together do they become a shared object of attention, a topic of conversation—
otherwise they remain private individual orientations open only to speculation
by our interlocutors about what was on our mind.
A central problem and task of spoken interaction is alignment within a
shared communicative space. Alignment starts with the initiating task of gaining
the attention of the one we wish to talk to and continues as people attend
toward each other and what they may be conveying. People look at each other
or stare toward the same point in space. Their bodies take mutually responsive
postures—opening toward each other or backing away, arms folding in similar
positions or gesturing into the space between. They also align to each other’s
speech patterns—coordinating turns, adopting similar and coordinated rhythms
and intonations, adjusting to each other’s accents and dialects (Chafe, 1994).
Further, they align to each other’s meanings projected into the public space
of talk. They take up common referents, themes, and knowledge introduced
into the talk by prior speakers, they adopt mutually confirming assumptions
(Sachs, 1995). They take what has been said as a given—both as meaning and
action. Indeed, in the way they take up and use what has been said before
they retrospectively interpret and create the continuing meaning of previous
Alignment is so crucial to the maintenance of conversation that people
regularly and consistently repair the talk when they feel that there has been some
breach that will disrupt the flow of talk, the social alignment of participants, or
the mutual coordination of meanings (Schegloff et al., 1977). Unless the talk
is repaired, the conversation can break and participants fall away. Such repairs
may correct misunderstandings, such as who was being discussed, but can also
involve backing away from something that was previously placed in the shared
space of interaction. Saying something was only meant as a joke or is not really
important indicates that what had been mentioned previously ought not to be
attended to as the interaction moves forward.
Through alignment of speech activities, referents, interactional roles and
relations, speech participants create a mutually recognized space of interaction,
which has been called footing (Goffman, 1981) or frame (Goffman, 1974;
Tannen, 1993). This footing goes beyond the recognition of the physical
space and set of participants one is within to giving it a particular social
characterization or shape. Thus by the change of posture or a few words one can
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
reorient the attention of a group engaged in a political argument to a shared
moment of satirical laughter, and then into a discussion of comics. Or if one
person indicates by facial gesture that he hears another’s comments as an insult,
all eyes focus on the social conflict and leave the substance of the discussion
behind. This reorientation from one kind of scene to another is facilitated
because we come to recognize patterned kinds of social scenes, interactions, and
utterances. We see events as similar to other events and recognize them as of a
kind, or genre.
The social understandings evoked in the speech-mediated framings can even
change perception and definition of the visible material event (Hanks, 1996). As
one person starts to recount a recent injury, a previously unnoticed discoloring
of the skin begins to loom large and become visible as a bruise. An intimate
interactive space can suddenly be opened up when one of the participants waves
to a friend across the street.
In daily life, we come to use and understand language within specific events,
shaped by the language as the events unfold. We use language on the fly as part
of emerging interactional dramas that change with every new word uttered. Yet
when we study or think about language, we look at it in a very different way,
focusing on the small components we carry across many kinds of situations—
the recognizably different sounds, the words, the organization of words into
propositions. Linguistic prescriptions and descriptions share this atomized
view of language, which then is reproduced in grammars and dictionaries—the
practical tools that popularly represent knowledge of a language, but stripped
of use in particular interactions.
Early learning of a first spoken language, as developmental linguists point
out, however, occurs largely in face-to-face interaction among already competent
language users of the community. Children may show at certain moments of
development an awareness of the code as code—asking repeatedly “what is
that?” as they begin to amass words, or as they hyper-correct and then soften
grammatical regularities as a result of increasing information. However, spoken
first language use and learning is much less a reflective and codified experience
as it is an accumulation of situated practical experiences in the course of daily
The study of written language has been dominated by code concerns—
writing systems, spelling, grammar, generalized word meanings, organizational
patterns. This abstracted view of written language may have partly emerged
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because written texts come from beyond the immediate social situation,
specifically to allow travel to different times and places. Thus writing appears
have a kind of contextlessness, which might be better characterized as transcontextedness.
Communication at a distance through writing certainly has
burdens of being interpretable without all the supporting apparatus of face-toface
interaction; it also has a further burden of creating an interactional context
at a distance that makes the communication meaningful and consequential.
The linguistic, educational, interpretive, and regulatory practices that have
developed around writing have reinforced the impression of a contextless
code with universal meaning carried within the text, as long as that code was
competently understood and produced. Formal language instruction developed
first in the transmission of dead classical languages—that is, language which is
not learned in ordinary meaningful communications in interaction with live
speakers. Further these classical languages were used to access texts distant from
the immediate culture for a kind of transcultural, universalized veneration, or
for the maintenance of universal truths embodied in sacred texts. The coincident
development of printing, state bureaucracies, and cultural hegemonies in the
East and West fostered additionally code regulation—regulation of characters
and spelling, morphology, and syntax. This code-regulation was enforced and
rewarded through systems of class and power to create cultures of correctness
that again appeared as contextless markers of legitimacy to be on display in
every situation.
Yet written language can gain its meanings only as part of meaningful social
interactions. An uncontexted snippet of written code is no more meaningful
than an unidentified snippet of audiotape—probably less because we have
fewer clues of where it came from (through accent or background sounds) and
interaction (through multiple speakers, intonation, rhythm, and the like). We
can gain a glimpse of this problem if we consider the difficulties people have in
interpreting archeological fragments of texts. The interpretation rests not just
on breaking the code, but on reconstructing the context of use within which
the utterance was meaningful—often a very local context of a farmer’s granary
or a merchant’s counting house.
As writing began to carry messages across distances and situations, it was
delivered with visible symbols of its social meaning. Early messengers would
carry the signs of authority of the message senders, would speak in the name
of the king or other sender, and would command the respect granted to the
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
sender. Thus not only the message, but the social arrangements were extended
over distance.
Even such spare communications at a distance as the signal fires that carried
the news of the end of the Trojan War, as recounted in the Iliad, depended on
enormous social contexting to be meaningful. The signaling enterprise only
made sense in the context of the end of a momentous war, the return of troops
from a distance, and the interests of the Greeks at home. It was only made
possible by organizing a widespread group of individuals, carefully placed
at sites visible to other selected sites, and aligned to the task of noting and
reproducing fire. Finally, its interpretation depended on the initiators and
receivers having a shared, prearranged meaning of the symbol. Two millennia
later, when the French created a nationwide system of semaphore telegraphs,
they needed an entire bureaucracy to manage the signal, direct the messages
to appropriate parties, and create contexts of meaning for the messages, which
served a limited range of defined military purposes. Smoke signals and talking
drums equally are embedded within well-focused and aligned systems of
relations, communications, meanings, and social moments.
In the later half of the nineteenth century the telephone opened
opportunities for vocal communication at a distance, soon fostering focused,
recognizable contexts of uses and means of signaling those contexts. At first U.S.
telephone companies were small and local with a limited number of subscribers
already familiar with each other, for example within a town. The telephone
communications simply carried on and extended pre-existing relationships,
largely business—and thus each telephonic transaction was well-embedded
within a familiar set of business arrangements. Even then, telephone companies
needed to offer instruction in a new etiquette for initiating conversations,
identifying parties speaking, and introducing the specific occasion and
transaction (Fischer, 1992). As the telephone uses expanded to social calling,
further etiquettes were needed to signify the call.
Today any experienced user of the telephone can rapidly recognize the
source and nature of the many calls we now receive from even unknown
callers, including fund raising, sales, and political calls. Recognizable contexts
have emerged in the patterns of individual calls, typical transactions, ongoing
networks of relations, and organizational structures that have developed
around the phone, including banks of commercial callers, phone hotlines,
emergency services, polling organizations, phone-order sales, and product
help. The importance of establishing those contexts of meaning is made
salient to us every time we make a mistake and misattribute a call for a few
moments, until we realize that this is not a friendly call from a neighbor, but
a fund raising call for the youth organization; that this is not an independent
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call from an independent polling agency, but a political pitch from an interest
Similarly, sound recording developed an entertainment industry, on one
side, with highly genred products offering anticipatable messages, activities, and
amusements to be invoked on appropriate occasions, with a rapidly developing
etiquette—where and when it was acceptable or desirable to play which kind
of recording at what volume. On the business side, recording technologies
developed for individualized, contexted messages, such as a reminder to oneself
or dictation for one’s secretary. These highly localized messages have specific
meanings for identifiable people in specific relation to the person recording
the message, often within a specific time frame. Now digital technologies have
facilitated a proliferation of personally produced sound and video files which
are developing their new kinds, functions, circulation, and etiquettes—and
thus anticipatibility and means of interpretation.
Presidential speeches to the public via radio and television are a good example
of how contexts are provided, even beyond the well-understood relation of a
leader speaking to constituencies. Annual “State of the Nation” reports to the
legislature provided one kind of forum, and speeches on national crises, another.
The broadcast press conference grew out of journalistic interview practices, and
bear much of the flavor of reporters going after stories and an office holder
defending policies and practices in the face of inquiry. But when during the
Depression the U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to use the radio to
create a more direct and regular channel to the citizens, he recreated a fireside
atmosphere evoking intimacy of the head of households gathering families
together. Such regular messages of hope and planning, addressing problems in a
calm everyday manner, have developed a new kind of context of mass intimacy
of leadership. Only insofar as that bond of trusting intimacy is maintained are
such messages meaningful.
Writing, of course, was among the earliest forms of communication at a
distance and has become the most extensive, diverse, and pliable of means
of communication at a distance—even as the medium of delivery has
changed from a messenger bearing a letter to mass-marketed publications,
to digital packets flowing over the internet. To develop a rhetoric of writing,
to understand what we must accomplish to write successfully, we need to
address how writing communicates at a distance, how it can create contexts
of meaningful interaction, and how it can speak to the contexts it evokes and
participates in. There are some uses of writing that have no greater distance
than face-to-face conversation, as when people sitting next to each other pass
notes in response to a lecturer’s comments—an ironic “sure” scribbled. But
even if the note is to be passed across the room, it would need to display
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
much of the context that would have vanished by the time the note reached
its destination. The note would at least have to indicate who wrote it and
who was to receive it as well what the offending words were to remind the
reader on the other side of the room of what was said five minutes ago that so
exercised his ironic friend.
The problem of context is crucial to writing, yet it is elusive. Writing comes
to us on pieces of paper or digital screens that look very much one like another,
obscuring where the message may have come from, where it was intended to
go, and what purpose it was intended to carry out in what circumstances. If
texts travel through time and space, where is their context? Do they make their
own contexts, which they then speak to? Unless we have means to address such
questions, our approaches to understanding what to write and the meaning of
others’ writings are limited to issues of code (spelling, vocabulary, grammar,
syntax, and style) and decontextualized meanings (imagining such things could
in fact exist). The answers to these questions will give us the basis on which to
form a rhetoric for written language, a rhetoric which will differ in significant
ways from the traditional one formed around problems of high-stakes public
speech in political and deliberative contexts.
Rhetoric is the reflective practical art of strategic utterance in context from
the point of view of the participants, both speaker and hearer, writer and
reader. That is, rhetoric helps us think about what we might most effectively
use words to meet our ends in social interchange, and helps us think about
what others through their words are attempting to do with us. The reflection is
both productive, in leading to new utterance and further action, and critical in
helping us evaluate what has already transpired, presumably with an eye toward
future practice—knowing what stances to take to others and widening our
repertoire and reflective capabilities to act knowingly. While rhetoric as a field
of study has also developed analytical and philosophic components and many
rhetorical scholars see themselves primarily as theorists, the field is founded
on human communicative practice and its value to society is in its ability to
support more effective, more thoughtful practice. The theories presented in this
and the companion volume are, therefore, committed to this end rather than
the resolution of theoretical problems, though many theoretical problems may
need to be addressed along the way.
Rhetoric differs in substantial ways from the other disciplines of language,
first because it does not take disembodied code as its starting point. Code, for
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rhetoric, is a resource to be deployed in concrete situations for individual and
communal purposes and activities, which are the primary concern. Similarly,
abstracted meanings that might be deployed in any situation are secondary to
the purpose and effect they are used for. Meanings do not exist as fixed absolutes
within themselves and the signs used to evoke them, but to be deployed,
constructed, imaginatively evoked, as the rhetor’s purposes and strategic plan in
particular situations warrant. Meanings and truths arise in the course of human
inquiry and activity.
Rhetoric is also different from the other arts of language because it adopts
the point of view of the users, rather than the unengaged stance of the analyst of
the code. Rhetoric is built for action, rather than static description. Rhetoric’s
fundamental questions have to do with how to accomplish things, rather than
what things are. How language works in context is worth knowing because it
lets you know how to use it. The concepts are ones that help you locate yourself
in the activity, define your concerns, and recognize and mobilize resources for
Thus rhetoric is strategic and situational, based on the purposes, needs,
and possibilities of the user, the resources available then and there to be
deployed, and the potentialities of the situation. While rhetoric identifies some
general processes and resources of communicative interaction, these are tools
to understand local situations and heuristics in helping the speaker decide
what to say, how to say it, and how to go about constructing the statement.
Rhetoric is cast in terms of purposes and possibilities and future outcomes.
It supports activity informed by goals rather than at already finished objects.
Even the completed text to be critically analyzed is considered in its social,
persuasive effects and not its pure textuality. Further the critical analysis has
its own further purposes, such as to delegitimate the words of an opponent
or to understand effective strategies to be used in future situations. Yet none
of these trajectories of action is certain in their outcomes, for the outcomes
depend on the purposes, actions, and trajectories of the audience and those
who make further utterances.
Because rhetoric is concerned with trajectories of on-going situations from
the point of view of the participants, it is also reflective, looking back onto
oneself and one’s co-participants. It helps us look at what is going on, so
we can do it better. However, the mirror never takes us very far from the
situation and our engagement in it. It only offers a bit of perspective with
which to watch ourselves as we remain engaged. Rhetoric is an applied art,
applied to ourselves, to direct our own courses of action. Even if professional
rhetoricians give advice or instruction to clients, that advice only becomes
of use as people themselves incorporate the advice or principles into their
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
actions. There are limits to what a rhetorician can usefully advise in a general
way beyond some conceptual categories for considering the situation without
enquiring deeply of the person being advised about their situation, goals,
resources and capabilities. When such an inquiry takes place, the rhetorician
inevitably becomes a collaborator in the rhetor’s thinking about and response
to the situation.
Thus, what a rhetoric can most usefully offer, rather than specific prescriptions
about what to say or write and how to say, is conceptual tools to ponder one’s
rhetorical situation and choices. If, however, situations are heavily constrained
and practices typified and even regulated, then specific advice might be usefully
given, but at the cost of constraining the writer’s range of action and choices.
In the extreme such advice takes the form of instruction manuals on how to fill
out bureaucratic forms or directions to sales clerks on how to fill out the sales
screens at the cashier terminal. In such cases rhetorical choices are few and the
writer’s agency is limited. Professional style manuals that give guidance on how
to produce work that meets the minimum standards of that profession also
constrain by intention. Yet such style manuals leave substantial opportunities
for the writer to express professional judgment and to influence what is said, and
what meanings are conveyed within the regulated constraints—for otherwise it
wouldn’t be a profession.
The rhetoric offered in this volume, however, will not take for granted or
foster any particular set of constraints or practices. Accordingly, it will not offer
prescriptions or ready-made solutions for particular writing situations. Here,
rather, I will attempt to create a rhetoric of wide generality, relevant to all
written texts in all their historical and contemporary variety. This rhetoric will
provide principles to understand any particular set of constraints and typified
practices in any focused domain, and could be used to uncover the rhetorical
logic in any set of instructions or style book. This rhetoric can help us see
that those who construct the bureaucratic forms or compose the professional
style manuals themselves exert extraordinary rhetorical power in shaping the
situations, interactions, discourse, and meanings of others. This rhetoric will
help us see how different social systems use writing to pursue their activities,
and how we can act most effectively within them—potentially even bypassing,
subverting, or transforming them through strategic action. While examples
may be drawn from many domains, the constraints of any of them will not be
taken as absolute or general, but only applicable in the specific situation. This
rhetoric is aimed at recognizing the diversity of activities using writing that have
developed over the five thousand years of literacy, and how we can effectively
navigate in the complex literate world we now live into pursue our interests
through the opportunities and resources at hand.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Most societies have proverbial wisdom on how people should talk—implying
a widespread recognition that one can reflect on one’s language use to guide
practice. One of my favorites is the central Asian adage, “If you are going to
tell the truth, you should have one foot in the stirrup.” But the most extensive
and prominent reflection on strategic communication arose in ancient Greece
and Rome. The vigorous tradition of classical rhetoric developed fundamental
concepts of rhetorical situations and how situations can be addressed. As well
it identified some of the fundamental resources available to speakers and the
ways in which language works upon people. A number of the concepts and
resources of classical rhetoric will be important within this and the companion
volume. However, classical rhetoric was concerned with only a limited range of
culturally embedded practices, all of which were oral and political, involving
high-stakes contentions. Its primary concerns were the public speeches of
the agora or market place addressing criminal guilt and innocence (forensic
rhetoric), matters of public policy (deliberative rhetoric), or celebration of the
state, communal values, and rhetorical artfulness (epideictic rhetoric). The
rhetorical analysis of situations, the kinds of goals, the anticipated interactive
processes, the resources considered available, and the media of communication
all were shaped around the agora. These forms of rhetoric are most directly
applicable to speechmaking in successor institutions, often consciously modeled
on classical forms: courts, legislatures, and political gatherings. Nonetheless,
these institutions have changed radically by literate practices as courts of law
have now become saturated with written precedents, filings, briefs, records, and
other texts and legislatures must deal with lengthy bills, technical reports of
commissions, paperwork generated by office staff and government bureaucracies,
and journalistic accounts that reach a wider public sphere.
Furthermore, many domains of speech in the ancient world were not
brought under rhetorical scrutiny, were not made the object of a discipline of
strategic reflection. Sales talk in the marketplace, although likely filled with a
wide folk repertoire of tricks and stances, remained outside the purview of classic
rhetoric. The language of commerce had to await the rise of business schools
and the marketing professions (themselves tied to the rise of wide-circulation
periodicals and large industrial corporations with extended markets) to become
systematically considered. Similarly, talk with intimates (though we presume it
went on in the classical world) was not the object of professional attention until
the twentieth century, except for risqué poetic advice in the ars amoris tradition.
Moreover, although literacy was widespread in Greece and Rome by the
time systematic rhetoric arose and despite the fact that rhetorical manuals were
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
written, very little attention was given to how one should write, except as a
means of scripting oral production (as Plato derides in the Phaedrus). Some
passing remarks were made on the style appropriate for letters, and a separate
smaller tradition of ars poetica arose, but the problems of how to write largely
remained unexamined.
Since then periodic attempts to consider writing rhetorically and to extend
the genres and concerns of rhetoric beyond high-stakes public argumentation
have been limited and have not yet resulted in a fully rhetorical consideration
of written communication. In the Middle Ages, the ars dicitaminas and ars
notaria were systematic attempts to consider letter and document writing.
Despite enduring consequences for bureaucracy, law, business contracts, and
accountancy, they have had little long-term impact on canonical rhetorical
teaching. In the Renaissance rhetoric attended to stylistic refinement that
suggests a kind of word-crafting and revision facilitated by writing, but there
was no attention to the fundamental problems of communication posed by
In the eighteenth century, the emergence of natural philosophy, public
journals, and new social ideologies—all of which decreased power of centralized
elites and used writing to connect widespread but increasingly important
publics—gave rise to attempts to reformulate rhetoric around the effect
of texts on the sympathetic imaginations and understandings of readers, by
such figures as Joseph Priestley, Adam Smith, and George Campbell. For a
variety of ideological and institutional reasons, over the long term this broad
reconsideration of rhetoric narrowed its focus to belles-lettristic rhetoric and
became a precursor to literary studies, increasingly distanced from the discursive
needs of daily situations and exercising power within the literate practices of
As the teaching of writing became a regular and widespread component of
higher education in the late nineteenth century United States, another theory
of written texts came to dominate education. This theory assumed a correlation
between faculties of human understanding and a small number of patterns of
textual exposition (known as the modes; Connors, 1981). The theory and the
accompanying pedagogy did not attempt to contend with the wide range of
social uses of writing, the many different social systems writing was part of,
range of goals and interests of writers, or the variety of potential readers with
different interests and different situations. That is, as a rhetoric, while reflective
of individual understanding (according to a particular psychological theory), it
was not strategic or situational. It rather assumed a constrained uniformity of
understanding, activities, and goals. This limited range of rhetorical activities
were congruent with the discourse practiced in the expanding university in
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the United States during the period between the Civil War and World War
II, aimed at producing a professional class of managers, based on a model
that ideologically foregrounded individuality and dispassionate reason and
suppressed contention and difference of interest. As the teaching of writing
moved away from the rhetorical tradition, in the U.S. in the early twentieth
century, speech communication, which remained grounded in classical rhetoric,
split from English Departments (Parker, 1967).
Even though classical rhetoric with some modern additions has been
reintroduced into the teaching of writing in the U.S (for examples, Corbett, 1965;
Crowley & Hawhee, 1994), it would benefit from a fresh reconceptualization
around the problems of written communication, with an awareness of the
social complexity of contemporary literate society, and deeply incorporating
recent social theory and social science. Attempts at reconceptualizing rhetoric
on more recent intellectual grounds have in fact been rife since the middle
of the twentieth century. Fogarty (1959) in his philosophically oriented Roots
for A New Rhetoric draws on mid-century conceptualizations of language and
representation from Richards, Burke, and Korzybski. Fogarty, however, does
not succeed in synthesizing these into a fresh rhetoric with clear practical
consequences for writing. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) in their New
Rhetoric reinterpret Aristotle through legal reasoning and practice. Christensen
(1969) grounds his Notes Towards a New Rhetoric in linguistics and stylistics
to make new proposals on sentence style. Of these and the many others
using the term “new rhetoric” the only one who bases his reconceptualization
particularly on the problems of writing is Beale (1989) in A Pragmatic Theory
of Rhetoric, though he still identifies his theory as fundamentally Aristotelian
and he proceeds on predominantly Aristotelian theoretical and philosophic
grounds. This volume directed at rhetorical writing practice and its companion
elaborating the intellectual sources of the proposed theory attempt a more radical
rethinking of rhetoric based on the problematics of writing and grounded in
the thinking of contemporary social sciences, as elaborated in the companion
With increasing rapidity over recent centuries and decades, new social forces
have transformed social and cultural assumptions, distribution of work and
communications, political and economic arrangements. Social and economic
activities have become ever more thoroughly pervaded by literacy and symbolic
manipulation—so that people now characterize us as within an information age,
information that is multiple and global in origin. At the university discourse has
become more complex and reflective, with prior social and cultural assumptions
embedded in standard discursive practices increasingly questioned. More
narrowly, in the last half century within a reinvigorated discipline of teaching
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
of writing, research and theory has been drawing on wider ranges of social
sciences, cultural studies, and humanities and has been addressing a wider range
of writing practices in the university, the polity, the economy, and society. While
many new lines of thinking about writing have developed, these have yet to be
fully articulated in a coherent overview of strategic writing. The most successful
model of writing set against the previous pedagogic traditions of modes and
forms has been of the writing process, which is a theory of managing how one
goes about writing, as an individual and as part of groups. This work, grounded
in classical rhetorical theory of invention but adding to that experimental
methods of cognitive science, has taken new directions because of the way in
which writing supports drafting, revision, and editing—allowing one to hold
on to and rework one’s text, as well as to gain others readings perspectives and
collaboration. However, process only covers part of what we must think about
in writing—even in the oral classical rhetorical tradition, invention was only
one of the five canons. The picture of writing drawn in this volume attempts to
cover more of what we are starting to understand about writing. This will be a
conceptual picture, to inform practical reflection on strategic communication,
and thus insists on being considered as a rhetoric, even though it may not look
much like previous books with that title. Because this volume considers writing
as it manifests in the complexity of the modern world, it will employ many
terms and concepts alien to the classical rhetorical tradition. It will deploy what
we have been able to learn about the formation and dynamics of situations,
the use of texts as active within situations, and the processes by which people
interact, communicate, understand, formulate intentions, imagine, and create.
And finally it will consider how we shape messages and create meanings within
the genred spaces of the texts we write.
The next several chapters will consider where, when, and in which field
of action we are writing for. Chapters 4 through 7 will consider the actions,
motives, and strategies that give direction to our writing. Chapters 8 through
11 discuss the form our texts take, the meanings we invoke through the text,
the experiences we create in our texts, and how we can bring the text to its
fullest realization. The final chapter steps back from the text to consider the
psychological processes and emotional complexities of writing, so we can
understand and manage how we can produce texts with greatest success, least
stress, and greatest satisfaction.
The fundamental problem in developing a rhetoric of writing is characterizing
the situationality of written texts because writing so easily travels through space
and time. Writing’s asset of transportability means the written text can leave
behind the physical location and moment in time when it was produced. It also
escapes the immediate social circumstances, relations, and activities to affect
different locales and activities at a distance, but these new locations are not
visible in the immediate physical environs in which the text is produced. These
new situations and interactions have to be constructed imaginatively by the
writer and signaled adequately enough in the text for the reader to reconstruct
Letters provide a strong case in point, for they overtly announce their
spatiality, temporality, relation, and activity. They typically announce the writer
and intended receiver, and they are frequently dated and marked with the
place of origin. They are generally intended for immediate use upon receipt
and then either discarded or filed away as a memory aid or record of the now
past transaction. Furthermore in salutation and signature they often specify
the particular relation between the corresponding parties (terms of honor in
the greeting and commitments of loyalty in the signature, for example). These
relationships may be further specified (“I write you in your capacity as executor
of the estate of . . .”; “I appeal to you as a fellow parent . . .”) and bonds
reinforced (“I hope all is well with you”) in the course of the letter. Even more
the substance of the letter may narrate the occasion that prompts the letter,
the situation the letter speaks to, and the particular action the letter aims to
complete (“I write in application for the position advertised in . . .”; “it has
been many months since we have seen each other, and my thoughts repeatedly
turn to your welfare, especially now that we hear reports of devastation in your
land”; “Mom, my bank account is tapped out, please send money.”)
Because the letter contains so many markers of its sociality, allowing the
reader mentally to locate him or herself in the social interaction, it early on
became one of the primary genres of writing. Starting with the explicit sociality
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
of letters, many other written genres were able to find shape and meaning,
until they became recognizable and recognized as distinctive forms—such
as business reports, scientific journals, newspapers and magazines, and even
financial instruments such as letters of credit, checks, and paper currency. It
is not surprising, therefore, that the first rhetoric of writing concerned the
writing of letters, the medieval ars dictaminis (Murphy, 1985). As a genre, or
an increasingly distinctive set of genres, the letter asserts its place in the social
world and helps formulate the sociality for many written documents (Bazerman,
Other early genres of writing relied on familiarity with well-known faceto-face
oral performances, the memories of which were evoked by the written
text. Special occasions, such as famous speeches, and everyday social events,
such as the telling of tales, found their way onto the page, to be recreated by the
reader. New texts could then be written drawing on the social understanding
that accompanied such texts, both to prepare or script oral performance and
to become new sorts of socio-literacy events, to be enacted during reading.
Reading of play scripts, for example, is greatly enhanced if the reader has actually
seen that play produced or even more, has rehearsed and performed the play—
practices often invoked by teachers of dramatic literature. However, some texts
such as some lyric poems or most philosophic treatises are written only to be
read by the individual in isolation. Reading these texts requires entering into
contemplative states of consciousness, oriented toward mental places abstracted
from immediate physical circumstances to a world of ideas that seems to exist
out of time.
Other uses for writing developed as part of well-structured activities, such as
economic, legal, or governmental transactions. These provided strong contexts
for the interpretation of texts and gave rise to regularized repetitive situations
calling for similar utterances, producing familiar, recognizable genres that
evoked relevant aspects of the entire activity system. For example, when you
receive a monthly bill from the electric utility which is government regulated
and taxed and you mail back a check with the bill stub, you rely on extensive
institutional understanding of the government, the utility, the banking system,
and your roles as a consumer, a householder, a citizen, and a financial agent.
While much of this knowledge of these complex institutions remains in the
background most of the time (especially now that this process is becoming
automated through electronic billing directly to bank accounts), it is there to
be invoked when relevant, such as when the utility sends you an unusually high
bill or claims you have not been paying and threatens to cut off service.
These institutions with their regularized activities, themselves have been
elaborated and extended through the genres of communication that have become
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
part of their constitution. Thus the activity of law depends on law libraries that
contain legislation, commentaries, precedents, and legal journals. Each new
case involves exchanges of letters, writs, subpoenas, briefs, opinions, and many
other kinds of documents. Much of what it means to take legal action consists
of reading and writing within specific domains of texts and text circulation.
Government too is built on laws and court decisions, as well as bureaucratic
regulations, reports, filings, and thousands of other documents—so much so
that government has come to be characterized as being about “red tape”—that
is, not the heroic commands from a charismatic leader but endless documents,
at one time bound in bundles with red tape. Religion, personal counseling,
insurance, truck driving and even farming are bound up with literate mediators
that play crucial and regular roles within the activity. It has been said, in fact,
that the key to successful farming is the keeping of records which allows one to
reflect upon one’s past practice and plan for the future.
During the European Renaissance printing and increased commerce created
greater opportunities for sharing texts with more people across greater social and
geographical boundaries. New forms of social, political, cultural, and economic
organization proliferated and many new genres arose, speaking to particular
needs and audiences, as well as creating markets for their own circulation. These
genres were parts of the proliferation of the activities, relationships, and states
of consciousness of modernity that the genres themselves in part made possible
and brought into being.
Now citizens of all nations live in highly complicated literate worlds of
many genres located within many activity and institutional systems that are
national and global in scope—which is why ever higher levels of education
are required to participate effectively in the institutions and practices of the
contemporary world. As we experience the literate world, we come to recognize,
almost as second nature, large numbers of genres and the situations that they
carry with them. We do so almost unreflectively, responding imaginatively to
the worlds they crystallize for us almost as soon as we see them. When we look
at the newspaper (whether paper or digital) we immediately recognize stories
of disasters or political conflict, as well as financial reports, movie reviews, and
sports stories. We read these transparently as representations of each of the
domains they report on. We become more consciously aware of genres when
we meet new ones, and we need some orientation to what is going on. The
first time we receive a particular kind of notice from the government we may
understand the words, but we may not understand what offices and regulations
are involved, what our responsibilities and obligations are, and what situation
and interactions are being initiated. To understand the document we need to
understand what is going on and what our part in these events are. Without
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
that understanding we lose our power to see what documentary systems we are
being enlisted into and we lose the ability to assert our rights and needs. Being
aware of genres and the associate systems helps us identify where we might write
back, intervening to advance our own concerns and positions. Genres to help
us think about the situation, the audience, what we might want to accomplish
through the text, and what might be recognizable forms we may adopt.
Although we often recognize genres by overt features of form and content,
genres are more than a series of conventions regulating form and content.
As the previous account suggests, they embody understandings of situations,
relationships, stances, moods, strategies, appropriate resources, goals and many
other elements that define the activity and shape means of accomplishment.
Genres are ways of doing things—and as such embody what is to be done and
carry traces of the time and place in which such things are done, as well as the
motives and actions carried out in those locales.
From the writer’s perspective, locating writing within systems of
communications, genres, and unfolding situations helps contend with the
blank page problem—that is, what we put on the page has no definition until
we give it some. Genre helps give purpose and form to what we write, as well as
identifies expectations readers are likely to have. Genre may also help us know
how our writing fits within historically evolving situations (see Chapter 3) and
relates to previously written texts relevant to this activity system (see Chapter
4). Moreover, as the situation and dynamics take over our imagination, we can
respond almost viscerally, in the way we respond to the presence of others. In
writing a letter to the editor our words may spill out on the page with passion,
in writing an apology our embarrassment may be palpable even though no other
person is in front of us, and in writing a proposal for a new business we may
become increasingly excited by the possibilities we are projecting. As we warm
up to writing a letter to a friend, we remember particular experiences we shared,
particular ongoing concerns, particular shared projects. As we start to enact the
bonds of our friendship and develop an idea we know they will understand,
we find the place our communication resides in and we start inhabiting it with
what we are moved to transact there.
As we are caught up in the mentally projected situation, we start to create a
presence that speaks to the situation. While filling out an application form for a
fellowship, we begin to give shape to the self-presentational spot we are on, and
craft an account of ourselves to fulfill the criteria the agency has set out, selecting
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
and highlighting particular personal resources we bring to the situation. The
genre of application identifies for us a social space and a mandate that we take
on if we decide to apply and want to maximize our chances for success. Our
general knowledge about the application as a genre of self-presentation and the
specific formal requirements of the application (guided by instructions about
the kinds of information required with format and length constraints) elicit
information from us and direct us to represent ourselves in a particular way.
Insofar as we reflect rhetorically on this task, we recognize how we might fulfill
this space in ways that will impress ourselves upon the reviewers and enter
into their imagination as the kind of person with the kind of project they were
looking for. We go beyond the basic requirements of the genre to inhabit it
more robustly, distinguishing our application from the others in a way that will
help the agency reviewers imagine we would be an excellent choice to receive
their support or fill their position.
Each genre is embedded in a system of activity that we recognize and locate
ourselves in, but each time we engage with a genre as writer or reader is also a
particular moment in our lives, the lives of the respondents we meet over the
text, and activity the systems we meet within. In this way the genre is attached to
things that are both more extensive and more specific than we may understand
the textual form in itself to be. Further, as we locate ourselves in the genred
transaction that resides within the larger system, creating the space for a local
moment, we are able to enter into the scene imaginatively, flexibly, creatively,
and spontaneously, embodying ourselves in that imagined socially-recognizable
The recognizable social spaces of genres have developed simultaneously
with the activity systems they are part of and that they allow us to participate
in. Activity systems are historically emerged networks of people and artifacts
(such as buildings, machines, and products, as well as texts and files) that
carry out typified kinds of work and other activities over extended periods,
and that have developed ways of coordinating the work and attention of
participants in ways that become familiar to all participants. That is, to operate
successfully within each you have to become aware of their historically emerged
way of doing what they do, and to coordinate your actions with those roles,
procedures, regulations, and formats that direct activity within each. A game
of baseball is an activity system and so is an amateur league which organizes
interested players into teams, schedules a season of games, and maintains
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
records of competitive standings of teams and players. While some activity
systems are smaller and some are larger, they each coordinate the distributed
work of multiple participants by defining roles and forms of action. Some
of the activity systems have immediately visible manifestations—you can see
baseball players playing at different positions, handling and throwing the ball
or attempting to hit it with a bat—in sequences and patterns explicable by a
set of familiar rules and strategies, carrying out goals that are definable within
the system. But some of the activity systems or their parts are less immediately
visible, so that when watching a game you may not be much aware of the
league, except perhaps for some paperwork that needs to be filed by the team
coach. Yet the two teams would not be likely to show up on the same field at
the same time unless a league official had made a schedule.
There are even less visible aspects, carried only by print, words, and records,
kept in orderly ways in relation to the less symbolic elements of the activity
system. At professional baseball games, fans hold scorecards, and reporters
sit up in the press box. The manager in the dugout may have a notebook of
statistics to support decisions. Similarly, in hospitals you may see doctors
and nurses treating patients, but there are also offices where accounting and
insurance records are kept and processed. There is a library with the scientific
and technical literature. There are patient records kept at a station in each ward
and a clipboard of vital signs at the foot of each bed. Each of the doctors in a
personal office has an individual collection of literature and records—and access
to more extensive electronic collections—as well as reading that serves to relax
and inspirit them in their emotionally and physically draining work.
Some activity systems are so predominantly conceptual and textual that
you can understand very little of them by looking at them. Walking through a
university building, all you may see are people sitting alone in offices or together
in classrooms, looking at books and computer screens or talking with each
other. That tells you very little about the activity systems they are engaged in.
To understand what is going on in a classroom, you need to understand what
discipline it is part of and how the class fits into the course sequences outlined
in the university and departmental requirements. Even more immediately, to
understand the activity of a particular class you need to know the texts assigned,
the schedule of lectures and discussions, reading and writing assignments, and
exams. Once you have placed that day’s class within all these systems, you might
have some hope of understanding why and how that day’s class unfolds in the
forms it does.
Similarly, if you were to go into the professor’s office and ask what he or
she is doing staring at a computer screen, if the document is a memo for a
faculty committee you may hear about complex bureaucratic procedures, the
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
entire system of university administration and faculty governance, the political
struggles between faculty groups, or the current issues that are exercising people.
Or if the professor is working on a paper you may hear about the particular
scholarly issue at stake and the professor’s current research, the specifics of the
conferences and journals the work is being prepared for, or the empirical and
interpretive practices, argumentative forms, and organization of the literature
typical of the professor’s discipline. Or if the professor is a in a cynical mood
you will hear about the publication requirements for tenure and promotion.
When you are writing or reading a text, it helps to know where that text
fits in which activity system. Such knowledge helps you identify the likely
reader or writer, the typical motives and actions at play, the constraints and
resources, the stances and expectations. That knowledge may come from your
ongoing embedded engagement or it may come from a more conscious analysis
of the situation. For example, a student given a question to write on may be so
caught up in the on-going discussion of the classroom and readings, she may
spontaneously know what she wants to write and the form it needs to take
to contribute to the class discussion. The embodied involvement the ongoing
activity may have so shaped the writer’s consciousness, that what she writes
is germane and appropriate as a matter of course—though I have seen many
students caught short by the differences between the dynamic of classroom
discussion and the demands of a major written assignment. If the assignment
asks for something more or different than what spontaneously flows from
prior discussion, the student needs to think about both the prior discussion
as setting the stage for the assignment and how the assignment changes the
stage—by demanding a different kind of statement, by requiring new resources
to be brought in, by changing the audience, or simply by shifting from oral
to written mode. Even more, if she is confused by an assignment that seems
not to flow directly from what has previously happened, it would help her to
think about how the question relates to the instructor’s goals for the course and
expectations for the assignment, how it fits within the total syllabus of the term
and the course evaluation system, how it draws on or shifts terms from the prior
readings and discussions, and who else might read it from what stance. It also
would help her to think about her own participation in the course and what
thoughts and interests she has developed that the paper might advance.
For example, in an introductory political theory course, after several major
theories have been read, lectured about, and interpreted, the instructor starts
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
asking comparative questions in discussion to help students see how different
theories give support to different kinds of governmental activity. The instructor
then assigns a paper for students to choose one governmental agency and see
how two different theories might suggest different ways of carrying out that
function and how they would in turn evaluate the current operations of the
relevant government agency. The student might recognize that she is interested
in understanding how certain government programs she values can be justified,
but she might recognize that so far this term she has only been critical of theories
presented. She may then recognize in this paper an opportunity to reconsider
the theories examined in the course to find the positive initiatives buried in
each—with reference to one program she favors. In short, in seeing the class
as an activity system the student can get a completer picture of where her own
writing fits in, what kind of piece in what kind of puzzle her own impulses
might motivate her to create.
In a different kind of example, someone seeking reimbursement for large
medical expenses from a major illness is more likely to be successful if he
understands something about the organization of activities and document flows
in his health insurance company. He will be helped in making effective decisions
about which documents to file at what point using what keywords and how to
coordinate with the doctor and hospitals if he understands which office receives
his reimbursement forms; how that office relates to the records received from
the medical providers; what decisions are made automatically by rules and are
perhaps even computerized; how category codes of diagnoses, procedures and
expenses might affect the reimbursement decisions; who makes decisions on
more complex cases requiring individualized judgments and what information
is used at what juncture in the process; how the application winds up in this
individualized procedure; and so on, through the many complexities of the
insurance company and its relation to health and governmental agencies. The
points of intervention then become clearer along with the kinds of information,
arguments, and actions that are likely to be effective at each juncture. Of course,
ordinary patients usually have very little of such information, and that is why
they may need advocates, just as we need advocates (another term for lawyer) to
deal with the legal system.
Some activity systems are more tightly or bureaucratically bound than
others, involving technical considerations of precise timing and form, while
others have greater opportunity for flexible intervention at multiple points in
somewhat novel form to accommodate local situations, mobilizing individual
motives and resources. For example, journalistic publicity for a charitable
organization may be sought in numerous ways. Offering a friendly reporter
an interview and photo opportunity for a human-interest story around the
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Christmas holidays, letters to the editor, announcements of national prizes, a
lecture by a national celebrity—all could also generate positive publicity on the
pages of the newspaper.
As these examples suggest, communications tend to flow within activity
systems in typical pathways, at typical moments, in typical forms, to enact typical
intentions, carrying out familiar acts. Newspapers carry certain kinds of stories,
in relation to events and the calendar, and people who hope to gain presence in
the newspapers need to have their concerns reportable in one of the forms that
newspapers publish. Students may get to share their developing understanding
or views with their instructors, but only in certain formats—exams, papers,
class discussions, perhaps individual discussion during office hours, or chance
meetings at the campus coffee-bar if the professor is particularly accessible.
These typical actions carrying out stabilized familiar intentions in recognizable
textual forms are those things we call genres. Genres are simultaneously
categories of textual forms, forms of social interaction, and forms of cognitive
recognition and shaping of motive and thought. That is, when a text suddenly
appears before our eyes, comes to our desk, or arrives in our mailbox, we start
categorizing it on the basis of certain textual features. It appears on a certain
kind of paper—cheap newsprint folded into about twenty double-size, doublesided
pages or a single sheet of plain white 81/2 X 11 office paper. It may have a
generic heading—“memo” or “proposal”—or the name of a familiar newspaper.
From this we start to form expectations of what it will contain, the kind of
people it is from, what kind of relationship the writer has to us, what kind of
stance the writer will take, how the parts should be arranged, where we should
look for specific material, and most importantly why we would or would not
be interested in it and what we would do with it. In short, we start to frame
personal meaningfulness for our personal purposes and interactions.
We also form expectations and hypotheses about the document based on
when and where it comes to us and our knowledge about the senders and our
relationship to us. It is delivered to the doorstep of our home in the morning. It
comes in the mail with a return address of a bank with which we have no current
business. It arrives in our office inbox signed by the name of the CEO of our
company. Large areas of our social knowledge are activated to work in tandem
with what we find in the text to help us identify what the text is about and what
kind of attention we might give it. Thus we enter into a mental conception of
a social space for interaction within which we start to build relevant meanings,
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
evaluations, and stances. In recognizing the genre, we locate an orientation
toward the text and the details we will find inscribed within it.
If there are gross violations of the expected interaction—if the CEO starts
telling intimate confessions about his personal life, if the bank with which we
do not do business sends us a statement of our account, if the newspaper has
advanced physics equations on its front page—we may well wonder about what
is going on. We wonder whether our boss’s psychological life is in disarray,
or we are a target of a financial fraud. On the other hand, we may find the
answer in the way writers are deploying multiple and complex understandings
of discourse to accomplish novel purposes in the documents. The CEO who
regularly sends out messages to build support for his leadership may, when
facing a scandal, attempt to maintain support by invoking genres of confession
and contrition by baring his heart in the public space of the memo. The bank
may be advertising through fictionalized projected statements of wealth if you
were to take advantage of their services. The newspaper in attempting to report a
major breakthrough may want to quote physical equations not so you can make
calculations, but so you may look in wonder that such a strange phenomenon
may be explained by such a simple equation. Multiple generic expectations are
being combined in creative ways to evoke special meanings for each specific
We learn about what to expect from genres through public and personal
histories of experience with them. Similar looking documents have circulated
in similar systems, available to many participants over a period of time, so that
a range of people can come to recognize and orient toward these documents
with similar understandings of what the documents are doing. Thus the writers
can create similar texts with a reasonable expectation that those understandings
will be evoked by the documents, particularly if the text is given all the physical
appearances that make it recognizable as an exemplar of the genre. At the same
time, our own repertoire of generic understandings is also a function of our
personal experiences with these publicly available genres. Before beginning to
work as a paralegal, we may have very limited sense of the documents that
typically circulate in the legal system, but within a fairly rapid time by observing,
and asking questions we can start to get a sense of the kinds of documents
we need to work with. Additionally, prior experiences may make us familiar
with a special repertoire we may recognize in a more refined way than our coworkers.
If, for example, before working for a law firm we previously worked in
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
an insurance company, we might be specially skilled in understanding internal
insurance company documents when they surface in the course of litigation.
Some genres are well known to almost all members of a culture and are
identifiable by name—for examples in contemporary U.S. cultures most
people are aware of personal thank you letters, autobiographical narratives, and
newspaper editorials. Each of these genres is frequently taught in the middle
grades of schooling, thereby assuring wide familiarity. But in those areas where
we have special experience we may have a very refined set of generic recognitions,
some of which we may articulate with names shared with other experts, but some
may be entirely private recognitions. For example, auto insurance examiners
may know that within the standard damage reports, reports of some kinds of
typical damage from typical accidents don’t need very much elaboration beyond
a few stock phrases and reference to standard book values. However, if a custom
car is involved there may be needed more extensive, novel narrative of damage
and needed repair. Such special contingencies and situations might suggest to
an experienced examiner various kinds of information and narratives that would
meet the needs of the insurance company and address potential litigation. Some
of these additional reports may be laid out in requirements, but some of them
may simply be known through experience of many cases and reading many
examples. Some variants may be entirely idiosyncratic and lack names as when
an examiner over the years has learned that when he writes up certain kinds
of cases in a certain way he runs into difficulties, but if he writes them up in
slightly different way, they are never questioned. Similarly, in reading reports,
he may sense that some of them give him a slightly funny feeling that tell him
he needs to check out a particular aspect of the case, but these have no general
public name and general recognizability.
There is no limit to the number of genres, nor can we say the term refers to
document types of any generality, size, or level of public recognizability. The
process of genre recognition occurs any time any person at any level of awareness
makes some differentiation or particularization of texts on the basis of kind. Of
course, it would be foolish in writing a document to a wide audience to rely
on all the readers being familiar with an esoteric or personally idiosyncratic
genre. On the other hand, if personal knowledge of that genre helps you frame
a solution to a rhetorical problem that can be understood or interpreted in a
more general way, then that unusual genre knowledge has served you well. A
rock composer may use detailed knowledge of Bach’s three-part inventions to
provide harmonic richness to a song, which is hearable to most listeners simply
as a love song with a bit of a classical sound. On the other hand, certain listeners
of the same song may recognize the ironic invocation of folk gospel protest
songs signaled by hortatory metaphoric lyrics, but set against the self-absorption
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
of teenage love ballads of the nineteen fifties backed by syrupy fake-classical
orchestrations. One of the traditional roles of literary and artistic criticism has
been, indeed, to unpack the complex play of types evoked by artistic works that
achieve novel and complex effects.
Through experience we learn about types of utterances that occur within
certain types of circumstances, so that we become attuned to recognize them.
Through experience we learn much about how those utterances go, how
we might understand them, what makes them succeed and fail, and what
their consequences might be. The first time we may need to write a letter of
recommendation for a co-worker seeking a new job, we may be uncertain
about the best things to write and how to present them. But as we come to
read and write many such letters, we gain an extensive repertoire of strategies
and elaborations to draw on, depending on her personal characteristics and
accomplishments, the nature of the job she is applying for, and the particular
situation and process of hiring, We also know what has captured our attention
when reading such letters and what we have found implausible or irrelevant.
We know what kinds of letters have helped people get jobs and which are
ignored. This detailed strategic knowledge can be at any level of the rhetorical
and linguistic realization—from what typeface looks authoritative and what
phrases provide a sense of spontaneous authenticity, to what kind of details
establish the depth of knowledge of the applicant. We not only know the
genre, we know what we can say through the genre, and how the genre can be
made to work.
Even more with experience working with the genre we become familiar with
the variation of situations in which it can be used and the ways the genre can
serve to transform or evolve any particular situation. If we know something
about the organizations our friend is seeking work at, we can modify the letter
to fit the particular hiring processes of the company, the corporate culture, their
current needs, and what they look for in job candidates; we can particularize the
presentation to fit the situation.
Genres frame and locate the moment of writing, but do not obscure it
within generalities. The genre identifies, we might say, a room and an event,
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
and implies some orientations, typical understandings, tools, and possible
trajectories, but it does not tell us exactly how the event is going to unfold.
That is up to the actual people working through their own particular interests
and modes of existence in their own particular ways as they make the event real
and particular. The act of writing then realizes the potentials of action in the
generically shaped moment, a way of fulfilling intentions and goals that can be
achieved within the genre.
If the generic space is crisply defined and compulsory at the moment, and
we have visited such a space often, we enter the genre’s habitat like a welltrained
and well-prepared actor enters into a familiar role, with one’s entire
body and emotions, yet with a reflective distance because we know exactly what
the role is and how to enact it. We can look at the drama unfolding even as
we are totally within it. We may have written shopping lists a thousand times
and have well developed procedures for searching the larder and projecting the
week’s food needs and menus of upcoming parties—nonetheless, we are still
thoroughly within the activity of producing that shopping list, surveying the
stale food in the refrigerator, uncertain about whether the milk is enough to get
us through to next shopping without running out or going sour, and anxious
about the dinner party that evening.
If the generic space is complex and unfamiliar, on the other hand, too
much may be at play to see clearly where all our understandings, thoughts,
and impulses are leading us; nonetheless, even fragmented understanding of
the generic demands and possibilities of the emerging situation can help to
direct and focus our confusions—it is a habitat that we can begin to recognize.
As we recognize that the endangered community day care needs to gather the
support of several key members of the City Council, and that each might be
reached in a different way—one by narratives and personal testimony about the
difference the center has made for local women, another by a detailed economic
report of how the center has extended the work force of local small businesses,
another by the personal evaluation of a long-time respected advisor, another by
a description of the educational character of the children’s activities—we start
to get a better sense of what we are doing, and where we need to go to reach our
long term goals. We may not be sure we understand exactly what is happening
and how well our words are meeting the situation, but we can start to gather
thoughts and channel energies into specific rhetorical tasks.
In either case, whether familiar and simple or unfamiliar and complex, this
habitat becomes a space in which we start to have spontaneous thoughts in
reaction to the particulars of the situation brought together in the interactive
space. With the shopping list, as we remember we will have a vegetarian guest
tonight, we realize we will need to improvise a dish using a tofu substitute for
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
the meat, and as we see more eggs in the refrigerator than expected, we may
start to list other ingredients for the omelets that have just entered into the
menu. Similarly, as we discover that the niece of a council member lives in the
area served by the day care and sends her child there, we may think of inviting
the niece to testify, but realizing that might seem too heavy-handed, we decide
to ask women in situations similar to the niece to testify, perhaps even women
the niece knows.
Thus as the situation emerges in the genred habitats, we come to populate it
with the specifics of life that are far from rule determined or faceless. Even the
simplest and most recurrent spaces can become complex and novel.
Often people associate genres with specific textual features or conventions
that signal presence of the genre or with particular textual patterns or constraints
that come into play once you are in a genre. The genre of sonnet is constitutive
of a formal kind of poem, regulated in formal features of number of lines, verse
and rhyme patterns, meter, and (somewhat more flexibly) subject and stance.
Patent applications are legally regulated in the content and by tradition and
practice in some of their formal appearances. On the other hand, textbooks of
different subjects, levels, and pedagogic philosophies and strategies may vary in
formal appearances, but what is characteristic of them all is that the books are
designed to fit into classroom practices.
Certainly some genres are highly regulated with many compulsory features.
On income tax returns the taxpayer is highly compelled in what he or she must
fill in on each line—name, total gross income, and so on. Even the specific
answer is held accountable by many procedures and related documents so that
the taxpayer cannot make up any number to place in the gross income space. A
letter complaining about a product and seeking refund also must do a number
of standard things to accomplish its ends: identify the product, the place and
time of purchase, the defect, the warranty conditions, the address and identity
of the writer, the specific required adjustment. Further, the letter of complaint
is more likely of success if it follows a standard format of business letters. Yet
a personal letter to a friend who works for a small company may accomplish
the task without once breaking into formality, though it still requires all the
necessary information. The friend will recognize the business letter that lies
beneath and within the friendly note. On the other hand, a business letter that
has all the formal markings and overt signs may fail because it is directed toward
the wrong officer in the company. The company may in fact have intentionally
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
made it confusing to figure out who an unhappy customer should send the
letter to as a way to evade responsibility.
Similarly, the opening phrase “Once upon a time, long ago . . .” signals
many literary understandings about the text drawing on our familiarity with
the genre of fairy tale. Yet such signaling hardly encompasses all we come to
understand about a genre. Although a story may start out the path of a fairy
tale, it may immediately overlay that with science fiction, as in the opening of
the movie Star Wars— “Once upon a time, long ago, in a galaxy far away . . .”
Many kinds of understandings are subsequently invoked as the movie creates its
own place out of many worlds of literary narrative.
Given this range of features that may signal a genre and the range of aspects
that might be then considered typical or constitutive of the genre, the best way
to come to understand a genre is descriptive rather than by any prescriptive
definition of necessary features. What features to describe as most characteristic
of the genre cannot be determined outside of human use and practice. Rather
we as analysts might best begin with what seems to form the similarity and
what other people seem to orient toward in talking about similarity. We might
consider what would surprise the genre users within the genre and how they
would recognize the difference between neighboring similar genres. We should
note what aspects of the genre clue the users into its nature, and what kind of
assumptions or attitude they take for granted as part of the genre. We might
then note what kinds of thoughts users mobilize when they recognize the genre,
and what kinds of interactions they sense they are entering into with what
kind of partners in what kind of institutional setting, in what situation and
moment. That is, we need to take seriously the idea that genre is a psychosocial
recognition category and not fixed in the form of the text. We should
rather attempt to characterize what triggers the recognition and what users then
It is one thing to recognize a potential place of discursive activity within
some ongoing interaction and activity system and even to start to construct an
utterance that would start to carry forward the activity. It is quite another as
writers to have our desired co-participants meet us in that place, to attend to
the discourse at all, let alone with shared understanding. To put it bluntly, we
cannot always get our desired readers to read what we have written, nor with
the desired level of attention, nor with the spirit and attitude we hope for. They
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
may not want to come into the room we create, or at least through the door we
hoped, and they may not remain long enough to understand in detail what we
want to show them. On the other hand, they may stay around too long, poking
into corners and under rugs we don’t care to have them looking into.
We may write a poem and nobody will come visit it. Articles for publication
have to be inviting enough and of the right sort for the editors and reviewers
of the journal to grant space to reach the readers of the journal or magazine or
newspaper. Even if our text gets published, it does not mean that readers will
find the title and subject sufficiently inviting to do more than rush by the door,
or step in for a quick look and then wander away. So the realization of the genre
needs to come alive and deliver something of value to the readers who drop
by with some expectations. It needs to be an attractive example of the genre—
but what makes attractiveness may be very particular to the genre and to the
specific case. In reports of stocks, signs of timeliness and accuracy and depth of
judgment may convince investors to spend their time reading further. Readers
of celebrity fan stories, however, may be looking for endearing personal details.
On the other hand, sometimes people are obligated within their activity
system to attend to a text. Tax inspectors are bound by their conditions of
employment to look over tax forms, and every U.S. income tax form now
undergoes a preliminary computer inspection. So although we don’t desire a
close reading of those texts, we know there will be at least a certain level of
reading, matching numbers on various filings. In fact one rhetorical aim we
may have in filling out our forms is to fill out the form so as to not invite a
deeper reading that might be triggered by some claims that would make the
filing “interesting” or “suspect.” That is we want a certain level of reading and
no more. There are many situations, surprisingly, where we desire to satisfy a
certain level of reading without inviting any deeper or different sets of reading.
We might want our comments on a political candidate to be read as a commonsense
evaluation of their character and accomplishments, without invoking the
sense that we may be speaking from an ideological or partisan position. We may
want to write a letter to a friend attempting to heal a bond without invoking the
differences that caused the problem; we want the letter to be read as a gesture of
pure friendship rather than as a continuing justification of our actions. We may
want the reader of our historical essay to understand the narrative we construct
out of the archival material, but not to question our archival methods; we may
even make some statements indicating our standard professional technique so
as to block that kind of suspicious reading. We want to control the multiplicity
of reading such generic recognitions might invoke.
In some other circumstances, however, we might want to move the reader
beyond an ordinary reading to another level. Students writing a paper for an
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instructor usually want to write the essay to fit the generic expectations of
the assignment to avoid a failing grade. However, some students may wish to
do more than meet the generic requirements of the assignment to be judged
acceptable or even receive an A—they seek to share their thinking and to engage
the teacher in dialogue as a fellow intellectual or a personal mentor.
How others will take up our comments is ultimately beyond our control—
there are limits to how much we can compel others to attend to our words and
what kinds of interpretations they may pursue. Yet it is worth considering how
to encourage readers to take up an invitation and how to keep them from seeing
the text as an opportunity for quarrels and other unwanted interactions. This
issue is explored more fully in Chapter 7 of the accompanying volume on the
Interaction Order.
Having created a recognizable social discursive space for interaction within
an activity system, and having made it inviting enough for others to join in
the party—where does this party take place in relation to the daily, embodied
world in which we live surrounded by other people, weather, animals, rocks,
and buildings? Although we may meet people in the mental spaces created
by genres, both writers and readers live in material social worlds of here and
now (although the here and now of each may be quite distinct). If these texts
influence people, we might reasonably assume they influence how people walk
around and greet people in the material world—or do they live, as Auden claims
of poetry, in the “valley where nothing happens”?
Some genres are directly operative within activity systems that move bodies
and objects around. Shipment orders, bills of lading, and signable receipts put
people and goods in trucks and hold the people accountable for delivering the
goods to other people at certain times. Paperwork in numerous genres makes
possible our system of transfer and movement of goods. In a corporation, each
of the departments—production, sales, marketing, management, and legal—
adds its own layers of paperwork to facilitate making goods and profits and
holding personnel accountable to planned and monitored activities.
As police officers are often heard to complain, the apprehension, trial,
conviction, incarceration, and even execution of criminals is surrounded by
unending genres of paperwork. Despite the claims that this paperwork keeps
the police and other law enforcers from doing their work, it is precisely this
paperwork that ensures law enforcement is the work, rather than an unrestrained
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
and unaccountable exercise of state violence. These law enforcement genres
certainly move bodies around, but in so doing have the potential of transforming
those movements into a rule of law and bureaucratic efficiency—although not
always consistently achieved. The inscriptions created within these genres then
influence the status and life possibilities of each individual inscribed within that
activity system—incarcerated felon or upstanding citizen.
People who work in such systems have some, though perhaps grumbling,
knowledge of the values of the genres in their field. Some of the grumbling,
in fact, may come from the participants knowing only too well how such
documents make their actions and choices accountable. Making an account
is the essence of making oneself accountable. In any event, people could not
knowledgably and intelligently complete the various genres they are required to
complete without some understanding of how these documents circulate and
with what effect. A regular form of training in police and similar organizations
is to raise neophytes’ understanding of the consequences of the documents they
create, so that they take them seriously and provide the kinds of information
necessary for the operations of the rest of the activity system. The more nurses
and doctors understand the kinds of things that can happen if they do not
accurately update the patient’s chart, the more they are likely to write what is
likely to be needed.
Through such activity systems, not only are the material and bodily
movements regulated, they are given meanings. Controlled violence becomes
law and order. Buildings are built that in turn control the movement of people
through halls and elevators and provide locales for interaction. But these
buildings also become part of an educational or a corporate plan or an urban
design. They are even given ideological meaning and consequences as classrooms
are built on an open design or prisons built with panoptical effectiveness.
Educational research on the effectiveness of various arrangements of the
classroom and penology research on the controllability and/or rehabilitative
effectiveness of prison designs in turn may influence architectural documents
which will then influence the future environments that people will live in.
Studies in the sociology and psychology of education may influence arrangement
of seating and the presence of various learning artifacts. Even more, ideas and
research may transform people’s self-understanding of what they are doing in
situations, thereby influencing their behavior. Teachers may talk to students
differently, gather them in different groupings, assign them different activities,
provide different kinds of feedback and support on the basis of the research and
theory that makes its way to teacher education programs, curricular designers,
textbook makers, and individual teachers.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
The genres of psychiatric theory, research, and taxonomies of disorders
influence how clinicians interact with people who seek help and what categories
they provide for patients’ self-understanding. These texts influence what therapies
are offered, what the precise course of treatment looks like, and the behavioral
and emotional criteria by which clients and treatments will be evaluated. They
also influence whom insurance companies will reimburse for what kinds of
treatment. Through such means, the abstract work of psychological theory
becomes embodied in peoples’ lives.
Even the seemingly unworldly activity systems of literature can be traced back
to middle-class people sitting in easy chairs during leisure hours, contemplating
their lives, seeking extensions of their experience vicariously, or escaping daily
woes by exercising fantasies. This is not even to speak of the entire industry and
economics of literary publication, print, book sales, and cultural marketing that
keep many people and objects on the move.
Genres are also held accountable in their own ways to embodied life, social
activity, and other realms outside their boundaries. To carry out their work
properly and without excessive failure producers of genred texts need to attend
to the kinds of realities they inscribe and the kinds of realities that might catch
them up short. Within a rule of law, police must have just cause and evidence
for their actions, which they must be able to produce in courts and other
sites of accountability. If they cannot produce the blood samples and ballistic
tests that match the criminal to the crime, their work adds up to little and
they may even lose public support. Excessive numbers of patient mortalities
may lead regulators and the public to call into question hospital records that
indicate no dire problem. A collapsed bridge calls into account all the reports,
plans, contracts, and inspection reports that went into its construction and
Newspapers are regularly evaluated by the readers and critics on the
procedures by which they gather their stories and their care in substantiation.
Professional journalists develop their standards of ethics by which they hold
themselves accountable precisely so as to raise the public estimation of their
work. Newspapers as well are held accountable by competition from other
papers and news media, by interest groups and politicians trying to tell their
side of the story, by courts and laws, and ultimately by historians. None of
these processes creates an absolute accountability, but rather each provides
a specific kind of challenge that will draw on different evidence, arguments,
and questioning strategies. The newspapers must be able to adequately answer
such challenges from all these directions by the way they gather news (so as to
consider the positions of opposite sides, so as to avoid malicious slander, so
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
as to dig out facts faster than the competition and not to have been blatantly
mistaken, so as in the long run to appear as a reasonable source for history, etc.).
Knowledge producing disciplines, similarly, each have procedures for
holding its members accountable to evidence and experiences that are drawn
on. In anticipation of being called into account, researchers will gather and
inscribe evidence according to the accepted methods and standards of the field.
Skeptical readers or readers of different experience, findings, and conviction
may well demand an accounting or be able to provide persuasive contrary
evidence. However, these forms of developing accountable evidence vary with
the disciplines—gaining a sample of current dialect use through interview with
a person deemed a local speaker and transcribing the recording according to
current linguistic conventions has a very different relation to the material world
than drilling a geologic core and running the components through a variety of
chemical analytic tests. Each must then defend itself against different sorts of
skeptical questions.
Some texts overtly remind readers of the physical location of their purported
creation, (“As I sit here in my prison cell considering the political conditions
that . . .”; “This study was set in motion by certain practical problems regularly
confronted by all teachers. . . .”; “I write this letter much agitated upon hearing
of your impending risky venture . . .”), of the text’s imagined circulation (“As
this plea reaches out to people in all lands . . .”; “In the several days this letter
takes to reach you . . .”), or of conditions of reception and use of this text (“Heed
these words wisely as you set off in your adventures in car maintenance.”)
Texts often use an imaginative reconstruction of these sites of material writing,
publication, and reading as tropes in their own arguments. Some genres even
specify that conditions of production or use be represented within the texts
to serve specific rhetorical functions, as the experimental report requires an
account of the initiating scientific problem; of the method carried out in the
laboratory; and of the actual laboratory happenings—all of which established
the conditions and material for the writing of the report. Similarly, institutional
reports often require accounts of the initiating problem and the procedures by
which the report was produced. On the other end, some genres explicitly index
the conditions of reading and use. For example, repair manuals for physical
devices direct you toward locations and procedures to be immediately found
on the object: “Note on the left front panel, just beneath the display labeled
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
‘distortion’ is a circular dial. As you turn this dial clockwise, when the indicator
line passes the vertical position, you will notice a slight, brief click. This click
enables you to locate the base position.”
Even without these explicit indicators, however, each text has specific
conditions of production, circulation, and use. Our perception of these
conditions influences our understanding of the character and force of the text.
In writing the text we usually are only too aware of the conditions we write
under—our limited resources, our wandering attention, our slightly chilly
room, our boss breathing down our neck. But at the same time those conditions
are transformed by the ideological and social nature of the genre. We may be
sitting at our desk, but that desk is enlisted into a hierarchical and competitive
world of corporate activity, into an evaluative world of an academic course we
are taking, or into the communal work of encouraging friends who are starting
an environmental organization.
Our texts are shaped by the social ideological worlds they are produced for,
and those same worlds are likely to define the distribution and circulation of the
texts. The corporate document is cycled up the organization, to be transformed
by managers who combine it with information from other documents, to be
used in particular meetings as a warrant for further actions. The classroom
essay is placed on the professor’s desk to be marked and returned. The access of
other people to that classroom assignment will be limited unless the professor
spells out particular procedures of group work or publication as part of the
educational experience of the class. The shopping list accompanies us to the
supermarket and then winds up in the wastebasket.
The conditions of use are equally generically shaped by the documents that
help shape them. The corporate memo is to be read by a subordinate to identify
the procedures for carrying out an assignment. Another researcher reads our
research reports as part of a literature search while contemplating a new research
project, or assigns it to a graduate seminar for them to learn the literature of
the field. Within each of these concrete settings, the documents we write add
particular meanings, representations, and actions to carry the activities along.
Through filling virtual spaces of interaction by our written genres we create
meanings that influence others. Our texts become social facts in their worlds,
creating acts out of language. Rhetoric is the art of understanding how that
creation of meaning works, so we a can make meanings that work better for
human action.

Time as well as space creates problems for texts. Although texts are written
at a point in time (or, more exactly, over a span of time, which has an end point
at which the texts are considered adequate to be presented to the intended
audience) and they are read at another moment (or again, more exactly, a
finite span of time), those moments may be far apart and have little to do
with each other except for the text that binds them together. Just as pieces of
paper may appear to be tied down to no particular place, they seem attached
to no particular time. The textual artifact can endure for years without being
used or even looked at. While texts from the future are still a matter of science
fiction, any text still surviving from the past is available for our current use.
Nonetheless, texts arise from historical moments in situations, are directed
toward others located in historical moments, with specific intent to accomplish
ends—influencing people and events within history. So where and how do we
locate texts in time?
In a large scale way we can see the temporality of texts in the changes of
genres that give them shape and locate them within activity systems. Texts seen
as being in older genres carry the scent of a world whose time has passed. Texts
also date in more specific ways. The specific occasions which give rise to texts
emerge, coalesce, then evaporate; or change; or become ossified to become
curious historical landmarks that constrain a changing world. The specific
occasions of reading may be also be concretely tied to immediate events, as one
may refer to a weather prediction the evening before heading out on a fishing
trip, but the weather prediction past its time is not much use, unless to settle a
barroom bet by corroborating an elaborate fish story.
When long-standing texts are seen as still current in their force and meaning,
they tend to maintain earlier moments and arrangements within changing
circumstances, such as happens with sacred texts, constitutions, or (more
obviously problematically) anachronistic laws. Usually the relevance and force
of such enduring texts are supported by equally enduring cultural and social
institutions and practices, such as schools, churches, and courts. Even if our
attentions remain fixed on a long-lived historical text supported by enduring
social institutions, changing events and contexts bring temporal mutability
to the reading and thus the interpretation and meaning of the texts, such as
the extensive theological arguments among religious sects and constitutional
divisions among legal scholars attempting to determine an absolute meaning of
Chapter 3 When You Are
a text from long ago. The attention of readers and the sense they may make of the
text change and evaporate as time and conditions move on, so no ossification can
be absolute. More typically, when we read texts out of their specific cultural and
activity time, we too are engaged in new activities at our moment. Our current
concerns may lead previously ignored documents to suddenly become newly
significant, warranting detailed reexamination. Literary history is filled with
the rising and falling stock of different writers arising from changing cultural
concerns and tastes. To read through the history of Shakespeare criticism is to
learn as much about the obsessions of different cultural moments as it is to
learn about Shakespeare. This is equally true of our changing views of political
documents and philosophic texts.
These waves of history are what the Greeks called kairos, a term that finds
its etymology both in an archery target made by stretched strings and the
transient openings in the weaving of cloth as the shuttle passes through the
emerging network of thread (Miller, 1992, p. 313). This etymology vividly
highlights the transience of events and the opportunities and threats events
offer, but even more how reacting to those opportunities and threats adds to
the unfolding events, helps extend the cloth. Events are moments of cultural
formation, of intersubjective attention, and of conjoint activity. Events are
phenomenologically perceived by participants as salient in the organization
of unfolding activity. In face-to-face conversation time seems to happen
unremarkably. We all know the time of day and year, the chronos by which we
have come to mark time as a regular periodicity. If we are uncertain we can
check our watches and calendars or the sun (although calendars and clocks, we
should note are inventions precisely to inscribe time in a regularized symbolic
order, to be laid on top of unfolding events so we can plan, contemplate, hold
each other accountable for timeliness. Less determinatively, however, we also
sense the unfolding of events, the phenomenological time we move through in
the presence of others—we estimate our days through the pace of the activities
we are part of, and in the gathering of people and actions in focused events.
At times this sense of the moment comes to conscious attention, such as when
we await the right moment to enter into a discussion. Raising to conscious
contemplation this sense of the right moment is the function of the classical
term of kairos, to help us attend to the temporal location, moments that gather
and fade, the passing opportunities we may perceive and grab, so as to change
the course of events through our timely intervention.
As writers of texts we also ride the waves of time, time in which we perceive
our own urgencies of action, time in which we see others pursuing their
own course of interests with actions at their own pace. At some moment we
perceive events coming together in a time where a text would serve us well.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Our perception of the moment includes whether the time is ripe for other
participants to receive our text. Will they pay attention to it? Will it change
the course of their actions? Will it redefine a situation for others so that they
will receive another person’s message differently. By inserting our texts in the
right moment in the right situation, we not only assert ourselves, we assert our
perception of time and events into the unfolding realities. If others recognize
the moment and space of our utterance, they share with us a common moment,
a common time of coordinated attention. The recognition of genre is important
in this coordination. Insofar as we create a mutually recognizable act in such
shared moments, we create a social fact that may have long-term consequences
for us and the others who come after. In writing we need to shoot an arrow from
our time to land within the time net of others.
In our texts we even create further senses of time. The text is something that
is read within time, and has its own pace or affords the reader multiple options
of time in reading. We may write a text that needs slow word-by-word attention
if it is to be meaningful or we may design a text that allows a busy executive to
find a significant fact rapidly. We may write a text that allows various readers
to enter in with different sequence and pacing. We both mesh with their time
and then ensnare the reader within the time and space of our text for as long
as they stay engaged with our text. This phenomenological sense of textual
time transforms the embodied reader’s perceived path through the day into
a space of information, reflection, and ideational comment, moving with the
pace of the ideas held up for inspection in the text. Readers may then return to
their embodied world carrying the remnants of the textual time, such as with
a panicked sense of rapidly unfolding global climate catastrophe presented in
the environmental report the have just read or with the contemplative sense of
eternity in a poem. Reading takes time out from the embodied day to assert
new time scales and events into it.
One further sense of time in the text is that of the events represented in the
text. Our slowly-read text may nonetheless represent a rapidly moving world—a
world that we vainly try to hold still by our acts of aesthetic lengthening. Or
we may present a world of deep causality where paleolithic events still leave
their mark on the current landscape around us. This world of represented time
also may change the reader’s perception of the embodied world around them.
We may walk down the street thinking not only of the ripening season, but
of the ripening economy, the ripening of philosophic questions, the geologic
unfolding of our region, or the seasons of the heart. So texts are not just
themselves part of cultural and historic moments, they influence the experience
of moments and the reflective perception of moments. To know the moments
of the texts we receive and shape the texts to create moments of attention, spots
Chapter 3 When You Are
of time, we need to start to construct a sense of the way texts sit within and
locate themselves in time.
Anyone who has done historical work in archives of a previous century
knows how the documents carry the aroma of an earlier way of life. A look at
old family documents brings us back not only to past events, but to the pace
and relations of past days. Even genres that seem to have a fairly fixed form over
time depend on the enduring cultural activity systems in which they reside and
thrive, even as these systems evolve. People read novels of a few centuries ago
and from another culture, but only because of continuing institutions of leisure,
access, and education. Except for a limited number of titles that are continuingly
renewed by new editions and film remakes, these older texts vanish into the
obscurity of libraries, to be only occasionally looked at by scholars or people
with antiquarian tastes—people who as part of their own current activity seek
to be transported backward. Jane Austen’s novels may be constantly revived, but
what about those of contemporary author Tobias Smollett of Peregrine Pickle
fame, and even lesser literary lights of late eighteenth century England? The
revivals of old texts in addition to reinserting those texts within current systems
of text distribution and the economics of publication, update the pleasures,
and renew and reinterpret tastes and cultural systems of prior dates, holding
them up for our own uses of cultural ideals and nostalgia. They also in part
reproduce prior structures of cultural consumption, as a culturally complex
form of connoisseurship. People delight in being able to spend their leisure by
going backwards in imagined time—not only in the subject matter, but in the
style of reading.
More concretely, consider such apparently timeless documents as birth
and death records. These are only maintained as continuous and accessible
by the continuing institutions that collect and house them, such as churches
and governments. Even then, as anyone who has worked with such historical
records knows, they must be interpreted in terms of the practices and uses
of document at the time of original collection. Were births recorded on the
first day of life or at baptism or after a year survival, at the hospital, the city
hall or a religious institution, of all people or only of certain segments of the
population? Further, we only go back to inspect such documentary remains as
part of our own current cultural activities, whether reconstructing economic
and health conditions or recovering our family histories which carry meanings
for us now. Old texts are occasionally revived and given new social meanings
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by changing social concerns that give them new relevance—currently in the
Americas early Spanish colonial documents are being dusted off because of our
need to reevaluate colonialism and its impact on a world now trying to reach
toward new forms of global organization. Similarly, continuing relevance of
ancient legal documents may be affected by the continuity of legal systems that
provides such prior documents current legal force or influence.
The continuing relevance of the most ancient and stable of texts, the
sacred scriptures of living religions—the Bible, the Mahabharata, the Koran—
again depend on the continuing religious institutions wherein they remain
centerpieces of moral and philosophic worlds. Scriptural religions revive the
texts, constantly reinserting them in people’s lives. Similar texts of now extinct
religions—such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead—have a different kind of
contemporary status, primarily in the activities of scholars or those seeking after
hidden knowledge of the ancients. If, however, they should become the center
of a renewed cult or are taught in surveys of world culture, they again take
on new sets of meanings and new forms of circulation—such as, for example,
occurred when the tablets containing the Gilgamesh epic were discovered in
1853 after remaining buried and unread for millennia.
However, even the most stable of sacred scriptures are parts of changing
religions in changing worlds, and thus change their meanings. Changing
congregations, liturgies, sermonic practices, philosophies, life problems, church
economics, and ambient cultural practices—among many other factors—
constantly reposition the ancient sacred texts within modern activity systems.
Even the most conservative text-bound cults within those religions, most
dedicated to maintaining the word as written, nonetheless, constantly change,
even just in addressing the contemporary challenges facing them in their efforts
to hold to the old ways. It is very different to be a literalist New Testament
believer in seventeenth century England than in twenty-first century Georgia
or Mexico City.
Texts are often part of local and immediate events as these events unfold.
For example, an annual projection of a city’s economy made by an economist in
the employ of the chamber of commerce enables local government and business
to plan and make decisions over the ensuing months. One year the release of a
particularly dire forecast leads to a series of newspaper stories and statements by
local leaders—followed by a plan issued by the local chamber of commerce to
be placed before the city council. Each of these documents is timely, speaking
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to the unfolding events. If a local industry seeks to use these events to gain
tax abatement for a long planned expansion, they might time their request for
tax relief to take best advantage of the increasing anxiety and to fit into the
emerging plan for city action. While all the projections and plans may later
be of historical and comparative interest (to answer such currently-oriented
questions as how the economy has grown over the years, and what we can
learn from responses to previous downturns), they are all in the initial moment
directed at influencing actions to be taken in the near term.
Some documents are, however, designed to be used in a variety of situations
that may occur over an extended period, such as a reference book like a
dictionary. But even then each use is motivated by the particular circumstance
and needs of the user, which a well-designed reference attempts to anticipate.
What kinds of occasion will send people to a dictionary to check spellings or an
alternative meaning? How can the dictionary be designed to be handy for these
situations? Even general purpose dictionaries make assumptions about the level
of detail and needs of the users, as well as how the users have to configure their
behavior to be efficient or appropriate users—in fact we have to be taught in
school appropriate and efficient methods of dictionary use.
The constantly emergent and self-making aspects of kairos suggest we need
to attend to the unfolding events in which we are engaged, and to notice the
process of their unfolding so as to spot targets for our comments. But of course
our spotting of openings is influenced by our perceptions, of what is unfolding
and where things are going, of what kind of cloth is being woven, and what
kind of yarn we may add to make it something that contains our own meanings
and desires.
Some targets are clearly held up by others for us to notice as when a funding
agency sends us a form that we are invited to complete or a company announces
it is accepting employment applications. Our decision is only whether we will
aim for those targets. Some of those targets we are even compelled by law to
address, as when we are required to submit our annual tax returns or to report
births and deaths. Even these communicative moments, however, we may turn
our backs on, though at the risk of penalties.
Other targets are so fleeting and evanescent that they only exist when
a visionary individual sees it and then speaks to it, providing the means in
retrospect by others to recognize the moment that has been seized. Nobody else
might have recognized that moment in that way nor seen it as an opportunity
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to be seized. Imagine a group of people sitting in a circle talking. Each sees
different moments to jump in, and each seems to jump in from a different
angle, taking the conversation in a particular direction. If it is a particularly
heated discussion perhaps several people will always be ready to jump in, as they
each note a break in the previous person’s talk, a moment at which they might
interrupt. However, it is likely that each of these would-be speakers would want
to contribute something different. They will each likely find in the discussion to
that point a different and will each find a different opening in the moment for
weaving a different kind of cloth.
Now extrapolate this situation from face-to-face conversation to
communication at a distance. So many documents may be seen by individuals
pursuing different sets of interests, that people may likely see the unfolding
events and the moments for opportune intervention differently. The resulting
texts in response will likely vary in how they represent the moment, what they
say, and how they try to seize the moment. Even when many people, aligned in
similar ways, are paying attention to widely known events, their senses of the
moment may be varied and inchoate until a single text—a government report,
the carefully composed speech of a political leader, the powerful sermon—
crystallizes a mood and moment. Shared institutions, shared immediate
public facts and events, shared social positions and urgencies, then make these
audiences ready to accept the author’s framing of the moment, letting them
recognize through the utterance that this is exactly where they are at and what
they need at this moment. No matter how much the speaker’s situation is
prepared by institutional and historical pressures creating an opportunity, it
is only the rhetor’s grabbing of the moment in a particular way that coalesces
the moment and gives the audience the occasion to recognize what a powerful
moment it is.
Even if our words are not part of dramatic one-time events, we often know
when in a typical chronological sequence texts come to us and when we need
to produce texts in response. Some texts are set according to chronological
guidelines. Income taxes in the United States are due on April 15 of every year or
the report is due on the boss’s desk next Tuesday. These calendar times indicate
a local organizational time. The April 15 tax deadline is timed within a cycle of
financial record keeping and reporting based on financial events in the previous
calendar year, but reported to us and the government early in the new year on
forms familiar to taxpayers as W2, 1099, and so on. Tax review procedures
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occur afterward when we may be held accountable for the information we filed,
but there are limited periods of liability and compulsory record keeping. So we
can throw away most of our records after seven years. All of these temporalities
bear on how we fill out our forms.
The report to the boss is in relation to the unfolding of a project, the internal
temporality and deadlines of that project, expectations of the management, the
promised customer delivery date, the quarterly corporate earnings report, and
so on. All of these may bear to some degree on what we write to the boss on
that Tuesday. Similarly, candidates’ statements and political news are shaped by
the closeness of the impending election, the unfolding electoral events, and the
dynamics of forming new administrations after the elections. Events, sources
available to journalists, and the interests of the readers all conspire to make the
texts time-sensitive.
Even if we are not writing within a specific chronological frame for known
events or known organizations, still our texts are likely used at certain moments
within repetitive and predictable activity systems and action procedures.
Parts manuals in auto garages are consulted at specific junctures such as in
establishing inventory, costing and planning repairs, assembling correct parts
for individual jobs, and in billing customers. The construction of such manuals
(or their new electronic equivalents with even greater capabilities of integrating
and facilitating functions) needs to be aware of these typical activities, to fit the
moments of use. TV schedules similarly incorporate innovations to facilitate the
scanning of alternatives during a free moment between shows or in planning
out the evening’s entertainment. So even though documents are created and
consulted asynchronously and participants may be attending to documents
through multisynchronous frames (either conflicting or coming together over a
specific event), yet chronicity guides both writer and reader.
Particular documents may have the generic or specific mandatory force in
directing the production of a sequence of future documents. A city council
announcement of a special election sets in motion a predictable sequence of
print and speech genres. Likewise, a directive of a committee chair can set out a
sequence of reports, reviews, and comments that will lead to a committee ballot
on a proposal. This sequence may further set out an enforceable sequence of
calendar dates for deadlines, filings, and actions.
Since all utterances are designed to have some influence or uptake they all
speak not only to their moment but to the moments that follow. Some texts
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may embody specific designs for influence and aim at specific consequences: the
home improvement loan application, the advertisement with a return form or
discount coupon, the student essay that aims to have the teacher writing an A
on top. Some documents may be embedded within institutions that carry out
substantial consequences of the text—the judicial decree that can send someone
to prison or set them free, the CEO’s directive that can authorize a hefty bonus,
the military order that will set assault teams in motion.
Sometimes that desired influence will be more modest: to gain the recognition
that you have filed the necessary papers in a timely way so that you will not be
penalized for negligence or to announce that you are aware of certain facts.
The influence a text may seek on future events may be less clear-cut. Even a
private journal of personal experiences affects the diarist’s thinking, perceptions,
and consequent actions. The diarist feels better or worse, more determined and
focused on action or confused and uncertain, leading to inaction. The diarist
comes up with phrases to be used in more public communications in the future,
now that he or she knows his or her thoughts and feelings.
Because of this desire to influence future actions, the effectiveness of
documents may be improved if we can reasonably project the moment at
which the document will be taken up by others, under what conditions,
constraints, and motives. For example, if we are writing a letter of application
for a job, it may help us to be aware that the letter will go to a personnel officer
reviewing documents for five different positions simultaneously, each of which
may have a hundred applicants. And further, before the officer goes home
today he or she must pick a short list of people to interview for each position.
Those constraints may help us decide what would get favorable attention.
What works under these conditions of reading and decision making, however,
may not work when we are among a small hand-picked group invited to apply
for an elite position, where our letter will be read and discussed carefully by a
blue-ribbon committee and held in explicit comparison to the letters of three
other hand-picked candidates. To have any hope of influencing future events
in either case, we need some plausible sense of what those future moments
would be like.
In those moments of uptake the readers usually only have a limited number
of plausible actions to choose from. Being able to project this future can help
shape our writing to better effect. If the applications are to be initially reviewed
to select a short list for further interview, some issues may be premature to raise.
On the other hand, if hiring happens directly from the application, we may
want to be explicit about our requirements for pay and privileges.
Most wide-circulation publications as well have short shelf-lives, even if
later they take on different existence as historical documents. Newspapers and
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online news sites measure life in hours and days. Magazine articles need to be
of interest in the month of release, and any extended reprint life is a bonus.
Most wide-circulation books need to gain popularity fast or vanish from the
bookstore shelves within months; only a rare few books gain a long-standing
place on publisher backlists. Even libraries, except for research libraries that
need to keep an historical archive, periodically get rid of older books that no
longer are of interest to the community. Research articles in scientific and
scholarly journals may be read for a number of years, but only a few get noticed,
read and cited as the years go on. Citation half-life, a concept from information
sciences, measures the extinguishing relevance of research articles for current
Writing that is intended for relevance to multiple readers over an extended
period of time still has temporality. Self-help books are read by people at
particular junctures in their lives; further, the tides of fashion, culture, and
knowledge make likely that the book will eventually be dated. Textbooks are
used with temporal sequences of classroom activities which the books must
support; additionally, knowledge grows and changes—so a textbook usually
must report the most current disciplinary findings while avoiding uncertain
new results that may be discredited during the anticipated life of the book.
Reference books, likewise, must walk the line between being current and being
transiently faddish. The best way to assure a text some enduring life is for it to
gain a central role in an enduring institution, such as a church, university, or
a government not troubled by coups, revolutions, or reconstitutions. (I would
mention the recent attempts of L. Ron Hubbard, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and
Uzbekhi tyrants to live by this wisdom, but their attempts may evaporate soon,
thereby dating this current book which I am trying to fit within the very slow
rhythms of academic rhetorical theory, which even keeps alive fragments that
predate Socrates). Of course, even if you get the work a safe institutional home,
then the rhythms and patterns of institutional activity will still shape when and
how the old book will be pulled out and read.
Some texts are designed to fit within the rhythms of life—such as the
phone book consulted when there is an immediate need for information. Any
significant delay in finding the phone number, pulling the reader away from
the pressures of life, will be a cause for irritation. Other texts, in contrast, are
designed to remove us from the here and now—to help us forget a long airplane
ride or to lift us from our living room easy chair to pre-Cambrian rain forests.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
The texts used within daily time urgencies need to be designed for
convenient and easy access during those activities and to provide desired
resources for those other activities to justify whatever time out required for
reference. The encyclopedia article must make its information easy to locate and
must provide good and useful information worth the time to read paragraphs.
During that period the reader enters encyclopedia time, becoming a processor
of encyclopedic information, engaged in highly focused search for desired
information and building up a schematic representation of the subject. But the
reader also enters into a world of disrupted chronologies, of atomized parallel
sequences that can be jumped across by cross-reference. The reader, familiar
with the organization of such texts as encyclopedia articles or research papers,
though, can restructure the order of reading and the amount of time devoted to
various parts to meet personal need.
On the other hand most of our expectations and training of reading
predispose readers to giving their time over to the writer. The writer then can
sequence the movement through topics, holding various objects and ideas up
for the reader’s contemplation—lingering on some, passing rapidly through
others, transforming ideas sequentially.
The writer may also attempt to control the temporal experience of the reader
more minutely by controlling the rhythms of the text, the difficulties of the
syntax, the technicality of the language, the digressions or explanations—or
by the directness and simplicity of a narrative. The writer may try to make the
reader stop and figure things out or hold up a multi-faceted object for wonder,
or the writer may move the reader rapidly across a clearly marked landscape
where pieces fall quickly in place.
While such issues may bring to mind the aesthetic concerns of poetry
and fiction, they are pervasive in many kinds of daily texts. In an article in a
management magazine the bulleted lists of advice facilitate the reader stopping
to think about their own current situations and problems. An economics
article in the same magazine may alternate between easy to read scenarios of
business activities and short dense paragraphs of economic reasoning over
which the reader may need to pause, but not too long, before being given
another fast moving survey of the current economic landscape. Such issues are
characteristically discussed under the heading of style—but they are as much
a matter of moving the reader through states of consciousness, attention, and
mood as they are about the specifics of the language used to do so.
In between these extremes of reader-timed texts and writer-timed texts are
many middles. The writer may assist the reader in shuttling between alternative
times and current concerns. The management article discussed just above are
part of a class of self-help articles that do not so much tell the reader remarkably
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new things as give the reader a leisured opportunity to contemplate their
current situation with the reminder of some familiar prescriptions. Other
kinds of instructional and do-it-yourself texts provide guidance for a hands-on
operation, but in a slowed-down instructional mode. A plumbing guide may
take time to explain how valves work—for a moment transporting the reader
inside the valve to notice the seating of the washers and the mechanisms of flow
and interruption—so that the home-owner can diagnose and repair the leaky
Even the most abstracted intellectual texts may need to bring the reader out
of the world of abstractions back down to their daily experience and concerns
so they can understand concretely what the ideas mean in practice and perhaps
identify moral or ethical applications. Spiritual books, for example, often mediate
between the eternity of timeless truths inscribed in long-enduring sacred texts
and the daily worries and puzzles of people taking time to contemplate their
lives, relations, and souls.
Even fictions and entertainments draw on readers concerns, frustrations,
and experiences of the daily world, pulling the readers from their street presence
into an audience—as the old tradition of dramatic prologue explicitly did.
Throughout the fiction daily experiences and life knowledge are transformed and
played upon. Sometimes this worldly connection is explicit as in political satire
or social problem literature, with perhaps some intention of transforming the
audience’s perception and experience of the world. Sometimes the connection
with the world is more distant, as the audience is left only with a sense of
refreshment, a reminder of emotions not felt in a while, and perhaps a different
way of looking at people or events.
Texts have the potential of linking our time and other times overtly
discussed in the text. An account of prior periods may exercise our historical
imaginations, add to our knowledge, and draw us back to an earlier time for a
few hours. It may also help us recognize our current moment as analogous or
even continuous with earlier moments, so we see our contemporary concerns as
part of larger flows of economic or political developments. Texts also introduce
readers to alternative ways of thinking about time—as we perhaps first
experience Proustian reminiscent time or we start to become aware of geologic
time. Some texts give us means to think of ourselves positioned in that time—as
accounts of biological and or cultural evolution may do. Texts further can make
these time frames visible and important to us, helping us see the multiplicity of
times in our lives. This transforming of our sense of our own time can change
our ideational or ideological orientation to the embodied world. Chapter 10 of
this volume will explore more fully how a writer can help direct and organize
the reader’s experience of time.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Sequences of text, too, bring their temporality in how they represent our
time and how they construct times for literate interchange. Emails may come
rapidly on one another, pressing for immediate response, while journals have
monthly or annual cycles and represent events with longer flows. Records of our
life events, educations, and careers add up over a lifetime, while great intellectual
and aesthetic traditions are seen in the flow of centuries.
Academic courses for the most part are linearly sequential processes,
defined by the structured time of a syllabus. Major asynchronicities only
arising from students’ bending of deadlines and teachers’ delays in returning
marked papers—with well-known difficulties arising from both. The main
potential source of multi-synchronicity is in the assigned readings that come
from different times, places, and activity systems. Many classes avoid these
complexities by only using a textbook of recent vintage that homogenizes and
codifies knowledge in what appears to be a timeless way, but actually reflects
an author-imposed consensus slightly behind the leading edge of disciplinary
inquiry and controversy. Synchronic discontinuity is only foregrounded when
textbooks are clearly out of date or late-breaking highly publicized findings
directly contradict the book’s teaching.
History and literature courses which consider temporally and culturally distant
themes and materials, however, often introduce texts that are explicitly asynchronous
with the classroom moment. That asynchronicity is foregrounded and managed
by the standard classroom distinction of primary and secondary texts to be read
in distinctively different ways—the primary to be interpreted as historical fact or
privileged literary experience out of time, and the secondary as reliable knowledge in
the synchronic now of the classroom. Only in more advanced classes in the subject,
as students start reading multiple, conflicting texts are issues of multi-synchronous
relations of texts usually dealt with. And even then, an official narrative of a main
textbook may put all the developments into a normalized historical narrative, fitting
all the texts within classroom time that unfolds from the handing out of the first day
syllabus until completion of exam and posting of grades.
The task of attuning to asynchronous and multi-synchronous processes of
literate interaction is more invisible and harder to monitor—but to people who
have been engaged in an academic or professional specialty for a while, it is
apparent who the newcomers are, those who may do things technically properly
but don’t know the underlying dynamics and pacing of the discussion and
the most effective moments for intervention. Neophytes are characteristically
judged as either too hesitant to enter when they need to or too quick to speech
when they might wait for events to unfold a bit more.
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Lawyers, for example, learn to juggle the asynchronicity and multisynchronicity
of relevant precedents, antiquated laws that have been
reinterpreted in practice, larger judicial issues that are making their way up
the court system, changing legislative mandates on county courts, the politics
of impending district attorney elections, the particular events involving the
victim and the accused, the commitments and habits of the presiding judge
and the unfolding of this particular trial, with multiple filings, appeals, and
actual courtroom events that lawyers must respond to. The complexity of events
moving on different time scales is ignored at the client’s peril.
Finally, writers should consider the time it takes to develop a piece of
writing—what has been called the writing process. During this process, a writer
engages in many different kinds of activities that ultimately bear on the final
text produced but that are not necessarily represented or manipulated in the
final text. Early idea-generation activities differ from those that developed
concrete plans, those that produced some text, and those directed at reviewing
and improving produced text. Such differing activities are often identified by
terms such as pre-writing, inventing, planning, draft-writing, revision, editing,
and proofreading. People do not necessarily follow these activities in a simplestage-like
manner, but rather move around them in a recursive fashion. Further,
people’s processes turn out to be highly individualistic, depending on personal
habits and tastes, along with the particular circumstances of each writing
situation. Yet the overall sequence of activities helps a writer bring a text into
being, emerging from first thoughts into polished prose.
Awareness that writing takes time and only gradually emerges through a
variety of activities relieves a writer from the anxieties that come from a sense of
incompletion and imperfection. Writers do not have to produce fully-formed
text from the beginning. After all, writers are solving problems and figuring out
what they have to say as they go along, so necessarily the partially emerged text
will appear flawed and imperfect with problems still to be solved. Awareness of
process opens up the temporal space of production as something to be thought
about, worked with, perhaps rearranged or managed, rather than something to
be simply painfully endured or to suppress from consciousness.
Even though writing processes may not always be carried out in a clearly
marked stages with definitive borders as one moves from one stage to the next,
the awareness that the writer’s primary attention is now focused on one level of
work, and that the writer can rely on one having previously thought through
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certain levels of work, and that other kinds of things will be worried about
later, keeps the writer from having to feel compelled to juggle too many tasks at
once. The writer can think about sketching out big ideas, or search for strong
examples without having to worry about sentence coherence or spelling or
accurate typing. All will be worried through and done in its time.
An awareness that processes vary according to personal habits, task, and
situation, invites writers in each situation to articulate and improve their habits
without imposing an uncomfortable general model. And it invites writers to
think of the nature of the task and situation facing them and how their personal
habits may be accommodated and exploited to advantage in any particular case.
Chapter 12 of this volume provides further thoughts on the nature of writing
processes and how they can be managed effectively.
The perspective on genre and activity systems presented in this book also
provides additional dimensions to observing, understanding, and managing
writing processes. Each genre suggests the kinds of resources that need to be
drawn on and brought into it, the ways in which they should be typically
represented, the aspects that will be evaluated and expected and therefore need
to be attended to with special care, and thus the kind of work needed to produce
those documents. If a psychological experiment will likely be evaluated on its
methodologically correct and precise account of how the data was produced
and recorded, a writer will design one’s experiments and record the design
and ensuing events so as to produce an accountable narrative of method. If
an autobiographic reverie is dependent on the depth and richness of texture
of memory, an essential part of the writing process is to find ways to tap into
deep sensory memory. In writing for a job application, where judgments about
competence are likely to be made on final appearance and formal correctness,
then the writer might build in multiple end-of-the-process inspections.
Further, each genre just as it carries out typical forms and activities carries
with it typical situations and processes of production, learned as part of learning
the genre. Learning to write a news story occurs at the city hall, in making
connections with informants, in conducting interviews, as well as at the
keyboard. It involves learning how to keep a reporter’s notebook and when to
make an audio recording. It means learning when and where to compose a story
so as to meet deadlines, but not too early to miss late-breaking events. It has to
do with learning about the typical ways of the newsroom and the editor, and a
thousand other things that old hands know about the profession in general and
idiosyncratically at a particular newspaper.
The story of the newsroom highlights that processes of text production
are embedded in the entire discursive activity system—and learning the genre
and how to do it is learning the activity system, where the process of writing
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documents within the system fits in to all the ongoing activities, including
editorial assignments, paper policies, and budget meetings. Further, it lets one
know where the supports and resources are—the ongoing relationships with
informants and public relations offices, the available files in the newspapers, the
wire services.
One can even predispose audiences to positive reception of the text
by engaging them in the production. Gaining the opinions of the upper
management on what kind of information is needed in a business report and
requesting access to relevant file, can increase the likelihood that the report
will speak to their needs and perceptions in highly effective ways. Having the
right people reviewing document drafts may turn these influential readers into
committed advocates even before the document is released.
Every piece of writing is deeply embedded in some activity system, and the
more deeply one understands that system and its rhythms, the more one can
let the activity system help one produce the document—drawing on, being
directed by, leaning against, and creatively resisting the ongoing welter of
events, artifacts, resources, and personalities, to produce an emergent text that
draws on the strengths of that system to be influential within it. Some students
learn how to use the activity and rhythms of the class to build their papers
and some never manage to get in the swing of things, so that they seem to be
taking a correspondence course—sending in papers from cognitive, social, and
temporal places that are distant from the activity of the classroom. A paper
submitted three months after the end of the class, when the student and teacher
are off doing and thinking about other things, goes without the supportive
environment that surrounds other students writing to the same assignment.
Strong writing draws on its time and speaks to its time. It knows when it is.
The previous chapters have represented written texts (although they may
appear to come from nowhere and to travel to everywhere) as always being
contexted in the lives of the people who read and write and located in social
spaces within which the texts circulate. The typification of genre draws
participants together in recognizable activities and contexts crystallized by the
genre. Even someone scratching an X on the ground where a hole is to be dug
potentially evokes a history of maps (and even tales of pirate treasure)—or at
least draws on a history of worksite inscription practices to identify specific
places to be acted on.
Each new text can relate to prior texts in other ways. Sometimes the text may
directly and self-consciously identify other texts it builds on or sets itself against;
sometimes the reference is more implicit, but intentional; and sometimes the
relation is entirely submerged, relying on familiar textual traditions and cultural
Intertextuality is this relationship among texts, and it forms a separate
domain or location within which texts can act. That is, intertextuality is both a
resource activated in texts and forms a playing field upon which texts can assert
their place, meaning, and consequence. The more deeply we understand the
intertextual resources we inevitably draw on whenever we write, the more we
will be able to manage, deploy, and position our writing with greatest clarity
and intent upon this history of texts and how the readers may perceive those
prior texts. And the more we understand how the texts we read also rely on
prior texts, we can understand with greater clarity what they are trying to
accomplish on which playing field, and whether we are satisfied with the kinds
of intertextuality they construct.
Texts are to some extent like interactions mediated in speech. A series of
letters may serve in a friendship or a business relationship much as a series
of turns in a conversation, so that each new utterance relies on and speaks
Chapter 4 The World of Texts: Intertextuality
to the previous ones and sequentially is part of the temporal unfolding of
arrangements, relationships, and activities. But texts endure beyond our fading
memories of previous conversations, and so we can look at them to refresh our
memories, and we can refer to them as enduring artifacts in our new statements.
We may even quote them. If memories of our readers differ, we can produce
the prior letters, if we have saved them. Thus as texts add up into an archive
they become a binding resource on the current moment, locating current events
within a documentable space of prior texts.
Texts outside the immediate interchange may also come to be treated as
relevant, becoming accountable facts within the interactional situation. We
may introduce a prior contract that encumbers current negotiations. No matter
what current participants in the negotiation wish, they must now recognize and
respect the terms of the prior contract. Or, in another situation, we may refer to
a shameful family secret revealed in a letter that Aunt Rosie sent us. Of course
we could mention Aunt Rosie’s spoken comments or could even suggest our
respondent go speak to Aunt Rosie—but the enduringness and circulation of
documents means that Aunt Rosie’s divulging of that secret cannot be denied or
radically misconstrued or misremembered. These circulating documents, both
contract and personal secrets, may even be seen and read by numerous people
not part of the original or the current communicative interaction unless we
burn them or otherwise keep them hidden.
Networks of documents grow and circulate, and become mutually accessible,
particularly after the inventions of print, cheap paper, and widespread literacy.
Libraries, mass printings, and the transformative ease of digital communication
and the World Wide Web means that there are extensive sets of documents
that can be brought to bear on any new circumstance, written or spoken. Texts
become accountable to wide bodies of prior texts which are deployable as
The status of the intertext, nonetheless, remains tied to social and
institutional arrangements that value texts and how texts become intertwined
with social arrangements. Consider, for example, the history of the relation
of oral and written contracts. Before writing, all agreements were oral. When
writing entered the picture, writing was only used to remind people of spoken
agreement. The written document only eventually gained the status of an
enforceable contract as business law became a matter of record, and business
records established accountability for business practices. Now spoken contracts
have a much more dubious status and are harder to enforce, and all major
agreements are reduced to writing, with the written form taking legal priority
over any oral understandings (Tiersma, 2010).
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
With the coming of the Internet we now recognize a virtual world consisting
of digital communications, representations, and interactions, yet this virtual
world has been growing since the inception of literacy, as people started to
orient toward collections of texts as significant parts of their worlds, to which
they might appropriately respond with more texts. Texts bind together groups
of people who have access to, interests in, or responsibilities toward particular
kinds of documents. People in academic specialties are expected to be familiar
with the literature of their fields so as to be able to contribute to that literature
and apply it to cases where their expertise is called on. Lawyers need to keep
up to date on the latest rulings as well as prior precedents and laws so as to
have maximum resources in their own pleadings and to be able to counter the
deployment of these texts by their opponents. Stamp collectors and aficionados
of the fictions of Thomas Pynchon each have their bodies of texts that help form
the substance and interactions of their socio-literate worlds. For millennia,
pervasive intertextuality shaped the world of religious scholars devoted to sacred
texts and commentaries; similarly, now pervasive intertextuality has come to
remake the world of increasingly large numbers of people in economically
advanced societies. Institutions of law, bureaucracy, government, corporations,
finance, health care, science and social science, social welfare, academic research,
entertainment, journalism, and publishing—to name just a few—transform our
here and now lives in relation to deep archives of records, files, and knowledge.
Through the work of intertextually-guided professionals, these archives become
relevant for who we are, what we do, and how we are to be treated in the current
moment. Over a century ago we recognized the formation of large white-collar
workforce and more recently we have come to call ourselves the information
society. The requirements for education and high levels of literacy have increased
for those who wish to participate fully and establish high levels of agency in this
new way of life. Everyone needs to be able to move through realms of texts as
adeptly as they navigate the physical world, perhaps even more adeptly.
Bodies of texts not only provide a terrain against which new utterances
may emerge, they have their own rhythms of temporality. Documents from
the deep past may be rehabilitated and made immediately relevant, as when an
ancient law or a philosophic argument is brought from the recesses of forgotten
archives to be claimed to rule in a current case. Different domains have different
relevancies for documents of different ages, and how prior texts may be recalled
and made relevant to the moment at hand. Arguments may evolve slowly
or rapidly based on whether significant, slowly maturing statements appear
perhaps only several times in a century, or financial trades are transmitted and
responded to in micro-seconds.
Chapter 4 The World of Texts: Intertextuality
When we now write, our activity is likely to be already deeply embedded in
one of the well-established activity systems relying on a robust intertextual infrastructure.
This intertextual infrastructure contributes to defining the current
moment as well as to the immediately relevant bodies of texts that need to be
explicitly and implicitly considered in framing our response. A lawyer preparing
contractual documents for a client must take into account the law and precedents
for the nation and local jurisdiction that specifically regulate the kind of transaction
being engaged. Even though none of the laws may be explicitly mentioned
in the contract, the terms of the agreement must be in conformity with the provisions
of the law, and lawyers would be well-advised to be mindful of the opportunities
the laws provide for creating favorable terms for the client. Litigation
precedents and rulings might also help guide the drafting of the document so
as to be effective if it were to come to court. The contract also should be well
positioned against the relevant business and financial documents that define the
client’s financial situation, obligations, plans, and wishes.
On the other hand, the lawyer need not attend to, nor in any way make the
contract responsive, to many documents, both near and far from the matter at
hand. In a real estate transaction, neither a newspaper description of the neighborhood
the property is located in nor the history of the property itself is likely
to be relevant to the effective contract—unless another lawyer does a great deal of
work to establish the legal relevance to the case, perhaps to indicate the property
has a different owner or contains toxic substances that are liable to legal regulation,
thereby bringing it into the relevant intertext. Even less likely to bear on the
case is the owner’s childhood schoolwork or medical records. The lawyer needs to
be careful in intertextually locating the contract in a complex textual world, but
a fairly defined one. Although the law now rules life, it rules life primarily from
the page, and anything that would come to notice to the law must wind up in the
network of legally admissible documents that the law would consider relevant.
Although in a less compulsory way, philosophic arguments exist in a network
of texts and anyone attempting to advance a new argument with any hope of
credibility, even in an oral forum, must take into account a canon of prior authors
that have puzzled over the question at hand. If the argument occurs among trained
philosophers the expectation will be quite explicit, as the writer will be expected
to take into account Aristotle’s and Locke’s positions, if the field has deemed that
in fact Aristotle and Locke are the most relevant authors for the issue. Training in
the field explicitly requires induction into the canon of texts deemed relevant and
in the appropriate ways of framing issues, positioning one’s views and arguing for
new claims in the on-going discussions over the accumulated wisdom registered in
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the intertext. The training is equally in what texts and modes of argument are not
germane. Even in non-expert, daily life discussion of philosophy, the more one
is familiar with the kinds of objections and considerations posed in the history
of philosophy, the better able one is to frame views and anticipate objections—as
well as to solve problems that drive one to philosophize.
In an even less rigorously intertextually organized domain, every newspaper
story is framed against the unfolding stories of the previous days, the longer
flow of reported events likely to remain in the memories of the newspaperreading
public, and the stories of competing papers. Public documents and
reports, academic research, or private papers may become relevant and referred
to, or viewed as inappropriate or uninteresting to the news and therefore to be
ignored—depending on readers’ expectations and reporters’ attempts to construct
relevance. While neither law nor professional judgment may hold the newspapers
accountable to awareness of the relevant intertext and the boundaries of the
relevant, public memory, credibility, and interest will.
Every genre and activity system carries with it relevant intertexts to be drawn
upon and to which they are held accountable. This may always be expanded by
textual work that argues or insinuates the relevance of unanticipated documents,
and parts of the anticipated intertext may be similarly excluded by authorial
intent and strategy. Whole new intertextual systems may be made relevant, as
when the affliction of a celebrity movie actor with a dread disease links health
news with entertainment news for as long as the star holds the public attention
and uses his or her celebrity to give attention to curing the disease. Also the
magic of foregrounding and backgrounding as well as strategic remembering
and forgetting, may change the apparent shape or immediate relevance of the
intertext, varying according to the degree of inspection and compulsoriness of
intertextual accountability.
It should be mentioned as well that each domain has its common practices
of referring to and citing the intertext. Academic fields often foreground parts
of the intertext through explicit citation following the differing conventions of
various fields for footnotes or works cited, as specified in style guidebooks. Less
explicit, though, is which parts of the intertext are left entirely in the background
as “general knowledge” of the field, no longer attributed to any author. Also less
explicit are the practices of representing material from the intertext, whether
from extensive quotation and comment, paraphrase, summary, or just the
passing use of a term originated by another author. Non-academic professional
domains, such as law, accounting, and journalism, have their own regulations and
practices of identifying the relevant intertexts through citation or explicit linking
of documents. Some domains, at the other extreme, leave the intertext entirely
Chapter 4 The World of Texts: Intertextuality
implicit, as folk tales borrow freely from each other, remind us of other folk tales,
and capture a world-view resonantly expressed across many texts.
Texts originally were fully integrated into daily non-textual activities, as cows
and sheep were tallied in the meadow and barn and tax collectors carried their lists
as they traveled the land. To some extent this is still true as the express delivery
messenger carries an electronic device to one’s doorstep, to be signed and inscribed
at the moment of delivery of a package. But texts increasingly have retreated to the
counting house, government office, academic library, the internet and other sites
where texts can be readily collected, inspected, contemplated, and processed in the
presence of other texts, apart from the realities represented, analyzed, or directed
by the texts. Within such indoor worlds of reading and writing, calculation,
contemplation, and design, the most immediate realities to be contemplated are
those inscribed in other texts. Within the intertextual world, the world outside the
page only becomes accessible and relevant when inscribed through the typical and
accepted procedures of the activity system related to the intertextual field. Thus
for the operations of physical and biological reality to enter into the discourse of
science they must be observed, collected, and inscribed by acceptable procedures
of experiment, observation, or other legitimized methods. Then they are usually
further processed from the initial textual form as raw data into charts, tables, data
bases and other textualized and textually processed aggregates. When we are talking
about the environment and climate change, we are most immediately talking about
data bases, climate models, equations, scientific papers, policy reports and other
inscriptions produced, stored, consumed, and contemplated indoors. The warmth
of a sunny day is only relevant insofar as it is recorded and brought indoors in a
format that can be handled in the textual world. Chapter 9 of this volume provides
more detailed treatment of how we can inscribe realities into our texts and link our
texts to others to establish an intertextual domain of inscribed meanings.
In the inverse process, those documents that are most likely to be integrated
with our material, experienced world—such as architectural drawings used to
construct buildings or standards for automobile fuel consumption and exhaust—
are likely to have spent much time indoors being produced and processed among
other texts. Even the principles by which we conduct our personal relations are
pervaded by the textual work of psychologists, sociologists, and health researchers
that have led us to monitor and guide our behavior in new ways. The world of
texts, and now what we call the virtual world of information, has thus changed
the basic social and material landscape on which we live our lives.
Identifying a time and place of communication does not yet, in itself, provide
a situation or motive for writing. A motive embodies a desire or need to change
the situation—an felt exigency to remedy some shortcoming or imperfection,
as well as a belief that language can somehow contribute to the desired change
(according to Lloyd Bitzer’s definition of rhetorical situation as an exigent
situation marked by an imperfection that can be corrected by language (Bitzer,
1968). That is, the speaker or writer sees the need to get something done,
the opportunity in the moment to do this and the means to accomplish this
through language. At some moment we think “it is time to write a letter to get
a mistaken charge off my account” or “I need finally to write that paper tonight
in order to get credit for this course and gain my degree” or “This is the moment
to offer a critical analysis of Balkan geopolitics.”
A situation only comes into consciousness and takes shape from a perception
of exigency. An unseen and unperceived threat that kills before being noticed
provokes no situation for action, exists outside consciousness and response. As
we go through our daily life there are many things around us we do not notice
or think about, let alone write about. We are not moved to do so, because we
do not see them as relevant to our concerns and lives. It is only things we notice
and interpret as consequential for us that prompt us to wonder whether they
might be improved through our making of language.
While in our pleasant walk with friends across the field we may talk about
the birds above or our shared memories of amusing events, but we probably
would not be paying attention to the physical threat of runaway trucks until
we see one careening toward us. We worry about writing papers for classes
only when schools, courses, and degrees become significant in our lives. There
are many people who currently have no thought of educational institutions,
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
even though they may live around the corner from one; and there are enrolled
students who have other things on their mind so that a looming paper deadline
presents no exigency.
Conscious awareness and framing of a situation already has the seeds of a
motive and action, elevating attention above the level of general monitoring of
the environment. The sense of urgency turns the walk into a situation, turns
the near automatic monthly payment of bills into a problem to be attended
to, the professor’s assigned essay into something that consumes our attention
and energies. The perception of a situation then brings about the possibility
of action and potential moments and means for action. While a perceived
danger in which we see no site for resistance, action, or protection, leads us to
watch our destruction helplessly, it is the hope of action that leads us to search
for the opening and the means. If we perceive no means at hand to relieve a
pervasive heat, no shade, no fan, no air-conditioned room, we cannot begin
to frame an action, but if we believe that there may be an oasis beyond the
horizon, we struggle to move, despite the effort and added threat. If we believe
in the possibility of public resistance and democratic removal of an offending
government, we look for opportunities to influence the public debate with an
eye toward elections, which provide a social system for inscribing public wishes.
Despite the psychological nature of framing of a moment for action, if the
rhetor is to be successful in accomplishing his or her ends, the perceptions are
accountable to material and social conditions. Otherwise, one would risk being
perceived as a foolish henny-penny warning that the sky is falling when listeners
do not perceive the danger and cannot be made to see the danger. For them,
there is no urgency to the situation and no imperfection, so the words are just
untimely foolishness. If people feel no personal, physical or moral cost to a war,
nor even perceive events as one of unusual hostility, it is difficult to have them
oppose a war they do not notice or care about.
The rhetor has an easier task, of course, if the audience shares material
and social experiences that predispose them to see the rhetor’s framing of the
moment as common sense, even more so if they share relevant sets of social
typifications that would lead to congruent understandings of the immediate life
world. If in response to a terrible attack witnessed by all and suffered by many,
people anticipate that the government leader will speak and propose a call to
action, they are ready to listen. The leader may then be able to call on them to
engage in efforts that just the previous month would have been unthinkable.
While powerful rhetors may have some effect in reframing the situation
and influencing people’s judgments about events and appropriate actions, they
can do so only by being attentive to the experience, perceptions, and available
potentials of the situation. A situation may be transformed by the child
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
announcing that the emperor has no clothes, but only if available observations
or experiences can give credibility to the claim. As the story goes, the child
blurts out his transformative truth while the naked king is parading in front of
all to see.
This role of social belief and experience, and the rhetor’s perception of it,
constitutes the symbolic side of Marx’s (1937) famous comment that we make
our lives but not in conditions of our own making. On the material side, a
farmer may plow, fertilize, irrigate, and apply pesticides to fields, but that farmer
must still be attentive to the initial conditions of soil, climate, and ecosystem,
even though his or her actions may be able to transform them to some degree.
Influencing humans through language is equally a matter of evaluating, selecting
fields for action, and aligning to conditions even in the attempt to transform
them. But instead of aligning to material conditions, what we must align with
are social facts. Social facts are those things that because people believe are true,
are therefore true in their consequences, in the formulation of W. I. Thomas
(1923). Social facts are conditioned by and accountable to material conditions
and the experiences available to people, but ultimately the symbolic world of
communication must speak to the consciousnesses and emotional beings of our
audiences. Our statements must become facts to them, part of the symbolic
landscape they live in.
Acts of language create social facts that change the way people view their interior
and exterior landscapes, the relations with those around them, their material
conditions and themselves. This may be as simple, superficial, and emotionally
neutral as presenting them an electric bill they will honor and write a check to pay.
It can be as complex, profound, and wrenching as having them reconsider the
decency and morality of people whose behavior contravenes their personal values.
It can be accomplished in as familiar and formulaic a text as a utility bill, or it
may take a complex innovative performance drawing on multiple traditions and
hybrid textual forms that aggregate emotions and thoughts while disrupting and
reorganizing expectations and frames of reference—as perhaps occur in powerful
works of art. But each must became an unmistakable act that cannot be ignored
or denied, and consequentially change the audience’s mental landscape for action.
They must become social facts by being successful speech acts.
The theory of speech acts can help us understand how this happens, and what
we have to do to make this happen. Although developed only to characterize
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
short verbal pronouncements (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) and presenting some
difficulties in applying to extended written texts (see Bazerman, 1994), speech
act theory presents the powerful insight that words do things, mediated through
the alignment and understanding of others. Further, the theory notes that these
acts then change the reality for future utterances through the perlocutionary
uptake of the acts by listeners. But speech acts, the theory argues, accomplish
these things only if crafted to meet conditions necessary for success, which
Austin dubbed felicity conditions. These felicity conditions have to do in part
with the external conditions under which an utterance was made: who has the
rights to make the utterance, under what conditions and in what venue, with
what timing and what attendant cooperation. A baby can be christened only by
authorized clergy in a sanctified place and a law declared only by appropriate
members of government carrying out the constituted procedures of the country
through accepted institutional practices. Felicity conditions, however, also
concern the manner and form in which the utterance is realized and with what
understandings by both speaker and hearer. Thus in performing a wedding,
the clergy or judge must meet some minimum ritual requirements of verbal
performance, such as asking each of the participants whether they freely enter
a union, to which there must be an affirmative response. But also the presiding
official must also be of serious intent in carrying out this performance, as well as
believed to be of serious intent by the participants. Similarly the serious intent
of the married must be presumed in their acceptance; otherwise we would have
a mock marriage, a fraud, a satire, or other act, but a failed marriage.
A further insight of speech act theory is that part of every speech act is a
locutionary act—representing a certain state of affairs. In taking vows of marriage
people either explicitly or implicitly represent that they are not already married
to some other spouse. Again the act fails if the locutionary representation turns
out not to be true—or more precisely taken to be true by the relevant parties.
The speech act can fail and the marriage be declared invalid if a prior and still
valid spouse appears. But if the act is accepted as true, the representations or
implied representations are taken to be true. Thus speech acts create both the
facts of the accomplished action plus acquiescence to the explicit or implied
representations that are asserted as part of the act.
This concept of speech act then provides the mechanism by which our
words can influence the world and remedy imperfections in situations. Speech
acts change the social world by creating new social facts, which change what
we believe, how we interact socially, and how we act in the world. These social
facts then may even change our relation to the material world. If we believe
the world is flat, with edges one can fall off of, we may lose enthusiasm for
long sea journeys to unknown parts, while a conviction of the earth’s roundness
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extends our adventurousness and knowledge. If common social beliefs hold
that there is little you can do about the weather, that a certain number of
climate disasters are inevitable and to be expected, and that free markets always
respond creatively and successfully to changing conditions, then it is hard to
mobilize changes in energy and pollution policy to combat global warming. On
the other hand, if scientific argument convinces the public and policy-makers
that global warming is occurring and will have catastrophic consequences too
large to be absorbed by typical social processes, and further that certain of our
actions can ameliorate the situation, then we will look at and act with respect
to our environment differently. Of course, changing material experiences (such
as rises in aggregate global temperatures, increases in violent weather, rising sea
levels, and desertification) may also attune people to attend to different realms
of social facts, thereby changing their beliefs and orientations to action.
Let us consider a more ordinary and less extreme example of how this nexus
of rhetorical situation, speech act, social fact, and genre can work together
to make possible effective action. Consider a person contemplating a lack of
opportunities in the local job market and the sterility of his or her current
occupation (in an attempt to create his or her own life, but not in a situation of
his or her own making or even liking). Clearly the person sees an imperfection
in the situation, but how could it be corrected, how could life be made a little
more perfect? Noting that in the local economy people with university degree
have more opportunities, the unhappy employee might desire to obtain a degree.
Of course the person could just add a line to their resume, but that speech act
is likely to fail in creating a robust social fact, as any potential employer has the
intertextual resource of university records against which to hold the educational
claim accountable. In such a case the social fact likely to be created is not the
status of a university graduate but of a liar. Other short cuts such as paying a
few hundred dollars to a diploma mill to create a record are again likely not to
garner the full respect and credentials needed.
So there seems no path but to spend some time in an accredited institution
which will entail many documentary speech acts, such as exams, papers,
registration forms, and bill payments. Now, let us look in detail at one of the
earliest series of written actions that must be carried out to set this in motion.
Once having settled on an appropriate school to attend, to gain the status
of student, the person must first apply, which means not only locating the
application materials from the complex set of intertexts that constitute the
university recruitment and application systems, but then filling them out. To
complete the application materials the would-be student must write a variety
of representations of information in the proper form, asserting many facts
about identity, experience, prior educational accomplishment, and similar
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
topics. The would-be student may also need to write an extended statement,
take some exams, and fill out forms to have the scores forwarded from the
exam agency. The would-be student must also solicit letters of recommendation
and transcripts from previous schools. If the would-be student manages to
felicitously collect all these documents and appropriately inscribe them within
the university application system, he or she would then have completed the
successful speech act of making application, and may receive a written (perhaps
electronic) acknowledgment of this fact. The university cannot now deny
that the person has applied. The applicant has met all the felicity conditions
and a social fact has been created. Of course, if later it is found out that some
documents were forged or falsified, the application can be declared invalid and
the social fact erased. That possibility aside, that accomplishment is, however,
hardly the end of the story, because the person now having achieved the status of
applicant desires to be an accepted applicant. This requires that the application
meet other felicity conditions arising from the evaluation of the elements
inscribed in the application. The admissions evaluators may consider how well
the prior academic record, entry exam scores, and quality of the letters and
essays match the university’s mission, and expectations of the university and
compare to the records of other applicants. Even though these considerations
involve evaluation by the reader, we can equally say the applicant wishes to meet
them felicitously. The obsession of the college-bound is of course to anticipate
and meet these somewhat fuzzier felicity conditions, so that the evaluators and
they will be made happy. If the applicant is able to meet all these conditions
in the application, the evaluators will inscribe another document granting the
applicant the status of an accepted student. This then is just the beginning of
further sets of inscriptions that accomplish becoming a registered and enrolled
student in good standing, and then completing a record over the ensuing years
that would establish the social fact and status of being a college graduate. Each
of these steps could be analyzed in terms of what must be accomplished against
more or less well articulated felicity conditions, that may be rule-governed
or more dependent on the judgment of those who read and act on student
inscriptions, for example grading student assignments.
From the institutional side, of course, the university would be somewhat
imperfect if it lacked students, so it itself must create documents and procedures
that would recruit and induce students into the university, accomplishing the
enrollment of a select body of people transformed into matriculated students.
Similarly the university must go about recruiting and maintaining a faculty,
taking a thousand actions and building many systems that constitute the entire
system of the university. Thus the social facts of universities and educated
students are accomplished through the means of documents by which the
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system is organized, activated, and realized—accompanied by all the attendant
face-to-face and material actions that are implied and give credibility to the
documents, making the degree a meaningful one, by whatever standards of
meaningfulness the various participants and surrounding society may invoke.
The face-to-face situation of spoken language, the physical environment and
the visible social relations of co-participants often can lend a concreteness to
rhetorical moments that help align participants to common understandings of
what is going on and what is needed. The forest is burning around us, and
the apparent urgency of the situation will help others understand your cry for
help and will lend credibility to your claims and the exigency. Further if you
are yelling down from a high point and looking off into the distance, your
relationship to your hearers and the physical surroundings will be further
defined and again your comments made easier to understand, to be aligned
toward, to be credible, and to be influenced by.
Observable social and material conditions can aid the ready production
of shared social facts upon which all will act. Team sports players can make
their words intelligible to teammates even under the most difficult auditory
conditions because there is so much visible co-orientation on the court or
field and because of long common training that makes responses habitually
anticipatable. Two friends watching a movie together can make comments
cryptic to others, but hilarious to each other in the moment. As we say when
asked what went on, “You had to be there.”
In such real-time, physically embodied rhetorical moments the language
helps focus and organize our orientation to the situation. The speech acts
are readily interpretable as part of the events. Further, they are immediately
and materially effective within the here and now, and participants can often
observe the rapidly evolving consequences which mark the effectivity and social
meaning of the acts. People start spraying fire retardant, someone passes you the
ball, or your friends laugh—or they don’t.
Some written communications can also be highly embedded in
circumstances—fire teams can send out text alerts, sports coaches can chalkboard
messages from the sidelines, friends in a silent auditorium could be texting each
other. Typically the conditions of writing, however, are more removed from
the immediate surroundings, with the writer and reader not visible to each
other and separated by time. Nonetheless, it may be that on each end of the
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
transaction each is engaged in material real-time activities that are coordinated
by the text. The cookbook writer likely starts in the kitchen (no matter how
desk-bound the composing and production process might become) and the
reader may refer to the grease-stained cookbook open on the countertop while
following the recipe. The invoice informs the shipping clerk which items to
put in the cartons, the receiving clerk what to confirm, and the bookkeeper
how large a check to write. The reporter interviews the political candidate and
attends political events to create stories to provide citizens information that may
affect how they vote.
In these examples, however, the scene of action becomes increasingly mental
and cognitive. As discussed in the previous chapter, literacy has facilitated the
development of a virtual world of the intertext, and that intertext itself can
become the scene of action—the place where the rhetor can perceive an exigency
and an imperfection. Voters need information that they get in the newspapers.
A candidate has not gone on the record on the issue of school privatization and
the reporter perceives the public might be interested in knowing the candidates’
views. By interview and other means the writer gathers information for a story
to appear in the newspaper, thereby establishing the candidate’s position (that
is, if the story meets the felicity conditions of a credible news story and is not
effectively contested and thereby made dubious as a speech act and social fact).
If we remove the temporal and geographical focus of an election, and the special
relevancy status of voting citizen in the jurisdiction, we go one step further into
the virtual world. The threat of global warming and the ongoing international
negotiations on environmental policy may provide some material and social
exigency to work in climate science, but more typically work in climate science, as
in the other sciences, appears as a more generalized contribution to the scientific
literature moving at its own pace. While scientists may know each other, the
work is presented as though it were to anyone knowledgeable and committed in
the field. The only exigency is that there is something we don’t know yet and the
scientist through the work offers an increment of knowledge. The imperfection
is in the literature which has not yet fully examined some aspect of knowledge (as
is highlighted in Swales’ model of the scientific article introduction, 1990). The
language remedy is the felicitous report of a credible scientific study. Similarly
the exigency of a literary critic may appear even more out of time and space—
that we do not understand a poem or playwright as deeply as we might, or
we have been lacking some knowledge about a novelist’s relationship with their
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
publisher that would shed further light on her famous works. The imperfection
in knowledge and interpretive depth is resolved by a work of scholarship. The
scene of action is perceived in the text and the text’s relation to other texts, only
available through interpretation of the inscribed words.
The formation of kairos within the intertextual world has been a gradual
historical phenomenon, accelerating in the last few centuries as robust
intertextual systems have emerged whose relation to here and now experience is
highly mediated through texts. To deal with a land dispute effectively these days,
you do not now go out and put up a fence or stand your ground with a weapon.
You enter into a complex intertextual world of deeds, registry, real estate law,
filings—and maybe a surveyor to inscribe your land according to the directives
of documents. To measure your wealth you no longer open your treasure chest
to bathe your hands in jewels, but you go into your office to gather documents
or examine a spreadsheet. Even to know if you feel healthy, while you still
might give some credence to your gut feeling, you need to consult your medical
records and results of tests. And to seek wisdom, while you still might seek a
personal guru, you are likely to read a few books that define the tradition the
guru is embedded in.
The intertextual world presents special difficulties for identifying rhetorical
moments, the right times for utterance, in that we are less likely to have events
unfolding in front of our eyes to excite, move or frighten us into writing—as
the fire racing toward us will induce us to yell help. Similarly we have fewer
immediate means to align our readers to an urgent here and now in which
they must attend to our texts—let alone in the spirit and orientation and roles
we would hope. It is one of the tricks of robust intertextual systems in fact
to create exigencies for us to attend to texts, often through some institutional
structuring that creates penalties or rewards, framed by deadlines. If we wish
to maintain health benefits, we must fill out a form by a certain date and
supply specific information. With web forms we cannot even file the document
unless all required fields are filled in appropriately—before the page times
out. And sometimes the information we provide is immediately checked out
against other databases for consistency and accuracy. Further, unless we provide
acceptable information we may not be able to proceed to the next page where
the information we desire is located. While such devices are so effective we may
not even think about them, these urgencies are rhetorical accomplishments.
These exigency devices are worth understanding so we can know our options
for responsive action better, and so we can mobilize them for our own purposes
to assemble virtual kairos.
Understanding kairos within intertextual domains first requires an
understanding of why the intertext matters to us. Given modern conditions of
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
life, for example, institutional records about us (payroll, school, police, credit,
health) might affect whether we are hired on a job, get a loan, get insurance
coverage or get appropriate medical treatment. Further, we understand typically
how a flaw in those records affects us—getting less pay than we are owed,
having a mark on the record that would stigmatize us, or not having the records
that would grant us preferred status. If we consider these imperfections of the
record serious enough to be worth the effort and if we see means to modify or
re-inscribe the record, we might then accept the exigency and attempt to have
our payroll deductions adjusted, or have a juvenile arrest expunged from our
record, or go through the effort of taking additional courses to complete the
requirements for a degree. Given the use cycles of institutional records we can
often anticipate when they are likely to be used and when might be the best time
to modify them. Shortly before we wish to apply for a loan we may feel moved
to check our credit rating so we can boost it if necessary. Educational records
may become most significant at times of employment or application to further
education, but the best time to remedy them is while we are still students. On
the other hand, we may have no successful means with an acceptable cost of
time, effort, money, or social displacement (such as by going underground and
creating a new identity) to change the records.
In each of these cases, we also need to be aware of the effective means of
changing the record that forms the intertext for our further actions—that is,
what felicity conditions must be met and how. We must determine how we
can demonstrate to the payroll office that we were due a raise, how we can
prove to the credit bureau there is an inaccuracy, how we can build an academic
record. This involves such things as establishing the credibility and authority
to act in the circumstances, acting at proper times in proper ways, with proper
verifiable supporting materials, doing whatever work is implied in the desired
inscription, adopting the appropriate stances and relationships to institutions,
and submitting the request in proper form in a timely way with all the relevant
We can either attend to the institutional facts residing in our records to
protect our interests or we let them slide and live with the consequences, but
they are undeniably parts of lives. Our stake in other intertexts may be more
matters of our recognition and active pursuit of them. We may not care much
about municipal noise pollution regulations until our neighbor adopts a pack of
highly excitable hunting hounds. Even then we need to become aware that such
regulations exist and are invocable, and then we need to learn the procedures for
filing a complaint and presenting evidence. Even then we must decide whether
invoking these procedures is worth the social costs of turning a neighborly
relationship into a municipal documentary one, with all the consequent legality
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
that might ensue. Similarly, we calibrate our attention to the news, how much
of what sort we attend to, and which we act upon. Do we follow the news to
consider the business consequences and modify our portfolio, or to ponder how
we will inscribe our votes, or to hold our own in casual conversations? Are we
political comedians who must every day write new jokes about current events to
earn our living? At what point and why do we feel the need to enter into a blog
discussion or write a letter to the editor, or begin to compose our own satires?
Where is the stake, what is the imperfection, what are the effective means at
hand, what is the timing, who is the audience? And then how can we draw the
readers into the same sense of exigency and situation we perceive so that they
will find our comments germane and worth attending to, our humor funny?
Such questions add new dimensions to the strategics of rhetoric, which was
initially conceived in a world of face-to-face interactions, where social facts took
shape in the here and now of mutual alignment in the moment. Indeed many
professions, careers and life projects are now devoted to building, maintaining,
and transforming the intertext in recognition of its importance for modern
lives. The most visible professions have been those who physically produce
and maintain the texts that provide the intellectual infrastructure—printers,
publishers, librarians, writers. These intertextual workers now include those
who build the electronic infrastructure within which information technologies
reside, and those who inscribe meaning in digital spaces. This in effect can
mean anyone who spends much of the day at the computer or working with
documents, from bureaucratic clerks to lawyers to market traders to academics—
each of them has the problem of aligning to a communal intertext and refiguring
that intertext to incorporate or take account of their work, to create new social
facts that will be visible and consequential for those that attend to that textual
informational space. Meeting the well-articulated mandatory felicity conditions
as well as the more suasive, strategic conditions that invoke readers’ selective
attention, evaluation, and memory form the basis of successful action.

Writing requires extended work over time to create a verbal artifact that
can work its effect, often at some physical (temporal and geographic) distance
from the site of its creation. Such extended work directed toward distant ends
requires we become aware of and understand our motives, so that we attend to
them despite distractions and obstacles in our immediate environment. Good
writing is aided by locating and nurturing our motivations.
Our motivations in any writing situation occur at the intersection of our
long-term concerns and the emergent situation, recognized and given shape by
our typifications about how situations are organized and the forms of action
available in such situations. That is, our genre and situation shaped perceptions
of openings for immediate action serve to crystallize underlying concerns and
interests that lie behind our sense of imperfection in that situation.
Sometimes the motive is obvious to us, as familiar and compelling
circumstances call on us to adopt a role and take a well-defined action. For
example, when we arrive for a medical appointment we are given a form to fill
out reporting our medical history. We are already in the role of seeking medical
help, and we understand that the medical providers need information from us
so that they can do their task well. We know we do not want to wait long for
our appointment and we set directly to filling out forms so as not to fall back
in the queue waiting for attention. Pressing circumstances cast us into a role.
Often, though, our more ambitious and difficult writing tasks occur separated
from the circumstances we are responding to and we must write without the
immediate pressure of events unfolding around us at the moment. In such cases
our motives may only take shape as we start to contemplate and give mental
definition to our situation and then begin to plan and carry out actions. In this
process the possibilities of action begin to unfold which in turn crystallize our
motives for concrete objectives.
On one extreme our motive for writing may come from the need for social
or legal compliance. Mandatory writing tasks often come to us in regulated
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
forms on regulated occasions. We then either participate or visibly resist
with consequence. If we participate, our influence is only in inscribing our
compliance within the regulated forms of participation, within the allowable
ranges of freedom. A clerk or other bureaucratic subordinate filling in forms at
a computer terminal has only limited influence in what he or she inscribes as
detailed information within the form, though there are some decisions to be
made about the exact information and the form it is to be presented that might
benefit or penalize the client. Electronic systems have increased the use of forms
and held them more tightly to narrow standards, to the point of immediately
rejecting a response if it does not contain all required elements in the expected
form. Electronic systems may even check the accuracy of information by
matching it with related forms and databases, so that credit card numbers must
match with accounts, and case records must match with already existing case
files before the response is accepted and we are allowed to continue. Yet still we
do have some choices about the information we include to represent ourselves
and our interests—whether which phone number we inscribe or what we list as
a cause for complaint and how we elaborate in an available open field.
At the other extreme are self-chosen genres in situations of personal choice. No
one except the philosopher him or herself determines what topic and discussion
to address at what moment in time, and in which of the professionally acceptable
genres. Poets may write when the spirit moves them and in the form that their
impulses dictate. Political bloggers can take up topics and develop them when
and how they see fit, within the flexible space with generic variety that blogs
allow. Little other than personal impulse compels an individual in most cases to
take on the role and voice of a poet or a philosopher or political blogger.
Many intermediate cases combine a degree of social compulsion with
individual choice making about topic, substance, and genre, as well as the
underlying motives that might be served. Assigned work in academic settings
often provides substantial room for students to pursue curiosities, resolve
personal puzzles, or assert identities and commitments. Journalists or their
editors have degrees of freedom to select which stories to develop and columnists
to decide on topics, stances, and approaches.
Even when confronted with social compulsion our motives are important
to determine whether we will comply rapidly and willingly, whether we will be
evasive and minimally compliant, or even deceptive and subversive. Depending
on the nature and personal importance of our motives we can decide not to
comply with the request, or even to actively resist the requirement. In cases
where there are more readily available degrees of freedom our motives can play
a much more integral role in how we respond, and thus the kinds of texts
we will produce. Sometimes our feelings about the role we are cast into are
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
complex and mixed; consequently, even though we may consciously believe
we are committed to a writing task we act reluctantly. Chapter 12 considers
psychological ambivalences, whether real or chimerical, we may have toward
writing, so that we can overcome them to write with our whole heart and energy.
Emergent motivations take shape when felt discomfort begins to meet
locatable sites for action. The force for action grows as the site takes shape.
We may even see an imperfection that we can name and would like to remedy,
but until we locate a possible site for remedying it is an unscratched itch.
For example, a student’s interest in how local governments work may have
been whetted by a summer internship in the local parks department which
left her wondering about certain seemingly irrational policies. This curiosity
then supports a decision to register for a political science course on municipal
government. As she is introduced to different theories and examples her
experience becomes a touchpoint for thinking about what she is learning. When
assigned to write a paper about planning processes, she takes the assignment as
an opportunity to look into parks planning and how the policies that troubled
her came about. In the course of doing research she then uncovers a longstanding
set of conflicts among homeowners, renters, businesses, and real estate
interests, which becomes the topic of the paper. As she gets into the project,
she realizes she may be deviating from the assigned paper. She then visits the
professor to see whether she can renegotiate the assignment.
On the other hand the irrationality of her experience in the parks department
could have taken her in very different directions if she started seeing herself as
an advocate for people who were hurt by the policies, or if she were taking a
creative writing major and were looking for material for a short story, or if she
worked at a comedy club and were looking for material about the absurdities
of daily work life.
Of course, which way we go to scratch an itch is a mixture of estimates
of what else in our life we know about and are doing, how we perceive our
established and emergent identities, what kinds of support are around us, and
estimates of our ability to successfully carry out work in the corresponding
genres. In thinking about the consequences of our actions we may also consider
the likelihood of gathering an audience who will understand and be engaged
in our meanings created in the genre we work in. Thus our motivations emerge
and take shape in a complex world.
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
Effective writing is aided when we understand a wider repertoire of possible
directions and have a wider range of skills to form our emergent motivations
into a greater range of potential objects—so that we don’t always follow the
most obvious, well-worn and least demanding path—though often that may in
fact be the best solution. If we want to buy a product, filling in the online order
form according to exact instructions, as we have done many times before, will
most efficiently meet our needs, even if it is not particularly challenging. We
may even be bored by it, especially if we have to fill out twenty forms for twenty
different products.
To pursue a bit more complex example, our desire to get to work, get around
town, and visit our friends may be facilitated by having a driver’s license.
Obtaining a license requires filling out forms, passing tests, and registering
at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The motives to enter the documentary
system of the department of motor vehicles are extremely powerful—as anyone
who has observed an adolescent in the United States or other developed
country knows only too well. It is easy to follow that path, hard to avoid it,
and writing the forms and taking the tests is not all that demanding. It is the
obvious solution. Nonetheless, costs of car ownership and insurance, likelihood
of traffic congestions, and looming global warming may in the long run may
make one think about alternative forms of action and may even lead one to
become a motivated environmental activist. These solutions, however, will take
much more time and work, and require one to write far more effectively in far
more difficult circumstances to much wider, conflicting audiences than filling
out a few forms for a clerk whose task it is to facilitate and accept properly filled
out forms.
On the other hand, understanding the alternative paths our motives may
take us into more fundamental workings of society, can open the doors to
greater influence on how we live, provide us deeper forms of engagement, and
challenge us to more effective writing to more significant ends. Yet, even though
such a path may lead us to take less expected actions and require from us more
creative, less anticipated writing for which we must solve many novel problems,
we cannot leave typification behind. Typification rules in originality as well as in
the most boring and conventionalized task. The further we contest the taken-forgranted,
the further we wander from the absolutely conventional, the more we
must understand and use typification. For example, the environmental activist
might need to deal with genres from science and engineering, governmental
regulation and planning, public advocacy and organization, journalism and
opinion, litigation, fund raising and NGO administration, as well as the
specialized genres of environmental impact assessment and environmental
modeling. Further, the environmentalist may need to take standard genres and
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
invest them with new motives and forces, as when a class action suit is filed
in a case arguing not about financial damage (typical for such suits), but an
inequitable burden of environmental degradation on one community.
These complexes of genres, hybridization, and multiple choices only come
into our view over time. The more we engage in a project and we map the
situation and our opportunities, the clearer it becomes to us what we can and
want to do. Thus it is inevitable that much of our learning to write occurs “on
the job” (or in the community), insofar as we recognize that writing is part of
the job and we invest time and energy into advancing our skill to carry out
the job. As we get drawn into the motives and opportunities of our sites of
engagement, we see how we can go beyond the most typified forms of action
that were immediately apparent. This learning coincides with us taking on new
identities, presences, and power within these socially organized activities.
While engagement with each new field of action brings learning about the
literate opportunities of that field, we bring the experiences, tools, and skills of
our prior writing engagements—as we move from one organization to another, as
we move from one area of public action to another, as we move from advertising
to public relations, as we move from journalism to non-fiction writing. In each
case the prior experiences with literacy give us confidence and analytical abilities
to frame writing problems and a range of tools and models to draw on. At times
the tasks are similar and we can diagnose key issues quickly so we can readjust
to modified circumstances, though creative action may still require deeper local
analysis. But often the cultures and practices of the new domain of action are
substantially different, so we must learn a new way of doing things even before
we try anything unusual. When our area of endeavor switches entirely, such
as when moving from marketing electronics to organizing famine relief, we
must address new values, purposes, systems, relations, and cultures; and we
must adopt new stances, genres, and styles to accomplish very different kinds of
work. In the course of this the motives attached to writing change—and thus
the very nature of the act.
The biggest leap most people make in their writing is from schooling to
whatever they write outside of school. By that time people have spent so many
years in schooling, and so much of their experience in writing has been carried
out in school, it is often hard for them to see writing in any other than school
terms. The school experience of writing becomes a general characterization of
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
all writing, and the values and practices of school writing get carried over to
non-school situations in ways that are inappropriate. While school provides
many tools and facilities that can be of value, unless the transfer is intelligent
and thoughtful, the practices of school can be limiting or even misleading. Thus
people who do learn to use writing successfully in the world often say they
only learned to write once they have left school. Many others say they never
really wrote once they left school, or they write only privately. They never have
made a real leap from the writing they learned to do in school to the tasks and
opportunities the world presents them with. Insofar as they engage with new
opportunities, they may discount them as real writing, thereby limiting their
ability to think about these new writing situations creatively and to reflectively
transfer and reconfigure what they have learned in school for new purposes.
Therefore it is worth spending some time to sort out the relationship
between writing in school and writing elsewhere, so we can understand the
transition and manage it more effectively. Such thinking can also guide teaching
to better to prepare people for the transition. One of the characteristics of
learning to write in school is that it is a time apart from the ordinary activities
of life in order to enhance our life—through learning skills like the three R’s,
or engaging in the arts, or contemplating our values, or acquiring specialized
forms of knowledge and practice, such as associated with engineering. When we
finish schooling we are expected to take on various roles in the world, but while
in school our primary engagement is with schooling itself. We learn about how
to do school assignments; how to advance and gain rewards in schooling; how
to use to advantage the minor institutional genres around the edges—whether
excuse and doctor’s notes, hall passes, or petitions for exceptions to regulations;
and how to participate in the culture of students through note passing, secret
peer notebooks, or sponsored activities like newspapers.
The central writing activities in school are framed as assignments set by the
curriculum and instructors in fulfillment of the courses, and they are evaluated
by the instructors or outside evaluators to see whether we can demonstrate
the required knowledge and competence. That is, our writing is evaluated and
corrected in relation to the curriculum. Our motives typically are minimally
to get school done and maximally to get school done well. Both are usually
associated with a grade and avoiding correction—and sometimes with praise for
exceptional achievement. Consequentially, some of the most important writing
is associated with examinations—local, state, and national. These examinations
may then define the taught curriculum which shapes the tasks, attitudes, and
skills associated with more daily writing. This basic institutional structure
can be supplemented by values of interaction and engagement—the teacher
caring about what you are writing and responding to the thoughts you express,
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
whether about your personal life or subject matters like history in order to
mentor you to more sophisticated thought. Yet the personal response is still that
of a teacher and not a parent or friend, and even the most engaged dialogue on
subject matter, whether of mentor/mentee, or erstwhile colleague to established
scholar, is within the frame of academic subject matters within an educational
environment—where the primary work is the development of individuals.
The student writer is the object of development—whether being regularly
evaluated and corrected, or supported, encouraged, and led into rewarding
halls of learning. Only when the upper ends of education intersect with actual
professions, disciplines, arts, or service activities do educational practices begin
to overlap robustly with practices in the world. And even then students always
know that the educational reality of teacher assessment based on student display
of skills and knowledge makes the school writing different from business where
the final test is a profit or a building that does not collapse (Becker, Geer &
Hughes, 1968; Dias, Pare, Freedman, & Medway, 1999).
In addition to evaluation with attendant punishments and rewards, several
other aspects of schooling limit our ability to engage more deeply in other
forms of writing. The practice of teachers setting assignments is essential to
challenging the students and keeping them on the learning task; the practice,
however, limits students’ ability to identify meaningful writing situations which
they may want to respond to and thus does not nurture their ability to identify
motives to write outside assignments. Writing is thus not seen as an actively
invoked tool for personally felt tasks in personally perceived situations. Rather
writing is something assigned by others, with the writer searching for a successful
way to fulfill the assignment—at best the student can locate a topic or approach
he or she is interested in and cares about within the frame of the assignment.
Further, writing assignments often are made only to practice writing skills
rather than pursuing a substantive interest in the content or action. When a
substantive task is assigned, it is frequently a faux action, such as pretending
to write a letter of complaint about a product, but not sending it because it is
not part of a real situation and need. Further when presumably writing about
substantive maters in their various subject courses, students are rarely asked
questions that the instructor/examiner doesn’t already know the answers to, so
even then the writing is about display of knowledge and analytic skills rather
than sharing of valued thoughts and information. Finally, assignments are often
part of a very short sequence of interactions, so that the student writer is always
in the position of starting up a fresh conversation, even initiating it—with all
the uncertainties about the audience, the topic, the issue at hand that usually
attends first meetings. The student writer rarely gets the sense of being in a
long conversation with extensive back and forth—focusing and strengthening
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
motives, forming a relationship with the interlocutor, and developing issues and
content at play in the conversation. Rather the writer is always in the position
of warming up, trying to get something going.
As a consequence of these characteristics of school writing, for most
people writing is about pursuing correctness, being evaluated, and displaying
knowledge and skills. The motives most deeply attached to writing are avoiding
embarrassment and gaining approval. No matter how deftly the evaluations
are given, students’ imaginations of what can be accomplished in writing are
limited, and their motivations are often heavily freighted by aversive emotions
and fear of being found wanting. The student is not prepared to see writing
simply as performing a task successfully, so that it meets the conditions to do
what it has to do. Anything of this character in the school context is not counted
as writing—just filling out a form—and therefore is not a serious exercise of
skill. Even when tasks engage other situations and motives, they are still infused
with school situations and dynamics.
School-based standards of writing seem to endure long past the context of
school, rather than standards drawn from the tasks of the world. I regularly
hear from lawyers or scientists that those who write best are those who use
poetic figures, wide vocabularies, and other marks of school approved writing
rather than getting the job done—whether explaining the theory and evidence
clearly or making a persuasive case for a client. While training in school can
provide basic tools, habits, and practice, the situation and motives of school
are distinct from those of other activities. Not understanding the differences of
school writing and writing elsewhere can be an obstacle to addressing new tasks
successfully and may even prevent people from taking on new challenges, as
they feel the weight of school experiences too heavy to confront. Consequently,
they never develop a long term engagement in a field of writing that is
personally meaningful and they never develop motives and commitments that
will keep them working at the hard task of writing that will lead to high levels
of accomplishment.
Just as we spend many years learning how to be students, it takes a while
to learn the landscape of new domains, become familiar with the genres and
the associated activities and dynamics, identify our opportunities to intervene
by writing, and the repertoire of devices, styles, phrases, and tactics that are
effective in the relevant genres. As we develop these skills we may also develop
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
a higher level of understanding of how the entire system we are participating
in works, so we can become more strategic about when and why we write. As
we learn these things, we also re-form ourselves, taking on identities, stances,
and commitments that give focus and strength to what we do as writers, how
we project ourselves as writers, and what we attempt to accomplish through
our writing. We move past the awkwardness and uncertainty of beginnings in
unfamiliar social situations, to knowing the people we are communicating with,
what we want to communicate, what will work, and where next we may take
the conversation. We learn this by continually writing within a world where we
see the effect or lack of effect of what we do.
Even within a single episode of writing there can be a substantial evolution,
as the writing process occurs over time and each step we take in the writing gives
more focus and shape to the situation. We get a more refined and directed idea
of where we are going with each step we take. We can look on what we have
produced so far and reflect on what is coming into being and refine it, as the
later chapters of this volume will explore.
An even more significant evolution can occur as an interaction develops
over time, so that problems get defined, roles of participants emerge, work to
be accomplished becomes clearer, facts of the situation and relevant knowledge
become salient—in short we know a lot more of what we are doing in a place
we have become more familiar with. Sometimes our motives may in fact change
as we come to see what is possible and impossible, or we come to recognize
new opportunities in the situation, or we come to understand through the
process more about our motives and fundamental concerns. But even when
our fundamental motivation is stable, we refine by finding locally relevant
expressions of it in the unfolding activity. As opportunities and situations
change, so our local motives come into focus to meet the protean social realities
we work within.
The importance of writing being part of ongoing interchanges is evident when
we join some case after it has developed. To get “up to speed” we need to read the
file, which gives the facts of the case, the facts of the participants, the positions
each has staked out and elaborated, and the relationship forming among them—
and the overall trajectory of the interaction. It often helps to have someone who
has been part of the proceedings to this point to explain and interpret what is
going on. Only with great and focused work can we attempt to undo any of the
social facts and speech acts already accomplished in the file. Further, even with
explanations from the prior participants, reading the file, is usually not enough to
get fully up to speed, for which we need a couple of further turns in the back and
forth. Equally, interlocutors need to see the moves the new person makes so they
can evaluate what our intentions and modes of procedure are.
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
Unless we have some reflective understanding of our motives, the unfolding
nature of situations, and our changing participation in a dynamic situation,
we are at risk of getting locked into a set of motives and stances that are less
productive and may not achieve our ends. A slavish following of what we believe
is the right form for the situation or a slavish adherence to our first conception
of our motives can lead to an unfortunate trajectory of interaction that leaves
participants at an impasse, or caught in an unproductive distracting side-issue.
It is worth asking ourselves periodically what we really want from a situation,
what will meet our needs and carry forward a productive interaction with our
audiences and interlocutors.
With such an understanding we can think about whether a change of
footing will create a more favorable ground for reframing the interaction,
allowing parties to define new roles and stances, engaging in adjusted projects.
This is where motives and genre meet. Each genre has implied motives, implied
roles for the readers (what Bakhtin, 1986, called addressivity), and actions
which represent the illocutionary force of the genre. Equally, our readers may
have developed stances, attitudes, and resistant responses to the genres, roles,
and stances we adopt. Accordingly a shift of those genres and understandings
surrounding them on both sides may re-center the discussion on more
productive grounds. Or combining multiple generic understandings within a
single utterance, may invite greater complexity of response and understanding.
The strategic understanding of how we may advance our interests and concerns
in a situation is the subject of the next chapter.
Traditional views of rhetoric have identified the key strategic action to be
accomplished as persuasion—that is to bring the audience to agreement with
the speaker’s view or position. Such a strategic goal is appropriate to the arenas of
judicial, parliamentary, and political decision within which rhetoric developed,
and even to the arena of spiritual conversion and homiletics (to which rhetoric
became extended in the early Christian period). When the goal is persuasion,
the main vehicle is argument, to turn other minds in the desired direction.
However, the view presented in this book suggests a range of strategic written
actions that may be accomplished in many arenas of activity, unfolding over
time rather than in single moments of decision. A broader way of characterizing
the goal of rhetoric is influence rather than persuasion. Influence only requires
that other people act in some way that recognizes or responds to your utterance.
A geologist need not have any degree of disagreement with another person to
influence them by providing a detailed report on geologic stresses along a fault
so that you can together estimate current risks. Nor does a homeowner need to
argue with other neighborhood homeowners in a series of emails coordinating
an annual clean-up drive that all are committed to by long-standing practice.
The communicative work in either case is not to persuade someone to something
they would not already have acceded to. The influence is to create conditions
for successful outcomes by providing information or coordinating schedules.
In other cases, it may be that the desired influence is not to create
agreement, but to create further divisions and differences with the interlocutor.
A businessperson may wish to identify exactly where her concerns and interests
differ from a business partner, so that they can renegotiate the terms of the
agreement. People may wish to detail the idiosyncratic particulars of their lives,
experiences, and emotions so that they may understand each other better or
just enjoy sharing unusual events and perspectives. In a contentious situation
a statement can be for the benefit of third parties to understand the choice
they have in adopting different views or can be to instigate an opponent to an
extreme action or statement. Influence is as various as human activities and the
ways we have of participating in them so as to somehow affect the outcome. So
to think strategically about writing, we need to be considering what outcome
we are looking for and how our writing may help bring that about.
Even within the traditional realms of political deliberation sometimes the
most effective writing actions are not those aimed overtly at persuasion, as anyone
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
who has written an agenda for a committee is aware. The most effective action
may not be to bring powerful arguments and evidence to a meeting, but to allow
or disallow an item coming to a vote or to shape the form of the proposition
to be voted on. At times even more powerful is to write the agenda so that
before the contentious issue comes to the floor, a committee can report that it is
undertaking a study to gather facts on a related issue, such that the contentious
vote is tabled pending the report. Then when that report arrives, its facts serve to
redefine the nature of the problem the committee is addressing. While there may
be specific elements of persuasion and specific arguments given in the course of
the process, the overarching goal is influencing the events and outcome.
The underlying strategic question that brings together all these situations is:
How through a speech act can I change the symbolic landscape
so as to change the field upon which others will act
in order to assert my concerns, interests, contribution, or
participation into the process or outcome?
This question turns attention from the internal beliefs held by audiences and
interlocutors to the unfolding of a social process in which I interact with others.
At times the desired influence may require that I change the beliefs or views of
those around me, replacing or qualifying some previously held belief they have,
but more often it simply means they have to recognize and accept the legitimacy
of the speech act I have made. As a consequence of that acceptance, they then
need to calculate my act into any further move they make.
Rhetorical strategy, so conceived, examines the unfolding social situation,
and the effect of any symbolic intervention in moving the situation forward.
Rhetoric then attends as much to who is witnessing and paying attention to
what I and others are saying as much as what is specifically said. In looking
at what has been said, what I might say, and how others might take it up, as a
rhetor I move from reading and anticipating minds as viewing what is visibly
in the social field, including the unfolding intertext into which the new text
will be inserted. While the strength, size, and effectiveness of some speech acts
may depend on how it resonates with the dispositions, beliefs, sentiments, and
interests of the relevant audiences, it is as important as to attend to the nature
and rules of the game one is engaged in, and the particular forcefulness of
moves in that game than to pull out all the operatic stops.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
By identifying the act one desires to accomplish, the rhetor turns his or her
energies toward what conditions need to be met for the act to be felicitous or
successful in the particular situation. Further, the rhetor considers how you
can make the act as forceful, well-defined, identifiable, and solid as possible,
accomplishing its tasks as strongly as possible and standing for as long as it
needs, for all the purposes and auditors it needs to. Again, this directs attention
toward the evolving landscape on which influence will be asserted, the unfolding
actions of others, and the social rules, expectations and values that define
acceptability, compelling force, and evaluation that will influence the fate of the
speech act. This further directs attention to the way a successful speech act will
then inhibit or support others to do what they wish in its wake.
Most of the writing we carry out in the world is not in opposition to any
particular others, nor to displace any beliefs or commitments people may have.
Indeed, displacing someone’s existing beliefs or commitments is difficult to
accomplish. It is easier to tell someone something new than to get them to change
something they already believe, even though for reasons of social harmony they
may appear to acquiesce at the moment. Even if they agree with you, you may
find it is only on a detail rather than with a deep-seated understanding and
acceptance of your view. You may well find old beliefs persist and resurface
later. This persistence of beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives, in fact should be
expected, for after all, personal experiences, knowledge, and views are often
long standing and integrated with an individual’s way of looking at life. How
often do a few words by someone else significantly change the deeply structured
patterns and networks of our thought and perceptions? Such moments are rare
enough to be considered remarkable—and even many of those cases involve
simply the articulation of existing inchoate impulses ready for crystallization.
Only in highly structured situations like courts, parliaments, or scientific
disciplines with regular procedures for coming to communal decisions does
effective changing of minds or at least compelling acquiescence to the communal
judgment happen with frequency. In such domains there are well known forms
of compelling evidence, acceptable lines of reasoning, publicly recognized
evaluative criteria, and public accountability for one’s ultimate position.
Contention to be effective must stay within well-defined rules particular to
the domain—the rules of evidence in experimental psychology are different
from that in ethnographic sociology, let alone high-energy physics. And those
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
are all very far from the rules of evidence and testimony in court, so that the
knowledge of these fields to be admissible in court requires new procedures
and transformation of form, evidence, and authority. Further, even in those
domains of structured judgment, individuals whose claims lose and no longer
stand with any communal force still may maintain belief that they were right
even as they are dragged off to jail or fail to have their grants renewed and
works cited. It is the institutional and collective judgment carried out through
institutional procedures that has the final judgment, not the state of mind of
particular individuals.
More commonly writing is carried out within mutually agreed upon
activities that do not depend on agonistic struggle. We write to participate
within systems and organizations, establish relations, carry out responsibilities,
facilitate conjoint work, build bonds and relations over time, assert identity
and establish self-esteem within communities, entertain each other, or share
common passions. Within such activities we do not displace any social facts
that others have asserted and successfully established; we rather attempt only to
create our own new social facts. We make speech acts, and only rarely attempt
to undo the speech acts of others. And in making our speech acts we create the
occasion and resources for others to act.
Creating a webpage describing our collection of antique phonographs
may serve many functions in sharing nostalgia, amusing others with quirky
aspects of history we have found in our avocation, displaying our pride in our
collection, raising our esteem among aficionados, engaging young people in
the history of technology, or in supporting scholarship in industrial history and
cultural studies. We may even be trying to create a market in these artifacts and
attract people to our antique offerings or catalog of reproductions. Yet none
of these displace what anyone else does, except in the sense that others might
have to carry out their similar activities in a more crowded landscape, which is
not necessarily a bad thing for them, as it increases the overall traffic and adds
resources for their own activities.
Writing a newsletter for our community association lets people know who
is doing what, builds bonds of joint recognition and action, and provides
information to allow people in the community to participate. It brings events,
people, activities, and possible cooperations to people’s attentions, thereby
making their lives a bit richer. Only when the town council entertains a zoning
motion that threatens some in the community might there be arguments for
and against—and then that rhetorical agonism most likely would be directed
toward a council meeting or an election, where a decision will be made.
Otherwise, the task is building new things and not opposing anything already
on the discursive landscape.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
When one applies to a college, or for a grant, or any other competitive
situation, one presents the best representation of one’s own work and
accomplishment in ways that will be credible and stand as an accurate and
truthful statement. One tries to make as strong a speech act as possible that
will not topple over because one of its fundamental props is found faulty. One
typically is not in the business of undermining the attempted speech act of
competitors, but only in having one’s act standing taller, larger, and more in the
correct spot for the purposes and criteria of the judging institution.
Even in filing an application for a building permit that meets all regulations
and requires no exceptions, one is creating speech acts that carry forward
bureaucratic regulation—populating the city records with information to be
evaluated and used by others in monitoring, planning, collecting taxes, and
other daily actions. Likewise sending holiday greetings to friends keeps alive
social networks as well as shares participation in seasonal rituals. All these
quotidian texts expand the intertext within which others operate and thereby
create more facts to attend to in making their choices and asserting their actions.
In completing each of these acts there are expected things to be said and
information presented, and other things that would appear inappropriate.
The information needed for a tax form would be inappropriate for a holiday
greeting, even if your friends were tax examiners or your tax accountant. That is
for another time and place—and another document.
Each genre and its related social activities call for specific kinds of information,
reasoning, and sentiments—which in classical rhetorical terms would be called
topoi or places. They are places the text might visit in carrying out its work.
While a topus or topic can be thought of as something mentioned in the text, it
also attaches the text to something in the world, audience’s emotions, speaker’s
character, or other texts. It then mobilizes, builds on or transforms our relation
to the topus brought to mind. Thus in a sense each topus the text visits attaches
the reader to something outside the text, which is brought to bear on the
action of the text. Thus in asking for a personal loan a person may remind the
potential lender of long friendship and trust, to recall the borrower’s reliability
and responsibility and also to invoke a special trust that the borrower would
not violate. In visiting these issues the borrower attempts to take the lender
mentally to these places and activate them as relevant. On the other hand if
the lender holds strongly to the adage that loans spoil friendships and that
one should never loan to a friend unless you are ready to lose both money
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
and friend, taking the communication to the relationship might suggest the
opposite reaction. You don’t want to go there, as we commonly say.
As each of our words index some reality, they each take the minds of others
to places familiar or uncomfortable, known in detail or unknown and filled
with specters—whether fearful or entrancing. Most often we just bring each
other facts that make visible the world in which our speech act takes place and
which fulfills the conditions that need to be met for the action to be successfully
complete. Thus for parents to enroll their child in a local school, they must
provide basic data, specified on a form with fields we must fill in, such things
as names of child and parents, address of residency, emergency contact person
and information, age and prior schooling of the child, vaccination and other
health history. These establish within the school’s documentary system realities
relevant for the school’s treatment of the application and then the actual child
once the child enters the school door. The form requires the parents to visit
each of the appropriate places and bring back the relevant token of that reality.
Further, there needs to be confirmation of those indexed realities, which is
often intertextual, requiring back-up documents, such as a birth certificate,
vaccination certificate, and proof of address. While these documents may be
accepted on their face in the moment, they of course each link up to other
documentary systems, and their validity within those documentary systems
could be tested. Even more forcefully, filling out the form directly links this
current application with active intertextual links the system may have, such
as initiating a request to the child’s prior school to send records or linking the
address into the city residency and taxpayer base. Parents may even have fears
that there will be linkages to documentary systems where they would not want
to appear, such as the immigration service, the taxation system, or a justice
system with active warrants. Only if they know enough about the system and
there are explicit privacy policies that limit uses and linkages, can these specters
about the documentary realities invoked be laid to rest.
A second strategic set of questions is that of places—the places you enter and
stand on along with the places you bring in as part of your speech act:
a. Where do you want to enter the documentary system and where not?
b. What place within it do you want to inhabit, act, or take a stand?
c. What kind of action in that place do you want to create to reach your
d. What other places do you want to index and invoke at the place you are
taking your stand or creating your act?
Let me go through each of these four more carefully.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
a. The places you decide to enter or not enter
The parents who fear filing information with the school because they
don’t know where that information is going may or may not be justified in
their fears, depending on state and local regulations about the articulation of
information between systems and the actions of local officials, but they are
correct in understanding that any time you write or have inscribed information
within a system you are creating a presence within it and with any other
systems that may intersect with it. You are entering the places of that literate,
documentary activity system by asserting a presence. As literate systems have
spread and become pervasive, some people try to keep their entire presence or
some aspect of their lives outside of the encompassing documentary system. As
the tax system and its monitoring of transactions has grown, it has produced
a grey economy of transactions conducted “off the books” in cash or barter or
“off-shore” so as not to be visible to national tax documentation. Companies
keep themselves private so as not to be subject to the scrutiny of stockholders
and the various agencies that protect the rights of stockholders. Most people do
not write letters to the editor or engage in the public sphere of politics, except
perhaps when they are asked to be an anonymous respondent in a poll or a
voting booth, and even then they may be hesitant. People, as well, know once
they announce themselves to a charitable organization by giving a donation
or putting themselves on a mailing list, they are opening themselves up to
persistent solicitations.
The core of privacy issues as they have emerged on the internet concerns
which documentary systems inscribed information will go to and to what
extent it will stay within the ambit for which it was initially inscribed, whether
as an email to an individual, an order to a commercial seller, a comment in a
password protected chat room, or a posting to a publicly accessible blog. Given
the extensiveness and publicness of electronic networks, however, it is difficult
to identify what the bounds are of the world you are communicating with. In
the print world only a small group of self-selected individuals published their
work, usually on a limited range of issues through a crafted public voice. In a
world as comprehensively documented and inscribed in every aspect as ours,
however, it has even become a form of ideological, individualistic commitment
of some to “live off the grid.”
Most of us choose most of the time not to enter into most documentary
systems except those we feel compelled to do so by such strong social forces as
schooling, government regulation, community expectations, or employment.
Indeed most of them are of no interest to us, unless we ourselves are programmers
of a particular computer language, macramé weavers, aficionados of Raymond
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
Carver mysteries, animal rights activists, or engaged in scriptural interpretation.
We are so unaware of most of the literate spheres of activity that go on around
us that we would be surprised to find out how many of them there are and how
extensive some of them may be
We define our lives, interests, and activities by those social groups we
selectively engage with. The immediate compelling relationships of those we
engage with daily face-to-face have always been primary in shaping our lives,
but increasingly over the centuries these have been supplemented, enriched,
and encased within documentary systems that link us up with people at a
distance of time and space. While sitting around at night by candlelight and
then by electric light, we came to read books, write letters, and now withdraw
to separate computer terminals—connecting each individual in the family up
with different collective worlds that may affect vocabulary, manner of dress and
self-presentation, beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and actions.
While the literate communities we connect up often have to do with the
chances of personal acquaintances, community affiliations, and local institutional
arrangements of school, church, and government, over the last several centuries
communication technologies have opened up increasingly greater opportunities for
elective engagement—starting with the circulation of books, creation of periodicals,
and the formation of public libraries. Initially our worlds grew mostly as readers,
as consumers of the products of a small group of authors, who were perceived
as extraordinary. While some limited networks of publications had more of a
symmetrical sharing of roles, such as in special interest group newsletters, only with
the emergence of the internet and associated forums of digital interaction (e-lists,
self-sponsored websites, chatrooms, blogs, tweets and whatever else will be coming
along) were fuller ranges of participation available to most people. This proliferation
of opportunities makes the issue of choice of where one wishes to become engaged
a serious question for more and more people.
b. The place you want to inhabit, act,
take a stand on, or be noticed
Even when we have interests in participating in specific networks of
communication, we must make a commitment of time and energy to visit the
places where people engage in our chosen domain of activity, identify and select
relevant texts to read, and start to make sense of that world. It is even a further
commitment to think we might have anything to add and then to begin to
frame our own contributions. We make a further commitment when we decide
to make ourselves visible by sending the letter, by pushing the submit button,
by seeking publication of a notice in the local newspaper. In becoming visible
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
we cause ourselves to wonder what kind of figure we will cut, whether people
will pay attention, what they think of what we contribute, whether we will
create negative views or even get ourselves in trouble. Thus we need to become
strategic about exactly where and when we appear.
A strong statement in the wrong time and place will not be attended to
because people’s minds and energies are going in different directions and are not
primed to attend appropriately to the statement. Within legal systems papers
have to be filed in timely ways to the right office, otherwise they are rejected or
ignored. Less technically determined, a letter to a newspaper editor about an
evolving political issue a month ago will likely not be published, or sending the
political comment to the entertainment editor will be equally ineffective. We
must identify a time and place when our words have a reasonable possibility of
having the hoped-for attention and effect.
c. The kind of action you want to take and
the presence you want to establish
In conjunction with deciding the appropriate moment for entry, you need
to decide the particular form of action you want to take, which then suggests
the genre you choose to write in and thus the way you will make your presence
known. Actually these choices are not distinct and sequential, as the available
genres suggest the kinds of presences and action, and the kinds of presence carry
with them consequences for genre and action. Each moment creates constraints
of appropriacy because your readers will be primed to accept, recognize, or
be interested in only a range of actions, genres, and presences they perceive
as appropriate or germane or meaningful to the moment. No matter how
important a student may feel that the professor should understand the deep
background of personal ambivalence the student has toward the subject matter
of the course, the instructor may quite likely wonder where the answer to the
question assigned is. The instructor may also wonder whether he or she really
ought to be this student’s intellectual therapist, or more properly focus on being
a history instructor.
On the other hand you may have a number of different ways of responding
or carrying forward an activity that would be considered relevant, meaningful,
and useful. Several genres could serve to introduce your fellow board members
to a new approach to building membership in your organization. You could
describe a future scenario of a vibrant organization with new groups of
members, you could analyze current member trends, you could review recent
other attempts and why they have failed, or you could narrate the success story
of a similar organization. Each approach invokes a genre and defines whether
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
you present yourself as a visionary, a careful analyst, a strategic thinker, or an
inspirational motivator.
Equally with each choice of action, genre, and presence you are making
a series of choices about stance toward the ongoing conversation, issues, and
activities. Your proposal for increasing membership can express anxiety about the
current situation or evoke empathy for an unmet need. You can have contempt,
agnosticism, or respect for previous proposals. You can see some facts as needing
attention and others as insignificant and not worth mentioning. The stance
you take will resonate with or alienate your readers, will create a perspective for
your readers or distance you from the perspectives they are committed to, will
influence them and strengthen the force of the action or will undermine how
much they are willing to accept your act at face value, rather than attributing
hidden motives to you.
Thus in engaging in a discussion, you are attempting to stake out some
ground on an ongoing landscape of communication and activity that your
readers will recognize. You need to be able to define the ground in a way the
readers will recognize and place your attempted act so that they will see it fitting,
acceptable, appropriate, and meaningful.
d. The resources you want to draw into your space
Too often we think of texts simply as written within their own spaces—as
though they were fictions floating apart from other worlds. But even fictions draw
on the readers’ experiences and emotions in the world to create power within the
fictive worlds. Even more, everyday texts draw on and bring together realities
outside the text to establish their relevance and force in specific circumstances.
Presenting demographic facts about unequal healthcare accessibility is not just
a rhetorical trick to make a point; it indexes social realities that need addressing.
It says the world demands the kind of attention being given in this text. The
text’s invocation of these facts then makes the text and author accountable for
the accuracy of the representation—that those statistics are well gathered and
are germane to the issue at hand. Similarly tying texts to files of information on
a patient’s case or a long standing discussion of philosophers locates the text in
on going exchanges, but also gives the weight of prior discussions to the text at
the same time as holding the text accountable to those discussions.
A text representing the world and taking action in it is only as strong as the
ground it is anchored to and the strength of the anchors. That is, the claimed
representation of conditions in the world must accountably be supportable. An
application for a loan identifies the applicant as a person with a credit history—
which will be checked against the files of banks and loan institutions. If the name
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
is false, the claim of employment is inaccurate, there is no history of financial
transactions, or the transactions are flawed to indicate lack of creditworthiness,
the application will fail.
In some situations the expectations of the genre necessary to take action
are so specific that they address all the conditions necessary to complete the
act—and also thereby all the resources that need to be brought to bear, indexed,
and accountably certified. At the extreme are bureaucratic forms that dictate
all the information to be provided, the appropriate form and order in which
they need appear, intertexts of data bases and files that confirm and provide
expanded details on the reported information, and signed statements making
one accountable under legal penalty for the accuracy and truthfulness of the
information provided. The bureaucratically determined requirements of the
regulated action walk you through all the places you must visit and report on,
identify the kinds of details you must use to index the realities and how far you
need to go into them—and no further (limited by the size of the space and
the specific items requested). Further, the form locates your assertions within
institutional and informational resources, activates all necessary supplementary
materials, orders them in a way that facilitates their processing by the receiving
agency, defines your stance as an applicant or other subaltern to the institutional
and organization body, and makes you accountable for your role in the process.
Even in somewhat less compulsory genre situations the expected organizations
of texts identify the places you should be taking the discussion, the information
and resources you need to represent, and the kind of reasoning you should be
doing with these resources. If you are considering for an urban civic blog the
impact of new policing procedures, you must first establish the policies you
are talking about, when they have been put in place, and some sense of the
community situation before and after. Then you might take the discussion to a
number of places, but each of those places must be demonstrably related to public
impacts, consequences, and responses to the policy. You may take the discussion
to crime statistics, a description of main street on a weekend night, the mood of
people in one of the more troubled parts of town, the talk in a local gang hangout,
the concerns of parents expressed at a community meeting, a press conference
held by the local civil liberties organization—or any of a number of places where
consequences of and reactions to the policy may be seen. You could take the
discussion to state laws and the federal constitution, with scholarly discussion
of what is permitted and what violates fundamental law. You may even take the
discussion to a scene from a popular television crime show or movie.
Each choice of place you take the discussion carries with it a kind of
reasoning. Legal discussion requires you to examine legal material through legal
reasoning. Listening to community groups raises issues of public belief, interests,
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
and reactions which need to be discussed. Reference to entertainment requires
you to be aware of the difference between fiction and reality and possibly also
the role of media-represented beliefs and images in affecting or contrasting with
realities. Not only are you accountable for the reasoning of that location, but the
reasoning that ties that location to the issue you are considering. Also typically
at the end of such a piece, you would return to the realities of your town.
You may even create hybrid genres that take the discussion to strange places.
You could take your consideration of the policing policy to a science fiction
fantasy to demonstrate a dystopic or utopic future that would result from the
policy and related approaches, or you could create a computer game or cartoon
to mock the impulses behind the policy. But still you need to be sure the
audience understands the fundamental linkage of this kind of representation
to the issue at hand.
The contrast between the closed example of the loan application and the
open-ended one of the civic blog also highlights differences in depth the places
indexed may be examined. In the loan application it is only important that
the representation be good enough—what is asked for, accurate, appropriate,
truthful. More would only get in the way. Once you have given what is needed for
approval, no one needs or wants to hear any more. In the civic discussion there is
no clear ending to how deeply you might want to go, where the discussion would
lead. The strength of the act you want to build may be limited by the information
you can find out, the amount of concern the community has, and the tolerance
and attention span of your audience, but there is nothing predetermined in the
genre or basic action to tell you when enough is enough and when more is no
longer useful or even welcome. Chapter 9 of this volume provides more details
on managing representations of the world and the intertext in your writing
Writing a text is creating a new object on an intertextual landscape and
populating that text with representations and meanings and to animate those
meanings as the reader engages with the text (see Chapter 11 of this volume).
The rhetorical influence of the text is a consequence of readers’ engagement with
these texts transforming their view of the social, material, and literate worlds
of their future actions. The fundamental strategic question is how you can best
populate the intertextual landscape with new objects to gain the influence
you hope for, to meet your own interests, needs, concerns, or creative visions.
Selecting the most effective places to inhabit, building engaging landmarks that
call attention to those things you select for others to be aware of, and then
creating ways of thinking about the place and objects in the course of text are
the strategic means of influencing thought and social processes. The remaining
chapters of this volume pursue how one can bring these textual objects into
being in their most complete and effective form.
The writer’s emergent strategic judgments about construal of situation,
places of engagement, effective actions, relevant resources, and stances contain
many implications for the form the text will take, both at the level of genre and
of details that make a particular text. Strategic choices shape what aspects of the
situation and the particular object of concern will be represented, how other
contexts will be brought to bear, and how the writer will attempt to engage
the minds and spirits of the readers. The text is the form into which all these
considerations are crystallized and dynamically conveyed to the readers. That
form must be recognizable and meaningful to the readers to allow them to
make sense of what the writer is doing and then act upon it appropriately.
Sometimes a writer may be able to characterize the situation and action in
well-defined, stable, non-mistakable generic terms—now it is time to send out
an announcement of the upcoming party or now is the time to write a letter
threatening legal action unless the bill is paid. Each of these has well known
characteristics with a certain limited range of choices, known to those who
regularly practice them. If a writer has difficulties with either, it is likely either
because of lack practice in the genre or because exceptional circumstance put some
strain on genre expectations. Further, each genre places specific requirements
on what must be accomplished through particular textual means, no matter
how inventive the writer is in carrying out some of the textual functions. So
whether the writer expresses a festive and welcoming atmosphere with pictures
of balloons or a joking excuse for the party, or expresses dignity with formal
calligraphy on parchment, the invitation needs to identify who is invited, who
is doing the inviting, the nature of the event, date, time, place, some indication
of the dress or formality, and perhaps directions and a request for response. This
is true whether the invitation is publicly posted on a lamppost or personally
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
addressed on a specially printed card. Equally the letter threatening legal action
needs to identify the recipient and sender, the agreement and obligation, the date
and place for response, and other details that indicate the legal consequences. In
most cases legal threat needs to be cast in sober legal business letter format to be
taken seriously; having it sent by an attorney further emphasizes the seriousness.
These well-known genres have created packages of situations, actions, resources,
author stances, and audience roles all wrapped up in well-known forms. All you
need do is fulfill the requirements of the form and deliver the package.
As the action situation and the genre choice emerge, some writing decisions
follow quite directly. Of course much substantial textual work still is to be done
in selecting appropriate and effective words to fulfill the requirements as well
as other related, non-textual work. Before you finish writing the invitation,
you need to arrange for a place to hold the party and a commitment for its
availability at the time, as well as to make sure that you have the funds for the
promised entertainment and refreshments, and so on. Similarly in writing the
legal letter you need to gather together all the relevant legal documents and
agreements to know what details to include, how defensible your position is,
and how to properly threaten within this particular legal situation. If you want
to add legal muscle, you need to hire a lawyer, and the law firm has had to
develop a suitably powerful looking letterhead. All of these other actions will
bear on how the text will appear, what specific language and information is
used, and how the text will be interpreted.
In working within stable, familiar genres you would do well to look to
previous examples and existing genre-specific guidelines to know the formal
requirements, what the readers will expect, and the choices that are likely to be
effective. But you also need to look to the particulars of your situation to make
the text do the specific work you need done in this case. For some genres simple
fulfillment of requirements may be all that is needed. Submitting an order
for a new product needs to be accurate and complete as to what is ordered,
where it is to be shipped, how payment is to be made, and so on. It must be
addressed and transmitted to a business that sells the product and can deliver it
as requested, and you must have the authorization to order and make payment.
Once you have presented this as clearly as possible in the most familiar and
easily interpretable way, your job is done. Any extra information, attempt at
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
humor or a personal touch, or political comment might confuse the businessclient
On the other hand, you may need further work on the text beyond the
required minimum. While sometimes a standard party invitation is enough,
at times you may want to encourage participation or raise anticipatory joy
by clever words, interesting graphics, personal photographs, or some other
individualizing device. To do this successfully you need to go beyond the typical
formal elements of the genre into the spirit of the event and the specifics of the
situation. For a wedding invitation you might want to look into the values and
dreams of the couple and the role of the partnership in their lives to provide
clues as to what makes this celebration special. The standard legal letter, in the
other example, may not be sufficiently threatening to be effective in a particular
case, given what you know of the circumstances and the callous attitude of the
offenders, so you may need to look into the offenders’ vulnerabilities and fears
to know what will spell trouble to them and get their attention. In both cases,
nonetheless, the inventiveness remains within the expectations of the genre,
though heightening its force.
Many genres have the expectation of novelty, originality, fresh thought,
particular situational aptness or other invention even to fulfill successfully
the basic requirements of the genre. The genre directs the character of the
invention, points the writer toward particular kinds of work, and whets the
readers’ appetites for a particular kind of surprise. Jokes (unless they are in
special categories of old and familiar jokes such as “groaners”) require a surprise
in the punchline, usually involving a pun, juxtaposition, incongruity, or other
disruption of ordinary thinking—but it cannot be too shocking or sobering.
While Op-ed columns in the newspaper are typically of a certain length, within
a recognizable style, and about current events, yet each one is expected to
present a fresh perspective on the events that show a special wisdom, insight,
perspective, or knowledge that will stimulate the reader’s thinking. To do
this the columnist has to watch for interesting stories about which he or she
has something fresh to say. Much of the work of writing such columns is in
identifying events to talk about and the perspective from which to discuss them.
Most student papers in fulfillment of university assignments similarly need
to respond to an instructor’s expectation of fresh thinking on the students’ part,
often specified and directed in the assignment. This fresh thinking typically will
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
require the use of ideas and methods presented in the course and discipline,
and will typically be based on reason and evidence, but will include some
novel critical perspective, evaluation, analytical reasoning or other recognizable
intellectual work. The student to succeed must not only recognize the general
requirements of the assignment, but also the specific expectations of novel work
added, to distinguish this paper from and above others in the class at the same
time as being recognizably within the framework of the course and assignment.
In university settings student writing is often assigned to develop student
analytical thinking, and ideally students and teachers enter into a productive
dialogue about the disciplinary material, growing from students’ engagement
in the subject matter and the ideas being raised in the course. Academic
genres, particularly in classroom or seminar settings, frequently have strong
dialogic expectations—reprising ideas and materials already developed as part
of the course as well as bringing fresh but appropriate external resources as
part of the student’s creative, critical, informed contribution. Furthermore,
readers (or interlocutors in this educational dialogue) are usually looking for
the organization, linkages and reasoning that provides evidence of a mind at
work on disciplinary questions, using disciplinary resources and tools—that is,
a mind that is being disciplined through the disciplinary task.
From this perspective, the genre the students are working in, directed by
the prompt or assignment, becomes a problem space in which the students
are learning by working through disciplinary issues using disciplinary tools
and varieties of analytical, synthetic, and critical reasoning. The formulated
argument of the paper then becomes both an expression of the student’s answer
to this problem and evidence of their thinking, reasoning, and learning.
In such assignments the disciplinary learning and the writing become
inseparable, and the instructor is likely to evaluate and respond to the paper
precisely as a piece of disciplinary work, revealing the student’s disciplinary
understanding. There is sometimes an even deeper reading of the student’s
development which can be evaluated and responded to, concerning the student’s
depth of engagement and commitment to the field and its fundamental
intellectual perspectives. That is, sometimes the instructor may be looking for
evidence that the student is not just displaying disciplinary reasoning—even
novel, clever reasoning—as an acquiescence to the authority relations in the
classroom, but that somehow the student has made the disciplinary perspective
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his or her own, has integrated disciplinary thinking into his or her own
internally persuasive resources (to use Bakhtin’s terms, 1981) as something to
believe and use in viewing the world. While the indicators of that engagement
may be fluid and task specific, they would indicate thought that extends beyond
the immediate problem and the obvious resources as part of some further
intellectual transformation within the student.
One of the regular challenges students have as writers, if they are indeed
working from their own deeply internal thought, rather than thinking of the
writing as simply an external set of forms and requirements to be fulfilled, is
that they get lost in their thoughts and their writing may remain elliptical as
internal thought often is (as described by Vygotsky, 1986.) Further, because
student writers may have a sense that they know what they are talking out,
the writing may not be intelligible to a differently minded audience. Because
they have lived through an episode and may have multiple visceral memories
of the situation, they may not share details necessary for others to picture and
understand the situation. Certain personally important words may be used
in idiosyncratic ways or with a force understood only by the author. So an
important part of students learning to write for these situations is to expose and
elaborate enough of their thought and experience so that their thought becomes
intelligible to the reader.
These expectations about what might appear in the final paper raise paradoxes
of internal processes and external production which riddle education as an
enterprise, as educators evaluate external behaviors and products to determine
students’ internal development. Educators set challenging activities and establish
responsive environments in order to foster internal development, and regularly
make attributions about students’ intellectual and emotional selves on the basis
of their behaviors and products. These paradoxes are heightened in schooling
because of the focus on the development of students’ minds, but actually the
tension between external form and internal thought runs throughout writing.
Writing, as all language, is a vehicle to evoke meanings in other peoples’ minds.
Readers in turn believe that the thoughts they glean from a text had their origin
in the mind of the writer. Even a pro forma social nicety or a lie must still
be selected and thus thought. Yet what is transmitted are the words on paper
or on the computer screen—an external object made of signs, which can be
manipulated and evaluated as a formal construction. Nevertheless, the signs
index thoughts entertained and projected by the writer and thoughts evoked in
the readers, although the reader’s thoughts may not match those projected by
the writer.
The complexity and personality of thought leads to an indeterminacy and
creativity in what the formal realization might be. But that formal realization
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
requires that we work with forms and make choices about formal elements.
That tempts us to treat writing on the purely formal level, for that is where skill
seems to reside. Yet we are always engaged in the task of making meaning and
wrestling with form to express that meaning.
One way to deal with these paradoxes of inner meaning and outer form is
to wait for a moment of inspiration when one’s perception of the situation,
impulse for meaning, and sense of possible form crystallize in an intuitive sense.
Such moments of writer’s intuition can be very powerful and can direct writing
strongly. Certainly a writer should cultivate the ability to identify and respect
those moments when they appear, but their appearance at best will be sporadic
and unpredictable. Most of our writing does not arise in the leisure that allows
us to write poems only when the spirit moves us and the vision is clear. Even
in that luxurious situation, such moments of illumination are more likely to
strike if we are regularly at our keyboard or have pen in hand, struggling with
meaning and form, at the altar of the muse, ready to recognize and transcribe
when the muse visits us.
So what can we do until the muse arrives or even in the likely case the muse
never visits? We can work from the outside in, or from the inside out, or moving
back and forth.
For fairly stabilized genres in fairly stabilized social circumstances, models,
guidelines, advice, instructions, or textbooks can tell us what to include, how
it should be organized, how it should be expressed. These directive documents
range from detailed instructions about how to fill out government forms, to
collections of model letters, to reference books on how to write a scientific
article, to self-help books on writing scripts for television. They may even
lay out very specific technical requirements for specific fields, such as proper
terminology and citation form for scientific articles in chemistry, or all the
items that must be included for an application to be considered. Increasingly,
especially in digital environments, templates are provided (and sometimes
monitored) to identify (and sometimes compel) topics and information as well
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
as to structure the presentation. Forms can even police our responses to ensure
they are in the correct format. Although now machine monitoring of generic
completeness is limited to fairly simple items in forms (name, address, etc.), we
can only expect that this kind of structuring and monitoring will increase—
including inspection of the content of more open-ended sections. In any event,
even if such content expectations are not externally prompted, we can query
ourselves and start to make lists of the kind of things expected in the document
and specifics that we might want to include. Through such lists, notes, and
outlines, the contents of texts can emerge and then be organized, giving us
confidence and direction in what we say, even if we do not strictly adhere to
this early planning.
Sometimes the guidance is more sketchy and open-ended, recognizing the
differences of particular cases and the need for the creation of new meanings
within the genre. This guidance may be more strategic identifying impulses or
gists that need to be carried out or identifying larger sweeps of meaning. Such is
the advice offered for scientific article introductions developed by John Swales
(1990), that identifies a series of moves that a researcher needs to do to identify
the rationale for a piece of research. One creates a research space by a series of
moves that identifies a problem, establishes what prior research has been done
in the literature and identifies a gap or opening in the research. Similar analyses
have been done for other forms writing, identifying the usual set of moves
in a genre, with the typical variations, additions, deletions, substitutions, and
changes in sequence. These move analyses usually display a strategic logic in the
selection and order of the moves, which are identified by examination of many
real examples.
The tension between external form and the internal meaning-making
suggests we take a somewhat sophisticated approach toward the formal
requirements and practices typical in a situation. Models and guidance about
specific contents, organization, appropriate language and phrasing, and other
describable aspects of language put the appropriate tools of language at our
fingertips, reminding us of the many things we already know or introducing
us to new particulars that can extend our repertoire. But we also are helped by
understanding the meaning to be conveyed that prompt these formal elements.
Understanding the logic, the idea behind the formal requirements, first of all
lets us know what we are doing, so we can direct our attention to the basic
task of making meanings that fit the situation. The form does not displace
the meaning, but helps us understand what kind of meanings we can create.
Second, in moving us toward the underlying gist realized through the form, we
can think about how to create the gist more forcefully and effectively. Third, if
we understand what we are trying to accomplish in the genre in terms of detailed
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
meaning making, we are freed to try to alternative means—while still keeping
in mind readers’ expectations. While at times we may have to write exactly in
the prescribed form or our reader will not accept our information, we often
have some freedom to try new things as long as we respect and pay attention to
expectations—explaining how we will fulfill expectations in a different way, or
explaining persuasively why those expectations may need to be modified.
As we understand the meaning potentials and interactional gists that
may be achieved in a situation, we may then also see that we can evoke more
complex sets of understandings within the situation. By bringing the clusters
of understanding packaged in multiple sets of genres we can develop meanings
that draw on and resonate with several domains of activity, knowledge, ideas,
and actions. If we consider genres not as fixed forms but recognizable clusters of
psycho-social understandings, we have the possibility of invoking rich complexes
of understanding in making our points. Of course, this requires clarity and
focus in what we are doing so these multiple domains reinforce rather than
confuse each other. This is all the more reason we need to look deeply into the
worlds genres exist in and the worlds created by them.
As discussed in previous chapters, our responses to situations are visceral and
complex, bringing many resources to the task as a communicative situation takes
shape. Whatever theory of internal language, intuitive judgment, subconscious
or preconscious mind, affective thought, or brain architecture and dynamics
one may hold, all views recognize that the resources and responses that give
rise to our statements are only partially available to our conscious mind and
planning. In forming utterances we act below our self-conscious monitoring of
meaning production to tap deeper processes. Arranging our lives so as to make
our deepest thought most available is an important part of our work as writers.
We can identify our best time of day for writing and leave it open for writing
without distractions. We can organize a conducive working environment and
have our favorite coffee in our favorite mug. Developing rituals and routines that
relax and focus our mind, or organizing daily work to begin with easier warm
up activities, such as looking at necessary sources or reviewing the previous
day’s work are all part of the process of getting our mind in the right place to be
receptive to our emerging thoughts. Such activities could be called prompting
the mind, finding the right place to put your mind into, or assembling the right
frame of mind—they all are forms of mental preparation.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Preparing the mind to write is not always easy, especially if the subject is
challenging—intellectually, emotionally, socially, or technically. Such challenges
may leave us with an uncertainty about whether we have something appropriate
to say or whether we are capable of saying it. We may not feel comfortable and
may resist committing ourselves to words (see Chapter 12 for elaboration of
these psychological challenges). But we must assemble the courage to begin
putting something on the page. Notes, outlines, plans, random sentences, freewriting
journals are all low stakes ways to get the words flowing—not fully
committing us to decisions, but yet producing something outside the self. Ideas
may then begin to flow. Low-stakes writing can open some directions to take and
even phrases to keep. For the rest the wastebasket and delete button are near at
hand. At the very least we wind up with some text to look at, evaluate, modify,
or replace with something better. Externalizaton reduces the cognitive overload
of keeping everything floating in the head and perhaps decreases the confusion
that occurs when juggling too many ideas at the margin of consciousness.
As we get text on a paper, our ideas take material shape, as a painting
emerges from an empty canvas. The impulses to project meaning turn into
particular words and sentences, inscribed contents, sequences of thought, and
pieces of text organization. At the first level we may simply consider whether
this is what we wanted to say and whether it is intelligible to others or could be
said more effectively. But then we can see where it is headed—what is necessary
to complete the thought or elaborate it to be more fully understood, and what
next point needs to be addressed.
As the text emerges, thinking moves more and more from discovering
what it is you want to say to craftsman-like working with the actual text. Even
then, crafting text still can be a continuing process of discovery as you have to
answer questions about how one part relates to another, or what is an accurate
example or specification of an idea, or whether audiences will object and how
objections can be addressed. As we construct the document we literally make
meaning, articulating impulses and organizing them into a document that
becomes the conveyer of that meaning. Work on the document sharpens the
public meaning, which then becomes the words which we stand behind. In
that process we need to keep questioning about how true that text is to our
impulse—for only by that questioning can we maintain a commitment to
your words. On the other hand, the written words become our commitment
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
as we struggle with how to make them say what we want, thereby creating a
more elaborated meaning.
A writer works with the meaning as it emerges. This may mean you may
come up with a key phrase but with no clear idea where it will fit within the
text. Get it down. Or a paragraph explaining a key concept may be a good
place to start, or a description of a key location, or a reminder list of some
things you want to make sure you cover. If in a research article the research
methods you employed are easiest to write, begin there. On any pieces of
writing, the introduction is the hardest part. You could skip it at first or just
try anything to warm up, with the knowledge that you can delete it, change it,
or substitute something later once you see what the body of the text actually
winds up saying.
As you build the first draft, it can be quite drafty, with much air flowing
through it. If you have sections that are difficult to address or which require
further research or other activities, then you can skip them over, but do leave
as many words as you can to guide you when you return to fill in the holes.
When you first begin writing, it does not even have to be a draft of the final
text. You can write some interim document, such as a freewrite journal or
a description of the materials you have available, just to get your thoughts
and plans out. Many kinds of projects require different documents at various
points long before the final document gets drafted; the interim documents get
the writers to a position to be able to write the final document. For example,
major research projects may start with a brief proposal long before the research
is done. Reading notes on related studies may capture important points for the
new study or identify important procedures. Collecting information, whether
from experiments, surveys, or archives, produces a variety of texts, notes, data
documents, or files. Rearranging and displaying the information in tables,
narratives, graphics and other formats can help make sense of them. Then
analysis may produce a whole different generation of documents. Short interim
presentations of work in progress for supervisors, colleagues, or sponsoring
organizations can help clarify actions, thinking, and results to this point.
While all these may be written long before final articles or books, they help the
writer think through the project, figuring out what to say and what material
to include. Phrasing, descriptions, and even whole sections that will find their
way into final documents emerge. Often people writing large projects find it
useful to publish shorter articles that become the basis of larger books.
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If you trust the process, meaning and form will gradually emerge over
the long period to produce a text that crystallizes your meaning. Trusting the
dialogue between yourself and the emerging text can give you courage to face
the uncertainty about how the page will be filled and what will fill it. This
dialogue is enriched by engagement with the materials one is writing about and
with others interested and knowledgeable on the subject. Too often in schooling
we view each text as a one-time effort to be produced in a limited time span,
with few texts and other humans around us. Outside school, we are more likely
to write as part of an ongoing interaction with others, so that we develop our
thoughts, positions and actions in each exchange. The process is ongoing and
being caught up in it is the means by which we produce texts for it. It is rare
that a full and crisp vision will impel the writer from the beginning. Rather we
must learn to take courage from a process driven by our best efforts and deepest
impulses to communicate. We can do no more. Trust the process.

A form in itself is a gesture toward a social interaction, but it contains little
meaning in itself beyond the gesture. Occasionally that is enough, simply
registering a social action, like saying hello, acknowledging receipt of a previous
message, or signaling compliance with a request. But most social actions benefit
from saying more, offering more meaning evoked through the contents. It is
the contents that engage the mind of a reader, providing desired information or
exciting the reader’s thinking or evoking a shared perspective on the world or
provoking outrage and action. This chapter provides some ways to think about
the contents to select and how to represent them. The next chapter will provide
some thoughts on how to bring these pieces together to create a total picture
and a journey for the reader.
We know that if we are looking for specific kinds of information, we go to
specific documents. If we want to know the ingredients for a dish, we check a
recipe in a cookbook. If we seek information on voter preferences we check polls
available in newspapers and political websites. If we want information about the
most recent findings in microbiology, we go to the research articles of the field.
Each genre is associated with certain kinds of contents made available to
or directed toward particular kinds of readers. As we write for each genre, we
need to keep those expectations in mind, usually with the intention of fulfilling
those expectations for those who will consult or read the documents. If we don’t
fulfill expectations we have some explaining to do or costs to pay. Some genres
are highly restrictive. Any failure to include any of the required information
in an application may lead to immediate rejection—and perhaps even a web
application form will refuse to process it. Further, that information must be
of the precise form expected, such as an address according to street, house and
apartment number, city and state. A florid description of the charming house
and how you might identify it by its distinguishing character would not work
here, though it might be appropriate for the directions sent for a party.
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
Other genres may have more open expectations, but still some things in
some forms would be clearly inappropriate. Information appropriate for an
architectural proposal would not fit within a love letter, and the contents of
neither would fit in a financial audit report. Each has its appropriate contents of
interest and concern to its appropriate audience, a concept described by Bakhtin
as a chronotope (1981)—the time and space each genre is placed in along with
the appropriate scenery, actors, and actions. He uses the example of a Greek
romance, but it is equally appropriate to a laboratory report that tells of several
time places—the events carried out in the laboratory by the scientist through a
method and apparatus, the story of what happens to the material placed under
the experimental conditions, a framing story of what the discussion has been
in the scientific literature and how this study intervenes in the discussion, and
ultimately an emerging picture of what happens recurrently in the world as
revealed by the findings of this and related studies. Each level of the story has
its typical settings, time frames, actors, and events. Further, each level has a
structured relation to each of the other levels of chronotope in the research
report: the scientist’s actions seek results relevant to the scientific discussion by
designing an experiment which produces findings that contribute to a general
picture of the operations of nature.
Sometimes seemingly inappropriate material can be brought into a genre,
but it requires some specific warrant and some discursive work to legitimate
its presence—diary material on the front page of a major newspaper would
need to be justified as evidence in a serious political or financial scandal, unless
the readers were to then decide this newspaper was turning into a tabloid
scandal sheet. Perhaps a science writer could include a description of a flowercrowded
garden at the beginning of a popular article on plant genetics, but only
if the writer made clear connections to the article’s exposition of its subject,
such as connecting the varieties of flower colors, sizes, and shapes to genetic
mechanisms determining such variety. But in a more professional research
article in a scientific journal, a writer could probably not be able to justify such
an aesthetic description no matter how hard the writer worked.
The genre chosen sets expectations of what needs to be included. Conversely,
awareness of the kinds of information and ideas to be transmitted to particular
audiences can suggest the appropriate genre to bring together and convey the
message. Examining examples of genres you are considering can help you identify
what the information expectations, the forms of representing the information,
the level of detail and precision, and the uses made of the information—as well
as the underlying need or justification for that information. Of course you must
then look into the logic of what you are saying, and what particular needs your
argument or task or subject calls for. At the intersection of your subject and the
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
expectations of the genre you may be able to identify what you need, what your
readers will expect, and the quality of the information you should provide.
But then there is still the question of where the information comes from
and how to find it. Some genres carry specific expectations of procedures
and standards for gathering and selecting the material, and may even require
accounts of how the key material was collected. Research articles typically
include explicit methodological narratives to provide warrant for and means of
interpreting the information reported. Often, as well, they imply accounts of
which concepts were selected and why, what articles were considered important
to discuss, and which facts were important to consider.
In a typical school situation, the sources of information are often well defined
by the textbook or assigned readings. If the teacher wants the students to seek
additional materials from the library or from conducting a laboratory experiment,
interviews, survey, or other research the teacher usually will be specific about
the sources and procedures. Outside of school we may equally be expected to
follow specific procedures for locating and selecting information, and then how
we represent it in the text. Journalists, for example, are trained to gather facts
from the courthouse, police briefings, interviews, informants, public records,
and other accepted journalistic sources. Even in domains not shaped by such
professional standards, writers are faced with the problem of which information
to include and what are appropriate ways to get and confirm that information.
If we are complaining to a seller about prices we have been billed, having the
exact amount billed, the original invoice, the invoice number, its date, as well as
the exact amount will make your case stronger, as will a cancelled check or credit
card bill. If we are claiming a discrepancy with an advertised price, then having
the details that appeared in the original and, along with the date and place of the
advertisement, and even a photocopy of the ad will provide evidence for the claim.
Some personal messages, of course, rely primarily on memories and feelings, but
looking over photos of the past few days of vacation, or even the business cards of
the restaurants visited, might help bring back a lot of strong feelings and specific
memories that could give some force to a personal letter or a travel blog.
Awareness of the information typical of a genre and the procedures by which
that information is accessed is important to help you know what to include, what
should drive your choices, and where you can find what you need. It also lets you
know the standards of the field or domain, to make sure the material you include
is respected, trusted, and accepted by your readers. In certain fields evidence must
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
be collected by proper experimental procedures defined by the field, and for which
you must be trained. Introduction of new evidence, unusual collection methods, or
different reasoning from evidence to conclusions will require extra work to justify
the novelty and persuade the readers of legitimacy of the procedure. If professional
journalists are discovered to have deviated from the procedures of their profession,
they are at risk of being deemed incompetent or unethical. If journalists make an
alternate choice, as did the new journalists of the 1970s in the U.S —such as Tom
Wolfe and Norman Mailer—or more recently political bloggers, they need to do
work to justify that unusual choice and its validity, and run the risk of rejection. But
that new form of work may also create new genres and evidentiary expectations.
The kinds of information appropriate to each genre establish the world to
be considered by that genre. That information represents and points to objects
and events in the world beyond the text, and thus indicates the ontology of
the genre. What is represented in genres that circulate among a social group
identifies what objects and events are valued and worth paying attention to
by the group; conversely, those things not represented are not visible to the
group’s discussions, considerations, calculations, evaluations, or negotiation of
accuracy. Any change in what can be made visible in the genres circulated in a
social group or how it is made visible changes the group’s ontology.
Further, expectations for the kind of information to be used to represent
the objects and events and how that information is to be collected carry with
them deeper considerations about how we can know and represent the world,
what modes of knowing and representing are reliable and significant, and how
our collections and representations index the world (that is, how they point to
aspects of the world and what they tell us about the world). Generic expectations
also define what methods of collection and representation are not allowable
as faulty, misleading, imprecise, uncertain, or otherwise discrediting. Such
considerations of how the text can come to represent knowledge of the world
through the collection and representation of evidence operationally define the
epistemology of the text and the group.
As a writer communicating with any social group, it is worth being aware
of the readers’ ontologies and epistemologies, whether or not you share their
views. Often professional training in a discipline or profession is precisely an
induction into the shared ontologies and epistemologies of the field. If there
are explicit discussions about the ontologies and epistemologies of the field you
are writing for, it may be of value to look into them, particularly if you are a
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
stranger to the field, but do remember that sometimes these discussions are
written by philosophers outside the field seeking normative guidelines that do
not necessarily reflect the actual ontologic and epistemic practices or orientations
of insiders. On the other hand, many insider discussions about ontology and
epistemology often go by other names. Often books for neophytes and students
can be very enlightening about what the field attends to, what it considers the
right way to learn about the world of interest, and how that evidence from the
world should be best represented.
Many scientific fields have extensive methodological discussions of credible
ways of gathering evidence and ways to evaluate the evidence so gathered. They
have discussions about what objects are properly the concern of a field and
what belong to other fields, as well as what appearances are not appropriate to
the field and what common sense ways of looking are not really accurate by
disciplinary standards. Fields also often discuss or contend over the appropriate
way to represent information gathered about the world so as to enter into the
reasoning and calculation of the field. Each domain has its appropriate forms
of representation. For example, in ancient days, taxes were collected directly
in kind from agricultural produce, so that one would have to offer every tenth
bushel of wheat or every tenth cow to the authorities. Accounting of these taxes
were in terms of the produce. But modern taxes are now accounted through the
local currency in quantitative form, so that if you were paid through food and
lodging, you would have to convert that into its cash equivalent to be reported
on the tax forms. In some fields results need to be presented as quantitative data
of the sort that can be manipulated and evaluated through various statistical
procedures. Some fields favor theory-driven graphs of energy levels, aggregating
many trials. Typically in historical fields, specific historical actors need to be
identified and evidentiary documents need to be identified and discussed to
establish specific actions, intentions, and beliefs. In some areas of ethnographic
social science research, identities of people need to be kept hidden, although
detailed accounts of their social circumstances may be elaborated. Over time
fields also change their modes of representation as new theories become important
and new data collection devices are used. These modes of representation make
the data or evidence available for reasoning, evaluation, and calculation in the
ways characteristic of the field. If the information is not represented in the
proper form, the readers will have a hard time working and reasoning with it.
If you are writing as an insider, readers will expect you to have internalized
and to adhere to the epistemologies and ontologies of the field (or at least one
of the several that may exist within a more tolerant multi-perspectival field),
and if you vary you will have to provide to your colleagues principled and
persuasive reasons (themselves within the values of the field) to reconsider
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
their epistemologies and ontologies. Not only professions and research fields
have such ontologies and epistemologies. Religious communities also teach
its adherents to attend to certain emotional or spiritual experiences or certain
texts that are core parts of epistemologies and ontologies. Sports fans also have
things they agree are worth their attention, how those things should be properly
known, and what is a distraction from or diminution of the sports experience.
As an outsider to any group, it is also important to attend to the ontologies
and epistemologies of people you are communicating with—starting with
which genres they are likely to attend to, but also as to what kinds of evidence
is meaningful to them and how they would expect it to be gathered. Have
you done the experiment or gathered the statistical evidence and done a costbenefit
analysis to argue to educational policy makers for the introduction of
an education program? Have you had the appropriate spiritual experience and
did you testify to it in a credible way to persuade a spiritual group that you
understand their values? When you write about changes of media coverage of
basketball, do you share in the excitement of the game?
If you cannot enter into the audience’s world of objects and ways of knowing,
how can you get them to turn attention to new evidence, attend to a different
part of the world, and gather knowledge in a different way? Perhaps you can
call on another role or identity that gets your audience to look in a different
way, such as reminding the sports fans that they are also consumers in a very
extensive market that is being manipulated by media corporations—and thus
getting them to remember evidence and ways of knowing that are important to
them in other times and places. Scientists are often directors of labs, and must
attend to information and reasoning from the financial and legal domains.
Ontologies and epistemologies are not just philosophic abstractions; they
are also practical matters of communication. To influence your audiences you
need to know what they look at, what is important to them, and what they
are likely to accept into their universe of attention. The more one enters into a
field the more epistemology and ontology direct the reading and reception of
audiences. Multidisciplinary or multi-group communications are likely to bring
these issues to the fore, whether or not participants use philosophic terms to
describe their differences of understanding.
Texts are not isolated communications. As considered in Chapter 4, they
exist in relation to prior discussions in other texts, which create a world
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
of facts of ideas which the readers are familiar with and which shape their
knowledge, orientations, and concerns. To communicate with an audience
you need to be aware of the texts that inform them. These texts can also
serve as resources of shared ideas and information, topics of discussion, points
of difference, or definitions of situations ripe for action. Behind and within
the represented world is an intertext of similar and related texts which have
previously represented that world and neighboring areas. The scientific report
and the ethnographic account each is built on relevant literatures that have
posed questions, brought a discussion to a certain point, produced related
findings, identified appropriate methods, and set criteria for the current study
to address. The current article must create a relation to this intertext and
create a place for itself within a landscape it will change by its presence. Even
the fairy tale rests on the memory and experienced pleasures of previous fairy
The most explicit way texts rely on other texts is by quotation—a segment
of another text is directly imported. Another author is allowed to speak for
him or her self, to take over the voice the text for a moment. But of course
the textual space is handed over to the other author with some cost—the gift
is not a free will offering. The current author uses the words of the quoted
author only for the quoter’s own purposes, even if the purpose is to draw
on the authority of the quoted author as an eloquent spokesperson for the
quoter’s cause. But the quoted may also be the drudge who has produced the
facts and statistics that allows the quoter to weave fiery arguments, or the
quoted may be the misguided holder of opinions to be the target of critique
and derision.
This handing over the voice of the text is hardly a license for the quoted
to say whatever he or she might desire. The quoter has control over which of
the quoted words will be chosen—the quoter’s only constraint is to transcribe
the words accurately. The quoter also gets to introduce, discuss, and pass
judgment on the words quoted. These words can be explicitly characterized
as wrong, or silly, or misguided, or idealistic, or prescient. The judgment can
be expressed subtly, with verb tense to indicate ideas of the past or present,
ironies, juxtaposition with other quotations and statements, or placement in
an unfolding logic—limited only by what the resources of language allow
one to do. These characterizations bring us closer or make us more distant
from the words we are getting filtered through the quoter’s framing. While
the quoted gets to speak, it is the quoter who gets to frame and construct the
drama, and to tell us how engaged we ought to be in it, from what perspective
we ought to view it. The constructed drama of multiple voices ultimately
serves to set off the quoted’s position, to carry off the writer’s intentions
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
and advance the writer’s own voice: at the head of the parade he or she is
marshaling, as the humble servant of past wisdom, as the encompassing spirit
who can synthesize and embrace multitudes, or as the shining light that cuts
through the veil of misguided foolishness.
Paraphrase and summary of the original writer’s words provide even greater
transformation of the original voice of the person cited. This allows the further
subordination of the original voice to the purposes of the writer, either being
homogenized into the writer’s voice, spoken in the tones that sound like the
voice, or further characterized and perhaps stigmatized as something other—
perhaps as a target or a foil or as an ally from great distance. The gist, rather
than the words, becomes imported and heightened as a social force within the
unfolding narrative but without a sharp a picture of concrete other actor who
asserts identity through his or her words.
As the distinctiveness of original words fade, it also becomes easier to
detach their gists from any specific actor. Thus assertions can be subsumed
into “opponents who claim . . .” or “common sense frequently tells us . . .”
These hazy shadows can provide a context for the current circumstances while
removing the author from direct confrontation with focused other social
actors, identified and represented in their own words.
At its most subsumed but most common form, these socially received ideas
and terms are simply taken as assumptions, a recognizable and recognized
cultural and social landscape against which all new statements are made. Every
discussion rests on the long history of discussions developing knowledge and
terms and issues. Only sometimes, however, are readers reminded of long
histories and commitments—“Freedom of speech, maintained only in the
struggles of every generation, comes dearly—only by challenging the borders
of the unspeakable in every generation can we fulfill the promise of growing
enlightenment.” At other times prior texts may be treated blandly, relying
on common unthinking assent, so as to bypass serious thought or emotion,
keeping attention only on a small bit of current news added—“Police officer
Smith, about to stop a pick-up truck for speeding, noticed that the vehicle
seemed to be operated by a dog sitting upright in the driver’s seat.” The typical
text serves only as background to the variation that stands out for attention.
Through deployment of texts and voices ranging from the specifically
memorable to the background murmurs of “what everybody knows,” writers
are able to represent their chosen social context for their current utterance. By
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attention to, selection among, and strategic representation of these voices—
bringing them forward or hiding them in the background, with shrill sharpness
or honeyed sweetness—the author can orchestrate a relevant social reality.
Of course other voices that the reader might remember or have access to
and consider relevant limit the writer’s ability to create this social reality, for the
reader can always evaluate the writer’s proposed intertext: “Ahhh—the writer
is just following the party line, citing the party hacks, and relying on tired old
party reports.” “Hasn’t this guy read any history, doesn’t he know . . . ?” “Why
isn’t she paying attention to the Biblical injunction against . . .?” The writer’s
representations of the prior intertexts and the positioning of the new statement
in relation to the intertext must be credible and persuasive for the readers to
accept the social reality, to accept the intertextual space the writer is creating,
and then to consider the text as plausibly responding to the opportunities of
that intertextual position.
Readers’ memories or perceptions of relevant intertexts may be aided or
hindered by the expectations of genre. Legal briefs are expected to be attentive
to relevant law and precedent within the jurisdiction, and a judge may lose
confidence in a brief that forgets the important case that every lawyer in the
state ought to know. It is in fact a strategy of the opposing lawyers to remind the
judge of all the other relevant law and precedent that make the case look entirely
different. On the other hand, if the judge in reading the brief remembers some
lines of poetry, those lines can at most serve as a stylistic flourish and not a
germane fact or reason. Indeed poetic lines only rarely come to mind in the
court as judges are much more likely to be preoccupied with the legal files in
their brains and libraries as they read the brief. If indeed the brief writer wants
to introduce the literary quote or a philosophic principle into a brief he or
she needs to do some work to establish its relevance and to limit the amount
of weight put on it. Its place is not self-evident and reliable within this genre
within this activity system, and its presence is therefore unstable and potentially
dangerous and destabilizing if given too much authority.
Similarly the genres of scientific articles in various fields suggest the
literature that can and ought to be evoked, the standard and particulars of
codified knowledge that need to be respected, and the usual degrees of play
that individuals can use to construct a review of literature that paves the way
for their new claim. Any person who wants to question the taken-as-accepted
literature and codified knowledge, or bring to bear extra-disciplinary knowledge
has rhetorical work to do to legitimate the construction of an unexpected
intertext. In addition to defining the expected resources of relevant intertexts,
genre expectations also constrain and direct the usual manners in which other
voices are brought to bear—typical formulations, typical footnoting, typical
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
evaluative phrases and characterizing moves. While a political commentator
may be allowed to characterize a speaker as duplicitous, preface a quotation
as evasive, and then display a brief quotation for its outrageousness, a political
historian has to create distance more carefully and choose the quotations on
different criteria. This is more than a matter of bluntness and politeness, or
seeming objectivity. This is a matter of bringing the outside resource into the
domain of a new discourse and having it serve as a useful and meaningful
utterance in the new context.
The regular explicit invocations of particular ranges of texts within particular
kinds of articles identify professional literatures. These are the texts one is held
accountable to knowing, drawing on, and placing one’s current project in
relation to. The texts that seem most salient for the current project are likely
to be explicitly mentioned by the writer, particularly in an academic field with
such practices, but it is fair game for readers to invoke any other of the texts that
can be plausibly made to seem part of the relevant literatures—and the author
is held liable then to address the difficulties or complexities arising from this
invocation. On the other hand, texts from outside the professional literature of
that domain can be generally assumed to be beyond the pale, leaving the writer
free of responsibility for taking them into account.
The literature then comes to identify the knowledge within a field, and the
work of academics can often be seen as contributing to a literature, expanding
the boundaries of available statements for people interested in the kinds of
things this specialty has to say. Thus in many scientific disciplines it is expected
that in the introduction to research papers there is succinct statement of the
prior relevant theory and research literature on which the current study relies
and to which it seeks to contribute. If the article over time is accepted as reliable
or true by other experts in the field and is used to help them carry forward new
research, that helps confirm the interpretation of the literature in the article’s
review. Thus knowledge and the literature in a field gets codified (that is accepted
and put in coherent relation) by an ongoing process of reuse, interpretation,
and the emergence of a coherent story of what the many articles in the field add
up to. Also freestanding reviews of literature, sometimes written by field leaders,
bring together the literature of the field in a coherent way, adding up prior work
and perhaps pointing to next stages of work needing to be done.
In these ways we can see each successful article, both new research
contribution and literature review or commentary, as intervening in an ongoing
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discussion, both affecting the ongoing trajectory of the discussion and creating
new landmarks which change the landscape which all future articles need to
attend to. However, not all articles successfully enter into the professional
landscape of the literature, or part of the expected chronotope that should
be paid attention to in future articles. They may be seen as trivial, adding no
new important insights or findings, or inaccurate, or just otherwise not worth
attention. They may never get cited or used by anyone, and are thus forgotten
in the collective memory.
We can extend this view of development of collective knowledge in
academic writing to the deployment of intertexts in all writings. By attempting
to create social worlds in which their statements best have meaning and
thrive, in reflecting the perspective the writers wish to project, the intertextual
assumptions of each article attempt to influence the reader’s basic point of
view, basic assumptions about the world, or what one could call the discursive
construction of the world. Thus people may start to identify their changing
beliefs about various aspects of life by the authors they are currently reading
or the people they are listening to. They may even say, “I was so persuaded by
reading a particular writer, that I started to read all her works and all the writers
that elaborate a similar point of view.” Even outside academic circles, where
people do not talk in such self-conscious ways about their reading, the same
phenomenon occurs, as readers are drawn into the world of sports biographies
or model railroad hobbyist magazines by a particular text that introduces them
to that world.
Intertextual fields then become domains of meaning established and
maintained by social groups and that one enters into by reading, participating
in them, and contributing to them. These intertextual fields serve as traditions
of symbols that flow in and around the group whether or not these symbols
are still attached to particular authors or particular texts. They become climates
of opinion, ways of thinking, and ways of seeing and representing experience.
These traditions of meaning themselves are bound up in the genres by which
they are enacted. By entering into literate activity systems and participating in
the genres, one enters into the rooms where these intertextual traditions are
gathered and speak, where they resonate in every word. Just as Homer’s epics
resonate in the later day epics of Milton, Wordsworth and Kenneth Koch, and
the common law resonates throughout contemporary court cases, yesterday’s
news resonates through today’s papers and old office memos of a corporation
still faintly chime behind today’s email directive.
The terrains of intertext which new texts constantly re-invoke and cast in
new light are an ever-growing resource, creating new positions to speak from.
Writing in the twenty-first century is a far more complex and varied thing than
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
it was five thousand years ago, or even one hundred years ago, in large part
because of the expanding textual inventions and resources; the large numbers of
text which one can echo, rely on, and set oneself against; and the complex social
relations that have taken on institutional force through the sets of texts that
define them. Thus, each new participant in recognizing that the law is the law,
school is school, and Colgate-Palmolive is not RJR Nabisco, are also implicitly
acknowledging the intertextual webs that support each and the way roles are
intertwined with daily roles and relations.
Texts are not just collections of information, though many texts indeed are
primarily fact collections such as phone books and almanacs. But even these must
be well-organized and make sense to the users. In phone books, organization
is important for readers to access and make sense of the information they want
readily. Almanacs with more kinds of information have varying organizing
principles by topics, each of which has locally organized tables, lists, and similar
information display devices, and there are chapters, tables of contents and
indexes to help the reader find the appropriate display. The internet, digital
searches, and hypermedia are changing display formats along with the principles
of organization and access of informational reference documents, but still an
intelligibly ordered structure is needed.
Encyclopedia entries have complex internal organizations beginning with
the name of the topic, overviews, and a list of major topics (if there is an
historical aspect that usually comes first), defined by headings, beneath which
is a narrative paragraph or paragraphs presenting the information in a way that
establishes the connection of the facts and making them easy to comprehend
in the clearest language appropriate to the topic. There are also cross-references
to other articles or related topics in the encyclopedia. The article usually ends
with further resources. This organization is so useful for access and clarity that
electronic media and hypertext have changed it little except turning the crossreferences
and other resources into links. The bigger changes have to do with
multiple community authorship, which has led to the back pages in the wiki
format, containing the history of changes, participants, discussion of issues
and like material—all important for the management and evaluation of the
collaborative contributions.
Texts that are primarily for the storage, quick access and retrieval of
information have a predominantly spatial organization, so a reader can rapidly
locate the spot with needed information. In writing such a text, one should
keep in mind the readers’ ease of location and rapid making sense of the desired
information. But other texts, meant to be read sequentially (even if sometimes
selectively) have more of a temporal organization, as reading occurs over
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
time with readers introduced to one thing and the next. New forms of digital
texts have both substantial spatial and temporal elements, as readers navigate
spatially conceived hypertexts in temporally structured sequences, while also
processing elements within each multimedia station or page. These digital texts
present challenges for creating hybrid ways of thinking about how such texts
can provide ordered, interpretable, meaningful experiences for readers. Here,
however, I do not deal in detail with the rapidly changing developments in
digital media, but rather present organizational and stylistic principles derived
from traditional texts, even as they may now be produced and delivered digitally.
Perhaps the comments provided here may be of use to consider the new hybrid
spatio-temporal texts, but only time will tell what guidance will be useful in
this moment of textual change. While I have some confidence that the more
fundamental issues in the earlier chapters will be applicable in the digital world
(though of course translated and freshly applied), I am less confident about how
actual textual form will evolve under what principles, as these are so tied to the
form and conditions of delivery.
Most traditional texts provide sequences of information, arranging them so
they are meaningful as readers move down an information or reasoning path.
The most obviously sequential text is a set of instructions which provides just the
information the readers need to know at each point in accomplishing a task, and
then gives the readers specific options based on individual needs or desires. The
coherence in instructions comes from the sequential organization of attention
to the objects and sets of actions. The meaningfulness and persuasiveness
depends on the right things being presented at the right moments. If the readerusers
cannot locate the dial to be adjusted at the right moment, or they do
not understand the relation of two parts to be aligned, they may discard the
instructions as not useful. At the very least they must solve some puzzles to be
able to know how to move to the next step. Enough such difficulties may lead to
a breakdown in meaning and distrust of the instructions. Further, if the results
are not as anticipated or promised, if the recipe does not produce an appetizing
dish, the reader is likely not to trust the source for future directions.
Directions must lead the reader down a clear path of action and produce
acceptable consequences. The need is no less great when mental actions are at
stake, whether intellectual or emotional. The readers must always know where
they are and where they are headed. Even if uncertainty, puzzlement, or mystery
are in fact an expected part of the journey, as in a mystery story or presentation
of a philosophic quandary, the uncertainty must be specific and contained,
limited to precisely those uncertainties that are expected and tolerated (if not
in fact to be enjoyed) by the readers. Leading readers to cliffs and then pushing
them off, loses readers—except for thrill-seekers, who are expecting such things
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
from the kind of texts they choose. So an important part of the text is to create a
tolerable, intelligible, and rewarding path, so the readers will understand where
each step is taking them and will want to take the next step. Often this also
means that readers need to be able to locate the relevant information in their
memories to make sense of and understand what is presented, so that the text
helps draw greater parts of their mind into alignment with the text, building
richer and more forceful meanings as the text progresses. Reading is an effortful
activity, where the readers have to work positively to give their minds over to
imagining the writer’s meaning. They can easily give up if the time and effort
becomes too great, too unpleasurable, or too confusing—or if the text leads in
directions readers do not care to go, that conflict with or are distant from what
their minds already contain or think about. If because of external constraint,
such as legal and financial consequences or school grades, a reader continues
despite confusion, unpleasantness, or seemingly purposeless burdensome effort,
the reader is likely to give only minimal and resentful cooperation. The readers
are then like people on a forced march, hardly in the mood to appreciate the
scenery or to give full attention to collaboratively solving the difficulties of the
Organization of a text is about creating meaningful, rewarding, purposeful
trips for readers through the information, narrative, argument, reasoning,
calculation, and other material you want to present. The text needs to be
presented coherently, so readers will be able to follow you in every step of the
way with some engagement and enthusiasm, without feeling they are asked
to take undue leaps of faith, to make excuses for you, to fill in gaps that you
neglect, or to jump from one place to another with little guidance. And when
the readers reach the endpoint you want to bring them to, they should feel the
endpoint was worth the journey.
Thinking about organization as a coherent sequential journey through an
information landscape provides a temporal perspective about reasoning, which
is usually seen spatially as a consistent and supportable structure. Of course,
readers, after they have read, may go back to examine the structure and overall
meaning of the text, as we will consider later in this chapter. Even as they proceed
temporally through a first reading they may be building a spatial model of the
text’s coherence, particularly if the text’s conclusions are important for some
work they need to carry out. Yet first, as they initially read it, they also need
the experience of being carried along moment by moment, building meaning,
maintaining comprehension and trust in the text, knowing where they are and
not doubting any step they are being led down.
The following are some strategies for making the textual journey intelligible
and trustworthy for the readers, but since genres vary so greatly in structure and
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
activity, the following comments are framed very generally to be appropriate to
a broad range of texts. Nor will these comments explain the many genre-specific
details of language which are well covered in many textbooks, guidebooks, and
other sources of advice, although it may point at well-known topics covered in
these books, from which I have learned much and to which I have little fresh
to add. Here I am just offering a fresh perspective for thinking about and using
well known features of text and language. Similarly, I will not provide detailed
examples, which are well covered in the many textbooks and guidebooks, in
ways that are selective and focused for the kind of writing concerned. My
examples here are only to show how wide-ranging the contexts might be where
general principles could be applied. For any specific kind of writing, it is useful
to consult an advice or stylebook appropriate to your task, genre, and audience.
Further, in the long run, it is useful for any writer to develop practical familiarity
with a wide repertoire of organizational and stylistic options, working with
many kinds of texts. The wider the repertoire of style and organization, the
greater choices the writer will have at hand at any moment and the better able
the writer will be able to discriminate among options and choose the most
appropriate to the immediate situation.
Depending on the trust, authority and purposes of a text, readers may need
more or less orientation to where they are heading, but in all cases the writer
needs to engage readers’ attention and motive to continue on the textual path.
Even if you are relying on the importance of the subject to the reader, you
still have to offer the promise of something new, interesting, or immediately
relevant and valuable, even if only confirmation of beliefs at the moment when
confirmation is needed. Beginning writers when given such advice about gaining
attention may invent bizarre and barely relevant attention-getting devices. Even
more mature writers may resort to well-worn devices like starting off with an
evocative story to make personal an abstract or technical issue for a more general
audience. However, one does not need to act like the barker at a carnival,
saying anything to get the customer into the tent. A more sober approach is to
identify what needs, interests, or concerns might have brought the readers to
the text and then somehow speak to those motivating concerns. In some cases
this might mean providing statistics about the magnitude of a problem and its
consequences, while in other cases it might mean identifying a point at issue
between two philosophers. Elsewhere it may be presenting the overview of the
recommendations in a report that then directs people to the internal sections if
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they want to follow up on an issue. It all depends on the kind of document, the
needs it serves, and the particular context it appears in. The strategies used in
documents similar to those you will write can give you a sense of the collective
wisdom of previous authors engaged in similar tasks. Recognizably evoking the
motivations associated with a genre has the further advantage of helping the
readers rapidly orient to the kind of text it is and the directions it will take.
Thus the standard formats of scientific articles help readers locate the news or
contribution of the articles, allowing them to decide which articles to follow
up on and in what depth. Equally, business correspondence that is part of an
ongoing negotiation or transaction often begins by identifying the specific case
and previous relevant documents, with perhaps a brief refresher narrative of
where the transaction stands.
Once you have the reader in the door you have to be careful about
maintaining attention and good faith even if you must disagree, challenge, or
otherwise irritate readers. It is easy for readers to be alienated and close the
book and walk away. Or if they stay, they can become resistant critics, mentally
constructing countertexts of alternative interpretations and evaluations. An
important element in allowing readers to know where they are and how that
relates to where they have been and where there are going is cohesive devices,
that include
• Text markers, section identifiers, predictors of the reasoning or steps
coming up, or summative passages tying together where one has been in
previous sections, so as to launch the next stage.
• Transitional words and phrases that explain the connective logic between
sentences or paragraphs, such as “therefore,” “afterwards,” or “as a consequence
• Compound and complex sentences that put several topics in relation.
Even simple sentences can tie together multiple prior topics of discussion
and launch new topics from previous ones.
• Pronouns that refer back to prior subjects, keep them alive, and provide
continuity, but the reference must be clear. Texts soon wander into confusion
if the reader no longer is sure which of many things an “it” can
refer to.
• Precise use of verb tense to identify the time locations of specific actions
and their relation to each other. The tense system is delicate and
precise in most languages, but if used inaccurately can lead to as much
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
confusion as pronoun uncertainty. The common advice that one needs
to stay in the same tense is oversimplified and inexact, but it does at least
raise the issue of time confusion. However, even in the same sentences,
some actions may be completed before others begin, and other actions
continue while being punctuated by others, while still other actions may
be in the future or be hypothetical possibilities. The delicacy of tenses
in indicating complex time relations is shown by examples such as this:
“After Samantha had completed her application form, she was waiting
in the front office when an enraged young man ran out of the interview
room muttering ‘Never, never will this happen.’ Samantha became apprehensive
that her own interview would not go well and she would be
leaving with a heavy heart.”
• Repetition of exact words or core roots—what is known as lexical cohesion.
Repetition of key terms allows the reader to keep track of main
elements and plant them firmly in the imagination, following their progress
through the changes of the text and arraying other elements around
these key anchor terms.
• Using synonymous or related terms, to establish a limited domain of
meanings and familiar relationships (or semantic domain), helping the
reader make sense of the text. As one moves through a text, the semantic
domains may shift following the logic of the organization and argument.
Accordingly, the opening of an article on the economy might start in
the daily business world of customers and shopkeepers with groceries,
products, and prices, but as the discussion turns to underlying analyses
the semantic domain might shift to that of economic theory, with supply
and demand curves and equilibrium points. Nonetheless, for readers to
understand how the argument fits together you will clearly need to connect
one semantic domain to the next by some transitional move, such as
“These daily actions are readily explained in theoretical terms . . .”
All these cohesive devices are related to and provide guidance for the reader
about the underlying coherence of a text, but do not in themselves guarantee a
sense of coherence for the reader. Ultimately coherence depends on the reader
being able to build a picture of the text’s meaning that fits together in a unified
picture (even if that is intended as a fragmented picture of a fragmented reality,
as in the portrayal of the chaos of a battlefield). We will examine this underlying
issue of text coherence from the perspective of logical or reasoned arguments,
from the perspective of emotions and stance, and from the perspective of the
total picture being constructed. All of these have a temporal element, as the
reader moves through the text, but all also have an after-the-reading residue,
which can be viewed in a more spatial way.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
If the text is presenting a reasoned argument or examination of an issue or
topic, the logical and evidentiary connection from one part to the next directs
the readers down each step and gives them confidence that they move forward
on solid ground, led by a trustworthy, reliable guide. Thus the reasoning that
warrants each step of the journey should be made explicitly enough to reassure
the audience that they are not taking faulty steps.
Of course at the end of the reading, readers always have the freedom to
disagree and find fault, but in the course of reading they are granting their
imagination to the author, even if they are holding some mental reservations
because of disagreements or other questions. Each reservation they add distracts
from the totality of mind they are giving over to the imaginative construction
of your ideas and the personal commitment they are giving over to the meaning
you are asking them to create. As these reservations or mental alarms add up,
readers may begin feeling they are giving their minds over to an unreasonable
person who makes unwarranted, unsupported, or bizarre claims, who is asking
them to make unacceptable leaps. The natural reaction in that case is to say “I
am not going to go there and I am not going to waste any more of my mental
energy in this journey.” If readers continue reading beyond this point, their
interpretation of the text will be filtered through a negative characterization of
the author or text, such as the writer being unreasonably partisan, just wrong,
or comically foolish. Rather than constructing your meaning, the readers will
be constructing a story about what is wrong with you and your text.
This also means there needs to be precision in what is said, so the reader
knows what they are assenting to in their imaginative reconstruction of the
meaning, and exactly how that provides a next step in the reasoning. Otherwise
readers are likely to insert their own meanings, desires, or perhaps aversions into
the underspecified story, leading them in a different direction than the path
being set out in the text, with a consequence that the readers at some point
may be confused, caught up short, or lost. Being sufficiently explicit in the text
markers, transitional phrases, and other ligaments that tie the parts of the text
together can help the readers to be precisely aware of how one step leads to
another and to make the desired connections rather than following their own
Although the above advice points in the direction of confident, directive
statements, this needs to be qualified in a couple of ways. First, you should not
be more confident, certain, or directive than you actually have the evidence and
certitude for. This means you must be careful to qualify your remarks through
modal verbs and hedging statements where appropriate, as well to recognize
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
and address contrary points of view, especially if they are likely to come to
your readers minds unprompted. Recognizing questions and alternative views
may even increase the trust of readers, as they perceive you as an honest and
reasonable evaluator of the evidence and logic. But this fairness then puts further
responsibilities on the remainder of the text, to living within the limits that
you have recognized, claiming no more than your argument has allowed, and
keeping contained the questions raised by the concessions so that the readers
can still continue down a path of reason, while carrying the uncertainties with
them. If the counterclaims or evidence or uncertainties stop your argument
dead in the tracks, readers may not travel much further with you. But carefully
framing and limiting the concessions will allow you to carry forward, even
though with lessened ambitions.
At the same time as recognizing and addressing legitimate difficulties, there
is no reason to proliferate difficulties, doubts, or questions where these are not
directly relevant to the direction of your argument. Nor is it usually necessary
to include information and concerns not essential to the forward direction of
your discussion issues if you are aware that they are likely to upset, confuse,
or arouse opposition. That is, given the great variety of human perspectives
and the delicacy of reading which can lead to readers’ misunderstandings,
multiple interpretations, loss of good will, and disruption of co-orientation, it
is worthwhile considering what is necessary or useful to say, and what might
serve to distract, divide, or lead astray.
Finally you also need to be aware of the sophistication of your audience. If
you can be sure that many arguments, reasoned consequences, or information
are familiar to the readers, you need not tell them at length what would be
obvious to them. Tediously repeating the familiar will not respect their expertise,
and perhaps even indicate that you do not understand what expertise in the
field consists of—marking you as an outsider or novice with little authority to
speak to the insiders.
While it is important to consider the steps in front of the readers and how
you can carry readers forward on their journey, it is also useful to consider the
accumulation of steps they have taken and how these fit together in laying
out a picture up to any particular point they may have reached in the text.
Your text gradually reveals a world of meanings to the readers. Although readers
experience a journey through time, they also develop a more synchronic spatial
or structural view of the meaning that at each moment has a certain shape
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
and contents. This spatial construction of the meaning of the text may occur
even if the reader does not read it sequentially, but probes it in different places,
gaining pieces of information that add up to a picture of your text as a whole.
For example, research scientists may skim the abstract at the front of the article
then jump to the data charts to see the results and then jump to the end to
see what the author is claiming on the basis of the data. If then the article is
important to them or raises questions, they might jump back to the methods to
see how the results were produced and then dig further into the results. Then
some questions of interpretation might lead back to the theoretical section,
and to the review of literature to see whether the authors were aware of related
studies with other findings. But all this jumping around is not incoherent—it
brings the readers into a deeper and more complete understanding of the text
as a structured argument.
This synchronic spatial meaning is the kind that can be looked at all at
once, perhaps represented in a summary, an outline, a flow chart, or a map.
Such representations make simultaneously visible all the parts, relations, and
sequences. This is the kind of representation a reader builds if he or she writes
a summary or set of ordered notes on a reading, but a skilled reader can also
build it mentally. A small child first learning to read may only be able to hold
in mind a single letter or cluster being phonetically sounded out, or a phrase or
sentence being made sense of, but as readers develop they are able to grasp larger
units and see the smaller ones in relation to them to form a mental construct
of the total text meaning. When readers have an adequate mental