Notes on Genre and Register

An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (Suzanne Eggin's version of Halliday) quotes Martin:

a genre is a staged, goal-oriented, purposeful activity in which speakers engage as members of our culture (Eggins, 26)

Genres embody the "context of culture" for a text, which wraps the "context of situation" (giving register). She later distinguishes between pragmatic motivations and interpersonal motivations, with the latter (typically: chat) having more phases than stages. She also quotes Martin that for big texts, it may make sense to talk of macro-genres (such as: department handbook) containing a number of different, more local genres (exposition: why you should study the subject and what it is about; description (course outlines); and regulation (rights/responsibilities/penalities).

They list text genres such as

and they add a list of everyday genres such as

For Biber et al. there are only registers. They work with their basic list: (just the written ones)

For Swales, genres center on recognizable, shared communicative purpose, which makes for less general genres. So "correspondence" is not a genre, nor is "letter", nor "business" or "official letter", but only "letter of acceptance, rejection, resignation, application, termination of coverage, dunning notice," etc. Calls "chat" and "natural narrative" pre-genres. His def:

A genre comprises a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognised by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style. Communicative purpose is both a privileged criterion and one that operates to keep the scope of a genre as here conceived narrowly focused on comparable rhetorical action. (1990,p. 58)

Of literary genres, Tony Bex points to Alastair Fowler's Kinds of Literature, where he says the sonnet is a type, not a genre, where genre functions in interpreting--they "actively form the experience of each work". Bex has a nice section on how "pastoral elegy" can function in enriching the reading of a modern poem.

David Lee's long article is a useful review of terminology and positions. He offers a "genres as basic-level categories" notion and a genre-index for the samples in the BNC--so we here overlap CL. Index is a working tool.

Some genre distinctions

  1. autobiography:
    (Adams:" an attempt at reconciling authors' sense of self with their lives through an art that simultaneously reveals and conceals" L&L, 21 et passim)
    1. memoir/autobiography(Adams:" [memoir] focuses outwardly on events and people observed by the narrator whereas [autobiography] concentrates on the author's life story with an inward attention" 42.)
    2. self-portraiture/autobiography (Adams quotes Beaujour: "The absence of a continuous narrative in the self-portrait distinguishes it from autobiography. So does its subordination of narration to a logical deployment ...we shall call thematic" (226) and also Estelle Jelinek that the autobiographies of women often eschew chronology and order. (226)
    3. autoethnography/autobiography (Pratt: a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them.") [Note: Norma Elia Cantú calls her Canicula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera "a fictional autobioethnography"--Adams, 19]
  2. documentary
    Definitions
    1. There are good discussions of documentary as a genre for still photography (esp. Clive Scott, also Jefferson Hunter) and film/video (esp. Bill Nichols). Documentary is narrower than WJT Mitchell's "photo essay" or Hunter's "photo text." Almost anything with photographs is documentary, though heavily manipulated photos can lose that strong referential bond to the world of observable, datable facts and serve as illustrations in fiction (e.g. Those Waves of Girls), though it may be we doubt the fictionality of sites where such images are used. The relation of fictive place, character and event is like that of a solarized image to the original one?
    2. Clive Scott distinguishes between documentary/photojournalism:
      the photojournalist is interest in acts and events, the documentarist in predicaments and conditions. The photojournalist deals in captions, in the interventions of the commentator and newsprint; the documentatrist deals in the bare essentials of titles and looks for images that will speak for themselves. The photojournalist's photograph needs to tell us what soemthing is' the documentary photograph was to show us how it is. The photojournalist's camera scoops: for him the actual is inevitably and excitingly epidermic, in constant changes, instantaneously. The documentary photographer's camera insists, will not let go; it shows us somthing that may look like an event, but that is really evidence of an underlying status quo. The documentarist's 'event' does not change anything; it is one of those recurrent eruptions from below, a moment of manifestness. [Spoken Image, 77]

      From this follows for Scott the silence of the documentarist and the association with victim photography. For victim photography, the individual is always an illustration of a type and the interest in her or him is mainly the extent and kind of suffering they have endured. Their subjectivity is irrelevant. Trachtenberg's celebration of Evans' American Portraits, (orig. 1938) talks about the ordering of the photos for juxtaposition (and dialectic) insightfully and in detail.

      Some of this is a good background for the great online portfolio-narratives in the online FSA archive. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fadocamer.html. I especially like the Gordon Parks one, as it clarifies the mind of Roy Stryker, who seems to have been sending his photographers out to capture the personal worlds of the subjects. Reading over the various profiles on this site, it seems clear that there was not just one line, though the recurrent theme in Stryker's memos to various hands is ammunition, give me something I can use, etc. [This site is based on a 1988 book with essays by, inter alia, Trachtenberg.] When we get inside someone's dwelling, the emphasis is likely to turn ikn the direction of personal space/world, as with photographs and images. (Great corroboration of bell hook's piece on counter-representation in Black homes.)

      Following this line, almost all of the work at musarium.com and www.digitaljournalist.org are Web journalism and not documentary. And what is Soviet Pollution?

    3. Nichols' domain is documentary film, though he includes TV documentary shows like 60 Minutes & the Discovery Channel offerings. Mainly distinguishes D from fiction, principally on basis of rhetorical nature of D:

      documentary is about the effort to convince, persuade, or predispose us to a particular view of the actual world we occupy. Documentary work does not appeal primarily or exclusively to our aesthetic sensibility: it may entertain or please, but does so in relation to a rhetorical or persuasive effort aimed at the existing social world. Documentary not only activates our aesthetic awareness (unlike a strictly informational or training film), it also activates our social consciousness. [Introduction to Documentary, 69]

      Like Scott, he stresses the abstract and general aspect of D:

      the documentary value of non-fiction films lies in how they give visual, and audible, representation to topics for which our written or spoken language gives us concepts. Photographic images do not give us the concepts: they give us examples. (This is why so many documentaries rely on a spoken commentary to guide the viewer to the "correct" interpretation of the images that illustrate what's said.) Documentaries offer the sensuous experience of sounds and images organized in such a way that they come to stand for something more than mere passing impressionss: they come to stand for qualities and conceptsof a more abstract nature. [Introduction to Documentary, 65]

      He speaks of "journalistic balance" noting that it is not usually greatly concerned to represent all perspectives, but notes its presence in D as well.

    4. social issue/personal portrait [Nichols again: Good table of contrasts--p. 166]

      Topics

      Without words, photographs are limited in the conditions etc. that they can show. Pollution for example, inherently takes place over time and usually involves statistics establishing severity, magnitude, etc. At most, you can get a bunch of dead birds in crude oil smeared on the beach--but how much, how extensive, how long--these are hard to depict. This is true also of war crimes. As in the Misrach photos in Poison Alley, it is not even clear that poisoning is at work--could be flood. Some of the Salton Sea photos look extremely unwholesome, but the main agent is just flooding with the very saline water of the Sea. In addition, the camera loves ruins, has always found them picturesque. (or perhaps sublime, in the case of smashed detritus. Jeff Wall's faked ruins are interesting in this regard.

  3. landscape:

    Alan Trachtenberg argues (with numerous references)that 19th century landscape painting was a very well-defined genre stemming from the work of Claude Lorraine and Salvatore Rosa in the 17th century with its two foci on the sublime and the picturesque. The earlier and esp. English history of this is in Christopher Hussey's The Picturesque:Studies in Point of View (1927, 1967); it is done in fine detail for American culture in Barbara Novak's Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-75 (revised ed., 1995); wonderful on clouds, and on Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. She does not address photography. Joel Snyder does specifically discuss Timothy O'Sullivan's photographs taken with the Clarence King 40th parallel survey (and later) in relation to the landscape painting tradition (which he nicely summarizes), arguing that the photographs had both expressive/esthetic and survey/geological purposes. Trachtenberg resist imputing any aesthetic purpose to O'Sullivan, or sensibility, but discusses O'S's landscapes with a very small observer/contemplator in them in interesting ways. Sullivan also photographed railroads in the landscape and mines.

    The point would seem to be that Moran's drawings engraved in steelpoint in Picturesque America do come directly out of this picturesque tradition, where it is accompanied by picturesque landscape writing, where appreciation of the vast sublime of the Western landscape (focussed here on Great Basin) is twinned with special delight in the cultivated land and towns which promise to plant the cozy hum of the New England timber mill town and the fertile abundance of irrigated farming in this most inhospitable of landscapes. The railroad connection is only five years old in 1872 and the survey team is out there at work, but PA is full of a sense of how comfortable and secure travel through the West has become (in comparison to the perils and travails experienced by the "emigrants").

    Rebecca Solnit's Savage Dreams has a chapter on Claude Lorraine and the picturesque tradition which touches on some of this material, but is quite unsympathetic and demands a great deal in urging us to represent the landscape in more engaged, participating ways than viewing it in a landscape. This is an argument for her own book to be sure, but also perhaps for the landscape-with-camper pics. Perhaps because she wishes to treat the land and its people as victims of nuclear testing, she does not dwell upon its sublime aspect.

    William J. Fox makes a similar plea for experiencing the terrain personally as the only non-theoretical way of knowing it (51), and even then it is perceptually disorienting (11-13). Although he calls the GB "visually intolerable," (ix) he opens his book with an extended appreciation of Michael Heizer's gigantic land sculptures which go beyond representation toward capturing the nonhuman void that is the GB (63).


Adams, Timothy Dow. Light Writing & Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography. UNC Press, 2000.

Bex, Tony. Variety in Written English: Texts in Society:Societies in Text Routledge, 1996

Biber, Douglas, Conrad, Susan, Reppen, Randi, Corpus Linguistics : Investigating Language Structure and Use , Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Eggins, Susan. An Introduction to Systemic Functional LinguisticsPinter Publishers, London, 1994

Fox, William L. The Void, the Grid and the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin University of Utah Press, 2000.

Hussey, Christopher. The picturesque; studies in a point of view,London, New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1927

Lee, David Y. W. "Genres, Registers, Text Types, Domains, and Styles: Clarifying the Concepts and Navigating a Path Through the BNC Jungle," Language, Learning, and Technology 5:3 (Sept 2001):37-76.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2001. [Also: Representing Reality].

Novak, Barbara. Nature and culture : American landscape and painting, 1825-1875. New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.

Scott, Clive. The Spoken Image: Photography and Language. Reaktion Books, 1999.

Snyder, Joel. American frontiers: the photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1867-1874. New York : Aperture : distributed by Harper & Row, c1981.

Solnit, Rebecca.Savage Dreams:A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West