digital rhetoric

genres, population thinking, and what the hell do you think you're doing?

I’ve been working some more on basic concepts coming from assemblage theory and DeLanda, specifically in this case “population thinking.” Very briefly, populations are the way that Delanda thinks about relations among individual singularities. The idea is that individuals form a population in a statistical way through the historical use of a common set of compositional processes (or assemblages). Depending on the particular assemblages at play a population may have greater or lesser degrees of variation within it and more or less fixed boundaries. One of the examples I was using in what I was writing earlier today is the industrial corn field with its population of corn plants with little variation and very fixed boundaries assured through certain industrial-genetic-chemical processes of farming.  Of primary interest to DeLanda here (and often) is describing ontological processes without relying upon a concept of essence. So in this case there is no essential corn (or corniness, I guess), no Platonic corn critter in some heavenly plane. Instead there is a fixed process of assembly that results in a statistically reliable process of producing this population of corn. Of course “errors” in the process do occur, which is what is meant by statistically reliable.

But I got to thinking about populations that are more germane to rhetorical study: genre, for example. I won’t attempt a review of the rhetorical scholarship on genre here: write your own lit review! However, of the available definitions, I am sympathetic to that of activity theory where genres might be defined by the actions they accomplish. But in activity theory it’s more complicated than that because it’s never the “genre” of the memo that does the work in an office, for example. It’s the particular piece of writing that has the word “Memo” at the top of the page. The genre is always somewhere else it would seem. In addition, the qualities that define a genre always remain elusive: e.g., what’s an “A” paper? What Derrida’s line about this? “The re-mark of belonging does not belong”? Something like that.

Population thinking offers a different approach to the problem, one that looks at the processes that produce a group of individuals that form a given population. For example, the students at my university: they do not have common essential characteristics but rather are produced through a process of admissions and enrollment in the institution. The degree of variation among the individual students, as opposed to other universities or a random sampling of humans, can be described through those admissions and enrollment processes: high school degree (or equivalent), test scores, English-speaking ability, ability to pay (or eligibility for financial aid), etc.

So, for example, let’s consider the genre of the academic journal article. Where to start? First, these are historical processes: i.e., they develop through time. Second, one can think about genres as part of larger genres or other populations. So the genre of journal articles in English has a history (going back to the 1880s anyway). It is part of larger concept of scholarly genres and other populations of human symbolic action. If one wants to think about those commonalities, they would include shared media ecologies, cultural values surrounding authorship, and common institutional formations. These things resulted in writers sitting in offices with pen and paper (and/or typewriters) surrounded by books and other printed materials. One can look at how material limits and economics shaped the size of journals (and the length of journal articles), as well as the labor involved in producing articles in all the steps, as well as how those things fit into procedures like hiring or tenure review. These are the kinds of matters that all academics share in one way or another.

As all academics have experienced, one goes through this process in graduate school of reading and discussing journal articles and of writing seminar papers, dissertation chapters, and journal articles oneself.  One gets feedback (from colleagues, mentors, editors, reviewers) and attempts to understand the necessary features of a journal article in one’s field in order to get published. While those particular descriptions of the characteristics of published articles may prove useful in helping one write a publishable text, from the point of view of assemblage theory what is at stake are the mechanisms. This is about statistical distribution. Thousands of graduate students and assistant professors typing away and trying to produce their first published journal article: many will fail, especially at first, but over time most will figure it out, or at least enough figure it out for the population to sustain itself. If you wanted to be cruel about it, you could think of how many monkeys and typewriters it takes to reproduce Hamlet. An assemblage of monkeys and typewrites would produce a highly deterritorialized population of texts.  A population of human writers, thoroughly trained through years of higher education, and linked to a common media ecology with territorialized and coded disciplinary structures and mechanisms, is a far more reliable assemblage.

The point here is that while one can go about describing the characteristics of individuals within a population like articles in a particularly discipline, you might be better off looking at the assemblages that produce them. And the real advantage to that is how it might switch one’s orientation on the relationship between humans and genres.

Ulmer writes in his introduction to Holmevik’s Inter/Vention that one might say that humans are the sex organs of machines. DeLanda has a similar line in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines where his imagines a robot historian for whom “the role of humans would be seen as little more than that of industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine-flowers that simply did not possess its own reproductive organizes during a segment of its evolution.” What if we think of genres this way? We are the sex organs of genres? Pollinating an independent species of genre-flowers? If so, one cannot define genres by what they do (for us) or even what with do with them for us.  

All these blog posts, tweets, status updates, text messages and so on. Genres? I suppose. Nonhumans? Undoubtedly. We re/produce them. Do they exist for us? I don’t think you can really say that. They are a population, a growing population, growing among and with us, but not for us. That’s a genre.

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