Genre Innovation: Evolution, Emergence, or Something Else?

Carolyn R. Miller


In trying to understand genre innovation and the appearance of what seem to be “new genres” in both new and old media, researchers have relied heavily on the concepts of “evolution” and “emergence,” without theorizing these concepts. These terms are usually associated with science, to analyze biological and physical processes, and both carry entailments worth examining. What work does each model of change do and what work does each keep us from doing? When we adopt the language of evolution or emergence, what do we import to our conceptualization of genres, of large-scale rhetorical action, and of the rhetorical organization of culture? Evolution is anti-essentialist, while emergence allows for the phenomenology of essence; both are terministic screens in Burke’s sense and thus incomplete and partial. There may be no general conceptual model adequate to the variety of cultural phenomena and domains in which genres are of interest, but we can continue to learn by testing our observations of particular examples against these useful concepts. We should be conscious of the assumptions we make about essences and relationships, of how and why we identify something as a genre; we should also be alert to the differences between classification by abstraction and classification by descent.


genre innovation; evolution; emergence; cultural category

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