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Perspectives

 

To give some idea of the general organisation and content of this volume, I shall now briefly present each of our authors and their respective contributions, while at the same time attempting to position them and their work within the wider context of the international writing research community which the San Marino event sought to promote.

 

Broadly speaking, three threads in current writing research are woven into the contributions in this volume. The first has its roots in anthropological, ethnological and ethnographic tradition of inquiry, offering a broad perspective on literacy development in a wider sense within a transcultural, evolutionary and historical framework. A key figure in this tradition is Jack Goody, whose thought and work we shall meet in some more detail a bit later on.

 

The second thread might perhaps be characterised by the etiquette ‘literature and genre studies’. In electing to use such an etiquette, however, we run the risk of trying to put a highly complex field of scientific inquiry into a tidy definitional bag, while it would probably be best left to define and develop itself through its own doings. Another etiquette which might be applied here, with similar risks, is ‘rhetoric studies’. But in any case, and whatever we might choose to call it, this thread includes work in a time-honoured tradition which aims to identify genres of written (and spoken) discourse, and to understand what it is that makes them ‘efficient’ (or not) as forms of written (and spoken) communication. The tradition of rhetorical inquiry can be traced back to Aristotle's Poetics and Rhetoric in the 5th century, and appears in good health and continuing development today. A good presentation of recent work in this tradition, including a couple of stimulating pieces by Carolyn Miller and Anne Freadman, both of whom have contributions in this present volume, is Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway's 1994 anthology: Genre and the New Rhetoric. Other chapters in the present volume associated with this tradition are those by Carol Berkenkotter and Tom Huckin.

 

The third thread is more clearly ‘semiotic’ in tone, and even less clearly definable in terms of ‘etiquette’ than those already mentioned. Semiotics is, after all, a field of potentially unlimited scope. Work more or less loosely associated with this thread combines a plurality of perspectives woven into a web of research domains known as cultural, social and textual semiotics. Some is rooted in the American pragmatist tradition – with the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) as guiding light, and William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952) and Charles Morris (1901-1979) as reformers and promoters of this basic perspective. Other work is rooted in European structuralist semiotics, with Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1965) as main its proponent and reformer-moderniser.

 

Today we find the structuralist tradition most strongly reflected in Greimassian textual and narrative semiotics. But also in Hallidayian social semiotics and systemic functional linguistics there are strong structuralist influences. The latter school, which has grown up in the active and innovative applied linguistics environment of southern Australia, maintains links to similar environments all over the world, and with the critical discourse analysis community in the north of Europe, especially in Great Britain and Scandinavia. The critical discourse movement, being rather less formal in approach (see Martin 1998 for some discussion of this point), has certain aspects in common with pragmatist cultural and textual semiotics, which is predominantly interpretational in tenor, rather than structurally oriented. In Europe at least,  the interpretational tradition is most clearly represented in strands of thought woven through Umberto Eco’s extensive exegeses in semiotics, philosophy of language, literary and cultural semiotics. Here, the meaning potential of mass-media and other forms of text –  seen as culturally coded systems of signs with a powerful potential for stimulating and maintaining processes of reinterpretation and recontextualisation – is an object of scientific study in itself.

 

Casting a sideways glance from here in the direction of Eastern European and Soviet traditions of textual semiotics, we find historical and conceptual links to the Peircean semiotic and Russian formalist traditions, as well as structuralism. Here we recall names such as Tvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin, Boris Uspenskij, Roman Jacobsen and Juri Lotman. In the United States, especially inspired by Peircean pragmatism, names such as Thomas Sebeok, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish spring readily to mind. In the present volume work associated with this thread is that of Kjell-Lars Berge, Patrick Coppock, Lars Evensen, Martin Nystrand, Finn Bostad, Anna-Malin Karlsson and Jim Martin, while Anne Freadman’s work very successfully manages to bridge the conceptual space between the tradition of genre studies and pragmatism.

 

In what follows I have tried to group my presentation of the various contributions to the present volume loosely together with respect to potential affiliations to the three threads of discourse mentioned above. But, as the astute reader will very quickly understand on reading the articles themselves, there is so much overlapping of interest and thematic matter across the whole range of research perspectives and directions covered in these fourteen articles, that, in the end these even quite vague content categorisations turn out in the long run of things to be far too specific…

 


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