Abstract

In many respects, the reconceptualization of genre over the past few decades mirrors that of disability. Just as disability scholars and activists reject rigid categories of fixed difference based solely on individual deviations from some supposedly neutral norm, so too have contemporary genre theorists rejected the traditional view of genre as static categories of discourse that share certain objective conventional features. Such a view is unsatisfactory because, in casting genres as decontextualized, ahistorical forms or receptacles, it fails to adequately reflect the inherently social nature of discourse and texts. Instead, genre theorists now (re)conceive genres as dynamic sites of social action. Disability is also a form of social action, a rhetorical convention used to construct and regulate human actions and interactions, and, as such, can be viewed and analysed in generic terms. Conceiving disability as genre (and metagenre) provides an additional theoretical lens for examining and transcending, among other things, the reductive and oppressive categorization deployed by the medical model of disability. A perspective informed by genre theory helps to shift critical attention from description to explanation, a necessary step in deconstructing hegemonic discourses.

A fundamental principle underlying disability studies is a (re)conceptualizing of disability, one informed by "critical, social, and constructivist theories in order to understand disability in the contexts of history, culture, and society and to provide an enriched and coherent view of disability as part of universal human experience" (Lewiecki-Wilson & Brueggemann, 2008, p. 1). A constructivist view frames disability as inherently rhetorical, a discursive construct that exists in the context of social relations and that, as such, has historically functioned as a mechanism of power used to marginalize some while privileging others through the fabrication and maintenance of rigid categories/dichotomies, such as "normal" and "abnormal." Revealing the artificiality and constructedness of these categories and reframing them as instruments of political and social oppression represents an important contribution offered by disability studies to the study of regimes of power. As Joy Cypher and Deb Martin (2008), surveying the field as a whole, concluded, disability studies is "a critical engagement with a dominant ideology of bodily normalcy, value, access and power" (para. 2).

An important aspect of this critical engagement has been a rethinking of disability as concept and category that challenges traditional definitions based upon a medicalization of disability that pathologizes difference in terms of deviance (from some supposed norm) and personal deficiency (Davis, 1997; Linton, 1998; Mog, 2008; Ware, 2001). Instead of a personal problem located in the body of individuals, disability studies has highlighted "the ways in which disability stems not from physical defect in particular human bodies but rather from social constructions of ableness that inform categories such as 'normal' and 'disabled'" (Lindblom & Dunn, 2003, p.169). While acknowledging the importance of this work, Kenneth Lindblom and Patricia A. Dunn (2003) called for more active and specific engagement in the work of transforming social realities:

As rhetoricians…we know better than to be satisfied with the naming of categories, that is, philosophical statements of "being." Instead we must move from acknowledgement of social construction to action that informs a meaningful, public reconstruction of what counts as "normal." (p. 169)

Drawing upon the sophist concept of nomos (cultural convention), Lindblom and Dunn advocated a renegotiation, through rhetorical action, of the cultural conventions that permeate public discourse about disability as a means by which to challenge and ultimately transform traditional, hegemonic positions (p. 170). Lindblom and Dunn's call for moving beyond philosophical categories to rhetorical action is, for me, both persuasive and important. However, I also believe much can be gained by viewing disability as always already a form of rhetorical action. In this, I am suggesting that disability can be conceived in generic terms as an ongoing socio-cultural event, a rhetorical convention used to construct and regulate human actions and interactions. Such a conception allows us to understand not just that disability is a socio-discursive construct but also, then, how and to what end that construct is routinely and strategically deployed.

In many respects, the reconceptualization of genre over the past few decades mirrors that of disability. Just as disability scholars and activists reject rigid categories of fixed difference based solely on individual deviations from some supposedly neutral norm, so too have contemporary genre theorists rejected the traditional view of genre as static categories of discourse that share certain objective conventional features. Such a view is unsatisfactory because, in casting genres as decontextualized, ahistorical forms or receptacles, it fails to adequately reflect the inherently social nature of discourse and texts. Instead, genre theorists now (re)conceive genres as dynamic sites of social action. According to Amy J. Devitt (2000), genre is "a dynamic concept created through the interaction of writers, readers, past texts, and contexts" (p. 699).

Carolyn Miller's (1984) watershed article, "Genre as Social Action," considered genre from a socio-rhetorical basis, redefining genre as "typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations" (p. 159). In other words, frequently encountered social situations come to elicit similar rhetorical responses from writer-participants. As these goal-directed responses become typified into genres, they begin to structure the ways in which individuals communicate and interact in connection to or within those situations. For Miller, this made genre "a form of social knowledge—a mutual construing of objects, events, interests and purposes that not only links them but makes them what they are: an objectified social need" (p. 115). Genres, then, help people to perform certain actions and thus accomplish certain goals by allowing them to communicate in ways that particular communities both recognize and acknowledge as acceptable. In this manner, genres help structure the means by which people interpret, create, and use knowledge (Bazerman, 1994a; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Winsor, 2000).

Building upon Miller's groundbreaking work, later theorists—as well as Miller (1994) herself—have extended her reformulation to suggest that genres also structure the ways in which individuals come to recognize and even experience those recurrent situations. According to Charles Bazerman (1997),

Genres are not just forms. Genres are forms of life, ways of being. They are frames for social action. They are environments for learning. They are locations within which meaning is constructed. Genres shape the thoughts we form and the communications by which we interact. (p. 19)

Their ability to shape thoughts and experiences makes genres both functional and epistemological: "they help us function within particular situations at the same time they help shape the ways we come to know these situations" (Bawarshi, 2000, p. 340). Consequently, genres, in helping individuals respond to recurrent situations, function to reproduce those very same situations (Devitt, 1993) by socializing participants "into performing social roles and actions…that help to reproduce the realities they describe and enact" (Bawarshi, 2000, p. 357). In so doing, genres do not simply facilitate or even regulate communicative acts and interactions; they come to constitute the scene of action itself as well as, crucially, the actors.

What is more, the interaction of individuals and situations mediated by genre functions reciprocally. As Devitt (2004) asserted, "Genre is a reciprocal dynamic within which individuals' actions construct and are constructed by recurring context of situations, context of culture, and context of genre" (31). Genres both reproduce and enact our realities, shaping us even as we shape them. Bawarshi's (2000) explanation of the complex, productive nature of genre is worth quoting at length:

A genre is thus both the situation and the textual instantiation of that situation, the site at which the rhetorical and the social reproduce one another in specific kinds of texts. Genre is what it allows us to do, the potential that makes the actual possible, the "con" and the "text" at the same time. As such genre allows us to study the social and the rhetorical as they work on one another, reinforcing and reproducing one another and the social activities, roles, and the relations that take place within them. This recursive process is what genre is. (p. 357; emphasis in the original)

In linking genre and context, genre theorists such as Devitt and Bawarshi point to the situated and historicized nature of discursive acts. Examining more closely the role of genre in context, a number of scholars have synthesized genre theory with activity theory. Most notable among those scholars for our purposes here is David Russell. Russell (1997) analyzed how genres operate within activity systems, which he defined as "any ongoing, object-directed, historically conditioned, dialectically structured, tool-mediated human interaction" (p. 510). Activity theory posits that actions are mediated by the tools available within an activity system. Among the many material and conceptual tools that can be used, discourse is but one among many—but an especially powerful one. In connecting genre to activity theory, Russell asserted that "written genres help mediate the actions of individuals with others in collectives (activity systems) to create stabilized-for-now structures of action and identity" (p. 514).

A fundamental feature of the various reconsiderations of genre within contemporary genre theory is a shift from form to function, a move that foregrounds the role of agents and agency in its emphasis on rhetorical actions. The critical focus, then, similarly shifts from texts per se to motives and outcomes. Texts and discourses are defined by what they do and how they are used rather than by what they are. Or perhaps more accurately, what they are is what they do.

Applied to the study of disability, this conception provides an additional theoretical lens for examining and transcending, among other things, the reductive and oppressive categorization deployed by the medical model of disability. A perspective informed by genre theory allows us to shift critical attention from description to explanation, a necessary first step in deconstructing hegemonic discourses. There is, of course, no question that human variation exists. That's not the problem. Indeed, it's a strength and a resource (if a historically underutilized one). The problem, as disability studies has persuasively demonstrated, lies in how variation and difference is construed as abnormal and "wrong," as a personal deficiency needing to be "fixed." The problem lies in systemic social and cultural oppression being recast as an individual problem. The problem, in other words, is how an ableist society constructs "disability" and "difference" in ways that create false binaries, marginalize some and privilege others, and deny people rights and opportunities through the erection of material and institutional barriers.

And how, exactly, are such harmful constructs created and recreated? How do they function? How are they maintained and perpetuated? One way to address complex questions of power such as these is to examine the specific, daily interactions through which power is operationalized, what Russell (1997) called "the microstructural mingling of people with mediating tools (including writing) in their circulation" (p. 524). As Russell explained, "To understand power in modern social practices, one must follow the genres, written and otherwise. Power appears in specific, locatable occasions of mediated action and is created in the network of many localized instances" (p. 524). What this implies is that those in positions of power are, indeed, able to "follow the genres"—to recognize them, understand them, trace their trajectories, compose them, and, crucially, use them.

Indeed, to instigate actions within or between activity systems—a central component of power—requires a familiarity with the genres that mediate interactions and operationalize certain actions. What questions should be asked? To whom? In what particular way? What resources are available? Where? Who controls them? How does one request and/or acquire them? Questions such as these are quite often explicitly tied to specific genres. A corollary of these concerns, then, pertains to generic knowledge—how to read, understand, compose, and effectively communicate by means of the appropriate genre(s) in order to (re)deploy them to actualize desired outcomes. In short, genres frequently serve a gate-keeping function for particular communities, or activity systems, a technology that allows insiders to recognize one another while barring outsiders from intruding into—which is to say, operating within—the system. At issue in the gate-keeping role of genre is a concern all too familiar to people with disabilities: access.

It may be possible to productively extend the application of genre theory to disability studies even further to suggest that disability is itself a genre or, perhaps more accurately, a metagenre. In reconceptualizing genre as social action, genre theorists have explored how genre connects the microlevel (the situated practices of the everyday) with the macrolevel (the social structures, including cultures, that both constitute and are constituted by activities and interactions at the microlevel). A macrolevel examination of genre has led to an understanding of the manner in which genres are often interrelated and intertextual, functioning as part of a system. According to Bazerman (1994b), a genre system is "a complex web of interrelated genres where each participant makes a recognizable act or move in some recognizable genre, which then may be followed by a certain range of appropriate responses by others" (pp. 96-97). The concept of genre system helps explain how specific discursive practices are linked to "chains of interrelated genres" (Berkenkotter, 2001, p. 327), and how these interrelated genres function systemically to constitute entire networks of social action or activity systems. While most scholars have focused on the professions (e.g., law, medicine, accounting), the notion of genre system can be applied more broadly to include not only the institutions and organizations within a society but also the society itself (Fairclough, 1992; Martin & Rose, 2008).

Crucially, as Russell (1997) illustrated, genre systems mediate actions and interactions not only within single activity systems but also between activity systems (p. 521). In other words, even seemingly distinct social formations may be linked through a set or sets of interrelated genres. Building upon this idea, Michael Carter (2007) examined genre systems from a disciplinary perspective. Linking similar ways of doing to similar ways of knowing and writing into what he called a metagenre, Carter reconceptualized academic disciplines as "modes of inquiry rather than static territories of knowledge" (p. 410). Such an approach allowed him to highlight the relationships and similarities among disciplines and, consequently, challenge the conventional notion of disciplines as separate divisions of declarative knowledge. For Carter, metagenre is preferable to the "loose sense of genre set" or the "connotation of sequence associated with system of genres" (p. 393). Representing a "higher category," metagenre is "a genre of genres," an expansive notion that points to "similar kinds of typified responses to related recurrent situations" (p. 393; emphasis in original).

I find the concept of metagenre extremely useful in rethinking the relationship of disability and discourse from a perspective informed by genre theory. On one hand, we could, of course, use genre as a tool for studying or explicating the discourse of disability. Such an approach would not be without benefits. For instance, we could examine how a particular text is being put to use within a particular context. Or, as mentioned above, we could "follow the genres" in order to trace particular pathways of power and influence.

However, we might also use metagenre as a methodology by which to define and subsequently analyze disability as genre. Put another way, we can see disability as a particular metagenre, as a way-of-doing that shares a common motive or objective. As Peter Medway (2002) reminded us, however "fuzzy" the term may be, genre is always connected to some "particular socially recognizable motivation" (p. 124).

The former approach (disability and genre) is more closely tied to texts and genre sets within particular social structures or organizations. For instance, genre scholars have frequently studied genre systems in the workplace, usually that of a specific organization, such as a bank or engineering firm. Within disability studies, one can imagine a study of, for example, education and the discourse of learning disabilities. The latter approach (disability as genre), however, has the advantage of illuminating connections across multiple and possibly highly varied social structures. For instance, as Carter demonstrated, seemingly distinct disciplines, such as the natural and social sciences, may actually possess similar ways of doing consisting of genres that respond in similar ways to similar situations. Applied to the study of disability, this expanded perspective on genre may yield important insights. Because genres operationalize certain typified responses, because they mediate interactions not only within but also between and among activity systems, and because they frame and constitute actions, contexts, and identities, I assert that disability, as a broad pattern of interrelated genres, can be said to function within an ableist system as a specific strategy for actualizing and instantiating ableist structures of thought and identity. From this perspective, disability, as socio-historical/rhetorical construct, has become a typified response to human variation, a stabilized-for-now metagenre that mediates various social practices using any number of tools (writing, image, film) within and between a multiplicity of activity systems. In short, among the various mediational means by which to accomplish the goal of comprehending bodily difference, the dominant culture has chosen to construct an us-and-them binary predicated upon a strict division of normal and abnormal, with disability employed as the constitutive conceptual/material tool-in-use. This is what disability does, the socio-rhetorical action it commonly performs, and, as such, precisely why it is a genre.

As a basis for critical inquiry, a conception of disability as a genre provides a useful theoretical/interpretive framework for connecting all those particular (micro-structural) texts and activities to wider (macro-structural) social formations (interrelated activity systems) in order to shed additional light on the ableist hegemony. Questions concerning how a particular text describes or represents (or doesn't) disability or people with disabilities can be complemented with a new set of questions that can help guide a critical examination of disability. How is disability being used within this text? What is disability doing? For what activity system is this text a typified response? To what recurring condition or situation? What specific social action is it mediating? How might the text be reproducing the very conditions or situation to which it is responding? More broadly, a metageneric perspective helps to connect a particular genre to other genres: Does disability function similarly in other genres?

To illustrate the utility of conceiving disability as a (meta)genre, I would like to discuss briefly several texts belonging to different genres that, despite their apparent differences, put disability to use in similar ways to achieve similar ends. More or less explicitly, these texts (and their associative genres) deploy disability in the service of maintaining the hegemony of patriarchy by constructing and privileging an idealized masculinity. My argument is that these texts draw upon, to echo Carter (2007), similar kinds of typified responses because the situation—or "problem"—is the same for each of these particular texts: the creation of a normative male body. Indeed, I assert that these texts are effective with their target audiences precisely because they use disability in the predictable, well-established manner that characterizes all genres. As Bazerman (1988) explained, "A genre is a socially recognized, repeated strategy for achieving similar goals in situations perceived as being similar….a social construct that regularizes communication, interaction, and relations" (p. 62). And, of course, what is also regularized are hierarchies and structures of power.

The first text I would like to address is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). According to Jennifer L. Koosed and Darla Schumm (2009), Gibson's depiction of Jesus reflects what has come to be the dominant image of Jesus, what they termed the Super Jesus: an "ideal" male constructed as not only hyper-masculine but also hyper-abled. Drawing upon the work of disability scholars Brent Hardin and Marie Hardin (2005), Koosed and Schumm examined "how constructions of masculinity and disability intertwine to promote the 'ideal' American male body," an ideal embodied by the Super Jesus (Introduction section, para. 5). As the "ultimate" male, this Jesus must accordingly demonstrate the incredible strength and endurance of his body by repeatedly overcoming what should be devastatingly debilitating physical abuse.

That the film entangles disability and masculinity is, for me, hardly a surprise. Koosed and Schumm's use of the action verb promote is appropriate and telling. Disability is not simply incorporated into the film, is not simply a presence. Rather, I maintain that Gibson's Jesus requires a continual foregrounding of disability; his "perfection" depends upon it much as compulsory heterosexuality must view homosexuality as its "imitation." The Passion's investment in patriarchal structures is communicated through and, crucially, effectuated by its deployment of an ableist construction of disability. Super Jesus, no less so than Superman, must still be recognizably human—or, more accurately, a man—despite otherworldly origins in order to effectively communicate and, crucially, maintain established categories and hierarchies of thought and being. The frailty of the physical body must be emphasized so that it may be overcome and transcended; Super Jesus is only super (hyper-abled) precisely as a result of the "specter" or possibility of dis-ability. And yet, the foundational role of disability in such a scheme is noticeable only in its transparency, in the taken-for-granted and thus unquestioned logic of what is "common sense." In other words, disability is put to use (and put to use in a particular manner) because, as a metagenre, it has been used similarly in the past in response to similar situations. Put yet another way, disability holds generic use-value. Though audiences may not be consciously aware of its explicit presence, its particular use in the film is highly conventional and expected: a methodology for portraying Jesus as not simply different (as in differently abled) but admirably different (or hyper-abled).

The film's portrayal of Jesus might not have worked for everyone, but the film certainly worked in the sense of becoming a huge commercial success. However, it also worked in the manner that genres always work: by mediating actions within, between, and/or among activity systems, including helping to construct identities and social formations. It worked by producing outcomes in the world—and not all of those outcomes were related to ticket sales. In short, it worked (financially) by reproducing dominant cultural structures, and it worked (generically) by reproducing the structure of cultural dominance itself.

Importantly, as Koosed and Schuum's analysis made clear, the image of the ideal male body is not restricted to The Passion or to Jesus (they also discussed Philip Saville's The Gospel of John as well as Superman) or even to film (they drew from Hardin and Hardin's [2005] examination of photographic images in Sports 'n Spokes magazine). The idealized male body circulates through many (con)texts and genres. And while the particulars of the masculine figure itself may change or manifest itself in slightly different ways, what remains consistent is the figure's use of—indeed, dependence on—a particular construction, or genre, of disability.

This consistency is clearly evident in the popular X-Men character Wolverine. Certainly, a comic book about fantastical people and creatures and a film based on a story in a religious text belong to different genres. Their audiences, purposes, and uses are obviously distinct. However, again, disability functions in X-Men in much the same manner as it does in The Passion—to construct and normalize a particular kind of ideal man.

In the Marvel Universe (X-Men is published by Marvel Comics), a genetic abnormality, the X-gene, is what gives the mutants their superhuman powers. They are called mutants, a label that implies mere randomness, but the size of the mutant population suggests something else. The suggestion is purposeful, as one discovers after learning that those with the X-gene are termed Homo superiors. Rather than flawed humans, then, the mutants are presented as super humans or, perhaps, hyper-humans, not so much abnormal as the new-and-future normal, more normal than normal. The physical appearance of some mutants is visibly different than that of "normal" humans, while others can easily "pass." Wolverine, however, is simultaneously normal and not with his exaggerated, hyper-masculine body. He is strong and imposing, huge biceps bulging, six-pack abs ripped. Thick, dark shafts of hair cover his face and body. What's more, he exhibits the dark, sullen temperament, rugged individualism, and open disdain for authority that characterize the figure of the American outlaw-hero, that "real true man."

Tellingly, however, Wolverine's most powerful attribute is not his enhanced strength or senses but his body's ability to heal itself, which allows him to recover almost instantaneously from virtually any wound or injury. Deadly metal claws and overdeveloped muscles are, unsurprisingly, not enough. Once again, the perfect(ly abled) male is defined through his (super)ability to overcome the physical limits of the human body.

The body of the idealized male is only "ideal" inasmuch as it is "ideally able." Super Jesus and Wolverine are hyper-masculine, and therefore "super," precisely because they are hyper-abled. These vastly different texts belonging to clearly distinct genres nevertheless make use of comparable discourse conventions in responding to similar rhetorical demands or exigencies—namely, the implicit use of disability as a means by which to construct a traditional figure of idealized masculinity, one conducive to patriarchal structures. These comparable discourse conventions point to their generic origins within a common metagenre of disability.

What is more, viewing disability as a genre also helps to explain why the normative male figure appears in texts and genres much more mundane than those described above, such as "feel good" reports of "super crips" or the "testosterone-charged" narratives of adolescent males. We must recall that genres are not simply conduits by which individuals express themselves; rather, genres both shape and reproduce communicative situations and identities. Indeed, genres enable social actions and are in turn constituted by those very actions. Bawarshi (2000) termed this "the genre function":

We all function…within genre-constituted realities within which we assume genre-constituted identities. The reason for this is that genre is recursively and inseparably linked to the concept of exigence, defined as a situation or event that individuals recognize as requiring immediate attention or response. This means that genres are not simply typified rhetorical responses to already existing exigencies, merely tools individuals use to deal with a priori situations. Rather, situations and their participants are always in the process of reproducing each other within genre. (p. 354)

This helps explain the prevalence of hyper-abledness in constructions of idealized masculinity across seemingly disparate genres. Discussing the doctor-patient relationship enacted and reproduced by the Patient Medical History Form (PMHF), Bawarshi (2000) explained that "the genre enables us to assume certain situational roles, roles established by our culture and rhetorically enacted and reproduced by the genre" (p. 354). Similarly, when a male student sits down to construct or "perform" his identity through writing (Newkirk, 1997), the situation presents itself to him as a recognizable exigency, one that calls for him to perform his identity according to a specified genre role. What is more, this will probably be the case regardless of the particular genre called for by the assignment (e.g., personal narrative, argument, analysis) because, as we have seen, all are likely linked to the metagenre of disability. No male student is Jesus or Wolverine, and most won't be the star quarterback on the school's football team or, for that matter, even play football or any sport for the school. But the exigency of identity performance through discourse for these students does not really call for fantasies, only highlighted able-bodiness (see Tobin, 1996).

This fact may help explain the anger of the young male students in Barbara Heifferon's class in response to Nancy Mairs' "Carnal Acts," which vividly describes how multiple sclerosis has affected Mairs' life and sense of self (Brueggemann et al., 2001). As Heifferson asserted, "Many young male students form identities based on their own strong, healthy bodies, and because they are young and abled, their initial response to a disabled woman's body is an angry one" (Brueggemann et al., 2001, p. 385). Here, instead of performing identities through their own written discourse, the students were perhaps attempting to identify with the text—and were subsequently horrified, given that they have been taught from an early age to "see" themselves as strong, healthy, able-bodied young men. In this regard, their reaction was conditioned by the many situations they have undoubtedly encountered that involved and were constituted by the disability metagenre, with these situations/encounters having contributed much to their socialization into an ableist identity formation. Mairs' text disturbed them because it pointedly and purposefully does not share similar ways of doing and knowing with texts more familiar to them, such as The Passion or X-Men, texts that reinscribe rather than challenge power.

Such is the work of disability—or rather, the work to which it is put, because genres, as rhetorical actions, are defined "by their purposes, participants, and subjects" (Devitt, 2000, p. 698). Importantly, what this definition highlights and disability studies demonstrates is that genre is just as delicate and unstable as the ableist systems that are operationalized through the use of disability as a regularized genre of oppression. The dominance of an "able" world may make it seem monolithic, but as Lewiecki-Wilson and Brueggemann (2008) pointed out,

This world, however, is constructed; it's a tenuous, troubled, and troubling fiction. When students and teachers recognize that disability is always a part of our culture, our society, our relationships, and our lives, then the fictional perspective of an "able" world shifts. In this shift, a new space emerges. (p. 9)

Genres are also social constructs, and any view that posits a particular genre as "natural," politically neutral, or indispensable is similarly fictitious, no matter how widespread or seemingly crucial its use. The genre likely created, or more accurately, continually creates and recreates its own use-value by helping to construct the very conditions that call for its use. The relationship between participants and genres is one of mutual determination, with each informing the other. As Anthony Paré (1993) argued,

[A] community's discourse conventions are more than mere etiquette or tradition, and they affect more than text production; they also determine the way the group and its individuals think. The pervasive influence of genre regularizes meaning by replicating, as closely as possible, the processes of composition and interpretation. By controlling discourse, the community controls knowledge. What cannot be said cannot be known. Conversely, the community can ensure certain knowledge by requiring it. (p. 113)

Given the ability of genres to both enable and shape realities, how then are we to counter their hegemonic hold on power-knowledge? How to shift perspectives and create new spaces, particularly given that, as genre theory shows us, no genre can be fully understood without an understanding of its situated use within a specific context between particular individuals? Indeed, this contextual situatedness accounts for one of the major obstacles to countering hegemonic discourses: the problem of changing an activity system from without or from a position of limited influence within. Our struggles as advocates for social justice turn on this problem. As a large and diverse network of interrelated systems of activity, disability studies has appropriated disability and transformed it, has "remediated" it from the various "disabling" ways it has been/is put to use. Given that individuals may be involved in many different activity systems, people frequently appropriate a genre from one activity system and subsequently introduce it into another. The imported genre may then be used or come to be used in a manner and toward ends quite different from its original function, thereby remaking the old genre into a new one (Russell, 1997, pp. 519-522). These facts help explain how genres function to create both stability and, crucially, avenues for change.

The problem we face resides in this differential use of disability, and in the fact that identity is constructed primarily by means of the particular genres-in-use that mediate a person's (inter)actions within a collective. To disrupt one (the genre) is potentially to disrupt the other (a person's identity), likely resulting in feelings of discomfort and fear that then provoke reactionary resistance. How then to alter the use-function of texts/genres on a macro-structural scale across multiple activity systems when many systems are not even connected in any direct way?

The concept of metagenre offers one possible solution because it "directs our attention to broader patterns of language as social action" (Carter, 2007, p. 393). As Carter (2007) explained, metagenre is dynamic, "a structure of similar ways of doing that point to similar ways of writing and knowing" (p. 393). Recognizing that different genres—and thus different activity systems—are linked through their common use of disability means that one need not enter and alter every system. Because these systems are linked generically, a change in one may necessarily entail alterations in another. In other words, altered ways-of-doing may spread, leading to altered ways-of-knowing and being-in-the-world in other, perhaps seemingly disparate, contexts and systems. Work done in classrooms or journals (or elsewhere) can indeed have an impact far beyond their immediate location, exigency, or audience. After all, genres are always only stabilized-for-now, in the sense that they must continually re-create themselves through social (inter)actions. Accordingly, activity systems can come to experience "dialectical contradictions, as other activity systems pull them toward some new motive" (Russell, 1997, p. 523). According to Russell, these contradictions are then reflected in the system's genres, frequently resulting in hybrid genres or even "complete ruptures in a system of genres" (p. 523). Genres, then, are not as impervious to change as they may frequently appear, especially when they extend across multiple systems of activity, as is the case with metagenres.

The metagenre of disability is particularly open to "dialectical contradictions" and thus to disruption. Its very pervasiveness, though oppressive and unfortunate, signals both its power and, importantly, its vulnerability. Diffuse to the point of near-invisibility, disability must "work" hard to maintain its structural integrity—which is to say its current use-value as being always-naturally-there—when it is employed so frequently by so many across such a diverse multiplicity of texts and activity systems. As disability scholars and activists have long pointed out, discourses of disability are present and at work even (or especially) in everyday social practices, whether or not they are acknowledged or recognized. What is more, these discourses are typically characterized by internal inconsistency and faulty logic. Ableist categories and structures, for instance, ignore the fact that all of us are uniquely embodied individuals. We could say, then, that the metagenre of disability as operationalized within ableist social formations is always already contradictory. Consequently, the illusion of its stability, as with its "naturalness," depends upon the supportive scaffolding of innumerable texts, genres, and systems—medical, educational, popular, institutional, etc. Because metagenres reveal similarities among ways of doing across discourses and fields of activity usually considered distinct (Carter, 2007, p. 397), conceptualizing disability as a metagenre can help expose the interrelated and mutually supportive nature of the discourses and systems that deploy disability, thereby also helping to unmask disability as construct and artifice.

To that end, one potentially fruitful way to facilitate positive social change, at least from a pedagogical perspective, is to help others become genre theorists (Rose, 2003). In a course on web development, Kristin Walker (2002) introduced students to genre theory before having them analyze different genres of websites: "The goal of analyzing the genres is to help determine what activity is being mediated by the generic tools; then, the students will be able to see more clearly what common purposes are being accomplished with the activity system as a result of the generic tools" (p. 63). A similar methodology could be used to challenge received, culturally dominant constructions of disability. By shifting the emphasis from what texts are to what they do and how they are used (and to what ends), rhetorical genre theory does more than simply provide students with a different version of reality, one they might easily dismiss or reject. Instead, it provides them with a methodology for understanding how any version works—what actions it mediates, what identities it effectuates and privileges, how it constructs itself, and what power structures it enables and maintains.

In short, for students, coming to see disability as a genre entails the concomitant realization that it is, in fact, a social construct deeply implicated in injustices that affect us all. And for scholars, viewing disability as a genre offers an additional critical lens for examining and interrogating the common uses to which disability is put and for discovering places (i.e., texts, genres, and systems of activity) that may work to mask its use.

Works Cited

  • Bawarshi, A. (2000). The genre function. College English, 62(3), 335-360.
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