Prior, Paul.  “From Speech Genres to Mediated Multimodal Genre Systems: Bakhtin, Voloshinov, and the Question of Writing.” In Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini, and Debora Figueiredo (Eds.), Genre in a Changing World (pp. 17-34). Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse and Parlour Press.


  • P. begins by noting that RGS has moved beyond genre as partly prefabricated, partly repurposed/improvised toward genre as specific types of texts formed within, infused by, and constitutive of systems of genres (17).  A quick review of this phenomena demonstrates genre as: chains (Swales, Fairclough), colonies (Bhatia), repertoires (Orlikowski & Yates, Devitt), sets & systems (Bazerman, Devitt), and ecologies (Spinuzzi).
  • Prior focuses on four key issues in this article: Bakhtinian utterance, the “problem of text”, the “question of writing”, and the relationship of inner to outer semiotics (18).  Taken together, these different issues lead him to posit the existence of mediated multimodal genre systems – systems that articulate writing as one object in broadly defined moments of literate activity.
  • P. notes that while Bakhtin’s work on speech genres is extremely important, his focus on the literary at the expense of the linguistic, semiotic, psychological, and sociological leads to some confusion over the notion of utterance in the constitution of speech genres.
  • P. relies on Voloshinov’s definition of genre [1. The process of speech, broadly understood as the process of inner and outer verbal life, goes on continuously.  It knows neither beginning nor end.  The outwardly actualized utterance is an island arising from the boundless sea of inner speech, the dimensions and forms of the island are determined by the particular situation of the utterance and its audience. (1973, p.96)] to draw out a distinction between Bakhtin & Volonishov:  Bakhtin provides a beginning and end of utterances while Voloshinov argues that speech has no start/stop but arises from the “sea of inner speech”.  In this sense, V.’s claim is that the utterance is an “inner speech and inner genre” that is continuous (20).
  • P. notes that V.’s notion of utterance is bound by temporality – it’s use is the result of a trajectory, an unfolding of previous events of its use and “imagined projectsions of its future” (21).
  • P. claims that composed utterances or writing require us to pay special attention to the ways that the text “overtly or covertly indexies its specific history of composition; and the ways that production, reception, and use take that history into account” (21).  In other words, texts – like speech – are backgrounded by shadow conversations[2. “those conversations that are not here-and-now but are felt here-and-now” (22)].  Yet, there is difficulty in recognizing writing as an activity that is simultaneously engaged in production, reception, distribution, and representation (22).
  • P. claims that once we locate writing as a historically emergent stream within the “broader flow of semiotic activity”, it becomes obvious that we must also consider the “multimodal chaining” or varying mediations/transformations that writing goes through in connection/interaction with various composing technologies (24).
  • What is evaluation in relation to utterance?  Evaluation points to the “affective, motivated, socially indexed dimensions of the utterance as well as to stance/evaluation” (26) – or ” the way in which we can never talk about anything without making some kind of judgment reflecting an assumed evaluative framework and signaling our own position in relation to it (Volosinov 1973, Bakhtin 1986).”  So, what’s the import?  Well, often two speakers evaluation is different.  This disjunct leads to awkward communicative moments when words fail to capture the “inner webs of meaning and feeling” we hope to transmit (27).  So, in other words, the evaluation recognizes that utterances are, according to Prior, multimodal – embedded in materiality illuminated through acts of evaluation.  Said differently, utterances are chronotopic
  • A key point to quote at length:  “An understanding of genres as outer and inner, as semiotically remediated, and as central to socialization (the co-production of the person and the social) flows from Voloshinov’s boundless inner sea of signs fed by the ideological streams of cultural-historical practice.  In this light, multimodality is not some special feature of texts or certain kinds of utterance, and certainly is not a consequence of technologies.  Multimodality has always and everywhere been present as representations are propagated across multiple media and as any situated event is indexically fed by all the modes present, whether they are focalized or backgrounded.  In this sense, all genres are irremediably multimodal; the question then becomes what particular configurations of multimodality are at work in a particular genre system” (27).  Why is this important for my own work?  A couple of things:  1) Voloshinov’s notion of the “inner sea of signs” is fed by ideology – the streas of cultural-historical practice.  As such, the utterance as a unit of analysis is apropos to work in AT; 2) Prior’s argument here on the all-encompassing nature of multimodality is really an argument about the expansiveness of materiality – and even object oriented materiality a la Latour; however, it contrasts with Reid’s contention that language is a non-human object as it is bound by cultural-historical practice of humans; 3) Prior rejects Kress in this section – especially Kress’s construal of multimodality as bound to composing technologies.  What kind of effect does this have on  your own work with technologies as genres or utterances?
  • P. notes that semiotic artifacts are typically the result of “different moments of history, different persons, different voices, different addresses” and so on.  Yet, they’re polished and crafted to appear as a final result – a composed utterance whose long cultural-historical genesis is black boxed and often obscured from the end user/listener.
  • What are mediated multimodal genre systems and what is the method for tracing them?  First, one must look for multimodality not only in texts, but also in their process, production, use, and constitution of human consciousness.  As Prior notes, we must look beyond the composed utterance and find multimodality:
    • in the productive chains of discourse that make up the whole system (e.g., where a sequence of oral and embodied genres of discussion, inquiry, composing, response, and presentation may mix with written and visual inscribed genres – or, more to the point, where a set of differently configured multimedia genres are linked together in locally situated ways),
    • in their use (e.g., a text may be written to be read; a speech may be transcribed), and
    • in the consciousness (the situated inner semiotics) of people as well as in externalized artifacts and actions (28).
    • Following a mediated multimodal genre systems method means locating genre systems not only in their concatenation of discourse production, representation, distribution, and reception, but also in “the activity and socialization” that occurs in the same movement (29).  This is pertinent to my own project . . . . but why?  Well, for one, Prior claims that an orientation to genre “as discourse and development” provides insightful overlaps between genre theory and sociocultural theories of mediated activity and agency a la Engestrom (mycorrhizae formations – “Development, movement, and agency: Breaking away into mycorrhizae activities”), Knorr-Cetina  (flow architectures – “How are global markets global? The architecture of a flow world”), & Latour (RTS).  In short, Prior is suggesting that by considering genre as discourse (is there an analogy to be made here to “product”?) and development (obvious analogues to process) we can see a broader picture of how genres, genre systems, etc., come into being.  Oh, and hooray materialism!

One Response to “Prior – From Speech Genres to Mediated Multimodal Genre Systems: Bakhtin, Voloshinov, and the Question of Writing”

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    […] to be sure.  Especially considering the mediated multimodal genre systems that Prior discusses in this post […]

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