My Best and Worst Speech Genres


Improvisational Session at Emory University

Saturday, November 8, 2008, 10 am – 1.30 pm


Nine participants: graduate students and instructors of the course "Mikhail Bakhtin and His Circles" taught by Prof. Walter Reed and Prof. Mikhail Epstein, Fall 2008


Topics Suggested:

lampshade, the future, fleas, blues, the Bakhtinian social, sand, c(h)ords, intercourse, my best and worst speech genres

Selected by Majority:

My Best and Worst Speech Genres 


Duration of writing: 1 h. 5 m.

Duration of session: 3,5 hours


Texts (in the order of readings):


1. Jackie Wyse (Religion). The Bus Stop and the Seminar Table: Small Talk.

2. Catherine Doubler (English). There is Something in the Pop–Corn Butter. I am the Sarah Palin of Phone Banking.

3. Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson (ILA). "Damn Good Mornings": On the Genres of Encouragement and Profanity.

4. Navyug Gill (History). The Poverty of Praise.

5. Prof. Walter Reed (ILA, English). Singing the Blues.

6. Kevin Barbour (Religion). An Essay as a Totally Different Story.

7. James Howard (English). Where is my Script? The Anxiety of Meditation of Utterance.

8. Elizabeth Bishop (English). The Future Lasts Forever.

9. Prof. Mikhail Epstein (REALC).  Silence as a Speech Genre: Why I love Collective Improvisations.

1. The bus stop and the seminar table

Jackie Wyse, Religion, Hebrew Bible

(One of) my best speech genre(s) is small talk. Small talk, though often denigrated as insignificant, is actually quite sophisticated in its aims and goals. Small talk is what you talk about when you are talking about “real” life – the concrete minutiae of the everyday. Small talk makes exterior the things that occupy one’s interiority. Small talk is stream-of-consciousness turned inside out. And yet, for all of its ordinariness, small talk is not an intimate speech genre. One talks small with strangers, acquaintances, or when thrown into a new situation with someone known well only within another context.

Where does small talk happen? At parties. In line. On the bus. While walking. At a reception after a lecture. When meeting the in-laws for the first time. In small talk, we find a balm for our awkward souls.

There are at least two turns that small talk can take.

One is small talk with strangers, people you don’t know from Adam (or Eve). There are formulaic lines for beginning such exchanges: commenting on something – no matter how trivial – that you have in common. The weather: standing at the bus stop, waiting for a ride, umbrellas unfurled, sneakers getting soaked. You smile at your shared predicament. Your eyes and the thunder roll in unison. You make a comment: “What a day to be riding the bus.”

Another turn is possible, exemplified by small talk with people you know well but with whom you usually converse in another genre. For example: talking with a professor at a departmental party about her newly acquired kittens, or about how the word “barbeque” means something completely different in Georgia than it does in Ohio.

With friends or family, within intimate relationships, the genre of small talk no longer exists because it has outlived its usefulness. The same sentence – the exact same words – when said to a lover, mean differently than they do when said to a stranger or a recent acquaintance. “What a day to be riding the bus” when said to a spouse is no longer small talk. Why? Because, in all likelihood, if you bother to say something about the weather to someone you know well, it is because you want to say something about the weather, and not because you wish to ease the awkwardness imposed by silence.

Small talk, by definition practiced among people who do not know each other intimately, is therefore simultaneously a compassionate and a selfish speech genre: compassionate insofar as the one who makes the first utterance responds to what she perceives as the awkward silence between two people who do not know one another well; selfish insofar as she speaks primarily in order to soothe her own soul, in order to alleviate her own sense of anxiety, her own question about what the other is thinking, about whether she measures up in the eyes of the other. Small talk can be a reaching out, an acknowledgement of the precarious way that humans are all thrown into life together, a nod toward the delightful serendipity of standing at the bus stop with someone you would have no other opportunity to meet, a “carpe diem” sense of openness toward the place an utterance can take you. With apologies to Bilbo Baggins: “It is a dangerous and wonderful thing to make an utterance: You open your mouth, and if you don’t keep your tongue, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” But small talk can also be intentionally shallow and limiting. It can be deceptive. With no commitment toward the other, you can massage their ears with pleasantries until you have a chance to escape. Small talk, done monologically, can be a way of using the other, a socially acceptable way of ignoring their humanity when silence just will not do.

I am good at small talk.

A speech genre that comes less naturally to me is that of the doctoral seminar. Whereas small talk is largely improvised and immediate, the doctoral seminar is a speech genre within which there are guidelines. Participants prepare by reading, taking notes, forming opinions. Participants gather at a specified time for a pre-determined number of weeks. Perhaps there is a discussion leader. Perhaps a power-point presentation. Perhaps a handout. Material is presented; participants discuss.

There is much that the doctoral seminar has in common with small talk. For example, there is the compulsion to fill awkward silences lest any participant be perceived as unprepared. However, the stakes are quite a bit higher in the seminar room than at the bus stop, and in spite of the seminar’s formality, as a genre it is quite a bit more personal. Not only is the atmosphere of the seminar on the line – so is each participant’s very intelligence, their very suitability for their chosen profession. With each meeting, the possibility emerges anew that someone will be revealed as a fraud. What if they find out that I have never read Saussure? What if they find out that I am a pretender in the world of ideas? What if they find out that I am more comfortable making small talk at the bus stop than I am debating the merits of Marxist linguistics? Participants enter the seminar room already masked, their opinions at the ready. The doctoral seminar can be a battlefield: each participant defending their territory, shooting down the ideas of another, picking through the defenses of an opposing argument. At the end of the three hours, there are sometimes winners and losers: the winners being the most articulate, the most clever; the losers being the least of these.

The doctoral seminar does not have to have this character. In fact, I have participated in many that are closer in style to a learning party than a battlefield. However, there is always the sense that even the most collegial doctoral seminars are departures from a genre in which defensiveness is the norm, in which people enter with fortresses around their hearts, with snipers haunting the parapets of their intellects, ready to shoot down the proposals of others at the least sign of inconsistency or irrationality. The doctoral seminars I have enjoyed the most, in which I have been able to relax into my role as student and risk the exposure of my opinions and ideas, have been those which seem, in one way or another, to wink at the speech genre in which they participate: they are mildly carnivalesque. There is laughter. There is occasional comment on everyday life: family, food, politics, the weather. There are cracks through which the presence of other genres are just barely visible… sometimes even the edges of small talk can creep into the academic discourse!

Here is where the boundaries of speech genres seem to me their most amorphous: at these moments of rupture, when the unexpected is said, or remains unsaid. When for a moment, the whole person breaks through. When someone I’ve never met before reveals himself to have been a religion major in college, and we talk for fifteen minutes about Psalm 82. Or when my colleague in a doctoral seminar stops talking about Psalm 82 for a few minutes, and reflects on what it means to find a place for yourself as a biblical scholar in the broad, wide world of the humanities.

I am happiest when speech genres rupture. In that rupture, I can relax in all of my particularity as a whole person. No longer do I obsess about opinions: mine, others, what they are, how to defend them. Instead, I smile. I laugh. I am oriented toward an open future, not constricted by an anxious present. This rupture, which is beyond speech genre, could not be created without it. The structures of speech genres are necessary in order to move beyond them.

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2. There is Something in the Pop–Corn Butter. I am the Sarah Palin of Phone Banking.

Catherine Doubler (English)

There's Something in the Popcorn Butter

Since high school, I have been perfecting the post-movie opinion genre.  I think it started when I saw some generic action movie with mountain climbing stunts and a fight with a bear, a vacuous love-plot put in for good measure.  The credits begin and the packed theater roars with applause; I stand up, grab my coat, yell something to the effect of "WHAT A WORTHLESS PIECE OF SHIT MOVIE," and storm out the door.  I consider this a breakthrough moment for me in perfecting this speech genre. I've become more agreeable since then, but for whatever reason I am stricken with incredible self-confidence and the ability to be straightforward and coherent after I see a movie in the theater.  I can map out an argument for the brilliance of the ending of There Will Be Blood in the time it takes for me to find a trash bin in which to put my empty popcorn bowl.  Often I make rather daring claims with disturbing levels of aplomb; once I tried to make the argument that Oliver Stone was the most underrated practitioner of camp, sometimes just as good as John Waters.  In the theater bathroom, I can go on and on about the artistry of a particular tracking shot.  In the bathroom, I can actually remember what a tracking shot is.  Disappointment over Almodovar's ten year masterpiece in the making, Bad Education, was voiced very quickly on the way out of the theater.  I find the exit ramps of a movie theater to be a safe space, for whatever reason, to voice very direct opinions.  Maybe it's some chemical in the popcorn butter that allows this. Maybe it's because I find it extremely self-gratifying to voice my opinions in this particular forum.  Perhaps I take pleasure in the sensation of having other people listen to my brilliant pontifications.  All-in-all, my best speech genre is also the one in which I am the most narcissistic.

I am the Sarah Palin of Phone-Banking

This past year marked the first time that I volunteered for a presidential campaign, and I can say without hesitation that I suck at phone-banking.  The genre of phone-banking itself is straightforward and simple: you are given a script and a page of 100 phone numbers by a helpful and enthusiastic staff person, you call the numbers, you recite the script.  The purpose of phone-banking is to see if a person is registered to vote, has voted, and has voted for the right person.  If they haven't voted, you mobilize other volunteers to take them to the polls, and if they're voting for the wrong person, well, you try your best to convince them in a matter of minutes that your candidate is the right one.  I have never gotten to this persuasive stage of the phone-banking narrative, mainly because I have never been able to say the script in a coherent fashion.  I look at the page, and my command of English fails me--I can't make a simple greeting, I forget how to pronounce my name, I am barely able to ask them the questions with the right intonation.  Sometimes I recite the script with a Spanish accent.  I am the Sarah Palin of phone-banking.  After I have stumbled over the script, there's the inevitable awkward silence at the other end.  Often I hear the phone click.  Occasionally someone has managed to make sense of my guttural caveman gruntings and shouts "YEAH BARACK OBAMA BABY WOO!"  These are the most gratifying moments.  Post-election, my phone-banking experiences continue to haunt me.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night sweating, wondering if my ineptitude cost Barack Obama Georgia.  Looking back, I wonder if it is the scripted nature of the genre that bothers me, or if I have problems with pushing people towards a certain candidate, even if I think that candidate is incredibly awesome.

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3. “Damn Good Mornings”: On the Genres of Encouragement and Profanity.

Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson, Institute of Liberal Arts

M. M. Bakhtin, the Russian philologer, is perhaps the best known proponent of the idea of speech genres. He contended that there are different types (genres) of speech. We have all heard of the English ‘Cockney’, or American ‘Southern’ brogue; we also know, and have heard referents to ‘street talk’, or to ‘the Queen’s English’. It is these characteristic verbal (and written) typologies, with their inherent and necessarily distinct and various terminologies, accents, tempos, pitches, decibel levels and ‘typical’ participants that Bakhtin alludes to in the idea of speech genres. Speech genres are at once both social and temporal – born in and of particular social milieu and times, though constantly in consort and interaction with other speech genres. We all agree that there is ‘Old English’, as well as ‘Creole’, or ‘pidgin English’, and while we understand and can appreciate their particularities, we also recognize their underlying connectedness and similarities, if not their progenitor(s).           

In this brief paper, I will discuss (my) best and worst speech genres. The word ‘my’ is in parentheses because I have the option of discussing my own personal best or worst speech genres, or those of other individuals or groups (or eras) that I admire or abhor. I will address my own (personal) speech genre that I consider my best – something I feel that I aspire to do well, and enjoy doing – encouraging others (the genre of encouragement), and will discuss a speech genre that I personally abstain (try to, anyway) from participating in, but that is pervasive in society – profanity.                     

I will discuss my best speech genre – of encouragement - first, followed by the (others’) speech genre of profanity, and then seek to make some generalizing comments about their roles in our society. Notice that I personalize my best, but eschewing, or more correctly, shielding my personal worst speech genre, I daylight the worst speech genre that I can safely posit as belonging to others. I am sure my readers will not be fooled.         

My personal best speech genre, one that I appreciate using, or participating in, and one that I observe invigorates and strengthens others, is the speech genre of encouragement. Somewhere in the Bible, humans are advised to “encourage one another”. I am not a scholar of religion, or of religious texts, but I am certain that the major religious texts and their attendant traditions all exhort humans to encourage one another. Even outside of religion, and in the more secularity of our ‘regular’ lives, personal encouragements are often appreciated, if not desired. Personally, I like to greet my family, friends and even strangers I pass on the streets with a cheery ‘good morning’ or ‘good day’! If I have opportunity, I make a statement or two about how beautiful the day is, or how welcome the rain is, or indeed how wonderful the person looks, if that will not be, or perceived, as inappropriate. In parting, I like to end my encouragements with a positive: ‘Have a wonderful day’! Some people regard this type of speech genre as ‘positive speech’ or ‘motivational speech’; regardless of varying terminology, I classify these as encouraging speech. I try to be an encourager, and to inhabit the speech genre of encouraging speech as often as possible, with all people I meet, and at all times of the day precisely because I have been the recipient of many such encouragements from my parents, especially, friends, and a lot of my teachers, past and present. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that such encouragements have made all the difference in my life, in guiding me in the positive choices I have sometimes made, definitely in spite of myself.       

Perhaps the worst speech genre (not my own) I observe in modern society in general, is that of profane speech. Profanity, once the purview and prerogative of (supposedly, and admittedly castigatingly) ‘sailors’ and ‘bar room brawls’ and the like, is now mainstream parlance especially among high school and college age students. Some faculty members, perhaps to ensure that they ‘reach’ their students, use some (admittedly measured) profanity in their regular classroom discussions. The most common words and expressions are expletives which seem to privilege human orifices (typically hidden, but graphically and forcibly conjured to mind by these profanities), other body parts and natural body processes (again, typically private), or otherwise refer to maternal and or paternal reproductive parts and processes. Excretion and procreation dominate such parlance. Profanity as a speech genre has certainly been around, I am sure, for as long as humans have lived; however, its current ‘in vogue’ status within mainstream halls of especially, academe, is alarming. Without sounding any more prohibitionist, puritanical or ecclesiastical, let me say that while I do not think of a utopic situation devoid of all but ‘clean’ words, I do lament that especially the very young, especially teens, are seeing profanity as verbal rights of passage into adulthood, and becoming perhaps just as prolific in the use of many such choice words, at the expense of more mainstream academic parlance.

The speech genres of encouragement and of profanity are ostensibly diametrically (dialectically?) opposed to each other, though in truly Bakhtinian fashion, they are dialogically related as well; indeed, just as the ‘Queen’s English’ and “street talk” converse with each other. Can it be said that the genres of encouraging speech and of profanity dialogue with each other? Do they in any way reinforce each other (not in a semantic form, but in reinforcing their separate genre characteristics? Does profane language ever help encouraging language, or vice versa? When I first wrote this piece, I concluded that: “While encouraging speech uplifts the human spirit and exhorts both proponent and recipient(s), I submit that profanity rather damns and demeans the human spirit, notwithstanding the crude laughter profanities can elicit from even the most devout. I would like to encourage all humans to exhort more, and profane less”. After reading this piece in a group discussion, and engaging in the dialogue that followed, I saw more of what I had written in my concluding statement about profanity sometimes eliciting crude laughter; does laughter encourage the human spirit? Absolutely. I realized in this written exercise that the preponderance of profane verbiage seems to evoke life, by dwelling on human reproduction and genitalia, and the necessary excretions that herald and acknowledge life! In an arcane way, most profanities loudly celebrate (and encourage) life, if only by reminding us all of the beauty and pleasures of life. In a way, my encouragement tomorrow might as well be: “(What a) Damn Good Morning”!

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4. The Poverty of Praise.

Navyug Gill, History

Perhaps it is due to my commitment to self-reflection, or my distain for liberalism, or just my oppositional disposition, perhaps neither and perhaps something even I cannot discern, but I am compelled to reflect on my worst speech genres before or rather than my best, and, as a result, have begun to compile an almost endless list of genres in which I judge my performance to be reproachable. However, I will put aside encyclopedic cataloging since I realize that this exercise requries me to decisively cut through what would become a litany of shortcomings or inadequacies (that assumes I should be proficient in everything that I do – very modernist notion I admit), and center in on the one genre that I find fault with and fault myself in at the same time. It is the genre, dialectically of giving and receiving, of the ‘personal compliment.’ I abhor this genre; I am neither good at making it, nor at accepting it.

         For the sake of honesty and maybe humility (which, but mentioning it, I know I negate it), I will say that this does not occur frequently, either way. But when it does occur, I am utterly deficient at it. When someone gives me a compliment, I find it straight away unnecessary. I am confident; or at least, I need to believe that I am confident at all costs. And therefore, I am committed to believing that I do not require someone else’s praise under any circumstances. A compliment interrupts my imagined autarky and self-reliance. It makes my well-being, my satisfaction and my general mood susceptible to someone else’s manipulation. Shall I be sad or upset if I don’t receive a compliment?

         A compliment is also concomitant with an abuse of adjectives. It is never enough to say, ‘well done.’ More likely, words such as ‘great,’ ‘handsom,’ ‘important,’ ‘insightful,’ ‘meaningful,’ ‘clear,’ ‘deep,’ ‘powerful’ etc. are routinely deployed in conjunction with a compliment. The most cherished compliments are always in excess – magical realism. In other words, a surplus of meaning has to be produced in order to convey positive recognition of some act or quality. Knowing this, the honesty of a compliment is always suspect. Is a person’s compliment, though I refuse to need it to begin with, really how they think about me, or is it an exercise in thesaurus-izing the word ‘good’? Receiving a personal compliment is boring, it dulls the senses, it is a fictitious solidarity that presumes the necessity of evaluative praise following almost anything a person does.               

         The personal compliment hinges both on the facial expression of the recipient and on some form of reciprocity. I refuse to smile broadly like an idiot or mumble some platitude to someone when hearing something good about me. I have resorted at times to a tight pursing of the lips, though even this is performed with much awkwardness and discomfort. You don’t know if you should shake hands, hug the other person, or nod politely. Rarely can a compliment be received without furnishing some obligatory counter-compliment – ‘I like your shoes too,’ ‘your paper was very interesting as well,’ ‘you must have done even better,’ etc. This does not enhance relationships; it is the impoverishments of them.

         As a verbal genre, the compliment is overused, over-determined. That is not to say that praise or appreciation should not be given. If someone says something I find admirable, I will try to include or implement what they have said into my own thoughts and actions; something akin to ‘imitation is the best form of flattery.’ Or, to be more precise, incorporation is the best (and should be the only) form of complementation. In another scenario, at the scene of the intimate, I will not say, for example, ‘I think you have nice hair’ – I will touch or smell it instead, I will hold it in my hand or brush it across my face. Someone once said that words are all we have. They were wrong. The resort to the non-verbal is actually liberating, it is a more enriching exchange of affect. And it lasts longer, or we imagine that it lasts longer.

         As a result of this tirade, it should be clear that I am incapable, or weary to the extreme, of deciding, rather disclosing, my best speech genre. This discussion obviously obviates the genre of the self-compliment. There are things that I am good at, of course. But, (more modernism I know), I want to improve on and at them all the time. And the road to improvement is paved with critique, critique and more critique. Onwards, by leaving your personal compliments by the wayside.

Thank you – or rather, no thank you and no ‘thank yous.’

                                     *  *  *  *  *

                            5. Singin’ the Blues

                  Prof. Walter Reed, Institute of Liberal Arts, English

         Huh?  What?  The speech genres in which I am at my best—in my own mind?  Or the ones which I admire most in the performance repertoires of others?  That is, the ones I envy others being proficient with, while I’m not?  The ones I do best with—a legend in my own mind—but with which other people tell me I’m really a complete flop—with which, as I do them, execute them (what is the right word?) I embarrass my friends and family members.  (“Oh, no!  There goes Dad trying to do his miserable Elvis impersonation!”)  And what is the relation of speech genres to written texts?  My wife writes out her sermons,  then delivers them orally with great skill.  But some people want her to just get up in the pulpit and start talking, heart to heart.  Can you imagine “Johnny” Donne in St. Paul’s, improvising off the cuff?

         OK—I’ve got it.  (I’m impersonating an improviser here.)  My favorite speech genre is the blues.  (See how a fertile mind can always steer the conversation back to his own hobby horse?)  In fact, though I love the musical instruments on which the blues (generic term) can be played (acoustic guitar, 6 or 12 string, electric guitar, Hammond B organ, saxophone, most of all the harmonica, blues harp, “Mississippi saxophone” etc.), it is the words of the blues that fascinate me—the folk poetry of the classic prosodic form of the 12-bar blues:  5- stress line, repetition of this 5-stress line, rhyming punch line (AAB, AAB, AAB, ad infinitum).  But I get frustrated trying to figure out just what Blind Lemon Jefferson is saying as he tears his way through a classic blues lament.  Clarity of diction and the Queen’s English pronunciation are not characteristics of the genre.

         I love to write blues—lyrics, at least--as a way of gaining a comic or ironic perspective on a difficult situation.  (The serious, heartfelt, gut wrenching blues—“I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Love in Vain,” “Death Letter Blues”—are a variety of the genre (a sub-genre?) that I think I wish I could write (hell, compose and perform, in front of a select audience of blues aficionados at the Northside Tavern, on their Monday Open Mike night)—but these are too much of a challenge, too much of a threat.  What would happen if I really told the world how awful I feel about life sometimes?  Laughin’ to keep from cryin’—a classic blues phrase, a “floater,” as it’s called, that moves from song to song, whatever the ostensible topic.

         OK—you’ve all been waiting.  When is he going to give us a sample of his wares?  Check this out for an opening verse of “The Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin Blues”:

         I’m just a dialogic daddy, with a monologic momma on my mind,

         Yes, a dialogic daddy, got a monologic momma on my mind.

         I can’t believe that woman treats me so unkind!

Enough! Or too much!  I do have a tune for it, though all you need is the 3 chord structure of the 12 bar blues (I’m such an amateur musician, playing by ear, that I can’t even transcribe it.  But I can hear it in my head—or is it my heart and soul?)  Someone has suggested that the device of repeating the first line allows a singer who is really improvising (that word again!) to make up the third, rhyming line as he winds his way through the verse.  (A side note:  I wonder if this had been argued about the parallelism of the biblical psalms, the “blues of the sky,” as Rosenberg has creatively called them.)  (Another side note:  I once wrote a blues called “The Twelve Bar Blues” that chronicles a pub crawl through the blues bars I have known and loved in Atlanta:  “A dozen bars in a single night;/ That really wasn’t very bright;/ That’s why I’ve got the twelve bar blues.”  My sometime harmonica teacher wanted me to copyright it, but that seemed too pretentious.  The whole question of claiming copyright for traditional oral folk songs has been a vexed one in the so-called music industry in the 20th c.  Maybe I’ll send it to my new favorite Atlanta bluesman, Bill Sheffield, whose original composition “Gonna Get Me a New Tattoo” is my new all-time favorite.

         So why do I favor this genre, one that arguably belongs to African Americans, coming out of New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century, moving up to the Mississippi Delta and on to Chicago—not to mention all the regional varieties, styles and classic/canonical performers, that I once read about and tried to listen to and categorize (a poetics of speech genres), back when I was going through one of my “phases,” as my mother would have called it.  (Is it relevant that my mother became a professional story-teller, telling other people’s stories rather than her own in the middle years of her now 90-year-old life?)

         In other words, do I have any right to declare this--even in this rather friendly and supportive circle of colleagues and students (by the way, everyone here is both, as far as I’m concerned), do I have any right to be a “white boy singing the blues,” the title of one of the first scholarly (well, semi-scholarly) books I read on the subject?  (Mose Allison:  “Just another little middle-class white boy/ Out tryin’ to have some fun.”)  Whiteness, of course, is privileged, in spite of the recent election of Barack Obama, in American society.  But it is also, for many of us whities, colorless—drab, boring, in need of a life begged, borrowed or stolen.  Liberal guilt, or genuine admiration for the incredible skill and strength of a performative genre which—OK, Reed, lay your cards on the table—represents some of the greatest poetry going in 20th c. American literature?

         Holy cow! (to paraphrase Phil Rizzuto).  I’ve only got five minutes left and I’ve only finished half of the assignment.  I could tap dance my way through and claim—with some cogency—that the blues are also my worst speech genre, not only my best.  And I could tell the story of my abortive debut on the stage of Blind Willie’s, the premier blues club in Atlanta (where Mike Holquist and I repaired a couple of weeks ago to hear Maria Muldauer.)  They announced on the radio, on WRFG, a harmonica player’s play-along, for anyone, “you have an old harmonica in your dresser drawer—come on out and have some fun.”  So I showed up, paid my entrance fee (it was a fund-raiser) and waited my turn.  My blood began to run cold as I heard the “amateurs” who preceded me, playing Paul Butterfield riffs and jamming with the house band to beat the band—literally.  This was my moment of truth—or my moment of exposure.  I stuck my tail between my legs and beat a retreat.  You’re either in the band or in the house;  it’s important to know where you belong.

         On the other hand, it would be more honest (a virtue that some people close to me keep urging me to pursue with more diligence) to say that my least favorite speech genre is prayer.  Silent prayer, in fact.  But that’s not true, either.  Prayer is a genre that I admire in other people, which I wish I could be better at, which—Dear Lord!—I even envy others for being good at.  “Hep me, Jesus!”  (This last is a direct quotation from a hapless character—one of the many hapless characters--in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood.)

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 6. An essay is a totally different story

Kevin Barbour, Religion, Hebrew Bible

Allow me to begin with a personal anecdote:

Two weeks ago, I was shopping at my local Publix grocery store.  I only had to pick up a loaf of bread and some eggs.  I was in no hurry—of course, I had hours and hours of coursework to prepare for, but I am always looking for an excuse to procrastinate (it should be noted that I have brought the discipline of procrastination to new heights, resorting to the most creative means to delude myself into always thinking that I’m too busy to do all of my coursework).  Ten minutes before the trip to Publix, I had opened my refrigerator to grab a Coke Zero.  I scanned the contents of my stocked refrigerator, and noticed that we were low on milk, and had no eggs.  There was no need for milk and eggs at the moment, but the only alternative to a trip to the store was to translate a few chapters of Hebrew for class.  I forced myself to feel a need for an omelet, so I chose to go to the store for the eggs.  By the way, I don’t really like omelets.

I took my time in the store, browsing through the gourmet coffees before meandering toward the milk and eggs.  I took a long time deciding on the merits of one brand of milk versus another, the aesthetics of brown eggs versus white eggs, etc. but eventually made my selection, and slowly walked toward the checkout.  I scanned the checkout lines, and deliberately chose the one with the longest line. 

In front of my was a woman of about 55 years old, who looked as if she was catering a party for 50 people with all the groceries she had.  Among other things, she had lobsters and steak, expensive cheeses, and a few varieties of that gourmet coffee that I had decided was way too pricey for me.  As the cashier scanned the items, I noticed that she was looking at me—not in a casual way, but intensely.  I pretended not to notice, until I heard a half choked sob, and saw that tears were streaming down her face. 

“Are you okay?” I asked—I was sort of bewildered. 

“I’m really sorry” she whispered.  “It’s just that you remind me of my son, who was killed in a car accident last month.” 

I didn’t know what to say, besides “I’m really sorry about that.”  I felt for her.  We chatted for a bit, and then were silent.  I began to peruse the National Enquirer when I didn’t know what else to say. 

Finally, when the cashier had nearly finished ringing her out, she again turned to me.  “Could you do me a favor?” she asked. 

“Of course” I answered, “what is it?” 

“I never had the chance to say goodbye to my son—would you say goodbye to me?” 

I felt a little awkward about it, but as she pushed her cart away toward the door, I waved to her and said, “goodbye mom—I love you.”

She smiled through her tears, and went out the door.

The cashier proceeded to ring out my bread and eggs, and then said “That’ll be $546 and 23 cents.”

“What?” I said.  I thought it was a joke. 

“Oh…” the cashier said, “your mom said that you’d be paying for her groceries.”

Without a word, I darted for the door.  My initial shock was beginning to give way to anger.  I spotted the woman who was frantically shoving the groceries into the car. 

I confronted her: “You had no right to do that to me!”  I shouted.  People stopped, and I felt them watching us. 

“Get away from me!  I don’t know you!” she yelled.  People began to gather.  My face flushed.  She continued yelling at me, but then she opened her car door to get in. 

“You’re not going anywhere until the police get here!”  I shouted. 

“Get away from me, I don’t even know you—why are you harassing me?  Somebody help me!” she screamed. 

I didn’t know what else to do.  She sat in the front seat of her car, but I somehow managed to grab onto her left foot.  She struggled, and I pulled.  I really didn’t want her to get away.  So there I was, in the middle of the Publix parking lot, yanking on this lady’s leg so she couldn’t get away.  She kicked at me and continued to cry out for help, but I held on for dear life.  I was just yanking and yanking, pulling on her leg.  I pulled and pulled.  I was really pulling this woman’s leg.

Just like I’m pulling all of yours.

This story is all a lie.  I confess: I am a liar. 

Telling stories is my best speech genre.  But if I had to be really honest about it, my stories are almost all fiction.  They are simply not “true.”  Therefore, I often lie to friends, family, and even new acquaintances via stories in informal or casual situations.  I consider myself a true storyteller because I never feel particularly constrained by unimportant details like “the way things really happened.”  A story about going out to buy eggs and milk with no snags, and then returning home (ie. “the truth”) is just plain boring.  I would rather be interesting than truthful when it comes to mundane everyday conversations with people.  My life is not terribly interesting, but I’d like to think my stories are.  I don’t like conversations about the weather, about how I’m “doing” in general, about movies I’ve seen.  I’d rather have white lies, hyperbole, imagination, and exaggeration—to me it gets no better than this.

But am I the boy who cried wolf?  Am I trustworthy?  I’ve preached sermons in churches on many occasions—what about then?  But this is a different genre.  People want to know the “Truth” in such settings, so I try to steer clear of hyperbole there.  It is difficult for me, though.   

But in an everyday setting, like sitting among friends and acquaintances while I read this, I’m not always sure people want the “truth.”  People like to laugh, shout, gasp, be surprised, etc.  In other words, they like to be engrossed in a good story.  I like the attention, so I will tell a story whenever I can, often substituting exaggeration or hyperbole for the boring “truth.”  My wife actually hates this about me—sometimes I tell stories to others that involve her when she’s not around. 

“Oh, Kevin told me that story about you and the blind elk when you two were living in Montana,” they might say to her.  “It was so funny.” 

Allison will raise here eyebrows.  “Kevin and I never lived in Montana,” she’d say flatly. 

But, by the way, we really did live in Montana.  I’m serious.  I drove one of those red antique tour buses, and gave narrated tours while working with the organization “A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.”  Allison did too.  I swear I’m not making this up.  Well, at least I’m not really making this up.  Well, I suppose most of this is mostly true.     

Therefore, it is clear to me that telling stories is my worst speech genre.  I rarely reveal anything significant about myself because people who know me also know not to trust my stories.  People who don’t know me may still know nothing about me after I meet them and launch into a few stories.  They might introduce me to their friends: “This is Kevin, he taught high school English in Las Vegas and most of his kids were in gangs.  He lived at the Grand Canyon too.  He was just telling me how he hiked to Mount Everest Base camp two years ago in June, and it actually snowed and he nearly died.  He was guided out of there by a wild dog who apparently knew the path to the closest Nepalese village.  He called the dog ‘Red’ and fed him a Snickers bar as a way of saying thanks.”

That last one, by the way, is true.  Hmmm.  Or is it?  I don’t really remember the details.  I did teach in Las Vegas and I did work at the Grand Canyon too.  Those details are likewise fuzzy, though.  It was a while ago.  My memory isn’t so good anyway.

Telling hyperbolized stories in casual conversation—that is my best and worst speech genre.  I do it all the time.  Hmmm.  Or do I?  Sometimes I don’t always remember if something really happened, or if I just told it one too many times. 

Or do I remember these things like they were yesterday, and I’m just not being honest with you?  You probably don’t trust me anymore.  After all, this has been a casual essay among friends and acquaintances.  But the speech genre of this essay is totally different than one of my stories.  I swear.  Totally different.

In other words, the speech genre of an essay is a totally different story.

(Note: a basic version of the “grocery store” story told in the above essay was initially told to me by a friend, who had heard it from another friend.  The version above has been modified, expanded, and personalized based upon that original basic story outline I once heard years ago.  I wish I could give credit to its original author, but I can’t.  But I’ll gladly take credit for my own version of it).

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7. Where’s My Script? The Anxiety of Meditation in Utterance.

James Howard, English, Medieval/Early Modern Literature

         First, there are several ways that I can approach “best’ and “worst.” There are some speech genres that I feel at ease in, but perhaps the lack of nervous  adrenaline does not give it the projective energy for others to see the performance as fantastic. Similarly, there are speech genres where I get nervous and flustered to the point of having no reckoning of my performance, but others will either appear placated or give compliments. So any “best” or “worst” that I give may not have to do with how easygoing I feel in the position, but in the listener responses that I get. After all, that is what we look for, listen for, and yearn for when we speak and listen.

         For example, one speech genre where I always get nervous, sweaty, and twitchy is the formal speech, the podium banger, or the staged monologue. The audience is sometimes there voluntarily, but in a class or mandatory function they are captive. The impetus is to please the ones holding the grade, or some perverse sense of formality, while interjecting humor, energy, and vitality to please even the indifferent, as in a valediction before the impatient. Tone with personality is the ideal, but it must be clear. When insufficiently prepared, nervousness and doubt cannibalize my performance. But when I have the time to write and practice a whole speech, that nervousness is the energy of spontaneous improvisation, and the full feeling of being in communion with a topic and giving an audience what they want while remaining true to the inner substance is ecstatic when it works, and so I have a particular fondness for giving and listening to speeches.

         Perhaps in a related way, I also have a hidden enjoyment for reading aloud in class, like in high school English classes, where everyone would be assigned a part to a play. Like the speech, I saw it my job to give a lively voice to the prose, even if my gusto was often greater than my actual ability. Read well enough, new tensions could open up for discussion, as when I voiced Abigail in The Crucible. The vocal interpretation is useful and productive to me, and I hope it’s my best, but may properly be my favorite.

         Also, I find exchanges to be more comfortable over IM or by e-mail due to its meditative qualities. The overall speech genre of a fast written exchange is perfect, because I can think and edit my response before I send it, but not leave the other person with a verbal silence but a textual one, which is far less awkward. That doesn’t say such awkward silences don’t happen, but the silence can be more casual, since amidst the banter it is easily assumed that the other person could be fixing dinner or playing online checkers without any breach of etiquette.

         In contrast, I feel like I suffer in fast-paced conversations of acquaintance. I don’t know the other person enough to do more than ask questions, but the questions themselves seem inadequate and trivial, and there isn’t any way to establish an easy, frank, and intelligent rapport without risking the other person’s unease by an inappropriate utterance. There is no context of “friend.” It is like a game in which I do not know the rules, and where silence would ordinarily be a comfort (the silence of solace or companionability) it turns awkward because there’s no sense of a mutual comfort. Which utterance is worse – that of an awkward silence, or that of awkwardly trying to cover it up? Also, when someone says something, I think of the best thing to say after the moment has passed. Of course, I need not say the best thing in every situation (who could?), but learning how to think socially in speech on my feet is a place where I feel inadequate.

         To provide a more fixed speech genre where my inadequacy is more evident and may not carry the fantasy of universality so heavily, I have trouble saying how I am. “How are you?” is the question, and of course the response is automatic, as it should be. It’s always an approximate gauge, a variation on “good,” “well,” “okay,” “alright,” “fine,” “swell,” “great,” and so on. Sometimes it will be “fantastic,” “super,” “meh,” or “magnificatasticalastic.” So perhaps I am great at the general genre, but once people ask, “What’s so great?” or “What’s wrong?” the effluence of vocabulary melts away. Unlike an IM, how do I self-edit for propriety and give a quick, efficient, cogent, and true answer? At best, I can trust to the description of an event to satisfy, but it is somehow so difficult to give the feelings actual words. My mother said I play my cards close to my heart. Or perhaps I’m a “private” person, though I feel the want of sociability as well.

         Maybe speech genres can be classified in certain ways, but in that, the possibility of relation to speech genres ought to be considered, whether psychologically or socially. Is it that I feel best in speech roles with a clear rather than ambiguous spontaneous context, or is it a distinction of formal performance versus an anxiety of alienation in informal exchange via breaking a rule? Neither? Both? Something else too? The answer will differ from person to person, but such relationships also constitute the use of the genre. It is a linguistics dependent on my relation to language, how I perceive others to relate to language, how they relate to mine, and the assumed truths within all of these relations. 


8.  The Future Lasts Forever

                                    Elizabeth Bishop, English

The inspirational speech is my best speech genre. It is never to a crowd, but one person. This I am good at, because I am an outspoken person, and they believe I will tell them the truth. But truth doesn’t exist for the subject. I don’t know why I know so many directionless waifs. I think it is our generational condition, a crisis of meaning and while I am deeply upset by this crisis, this is not how you inspire. You decentre the crisis, you re-assert the importance of the subject’s conditional existence. This appears in a way to be the apologist for all the subject’s bad decisions. But this is necessary. In many ways. To inspire confidence in the weak, you have to invalidate the past, remark on its worthlessness—of course this isn’t true, if I have one illness it is nostalgia, but when your sister talk about her problems, you don’t talk about her faults, you talk about the future. The wide open, non-essentialised, gorgeous golden future. And in some basic human way, this is all a lot of people need—someone else to tell them its okay to start over, a thousand times, because as Althusser says, “The Future Lasts Forever.”

My worst speech genre is the academic presentation. The burden of conveying final meaning is unbearable. The weight of being a vessel of certain truth. Whereas I can thrive in the moment of the extemporaneous speech, the academic presentation is as repugnant as a bough of pine. Part of this is due to the required logic. Thesis, reasons, evidence, calm steady voice, simulated interest of the audience, the appearance of authority. This may be what I dislike the most—the false pose of authority. Which may seem ironic because I have a tendency to polemicize. But I’d like to think I do it in a way that inspires, opens up, not fences in—whereas most shows of authority only lead to imprisonment. I am engendered to a more organic, circuitous manner of speech that allows the audience to provide their own meaning, evidence, so we circulate around each other instead of me doing a moses down from the mountain. This genre is the worst because it is set solely in the present, it has no potencial for the future. I live and die with the information I am imparting in class. Whereas inspirational, extemporaneous speech rears up unexpectantly, and has no end, survives with each person’s drive to live, to never give up.  But academic presentations are about the mastery of knowledge, and I think this is wrong. The humanities are not about what we know, but what questions we are concerned with. How we breathe in our disciplines, what they mean to politics, society. I would be satisfied with few answers in my life, but an abundance of inquiries.

A never-ending open wonder.

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9. Silence as a speech genre: Why I love collective improvisations

Prof. Mikhail Epstein, Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures

The most enviable speech genre for me is that of silence. Can we regard "silence" as a genre? Why not? Genre is a mode of speech behavior, and silence is definitely one of them. The abstention from speech is as meaningful and "telling," as any manifestation of speech. Moreover, silence can be viewed as an utterance because it has a certain author and certain time boundaries, a beginning and an end, as it is framed by utterances of the others. Silence has its own topic, is it always about something, it is intentional, in distinction from the "natural" state of quiet. Only the creatures who can speak can be silent as well, not just mute or quiet, like rocks, stars, tables and other. It is quite legitimate to ask: "what are you silent about?"

 Wittgenstein famously pronounced: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Usually it is understood to mean the opposition of  speech and silence, and obviously Wittgenstein meant it to be precisely this. But in fact this statement also implies the similarity of speech and silence, because both of them share the "of," the "ofness," the topicality and intentionality. One can be silent only about the same things about which one can speak. Therefore we can think silence not just as a single speech genre, but as a universe of genres which may turn out to be no less diverse than the universe of pronounced speech genres. Look at the variety of silence genres in the gospels: on how many occasions when speech would be appropriate and even desirable Jesus remains silent. Silence may be more eloquent and meaningful than speech. There is silence of consent and silence of dissent, silence of contempt and silence of piety, silence of understanding and silence of ignorance... As Pasternak put it: "Silenceyou sound better than anything I've heard." I would add: "...and better than anything I've uttered. " On so many occasions I envied those people who had the courage and wisdom to be silent when I had the weakness of speaking or at least murmuring something.

This is only an introduction to my eulogy of collective improvisation as a speech genre, or rather as a combination of many speech genres including that of silence.  How did it begin? I felt my inadequacy in the genre of a party talk that, on the other hand, I attempted to promote on the occasion of my birthday parties (the last one occurred when I turned 34). I had a number of friends with whom I had a deep speech interaction in the genre of "private conversation" or even "existential conversation." Some of these people were very talented in their professional fields, from physics to linguistics. I imagined that by inviting all of them at the same party will increase the pleasure of conversation manifold. For example, six bright interlocutors talking to each other at one party table will increase six times the shining of the common conversation. In reality, instead of multiplication of gifts  it was a division and reduction. When coming together people tend to broaden the zone of a communication in such a way that would be inviting for everybody – and therefore for nobody. Politeness ruins the conversation. The necessity for mediation promotes mediocrity. People begin to talk about the latest news, commonly known facts and events and, instead of beeng themselves, become no-selves, anyselves. Again and again, from year to year, I felt the same disappointment finding the brightest people growing grey and dull in the presence of each other.

How to maintain and multiply this brightness instead  of diminishing it for the sake of communality? Such is the problem of speech genres. A party talk, whether  it is held in a restaurant or at home, is a kind of speech communism where the private property is nationalized in favor of the collective speaking body; individuals find themselves to be organs of this body which utters platitudes in order to be equally comfortable for everybody.

Is it possible to sit at one table and communicate in a diffent, non–communist mode, with a private property of speech and thinking left intact but at the same time contributing to the common wealth of communication? For this very purpose a collective improvisation wasinitiated as a complex speech genre, or even a multigeneric ritual. For the first time it took place among the three of us, the artist Ilya Kabakov, the sociologist Iosif Bakstein and myself, in 1982. Later it embraced a permanent group of 7-8 participants though some individual sessions have been visited by many people. Perhaps the most important in the art of collective improvisation is that it incorporates the period of silence, the precious speech genre of silence while getting it at the service of communication. People talk, suggest their topics, discuss them, select one of them. Thus the moment of commonality is established which then gives way to the moment of complete privacy and interiority. Writing is a miraculous speech genre in itself because it is a silent spech,  a silent communication. Is it possible to speak and be silent at the same time? Yes, if you are writing.

Now, if the party talk is one of my worst genres, what is my best? Strange as it may sound, I like the genre of interview. Not a job interview, to be sure, but a personal interview that can be mutual, interpersonal, existential and metaphysical. I like unexpected questions that make me think aloud about something I've never had a chance to think before. This genre sometimes emerges in the end of a lecture or a seminar when students begin to ask questions and are encouraged to do so in the least predicable and most provocative way, on the variety of topics at least tangentially related to the subject of discussion. I ask them in my turn, and in this way the space of conversation resounds best with my innate speech genres. Perhaps we are born with these genres in our genes. My favorite genre is an unexpected question that has a chance to provoke a surprising answer.

For this very reason I love collective improvisations. Each of them is in fact one big unpredictable question that makes possible many diverse and equally unpredictable answers. Is "unpredictability" itself a speech genre since it deals with "dictum" (word, saying)? Is unpredictability a silence in the future tense, something that is doomed to be silent but still has a small, improbable chance to explode with speech? Could we initiate a new division at our academic institutions: Departments of Silentology and Unpredictability?