Enriching the diplomatics of contemporary documents through genre theory

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Foscarini Fiorella (Faculty of Information, University of Toronto)
The purpose of this paper is to show how diplomatics and a specific stream of genre scholarship and research known as Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) may fruitfully contribute to each other. The analysis of contemporary digital documents would particularly benefit from combining two approaches that have, as a common object of study, the relationship between what the documents are (their formal and substantive features) and what they do (the actions they perform and from which they are generated).

Diplomatics is grounded on the assumption that the physical and intellectual form of a document reveals its function (Duranti 1998). Similarly, the concept of genre as ‘social action’ (Miller 1984) refers to the idea that communicative actions, whether written or spoken, are ‘typified responses’ to situations that are perceived as ‘recurrent’ by their participants. As such, their characteristics of form and content are shaped by the circumstances in which such genres are enacted, and at the same time contribute to shape those circumstances.

Thus, both disciplines are interested in the interrelationship between the formal features of texts and their contexts, both have an action- (or function-)based agenda, and both emphasize typification (or reproduction of recognizable forms) as one of the enablers of communicative action. However, the diplomatic approach does not share the inclusive, dynamic and situated approach that characterizes RGS.

The application of diplomatic concepts and methods to born-digital materials appears still to be limited to rather structured bureaucratic environments and traditional document instantiations. More complex and fluid contexts of knowledge production, where texts may take up multiple and ever changing forms (e.g., blogs, tweets, interactive web sites) and where non-written communicative actions (e.g., meetings) may be as significant as written ones, seem to require profound adaptations of the discipline. Furthermore, being grounded on a positivist kind of reasoning, diplomatics tends to underestimate the interplay existing between structures, functions and human agents, and to focus on documentary forms, processes and persons as abstract notions rather than examining how they mutually construct one another in specific socio-historical situations.

RGS, whose conceptual framework includes notions derived from structuration theory, recognizes that the potential for genre modification is inherent in every act of communication (Yates and Orlikowski 1992). When individuals draw on the rules of a given genre, they reproduce and, at the same time, challenge those rules over time. Genre theory is very attentive to the minimal deviations, or ‘microlevel breakdowns’ (Spinuzzi 2003), that people may either intentionally or unintentionally generate while acting in social life, and is ready to accept new or hybrid members into its classification of genres, which is an open, ‘stabilized-for-now’ (Schryer 1993) system.

By embracing the socio-cultural, transformational and dialogic perspective suggested by RGS, diplomatics would enhance its exploratory and explanatory power. Its analytical language might, on the other hand, contribute to genre studies, whose terminology seems to lack the precision of diplomatics. This paper will open a window on the unexplored world of emerging communicative forms that the combined efforts of diplomatics and genre theory may help unveil.

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