Dr. Mary Klages
Bakhtin was not exactly a Marxist, but a theorist writing in Soviet Union starting in the 1920s, and thus he was very much aware of Marxist theories and doctrines, and how they were being implemented. He was also associated with the school known as Russian Formalism, a kind of precursor to our own American movement (in the 1940s and 50s) called New Criticism. (Peter Barry, in Beginning Theory, has a good explanation of Russian Formalism). Bakhtin got in trouble with Soviet regime, was exiled, and did a lot of his best work in exile; because of his political conflicts with the Soviet Union, as well as the problem of translation, and of Western cultures getting access to his texts, Bakhtin's works weren't published (or translated) till the 1970s (after the end of Stalinism).
Bakhtin shares with Marxist theorists an interest in the historical and social world, an interest in how human beings act and think (in other words, an interest in the formation of the subject), and an interest in language as the means in which ideologies get articulated. For Bakhtin, as for Althusser, language itself (both structurally and in terms of content) is always ideological. (Bakhtin is also associated with the work of V.N. Volosinov, whose work Marxism and the Philosophy of Language looks more directly at how language operates ideologically).
Language, for Bakhtin, is also always material. He would argue against Saussure and structuralist views of language which look only at the shape (or structure), and instead would argue that you always have to examine how people use language--how language as a material practice is always constituted by and through subjects. (This is also Althusser's second thesis in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses").
Bakhtin's theories focus primarily on the concept of DIALOGUE, and on the notion that language--any form of speech or writing--is always a dialogue. This notion of dialogue is not the same as the Marxist notion of DIALECTIC, though it's similar in focusing on the idea of the social nature of dialogue, and the idea of struggle inherent in it. Dialogue consists of three elements: a speaker, a listener/respondent, and a relation between the two. Language (and what language says--ideas, characters, forms of truth, e.g.) are always thus the product of the interactions between (at least) two people. Bakhtin contrasts that notion of dialogue to the idea of MONOLOGUE, or the monologic, which are utterances by a single person or entity.
"Discourse in the Novel" is an excerpt from a longer essay with that title, found in Bakhtin's book The Dialogic Imagination. In this essay Bakhtin focuses on the question of literary forms or genres as examples of dialogic form. He focuses particularly on the contrast between poetry and novels. He says that poetry, historically, has always been the privileged form (and you can think of this in terms of a binary opposition, poetry/fiction, where poetry is the valued term). We have seen a version of this privileging--or at least of the distinctions between poetry and prose--throughout this semester, as a number of theorists who value the idea of play, plurality, or multiplicity in language point to poetry as a place where language is more free, where the signifier and signified are the most disconnected.
Bakhtin differs from Saussure, and from the tradition which emerges from Saussure, and which values the separation of signifier and signified more than the connection between the two. He was aware of Saussurean linguistics, and of structuralist theories in general, but Bakhtin (unlike just about all the other theorists we've read so far, including Althusser) is not using a structuralist view of language.
Bakhtin begins his essay by posing a problem: if poetry is the more privileged literary form in Western culture (and in structuralist and poststructuralist theory), then what can you say about how language or discourse operate in NOVELS? Clearly language operates differently, or is used differently, in fiction and in prose than in poetry; these genres have a different conception of how meaning is created than does poetry.
One answer to this question is that you can't--or shouldn't talk about novels at all. For the French feminists (especially Cixous), novels are part of a realist mode of representation, which is based on trying to connect linguistic signifiers to their referents, to "real" signifieds; this, in Cixous' view, links fiction and realism to the attempt to make linear, fixed meaning (where one signifier is associated clearly with one and only one signified), which is what the French feminists call masculine, or phallogocentric, writing.
From this perspective, any form of representational language--any prose discourse, and any forms of fiction--are part of the effort to make language stable, unitary, and determinant. And that's bad. From another perspective, however, there's no comparison between what novels do and what poetry does. Poetry is meant to be an art form, to be (and to create) something beautiful; fiction, on the other hand, is a kind of rhetoric, a literary form meant to persuade or to present an argument, not to produce an aesthetic effect. These definitions come largely from historical trends: the novel does come from the prose traditions of persuasion. Poetry is not without its didactic function, certainly; as many critics from Sir Philip Sidney on have noted, the purpose of art is "to delight and to instruct." But generally poetry has been associated with the aesthetic function ("delight") and novels with the didactic function ("instruct").
Bakhtin starts with this division between poetry and prose fiction, and their social functions, in order to reconceptualize the idea of the way stylistics has privileged poetry. He says that rhetoric--the art of using language to persuade or convince people--has always been subordinated (in Western culture) to poetry, because rhetoric has a social purpose: it does something. Poetry, despite Sidney's claim to the contrary, has always functioned almost exclusively on an aesthetic level. Poetry is like a painting that hangs on the wall; prose is like a piece of kitchen machinery, in Bakhtin's view.
Because it does something, Bakhtin says, fiction, as a subset of rhetoric, has positive qualities. First of all, it is a socially and historically specific form of language use. A novel, Bakhtin argues, has more in common at any particular historical moment with other existing forms of rhetoric--with the languages used in journalism, in ethics, in religion, in politics, in economics--than poetry does. In fact, Bakhtin says, the novel is more oriented toward the social/historical forms of rhetoric than toward the particular artistic or aesthetic ideas present at any particular moment, while poetry focuses primarily on aesthetic concerns and only secondarily (if at all) on other aspects of social existence.
Bakhtin says (on p. 666) that ideas about language have always postulated a unitary speaker, a speaker who has an unmediated relation to "his unitary and singular 'own' language." This speaker (kind of like Derrida's "engineer") says "I produce unique meaning in my own speech; my speech comes from me alone." Bakhtin says this way of thinking about language uses two poles: language as a system, and the individual who speaks it. Both poles, however, produce what Bakhtin calls MONOLOGIC language --language that seems to come from a single, unified source.
Bakhtin opposes monologic language to HETEROGLOSSIA, which is the idea of a multiplicity of languages all in operation in a culture. Heteroglossia might be defined as the collection of all the forms of social speech, or rhetorical modes, that people use in the course of their daily lives. (Bakhtin calls these "socio-ideological languages" and describes them on p. 668a). A good example of heteroglossia would be all the different languages you use in the course of a day. You talk to your friends in one way, to your professor in another way, to your parents in a third way, to a waiter in a restaurant in a fourth way, etc.
For instance, I once returned a call from a student (who was asking for an extension on a paper) and got his answering machine; the message said "Hey, dudes and dudettes, I'm not here cuz I'm takin' the day off to hit the slopes, so catch you later." The language here was clearly not directed at a student-teacher communication. Rather, the terminology, assumptions, and mode of expressivity were all geared toward a very specific audience. This example shows one kind of language at use--one part of the heteroglossia this student/speaker could have chosen to use. It also shows a fundamentally DIALOGIC utterance--one oriented toward a particular kind of listener/audience, and implying a particular relationship between the speaker and the ;listeners.
Bakhtin says (on pp. 667 and 668) that there are actually two forces in operation whenever language is used: centripetal force and centrifugal force. Centripetal force (and he gets this term/idea from physics) tends to push things toward a central point; centrifugal force tends to push things away from a central point and out in all directions. Bakhtin says that monologic language (monologia) operates according to centripetal force: the speaker of monologic language is trying to push all the elements of language, all of its various rhetorical modes (the journalistic, the religious, the political, the economic, the academic, the personal) into one single form or utterance, coming from one central point. The centripetal force of monologia is trying to get rid of differences among languages (or rhetorical modes) in order to present one unified language. Monologia is a system of norms, of one standard language, or an "official" language, a standard language that everyone would have to speak (and which would then be enforced by various mechanisms, such as Althusser's RSAs and ISAs).
Heteroglossia, on the other hand, tends to move language toward multiplicity--not, as with the other poststructuralist theorists, in terms of multiplicity of meaning for individual words or phrases, by disconnecting the signifier and the signified, but by including a wide variety of different ways of speaking, different rhetorical strategies and vocabularies.
Both heteroglossia and monologia, both the centrifugal and centripetal forces of language, Bakhtin says, are always at work in any utterance. "Every concrete utterance of a speaking subject serves as a point where centrifugal as well as centripetal forces are brought to bear" (668a). Language, in this sense, is always both anonymous and social, something formed beyond any individual, but also concrete, filled with specific content which is shaped by the speaking subject.
Poetic language, Bakhtin argues, has been conceptualized historically as centripetal, and novelistic language as centrifugal. Novelistic language is dialogic and heteroglossic, Bakhtin says, and as such it exists as a site of struggle to overcome (or at least to parody) the univocal, monologic utterances that characterize official centralized language.
Bakhtin wants to find alternatives to a strict formalist or structuralist approach, because these ways of looking at literature tend to examine a literary work "as if it were a hermetic and self-sufficient whole, whose elements constitute a closed system presuming nothing beyond themselves, no other utterances" (668b).
In the section on discourse in poetry and discourse in the novel (which starts on p. 669), Bakhtin argues that poetry is fundamentally monologic, and operates as if it were a "hermetic and self-sufficient whole" (which is why formalist critics, like the American New Critics, mostly studied poetry, not fiction). The poetic word, according to Bakhtin, acknowledges only itself, its object (what it represents), and its own unitary and singular language (p. 670a); the word in poetry encounters only the problem of its relation to an object, not its relation to another's word. In other words, words used poetically refer to language itself, to idea of centralized/unitary poetic language, and perhaps to an object represented--but not to non-poetic language, to other languages in the culture.
poetic word--Bakhtin calls it "autotelic"( which means coming from itself, referring to itself), or image-as-trope--has meaning only in itself, or in relation to an object (as signifier or in relation to a signified) and nowhere else. As Bakhtin puts it, all the activity of the poetic word is exhausted by the relation between word and object; poetry is therefor the use of words without reference to history. "it presumes nothing beyond the borders of its own context (except, of course, what can be found in the treasure-house of language itself" (p. 671a). The poetic word means only itself as word, or it can include all its connotative and denotative meanings (the "treasure-house of language); when it refers to an object, that object is cut off from any social or historical specificity. In other words, a poetic word is only a signifier, or when it's connected to a signified, that signified is always an abstraction. So in a poem the word "bottle" will refer only to itself, or to the idea of "bottle," rather than to a specific bottle (like the plastic water bottle here in front of me).
Let's look at how this works in a specific instance. When I write "Two pounds ground beef, seedless grapes, loaf bread" you can read this two ways. We can do a "poetic" reading, where the words refer to abstract ideas, or to other words, or to poetry itself. Such a reading might focus on the first word, "Two," as implying a fundamental duality, but that duality is undermined by the form of the verb "pounds," which is singular. The idea of "pounds" as verb brings up an image of violence, that the "two" in the first word might be in some kind of struggle. That struggle might be against the "ground," the third word, which connotes an image of violence--something being "ground." It also rhymes with "pound"--so the "two" who are also "one" (singular in the verb) are pounding the ground in some kind of anger. What's the ground? The ground of their being, the ground they stand on, the ground that divides them as one/two beings? (Why not?) Then "beef"--well, "beef" can mean meat--the basic substance of human flesh-or it can mean "argument," which fits with the image of the two pounding the ground (or each other) in this fury. The next line gives us the reason for their anger. Not only are they divided, not quite one and not quite two, but they are "seedless"--no offspring, no fertility, no reproduction. This is perhaps the source of the violence in the first line. The idea of the fight is echoed then in the word "grapes," which brings up "sour grapes," feeling resentful for something you can't have, as well as echoing the word "gripe," which, like "beef," gives the idea of a quarrel. "Seedless grapes" is also an oxymoron, a paradox, like "two pounds;" grapes are fruit, hence a symbol of natural abundance, yet they are seedless, sterile. The last line, "loaf bread," reinforces the idea of a fruitless reproduction causing violence; the word "bread" echoes the word "bred," associated with reproduction again, and "loaf" implies laziness or inability, which stands in contrast to the action of "pound"ing in the first line. So the lazy loafers are the ones who have bread/bred, who have engaged successfully in reproduction, while the fighters, who struggle, are the sterile ones--and their sterility is a product of their lack of differentiation, their inability to decide whether they are one or two, the same or different.
Silly, of course. But possible. This, Bakhtin would say, is how poetry is monologic: if we assume these words are a poem, we read them quite differently than if we assume these words are a grocery list. The writer or critic interested in seeing the heteroglossia in language would read these words as embedded in social relations; such a critic would probably read them as a grocery list, as writing with a distinct social purpose, rather than as abstractions.
But Bakhtin would also say that the "poetic" reading of the grocery list also has validity; the words on the page never mean only the object they signify. In poetry, the social meaning is almost entirely erased, but in fiction the social meaning and the abstract meaning (the "autotelic" meaning) are both present. Novelists might show someone writing this grocery list, and on one level that list would simply be an itemization of foods the character will buy, but there might also be a symbolic level, where these particular foods have significance or resonance beyond the merely literal. As Bakhtin says, (p. 671) the prose artist "elevates the social heteroglossia surrounding objects into an image that has finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones."
On pp. 672(c)673, Bakhtin discusses further the idea of dialogue, or the dialogic, arguing that all words or utterances are directed toward an answer, a response. In everyday speech, words are understood by being taken into the listener's own conceptual system, filled with specific objects and emotional expressions, and being related to these; the understanding of an utterance is thus inseparable from the listener's response to it. All speech is thus oriented toward what Bakhtin calls the "conceptual horizon" of listener; this horizon is comprised of the various social languages the listener inhabits/uses. Dialogism is an orientation toward the interaction between the various languages of a speaker and the languages of a listener. This is why Bakhtin says ( on p. 673b) that "discourse lives on the boundary between its own context and another, alien, context."
On 674a, Bakhtin argues that the sense of boundedness, historicity, and social determination found in dialogic notions of language is alien to poetic style. The writer of prose (675a) is always attuned to his/her own language(s) and alien languages (i.e. the languages of listeners), and uses heteroglossia-- employs a variety of languages--to always be entering into dialogue with readers. The fiction writer is always directing his/her "speech" (i.e. writing) toward the possible responses of readers, and is always trying to find more things to say, more ways to say it, so that readers can understand the message(s).
This diversity of voices which is heteroglossia is the fundamental characteristic of prose writers, and of the novel as a genre.
A good example of a heteroglossic novel is Melville's Moby Dick, which uses a huge variety of (socio-ideological) languages: the language of the whaling industry, the language of Calvinist religion, the language of the domestic/sentimental novel, the language of Shakespearean drama, the language of platonic philosophy, the language of democracy, etc. In using all these languages, Melville hopes to increase the potential size of his readership, as the novel probably contains some kind of language which every reader has as part of his/her existing vocabulary or "horizon."
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