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Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Imagination

[Readings] (03.30.09, 11:46 am)

The Dialogic Imagination is Mikhail Bakhtin’s examination of the novel. The book describes the novel as a new genre, one that is relatively new and immature. This is despite being written in the 1930s, when we would normally think of the novel as being much more stable. Bakhtin nonetheless saw the novel as new and unique among genres, because of its capacity to incorporate material from other genres, and reformulate and parody them. There are many powerful analogies that can be made between Bakhtin’s study of the novel and digital media. The digital too is young and immature, and like the novel it has the capacity to incorporate, extend, and parody other media. It does this the same way that the novel does, by revealing the structure and patterns of the other genres and media. The digital is uniquely gifted in this fashion, as it can operationalize these rules and reveal their capacities and limitations.

In this work, Bakhtin introduces his ideas of dialogism, which is his approach to intertextuality and the property of a work existing in a constant dialogue with its context. This may be seen as a dialogue between languages, between the language of the text and the languages that make up the world in which the text exists, that the text describes. I would probably call “languages” as he describes them to be “models” instead, as they involve similar terms of particular treatments, interpretations, and understandings of the world. Another term for the complex network of languages within which any text exists is heteroglossia. The term heteroglossia literally means having different languages, but it may be thought of as a state of many interpretations under which a single word may be understood. Bakhtin is reacting to the movement of linguistics that he sees as forgetting the inherent heteroglot nature of language. This probably means Saussurian linguistics, but applies much more strongly to Chomskian context free grammars.

There is a glossary written by the translators which gives a definition of heteroglossia (partly transcribed; p. 428):

The base condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance. It is that which insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions–social, histoiracal, meteorological, physiological–that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are fucntions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve.

My actual notes are rather brief, and I have focused on only two sections: Epic and Novel, and Discourse in the Novel.

Epic and Novel

The focus of this is on the study of the novel, and what it means to study the novel. It is a new genre and its skeleton is flexible, and not hard. The novel has the potential to continue to grow and shape itself beyond what it is now. This may be compared to older genres such as the epic and tragedy, which are old and stable. To extend the metaphor, their skeletons are hard, thus they cannot grow beyond what they are. One may even go so far as to say that their skeletons are brittle, that extension too far will quickly shake a work beyond the reaches of the genre.

The novel gets on poorly with other genres, as it exposes their inner workings and makes use of their forms, incorporating them into itself (similarly to digital media). This absorption not only furthers the genre of the novel, but it also changes and recontextualizes the original genres as well. Similarly to arguments made about adaptation, as well as transmedia, when the novel as a form makes use of other genres, those genres must then be understood in context of how they have been adapted and extended by the novel.

On the subject of adaptation, Bakhtin describes the process of novelization, which serves to make the original genre more open, flexible, and self reflective. It is interesting to compare the idea of simulation and adaptation, as this poses a very similar threat. The novel has the power to expose patterns, show inner lives, and reveal new perspectives in a work, and the existence of a novelized work (whether the original is theatre, epic, film, comic, or so on) requires that the original be considered in context of these perspectives. In a sense, the novel exposes a new canon. Bakhtin focuses on the broader reaches that the novel has over literature: “In many respects the novel has anticipated, and continues to anticipate, the future development of literature as a whole. In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks renovation of all other genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness.” (p. 7) What is interesting about this is that digital media, and simulation especially, has the capacity to do this very thing. It too has the capacity to reveal new perspectives and change how other media and genres understand themselves.

Bakhtin reveals three properties of the novel as a genre. (p. 11)

  1. Its stylistic three dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel;
  2. The radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image;
  3. The new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness.

The epic has three properties as well: its subject is the absolute past, its source is national tradition, and it is separated from reality by an epic distance. While the epic is about the past, the novel is about the moment. Within the novel time is free and flexible, but is fixed and absolute in the epic. The epic world is finished and fixed, it cannot be re-thought without breaking the epic form.

Epic authority and distance is destroyed by the elements of humor and laughter, revealing the reality and human nature, which breaks the image of pure greatness and potential. The epic presents an image of wholeness, but the comic reveals the inconsistencies and incompleteness. The novel has been the agent of this change, picking up other genres and dragging them to reality.

Discourse in the Novel

I am going to quote the opening paragraph to this essay as it is a good summary:

The principal idea of this essay is that the study of verbal art can and must overcome the divorce between an abstract “formal” approach and an equally abstract “ideological” approach. Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon–social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning. (p. 259)

This essay argues against the pure stylistic analysis of the novel, explaining that the context of the novel is important, even primary, in the understanding of its meaning. This context is developed socially, and thus the novel is a combination of social and individual speech. “The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.” (p. 262)

Language (spoken or written) is subject to an intersection of not only individual dialects, but also social-ideological languages. Literary language is heteroglot–stratified into many languages. Spoken utterances exist at a strange intersection between forces that aim to reveal and increase this stratification (centrifugal forces), and other forces which aim to condense the speech back into a coherent and unified whole (centripetal forces). The fact that both of these exist means that there is a dialogue between the individual speech and the social speech, between the different languages. Bakhtin explains that stylistic analysis has given no acknowledgement to this dialogue.

In analysis of models and systems, this idea of dialogue between individual and systems has a great deal of potential. In simulation and adaptation of fictional worlds, many systems are being considered, and dialogue must take place between each of them. There are the systems of the world of the author, the world of the characters in the author’s work, the world of the adaptors, the world of the readers, the medium, and the world conveyed via the rules of the simulation. In this sense, the adaptation process is not a matter of hit or miss, or of fidelity, but rather a negotiation between languages and systems to find some reconciliation of meaning.

The discussion reveals the dialogic nature of words and language. This starts with the observations that languages already exist and that things have names within those languages. Linguists tend to forget that language is built on top of existing language, and must be in some fort of dialogue and relationship with it. There is no longer a state where there is no such thing as a thing that does not have some sort of word or phrase already used to identify it. Thus, if something recieves a new term to identify it, that new term must be understood in relationship to the old ones. It is easy to forget this, especially with respect to programming, where the arbitrariness of language becomes absolute. With Bakhtin’s advice, we might remember that even ideas depicted by simulation have words, and the language we use to interact with the simulation is in dialogue with the language that we use to build the simulation.

Bakhtin compares authoritarian discourse and internally persuasive discourse. Authoritarian discourse binds the word to power and authority, and demands recognition. It aims to be considered whole and indivisible. The whole of the word and its associated rhetoric are united in autoritarian discourse. Internally persuasive discourse is incorporated, at least partially, into one’s own world. It has the capacity to awaken and open up new words. The novel is a system for bringing different languages in contact with one other, in doing so, it forms hybrids. In this way, the novel can be considered a tool for breaking apart authoritarian discourse, as it breaks down wholes and redevelops them into hybrids. The novel must be understood in the context of heteroglossia, how the novel has situated itself with respect to other languages.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBakhtin, Mikhail
TitleThe Dialogic Imagination
Typebook
Context
Tagsphilosophy, sociology, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

2 Comments »

  1. Highly informative and useful. Thanks a ton

    Comment by Chivetha — November 17, 2009 @ 11:31 am

  2. Just read this book for a grad school class and was completely lost. This helped me better understand his theories.

    Comment by Abby Beth — February 5, 2010 @ 1:06 am

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