On Dialogism and Heteroglossia (the other(s)' word) From Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).
The word is born in a dialogue as a living rejoinder within it; the word is shaped in dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object. A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way.
But this does not exhaust the internal dialogism of the word. It encounters an alien word not only in the object itself: every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates.
The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer's direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation with any living dialogue. The orientation towards an answer is open, blatant and concrete. (pp. 279-80)
Therefore his orientation toward the listener is an orientation toward a specific conceptual horizon, toward the specific world of the listener; it introduces totally new elements into his discourse; it is in this way, after all, that various different points of view, conceptual horizons, systems for providing expressive accents, various social "languages" come to interact with one another. (p. 282)
And finally, at any given moment, languages of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological life cohabit with one another... Thus at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth, all given a bodily form... Therefore languages do not exclude each other, but rather intersect with each other in many different ways. (p. 291)
Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated –overpopulated– with the intentions of others. Expropriating I, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process... As a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other... The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes one’s "own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language... but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions; it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own (p.294)
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)
Its stylistic three dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel;
The radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image;
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.
The Dialogic Imagination by Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin comprises four essays that examine the novel as a living genre, one that resists classification in terms of its form, function, and placement in literary history.
The word “dialogic” in the title distinguishes between dialogue (two or more people communicating interactively through language) and monologue (one person speaking, thinking, or writing in solitude).
Bakhtin views language as a duality; it is both an established structure of meaning that exists prior to a language user and a unique production of meaning made immediate by a language user. Meaning is constantly created and recreated through dialogic processes.
Bakhtin believes that the novel is uniquely dialogic in contrast to other genres that tend to be monologic. Imaginatively and practically, novels engage in conversations with other works of literature, those that predate them and those yet to be written. Additionally, a dialogic relationship exists between author and reader.
The four essays in The Dialogic Imagination are works of literary theory unified by their focus on the novel as a distinct and developing genre. Bakhtin concerns himself with the unique nature of the novel, its relationship to other genres, and its origins and development.
Compared with other genres whose patterns are established and fixed, such as the epic, the novel according to Bakhtin is a fluid, developing form, one that resists generic categorization. Frequently in these essays, Bakhtin uses the novel as a vehicle for his exploration of ideas about the nature of language and its relationship to social structures.
The first essay in the volume, “Epic and Novel,” compares these two genres. While previous critics believed that the novel evolved from the epic, Bakhtin finds the two forms antithetical. The epic lauds a complete and irrecoverable past, while the novel, fond of inconclusiveness and multiplicity, predicts a vital future. For Bakhtin, the epic has unalterable characteristics, including ties to a national past that serves as both its subject and its source.
He argues that, because its origins predate written language and are memory-based, the epic is separated by a chasm from contemporary reality. Bound as it is to an unrecoverable past—a monologic past that cannot engage with the present—the epic is a dinosaur, a lifeless genre. The epic is connected to an idealized past with no connection to the present. The dead speak, but the living cannot reply.
In contrast to the static epic, Bakhtin notes, the novel resists containment. Attempts to define the novel, he observes, are always accompanied by caveats: The novel is multilayered and plot-based, except when it is not; the novel is a love story, except when it is not; the novel is written as prose, except when it is not.
While scholars traditionally date the emergence of the novel to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), Bakhtin traces its roots further back to folktales that disrupt authoritative texts by their elicitation of laughter. He recognizes novelistic tendencies as early as Plato’s Socratic dialogues (c. fourth century b.c.e.). Plato’s use of blended dialects, his penchant for irony, and the connections he draws to a living reality—a reference to people expressing ideas active in their own time—allows these works to engage in dialogue with readers in the future. Bakhtin suggests that the novel defies classification and remains a living genre because of its tendency to borrow from...
The first of The Dialogic Imagination’s four essays, “Epic and Novel,” was written in 1941 and first published in 1970 (and in expanded form in the 1975 collection). It offers a succinct and relatively straightforward introduction to one of Bakhtin’s most important ideas, in effect defining one genre, the novel, by contrasting it with another, the epic. According to Bakhtin, what distinguishes the epic is the complete separation of its world from contemporary reality (the time of its narration) and by means of this separation, the creation of a valorized past: absolute, closed, complete, uncontaminated by the present, above all unchanging, and therefore both inhuman and ahistorical.
The novel is everything the epic is not. It is alive, liberated, and liberating; this is its aesthetic and its ethic. Anticanonical, unfinalized and unfinalizable, the novel is less a carefully defined genre than an antigenre, whose plasticity and formlessness define or constitute its form. The novel intersects with other genres, which it critically examines, using parody and other means to expose their limitations and conventionality. Freely absorbing other literary as well as subliterary and extraliterary forms, the novel proves itself the most omnivorous, fluid, and organic of the genres and therefore the most resistant to theoretical explanation.
Written one year earlier (1940), and first published three years earlier (1967), the collection’s second essay, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” follows much the same line of thought. It traces the novel back to its roots in those forms (Socratic dialogue, Menippean satire, folklore, carnival, popular laughter) which, unlike the epic, emphasize what is low, present, contingent, and parodic. These are the forms that prepare the way for the novel as “the genre of becoming.”
The last essay in The Dialogic Imagination is also the earliest of the four to be written (1934-1935) and arguably the most interesting if at times the most confusing. As Bakhtin points out at the beginning of “Discourse and the Novel,” “The principal idea of this essay is that the study of verbal art must overcome the divorce between an abstract formal’ approach and an equally abstract ideological’ approach.” Defining the novel as a diversity of voices and speech types, Bakhtin here contrasts it not with the epic (as in The Dialogic Imagination’s opening essay) but with poetry. Unlike poetry, which Bakhtin faults for giving rise to the idea of “a purely poetic, extrahistorical language,” novelistic discourse “cannot forget or ignore.”
Against the monologism of poetry (and the epic) and its “Ptolomaic” conception of language, he posits the novel’s essential dialogism, its Galilean “decentering” of meaning and liberating sense of “linguistic homelessness.” This liberation gives rise both to the centripetal forces that seek to limit meaning and to a speaker’s yearning not just to speak but to be heard and responded to—important ideas that Bakhtin discusses elsewhere. Rather than excluding or limiting heteroglossia (“another’s speech in another’s language,” serving two speakers, each with his or her own intentions), the novel intensifies it. Indeed, Bakhtin explains the development of the novel as “a function of the deepening of its dialogic essence,” which leaves “fewer and fewer neutral, hard elements” outside its relativizing gaze.
Bakhtin turns his attention to the stages in the novel’s development. One of his most interesting observations concerns the difference he finds in the way the Baroque novelists of the eighteenth century approached heteroglossia and incorporated it in their work, whether condescendingly from above or more enthusiastically from below. Another is the part played in the novel’s development by the English comic novel with its parodic recycling and stylization of literary language. Unfortunately, not all of this important essay is quite so clear or provocative, least of all the perhaps overly fine distinctions he makes between different kinds of hybrid constructions.
The Dialogic Imagination: Chronotope, Heteroglossia
The Dialogic Imagination (first published as a whole in 1975) is a compilation of four essays concerning language and the novel: "Epic and Novel" (1941), "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse" (1940), "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel" (1937–1938), and "Discourse in the Novel" (1934–1935). It is through the essays contained within The Dialogic Imagination that Bakhtin introduces the concepts of heteroglossia, dialogism and chronotope, making a significant contribution to the realm of literary scholarship.
Bakhtin explains the generation of meaning through the "primacy of context over text" (heteroglossia), the hybrid nature of language (polyglossia) and the relation between utterances (intertextuality).
Heteroglossia is "the base condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance."To make an utterance means to "appropriate the words of others and populate them with one's own intention."Bakhtin's deep insights on dialogicality represent a substantive shift from views on the nature of language and knowledge by major thinkers such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Immanuel Kant.
In "Epic and Novel", Bakhtin demonstrates the novel’s distinct nature by contrasting it with the epic. By doing so, Bakhtin shows that the novel is well-suited to the post-industrial civilization in which we live because it flourishes on diversity. It is this same diversity that the epic attempts to eliminate from the world. According to Bakhtin, the novel as a genre is unique in that it is able to embrace, ingest, and devour other genres while still maintaining its status as a novel. Other genres, however, cannot emulate the novel without damaging their own distinct identity.
"From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse" is a less traditional essay in which Bakhtin reveals how various different texts from the past have ultimately come together to form the modern novel.
"Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel" introduces Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope. This essay applies the concept in order to further demonstrate the distinctive quality of the novel.
The word chronotope literally means "time space" and is defined by Bakhtin as "the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature."For the purpose of his writing, an author must create entire worlds and, in doing so, is forced to make use of the organizing categories of the real world in which he lives. For this reason chronotope is a concept that engages reality.
The final essay, "Discourse in the Novel", is one of Bakhtin’s most complete statements concerning his philosophy of language. It is here that Bakhtin provides a model for a history of discourse and introduces the concept of heteroglossia.
The term heteroglossia refers to the qualities of a language that are extralinguistic, but common to all languages. These include qualities such as perspective, evaluation, and ideological positioning. In this way most languages are incapable of neutrality, for every word is inextricably bound to the context in which it exists.
As Bakhtin shows, this definitely includes the voices and non-academic genres of the common people. Thus, instead of the classical argumentation within the single academic speech type, we get clashing fireworks of different speech types and languages.” (Engeström, 1987, pp. 315–316, italics in the original.) Expansive learning is an inherently multi-voiced process of debate, negotiation and orchestration. (p. 5)