Monday, January 26, 2004

Reading:: The Dialogic Imagination

Originally posted: Mon, 26 Jan 2004 08:38:05

The Dialogic Imagination

by Mikhail Bakhtin

I rarely read fiction anymore; I find studies and theoretical texts more interesting and usually more vital than fiction. But whenever I read Bakhtin, I begin to think that literary criticism could be a fascinating business. Bakhtin approaches his texts the way I approach mine: as documents that shed light on their cultural-historical moment and tell us about the activities in which they were born and matured. Bakhtin is part literary critic, part language theorist, part covert political theorist.

So although Bakhtin's analysis here is focused on the novel and other literary genres, some of his work can be applied to other texts.

In particular, Bakhtin has a lot to say about social languages and how they have their own logics, lines of development, values, and implementations. Generic languages and professional languages, he says, are "permeated with concrete value judgments; they knit together with specific objects and with the belief system of certain genres of expression and points of view of certain professions" (p.289). These social languages are particular points of view and cannot be neutral; language is a concrete heteroglot conception; the word is half someone else's (p.293).

The dialogues among these languages (and their social worlds) preoccupies Bakhtin. The key concept here is dialogism. Social languages, he says, recapitulate their contradictory history; they were formed through dialogue between different points of view and never entirely resolved. And he implies -- though saying so explicitly would be rather dangerous in Bakhtin's time and place -- that dialogism is not dialectical: the voices do not yield a unified whole or a resolution, but an amalgam (see pp.330-31). Bakhtin says it much more clearly in Speech Genres and Other Essays, in which he mocks dialectic as an impoverished, monologized version of dialogue. I see an argument here not unlike Latour's, but I also understand that dialectic is perhaps more subtle and nuanced than either Bakhtin or Latour portray it. I'll be looking at this question more carefully soon.

Bakhtin has a lot to say about genre here as well, and his discussion has a lot of congruence with Vygotsky's notion of mediation and with distributed cognition. I've reviewed this work elsewhere (Spinuzzi 2003). He also talks about the chronotope, a really interesting concept that I am having trouble relating to my own work. Suffice it to say that this book is a classic. Although it drags in spots, it really does nail down and illustrate key concepts that, as a whole, demonstrate the well fleshed out framework that Bakhtin developed -- one whose potential, I think, is far from being exhausted.

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Reading:: Mind in Society

Originally posted: Mon, 26 Jan 2004 08:31:25
Mind in Society
by Lev Vygotsky
The first time I read this seminal work was in graduate school. I was coming to it fresh from reading later activity theory work (AT is genetically related to, but conceptually separate in some ways from Vygotsky's work) and Bakhtin. So I spent a lot of time looking at the basic concepts of mediation and internalization/externalization that debuted in Vygotsky's work. I mostly related these concepts to adult workers, though the book deals with developmental psychology in young children.
Well, now I have a two-year-old who is busily acquiring language. So rereading these smart and innovative studies was illuminating in a different way. Vygotsky treats his young participants with respect and admiration, using Marx's work as a basis for understanding how they absorb culture and how they contribute to it in turn. Reading Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" before this book helped to put it in context: like Marx in that brief piece, Vygotsky wants to acknowledge the social-cultural-historical shaping of individuals without giving up the individuals' agency. So he rejects the botanical model in vogue at the turn of the 18th century (think kindergarten) as well as the notion of instinctual or inborn "stages" that children march through (think Piaget). Rather, he explores how children's development involves the interplay of biological capacities and cultural, mediated ones.
The notion of mediation is terribly important here, and Vygotsky illustrates it well with accounts of his many studies. He argues that we rarely do what animals do -- act directly on the environment -- but instead work through mediators. For example, we tie a knot in a handkerchief (or to use an analogous illustration from the US, we might tie a string around our finger) to remember something. Or to use another illustration: an infant might reach vainly for an object which is then handed to her by a parent. Eventually the grasping (an attempt to control the environment directly) becomes pointing (a sign that helps to "control" the parent). The mediator not only helps to carry out an activity that would be difficult otherwise, it changes the character of the activity; it qualitatively transforms it. And in learning and taking up a culture's mediators, we become acculturated.
Look at what this does to rhetorical theory. We tend to think of genres as communications -- ways to offer or transmit information. But for Vygotsky, I think these genres would function just as pointing does: they control or regulate or mediate both our activities and those of others. Although Vygotsky agrees that interpersonal and intrapersonal mediation are different and that tool and sign mediation are different, he provides a framework for talking about them both and relating them in terms of development. Genres are seen not as vehicles for transmitting information but as ways of exercising some influence and, in doing so, qualitatively changing the activity.
The concept of internalization/externalization is a direct result of applying mediation to learning. Something that mediates our behavior from the outside -- let's take the example of a checklist -- can over time be operationalized, even to the extent that the checklist is superfluous. And at points -- such as when a worker needs to teach a trainee how to do her tasks -- that checklist can be externalized. But internalization and externalization are qualitative changes, not simply storing and ejecting. Vygotsky was monist, and mediation was one way he got around the Cartesian divide, so it's unfortunate that he used such Cartesian-sounding terms.
Anyway, this is a landmark book and a surprisingly quick and easy read. I expect to come back to it frequently as I sort out my ideas on mediation in particular.

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