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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