Saturday, November 06, 2004

Reading :: The Rebirth of Dialogue

Originally posted: Sat, 06 Nov 2004 07:51:59

The Rebirth of Dialogue: Bakhtin, Socrates, and the Rhetorical Tradition

by James P. Zappen

I'm going to be talking about Bakhtin and dialogue soon, and it's been worrying me. My upcoming project involves comparing dialogue and dialectic in the works of the Bakhtin Circle and in Vygotsky's works. I'm curious whether the difference between the two -- a difference that Bakhtin seems to think is quite fundamental -- is damaging to the many Bakhtin-Vygotsky syntheses being used in cultural-historical studies. Of course, I have been trying to limit my inquiry to what those two circles meant by the terms dialogue and dialectic -- I didn't want to get bogged down in more general, more ancient uses of the terms. That is, I wanted to limit myself to how Vygotsky conceived of dialectic, not how Socrates did. The more extended spadework, I thought, could be done by someone else.

Fortunately someone else already has. In The Rebirth of Dialogue, Jim Zappen does a very good job of reexamining dialogue and dialectic in the Socratic dialogues, taking as his starting point Bakhtin's discussion of these dialogues from Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Bakhtin's argument (overstated but still in the ballpark, Zappen suggests) is that the earlier Socratic dialogues are closer to the actual, unfinalized dialogues that Socrates had with his interlocutors; the later ones more closely reflect the finalized dialectic scripted by Plato. The former involved testing the interlocutors in their own terms, drawing ideas from them, working together on developing a common stance, but not completely committing to it or holding it up as an absolute answer. The latter involved a teleological progression to the final(ized) absolute answer. As Zappen puts it,

From the perspective of the more mature dialectic and rhetoric of Plato or Aristotle, Socrates may seem to be, at best, a canny rationalist and, at worst, a devious manipulator. But the Socrates who emerges in studies of the early dialogues (including Mikhail M. Bakhtin's) was less concerned with establishing positive knowledge and persuading others to accept that knowledge, by whatever means, than he was concerned with improving his own and other people's lives by examining, together, their most fundamental beliefs. ... This art of dialogue disappears as it is transformed into Plato's dialectical rhetoric and Aristotle's dialect and rhetoric but reappears in the nineteenth century in opposition to the unified truths of philosophy and science and the persuasive purposes of traditional rhetoric.

Echoing Bakhtin, Zappen argues that we can read past Plato's almost certainly distorted portrayal of Socrates' many interlocutors to reconstruct their actual arguments. (Latour does something similar in Pandora's Hope; I think a lot of folks do.) Through sensitive and painstaking examinations of the dialogues, Zappen manages to mine a lot of gold.

Near the end, Zappen addresses Socrates' complaint about writing in the Phaedrus, reading it as a complaint about a medium that cannot engage in dialogue -- one in which the words are finalized and cannot entertain others' utterances or answer back. He links this point to digital media and discusses some of the many projects in which he has engaged, from online courses taught in MOOs to his more recent Connected Kids project. I was glad to see this connection between classical rhetoric and modern computers-and-writing topics. But I'm not entirely convinced that these electronic texts would satisfy Socrates.

In any case, The Rebirth of Dialogue was really fascinating and proved very helpful for working out some of the thoughts I've been having about dialogue. It also made me want to go back and read some of those dialogues over again; it's been a while. Maybe I'll tackle them again soon.

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