Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Reading:: Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

Originally posted: Wed, 05 May 2004 19:19:42

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

by M.M. Bakhtin

Bakhtin's often hard to read, and this book is harder than most. A mix of published essays, previously unpublished work, and notes found in schoolboy notebooks rotting in rat-infested storage rooms, the collection is rather uneven. At the same time, even at its most uneven, it's brilliant. We get to see Bakhtin debating with himself, going over themes that he's discussed many times only to rethink them once again in different ways. Whereas works such as The Dialogic Imagination and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics provide us with a more or less finished (stabilized-for-now?) view of Bakhtin's work, this collection sometimes provides a sense of the working-out that was involved.

One of the arguments that Bakhtin has with himself, of course, is the nature of the novel. In "The Problem of Speech Genres," Bakhtin argues that "secondary (complex) speech genres -- novels, dramas, all kinds of scientific research, major genres of commentary, and so forth -- arise in more complex and comparatively highly developed and organized cultural communication (primarily written) that is artistic, scientific, sociopolitical, and so on" (p.62). Such secondary genres absorb or "digest" primary (oral) speech genres, bringing them into a heterogeneous mix. So heterogeneous, in fact, that Bakhtin is moved to remark in "From Notes Made in 1970-71" that "the novel, deprived of style and setting [i.e., removed from the predetermined settings that define primary genres], is essentially not a genre; it must imitate (rehearse) some extralinguistic genre: the everyday story, letters, diaries, and so forth" (p.132). Is it or isn't it a genre? This is the question with which Bakhtin wrestles, and the answer is so elusive precisely because the novel is relatively new, it is removed from recurrent settings, oriented toward writing rather than speaking, meant to travel widely and to furnish its own world to readers.

Personally I don't give a flip whether the novel is a genre or not. I'm much more interested in some of the other secondary genres Bakhtin lists: scientific research, commentary, etc., the results of highly organized written communication. The same question obtains. Are these genres? They incorporate rather heterogeneous primary genres, genres that have emerged in very different settings, activities, or spheres, using different styles, representing different world views. Primary genres have histories and logics of their own; do secondary genres, or do they become anachronistic as they bring these heterogeneous elements into dialogue?

Those of you who have been following my blog probably know where I'm going next. When we begin thinking of scientific research as a secondary genre, we are reminded of the very similar discussions going on in science and technology studies about actor-networks. Indeed, the early ANT work often involved examining scientific reports as networks in which references linked to other actants (both textual and other). Later ANT work drew on Deleuze and Guattari's work with rhizomes to explain how these actor-networks were able to splice together disparate, heterogeneous elements. A rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, is an anti-genealogy. And genres are nothing if not genealogical! So a secondary genre is restless, seething, trying to keep a lid on a boiling pot; it attempts to bring stability to a sometimes volatile mix of genres. (Stability is not D&G's forte, nor is it ANT's.) Secondary genres, I speculate, do have a line of development, but that line emerges from the dialogue of primary genres within them; the assembly work of the novel/report has a past and can be used again in the future. This notion of "digestion," as unpalatable as the metaphor is, provides the stability and developmental perspective that rhizomes lack.

"Digestion" involves dialogue. Dialogue, which is the major theme of this book, results from the juxtaposition of two (heterogeneous) speech works (p.118). But juxtaposition does not mean resolution or finalization -- quite the opposite, since resolution or finalization results in a monologue. It's instructive to look at Bakhtin's elusive pronouncements on dialectics.

"Dialogue and dialectics. Take a dialogue and remove the voices (the partitioning of voices), remove the intonations (emotional and individualizing ones), carve out abstract concepts and judgments from living words and responses, cram everything into one abstract consciousness--and that's how you get dialectics" (p.147). This somewhat enigmatic pronouncement is probably Bakhtin's most direct attack on dialectics. Elsewhere he's more moderate. In "Methodology for the Human Sciences," he says that "dialectics was born of dialogue so as to return again to dialogue on a higher level (a dialogue of personalities)." And a few paragraphs later, he constrasts dialogue with "a mechanical contact of 'oppositions'" on a merely formal level. "If we transform dialogue into one continuous text, that is, erase the divisions between voices (changes of speaking subjects), which is possible at the extreme (Hegel's monological dialectic), then the deep-seated (infinite) contextual meaning disappears (we hit the bottom, reach a standstill)" (p.162). Finally, in "The Problem of the Text," semantic relations among texts are parenthetically termed "dialectical" (p.106), while extralinguistic aspects are parenthetically termed "dialogic" (p.109). Even near the end of his life, after Stalin was dead, in his own notes, Bakhtin could not be any more direct about critiquing dialectics. But we can get a sense of what he disliked: dialectics insists on abstraction (or: returning to dialogue "at a higher level"), finalizability, the settling of a conversation. Dialogue does none of these; it insists that diverse voices be allowed to sound, being heard but not necessarily resolved. It's a more heterogeneous vision.

There are dozens of other insights in this book, but I won't be able to get to them all today. So let's cut this, er, monologue short.

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