studies in the history of science and culture

© April 2004
revised 27 September 2009

Bakhtin’s “dialogic imagination” & other central concepts

MIKHAIL MIKHAILOVICH BAKHTIN (1895–1975) was a Russian literary critic whose studies of psychoanalysis, critical method, and the theory of language have important implications for such disciplines as philosophy, anthropology, and history. Indeed, Bakhtin has long been considered one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century.

It is Bakhtin’s notion of carnival that has come to have “the greatest influence among scholars around the world — not only in literary criticism but in folklore studies and cultural history as well.” “It has also exercised a strong appeal for the left,” with “the radically democratic essence of carnival” recently become “a cliché of academic discourse on Bakhtin, at least in the United States.” (McLemee 1997)

In his 1997 book review of Caryl Emerson’s The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, Scott McLemee is critical of “the Americanized version of Bakhtin” as “a sort of New Left celebrator of popular culture, maybe with a little Richard Rorty thrown in.” Equally troubling has been the institutionalization of “Bakhtinology,” in the U.S. and abroad:

The thinker’s ideas (forged in an effort to defy the system-building impulse) become the object of scholarly reconstruction, and turn out to be strikingly coherent and cohesive — systematic, almost.... Soon, the anti-establishment thinker has become an institution, with its own orthodoxies, heresies and renegades. Eventually the entire process — marginality, cultism, faddishness, schism — becomes part of intellectual history.

But the fact that Bakhtin, who lived and worked on the fringe of academic culture (even consuming his own creative work when obliged, during a paper shortage, to use the manuscript of his great study of the Bildungsroman for cigarette papers), has since become bound up with “the Bakhtin Industry,” does not diminish his theoretical relevance, or his ideas concerning the inherent multiculturalism and populist tenor of genuine creativity. As Bakhtin himself wrote in response to a questionnaire from a leading intellectual journal during the early seventies: “The most intense and productive life of culture takes place on the boundaries of its individual areas and not in places where these areas have become enclosed in their own specificity.” (qtd. by McLemee)

I find Bakhtin’s critique of rationalist attempts to escape from the intractable web of contingency that is life and literature quite useful, and often refer to core Bakhtinian concepts such as “chronotope,” “heteroglossia” and “the dialogic imagination” in my work.

For those who would like an introductory précis to such central concepts of Bakhtin’s thought, I provide here some relevant definitions, drawn from the Glossary to Caryl Emerson’s and Michael Holquist’s translation of Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

Rather than following the more conventional alphabetical arrangement of the Emerson & Holquist Glossary, I have arranged the 11 entries to read thematically, so as to help out those who are completely new to the subject.

Dialogue, Dialogizing, Dialogized [dialog, dialoguju[s][c]ij, dialogizovannij]

“Dialogue and its various processes are central to Bakhtin’s theory; and it is precisely as verbal process (participial modifiers) that their force is most accurately sensed. A word, discourse, language or culture undergoes ‘dialogization’ when it becomes relativized, de-privileged, aware of competing definitions for the same things. Undialogized language is authoritative or absolute.

“Dialogue may be external (between two different people) or internal (between an earlier and a later self). Jurij Lotman (in The Structure of the Artistic Text, tr. R. Vroon [Ann Arbor, 1977]), distinguishes these two types of dialogue as respectively spatial (A —> B) and temporal (A —> A') communication acts.”

Dialogism [dialogizm]

“Dialogism is the characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia. Everything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole — there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others. Which will affect the other, how it will do so and in what degree is what is actually settled at the moment of utterance. This dialogic imperative, mandated by the pre-existence of the language world relative to any of its current inhabitants, insures that there can be no actual monologue. One may, like a primitive tribe that knows only its own limits, be deluded into thinking there is one language, or one may; as grammarians, certain political figures and normative framers of ‘literary languages’ do, seek in a sophisticated way to achieve a unitary language. In both cases the unitariness is relative to the overpowering force of heteroglossia, and thus dialogism.”

Heteroglossia [raznore[c]ie, raznore[c]ivost’]

“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, historical, 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 functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve. Heteroglossia is as close a conceptualization as is possible of that locus where centripetal and centrifugal forces collide; as such, it is that which a systematic linguistics must always suppress.”

Chronotope [xronotop]

“Literally, ‘time-space.’ A unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ratio and nature of the temporal and spatial categories represented. The distinctiveness of this concept as opposed to most other uses of time and space in literary analysis lies in the fact that neither category is privileged; they are utterly interdependent. The chronotope is an optic £or reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring.”

Genre [[z]anr]

“In the most general terms, a horizon of expectations brought to bear on a certain class of text types. It is therefore a concept larger than literary genre (examples of everyday genres [bytovye [z]anry] would be the shopping list or telephone conventions). A genre both unifies and stratifies language. In these essays, however, the term is most frequently invoked to define the kind of formulae that have tended to limit literary discourse. The novel is seen as having a different relationship to genre, defining itself precisely by the degree to which it cannot be framed by pre-existing categories.”

Everyday Genre [bytovoj [z]anr]

“This is what ordinary people live, and their means for communicating with each other [bytovye [z]anry] — the private letter, the laundry note — are not considered artistic. They are, however, both conventionalized and canonized; indeed, all communication must take place against a certain minimum background of shared generic expectations.”

Hybrid, Hybridization [gibrid, gibridizacija]

“The mixing, within a single concrete utterance, of two or more different linguistic consciousnesses, often widely separated in time and social space. Along with dialogization of languages and pure dialogues, this is a major device for creating language-images in the novel. Novelistic hybrids are intentional [namerennyj] (unlike, say, naive mixing in everyday speech); their double-voicedness [dvugolosnost’] is not meant to resolve. Since hybrids can be read as belonging simultaneously to two or more systems, they cannot be isolated by formal grammatical means, by quotation marks (Bakhtin analyzes the hybrid constructions in Dickens’ Little Dorrit). Hybridization is the peculiar mark of prose; poetry, and in particular poetic rhythm, tends to regiment and reduce multiple voices to a single voice. Double-voicedness in poetry, when it occurs, is of an essentially different sort.”

Alien, other, another, someone else’s [[c]u[z]oj]

[C]u[z]oj is the opposite of svoj [one’s own] and implies otherness — of place, point of view, possession or person. It does not (as does ‘alien’ in English) imply any necessary estrangement or exoticism; it is simply that which someone has made his own, seen (or heard) from the point of view of an outsider. In Bakhtin’s system, we are all [c]u[z]oj to one another by definition: each of us has his or her own [svoj] language, point of view, conceptual system that to all others is [c]u[z]oj. Being [c]u[z]oj makes dialogue possible. The novel is that literary art form most indebted to [c]u[z]dost’ [otherness].”

Assimilating during transmission (also, “simultaneous appropriation and transmission”) [usvojaju[s]aja pereda[c]a]

“We communicate by crossing barriers: leaving our svoj, or making another’s [c]u[z]oj our own. Transmission of information is therefore always simultaneously an appropriation (or assimilation) of it. But there is always a gap between our own intentions and the words — which are always someone else’s words — we speak to articulate them. The gap may be greater or smaller, however, depending on the ‘fit’ between what we believe and what we are saying. If I am a believing Christian, how I recite the Lord’s Prayer will indicate my closeness to the world view of the text. I assimilate its ideology while transmitting it. If I were a militant atheist, I would, in the ways I chose to speak it, indicate my distance from the prayer. I would dramatize nonassimilation of its ‘message’ in my transmission.”

Authoritative Discourse [avtoritetnoe slovo]

“This is privileged language that approaches us from without; it is distanced, taboo, and permits no play with its framing context (Sacred Writ, for example). We recite it. It has great power over us, but only while in power; if ever dethroned it immediately becomes a dead thing, a relic. Opposed to it is internally-persuasive discourse [vnutrenne-ubeditel’noe slovo], which is more akin to retelling a text in one’s own words, with one’s own accents, gestures, modifications. Human coming-to-consciousness, in Bakhtin’s view, is a constant struggle between these two types of discourse: an attempt to assimilate more into one’s own system, and the simultaneous freeing of one’s own discourse from the authoritative word, or from previous earlier persuasive words that have ceased to mean.”

Belief System (also, “conceptual system”) [krugozor]

“Literally in Russian ‘the circle of one’s vision.’ Primary here is the fact that krugozory are all always highly specific, and the visual metaphor emphasizes this: what I see can never be what you see, if only (as Bakhtin put it in an early essay) because I can see what is behind your head. Every [c]u[z]oj thus has its own krugozor. When the term is used on a global or societal scale we have rendered it as ‘belief system’; when it refers to the local vantage point of an individual, as ‘conceptual horizon.’”

Tailpiece from late-16th-century book on the Americas

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