Part 2: Discourse in Poetry and Discourse in the Novel
In this section, Bakhtin explores the differences he posits between how discourse and heteroglossia are treated in poetic genres, as opposed to in novelistic prose. He occasionally notes that these are in fact ideal types – not all poems are exclusively monologic, and not all novels polyphonic – these are, rather, inherent tendencies that each genre reveals in its purest form.
He begins by distinguishing several dialogic scales which, he argues, the traditional philosophy of language has neglected completely. These are 1) “a single language” (this appears to mean the language used by a specific author or speaker, or possibly by multiple speakers in a dialogue); 2) “social languages” of different groups within a “national language,” and 3) that of “national languages” (like English, Russian, etc.) in relation to each other. These are contexts in which to study “the dialogical orientation of a word among other words” (275). Words always exist in “an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme” (276); a word “cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue.”
He discusses several “dialogic relationships” which words possess, the first in relation to the object being described (or rather, in relation to other words describing the same object). In poetic language, the word “forgets” this dialogic context; the prose writer, in contrast, must witness “the Tower-of-Babel mixing of languages that goes on around any object” [“languages” here in the sense of discourses or competing articulations]. The “cannot fail” wording repeats: prose discourse “cannot fail to be oriented toward the ‘already uttered,’ the ‘already known,’ the ‘common opinion,’ and so forth” (279). Thus in terms of this dialogical relationship to the object, the inter-orientation or [citationality] of words is about the relationship to the previously said (the dialogical relationship to future responses or rejoinders will be discussed further on). This dialogical relationship to the discursive context is not just external (as Bakhtin suggests other linguists think it is) but internal to the word itself, this is internal dialogism (hence the “cannot fail” dialogism of the word, it is never outside of such dialogical interrelations).
He turns to the dialogic relationship with the listener and the intended or expected answer which an utterance is oriented toward. He castigates linguists who fail to take the active influence of the listener into account: they focus only on “demands for comprehensibility and clarity” of a passive listener like a receiving device, instead of “one who actively answers and reacts” (280). [This bears an interesting relationship to Wiener’s (or is it Shannon’s?) discussion of communication as a fight against noise; for Wiener “information” appears to subsume all other categories that might move from system to system (e.g., energy, labor, affect, agency) and here Bakhtin is arguing against linguistic approaches that are based on just such a limited focus on comprehensibility or communication.] Bakhtin makes a distinction between the “neutral signification” of a word (as studied by the linguists he is arguing against) and its “actual meaning” which is “understood against the background of other concrete utterances on the same theme, a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view and value judgments.... that, as we see, complicates the path of any word toward its object” (281). [From this point of view, something like a dictionary would be impossible, because it would be incapable of keeping up with the changing context and meaning of words (and itself would be altering them). (cf. again D&G’s abandonment of a search for “exactness” such as this impossible dictionary would seek; instead actually existing dictionaries are anexact.] This “subjective belief system of the listener” is part of the second internal dialogism of the word.
He returns to the idealized opposition between poetry and prose. Poetry is completely monologized, so words appear “without quotation marks” as the direct voice of the poet (285). “In poetry, even discourse about doubts must be cast in a discourse that cannot be doubted” (286). “Whereas the writer of prose, by contrast... attempts to talk about even his own world in an alien language” (287).
In Bakhtin’s usage there is a great multiplicity of “worlds” and “languages,” corresponding to the worldviews and ways of speaking and writing of individuals and groups. This means that when we move up the scale to social and national languages, language is still never unitary, or at most “abstractly unitary” like a national language, which remains in fact “a multitude of concrete worlds, a multiple of bounded verbal-ideological and social belief systems” (288). He talks about the stratification of language, a word which he uses similarly to D&G [and apparently Deleuze’s view on language was influenced by Bakhtin], meaning he is not focusing primarily on a hierarchization, but on the distinction or formation of different “strata” in relation to each other, as created, bounded entities existing in contrast to other strata. These are the strata of the languages, jargon, cant, and discourse of different social groups, professions, classes, and so on. As the translators note in the Glossary, “For Bakhtin this is a process, not a state” (433). He emphasizes the importance of the “intentional dimensions” or “intentional possibilities” of language (289). He is here using “intention” not so much in the sense of intension or reference (though it is linked to a metaphor of “directionality” of words aiming at objects) but rather to mean the agency of the speaking subject in trying to [do things with words]. A given professional or social language, it seems, makes certain particular intentions possible (as that language is being shaped by the intentions of those using it); it is only to outsiders that these intentions become “things.” He is thus aiming for and privileging an insider’s subjective view of language formation as opposed to the objectifying view of language as a system, favored by the linguists he is arguing against. He wants to keep in the fore the “referential and expressive—that is, intentional” forces shaping language, as opposed to the linguistic markers used by other linguists to distinguish languages: these are merely “the sclerotic deposits of an intentional process” (292). Such reification of course plays an important role in how languages are stratified, and how speakers and groups put their own accent or style on words, and in the operation of certain genres such as poetry; however, it is a mistake to take these sclerotic forms as language itself, and they are continually challenged and changed by the same process which formed them: “if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word” (292) [aka the impossible dictionary].
He spends much of the chapter returning to this theme again and again with new metaphors. A profession, group, or individual can “saturate” language with “specific (and consequentially limiting) intentions and accents” (293), which leaves words with the “taste” of a profession, group, etc. [And this is an important, affective part of re-articulation; consider how the term “sharing economy” or even just “sharing” was transformed by the taste/saturation of the app-work startups]. Individuals, seeking to create their own voice, must take words out of others’ mouths and make them their own (294); “Consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language” (295). Some words however retain their alienness from a given speaker, who cannot really place them into their own voice or language: “it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker” (294).
He paints a picture of a [code-switching] peasant, who speaks different languages in different contexts (familial, religious, legal, etc.). He starts out unconscious of this diversity but
As soon as a critical interanimation of languages began to occur in the consciousness of our peasant, as soon as it became clear that these were not only various different languages but even internally variegated languages, that the ideological systems and approaches to the world that were indissolubly connected with these languages contradicted each other and in no way could live in peace and quiet with one another—then the inviolability and predetermined quality of these languages came to an end, and the necessity of actively choosing one’s orientation among them began. (296)
[This is a classic iteration of the idea of a critical consciousness emerging from an experience of contradiction, a la Gramsci. And it is one of the aspects of critique (as leading to a revolutionary consciousness) that the postcritique critique is targetting as illusory or non-inherent. Note the similarity also to Debord’s working class shrugging off the spectacle and thus becoming makers of their own history.]
Returning again to the contrast between poetry and prose, Bakhtin ends this section with a few more observations and the introduction of some further terminology. Rhythm appears to be an enemy of heteroglossia, since it unifies the feel of a text and the monologizing voice of the poet [and this is relevant also to the process of entextualization identified in my chronotopes paper]. Characters in prose are identified as “potential narrator-personalities,” an apparent restatement of the observation from the Dostoevsky book (iirc) that all of Dostoevsky’s characters could be authors (part of the concept of their unfinalizability in the image presented by the narrator).
Three different verbs are used to describe the range of relations between a writer and their language (299): 1) words can express the intentions and voice of the author, directly; 2) words may also refract the intentions of the author, which appears to be the fully heteroglossic position, in which the author’s voice interacts with other voices and languages, and the refracting bouncing of rays of light/intention off multiple surfaces provides a fuller, deeper view (earlier he has described this sort of language as having “finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones;” “finished” in this regard appears to mean rounded rather than fixed or pre-determined (278-9)). And 3), the author can exhibit the words of others in a completely reified way, not mixed at all with their own voice. This is ventriloquation.