Friday, February 4, 2022

Discourse in the Novel, Part 1


Mikhail Bakhtin (1981), "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist; Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Summary of Part 1: Modern Stylistics & The Novel

Bakhtin starts off this essay by criticizing the tendency to choose either the form (as with the Formalist school) or the content (as with “ideological” approaches) of “verbal art” to study. “Form and content in discourse are one,” (259) he announces, a sentiment which aligns with Deleuze and Guattari’s crusade against hylomorphism. Instead of separating discourse into the false or misleading opposition of form vs. content, it needs to be understood in its social context. He attacks approaches which use the hylomorphic distinction to focus on the discourse as either only the product of some unitary language (a power imposed from above, overly homogenizing), or of the individual voice of the author (overly individualizing, in contrast). He defines the novel as “artistic prose” discourse.

He lists five types of “compositional-stylistic unities” which take place or are used in the novel: 1) direct authorial narration; 2) stylization of everyday discourse, as in skaz; 3) stylization of semiliterary forms (such as letters, a diary, etc.); “various forms of literary but extra-artistic authorial speech”; and 5) the individualized speech of characters. These are all subordinated to the higher stylistic unity of the work as a whole. [This list seems to have been later revised into the one on page 199 of the Dostoevsky book].

He defines the novel a second time, as “a diversity of social speech types... and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized” (262). This leads into a discussion of heteroglossia on page 263. He propounds his theory of national languages possessing “internal stratification” into a wide number of group voices and “social dialects,” jargons, age groups, and so on. The novel draws on this diversity of voices and languages which it “orchestrates” using the different compositional unities (of the above list), which are on the one hand vehicles for heteroglossia to enter into the text, and a means of orchestrating it.

He returns to his discussion of traditional stylistics and how it is unable to understand this symphonic, orchestrating aspect of the novel. He also has choice words for the langue/parole distinction (264) as “presupposed unities” which are the product of theoretical academic perspectives, not actual discourse. Similarly, the distinction between “poetics” and “rhetoric” is used by scholars of the latter (and by Formalists) to argue that the novel should be understood as rhetoric and not as poetics (i.e., as convincing or as sending a message, rather than as having some other poetic or artistic unity; an outdated distinction which I frankly cannot see the logic of, anyway).

He outlines his overall theory of language as the struggle between centripetal (unifying) and centrifugal (heteroglossic) forces. National languages are an example of unifying forces, as are monologic genres such as epic poetry. The novel, on the other hand, draws on and relies on heteroglossia and in fact has used this as part of its development out of folk genres to oppose or parody the monologic discourse of poetry, etc., which had been involved in the formation of nations and states. In between these two is the concrete utterance which takes part in both, “a point where centrifugal as well as centripetal forces are brought to bear (272). This leads to the possibility of the analysis of any utterance as “a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of two embattled tendencies in the life of language.”

This immediately brings to mind the critique of critique (aka “postcritique”), by Sedgwick and Felski, in which precisely this tendency to see “contradiction” and “tension” in all discourse comes under fire. It is clear from context that Bakhtin does not see this at all the way they describe it. For Bakhtin this is simply how language works. Felski is perhaps assimilating it to the agency/structure opposition from the 90s (I don’t think she has said this specifically, however); but for Bakhtin an individual speaker can have both centripetal or centrifugal intentions (and effects), and likely both at once [thus this is a theory of articulation, because the moment/act of utterance is about establishing connection or dialogue with other utterances]. And these tensions/contradictions are themselves productive of the character of language (and its possibility as an open but regular medium) so seeking them out for analysis is not necessarily an act of “suspicion.” Meanwhile Sedgwick’s “strong theory,” and “weak theory,” in for example her discussion of The Novel and the Police, could be seen as respectively monologic and heteroglossic language [perhaps ironic because that book appears to have a thesis directly contrary to Bakhtin’s: that the novel is disciplinary and not liberating (though seeing that as merely an opposition is a bit of vulgar Foucauldianism, to coin a phrase)]. And of course in relation to Wiener who I am also reading, the dismal opposition between order and entropy becomes a much richer and more complicated and nuanced relation between centripetal and centrifugal forces (I made a previous comment to this effect in the notes to Bakhtin’s Dostoevsky book).

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