Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation Key Terms in Bakhtin's Theory

The Utterance or Word In Bakhtin's view, an expression in a living context of exchange--termed a "word" or "utterance"--is the main unit of meaning (not abstract sentences out of context), and is formed through a speaker's relation to Otherness (other people and the lived cultural world in time and place). A "word" is therefore always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in a chain of ongoing cultural and political moments. An utterance/word is marked by what Bakhtin terms "Addressivity" and "Answerability" (it is always addressed to someone and anticipates, can generate, a response, anticipates an answer). Discourse (chains or strings of utterances) is thus fundamentally dialogic and historically contingent (positioned within, and inseparable from, a community, a history, a place). "I live in a world of others' words" (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 143) "The word lives, as it were, on the boundary between its own context and another, alien, context." (Dialogic Imagination, 284). Heteroglossia and Polyphony Speech and complex cultural discourse in all our genres (novels, scientific descriptions, art works, philosophical arguments, for example) is mixed through and through with heteroglossia (an other's speech, and many others' words, appropriated expressions) and are necessarily polyphonic ("many-voiced," incorporating many voices, styles, references, and assumptions not a speaker's "own"). Dialogue/Dialogic/Dialogism Every level of expression from live conversational dialog to complex cultural expression in other genres and art works is an ongoing chain or network of statements and responses, repetitions and quotations, in which new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses.

Selections from Writings
From Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays . Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986. When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p.87) The words of a language belong to nobody, but still we hear those words only in particular individual utterances, we read them in particular individual works, and in such cases the words already have not only a typical, but also (depending on the genre) a more or less clearly reflected individual expression, which is determined by the unrepeatable individual context of the utterance. Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature. (p.88)

(pp.121-122) On Dialogism and Heteroglossia (the other(s)' word) From Mikhail Bakhtin. varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of "our-own-ness" . As we know. in essence. (p. 279-80) .. This experience can be characterized to some degree as the process of assimilation--more or less creative--of others' words (and not the words of a language). 1992). But this does not exhaust the internal dialogism of the word. But the utterance is related not only to preceding. and relies upon the others... and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. but also to subsequent links in the chain of speech communication. as it were. Each speech genre in each area of speech communication has its own typical conception of the addressee. all our utterances (including our creative works).94) An essential (constitutive) marker of the utterance is its quality of being directed to someone. Such is the situation with any living dialogue. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press. and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well. The word is born in a dialogue as a living rejoinder within it. Each utterance refutes affirms. But from the very beginning.. but the listener has his rights. The entire utterance is constructed. the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. rework. presupposes them to be known. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. the speaker expects a response from them. Utterances are not indifferent to one another. and are not selfsufficient. (p. Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word 'response' here in the broadest sense).. The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones.89) Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere. in anticipation of encountering this response. The word cannot be assigned to a single speaker. its addressivity . and somehow takes them into account. and this defines it as a genre. and those whose voices are heard in the word before the author comes upon it also have their rights (after all. It encounters an alien word not only in the object itself: every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates. The orientation towards an answer is open. there are no words that belong to no one). is located outside the soul of the speaker and does not belong only to him. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken. blatant and concrete. the role of the others for whom the utterance is constructed is extremely great. Everything that is said.. The author (speaker) has his own inalienable right to the word. and re-accentuate. they are aware of and mutually reflect one another. (p. each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication. Therefore... our thought itself -. it is actually created.92).is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others' thought.. for whose sake. anticipates it and structures itself in the answer's direction. the utterance is constructed while taking into account possible responsive reactions.These words of others carry with them their own expression. blatantly.philosophical.. is filled with others' words. artistic -. The word in living conversation is directly. After all. From the very beginning.. supplements. an active responsive understanding.91).This is why the unique speech experience of each individual is shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction with others' individual utterances. the word is shaped in dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object. scientific.. their own evaluative tone.. A word (or in general any sign) is interindividual. which we assimilate. Our speech. (p. expressed. oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer. that is. (pp. (p. A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way.95).

-----. (p. Bloomington. -----. between different socio-ideological groups in the present. Austin. can never be stable (finalized. lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. ended once and for all) . serving other people's intentions.they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent. various social "languages" come to interact with one another. 1992. 1st ed. 1984. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. M... systems for providing expressive accents. It becomes one’s "own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions. and make it one's own (p. but at certain moments of the dialogue's subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). at any given moment. between differing epochs of the past. all given a bodily form. Austin: University of Texas Press. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense. it introduces totally new elements into his discourse. boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings.. always incomplete. socio-ideological concrete thing. schools.. 166) References & Bibliography Bakhtin. MN: University of Minnesota Press. but rather it exists in other people's mouths. conceptual horizons. in other people's contexts. for the individual consciousness. The word in language is half someone else's. Translated by Vern W. but rather intersect with each other in many different ways. Austin: University of Texas Press. Edited by Caryl Emerson. p. (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Rabelais and his World. it is populated –overpopulated– with the intentions of others. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents.294) Dialogic expression is unfinalizable. 1990.. As a living.. 1986. Thus at any given moment of its historical existence. that is those born in the dialogue of past centuries.. Prior to this moment of appropriation. future development of the dialogue. language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past. Expropriating I. everything is still in the future and will always be in the future. adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. that various different points of view. 282) And finally.. TX: University of Texas Press..Therefore his orientation toward the listener is an orientation toward a specific conceptual horizon. when he appropriates the word. languages of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological life cohabit with one another. the world is open and free. the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language. 291) Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. -----. it is from there that one must take the word. between tendencies. Even past meanings. (Speech Genres. IN: Indiana University Press. 1984.. after all. the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken. -----. toward the specific world of the listener. language. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. as heteroglot opinion. (p. is a difficult and complicated process. and productive of further chains of responses: meaning is never closed and always oriented toward the future. M. Minneapolis. .170) Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world. it is in this way. McGee. his own accent. circles and so forth. Therefore languages do not exclude each other. There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and boundless future).

Martin Irvine Communication. 1986. N. London. 1990. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. and Mikhail Bakhtin. 1978. All educational uses permitted with attribution and link to this page. Culture & Technology Program (CCT) Georgetown University irvinem@georgetown. and P. "Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin's Trans-Linguistics. MN: University of Minnesota Press. . -----. Volosinov. MA: Harvard University Press. 1984.0 United States License. New York: Routledge.edu © 2004-2011 Bakhtin: Main Theories by Martin Irvine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3. Translated by Wlad Godzich. Mikhail.Bakhtin. Michael. Todorov. Cambridge. Minneapolis. V. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Medvedev. Cited and quoted works are the property of the respective owners." Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 307-319. Holquist. Tzvetan. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. N. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics.

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