Bakhtin “Discourse in the Novel”

Bakhtin, M.M., and Michael Holquist. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination.Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. (164 pages)

Bakhtin outlines his argument succinctly in the opening paragraph, “Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand the verbal discourse is a social phenomenon—social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning” (259). He highlights two points that he elaborates on more fully as he moves forward: that form and content are intimately intertwined (via genre) and that discourse is a social phenomenon, dialogic in nature. He fleshes out what it means for language to be socially stratified (or categorized recursively through the interaction of people); for example, he moves away from models of language that pin it as “a system of abstract grammatical categories” or formal/phonetic linguistic markers; rather, language is stratified along socio-ideological lines: “the languages of social groups, ‘professional’ and ‘generic’ languages, languages of generations and so forth” (272).

The social nature of stratification allows us to see how it is dynamic, recursive, and constantly shifting in meaning as each new utterance resurfaces, participating in its meaning. He theorizes language stratification and heteroglossia along similar planes: namely, both push against the idea (or goal of) centralized meanings of language. He writes, “Alongside the centripetal [or pointed toward a central meaning] forces, the centrifugal [outward] forces of language carry on their uninterrupted work; alongside verbal-ideological centralization and unification, the uninterrupted progress of decentralization and disunification go forward” (272). With each new utterance “determines the linguistic profile and style of the utterance to no less a degrees than its inclusion in any normative-centralizing system of unitary language” (272).

The relationship between word, object, and meaning become less legible and more ambiguous: The ways in which we conceive of an object—through the word—is inherently dialogic and heteroglossic. What contributes to the word and thus object’s heteroglossia is the surrounding conditions of the word/object: “along the internal contradictions inside the object itself, the prose writer witnesses as well the unfolding of social heteroglossia surrounding the object” (278).

But beyond context, Bakhtin also includes the ways that words provoke a response—its addressivity. As he writes, “orientation towards the listener is an orientation toward a specific conceptual horizon, toward the specific world of the listener; it introduces totally new elements into his disclosure; it is in this way, after all, that various different points of view, conceptual horizons, systems for providing expressive accents, various social ‘languages’ come to interact with one another” (282). In this sense, language is multiplicitous: its communicative aspects open it up to its involvement in multiple languages. In this way, “word lives, as it were, on the boundary between its own context and another, alien, context” (284): meaning of words rests in several contexts, several intentions, and all language intersect with one another. He continues, “each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions” (293); continuing, “Language… lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention” (293). Concluding, “Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others” (294).



Bakhtin moves into defining his concept of heteroglossia: it appears to function in a hybrid construction: “an utterance that belongs, by its grammatical (synatical) and compositional markers, to a single speaker, but that actually contains mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two ‘languages,’ two semantic axiological belief systems” (304). In other words, a word in a hybrid construction does not contain a monolithic definition, but—because a word can function across and simultaneously within several contexts—can be overpopulated with meaning: “it frequently happens that even one and the same word will belong simultaneously to two languages, two belief systems that intersect in a hybrid construction—and, consequently, the word has two contradictory meanings, two accents” (305). In this way, Bakhtin writes that heteroglossia is “another’s speech in another’s language” (324): a word is double-voiced as well as in a hybrid construction: double-voiced is in reference to the use of one word by two speakers “at the same time and expresses simultaneously two different intentions” (324). Double-voiced discourse is that which is internally dialogic.

Shifting gears, Bakhtin writes about the role of individuals in this double-voiced, hybrid, heteroglossic structure: as he writes, “the speaking person in the novel is always to one degree or another, an ideologue, and his words are always ideologemes. A particular language in a novel is always a particular way of viewing the world, one that strives for a social significance. It is precisely as ideologemes that discourse becomes the object of representation in the novel, and it is for the same reason novels are never in danger of becoming a mere aimless verbal play” (333). Let’s break this down: as he writes, an individual’s words are always someone else’s: the speaker draws upon meanings within a wider system of beliefs. As he writes here, an individual always speaks from a belief system—this, in turn, contributes to the person’s internalization of meaning, thus confirming that one’s words are awlays someone else’s. In this way, Bahktin seems to push again a babel-like construction of discourse where everyone speaks in compelte heteroglossic meaninglessness; rather, people are always recombining and bring about other meanings from their ideologies.

Bakhtin then discusses the individual act that becomes a way to “expose—as well as to test—his ideological position, his discourse” (334). Actions require “ideological qualification” or, in other words, all actions always have “some ideological position behind it and it will not be the only possible; such a position is therefore always open to contest” (334).


Key Terms—in the back of the book, the editors offer a set of key terms, summarized succinctly:

  • Authoritative Discourse: “This is a privileged language that approaches us from withot; it is distanced, taboo, and permits no play with its framing context. We recite it. It has power over us, but only while in power; if ever dethroned, it immediately becomes a dead thing, a relic” (424) Internally-Persuasive Discourse: in opposition to authoritative discourse, this “is more akin to retelling a text in one’s own words, with one’s own accents, gestures, modifications” (424). The areas between these two discourses mark a human coming-to-consciousness: the constant struggle between these two discourses is “an attempt to assimilate more into one’s own system, and the simultaneous feeling of one’s own discourse form the authoritative word, or from previous persuasive words have ceased to mean” (424-5).
  • Dialogism: “characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia. Everything means, is understood, as 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” (426)
  • Genre: “a horizon of expectations brought to bear on a certain class of text types. It is therefore a concept larger than literary genre. A genre both unifies and stratigies language” (428).
  • Heteroglossia: “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 word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under 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” (428).
  • Ideology: “in Russian, is simply an idea-system. But it is semiotic in the sense tha tit involves the concrete exchange of signs in society and in history. Every word/discourse betrays the ideology of its speaker; great novelistic heroes are those with the most coherent and individuated ideologies. Every speaker, therefore, in an ideologue and every utterance an ideologeme.







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