Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”

1981

In “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin argues that the novel flourishes on diversity, making it uniquely suited to post-industrial society. The novel can “swallow” and ape other genres without losing the integrity of its form (unlike the epic, for example). In “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin introduces his idea of heteroglossia, based on “extralinguistic” features common across languages, like perspective, evaluation, and ideology, so that language cannot be fully neutralized because it is always defined by context. The focus of this essay is the insistence that literary study must neither be “formal” nor “ideological,” but that form and content are unified in discourse. The fixation on style, cut off from the sociality of discourse, is flat and abstract and the two must be put in conversation. “The novel as a whole is a phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice” 1192. Its “structured artistic system” is made up of direct narration, stylized narration, stylized everyday forms like the letter or diary, other literary but extra-artistic forms like scientific or journalistic texts, and stylized individual speech of characters 1192. They form together “a higher stylistic unity of the work as a whole, a unity that cannot be identified with any single one of the unities subordinated to it” 1192.

“The stylistic uniqueness of the novel as a genre consists precisely in the combination of these subordinated, yet still relatively autonomous, unities (even at times comprised of different languages) into the higher unity of the work as a whole… the language of a novel is the system of its ‘languages'” 1192.

“The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions” 1192.

Because of this, critics often treat style or genre, not both, which the novel requires – the novel is often treated as ‘epic,’ and is therefore undervalued. (I wonder if James Wood’s idea of the novel isn’t as outdated as calling it an epic… the contemporary novel still adheres to most of Bakhtin’s aesthetic categories, just differently so.)

“At the time when poetry was accomplishing the task of cultural, national and political centralization of the verbal-ideological world… on the lower levels, on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth, ridiculing all ‘languages’ and dialects… all ‘languages’ were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face” 1200.

(It’s interesting to consider that he uses the word ‘face’ – also what about The Waste Land?) The problem with readings of the novel, for Bakhtin, is that they seek the same unity in diversity that languages themselves show, rather than dialogism between the text and outside world.

“No living word relates to its object in a singular way: between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme, and this is an environment that is often difficult to penetrate… The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships… this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace” 1202.

“A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way… 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… oriented toward the listener and his answer” 1205.

For Bakhtin, poetic discourse is closed off to alien languages, indisputable, whereas novelistic discourse is open to them, variable.

“At any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the coexistence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles, and so forth, all given a bodily form… each… requires a methodology very different from the others” 1214.

(I wonder if you could consider The Wire as attempting to do this televisually.)

“The poet strips the word of others’ intentions, he uses only such words and forms (and only in such a way) that they lose their link with concrete intentional levels of language and their connection with specific contexts… Everything that enters the work must immerse itself in Lethe, and forget its previous life in any other contexts: language may remember only its life in poetic contexts” 1217.

This seems like a sort of “poetic suture” for Bakhtin. I think it is overstated, to be sure, especially given the existence of Eliot, but it is interesting to think about how this could be compared with the especially heteroglot, object-oriented worlds of the contemporary novel or TV series, which take Bakhtin’s and Kristeva’s ideas about heteroglossia to their most fecund point.

“When heteroglossia enters the novel it becomes subject to an artistic reworking. The social and historical voices populating language, all its words and all its forms, which provide language with its particular concrete conceptualizations, are organized in the novel into a structured stylistic system that expresses the differentiated socio-ideological position of the author amid the heteroglossia of his epoch” 1220.

 

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