“What is difficult about Bakhtin,” his biographers, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, have noted, “is the demand his way of thinking makes on our way of thinking, the demand to change the basic categories that most of us use to organize thought itself.” Wayne Booth clarifies the specific nature of that demand: “No critic of recent years [has] more effectively perform[ed] that essential task of all criticism: prodding readers to think again about critical standards as applied to various canons and anti-canons those standards lead to.” What Bakhtin does, at least in part, is to undermine those naive equations upon which so much of modern literary criticism rests: that the fictive world corresponds to the real world (naive realism), that the author corresponds to some actual man or woman (naive biographism), and that the reader corresponds to oneself (rather than to the role of reader which one adopts when reading a novel). Rather than simple correspondences, Bakhtin calls attention to simultaneous dialogic relationships. He posits “a dialogic both/and” rather than “a dialectic either/or.” In other words, the dialogism of language, of word and world and of self and other, is neither dualistic nor dialectical but is dialogical. (Bakhtin has a strong aversion to dialectics, which he faults for its desire to dissolve the specific in the abstract.)
Bakhtin bases his theory of dialogism on the concrete utterance, on both what is said and what is assumed by addresser and addressee about what is said. All utterances, whether of speaker or of novelist, are directed toward a listener/reader and toward that person’s response. No utterance is therefore ever autonomous. The same holds true for the literary text, which may be construed as a macroutterance. Its meaning also depends on the dialogic, or intertextual, relationships among text, author, and reader.
The individual novel is therefore essentially dialogic, essentially open and indeterminate in its meaning. The same may be said of the novel as a genre. “The genre of becoming,” as Bakhtin calls it, is also incomplete, unformed and still developing. Implying “a world-in-the-making,” it is itself in the process of becoming what it is. Instead of asserting its own rigid identity, it seeks to liberate itself from convention, including the convention of assigning to the author the ultimate authority for the meaning of his or her work. Bakhtin’s author exists not above his characters, omnisciently, but in dialogue with them (this despite the fact that the author does not enter the novel directly; rather, he exists at the point at which all the novel’s languages/voices intersect). No one character (or voice or utterance) speaks for the author; all exist equidistantly from him. As Booth has acknowledged,The challenge of such views . . . about the author’s voice is clear and deep. Again and again I have sought, like most of my Western colleagues, to put into propositional form my summaries of what an author is up to, and of how a given character’s role contributes to the author’s overall plan.
In abolishing the autonomy of the text and the authority of the author, Bakhtin radically opens the novel to the plurality of intertextual possibilities. Such a gesture makes the novel into a perfect reflection of that quality which Holquist claims characterizes the mind of Mikhail Bakhtin: his “extraordinary sensitivity to the immense plurality of experience.” Bakhtin’s gesture, however, does more. In denying the validity of all direct expressions and all direct meanings and in stressing the determining factor of contextual relations, Bakhtin makes clear that a language is not only a means of communication but also a system of belief. Thus, to...
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come to know language in its dialogical essence is to become aware of the plurality of languages within it and of the plurality of belief systems. This is precisely the knowledge that the dialogical novel makes possible, for the truly dialogical novel “refuses to acknowledge its own language as the sole verbal and semantic center of the ideological world.” In fact, the dialogical novel accomplishes nothing less than the decentering of such a world insofar as it makes clear that no word is final, that all are inevitably and at best penultimate. Thus, the novel, or rather the novelistic discourse, no longer seems to “reflect a situation” but itself becomes a situation— is not a record of utterances merely but is itself an utterance, is self-reflexive rather than referential. It becomes a linguistic space within which a multiplicity of democratically heard voices present themselves, where no one can assert an authority in order to silence any or all of the others.
To write and to read/interpret means for Bakhtin neither to define nor to explain but to translate. Conceiving of understanding as a form of translation puts Bakhtin in the same camp with the semioticians Charles Saunders Peirce and Umberto Eco, who, a century apart, have claimed that every decoding constitutes another encoding in a process of endless semiosis. The “relativizing of linguistic consciousness” that Bakhtin sees at play both in the novel and in language must, however, itself be understood as a part of yet another dialogical relationship, one which exists within the structure of Bakhtin’s dialogical mode of thinking. Although he steadfastly resists all that is dogmatic, he is equally opposed to relativism for being just as simplistic and reductive. Although he celebrates the centrifugal forces that make heteroglossia not only possible but also inevitable, he understands that equally strong centripetal forces are simultaneously at work, propelling language toward that elusive unity which must fall far short of the imagined linguistic paradise, taking as it does the form of an official language imposed by the few on the many. The longing for some final word is therefore both a danger and a hope. On the one hand there is the fact of heteroglossia; on the other, there is that faith shared by Bakhtin and all speakers “that [they] will be understood somehow, sometime, by somebody”; without that faith, they “would not speak at all.”