The Dialogic Imagination

by Mikhail Bakhtin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

There is no such thing as a "general language," a language that is spoken by a general voice, that may be divorced from a specific saying, which is charged with particular overtones. Language, when it means, is somebody talking to somebody else, even when that someone else is one's own inner addressee.

The above quote gets to the heart of The Dialogic Imagination: language always occurs between two (or more) people or is a dialogue with the self, and its meaning is always determined by its context: meaning can only be decided by knowing what was going on when a word or utterance was spoken. Only through understanding the context, for example, can we know if a statement is comic or serious, ironic or sincere.

Prophecy is characteristic for the epic, prediction for the novel.

Bakhtin makes a sharp distinction between the literature of the past, such as the epic, which he says is static and traditional and the novel, a modern form. Prophecy or fate is typical of the epic because what will happen is already rigidly pre-ordained. In the novel, on the other hand, events can predicted but not pre-determined: the novel is fluid and open-ended, oriented toward the future. It keeps us in suspense about what will happen.

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.

Bakhtin says it is difficult to make language our own. We must take it from other people's utterances and intentions and shape it for ourselves: it is always infused with the consciousness of others.

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