Mikhail Bakhtin

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What aspect is Mikhail Bakhtin highlighting in "Discourse in the Novel"?

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As in other works, in "Discourse in the Novel," Bakhtin distinguishes the novel from other genres, such as poetry, through its multiplicity of voices. Novels are not univocal but dialogic: different peoples of different classes, genders, and outlooks engage in dialogue and debate. The novel, therefore, contains conflicting points of view for the reader to consider and explore. With various voices in debate, the novel inevitably becomes political.

Bakhtin called these different, competing voices in a novel heteroglossia, and he said we derive meaning from novels by considering and evaluating these divergent voices or utterances. Heteroglossia includes the concept that characters' speech acts includes point-of-view and ideology: therefore each character can use the same words, but they can mean different things to each. "Each character's speech possesses its own belief system," he wrote. He also said that we can't simply isolate one voice in a novel and base our interpretation on its utterances alone. To understand a novel, we must take it as a whole.

Bakhtin argues that characters in a novel speak ideologically, and they express their ideology through their actions, what they say, and how they say it. Even novels that claim an apolitical stance are political. For example, he points to Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as other works by aesthetes (artists who believed in "art for art's sake" and not for any political purpose) and writes:

Thus even an aesthete, working on a novel, becomes an ideologue who must defend and try out his ideological positions.

Bakhtin's idea of the novel as consisting not of unity and uniformity and an apolitical space but filled with multiplicity and political meaning became popular in the early 1980's world of post-structuralism and deconstruction, when traditional ideas about interpretation were being heavily contested.

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Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that 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. 

Bakhtin notes the limitations of formalist criticism. Limited to the literary text, isolated from authorial, historical, and social reference, the formalist misses the social interaction of discourses in literature. The formalist or structuralist focuses too much on style (form) and misses the social dynamics going on in the text. Bakhtin argues that the style/form and the content are interrelated and he would prefer that writers and critics look at how style acknowledges its necessary connection to social life, historical influence. This acknowledgement recognizes the dynamic nature of discourse (a social conversation). In such a "social" conversation, there are multiple voices and textual relations. Multiple voices and textual relations imply a varied discourse of many different voices and perspectives (heteroglossia), all of which speak to one another as if in a dialogue. 

Bakhtin writes that novelistic discourse exposed the limits of a criticism solely based on style/form. Novelistic discourse is not limited to these flat, abstract rules of style.

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 (raznorecie) and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions. 

Bakhtin wanted to look at the novel, not as a single instrument playing one melody, but as an entire symphony with multiple sounds, harmonious and discordant, all engaging in a dialogue as a whole. Even if we look at the author's individual perspective coming across via all the characters and events in the novel, we have to consider that the author's speech, which is language, is also part of a social dialogue. If we look at the novel in this way, we will see how the author's historical and social context speaks in his/her writing. Just as we can see multiple social perspectives engaging one another in the novel, we can say that these multiple voices inform the author himself. In short, no one "speaks alone." All of these voices 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 speech." ("Discourse in the Novel") 

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