Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories
Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation

A Student's Guide by Martin Irvine
Georgetown University

Key Terms in Bakhtin's Theory

The Utterance or Word

In Bakhtin's view, an expression in a living context of exchange--termed a "word" or "utterance"--is the main unit of meaning (not abstract sentences out of context), and is formed through a speaker's relation to Otherness (other people, others' words and expressions, and the lived cultural world in time and place). A "word" is therefore always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in a chain of ongoing cultural and political moments.

An utterance/word is marked by what Bakhtin terms "Addressivity" and "Answerability" (it is always addressed to someone and anticipates, can generate, a response, anticipates an answer). Discourse (chains or strings of utterances) is thus fundamentally dialogic and historically contingent (positioned within, and inseparable from, a community, a history, a place).

"I live in a world of others' words." (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 143)
"Any understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive... Any utterance is a link in the chain of communication." (Speech Genres, 68, 84)
"The word lives, as it were, on the boundary between its own context and another, alien, context." (Dialogic Imagination, 284).

Heteroglossia and Polyphony

Speech and complex cultural discourse in all our genres (novels, scientific descriptions, art works, philosophical arguments, for example) is mixed through and through with heteroglossia (an other's speech, and many others' words, appropriated expressions) and are necessarily polyphonic ("many-voiced," incorporating many voices, styles, references, and assumptions not a speaker's "own").

Dialogue/Dialogic/Dialogism

Every level of expression from live conversational dialog to complex cultural expression in other genres and art works is an ongoing chain or network of statements and responses, repetitions and quotations, in which new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses.


Selections from Writings

From Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Any understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive... Any understanding is imbued with response and necessarily elicits it in one form or another: the listener becomes the speaker... (p.68)

Thus, all real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing more than the initial preparatory stage of a response (in what ever form it may be actualized). And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or her own idea in someone else's mind... Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth (with various speech genres presupposing various integral orientations and speech plans on the part of speakers or writers) (p.69)

When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p.87)

The words of a language belong to nobody, but still we hear those words only in particular individual utterances, we read them in particular individual works, and in such cases the words already have not only a typical, but also (depending on the genre) a more or less clearly reflected individual expression, which is determined by the unrepeatable individual context of the utterance. Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature. (p.88)

This is why the unique speech experience of each individual is shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction with others' individual utterances. This experience can be characterized to some degree as the process of assimilation--more or less creative--of others' words (and not the words of a language). Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others' words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of "our-own-ness" ....These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate. (p.89)

Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another... Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word 'response' here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account... Therefore, each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication. (p.91).

The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself -- philosophical, scientific, artistic -- is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others' thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well. (p.92).

But the utterance is related not only to preceding, but also to subsequent links in the chain of speech communication... But from the very beginning, the utterance is constructed while taking into account possible responsive reactions, for whose sake, in essence, it is actually created. As we know, the role of the others for whom the utterance is constructed is extremely great... From the very beginning, the speaker expects a response from them, an active responsive understanding. The entire utterance is constructed, as it were, in anticipation of encountering this response. (p.94)

An essential (constitutive) marker of the utterance is its quality of being directed to someone, its addressivity ... Each speech genre in each area of speech communication has its own typical conception of the addressee, and this defines it as a genre. (p.95).

A word (or in general any sign) is interindividual. Everything that is said, expressed, is located outside the soul of the speaker and does not belong only to him. The word cannot be assigned to a single speaker. The author (speaker) has his own inalienable right to the word, but the listener has his rights, and those whose voices are heard in the word before the author comes upon it also have their rights (after all, there are no words that belong to no one). (pp.121-122)

 

On Dialogism and Heteroglossia (the other(s)' word)
From Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).

 

The word is born in a dialogue as a living rejoinder within it; the word is shaped in dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object. A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way.

But this does not exhaust the internal dialogism of the word. 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.

The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer's direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation with any living dialogue. The orientation towards an answer is open, blatant and concrete. (pp. 279-80)

Therefore his orientation toward the listener is an orientation toward a specific conceptual horizon, toward the specific world of the listener; it introduces totally new elements into his discourse; 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. (p. 282)

And finally, at any given moment, languages of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological life cohabit with one another... Thus at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence 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... Therefore languages do not exclude each other, but rather intersect with each other in many different ways. (p. 291)

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. Expropriating I, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process... As a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language, for the individual consciousness, 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 intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language... but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions; it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own (p.294)

Dialogic expression is unfinalizable, always incomplete, and productive of further chains of responses: meaning is never closed and always oriented toward the future.

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and boundless future). Even past meanings, that is those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) - they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue's subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). (Speech Genres, p.170)

Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future. (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 166)


References & Bibliography

Bakhtin, M. M. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.  

-----. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Edited by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.  

-----. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.

-----. Rabelais and his World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

-----. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.  

Bakhtin, Mikhail, and P. N. Medvedev. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.  

Holquist, Michael. "Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin's Trans-Linguistics." Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 307-319.

-----. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. London; New York: Routledge, 1990.  

Todorov, Tzvetan. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Translated by Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.  

Volosinov, V. N. and Mikhail Bakhtin. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.