Friday, September 28, 2012

Discourse in the Novel 1

Probably this chapter from Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination lends itself to applied linguistics and second language writing more easily compared to his other chapters. Below are some excerpts from the chapter that I found stimulating.

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.
 My impression is that Bakhtin writes about more than just the unity of form and content in this chapter, or maybe we mean different things when we say form. To me, form refers to linguistic form but I think Bakhtin refers to the values we attach to content, utterances and sources of utterance as well. I think Bakhtin's idea of form-content unity is important but I find the values part even more stimulating. Funny enough this idea reminds me of exposure frequency studies in second language acquisition studies. However, I would say language learners are not frequency counters and the only value we perceive is not frequency. For example, sometimes it does not matter how many times you hear the right pronunciation of a word, you pronounce it wrong anyway until one day someone whose opinion of you is important to you tells you that you pronounce the word incorrectly. And just like that you never mispronounce the word ever again. Sometimes one time has so much force that it is worth 100 exposures. Imagine a situation, for example, where someone embarrasses you in front of other people about a language error you make or you hear a word or phrase that expresses your sentiment exactly, or you hear a word that is beautiful to you either semantically or phonologically or for some other reason (I cannot forget the word mellifluous. Even though I rarely hear or read the word I find it beautiful so I remember it). Because of these reasons, I find focusing only on one quantitative value quite misleading (I do not mean to say that frequency is not important. All I'm saying is that it should not be the only thing we look at). But I think this (for lack of a better word) single-mindedness is also understandable if you look at historical trends in linguistics and second language acquisition studies. I think, whether they are conscious or not, even SLA researchers investigating exposure frequency, who are pretty much by definition anti-Chomskyan, do their research as a reaction to or in order to disprove Chomsky's claims about poverty of stimulus. It is quite amazing what a gravitational force this claim still has. In a way, it is pretty amazing but at the same time in my opinion thinking about things/concepts in terms of your rival theory makes finding a way out impossible. It is also argued in philosophy of science that disproving a theory is an impossibility. In my own mind I formulate this as "you cannot destroy ideas you can only replace them." What one needs in order to solve the problem is a fresh eyes approach or a different perspective approach. Anyway, back to Bakhtin.

These forces are the forces that serve to unify and centralize the verbal-ideological world. Unitary language constitutes the theoretical expression of the historical processes of linguistic unification and centralization, an expression of the centripetal forces of language. A unitary language is not something given but is always in essence posited--and at every moment of its linguistic life it is opposed to the realities of heteroglossia. But at the same time it makes its real presence felt as a force for overcoming this heteroglossia, imposing specific limits to it, guaranteeing a certain maximum of mutual understanding and crystalizing into a real although still relative, unity--the unity of the reigning conversational (everyday) and literary language, "correct language."

We are taking language not as a system of abstract grammatical categories, but rather language conceived as ideologically saturated, language as a world view, even as a concrete opinion, insuring a maximum of mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life.

Alongside the centripetal forces, the centrifugal forces of language carry on their uninterrupted work, alongside verbal-ideological centralization and unification, the uninterrupted processes of decentralization and disunification go forward. Every concrete utterance of a speaking subject serves as a point where centrifugal as well as centripetal forces are brought to bear. The processes of centralization and decentralization, of unification and disunification, intersect in the utterance, the utterance not only answers the requirements of its own language as an individualized embodiment of a speech act, but it answers the requirements of heteroglossia as well

Every utterance participates in the "unitary language" (in its centripetal forces and tendencies) and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia (the centrifugal, stratifying forces).
The idea of centrifugal and centripetal forces, their functions and historicity make perfect sense to me. I also totally agree that these forces intersect in the utterance and the possibilities they offer collapse (or froze or materialize) in the concrete moment of action. What I have a problem with is that even though the terms are used in plural as "forces"(so I guess it is possible that Bakhtin didn't see these forces in a simple binary opposition) when put as in the quotes above, I find it quite difficult to think that there are many centrifugal forces and probably centripetal forces too. My understanding from Bakhtin's words is that in his opinion there is one center and two directions. Perhaps this is due to the influence of dialectical materialism and its binaries, maybe it just sounded more Marxist this way at a time sounding a certain kind of Marxist could keep you alive, or maybe at his modernist times having one center made more sense than it does today. I do not know. How I envision centrifugal and centripetal forces is (and this vision came to me as I was reading Foucault one day) something like a solar system, where it might seem to have a center but it just depends on where you look. If you look at the moon the center is the earth and if you look at the earth the center is the sun. But if you look at the other galaxies too the sun is not the center. (but of course for us, arrogant human beings, we are always the center of the universe, no matter what despite this :-) The system is open and ever changing. A comet visiting the solar system for a while might create considerable change. Also, everything exerts a certain amount of gravitational force on everything else. In order to explain the orbit or location of the earth you cannot just look at the sun's gravitational force on the earth, you have to take into account all the other planets. I hope this metaphor makes some sense at all. My point is there is no one center but many and thus there are more than two directions something can move.

The authentic environment of an utterance, the environment in which it lives and takes shape, is dialogized heteroglossia, anonymous and social as language, but simultaneously concrete, filled with specific content and accented as an individual utterance.
But 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. It is precisely in the process of living interaction with this specific environment that the word may be individualized and given stylistic shape. Indeed, any concrete discourse (utterance) finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist--or, on the contrary, by the "light" of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. 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, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile. The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue. After all, the utterance arises out of this dialogue as a continuation of it and as a rejoinder to it--it does not approach the object from the sidelines.

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