Mikhail Bakhtin’s Dialogic

By | March 16, 2012

Mikhail_bakhtinIf you have studied Mikhail Bakhtin, then no doubt you will have felt as bewildered as the man himself looks here.

Help is at hand in the form of our new book Key Terms in Literary Theory. All week we have been quoting definitions from the book and today we look at the term 'Dialogic'. Bakhtin at his best.


Dialogic is a term associated primarily with the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, a literary and linguistic theorist working in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, whose works were not discovered by Western thinkers until the 1960s. Bakhtin was not a Marxist or a post-structuralist, but rather a thinker interested in the social relations inherent in any form of speech or writing. He contrasts the unitary, single-voiced speech of the monologue, where only one person is speaking, with the idea of dialogue, where two or more voices engage with each other from different points of view. Monologue, or monologia, is associated with the idea of a centralized power system, a single voice speaking the only truth that can exist, without challenge or interplay. Dialogic speech, on the other hand, always involves a multiplicity of speakers and a variety of perspectives; truth becomes something negotiated and debated, rather than something pronounced from on high. Monologic speech seems to come from God or nowhere; it is dissociated from the speaker who originates it, and from the social relations in which that speaker is embedded. Dialogic speech acknowledges sets of social relations between and among speakers, and is thus more descriptive of historical and cultural realities.

Bakhtin uses the concept of dialogism in discussing the distinction between novels and poetry as literary forms. In poetry, Bakhtin argues, words are used monologically, as if they have no connection to social or historical relations; a word has meaning only in reference to language itself. In prose fiction, by contrast, words are used dialogically, as having both etymological meaning and social meaning. The form of the novel, as exemplified in Dostoevsky, encourages dialogic speech, as different characters speak in recognizably different voices, and engage with each other in debating worldviews, rather than affi rming a single worldview. Another aspect of Bakhtin’s dialogics appears in his discussions of the “double-voiced” word, a term he uses to describe irony or parody, or words used in quotation marks. A double-voiced word contains two meanings: a literal or monologic meaning, that is, a dictionary definition, and an implied or dialogic meaning, which appears in the social relationship between the two participants in a dialogue. An example is the word “smart.” A monologic utterance would come from an authority, like a professor, who would describe a student by saying “she is very smart,” which the listener would take at face value. Said between two students who dislike this person, however, “she is very smart” takes on another tone, one of irony or disbelief—an added “yeah, right” that designates a worldview shared by the two speakers, but not by the person referred to. This double-voiced word is similar to the concept of the double-voiced discourse articulated by W. E. B. du Bois in discussing the experience of African Americans who learn to speak two languages: that of the dominant white culture and that of their black subculture.

– the definition above is taken from Key Terms in Literary Theory by Mary Klages, now available to buy in the UK (and publishing in the US in May 2012).

Jenny Tighe

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