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Monday, September 22, 2003

Bakhtin: Words as A.B.C. Gum
Just so we don't lose sight of literature on this blog (and so as to save myself from thinking up something original to write), I thought I'd reach into my commonplace book for a couple of passages I completely adore. Those below come from Bakhtin's "Discouse in the Novel," reprinted in The Dialogic Imagination. I love his notion of language as this thing that lies "on the borderline between oneself and the other" and as something we don't take fresh from the dictionary but rather from others' usage, inevitably perfused with their expressive intentions (the image in my head is of some seriously A.B.C. gum). All uses of language, he argues, take place at least to some degree within quotation marks. I love his imbuing words themselves with intentionality--they "stubbornly resist" the author's attempt to seize them and transform them "into private property." It "is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker."
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 intention, 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 (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), 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. And not all words for just anyone submit equally easily to this appropriation, to this seizure and transformation into private property: many words stubbornly resist, others remain alien, sound foreign in the mouth of the one who appropriated them and who now speaks them; they cannot be assimilated into his context and fall out of it; it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker.


Thus a prose writer can distance himself from the language of his own work, while at the same time distancing himself, in varying degrees, from the different layers and aspects of the work. He can make use of language without wholly giving himself up to it; he may treat it as semi-alien or completely alien to himself, while compelling language ultimately to serve all his own intentions. The author does not speak in a given language (from which he distances himself to a greater or lesser degree), but he speaks, as it were, through language, a language that has somehow more or less materialized, become objectivized, that he merely ventriloquates.

Bakhtin, "Discourse on the Novel"

The part of his argument that I find outdated and inutile is his insistence that this dialogism and heteroglossia (terms sometimes interchangeable for him, sometimes not quite) are defining characteristics of prose literature, not poetry. Certainly today, and very arguably back then, poetry is nothing if not heteroglossic!
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