Double-Voicedness in Bakhtin’s Theory


One of the key elements of Bakhtin’s language theory is the word of the Other. As mentioned in the introduction to this paper, according to the Russian philosopher, language is socially produced and meaning is accomplished and unendingly renewed during the interactive process of dialogue. In this sense, there is a “fundamental differentiation between language in its repeatable aspect (the topic for linguistics), and the particular linguistic utterance which carries and enacts relationships between actual people” (Dentith 32). Seen from this dialogistic perspective, language does not represent a fixed code but is instead the result of social, dialogic, negotiative interaction that takes place in a certain cultural context. I should stress, nonetheless, as Annjo Greenall does in a paper she wrote on the contributions of Bakhtin’s work to the understanding of the nature of translation, that “language might well be the result of social negotiative interaction it also is the main instrument for such interaction” (69); therefore we can argue, again as Greenall does, that language as the result of such interaction is not only impregnated with culture but, by being its principal instrument, can be said to be culture altogether. Understood as such, culture (and consequently language) is an open concept, radically different from the definitions provided by essentialist theories that regard it as the essence of specific objects and thoughts, thus being both exclusive and excluding. The philosophy of dialogism, on the other hand, denoting a qualitatively different approach to understanding culture (and language), places its epistemological focus on intersubjectivity. This new focus allows us to understand that things do not exist in themselves, unsupported by social context, but rather in the relations they establish with each other. Consequently, meaning is dialogically perceived as incorporating characteristics of the immediate and the historical social contexts of performance or social action.

As literary work has, from Bakhtin’s perspective, the same kind of social foundation as language it is also dialogic, immersed in a certain social (spatial and temporal) context that will certainly influence its most defining contours. Since it recognises the existence of a multiplicity of perspectives and voices, dialogism is often referred to as being a “double-voiced” or even “multi-voiced” experience. Due to its dialogic nature, literary work does not express a single point of view (or voice); thus it can be said to be heteroglot or other-voiced, as it provides a polyphonic expression of ideas and opinions. Concepts such as dialogism and polyphony, which went on to inform much of Bakhtin’s work, were developed by him in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (first published in 1929).

Borrowed from music, the term polyphony, which literally means multiple voices, proved to be very apt in understanding a work such as Dostoevsky’s, described as “containing many different voices, unmerged into a single perspective, and not subordinated to the voice of the author. Each of these voices has its own perspective, its own validity, and its own narrative weight within the novel” (Robinson n.p.).

In his analysis, Robinson says that, according to Bakhtin, in a dialogic text (such as a novel), the author allows the characters to have a life/thoughts of their own, as it is possible for their voices to contrast with the author’s own voice or point of view:

The author does not place his own narrative voice between the character and the reader, but rather, allows the characters to shock and subvert. It is thus as if the books were written by multiple characters, not a single author’s standpoint. Instead of a single objective world, held together by the author’s voice, there is a plurality of consciousnesses, each with its own world. The reader does not see a single reality presented by the author, but rather, how reality appears to each character. (n.p.)

Thus, unlike monological novels where a single consciousness prevailed, in the dialogic text different perspectives or ideologies are in interaction through the characters. That is to say, through a polyphonic composition, the author deprives him/herself of the power to impose meaning.

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