Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” and “The Problem of Speech Genres”

“Discourse in the Novel” (1934-35)

This essay centers on the concept of heteroglossia in addressing the problem of language as it’s used in the prose of fiction. Addressing the limitations of both formalism and ideological approaches to literature, Bakhtin responds to an overemphasis on “stylistics,” which “is concerned not with living discourse but with a histological specimen made from it, with abstract linguistic discourse in the service of an artist’s individual creative powers” (259). However, this attention to discourse used to craft a story overlooks the very real, socially-situated nature of language, and so Bakhtin argues that discourse must be understood as multi-registered: heteroglossia emphasizes the “diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized” in the novel (262). Rhetoric allows a retheorizing of discourse as social, its value methodological as well as heuristic (269), and reveals that languages are never neutral but also ideologically positioned [referring to extralinguistic qualities–similar to Aristotle’s atechnoi pisteis?].

Bakhtin differentiates between languages and utterances. While languages are systems of discourse with grammatical units, utterances are units of speech that necessarily carry with them social force and cultural baggage: they are speech acts that exist within complex webs of social discourse, drawing from what has been said before and anticipating and provoking what will be said after. The utterance, he writes, is necessarily implicated in heteroglossia because it contributes to the richly-textured nature of the latter: “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; it is in fact an active participant in such speech diversity” (272). He goes on, “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.” That is, heteroglossia by its nature relies upon speech acts put in conversation with one another, both historically and contemporaneously.

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 it is often difficult to penetrate. (276)

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 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. [Rhetorical ecologies.] (276)

Rhetoric emphasizes the role of the speaker in relation to the larger situation: the rhetor speaks with what has been said before and what kind(s) of response(s) they want to elicit in mind.

In the actual life of speech, every concrete act of understanding is active: it assimilates the word to be understood into its own conceptual system filled with specific objects and emotional expressions, and is indissolubly merged with the responses, with a motivated agreement or disagreement. (282)

“The Problem of Speech Genres” (1953)

In this essay, Bakhtin develops an understanding of discursive genres in relation to the utterance. Individual utterances are “stab[ilized]” through usage within languages, resulting in speech genres: “The wealth and diversity of speech genres are boundless because the various possibilities of human activity are inexhaustible, and because each sphere of activity contains an entire repertoire of speech genres that differentiate and grow as the particular sphere develops and becomes more complex” (60). [Genres evolve.]

Utterances and their types, that is, speech genres, are the drive belts from the history of society to the history of language. (65)

Bakhtin differentiates between the utterance as a unit of speech and grammatical units of language. Traditional linguistics has emphasized the role of the speaker in isolation to the extent that the situatedness of the speech act is elided.

Moreover, any speaker is himself a respondent to a greater or lesser degree. He is not, after all, the first speaker… And he presupposes not only the existence of the language system he is using, but also the existence of preceding utterances–his own and others’–with which his given utterance enters into one kind of relation or another… Any utterance is a link in a very complexly organized chain of other utterances. (69) [Speech is concatenated.]

[E]motion, evaluation, and expression are foreign to the word of language and are born only in the process of its live usage in a concrete utterance. [Extralinguistic qualities of the utterance.] (87)

Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another. … Each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of the sphere of speech communication. … It is impossible to determine its position without correlating it with other positions. (91)


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