Dialogic criticism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Dialogic criticism

Dialogic criticism: A method of literary criticism based on theories developed by Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Although Bakhtin developed his theories in the 1920s and 1930s, they did not enter the mainstream of Western literary criticism until the 1980s, when they were translated from Russian.

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), Bakhtin spoke of works as being either comparatively monologic or dialogic, using Leo Tolstoy, whom he criticized, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he praised, as exemplars of the two approaches, respectively. A monologic work, according to Bakhtin, is one that is clearly dominated by a single, controlling voice or discourse, even though it may contain characters representing a multitude of viewpoints. Contrary voices are subordinated to the authorial (and authoritative) voice, which is usually, though not always, representative of the dominant or “official” ideology of the author’s culture. A dialogic work, by contrast, is one that permits numerous voices or discourses to emerge and to engage in dialogue with one another. In dialogic works, the culture’s dominant social or cultural ideology may vie with the discourses of popular culture.

Having made the distinction between monologic and dialogic works, Bakhtin argued that no work can be completely monologic. That is because the narrator, no matter how authorial and representative of the “official” culture, cannot avoid representing differing and even contrary viewpoints in the process of relating the thoughts and remarks of the diverse group of literary characters that populate a credible fictional world. These other voices, which make any work polyphonic, or polyvocalic, to some degree, inevitably disrupt the authoritative voice, even though it may remain dominant.

In “Discourse in the Novel” (1934—35), Bakhtin further developed his concept of the novel as a primarily dialogic literary form. Contravening the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s privileging of plot in the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.), Bakhtin argued that discourse is the main element of a narrative work and that the multiple voices contained therein render any work open and indeterminate to some extent. Subsequently, in Rabelais and His World (1940), Bakhtin associated the discourses of popular culture with carnival, a term he used to refer not only to such festivities as extravagant Mardi Gras celebrations but also to “low” or popular culture in the more general sense, as exemplified by fairs and spontaneous folk dramas such as puppet shows.

Building on Bakhtin’s emphasis on polyphony, contemporary dialogic critics view the concurrence of numerous and often contrary voices as the definitive feature of literary narratives. They also celebrate the diversity of viewpoints these voices inevitably engender and openly acknowledge that their own perspective is only one possible approach that must compete with many other viewpoints and theories.

Practitioners of other modes of contemporary criticism have also drawn on Bakhtin’s ideas. A few deconstructors have relied on Bakhtin’s theory that a single work contains contending and conflicting discourses to show the contradictions in — and the undecidability of — literary texts. Marxist critics have applied Bakhtin’s notion that even those works dedicated to perpetuating the existing power structure may be seen, on closer inspection, to contain subversive “carnivalesque” elements and perspectives. But Bakhtin’s theory may have had its greatest impact on cultural criticism, whose practitioners argue that the boundary we tend to envision between “high” and “low” forms of culture is transgressed in numerous ways within works on both sides of the putative cultural divide. Thus, a cultural critic might ground in Bakhtinian theory the argument that James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) reflects not only the influence of Homer’s epic The Odyssey (c. 850 B.C.) but also the diverse cultural forms common to Joyce’s Dublin, such as advertising, journalism, film, and pub life.