Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

The Dialogic Imagination

In Communications on December 21, 2006 at 8:55 am

I find systems of thought (ideologies, philosophies) to be more intellectual exercise than trustworthy tool for understanding the world. Like a t-square, a system can be moved around a page to make interesting or comic patterns but they’re about as useful at getting at the meaning of life (and the “texts” that inform it) as “The Bible Code.”

The use of systems to understand communications issues I find entirely too precious. And how these manufactured constructions could possibly help anyone speak to a customer is utterly beyond me. Although, to be fair (and to paraphrase this generation’s “Battleship Potemkin”), “Curt Hopkins is not a thinker. Curt Hopkins is a writer!” I prefer the organic patterns than develop out of direct contact with our most common material of meaning, words. The absolutes of this world remain, but do not retain permanent form. The only way to apprehend the truth, great or small, of a situation is to move intellectually in the moment, something that is impossible to do when hobbled by a system. Writing is the discipline that allows me to pursue, and occasionally find, the truth.

Still, given all the intellection that communications and social media have been subject to, it surprises me that no one in this discussion has made mention of Mikhail Bakhtin. (To my knowledge, anyway. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.) Bakhtin, a 20th century Russian literary theorist, introduced me to the notion of textual conversation long before blogs arrived on the scene. In his book, “The Dialogic Imagination,” Bahktin outlines the development of “heteroglossia,” or multivocal discourse, and “dialogism” in literature.

My favorite essay in the book is “Epic and Novel.” Bahktin’s basic argument is this: In the epic, and in much of poetry, meaning is unidirectional. It comes from, and speaks in, one voice. Meaning is a “substance” that travels from a permanent source and fills up words like water filling up a pitcher.

But with the advent of the novel, or the proto-novel, this structure changed. Now, we have a mixing of voices and a change of direction. Meaning is produced by the interchange between voices. Sources multiply. And the apprehension of meaning becomes dynamic. A novel may have the voices of the poor and the rich, of various working lives, jargon, situation-specific speech. In my reading, it is not a change from absolute to relative meaning. It is a recognition that, again, the surface of the truth changes, its external clothing is in constant movement. Truth is found in the interstices of the multiple voices. To my mind, this is much more of a spiritual exercise than the booming voice and the arrow.

The novel, in other words, is the recognition that the text is a conversation and the truth of a situation is to be found as much in the silences as in the words themselves. The truth resides in the dynamic shapes between speakers.

I do not believe that Bahktin developed a “system” and I believe even less in the superimposition of this non-existent system over modern communications and media. I do believe, however, that the ideas are interesting and, to my knowledge unrecognized, elements of our ongoing conversation.

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