“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.110).
In an way it’s possible to say that Bakhtin was at the same time, both, a phenomenologist and a structuralist. For to him ‘things’ (people, art, words) didn’t exist ‘in themselves’, in isolation, but only in their relations to all other elements within the structure they shared. Yet, unlike other structuralists, Bakhtin wasn’t satisfied to build cold organisational frameworks of binary oppositions to objectify and know the world. He was theorising freedom – his own utopian vision – a place that would allow for coexistence of differences, free from the overarching regulation of the monocular world view where people could become their uniqueness, self actualising themselves into their full being. Bakhtin’s utopia then is a state of civilisation he refers to as the ‘carnivalesque’ where all the individual human subjectivities are allowed to come together in a chaos of dialogic voices.
“Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium” (1984, p.293).
Interesting stuff I am sure you will agree, but written during a different time and of little or no relevance to us? For don’t we live in a culture that promotes diverse voices and multiple view points? Political theorist and writer, Andrew Robinson, is a little less sure, though, seeing our present cultural situation falling far short of Bakhtin’s dialogic vision. Here he is discussing the continued relevance of Bakhtin’s concepts in Ceasefire Magazine (2011)
“The emphasis on non-negotiable demands and compliance enforcement in policing, the emphasis on fixed boundaries and ‘consequences’ in parental and classroom management, the corrosion of union negotiation in the workplace, and the closure of public space to protest and dissent are symptoms of this stance.” He goes on to say, “the only way to create spaces for dialogue today is through radical gestures of dissensus or interruption of the monologue, usually as insurrectionary acts. But the space for such acts is itself ‘cramped’ by the techniques of preemptive counterinsurgency.”
He has a point. Especially when you stop to consider some of the incredible statistics that describe our age. Here’s one for you. (Not sure where I heard this so forgive me if it’s BS) There are up to 4.2m CCTV cameras in Britain – about one for every 14 people. Even if that is remotely true – it’s still pretty shocking and hardly sounds like the kind of place to host Bakhtin’s carnival of equality. Why are we so scrutinised? or so controlled? And by whom? And why is the gaze so unequal – why can’t we look back?
Anyway, Bakhtin was ultimately optimistic and did not think monoglossical dominance could last for long. He saw it as being doomed to failure, predicting that the dominant discourse would soon be interrupted by other voices.
“Because language always ultimately orients to the other, it is primordially dialogical. There is ultimately no unified literary medium, but rather, a plenitude of local social languages.”
Bakhtin saw the artist and the writer as being in a position to encouraging this transformation by making art works that reflect this multiple subjective really.
Relationship of Bakhtin’s work to filmmaking…
I find this idea of multiple voiced realities – or the dialogic – extremely interesting especially as this concept helps me to articulate what it is about hollywood and mainstream movies that bothers me. For, to me, even though mainstream films are made by a multitude of different artists they do not reflect a polyphony of voices. I think this is something to do with the hegemonic, totalitarian structures that stand behind film production and the assumptions and methods that have grown up under these specific industrial, social and market forces. For under such top-down power structures the possibilities inherent within filmmaking are restricted. All roles are demarcated – writers write – actors act – directors imagine and direct. I am struggling to say exactly what is wrong with what I am describing but it is somehow as if all these enforced conventions and methods produce only work, which to use Bakhtin’s terminology, suffers from a terrible and tiresome monologism; as if every film we see these days speaks with the same limited set of tired language conventions – the same characterisations (maverick cop), the same story tropes, the same cartoon like motivations for bad guys and good guys, the same dispensable non-characters who can dispatched and killed off without a care to the audience… the list goes on.
There are films that do reflect the dialogic, though. Films by Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows or Andrea Arnold which somehow manage to capture something of the richness of human subjectivity. In which the characters utterances are not there only to advance the plot but have within them something of the magic and mystery of real human beings. Anyway, with this rich tapestry of voices in mind, here is a scene from Mike Leigh’s “Naked” which I am pretty sure Mikhail Bakhtin would have approved of.
Morson, G. S., & Emerson, C. (1990). Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a prosaics. Stanford University Press.