Bakhtin on Monologic Command/Dialogic Rejoinder

WHITECROW BORDERLAND

Dialogism

Note 2: Mikhail Bakhtin: Monologic Command/Rejoinder.

Bakhtin's perception of monologic discourse in some ways seems to be more a construct of other peoples' opinions than it is one of his own. This impression may arise from the fact that Bakhtin did not systematically articulate in any great detail his theory of monology apart from the connection it has to that area of speech communication which did occupy most of his conscious efforts at articulation; namely, the novelistic style found to occur in dialogic forms of speech and writing. Bakhtin's critics, in other words, have been largely responsible for the creation of our perception of how he characterized monologic discourse. I'm going to offer my own view of it here in a strictly limited context derived mostly from the idea that the epitome of monologic command can be found in any statement claimed to have been made by God in His effort to coerce a certain kind or class of behavior from His largely disobedient "flock" of creatures otherwise known as (wo)man. I am not, however, going to discuss any of God's "actual" commandments but wish instead to deal with a suitable human equivalent of essentially the same thing.

Since it goes without saying that (wo)man cannot actually respond to any of God's commandments, or would do so only under the threat of the severest kind of punishment, say being struck down on the spot by a lightening bolt, if the punishment for disobedience came directly from the Deity, or failing that, subjecting oneself to the censure of human religious authority, which traditionally could have been just as extreme as anything God Himself might have done in reprisal for disobedience, I have chosen to go with a strictly human example from everyday speech because it removes the over-determined character of a discourse about Job, or some other prophet, who exhibited the temerity to contest a judgment handed down from the mind of the Almighty. The situation I have in mind, even if to a somewhat lesser degree, has exactly the same component parts to its enactment that a confrontation between (wo)man and God can be said to have or exhibit.

The verbal exchange I want to examine is what Bakhtin would call "reported speech." That classification carries with it certain predetermined characteristics, none of which I am particularly inclined to discuss here, but which do create a special set of problems that should be addressed if one harbors any hope of reaching a compelling Bakhtinian assessment of the speech act under analysis. Again, I am not going to do that here because the situation that makes my example one of reported speech is just off-center enough from the kind Bakhtin means when he uses that phrase to pose a threat of misunderstanding were I to pursue it too diligently along those lines. Usually Bakhtin refers to dialogue in a novel enclosed in quotation marks when he refers to "reported speech." In the verbal exchange I'm going to discuss, the words were reported to me by my wife (I did not hear the exchange myself even if I do know the two people involved in the dialogue itself) and so I cannot certify that the words in quotation marks were actually said by either person. In other words, I have no personal knowledge that any of the quoted material is actually true, valid, accurate, or real. I have no reason to doubt my wife. I trust her memory of the event in question.

The two people involved in the exchange are two young African-American sisters who live in the other half of the shotgun-double my wife and I call home. The older sister, Renada, is about fifteen years old and often has the responsibility of taking care of her younger sister, Jean Marie, who is six. This happens often enough because mother and father cannot always be home when school gets finished for the day and Renada watches out for Jean Marie. This is no easy task. Jean Marie is hyperactive (clinically) and does not take any of the currently available medications that can control or modify her condition. Being around Jean Marie, even for a few minutes, is like being confined in too small a space with 30 or 40 out-of-control children. Jean Marie is a delightful child; beautiful, intelligent, quick-witted, self- assured, and never afraid to stand up in the face of authority to protest what she considers to be unfair treatment from any other living human being, animal, or plant on the face of the earth. I generally run afoul of her perceptions of propriety because I cannot understand a word she says (she talks faster than I can hear) and invariably have to ask her to repeat any question she might put, which happens too often for Jean Marie's liking. My wife has told her that I am mostly deaf and that is probably the only reason she shows any tolerance toward me at all.

Bakhtin has argued that monologic speech is generally connected to genres that came into being before (wo)man had much progressed beyond the stage of primitive nationalism. In Greece, for instance, epic, tragic, and lyric poetry, which Bakhtin refers to as ossified genres, are ideal forms of monologic speech because they are wholly confined, as such, to the Greek city-state, even just to Athens itself, where they emerged as literary forms and beyond which they hardly ever spread except as pale imitations of their original selves. The point being, of course, that monologic speech, while present in many forms through the world, is not the kind of language use that can be effectively appropriated by any other culture beyond the one that invented and developed it. The prophetic writings of Jewish culture would be a second example of an ossified genre. Any attempt by a non-Greek, or a non-Jewish, culture to imitate the respective genres of those civilizations would result at best in a parody of the original form. This is true, according to Bakhtin, because the connection between mythic ideology and the language that expresses it is exclusive of all other national or cultural languages. That bond between myth and language, in other words, cannot be translated or carried over from one language to another. Greek tragedy can only exist in Greek, not in Latin, not in Italian, not in Japanese, not in any other language at all.

Bakhtin always refers to monologic speech as existing in a walled-off, circular realm of the national consciousness that contains it. This circle, which Bakhtin always associates with the Ptolemaic world view, excludes all other points of view and all other national languages as being inferior to its own expressiveness. This is why the Greeks always referred to other people as being barbarians. The language of other people was not Greek, therefore it was inferior and in some cases was perceived as being no better than the barking of dogs. Denigrating the language of the other is the first line of defense against the threat of the bastardization of your own cultural purity. The best way to keep the other out of your sealed-off realm of linguistic purity is to deny that the other can speak sensibly at all, to claim that the speech of the other is irrational, imprecise, void of meaning, and harsh to the ear.

Invariably, however, the word of the other must penetrate the sealed-off world of the Ptolemaic circle. This happens because no nation can survive without some form of contact with its neighbors, who, just like you, also have a linguistic history and tradition that perceives your tongue as barbaric and senseless. The interanimation of one national language by speakers of another tradition invariably and irreversibly begins the process of breaking down the distance between everyday language use and the specialized uses of the tongue that most perfectly express the monologic content of every culture. The specialized uses are almost invariably religious in nature and are those uses which create the national mythos of the people in general and at large throughout the culture.

One of the ways Bakhtin characterizes monologic speech is to assert that people who engage in it never recognize the existence of the other speakers who use the same language. In the case of God, of course, since He is singular, there is no other speaker. Bakhtin, in "The Problem of Speech Genres," puts it in these terms:

"Language is regarded from the speaker's standpoint as if there were only one speaker who does not have any necessary relation to other participants in speech communication. If the role of the other is taken into account at all, it is the role of a listener, who understands the speaker only passively. The utterance is adequate to its object (i.e., the content of the uttered thought) and to the person who is pronouncing the utterance. Language essentially needs only a speaker--one speaker--and an object for his speech." (67)

The point here is that monologic discourse, because it was modeled after the concept of the Logos in Western European tradition--after God-speak--as it were, does not need and cannot tolerate but a single speaker. One can say here that monotheism leads inescapably to monologism because there is only one God and only one speaker. The Ptolemaic circle reenforces this perception of the speech act, because a circle has only one center, and was the dominant, if not the only, world view until the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was only at that time in human history that any substantial challenge was raised to the dominant position of monologic speech acts. The conflict between science and religion which appeared at this juncture can be defined in terms of the shift from one type or perception of speech and another entirely different kind.

As Bakhtin suggests, and on the other hand, the listener is completely passive in the monologic world view, cannot respond to any discourse, because the speaker is God, or an equally potent human agent, and assumes a passive position which leads to the assimilation, and perhaps the understanding, of the spoken word. Bakhtin works his way out of this situation by appealing to the existence of dialogue in most real human speech contexts. He notes that

"Because of its simplicity and clarity, dialogue is a classic form of speech communication. Each rejoinder, regardless of how brief and how abrupt, has a specific quality of completion that expresses a particular position of the speaker, to which one may respond or may assume, with respect to it, a responsive position." (72)

The point of the response of the second speaker, who is also and initially the person who heard the first statement, the listener turned speaker, as it were, is that there is no limit placed on what that second speaker can say in response to the first word uttered in the dialogue. That response, of course, is measured against the overall context of the speech act and the second word is chosen according to the circumstances that surround the situation in which the speech act occurs. If God tells you to stand on one foot for an hour, and you know, or are convinced, that the voice you hear is actually God, then you are probably going to do you best to comply with the monologic command. If, on the other hand, you know, or believe, that the voice you hear is some fool playing a trick on you, then you are likely to stand solidly on both feet and tell him/her to go to hell.

So, on the day in question, then, Renada was looking out for Jean Marie after school and was visiting with a friend who had dropped by to talk. She was on the front porch and Jean Marie was in the house. At some point Jean Marie came outside to hang with the older girls. Renada said to her: "Get on in the house and mind your own business." Jean Marie was explaining to my wife how Renada never cut her any slack and was mean and over-bearing whenever she was left in charge of looking after her. This monologic command was the example Jean Marie offered up as proof that she was generally mistreated. Jean Marie then told my wife what she had said in response to Renada's monologic command: "I'm only six years old. I ain't got no business." While it is true that Jean Marie ended up back in the house, since Renada is considerably bigger than she is, in terms of dialogue, in terms of how monologic discourse and commands are dis(empower)ed by a rejoinder, there is no ground whatsoever to argue that Jean Marie lost this particular verbal confrontation with her older sister. In terms of completion, Jean Marie's response ended the dialogue, even if she herself ended up back in the house.


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