Speaking of Dialogue…

Of all the theories I have come across in my academic career, few have left the impression on me that Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism has … and none have been longer. I encountered Bakhtin’s dialogism (or dialogic) during my first couple of years as an undergrad in the English Literature department. It is a theory that recognizes the importance of multiple perspectives and voices in a literary work, and engaging with a literary work (Cazeaux, 271).

Instead of treating (or writing) all of the characters in a book as representing only the author’s voice, ideas, or morals, dialogism recognizes that each character has its own voice or ideas, and the characters work together to create discourse on a subject matter. Not only does it recognize multiple voices inside a literary work, it acknowledges that no work is created solely from the author’s mind. Everything is a response to other works and voices outside of the the author’s imagination, and will inform other works in return (Robinson). In other words, any clever statement that I make is not just the result of my intelligence or creativity, but the product of the many theorists I have read, and professors I have listened to; it is a response to everything I have learned and may influence others.

When I started researching art, I came across dialogism again in Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. He was describing a concept of ‘dialogical art practice’, using Bakhtin’s theory to demonstrate that a work of art was like a conversation: consisting of differing meanings, interpretations and points of view, and this is especially accomplished through performative interaction (Kester, 10). It demonstrates the significance of how people interact and communicate with art, and through art. Instead of focusing on what the artist intended to communicate through the work, it is equally important to understand how it was received, what kind of messages people see in it, and the context in which the work is created (what it is a response to).

My dissertation explores performance pieces that involve interaction with, and participation of the public; they are works that rely on the voices of the audience. This blog also involves dialogue because it is not just the voice of one researcher, but three (Dr. Sonja Boon, Lesley Butler, and myself). Our posts are informed by each other, responses to each other, and about the people or theories that inform our work.

I am a Bakhtinist.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Cazeaux, Clive, ed. The Continental Aesthetics Reader – Second Edition. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kester, Grant. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Robinson, Andrew. “In Theory Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony, and Heteroglossia.” ceasefiremagazine.co.uk, July 29, 2011, https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-1/, Accessed June 1st, 2016.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016


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