Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson: Mikhail Bakthin: Creation of a Prosaics

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Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Standford: Standford University Press, 1990.

One: Global Concepts (16-62)

moment-to-moment lives,

Prosaics and Systems:

  • General definition of prosaics - how it conceives of the everyday - the natural order of things is mess - the difference between everything happening for a reason (systems) and things happening for some reason (Tolstoy)
  • Unity is never complete, never totalized...instead, unity of a different oder
  • Prosaics - suspicious "...of systems in the strong sense, in the sense used by structuralists, semioticians, and general systems theorists: an organization in which every element has its place within an organized hierarchy". (27-28) Dubious about all-encompassing patterns: B, like Tolstoy, critical of laws of history and doubts dialectics - Marx and Hegel and also Freud (B doesn't like the idea that errors are purposeful)
  • B uses term monologism = M and E talk about "semiotic totalitarianism"
  • Reference Gregory Bateson's conversation with this daughter - dialogues called "metalogues" - many ways for things to be untidy - few ways for things to be tidy
  • Centripedal forces - mistake to call them just one name, as they engage various types of forces simultaneously - they may have no substantial relation to one another
  • "Heteroglossia--Bakhtin's term for linguistic centrifugal forces and their porducts--continually translates the minute alterations and reevaluations of everyday life into new meanings and tones, which, in sum and over time, always threaten the wholeness of any langague. Language and all of culture are made of tiny and unsystematic alterations. Indeed, the wholness of any cultural artifact is never 'something given, but is always in essence positive--and at every opposed to the realities of heteroglossia' (DIN 270) or other centrifugal forces." (31)
  • Subjectivity: The forging of an integral self is the work of a lifetime that can never be completed...nevertheless = an ethical responsibility...B's connection between prosaics and ethics = nonalibi for being - process of taking responsibility - "Towards a Philosophy of the Act" = argues that each self is unique because "each aggregate of the related and the unrelated is different. There can be no formula for integrity, no substitute for each person's project of selfhood, no escape from the the ethical obligations of every situation at every moment. Or, as Bakhtin often sums up the point: 'There is no alibi for being.'" (31) SEE: Towards a Philosophy of the Act...
  • Assuming otherwise = pretender...someone who avoids the project of selfhood and so tries to live without an identity of his own

Four: Metalinguistics: The Dialogue of Authorship (124-171)

Keywords: memory, aura, recollections of the word

  • chapter concerns the concepts that led B to put aside triumvirate of traditional disciplines concerned with language: stylistics, poetics, linguistics
  • SPL's inability to appreciate the dialogic dimension of language
  • Linguistics - B defined primarily as: Saussure, the formalists, the structuralists and the semioticians
  • Stylistics - B similarly rejected the very basis of the enterprise
  • Alt ways B approached language: PDP: proceeds from the concept of voicing - relation of speakers to listeners - broader concern: author and hero - monologic and dialogic novels (124)
  • Discourse and the Novel (1934-35): Discusses the orchestration of diverse ways of speaking in novels and therefore approaches language from a new starting point - heteroglossia (124)
  • Speech Genres - mainly concerned with genres of daily speech and their relation to literary discourse (124)
  • Volishinov - Marxism and the Philosophy of language - explores double voicing through reported speech
  • The Problem of the Text: Language - approached from broader problems of cultural analysis

All of these texts concerned with key issues constantly revisited in B's work"

  1. The nature of the utterance (as opposed to the sentence)
  2. The asystematicity of language
  3. The problem of "dilogization" or "double-voicing" - DOUBLE VOICING - focus of B's work...


  • Utterances shaped by (1) not-yet-spoken; (2) already spoken - so the topic is, in effect, a third person (this connects to Mary Anne Francis's notion that art history authors art to some degree)- so the topic is animate.
  • All topics are already spoken about - there's no proverbial Adam - this observation strikes as useful to thinking about cultural production beyond the cult of originality. "The way we sense those earlier utterances--as hostile or sympathetic, authoritative or feeble, socially and temporally close or distant--shapes the content and style of what we say. We sense these alien utterances in the object itself. It is as if the object were coated with a sort of glue preserving earlier characterizations of it." (137)
  • There're questions around "direction" and "intentionality"
  • Significance of "reported speech"
  • B finds it conceptually devastating to perceive dialogue as a script, where one speech simply follows another-this is because very utterance is always internally dialogized - the word is cited from another speaker - the tone of this speaker reverberates in the word - So there's a microdialogue happening in every word (though I find this difficult to think about in practice, for surly it's like a one sided dialogue - where only bits and pieces can be heard, as you can never gain access to all the dialogue in play in the utterance...)
Words 'remember' earlier contexts, and so achieve a "stylistic aura," often misconceived as the word's "connotations" around a semantic center. This aura is, in fact, the effect of manifold voices that do not reduce to unity or yield a center. In using a word, speakers my intone the world so as to question the values present in its aura and the presuppositions of its earlier usage. In other words, the word may be 'reaccented'(as sentimetnal was in the nineteenth century). As they accumulate and come to be shared, reaccuentuations addto and alter the already-spoken-about quality of the word. This process is an essential factor in shaping the word's evoultion.(139)


  • Language is never a unitary system - the task, the project of order is always ongoing, never finished. "In language, messiness is the result of the complexities of daily living, with all its unforeseen, small, prosaic purposes and shifts in mood and evaluation, which is not reducible to a system." (139) - these disruptive forces are never themselves unified as an opposition - so there're various kinds of opposition--oppositions--centrifugal forces - disparate and disunified - production of such (dis)order is itself a project
  • Cultures strive for unity (I experience this in on a personal level - striving, yearning for something with sufficient internal stick to differentiate from other some way. This helps, perhaps, to explain my by attempt to create order by positing it [something similar to a speech act--saying something in an effort to make it true]...though I like the idea of something being "posited" instead of "given") "The essential mistake of philology, linguistics, stylistics and poetics is to take as something real what is in essence an ideal, something merely posited in a social struggle for meaning." (140)
  • What constitutes different languages - different ways of conceptualizing, understanding and evaluating the world. "A complex of experiences, shared (more or less) evaluations, ideas and attitudes 'knit together' to proceed a way of speaking. The term srastat'sia, meaning to knit together--to inosculate, or to grow together...suggests an organic process of blending separate entities..." Daily process of readjustment and growth...(daily - as in daily practice?)
  • Language is deeply creative - always responding to the quotidian pressures and opportunities of life...
  • The naked corpse of words embalmed in dictionaries


  • An approach often confused with heteroglossia - dialogized heteroglossia is speaking in several languages at the same time - this is in contrast to speaking in absolutely contextually correct languages - B's example of the peasant who uses one language to pray, one language to talk to his family, another language when he's speaking to his friends...
  • We don't learn our native language from dictionaries - instead we learn it contextually - through specific exchanges - so the language we encounter is already dialogized - "Native speakers do not apply rules, they enter the stream of communication." "Rather than decode, they understand and respond." (145)


  • Some utterances are more dialogic and than others - this depends on the "task", "aim," "project" of an utterance = example, sometimes we speak and, in the spirit of single-voiced discourse, we don't desire that that addressees hear what we say with quotation marks (as previously voiced - double-voiced) and sometimes we want what we say to be heard as re-voiced.

This is Morson and Emerson's adaptation of Bakhtin's chart of double-voiced discourse presented in PDP:

Single-Voiced Words A. "Words of the first type": Direct, unmediated discourse This type is essentially monologic: "The speaker says what he wants to say as if there were no question that his way of saying it will accomplish his purpose and that there could be no other equally adequate way." (148)
B: "Words of the second type": Objectified discourse (of a represented person) Bakhtin is including in this category a narrator's representation of a character's words in a way felt to be somehow characteristic or typical of a character as an individual or a member of a social group. - so there's an overlap between the first and the second type: the character may be saying something in the way he feels is best...So the character is unaware that he's being watched/heard by an other (the reader, the addressee)
Double-Voiced Words A. Passive double-voiced words 1. Undirectional passive double-voiced words (such as stylization)
2. Varidirectional passive double-voiced words (such as parody)
B. Active Double-voiced words Bakhtin is mainly interested in this category - most complex kinds of "internal dialogization"

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