Mikhail Bakhtin, the renowned Russian literary theorist, began writing extensively on the concept of dialogue and dialogic phenomena in the early part of the 20th century. His work, along with the work of several other linguists, anthropologists and psychologists in the Soviet Union, was characterized by an interest in the way everyday language is used in dialogue with others to continually construct, break down, and reconstruct meaning and social orders. But unlike the poststructuralists who came after him, many of whom he inspired, Bakhtin found a unique balance where social critique did not lead to formless relativism. For Bakhtin: “it is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that required a plurality of consciousnesses, one that cannot in principle be fitted into the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, by its very nature, full of event potential and is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses.” Bakhtin faced considerable persecution and suppression by the Stalinist communist regime, as the theme of his work was interpreted as a critique of this totalitarian government. We see his basic framework for “dialogism” in the following excerpts:
"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" .
“The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue. 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 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.”
As Bakhtin goes on to develop this participatory dialogical state in greater detail, one of the key components to emerge is the concept of “heteroglossia”: the presence of multiple ‘languages’ or ‘voices’ that operate alternately and simultaneously between ‘self’ and ‘other’. He describes the nature of these multiple ‘layers’ of language as follows:
“As a result of the stratifying forces in language, there are no ‘neutral’ words and forms––words and forms that can belong to ‘no one’; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system…but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world. All the words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour…all words are populated by intentions…
In his famous paper “Discourse in the Novel”, Bakhtin further explores the notion of dialogism and heteroglossia, and uses them to construct a concept of the “novelistic” by singling out the novel as a literary genre with a unique capability to express the “dialogized heteroglossia” of every day life:
“The language of the novel is a system of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other. It is impossible to describe and analyze it as a single unitary language.”
“The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized…” “The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the diversity of speech types, and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions.”
By making clear the importance of ‘diversity’, ‘self’ and ‘other’ in his concepts of dialogism and heteroglossia, Bakhtin has provided much more than critical commentary or ‘theoretical’ philosophy. He has revealed and created an attainable model, a ‘liveable’ way of being and operating in the real world that is practical, instrumental, architectural and specifically urban. He exalts, for example, “the life of discourse outside of the artist’s study, discourse in the open spaces of public squares, streets, cities and villages, of social groups, generations and epochs.”
Once established, Bakhtin mines the spatio-material quality of the dialogical model or event for its more radical nature, and uses it to construct the notion of the “carnivalesque”, an alternative, less literary and more volatile model than the ‘novelistic’. In this model we see the dialogical condition employed as a revolutionary tactic where it can induce:
“…a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men… and of the prohibitions of usual life.” “…groups marginalized by a dominant ideology not only gain a voice during carnival time, but they also say something about the ideology that seeks to silence them. Thus two voices come together in the free and frank communication that carnival permits and, although each retains its own unity and open totality, they are mutually enriched'“ "Carnival is the place for working out a new mode of interrelationship between individuals . . . People who in life are separated by impenetrable hierarchical barriers enter into free and familiar contact on the carnival square".