To appear in THE PLURAL SELF: POLYPSYCHIC PERSPECTIVES, edited by John
Rowan and Mick Cooper, Sage Publications, London.
"A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky's novels. What unfolds in each of his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event" (Bakhtin, 1984, p.6).
"To be means to communicate... To be means to be for another, and through the other, for oneself. A person has no internal sovereign territory, he is wholly and always on the boundary; looking inside himself, he looks into the eyes of another or with the eyes of another" (Bakhtin, 1984, p.287).
"Language lives only in the dialogic interaction of those who make use of it" (Bakhtin, 1984, p.183).
A whole dialogical view of language, mind, meaning, and selfhood, focusing on events
occurring out in the world between people, is slowly growing to displace the monological,
Cartesian conceptions, centered in mental states and acts hidden inside the heads of
individuals, that have dominated our thought for so long here in the West. The changes in our
conceptions of ourselves and of our relations to our surroundings that it will bring, are, I
think, very deep and quite astonishing - so much so, that we shall find many of the
conclusions reached in the chapter quite hard to accept. Many workers are contributing to this
movement. Here, I shall claim that some of its essential features are most clearly expressed in
the works of Bakhtin and Volosinov - elsewhere, I have emphasized the centrality of
Wittgenstein's work in this sphere (see Shotter, 1996, 1997); Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus
(1997) emphasize the importance of Heidegger's work (1962, 1977); whilst the work of
Merleau-Ponty (1962) is also very important. But we cannot pursue the interconnections
between all these works here. Suffice it to mention that central to them all, are, I think, three
major themes that I will mention straightaway: i) they all take it that there is something very
special about us being alive; ii) they focus on what occurs in those living moments when we
are in contact with others or othernesses in our surroundings; iii) among the many
consequences of us being in the world as living, embodied beings, is the fact that we cannot
not be spontaneously responsive to each other. However, Bakhtin and Volosinov are, I think,
distinct in suggesting a fourth: iv) that the outcomes of such responsive activity, in emerging
from the creative bridging of the momentary 'gaps' occurring between us as we turn from
'addressing' others to 'inviting' them to address us, have a complex, open, mixed, dialogical
structure to them which cannot be completely captured in any finalized descriptions. In other
words, all the workers above suggest that we are not "self-contained" selves (to use
Sampson's (1993) phrase), but, that we owe our character as the individuals we are to our
living, embodied relations to the others and othernesses around us. Indeed, we shall find the
whole new approach to the problem of what is involved in us coming to the new, relational
understanding of ourselves that I want to introduce below, implicit in the themes I mentioned
above. But before we explore them any further, if we are to grasp why they constitute such a
new approach to mind, it is necessary for us to remind ourselves of our current Cartesian
conception of mind - for we shall find what I am calling Bakhtin's and Volosinov's dialogical
approach contrasts with this monological conception in almost every detail.
In the Cartesian view of mind, the mind is not just contained inside the head of the self-contained individual, but is radically hidden in there (thus we can only ever know of its
existence by inference). Inside each normal person there is only a single mind (multiple or
split minds are abnormal). The mind, when working properly, is a rational system working
according to logical laws or principles. Meaning and understanding are done inside people's
heads by mental acts: by intending, we put our meanings into words, and by interpreting, we
come to understand the content of other people's words. All proper meanings, that is, rational
meanings, are, in the end, linguistic meanings; meanings which cannot be put clearly into
words cannot be claimed to be rational. Like the mind, in the Cartesian scheme of things,
language is also thought of as being like a container: as an orderly system of forms combined
according to rules, words are related to meaning as form is to content. Furthermore, as
shared system of forms whose representational content constitutes a shared conceptual
scheme, language mediates between person and world. Yet, like the mind, language as a
system of linguistic representations is a hidden or underlying system, its existence thus has to
be inferred also; it can only be known intellectually, through reason. However, the notion of
underlying or hidden representations as providing the only link between mind (or person) and
world is so central, that for many, including many social constructionists, we only come
properly to know anything at all in terms of linguistically formulated representations -
whether as realists, we think of our representations as picturing objects in the world, or
whether, as social constructions, we think of them as constituting for us what there is for us
See footnote 1. It is a world in which our theories have priority over our practices.
To understand how Descartes (1986) came to this view, thus to contrast his concerns with
those we now feel important to us, it is worth turning to his original writings to examine them
in more detail. He begins his Meditations - first published in 1641 - by saying that he was
"struck by" the large number of falsehoods he had accepted as true in his childhood, and that
he realized: "...it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything and
start again right at the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that
was stable and likely to last" (p.12). So, how can he achieve his goal of building up a body
of incontrovertible, rational truth? With doubt as his tool, he begins to search for something
that he can claim to know beyond all doubt. First to be rejected are those of our beliefs that
are derived from the senses: for, the belief that he is now, for example, sitting by the fire,
wearing a winter dressing gown, and so on, is no different from exactly similar thoughts he's
had about himself in dreams. We are forced to conclude that, when considered in themselves,
there is no way that we can tell true perceptions from ones that are false. What, of course, he
is challenging here is whether there is anything in our sense-images that testifies indubitably
to the truth of what they represent; he is not doubting their existence as ideas, only whether
one's ideas represent something beyond themselves.
After our perceptions, he turns to another class of ideas that seem not to originate in nature
but from within ourselves in some way: ideas to do with physics, astronomy, medicine, as
well as those in arithmetic and geometry. These too he doubts, for, "firmly rooted in my
mind is the long-standing opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of
creature that I am," he says (p.14). Thus he gives up his trust in all the empirical sciences as
in subjects like arithmetic. What can he trust, what can he be certain of? If he has convinced
himself "that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies"
(p.16), does it not follow that he too does not exist?
No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed... I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind" (p.17).
Once convinced of his own existence, he can now ask himself 'What kind of thing is he?'
And, admitting only what is necessarily true, he answers: "I am, then, in the strict sense only
a thing that thinks" (p.18). Thus he comes to the conception of the self-contained individual,
able to aspire to a self-given certainty about things - a self that needs neither a body, nor
other people, to be able to arrive at certain fundamental truths. Indeed, regarding our bodies,
Descartes remarks: "I now know that even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or
the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from
their being touched or seen but from their being understood..." (p.22). He thus ends with a
picture of nature that is amenable to rational, scientific investigation: it is a picture of the
world as a vast and complicated machine; and of us as rational intellects, who, rather than
being in it, are set over against it, with the task of seeking a view of its plan (much like
engineers facing the task of building it).
Descartes's purpose was, let us remind ourselves, to establish results in the sciences that were
stable and likely to last. He sought certainty, generalities, stable repetitions, knowledge
amenable to proof, in short, truth. He was not interested in knowledge of particularities, of
unique and fleeting things. Bakhtin and Volosinov begin with quite different purposes in
mind. Although they each have their own distinct emphases, as we shall see, their central
concerns are identical: it is to come to a grasp of people's unique and particular lives from
within an involvement or an engagement of some kind with them in their living of them. For,
as they see it, something very crucial is lost when we take the uninvolved, disengaged,
mechanistic stance toward people's activities suggested to us in the Cartesian approach. In
remaining separate from them, 'outside' of any involvement with them, we "establish a
fundamental split between the content or sense of a given act/activity and the historical
actuality of its being, the actual and once-occurrent experiencing of it," says Bakhtin (1993,
p.2). Observing an act only in terms of its content or sense, we see people's activities only as
instances of a kind, we categorize them. We fail to grasp, for instance, that in the actuality of
a laugh we just heard, was the meaning for its recipient, not that they had just done
something humorous, but that their relation with to the laugher was at an end, that the serious
proposal they had just put forward for a better future together occasioned nothing but derision
from them. Lacking any involvement with those we look upon, we have no 'entry', so to
speak, into their 'inner lives'. Observing what is going on around us as if from afar, we
introduce a radical, Cartesian split between two worlds: "the world of culture and the world
of life, the only world in which we create, cognize, contemplate, live our lives and die or [to
put it another way] - the world in which the acts of our activity are objectified and the world
in which these acts actually proceed and are actually accomplished once and only once" (p.2).
Like the unbridgeable split between body and mind, we introduce a split between the world of
what is objectively given and the world of what is yet-to-be-achieved, between the world of
the old and repeatable and the world of new and 'first-time' events. How can this radical split
be overcome? Where can these two very different worlds meet each other, come into contact
with each other?
Crucial to Bakhtin's and Volosinov's whole approach is the possibility of two quite distinct
worlds coming into living, dialogical contact with each other. At that moment, when a
speaker in one world turns from addressing those in another and invites their creative
bridging of the gap thus created in their responsive rejoinders, a new world is created
between them, with influences from both worlds at work in it. "An act of our activity, of our
actual experiencing, is," says Bakhtin (1993), "like a two-faced Janus. It looks in two
opposite directions: it looks at the objective unity of a domain of culture and at the never-repeatable uniqueness of actually lived and experienced life..." (p.2). The special unity or
wholeness that emerges when two or more different worlds, or different "freedoms" (Steiner,
See footnote 2, meet, exists only in the fleeting moment of their meeting. It is in their sustained focus
on, and their articulation of, the details of the present moment, of what occurs in fleeting
interactive or dialogical moments - without the need to step out of such moments as if to
observe and to describe them from a distance - that is so special in their approach.
Turning our attention to its character, as already mentioned, one of the first features that
becomes apparent to us, is that we cannot not be responsive to each other; that in the
background to everything we do is a great deal of unreflective, unthinking, but nonetheless
culturally structured activity. The Cartesian approach, let us remember, would have us focus
only on what was reflectively and intellectually accessible to us. For Bakhtin (1986), "...when
the listener perceives and understands the meaning (the language meaning) of speech, he
simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it. He either agrees or disagrees
with it (completely or partially), augments it, applies it, prepares for its execution, and so on.
And the listener adopts this responsive attitude for the entire duration of the process of
listening and understanding, from the very beginning - sometimes literally from the speaker's
first word" (p.68). And the speaker too is expecting such an active responsive understanding:
"[The speaker] does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or
her own idea in someone else's mind (as in Saussure's model of linguistic communication...).
Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection,
execution, and so forth... Therefore, each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of
responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication
(Bakhtin, 1986, p.69, p.91). In other words, unnoticed in the background and spontaneously
at work in all our communicative relations with each other is what might be called a
relational-responsive kind of understanding - a form of understanding much more basic than
the representational-referential kind of understanding of which we are, as individuals,
consciously aware. Indeed, as Goffman (1967) remarks, the spontaneous, taken-for-granted
way in which we do in fact respond to and reply to each other in a conversation is required!
If our involvement seems contrived rather than spontaneous, rationally planned rather than
fully responsive to the conversation's current 'shape', then the others around us take offense.
"Here, in a component of non-rational impulsiveness - not only tolerated but actually
demanded - we find an important way in which the interactional order differs from other
kinds of social order" (p.115).
Let us examine the features is this spontaneously responsive relational activity further,
for it has a number of very special features to it that makes it very different from either
naturally caused activity, or from actions done by individuals for a reason. It is activity
which is, so to speak, distributed between us; it is joint action in the sense that it is action we
do as a group, as a collective, as a 'we' or an 'us ' (Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993a and b,
1996). Indeed, to the extent that everything done by any of the individuals involved in it is
done in spontaneous response to the others or othernesses around them, we cannot hold any
of them individually responsible for its outcome. It lacks a reason. Yet it is not brought about
by any causes external to them either. It is produced only by 'their' activity. It is in fact a
complex mixture of many different kinds of influences. This makes it very difficult for us to
characterize its nature: it has neither a fully orderly nor a fully disorderly structure, a neither
completely stable nor an easily changed organization, a neither fully subjective nor fully
objective character. Indeed, in being already partly specified but not yet fully specified, it is
to an extent open to being further specified by those involved in it. Thus, from within our
involvement in such activities, we can develop and refine them - but only in certain, limited
ways. From an exclamation of joy, say, song emerges; from a gesture of delight, dance
develops; from a smile, a friendship is cultivated; from a scowl, an antagonism grows; from
a hesitation, a puzzlement as to how to 'go on' further with another which develops further
into an inquiry; and so on. But such developments depend on all those involved each
responsively interweaving their activities in with those of the others around them; they
determine its character. And it 'takes shape', so to speak, in an unfolding sequence of
interactive events occurring between them. Where each event occurs in responsive relation
both to previous events, along with contemporaneously occurring collateral events, as well as
being influenced by participant's anticipations of the yet-to-be-achieved aim of the interaction
in relation to its origin: "The performed act concentrates, correlates, and resolves within a
unitary and unique and, this time, final context both the sense and the fact, the universal and
the individual, the real and the ideal, for everything enters into the composition of its
answerable motivation. The performed act constitutes a going out once and for all from
within the possibility as such into what is once-occurrent" (Bakhtin, 1993, p.29). So, although
in theory we may see a particular person's action in an exchange as open to many
interpretations, in practice it is responded to in just one particular way at a particular
Volosinov (1976, p.99) describes an incident between two Russians in late May: It has
been a long and tiring winter, the snow has lasted a long time, summer seems far off, and, as
they look out of the window, they see it beginning to snow again. One turns to the other and
simply says: 'Well!' And in the intonation of that single word is expressed (but not explicitly
said) all the tiredness, resentment, and helpless indignation the speaker feels. But it is
responsively addressed by the speaker, not to the friend, but to their condition. And in always
being responsive in this way to our conditions, our circumstances, it is always the case that a
whole complex of influences are at work in 'giving shape' to our responsive utterances in
their voicing. The kind of complexity that emerges from the confluence of all these influences
is, however, more than just a static kind of complexity: the activity involved has what we
might call a dynamic, continually changing, oscillating, pulsating character, such that its
structure at any one moment is very different from its structure at another. In this sense it
has, we can say, a dialogical structure to it. For, although it links us into a unitary 'we' of a
certain kind "through" (dia) the reciprocal exchange of meaning it affords between us, in
occurring "across" (dia) the space between us as distinct individuals, it also constitutes us as a
"plurality of unmerged consciousnesses" (Bakhtin, 1984, p.9). In other words, while it is a
unity at one moment, at another it is a plurality. It is only in each unique interactive moment,
as one individual ceases to address him- or herself to the others and becomes him- or herself
an addressee, that a unity is formed. In each uncertain once-occurrent event of Being, in
which we encounter others radically different and distinct from ourselves, they call out from
us responses which we are incapable of calling out from ourselves. But it is in these moments
also, that we are joined with them and present to each other as the distinct individuals we are.
Thus such moments as these are very special indeed. Bakhtin (1993) emphasizes their
importance thus: "Even if I know a given person thoroughly, and I also know myself, I still
have to grasp the truth of our interrelationship, the truth of the unitary and unique event that
links us and in which we are participants. That is, my place and function and his [sic], and
our interrelationship in the ongoing event of being... It is only from within that act as my
answerable deed that there can be a way out into the unity of Being, and not from its product,
taken in abstraction. It is only from within my participation that the function of each
participant can be understood" (pp.17-18). Outside of such moments, we remain distinct and
separate from each other.
Speakers, in taking into account in the voicing of their utterances, the "various kinds of
responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication,"
clearly cannot just speak as they please. Indeed, speakers must address their utterances to
others, and in so doing, they must take into account who these others are, both their objective
place in the relevant social hierarchy and what is currently happening to them in their 'inner
lives'. Thus, "both the composition and, particularly, the style of the utterance depend on
those to whom the utterance is addressed, how the speaker (or writer) sense or imagines his
addressee, and the force of their effect on the utterance. Each speech genre in each area of
speech communication has its own typical conception of the addressee, and this defines it as a
genre" (Bakhtin, 1986, p.95). "Each person's inner world and thought has its stabilized social
audience that comprises the environment in which reasons, motives, values, and so on are
fashioned... Orientation of the word toward the addressee has an extremely high significance.
In point of fact, word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for
whom it is meant... Each and every word expresses the 'one' in relation to the 'other'"
(Volosinov, 1986, p.86). Thus whatever we say can never be wholly up to us - all our
utterances are to an extent jointly produced outcomes between ourselves and others. Yet, our
utterances are not responsive to just anyone. In being directed toward a stabilized social
audience, they have their being within a particular "form of life" (Wittgenstein, 1953), and to
that extent have a generic form. Where, what it is that makes a whole set of utterances all
hang together in a unity as members of a genre, is their capacity spontaneously and
impulsively each to 'call out' another, so that "any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of
speech communication in a given sphere" (Bakhtin, 1986, p.91). Indeed, "nowhere is there a
break in the chain, nowhere does the chain plunge into inner being, nonmaterial in nature and
unembodied in signs" (Volosinov, 1986, p.11).
In other words, it is our actual or imagined ways of us responsively relating ourselves to each
other - in what, as already mentioned, Wittgenstein calls our "forms of life" - that are the
basis for our ways of talking, which ultimately provide us with our ways of thinking and
feeling, valuing and judging. These are the constraints we must take into account and struggle
with in attempting to answer to others for ourselves; we cannot just respond as we please.
Even when talking to oneself, one cannot just talk as one pleases: "As living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language, for the individual consciousness,
lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone
else's it becomes 'one's own' only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his
own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive
intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and
impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!),
but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's
intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own" (1981,
pp.293-4). In other words, even in our own inner dialogues, the dialogical relations with
others and othernesses are at work in us, in which new reasons, new motives, new values,
and so on can be fashioned (Shotter and Billig, in press).
Indeed, it is not going too far to suggest that in each speech genre, both different selves and
different worlds are created: "Thus an illiterate peasant, miles away from any urban center,
naively immersed in an unmoving and for him unshakable everyday world, nevertheless lived
in several language systems: he prayed to God in one language (Church Slavonic), sang songs
in another, spoke to his family in a third and, when he began to dictate petitions to the local
authorities through a scribe, he tried speaking yet a fourth language (the official-literate
language, 'paper' language). All these are different languages, even from the point of view of
abstract socio-dialectical markers. But these languages were not dialogically coordinated in
the linguistic consciousness of the peasant; he passed from one to another without thinking,
automatically: each was indisputably in its own place, and the place of each was indisputable.
He was not yet able to regard one language (and the verbal world corresponding to it)
through the eyes of another language (that is, the language of everyday life and the everyday
world with the language of prayer or song, or vice versa)" (Bakhtin, 1981, pp.295-6). And
many of us remain, like this peasant, unable to pass easily from one form of talk in one part
of our lives, on to another in another sphere. Indeed, those of us with an interest in
psychological theory find that there is no easy passage from talk within a theoretical
framework to talk that is responsively involved in life; nor do we often meet those to whom it
is to be applied within a dialogically structured context. Usually, we listen to what they have
to say in order to hear it as representing something already known to us in our theories.
To the extent that we are "deaf to the other's response" (Bakhtin, 1984, p.293) and do not responsively reply to what they say, we remain only in a monologic relation to them: "the single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue" (p.293). In such circumstances, our listening is partial in the double sense of it being both selective and preferential. It is in preferentially selecting only some aspects of people's expressions at the expense of others, that power can exert its influence in human relations: this is the function of official, authoritiative genres, or ways of talking, in allowing only certain limited forms of expression. However, interestingly, the turn to fully dialogic forms of talk can allow, not only for the verbal expression of authentic human life, but also for the development of familiar and intimate styles of address, in which people "perceive their addresses [as]... more or less outside the framework of the social heirarchy and social conventions, 'without ran', as it were... In familiar speech, since speech constraints and conventions have fallen away, one can take a special, unofficial, volitional approach to reality. This is why during the Renaissance familiar genres and styles could play such a large and positive role in destroying the official medieval picture of the world" (Bakhtin, 1986, p.97).
Taking these emphases together - the emphasis on the only once-occurrent moment, on its
dialogical structuring, and on its embedding in a speech genre or form of life - we can
perhaps begin to see why Bakhtin's and Volosinov's emphasis on what occurs in our
relational encounters, in the dialogical moments occurring both between us and within us, are
so important. For it is in just these momentary relational encounters, that the influences from
many quarters - those from within us, from the past, from our expectations, from the
expressions of our listeners, from the rest of our surroundings - can all meet and, in the way
in which we responsively interrelate them, we can form a unique responsive answer to them.
So, although in these moments of indeterminacy, the influences of others and of the
othernesses in our circumstances partially 'shape' what we do, we also express ourselves in
relation to them. This is why, in this approach, we are far less interested in looking back on
repeatable patterns of 'already spoken words', and much more interested in the unique, once-occurrent, moment by moment emergence of 'words in their speaking': for it is in our
responsive speaking and bodying forth of our expressions that we can create (with others) a
sense of the unique nature of our own inner lives, we can be 'present' to them - to the extent,
that is, that they are prepared to play a proper responsive part in the process also. For it is in
our utterly unique and novel uses of language, our own special way of populating our words
with our own accents, our own rhythms, our own ways of juxtaposing them, and so on, that
we can offer or afford others the chance of a responsive understanding of our own unique
To grasp how this can be so, let us remind ourselves of Bakhtin's and Volosinov's emphasis
on the primacy of responsive understandings. In other words,in practice, we do not primarily
understand another person's speech by a nonmaterial process of first grasping 'the inner
ideas' they have supposedly put into their words by us interpreting their 'content'. This view
of how we understand each other must be seen as a special case; most of time, I suggest, we
do not fully understand each other in that way at all. Indeed, in practice, shared
understandings occur only occasionally, and if they occur at all, it is by people testing and
checking each other's talk, by them questioning and challenging it, reformulating and
elaborating it, and so on - as Bakhtin and Volosinov suggest. In practice, shared
understandings are developed, negotiated, or, 'socially constructed', between participants over
a period of time, in the course of an ongoing conversation, guided by a felt sense of
understanding. Indeed, what our felt understanding 'is' for us, what something 'is' for us in
our 'inner lives', is revealed, not in how we talk about it when reflecting upon it, but in how
'it' necessarily 'shapes' those of our everyday communicative practices in which it is in fact
involved. Indeed, 'it' has its being in the 'movement' of our voices as we speak our words. A
friend proposes a vacation. I reply 'Well' in a special intonation, and he knows straight away
that there is "a difficulty," and he asks 'What's the difficulty?' I say to another, 'I've a good
new idea for the group: we should all do X', and my friend replies, 'I see your little game.
You just want to be master, that's all'. One Russian seeing snow in May says an indignant
'Well!' to another, and the other concurs. And so on. In short: the 'things' in our 'inner'
lives are not to be found inside us as individuals, but out 'in' the moment-by-moment shaping
of the relational spaces occurring between ourselves and an other or otherness in our
surroundings. Where, out in such a space, 'they' are, or 'it' is, just as much an influence in
shaping what occurs there as we ourselves. In other words, the contents of our 'inner' lives
are not radically hidden 'inside' us as individuals; they are 'in' our living of our lives, 'in'
the responsive ways in which we relate our momentary activities to all else occurring around
us; they are 'shown' or 'exhibited' in the internal relations (philosophers would say) present
in our activities. And this gives rise to the strange consequence that, as Volosinov (1986) puts
it, "the processes that basically define the content of the psyche occur not inside but outside
the individual organism, although they involve its participation" (p.25).
Thus, adopting this dialogical or relational view of people's psychic life, suggests that
people's 'inner lives' are neither so private, nor so inner, nor so orderly, logical, or
systematic as has been assumed. Instead, our 'thinking' not only reflects essentially the same
ethical, rhetorical, political, and poetic features as those exhibited in the dialogical
transactions between people, out in the world (Billig, 1996), but it does not go on wholly
'inside' us as individuals either. This is because, as Volosinov claims, what we call our
thoughts, are not first organized at the inner center of our being (in a nonmaterial 'psyche' or
'mind'), later to be given adequate outer expression, or not, in words. But: they only become
ordered and organized, in a moment by moment, back and forth, formative or developmental
process at the boundaries of our being, involving similar linguistically mediated negotiations
as those we conduct in our everyday dialogues with others. Indeed, if they did go on wholly
within us, then it would be difficult to see how they could still, nonetheless, be related to our
surrounding circumstances. However, in being 'in' the living of our lives, in being internally
related to what goes on around us, their relation to our surroundings is somewhat less
What sort of reality pertains to the subjective psyche? The reality of the inner psyche is the same reality as that of the sign. Outside the material of signs there is no psyche... By its very existential nature, the subjective psyche is to be localized somewhere between the organism and the outside world, on the borderline separating these two spheres of reality... Psychic experience is the semiotic expression of the contact between the organism and the outside environment" (Volosinov, 1986, p.26).Thus, even our own psychic experience must be dialogically structured, consisting mainly in only once occurrent events of Being. Traditionally, we have thought of thinking as the inner, rational manipulation of logical symbols - hence the adherence to the computational model of thought in cognitive psychology, and the idea of a separate and special "language of the mind." But if thought is dialogically structured, as Billig (1996) shows so well, "humans do not converse because they have inner thoughts to express, but they have inner thoughts to express because they are able to converse" (p.141). The idea of an orderly language of the mind is a theoretical invention; our orderly thought emerges from inner dialogues as disorderly as our outer ones.
I have already mentioned Steiner's (1989) remark that the experiencing of the special unity
that emerges in dialogical relations, is a meeting between freedoms. In other words, there is
no compulsion, no requirement, no necessity that we understand what an other merely offers
us. Only if we, so to speak, go out to meet them and responsively (and responsibly) enter into
relation with them, is meaning between us possible. Cartesian meaning, as Bakhtin (1968)
points out, gives rise to only a passive, abstract understanding, an understandng that does not
call out a response from us; while all active responsive understanding does, and does so
spontaneously. A statement like: "The cat sat on the mat. The mat was red, the cat was
black," sits dead on the page, so to speak. We can only say in response to it: "So what, I get
the picture, but what's the point, what follows from it?" But if I say (slowly and with
pauses): "The night was dark... the man was dressed in black... he walked along the road
alone..," we want to know what happens next, why he was there, what was special about the
road, and so on. The pauses (and the intonational style) 'invite' us, spontaneously, into a
relation to the scene, without us having to 'work out', intellectually, what that relation is. But
unless we take up the offer of relation, responsive understandings cannot occur.
Like Bakhtin and Volosinov, Steiner (1989) wants, he says, "to delineate, as directly as I can,
the characteristic immediacies of the 'happening to us' of created forms in poetics and the
arts" (p.179). And he tells us of their spontaneous nature, himself in a poetic idiom: "That
which comes to call on us - that idiom, we saw, connotes visitation and summons - will very
often do so unbidden. Even when there is a readiness, as in the concert hall, in the museum,
in the moment of chosen reading, the true entrance into us will not occur by an act of will...
But each and everyone of us, however bounded our sensibility, will have known such
unbidden, unexpected entrances by irrevocable guests... I picked up and leafed through,
scarcely attentive, a very thin book of poems [while waiting for a train]... I do not now recall
whether I caught the intended train, but Paul Celan has never left me" (pp.179-180). Steiner's
use of poetic language here is crucial. For, if we are, then, to learn to grasp more of people's
'inner lives' in the momentary and fleeting but responsive ways in which they relate
themselves to their surroundings, then we must learn to 'look over' and be responsive to their
activities, on the surface, so to speak. We must search of the internal relations and
connections these unique events might actually have both within themselves and with the rest
of their surroundings. To do this, we not only need to have our attention 'called' to the actual
events themselves, but also at the same time, to talk of them in such a way that at least some
of the further possible relations and connections they might have to the circumstances of their
occurrence are also drawn to our attention. And to stabilize our ability to notice such things,
we need to use the words again and again to 're-call' our attention to them again and again.
This is the function of poetic forms of talk. For these forms of talk at first 'strike' us, or
'arrest' us, they put reality, so to speak, on 'freeze-frame', and then 'move' us to search that
freeze-frame for ways in which to relate ourselves responsively to aspects of it that might not
otherwise have occurred to us. Steiner (1989), in saying that our dialogical relations with
others are like "a meeting between freedoms" (p.152); or like "the stranger's entrance"
(p.176) into our home; or, that "it does seem to be words that rap most surely on the door
[i.e., that 'strike' us]" (p.191), uses poetic forms of talk. In saying such things he brings two
bits of knowledge familiar to us all - to do with offered understandings, meetings, callings,
and entrances - together into new juxtapositions: and in reading them, we imagine an other
visiting us, and all the things that might and might not happen as a result. We begin to grasp
the non-required, non-guaranteed nature of our dialogical relations, but also the 'gifts' they
can make available to us if we have the trust to 'enter into' them.
Bakhtin (1993) puts it thus:
"When I experience an object actually, I thereby carry out something in relation to it; the object enters into relation with that which is to-be-achieved, grows in it - within my relationship to that object. Pure givenness cannot be experienced actually. Insofar as I am actually experiencing an object, even if I do so by thinking of it, it becomes a changing moment in the ongoing event of my experiencing (thinking) it, i.e., it assumes the character of something-yet-to-be-achieved. Or, to be exact, it is given to me within a certain event-unity, in which the moments of what-is-given and what-is-to-be-achieved, of what-is and what-ought-to-be, of being and value, are inseparable. All these abstract categories are here constituent moments of a certain, living, concrete, and palpable (intuitable) once-occurrent whole - an event" (p.32).And as we stare at a painting - at, perhaps, Van Gogh's Sunflowers - we begin to look it over, first this way and then that way, up close, from afar, responsively relating ourselves to it first this way and then that, thinking of the other paintings like it, of sunflowers we have actually seen, of the rest of our lives, and so on. We don't have to spend the time on it, but if we do, "the 'otherness' that enters into us makes us other" (Steiner, 1989, p.188). But as soon as we fall out of our two-way, living, dialogically structured relationship to such an otherness, and begin just to view the other as a thing to be externally observed, then we can no longer 'enter into' its 'inner life'. "From inside this [objective or external kind of] seeing," says Bakhtin (1993) simply, "there is no way out into life" (p.14). With only a passive understanding that, so to speak, creates a theoretical picture inside someone's head, we have no access to that active kind of meaning which moves us, which calls us this way and that, so that we come to traverse over the 'inner structure' of a whole new meaningful world.
Inside the multivoiced, dialogical world, then - if we open ourselves up to 'entering into' it,
accept the 'invitations' to participate in it - the 'inner lives' of other living beings can become
apparent to us. Inside such a world, instead of dead pictures that can only be passively
understood, that we need to make efforts of inference and interpretation to grasp, there are
living movements, activities which 'call out' responses from us, activities that, so to speak,
'look to' us for a response. In such a world as this, all our truly mental activity is primarily
'out there' in the world between us. Even within ourselves, if we can actually hide our
responsive reactions to a sufficient extent to achieve an inner privacy, we can find the results
of such spontaneously conducted inner dialogues at work on the boundaries between the
others and othernesses within us. To repeat Steiner's (1989) remark: "the 'otherness' that
enters into us makes us other" (p.188).
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Cartesian mind is a single rational mind
which, when working properly, is a rational system with all its parts interrelated in an orderly
way according to logical laws or principles. With such a mind, if we are to be instructed into
a new practice, it is thought best to instruct us by first teaching us its rational principles; it is
a matter, as we say, of "putting theory into practice." The Bakhtinian\Volosinovian mind is,
however, structured in a quite different way: it is dialogically structured, and when working
properly, all its parts are interrelated as people are interrelated, in myriad ways in countless
meetings, all of which require the taking up of offerings, the issuing of invitations, tact, trust,
helpfulness, disquiet, joy, and so on, and so on. With such a mind as this, to be instructed
into a new practice, we require things to be pointed out to us from within our attempts to
begin executing the practice, we require living examples to which we can relate. Our teachers
must 'call' fleeting features of our ongoing circumstances to our notice that would otherwise
pass us by unremarked - features we can ourselves 're-call' by using their words to 're-mind'
us of them. Rather than putting a theory into practice, we can call this "the putting of a
special practice into our practices." Where the special practice in question is to do with us
using crucial words at crucial moments, to distinguish and relate, to place and position, to
separate and to connect, certain crucial features in our current ways of doing things, so as to
come to a grasp of their 'inner structure'. For, if we can articulate our activities in this way,
so as to develop an 'inner landscape' of possible next 'places to go' in our performing them,
then we can develop them into more refined and skillful forms. Paradoxical though it may
seem, we learn a practice from within our doing of it.
Indeed, this, I think, is precisely the function of Bakhtin's and Volosinov's writings: they
work in certain ways to make us more aware, to articulate our language entwined activities
more clearly to ourselves, so that we can come, not to a theoretical, but to a more elaborate
and refined practical grasp of how to make sense of them than we have at present. Where our
greater practical grasp is exhibited in us being able, for instance, to attend to and to talk of
their dialogical nature - an aspect of their nature that had until now been ignored. So, to
conclude, I will list some of the methods Bakhtin and Volosinov use in achieving this:
All these methods taken together, can be called a 'social poetics' (Shotter, 1996, in press;
Shotter and Katz, 1996; Katz and Shotter, 1996a, 1996b)
See footnote 3. By their use, we can achieve a
kind of understanding in practice, that brings the kind of clarity to our proceedings that makes
them unproblematic, that allows us to anticipate what appropriately should 'flow' from what,
thus to 'go on', or to 'follow' each other's actions in an unconfused, concerted manner
(without it being necessary for panels of expert witnesses to have to argue the matter out in a
court of law).
Activity informed by this kind of understanding is to be contrasted with acting in relation to a
theory: In that situation, instead of being able to directly and immediately sense the fittingness
of one's actions to one's circumstances, bodily, one is in the position of always having to
work things out, cognitively, step-by-step, as if by inference. And furthermore, in such
circumstances, one always has to argue and to justify one's interpretation of the theory in
question to others. In their more poetic, dialogical forms of talk, Bakhtin and Volosinov have
tried to help us to come to an immediate, practical grasp of our talk entwined activities, and
how we make sense of them to each other, of the kind that, say, of practiced musicians who
have perfect pitch, or of artists who know their colors, or of racquet ball or tennis players
who move and hit the ball without needing to stop for any calculations. Thus, what a social
poetics can do for us when put to work within our practices, is to give us a better knowledge
of our 'way about' inside them, and to enable us to see in their details and subtleties, possibly
new ways forward - ways that are easily obscured by an insistence on external rules and
principles that are already in place for their 'supposed' good ordering. Instead of living our
lives from within theories, systems, narratives, or dreams, they bring us back to living our
lives within life itself.
1. Among social constructionists, the quintessential version of this thesis is given by Woolgar (1988): "The argument is not just that social networks mediate between the object and observational work done by participants. Rather, the social network constitutes the object (or lack of it). The implication for our main argument is the inversion of the presumed relationship between representation and object; the representation gives rise to the object" (p.65). But many other constructionists also simply invert Cartesianism: thus, while Cartesianism radically splits mind from body, they radically separate language from world. It is our total enclosure in our own linguistic forms, in this still representationalist view of language, that is both the main (argumentative) strength of this form of social constructionism and its main weakness: it makes it impossible for us to connect our language with our lives - a concern, as we shall see, that is central for both Bakhtin and Volosinov ( return to text).
2. "The experience of created form is a meeting of freedoms" (Steiner, 1989, p.152) ( return to text).
3. In these papers, we show how these methods can be used to illuminate events occurring both in medical diagnostic interviews and in the conduct of mentoring programs in medical education ( return to text).
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