Henderson, Greig. "Dialogism Versus Monologism: Burke, Bakhtin, and the Languages of Social Change," KB Journal, 13.1, 2017.
Whitney Jordan Adams, Clemson University
In regard to a dialogic theory of language and literature, Greig Henderson articulates the similarities between Burke and Bakhtin. Why bother making this comparison, as he does in "Dialogism Versus Monologism: Burke, Bakhtin, and the Languages of Social Change"? Henderson does so to reflect on why Burke and Bakhtin should be studied together, or at least considered similar in terms of their scholarship on dialogism. The unique relationship between Burke and Bakhtin is important and one that warrants continued study. Henderson suggests that "[b]oth endorse and champion a dialogical theory of language and literature, a theory that is better explained and elaborated by Bakhtin but better enacted and dramatized by Burke." Bakhtin is the informer, and Burke does the enacting. Further investigation of the relationship between these two thinkers can illuminate some of the discord within the U.S., as well as the gap in identification between divided groups, especially those within divided regions like the American South. As Henderson writes, for both Burke and Bakhtin, language "is better understood as social activity, as dialogue." Henderson brings up an important point here, as it is this very notion of dialogue as a social activity that holds the potential for social change through dialogic language. This social change is needed in a region like the American South, where monologic discourse has held court for so long.
So, what is dialogic about Burke's body of work? How is he specifically enacting dialogism? Burke's work is dialogic in his focus on the rhetoric of identity, especially with his work on consubstantiality, or the ability to identify with others. Identification through consubstantiality also allows for the realization of division and suggests ways to confront it. Although division is apparent, as Burke suggests in the Rhetoric, the recognition of division fosters dialogism, which opens up the possibility for ongoing conversation and a return to past ideas and discourse to see how and why they impact the present and future. If we can first see how we identify with someone, then the differences might not seem so great. Focusing on Burkean identification and commonalities might have the potential to reduce division in regions like the American South, or in any area or situation where dichotomies have held power. Dialogic conversations about say, the proposed removal and vandalization of Confederate statues can position competing perspectives to be in conversation with one another. This type of dialogic move would not force closure, resulting in false unity, but would rather open conversation. Forced closure is monologic, whereas acknowledgment of differing perspectives is dialogic. This concept can be very useful when considering the current debate surrounding the Confederate monuments. I see the acts of vandalization as monologic, furthering the impossibility for identification between the different groups in the South. However, there is also severe monologic discourse on the other side, as hate groups like the KKK take over protests, espousing their one-sided rhetoric of white power.
Drawing on not just the South, personal identity and group identity are of significant importance at the moment, especially in terms of the current political climate. A real division exists between individual and collective identity, as Henderson mentions with his reference to Ayn Rand's fiction: "Ayn Rand's fiction, then, with its single minded, one-sided, and didactic discourse on the philosophy of objectivism and the virtue of selfishness is not in [Bakhtin's] terms novelistic." Bakhtin saw the novel as important due to its ability to critique itself, therefore encompassing the ability to promote social change, which Henderson is interested in. However, "As [critic] Hammond points out, Bakhtin's argument does not really progress. In "Discourse in the Novel," he identifies the enemy—monologism—and spends some 160 pages lambasting it while justifying and explaining his one major assertion—namely, that the novel–because of its heteroglossia, dialogism, and polyphony—is the enemy of totalitarianism as well as the most authentic and valuable artistic genre." It is important that Henderson discusses Bakhtin's shortcomings here because this further necessitates the consideration of Burke to see if he moves beyond Bakhtin's critique of what Burke called in Counter-Statement "pamphleteering" (vii). As Henderson so importantly points out, "Burke is in conversation with himself and other writers as well as with his readers." It is this conversation which is so desperately needed.
The specific structure of Burke's work lends to its dialogic nature and shows dialogism in action, therefore allowing for this conversation with himself, other writers, and his readers that Henderson discusses. The dialogic, as a multiply voiced discourse, is illuminated through Burke's work, and it is unique in this aspect. As Henderson writes, "The main difference between Bakhtin and Burke is that Bakhtin is a "traditional intellectual" espousing dialogism in his discourse, whereas Burke is an "organic intellectual" producing dialogism in his." An example of this "produced dialogism" is Burke's "Dictionary of Pivotal Terms" at the end of Attitudes Toward History. The inclusion of the dictionary suggests a different undertaking for a text in terms of produced dialogism, furthering Burke's personal ongoing relationship with language. Although Burke's total accessibility may be comparable with that of Bakhtin's, his application of theory is what differentiates him. Through produced dialogism, Burke makes dialogic theory accessible to his audience and readers, whereas Bakhtin was writing to a more limited audience. As Henderson suggests, "Though Bakhtin is clearly conversant with a myriad of other thinkers, he writes as if his arguments require nothing more than his own terminology." Burke's writing is involved and complex, but his inclusion of the dictionary stands in contrast to Bakhtin. Burke makes his writing dialogic rather than just suggesting it.
Although Burke's writing is dense, especially when considering texts like A Grammar of Motives or A Rhetoric of Motives. Burke is self-taught. His scholarship reflects this self-taught education; as Henderson suggests, Burke, "writes as if his arguments are part of a swirling intertextual pluriverse, a pluriverse that tries to embrace everything, preferably all at once, as Howard Nemerov had cause to remark decades ago." Burke's work and writing reflects this self-created education of studying everything—literature, poetry, rhetoric, philosophy and aesthetics. As Henderson articulates about Grammar, Burke "is able to make use of diverse philosophical languages without wholly giving himself up to any one of them."Did Burke's lack of a "formal" education allow for his move away from "traditional" rhetoric? Burke still engaged with traditional rhetoric and aspects of rhetoric, as he does in "Traditional Principles of Rhetoric" (Rhetoric), but did his distance from the academy allow for his ability to see and experience rhetoric in unique ways? Burke's acknowledgment that rhetoric exists in nontraditional places allows for his work to be more dialogic, especially when considering works like Permanence and Change and Counter-Statement. Permanence and Change, written during the Great Depression, highlights the importance of form and its impact on society. Burke claims that forms of art are not "mutually aesthetic." These texts represent a "pulling apart" of ideas and thought structures which up to this point had largely been untouched. Burke opens up new conversations, which allows for continued play and engagement with these ideas. His ability to recognize rhetoric in literature is another aspect that separates him from other scholars, considering that the split between literature and rhetoric/composition occurred late in the nineteenth century. Burke's treatment of literature as rhetoric has allowed for continued conversation on the topic, influencing later scholars, like James R. Averill, to investigate the rhetorics of emotion and how they connect to literature.
In Counter-Statement, Burke takes on "pure literature," psychology and form, poetry, as well as the "Lexicon Rhetoricae", or his narrative theory. The second edition of the work contains the "Curriculum Criticum," where Burke enters into a dialogic conversation with his own work, in order to consider Counter-Statement in light of his later texts. To revisit a work to reconsider how it impacts an evolution of thought is certainly dialogism in action, as Burke sees the importance of returning to his earlier ideas to track their change and progression. Henderson remarks that Bakhtin's "style is neither embracing nor welcoming." Henderson also suggests that "Burke is sensitively attuned to the language of others—be they scholastic philosophers or members of the gas house gang." Burke's superb attunement to the language of others, and not just those in the academy, is what leads to the language of social change Henderson alludes to in his title.
Burke's idea of returning to your own ideas and opinions, as well as being attuned to the language of others, is what is needed now in the wake of recent events, like the Confederate statue dilemma. If those within the academy, as well as those outside, can understand that ideas can change, and that how we think about things should be constantly shifting depending on dialogic conversation, then I am curious to see how a continued exchange with Burke's work can open new possibilities and push forward the social change through language that Henderson discusses.
Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement.1931. Second ed. U of California P, 1968.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.