Toward a Praxis of a Language of Social Change: A Response to Greig Henderson on Burke and Bakhtin by Charlotte Lucke

Henderson, Greig. "Dialogism Versus Monologism: Burke, Bakhtin, and the Languages of Social Change," KB Journal, 13.1, 2017.

Charlotte Lucke, Clemson University

While both Burke and Bahktin propound theories of the dialogic, only Burke performs it. Thus, Burke practices what he preaches, and Bahktin only preaches. This is the essence of Greig Henderson's argument in "Dialogism Versus Monologism: Burke, Bakhtin, and the Languages of Social Change," where he compares the pair's theories and practices as they pertain to theories of monologic and dialogic discourses. Moving forward, I would like to revisit and extend Henderson's comparison of Bahktin and Burke as well as use this extension to reconsider their implications for a "language of social change."

But first, what is the dialogic? Using Bahktin, Henderson explains the dialogic as happening when "[e]ach speaker builds on previous utterances, polemicizes with them, or simply presumes that they are already known to the listener.  Each utterance refutes, affirms, supplements, and relies on the others, presupposes them to be operative, and somehow takes them into account." This account of discourse considers the use of language as social act, where speakers are in conversation with each other and build on each other's utterances.  It is a critical conversation where a speaker reflects on and incorporates another's utterance into their own, whether in agreement, disagreement, or somewhere between. Unlike Bahktin, Burke formally explicates neither a theory of the dialogic nor of the monologic. However, we can see the way Burke's texts enact this discursive model. As Henderson states so well, "In A Grammar of Motives, terms truly are characters, characters on trial, characters in alliance and combat with other characters, characters in competitive cooperation moving toward a higher synthesis." Henderson explains that for Burke, "The protagonist is dramatism and its ideological comrades; the antagonist is scientism and other essentialist, reductivist, and determinist vocabularies of motives." Henderson compares Burke's opposition between dramatism and essentialism to Bahktin's comparison between dialogism and monologism.

To develop his theory of the monologic, Bahktin compares the novel to the traditional epic, lyric poem, and traditional literary genres. Henderson explains that Bahktin develops this dichotomy to champion his theory of a dialogic discourse that challenges the authoritarian, traditional dominant discourses that sustain the status quo. Monologism is pious discourse; Henderson uses Ayn Rand's fiction as an example of such pious discourse, explaining that it is monologic "due to its single-minded, one-sided, and didactic discourse." Although Burke doesn't explicitly theorize the monologic, we can note the way he describes similar concepts in his own writing. When discussing occupational psychosis, for example, he writes about the "doctor's point of view, as distinct from the lawyer's, the chemist's, the sandhog's, and the reporter's. Such interlocked diversification may be revealed psychotically in our emphasis upon intellectual intolerance, information giving … also perhaps in a kind of individualism" (PC 47). Each of these points of view could be considered monologic insofar as they are limited to specific, professional points of view. The same could be said about Burke's use of the concept, "piety," which refers to "a schema of orientation" such as utilitarian or religious orientations. It seems, then, that the monologic is the expression of a didactic or pious discourse. For Henderson, the primary difference between Burke and Bahktin's conceptualizations of these types of discourses is Bahktin's analysis of the discourses in comparison to Burke's enactment of the dialogic against the monologic.

Henderson focuses primarily on the distinction between Burke and Bakthin with respect to the form of their writing as dialogic or monologic, raising the question of the critic-writer's own involvement in the act of interpretation, the hermeneutics of criticism, and reaching an audience. According to Henderson, language, for both Burke and Bahktin, is best understood as "social activity, as dialogue" and "all rhetorical forms are oriented toward the listener and his or her answer, this orientation toward the listener being the constitutive feature of such discourse." Thus, a critic not only enacts the dialogic through their writing but also stages the dialogic to better reach an audience. Unanswered, then, is how critics orient their writing toward listeners— especially listeners who may be dogmatic or entrenched in their own monologic discourses and whose own pious orientations may be under critique. How does the critic engage dogmatic and monologic discourses in a way that works toward understanding rather than conflict? In addition to their focus on monologism and dialogism, or essentialism and dramatism, both Bahktin and Burke theorize a sociological and psychological approach to discourse and those who embody discourse. Focusing on this approach can perhaps extend Henderson's discussion about Burke and Bahktin's shared approach to a language of social change.

In the introduction to the Bahktin Reader, Pam Morris argues that Voloshinov and Bakhtin propound a "Marxist sociological understanding" of texts. She writes that Bahktin believes that "[r]elations of production, political and social structures determine the discursive forms of social interaction across a multitudinous range of daily and occasional speech, formal and informal verbal interactions referred to in the text as speech performances and speech genres" (12). The relations described suggest that economic, social, and political environments determine speech, further suggesting that such environments influence individuals to internalize discourses. In addition to considering the way productive, political, and social structures determine informal and formal speech and texts, Bahktin and Voloshinov suggest that such structures and speeches reflect ideology, suggesting a relationship between speech and ideology. Morris argues that they recognize "the Freudian account of the psyche as the existence of the unconscious and arising from it, a dynamic and conflictual account of life" (9). They, however, extend the notion of the psyche, and while Freud's conflictual emphasis is retained, Voloshinov and Bahktin "[transfer] this conflict from what is seen as Freud's report to elemental biological forces to the realm of social and ideological conflicts" (9). This transference suggests both that the psyche arises from structures and discourses and that conflicting social and ideological positions allow the opportunity for growth. While such growth of consciousness or ideology is possible, it is important to understand the way dogmatic or monologic discourses may resist this opportunity due to entrenched discourses and beliefs. Bahktin's focus on material influences on discourse, however, allows an understanding of how he interprets discourse to enact dialogue as a social activity oriented toward an audience.

Burke, like Bahktin, uses both Marxist and Freudian ideas to interpret the influence of social, political, and economic conditions on individual identities and discourses, suggesting that such interpretive processes can bolster communication. Consider again, for example, Burke's notion of occupational psychosis, a term borrowed from John Dewey and extended in Permanence and Change. Burke explains that "the term corresponds the Marxian doctrine that a society's environment in the historical sense is synonymous with the society's methods of production. Professor Dewey suggests that a tribe's way of gaining sustenance promote certain pattern of thought which, since thought is an aspect of action, assist the tribe in its productive and distributive operations" (PC 38). Although Burke insists on a complexity beyond simple reduction to methods of production and their impact on human thought patterns, his belief that economic circumstances play a role in the formation of human identity and experience is evident. In the Rhetoric, Burke extends this idea, suggesting that individuals develop or identities and habits through identification with properties, writing that "Man's moral growth is organized through properties, properties in goods, in services, in position or status, in citizenship, in reputation, in acquaintanceship, and love" (24). While properties can be considered in terms of economic properties, they can also be considered in terms of religious, moral, or nationalist properties. As a person develops through such properties, his or her morals, thought patterns, and discursive schemas also grow, and Burke discusses this through a focus on ideology. In Permanence and Change, Burke, like Bahktin, discusses the Freudian idea that consciousness develops or transforms through conflict. He writes, "there is general agreement that, whatever the so-called phenomenon of consciousness may be, it occurs in situations marked by conflict" (30). This implies that conflict can contribute to development of consciousness, allowing further consideration of the way different ideological discourses have potential to contribute to ideological growth. For this growth to take place, however, it seems necessary to interpret and recognize social and economic influences on an audience or discourse, in order to develop better communication and understanding. Henderson argues that in the dialogic, a critic orients rhetorical forms toward an audience. A focus on Bahktin's and Burke's shared sociological and psychological approaches to interpreting discourse and audience allows a better understanding of how this can take place.

When Henderson writes about monologism and dialogism, he writes about a writer's use of them in critical texts or novels. Today, dialogism for literary critics and writers in the humanities does not seem that revelatory. Rather, it seems to be something that critics and writers tend to practice through their writing and by responding to scholars in their field. Throughout Burke's work, however, he analyzes orientations and identification and discusses their implications for communication. This suggests that the dialogic could be enacted not only in the textual but perhaps even in the corporeal realm. Although neither Burke nor Bahktin explicitly discusses dialogism as it could relate to the public sphere, I wonder if they could be applied to the public sphere as a kind of social dialogic. Could a language of social change happen outside of academic texts and in the public sphere? Burke wrote during a time of "crisis," when communication was failing and concepts were shifting. Today, the crisis seems exacerbated, given the state of divisive discourse and social relations in the United States and across the world. Could it be worthwhile to consider the concepts of monologism and dialogism, as they relate to social and economic conditions and ideology and identity, when trying to enact languages of social change in the public sphere?

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950.  U of California P. 1969.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 1935. 3rd edition. U of California P, 1984.
Morris, Pam, ed. "Introduction." The Bahktin Reader: Selected Writings of Bahktin, Medvedev and Voloshinov. Oxford UP, 1994.

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