Dialogism Versus Monologism: Burke, Bakhtin, and the Languages of Social Change

Greig E. Henderson, University of Toronto

Burke and Bakhtin have at least two things in common. First, both 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. Second, both have compelling metaphors for history and society. For Bakhtin, the social and historical world is to be imagined as "something like an immense novel, multi-generic, multi-styled, mercilessly critical, soberly mocking, reflecting in all its fullness the . . . multiple voices of a given culture, people and epoch. In this huge novel . . . any direct word and especially that of the dominant discourse is reflected as something more or less bounded, typical and characteristic of a particular era, aging, dying, ripe for change and renewal" (DI 60). For Burke, history is "an unending conversation" into which people are thrown (PLF 110), a conversation that has neither a discernable originary cause nor an ultimate teleological endpoint.1

Both metaphors make essentially the same point, for whether we see human beings as characters in an ongoing novel or interlocutors in an unending conversation, we are situating them in the middle of a social and historical process that precedes and outlives them. The main difference between Bahktin and Burke is that Bakhtin is a "traditional intellectual" espousing dialogism in his discourse, whereas Burke is an "organic intellectual" producing dialogism in his. From Antonio Gramsci, I borrow these terms for two distinct types of intellectuals but put a slightly different spin on them.2 By traditional intellectual, I mean a critic and theorist like Bakhtin who writes in a more or less recognizable scholarly genre, in his case, the academic essay. The content of Bakhtin's argument may be counter-hegemonic, but its form is professional, scholarly, and conservative. By organic intellectual I mean a critic and theorist like Burke who is responding to the exigencies of his historical moment "us[ing] all that is there to use" (PLF 23). Bakhtin cites other experts and quotes from literary and non-literary documents, but his footnotes, unlike Burke's, do not constitute a parallel text, and his own discourse is not an instance of living heteroglossia, heteroglossia being his term for the multitude of social languages that exists within a single national language. Bakhtin's utterances tend to be propositional; they say things about the nature of language, literature, and communication; we assign a truth value to them, usually a positive one. Burke's utterances tend to be performative; they are doing something as well as saying something; his dramatism is dramatistically presented; it is an instance of self-exemplification. 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, by contrast, 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.3

Both Burke and Bakhtin reject the Saussurean view that the codes and conventions that undergird discourse are the true object of linguistic study. For them, language is better understood as social activity, as dialogue. Every linguistic act imagines, assumes, or implies an addressee. The word, Voloshinov writes, "is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. A word is a territory shared by both addresser and addressee, the speaker and his interlocutor" (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language 86). Language, therefore, is essentially dialogical. "The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer word. It provokes an answer, anticipates it, and structures itself in the answerer's direction" (DI 280). All language use is language use from a certain point of view, in a certain context, and for a certain audience. There is no such thing as language that is not ideological, contextual, and dialogic. The words we use come to us as already imprinted with the meanings, intentions, and accents of previous users, and any utterance we make is directed toward some real or hypothetical other. Moreover, each speaker "is himself a respondent" for he is "not, after all, the first speaker, the one that disturbs the eternal silence of the universe" (Speech Genres 69). Each 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. However monological an utterance may seem to be, however much it seems to focus on its own topic, it cannot help but be a response to what has already been said about the topic.

Any concrete . . . utterance . . . finds the object at which it was directed already . . . overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped . . . by the 'light' of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. The word directed towards its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile. (DI 276)

In short, verbal discourse is a social phenomenon. 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. "Understanding comes to fruition only in the response. Understanding and response are dialectically merged and mutually condition one another" (DI 282). Language is conceived not so much as a system of abstract grammatical categories than as a network of ideologically saturated speech acts that constitute our world view as well as our collective existence. For Burke as for Bakhtin, there is a ceaseless battle between, on the one hand, the centrifugal and counter-hegemonic forces that seek to rip things asunder and challenge the unitary language or dominant discourse of a given society and, on the other, the centripetal and hegemonic forces that seek to hold things together and sustain the status quo.

For Bakhtin, the two most powerful centrifugal forces are polyglossia (different national languages) and heteroglossia (different social languages within the same national language). For Burke, there are other important centrifugal forces, one of which is perspective by incongruity, "a kind of sheerly terministic violence achieved by a method for wrenching words from a customary context and putting them in new theoretical surroundings" (On Human Nature 30). Bakhtin, however, mainly confines perspective by incongruity to the realm of heteroglossia.

For him, heteroglossia comprises

the internal stratification of any single national language into social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, and of passing fashions, languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour . . . This internal stratification present in every language at every given moment of its historical existence is the indispensable prerequisite of the novel as a genre. (DI 262).

By contrast, the canonic genres–tragedy, epic, and lyric–suppress this inherently dialogic quality of language in the interests of using a single style and expressing a single world view. To the degree that these genres have not been novelized, these genres are monologic. The novel is Bakhtin's representative anecdote, and for a stylistics of the novel to have an adequate scope and circumference it must foreground the conversation among different languages, speech types, and literary forms and thus take into account the multiplicity of social voices that constitute a cultural world. Indeed, Bakhtin believes that it is the destiny of the novel as a literary form to do justice to the inherent dialogism of language and culture by means of its discursive polyphony of fully valid voices and its carnivalesque irreverence towards all kinds of repressive, authoritarian, and monological ideologies. The authentic novel always runs counter to the dominant discourse of a given social order. There is an indissoluble link in Bakhtin's theory between the linguistic variety of prose fiction, its heteroglossia, and its cultural function as the continuous critique of all totalizing discourses and ideologies, including its own.

Bakhtin's theory, therefore, hinges on this binary distinction between dialogism and monologism, a distinction that is really a matter of degree rather than kind, even if he himself sometimes speaks as if it were categorical. His theory also hinges on a stipulated definition: a novel is genuinely a novel if and only if it is dialogical, heteroglot, and polyphonic. 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 his terms novelistic. Shakespeare's plays, on the other hand, with their subplots and multiple perspectives, deploy variegated social languages that range from the base to the elevated, the bawdy to the sublime, and thus are abundantly novelistic in Bakhtin's sense of the term as is "The Waste Land," a poem constructed almost entirely out of heteroglossia and polyglossia. Nevertheless, Bakhtin's general point holds. Classical tragedy is linguistically homogeneous and embraces the virtues of civic order and unity even if its restorative catharsis can only be achieved through carnage and violence; the Homeric epic is also linguistically homogeneous, invoking the pietistic language of tradition and received value to inscribe the ethos and worldview of Greek culture; and lyric poetry usually embodies a singular semantic intention and expressive intonation. Each of these genres tends to deploy a single voice, perspective, and style.

As an advocate for the novel, Bakhtin endorses the virtues of a multivoiced, multiperspectival style. Strangely enough, however, his own style, though quotable and memorable, as Adam Hammond points out, is single-voiced and uniperspectival. Whereas Burke is always attentive to his readers–imagining their responses and objections, even telling them what parts of his argument they might skip–and whereas Burke's writing is full of hesitations, qualifications, digressions, parentheses, footnotes, asides, recapitulations, and retrospections, Bahktin is oblivious to his readers. His writing relentlessly churns out elegantly shaped and strongly phrased declarative propositions, propositions that are variations on and repetitions of a single theme. Burke is hard pressed to get through a sentence without modifying his position or being reminded of a related or unrelated point. As 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. He persistently denigrates poetic style because of its alleged monologism. With Bakhtin, taking quotations out of context is almost impossible. He is a staggeringly redundant writer whose penchant for repetition is so pervasive that it ceases to subserve a summarizing function but becomes instead a pleonastic celebration of tautology and synonymity. With Burke, one is forced to follow his argument sentence by sentence. This is because Burke is in conversation with himself and other writers as well as with his readers.

Bakhtin and Burke share the same dialogical view of language and literature, but they write in radically different styles. Bakhtin's style is far removed from what he argues for. He says that "the prose writer does not purge words of intentions that are alien to him, he does not destroy the seeds of heteroglossia embedded in words, [and] he does not eliminate those language characteristics and mannerisms glimmering behind the words and forms" (DI 298). A style that "does not purge words of intentions that are alien to it" would seem to have to acknowledge the inescapably polysemantic nature of language, its referential and rhetorical liquidity. We might expect such a style to be ludic, ironic, digressive, multivoiced, comic, grotesque, or what not. Moreover, a style that "does not eliminate those characteristics and mannerisms glimmering behind words" would, like Burke's, verbalize in a multiplicity of voices–linear academic prose would yield to parables, jokes, colloquialisms, proverbs, puns, poems, songs, prologues in heaven, rhetorical lexicons, dictionaries of pivotal terms, electioneering in psychoanalysia, the thinking of the body, and so forth. But Bakhtin's style is not like this at all. It is serious, uniform, and polite even when he is talking about carnivalesque revelry and the grotesque body.

Unlike Burke, Bakhtin is in no danger of turning "beauty is truth, truth beauty" into "body is turd, turd body." Nor is he in any danger of saying that when dealing with mystical poetry, "we may watch for alchemy whereby excrement is made golden or for ways of defining essence whereby the freeing of an evil spirit is like the transformation of flatus into fragrance" ("Mysticism as a Solution to the Poet's Dilemma" 110). For Burke scatology and eschatology go hand in hand, and as all seasoned readers of Burke are well aware, sometimes to their chagrin, Burke is obsessed with "the interpretative sculpting of excrement" (PLF, 259) and sings scat with an almost adolescent verve. He also has his urinary tracts, "Somnia ad Urinandum" (LSA, 344), to give the most obvious example, not to mention his demonic trinity of sperm, urine, and feces (GM, 300-03).
Returning to Bakhtin, we might further expect a heteroglot style to embrace opposing views and voices, to welcome rejoinders and counter-statements.4 But Bakhtin's style is neither embracing nor welcoming. For the most part, he unrelentingly argues that prose is dialogical, polyphonic, and therefore authentic, whereas poetry is monological, univocal, and therefore inauthentic even if according to his own theory of language, no discourse can ever be absolutely monologic. Near the climax of his argument against poetry, Bakhtin says that when the language of poetic genres approaches its stylistic limit, it "becomes authoritarian, dogmatic, and conservative, sealing itself off from the influence of literary social dialects" (DI 287). But, in a rare footnote, as Hammond points out, Bakhtin adds a damaging admission. "It goes without saying," he writes, "that we continually advance as typical the extreme to which poetic genres aspire; in concrete examples of poetic works it is possible to find features fundamental to prose, and numerous hybrids of various generic types exist" (DI 287, n. 12).

Hammond further points out that on the very next page, while still haranguing the poet for his meretricious and misguided efforts to achieve a "unitary" language, Bakhtin confesses that any positing of a unitary language is fictive, for language "is unitary only as an abstract grammatical system of normative forms, taken in isolation from the concrete, ideological formulations that fill it" (DI 288). He admits in his footnote to taking poetry in such isolation, to treating it as an extreme that does not really exist in its elemental purity. Central to his argument, however, is the assertion that poetic and novelistic discourses are categorically different. He calls novelistic style "the expression of a Galilean perception of language, one that denies the absolutism of a single and unitary language" (366) and says that poetry presents "a unitary and singular and Ptolemaic world outside of which nothing else exists and nothing else is needed" (286). The inference is obvious–Galileo is correct and Ptolemy is mistaken (Hammond, 646). Yet Bakhtin's footnote suggests that in practice there is no purely Galilean or Ptolemaic style. All styles incorporate shades of hybridity. He makes this admission in a footnote, Hammond maintains, because the critical style of his main text is unremittingly monologic and cannot tolerate counter-statement. Even though the objection against the absolutism of the distinction between poetry and prose "[goes] without saying" (Hammond, 646), it must be banished from Bakhtin's argument and relegated to an explanatory note.

Utterly convinced that dialogic novelistic style is superior to monologic poetic style, Bakhtin talks like a dogmatic authoritarian. But such a tone is understandable given his status as an exile in Kazakhstan for six long years in the 1930's. In the terrifying darkness of Russia's seemingly endless Stalinist night, it is no wonder that Bakhtin is so passionately opposed to monologic speech. But it nevertheless remains the case that his own critical style, rather than embracing dialogism, is incessantly monological. This is not to say that an argument in favor of dialogism necessarily has to be made in a dialogical style. It is only to say that Bakhtin does not write in a dialogical style whereas Burke does. Burke's dialogical style, as I said earlier, is an instance of self-exemplification. It enacts his dramatistic philosophy of language, and "language," as Bakhtin observes, "is not a neutral meaning that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated–overpopulated–with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process" (DI 294).

Burke is sensitively attuned to the language of others–be they scholastic philosophers or members of the gas house gang. As an organic intellectual, he welcomes heteroglossia and language diversity into his own work. In fact, it is out of this stratification of language that he constructs his own style. Deploying his dramatistic pentad in A Grammar of Motives, he is able to make use of diverse philosophical languages without wholly giving himself up to any one of them. He makes use of concepts already populated with the intentions of other thinkers and compels these concepts to submit to his own intentions, to serve, as it were, a second master. These concepts carry with them their own propositional content, their own semantic intention, and their own expressive intonation, features which dramatism assimilates, reworks, adapts, and re-accentuates. This is not to say that Burke does not have his own style. He plays with other thinkers' languages so as to refract his own semantic and expressive intentions within them. But this play with languages in no sense degrades the overall entelechy of his own project, his dialectic of the upward way.

Burke's entire corpus–heteroglot, polyglot, and polyphonic–can be seen as a Bakhtinian novel. A Grammar of Motives is a massive exercise in conceptual and tonal re-accentuation, a multiply-voiced discourse that translates various philosophical languages into the language of the pentad, a translation that opens up zones of dialogical contact between dramatism and its ideological comrades, dramatism and its polemical antagonists. Burke's dialogical style makes the movement of an abstraction or concept become readable as the procession of a character through multiple trials and perils, menaced by its ideological adversaries and aided and abetted by its magical helpers. The protagonist is dramatism and its ideological comrades; the antagonist is scientism and other essentialist, reductivist, and determinist vocabularies of motives. And the book is the dialectical battlefield itself, for as Burke reflects elsewhere, "terms are characters . . . an essay is an attenuated play" (ATH 312). 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.

The same can be said of almost everything that Burke wrote. His arguments never constitute a seamless whole. There is no figure in the carpet. If you persevere as a reader, you can discover a way in, a way through, and a way out, but the structure of his books is more like a maze than a path. Part One of Attitudes Toward History begins with frames of acceptance and rejection in James, Whitman, and Emerson, devolves into a discussion of poetic categories and instances of transcendence, and ends by circling back to frames of acceptance and the advocacy of comic criticism. Part Two traces the curve of history, taking us from Christian Evangelism to Emergent Collectivism while furnishing comic correctives along the way. Part Three analyzes symbolic structure and the general nature of ritual, ending with a 122 page dictionary of pivotal terms that rehearses the discussion in a non-consecutive fashion. Throughout we are immersed in a polyglot and heteroglot world of Latin, German, French, the language of philosophy, the language of criticism, the language of the street, the language of politics, the language of advertising, and so forth. The invoking of "Unseen Value" in a car advertisement leads to a meditation on the Christ/Chrysler pun (ATH 91n). And lengthy footnotes are in dialogue with the main argument, paratext at times threatening to overwhelm text. And, of course, there is a conclusion, an afterword, an appendix, and a retrospective prospect.

Burke's writing is writing that looks like thinking, and all of his books might well be prefaced with a warning–"Caution, Mind at Work." We miss the point if we focus primarily on propositional content, for it is the drama of poiema (action), pathema (passion or suffering) and mathema (knowledge or transcendence) that is paramount. "The action organizes the resistant factors, which call forth the passion; and the moment of transcendence arises when the sufferer (who had originally seen things in unenlightened terms) is enabled to see in more comprehensive terms, modified by his suffering" (GM 264).

This is not to say that Burke does not have a master narrative, a dialectic of the upward way moving toward a higher synthesis, "a perspective-of-perspectives that arises from the co-operative competition of all the voices as they modify one another's assertions, so that the whole transcends the partiality of the parts" (GM 89). The cooperative competition of divergent voices may be the desideratum, but often at odds with this dialectical aspiration are the centrifugal forces of heteroglossia, along with "the paradox of substance" and other destabilizing concepts discussed under the chapter heading of "Antinomies of Definition" (GM 21-58). In Burke's writings, there is a productive tension between a progressive movement toward an ultimate order—a wholly ample dialectic—and a regressive lapse into unstable irony—an inevitable capitulation to the forces of aporia that perpetually frustrate what Wittgenstein derisively called the deplorable craving for unity that besets the human mind. Burke's mind was beset by a deep-seated logological yearning, but his honesty as a critic kept him from ever imposing a premature closure on the dialogical process.

Burke knew two things at least: the first was that a way of seeing is a way of not seeing, all education being trained incapacity, every insight containing its own special kind of blindness; the second was that a new way of seeing and a new way of living can only come from a new way of saying, that social change can only come from linguistic change. This is why he assigned such an extraordinary importance to language even if "no single terminology can be equal to the full complexity of human motives" ("Freedom and Authority," 374). Terminologies of motive are ways of talking about a reality that talking itself largely creates. And sometimes it is necessary to "violate cultural pieties, break down current categories, and outrage good taste" (PLF 303) because such taste engenders static and inert categories when what we need are dynamic and active categories. An unquestioned terministic screen fosters a static and inert view of our collective existence, a view that sees change–the historical–as permanence–the natural. Criticism is a form of intervention. By changing our vocabularies, it helps us change our ideas of purpose, our symbols of authority, and our hierarchies of value.

Let us take as an example an October 1933 occasional essay reproduced in The Philosophy of Literary Form: "War, Response, and Contradiction." Here Burke intervenes in a dispute between Malcolm Cowley and Archibald MacLeish, a dispute that focuses on the representation of war. The controversy plays itself out in The New Republic of September 20, 1933 and centers on a volume edited by Laurence Stallings. Burke presciently points out that the volume's very title, The First World War, may be read as a prophecy of ominous things to come in an anticipated second world war. MacLeish criticizes the volume for picturing only the repellent side of war, its horrible and ignoble aspects rather than its heroic and adventurous aspects, whereas Cowley applauds the volume for realistically picturing the atrocities of war and thus inducing a revulsion toward militarism in the book's readers. Both assume a one-to-one correspondence between aesthetic stimulus and reader response. For Burke, of course, it is more complicated than that.

A work picturing the "atrocities" of the enemy would exploit our attitudes toward such atrocities. It would arouse our resentment by depicting the kinds of incidents which we already hated prior to the work of art. Such a work might form our attitudes by picturing a certain specific people as committing those atrocities: it would serve to aggravate our vindictiveness toward this particular people. (PLF 235)

Thus, Burke intervenes to complicate the agenda and to advance the perhaps counter-intuitive position that

MacLeish's plea for a total picture of war has much to be said in its favor. There are some reasons for believing the response to a human picture of war will be socially more wholesome than our response to an inhuman one. It is questionable whether the feelings of horror, repugnance, [and] hatred would furnish the best groundwork for a deterrent to war. They are extremely militaristic attitudes, being in much the same category of emotion as one might conceivably experience when plunging his bayonet into the flesh of the enemy. And they might well provide the firmest basis upon which the "heroism" of a new war could be erected….The sly cartoonists of The New Yorker might possibly do most to discourage militarism, while deeply pious tracts are but the preparation for new massacres. (PLF 239)

For Burke, a genuine question emerges, for if a depiction of "only the hideous side of war lays the aesthetic groundwork above which a new stimulus to 'heroism' can be constructed, might a picture of war as thoroughly human serve conversely as the soundest deterrent to a war?" (PLF 239). Noting that he has never seen anyone "turn from The Iliad a-froth with a desire for slaughter" (PLF 239), he wonders whether the graphic depiction of an inhuman war might act as a stimulant for a future war by inadvertently inculcating a "counter-hysteria of rabidity and ferocity" (PLF 240). In our day, rabid and ferocious anti-terrorist rhetoric promotes violent acts against the demonized other. It inculcates a rabid ferocity that invites us to make ourselves over in the image of our opponent.

Moreover, paradoxically, a steady diet of graphic violence may result in desensitization or anesthesia. "A book wholly constructed of the repellent may partially close the mind to the repellent. It may call forth, as its response, a psychological callus, a protective crust of insensitiveness" (PLF 241). We are so inured to images of bombings and beheadings that we are largely immune to them. Such immunity is not surprising. Under the contradictions of a capitalist society, responses to stimuli are bound to be contradictory and paradoxical. The stimulus of the horrific side of war does not necessarily engender antimilitarism just as the stimulus of the human side of war does not necessarily engender militarism. Characteristically, Burke wishes "merely to raise the question" (PLF 243). Does a pro-war book make its readers pro-war, an anti-war book make its readers anti-war? The answer itself is tentative. Not necessarily, Burke says.

Not necessarily, for there are good grounds for suspecting that our responses to stimuli under "normal" capitalist conditions of cognitive, sensory, and informational overload are inevitably contradictory. There is no one-to-one correspondence between stimulus and response. The machine metaphor and behaviorist model are insufficient. It is just not clear that anti-militarism produces anti-militarism. Indeed, contradictoriness of response yields apt equipment for living because "our capitalist social structure contains fundamental contradictions" and anyone "born and bred under capitalism" cannot "be expected to honestly and correctly express his attitudes without revealing a contradiction in them" (PLF 244-45). Those who display leftist attitudes in public may privately make profits on the stock market and thus practically thrive under the system they theoretically despise. They may believe in fair trade philosophically yet still purchase cheap commodities made in the third world under deplorable conditions. This is the existential burden most of us in the first world bear—the self-deception we permit ourselves to live in. A complete and nuanced response to a contradictory society is bound to be contradictory.

Contradiction can only be avoided if one embraces a monological or essayistic method of recommendation. But the dialogical or

poetic (tragic, ethical) method of recommendation would be quite different. The poet might best plead for his Cause by picturing people who suffered or died in behalf of it. The essayistic critic would win us by proving the serviceability of his Cause—the poet would seem as spontaneously to stress the factor of disserviceability. For how better to recommend a Cause by the strategies of a fiction than by picturing it as worthy of being fought for? And how better picture it as worthy of being fought for than by showing people who are willing to sacrifice their safety, lives, and happiness in its behalf? (PLF 251-52).

Business Christianity, Burke goes on to say, may be rational, but "Poetic Christianity" is contradictory, "building its entire doctrine of salvation about the image of a god in anguish" (PLF 252), a god dying on the cross, pierced by swords and bleeding profusely. The monological, essayistic, or "rational method would clearly be to plead for one's Cause by the most unctuous strategy one could command—but ethical attachments make one tend to 'testify' by invitation to martyrdom" (PLF 254).

"War, Response, and Contradiction" intervenes in the dialogue and becomes part of it, leaving the dispute between MacLeish and Cowley open and unresolved. It does not try to make a unifying synthesis emerge out of the clash between thesis and antithesis. Instead, it affirms Burke's earlier observation in Counter-Statement that "no categorical distinction can possibly be made between 'effective' and 'ineffective' art. The most fanciful 'unreal' romance may stimulate by implication the same attitudes toward our environment as a piece of withering satire attempts explicitly" (CS 90). Nostalgia for remembered plenitude, alienation from present reality, and projection toward future plenitude are all capable of functioning as revolutionary stimuli. "People have gone too long with the glib psychoanalytic assumption that an art of 'escape' promotes acquiescence. It may, as easily, assist a reader to clarify his dislike of the environment in which he is placed" (CS 119). Similarly, as we have seen, an art of unflinching realism toward the heinous brutalities of war does not necessarily make its readers recoil from militarism. It may, as easily, desensitize readers to violence or spawn in them a desire to take revenge against the evil enemy. Responses to the imagery of war run the gamut from numbed anesthesia to vindictive violence, and, as an organic intellectual responding to the exigencies of his historical moment, Burke keeps the contradictions alive and the dialogue ongoing.

In the end, Bakhtin is an essayistic and monological thinker espousing dialogism, whereas Burke is a poetic and dialogical thinker enacting it. Both, however, believe that linguistic and social change are intertwined and that whatever life and literature may be, criticism had best be comic.5 As Bakhtin puts it, the purpose of the comic frame is "to apply the corrective of laughter and criticism to all existing straightforward genres, languages, styles, and voices" as well as "to force people to experience beneath these categories a different and contradictory reality that is otherwise not captured in them" (DI, 59).

For Burke as for Bakhtin, history is an unending conversation, and the aims of comic criticism are threefold: first, to liberate what identifies itself as culturally given and politically correct from the hegemonic language in which it is enmeshed; second, to destroy the homogenizing power of myth and ideology over that hegemonic language by cultivating heteroglossia and perspective by incongruity; and third, above all, to create a distance between that language and reality so that the emancipatory possibilities of new languages and new social programs become not only visible but viable.


1."Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress" (PLF 110).

2. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci sees the traditional intellectual as implicated in the ideological state apparatuses of education, law, religion, and so forth. Exiled by Stalin in the 1930's, Bakhtin was not part of the establishment. His work is traditional in form but not in content.

3. "Everything, Preferably All at Once: Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke" is the title of a 1971 article published by Nemerov in The Sewanee Review, an article that confronts the perplexities of Burke's critical style. In "The Honest and Dishonest Critic," Adam Hammond compares and contrasts the critical styles of Erich Auerbach and Mikhail Bakhtin. Although I have learned much from this article and am deeply indebted to Hammond for the manifold insights and leads he has proffered, the issue for me is not honesty versus dishonesty, mainly because I do not see why there is any imperative for a writer to write in the style that he or she advocates. In the case of Burke and Bakhtin, what we have is the dialogical style of an organic intellectual versus the monological style of a traditional intellectual. By contrast, Auerbach and Bakhtin, though stylistically distinct in the same way, are both traditional intellectuals.

4. In this and the next paragraph, some of the points made, quotations used, and examples adduced have been adapted from Hammond's essay.

5. As Burke puts it in a famous passage from Attitudes Toward History: "The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy" (41). He later concludes that this "might be a roundabout way of saying: whatever poetry may be, criticism had best be comic" (107).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl  Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

—. The Dialogic Imagination (DI). Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael  Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

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