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Speaking of Bakhtin : a study of the sociolinguistic discourse on Bakhtin and language Volek, Michael Edward

Abstract

Thirty years after Mikhail Bakhtin came to the attention of the English-speaking world with Emerson & Holquist’s translation of The Dialogic Imagination, he continues to hold a prominent place in the scholarly fancy – particularly among those concerned with the sociality of language. But what have we learned from Bakhtin during this time? How has the “Bakhtinian perspective” contributed to the way researchers study and interpret linguistic phenomena? And more importantly, what can we learn about the sociality of language from the way Bakhtin has been taken up in the scholarly discourse? These questions are addressed in the present study by comparing Bakhtin’s discourse (as it has been received) with the uptake of his theory in a selection of five peer-reviewed journals published between the years 2000 and 2011. Seven of the most commonly cited topics are examined in detail: (1) genre, (2) hybridization, (3) style & stylization, (4) double-voicing, (5) heteroglossia, (6) linguistic stratification & centralization, and (7) authority. The surprising conclusion is that Bakhtin has had relatively little influence on the way these ideas are understood, even when he is cited as their source or inspiration, and that he is frequently invoked in support of views that he argues vigorously against. This disagreement is explained not as a breakdown of communication (in the structural sense), but – in line with Bakhtin’s own observations about the nature of discourse – as a product of the sociality of language, in which the histories and concerns of his interpreters actively shape the meanings they take him to be offering. The scholarly discourse on Bakhtin becomes a case study for the very phenomena Bakhtin describes. It reveals that even avowedly “social” language research continues to reflect what Bakhtin calls “the centralizing tendencies in the life of language”. In particular, it reveals the enduring influence of Saussure and semiotic theory at the expense of the genuinely social model that Bakhtin consistently articulates. It consequently provides the occasion for a critique of the uptake and reproduction of theory in the “softer” social sciences, calling into question the adequacy of scholarly conventions in the face of socio-linguistic reality.

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