Bakhtin, Utterances, and Speech Genres

In the reading from Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Bakhtin offers an argument against linguistic theories that arise from abstract theoretical perspectives (Idealism) as well as psychological ones (Psychologism). To Bakhtin, all understanding of language must examine the social situations in which language arises since, “signs emerge, after all, only in the process of interaction between one individual consciousness and another” (1212). Even individual consciousness itself is a social/ideological construct rather than a “natural” or innate fact; the “inner word” that speaks within the individual consciousness is, itself, socially constructed as the language spoken internally has been learned through social interaction.  This “verbally constituted consciousness” interacts with others through the medium of signs, and is formed in response to the situation and audience in which that consciousness forms utterances (1214-16). Bakhtin images these dialogic interactions as shared experiences between speaker and audience, rather than privileging the speaker over the audience in making rhetorical choices.

Bakhtin differentiates between meaning and theme in this work and gives various criteria for what distinguishes these concepts saying:

Theme is a complex, dynamic system of signs that attempts to be adequate to a given instant of generative process. Theme is reaction by the consciousness in its generative process to the generative process of existence. Meaning is the technical apparatus for the implementation of theme (1225).


Only an utterance take in its full, concrete scope as an historical phenomenon possesses a theme… [whereas meaning is comprised of]… all those aspects of the utterance that are reproducible and self-identical in all instances of repetition (1224).

I take this to mean that the theme of an utterance can only be ascertained by taking the entire utterance into account, whereas the meaning, as defined here, are the stable elements of the utterance, those things which would generally mean the same thing regardless of situation. I am uncertain about this, as I am not sure how one distinguishes between the beginning and the end of an utterance – how is this parsed and divided? This reminds me somewhat of Foucault’s idea of the statement, which is likewise socially contingent and difficult to concretely define its limits, though were Foucault thinks of statements as “the atoms of discourse” (1445), Bakhtin defines the theme as “the upper, actual limit of linguistic significance” (1225). I am curious how these two concepts might map onto one another, and I find myself compelled to draw something large with a lot of circles from different colors of chalk in order to more fully understand where these ideas may and may not intersect. Actually, I am more prone to think about Bakhtin’s concept of “the utterance” as more aligned with Foucault’s statement, though Foucault distinctly differentiates the statement from the utterance or the speech act. Hmm…. This may take some time a several colors of chalk to work out….

Heterogeneity, an important concept in much of Bakhtin’s work, is discussed in his view of speech genres. He notes that, while “the separate utterance is individual,” that these utterances arise within social situations where “each sphere in which language is used develops its own relatively stable types of these utterances [which] we may call speech genres” (1227). Here Bakhtin distinguishes between primary (simple) and secondary (complex) speech genres with the former being associated with “unmediated speech communication” and the latter with “novels, dramas, all kinds of scientific research, major genres of commentary, and so forth” (1228). Unlike many critics of Bakhtin’s historical time[1], he felt that it was important to study both categories of genres, both of which include multiple sub-genres. This “extreme heterogeneity” takes into account issues such as style “as one element into the generic unity of the utterance” and grammar (1228-31). For Bakhtin, primary genres feed into and constitute secondary genres through a series of complex social relationships that he sees as “immensely important to almost all areas of linguistics and philology” (1229).

The dialogic nature of Bakhtin’s approach to communication is clear, and though he does not situate his theories specifically within the field of rhetoric, his focus on the active relationality between speaker and listener, with a great blurring of these boundaries, or rather viewing them as highly dynamic, can be very useful to rhetorical conceptions of audience.  Bakhtin notes that “when the listener perceives and understands the meaning (the language meaning) of speech, he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it… and constitutes nothing other than the initial preparatory stages of a response” showing that the hearer of a message is anything but passive (1232-3).

Bakhtin notes three elements of the utterance that are important to understanding its scope and meaning: 1) “The boundaries of each concrete utterance as a unit of speech communication are determined by a change of speaking subjects” (1234) 2) “the specific finalization of the utterance” (1237) and 3) the “most important aspect: the stable generic forms of the utterance” (1238). Of this latter category, Bakhtin stresses the fluidity and invisible grace with which we move between generic forms, as “we use them confidently and skillfully in practice, and it is quite possible for us not even to suspect their existence in theory” (1238). He notes that these speech genres can account for the possibility that a given speaker will be very fluent in some genres, yet may “feel quite helpless in certain spheres of communication precisely because they do not have a practical command of the generic forms used in a given sphere[2]” (1239).

The ideas about audience and the importance of context relates to the resurgence of an interest in audience in the “new rhetoric” discussed by Porter. Though it does not seem that the theorists outlined in this chapter went so far as to imagine rhetorical exchanges as comprised of variously changing and dynamic roles between speaker and audience, there is a move toward reviving the idea of audience from its place in obscurity during the “bad old days” of current-traditional methods. As Porter notes, “the new rhetoric stresses the purposive nature of discourse, and its situational ground,” something that is in alignment with the ideas put forth by Bakhtin (58). It is also noted that “the new rhetoric represents a return to a more comprehensive view of rhetoric, perhaps even more so that that of classical rhetoric,” a move that may be informed (perhaps?) by some of the notions posited by Bakhtin (59).

At any rate, as these theories are taken together, the idea of audience is greatly expanded from its place of obscurity in the beginning of the twentieth century. Rather than privileging the speaker/author in the communication exchange, more socially-oriented theories posit that this exchange moves in both directions, where the message and speaker are (at least partially) formed by the audience itself, rather than “acting upon” that audience. In these ways, rhetoric moves away from a one-way active/passive model and toward more reciprocity and feedback, where the lines between speaker, spoken, and spoken to are blurred as one constitutes the other(s) in an ongoing, dynamic exchange.

[1] There was a push during this time to try to figure out what differentiated “Literature,” (for instance) as a superior linguistic construct than, say, conversations on a street corner.

[2] This latter understanding – that one person can be very fluent in some genres while not in others – has implications for pedagogy and the ways that composition/rhetoric might approach student writing.



3 comments on “Bakhtin, Utterances, and Speech Genres

  1. Crowley hits total despair in that 2003 article — and I certainly understand why. The labor and economic situation is so thoroughly entrenched in the institution (and now, with budget cuts, seems even less likely to improve). However, she doesn’t make the obvious move that would allow for some optimism: move composition out of the English Department. That alone of course doesn’t necessarily rescue the situation — no panacea here — but I think we have enough historical evidence (e.g., from standalone writing programs and departments) to say that the institutional source of the problem is not the University but moreso the English Department and the ideologies that hold that institutional/disciplinary space in place. Berlin, Lauer, and others I encountered early in my carrer were convinced that the ideology could be changed … work the system from within. Like Crowley, I think not — but unlike Crowley I see hope in other directions.

  2. In very different ways, and separately, Bakhtin and Perelman both discover the importance of the audience, not as a passive receptor but as an active interlocutor. That is a breakthrough discovery for rhetoric, I think. Or, actually, recovery.

  3. “I am uncertain about this, as I am not sure how one distinguishes between the beginning and the end of an utterance – how is this parsed and divided?” I think you actually partially answer this later on in the post, but I thought I’d help clarify. An uterance can be of almost any length (word, sentence, paragraph, novel, etc.). Language only becomes an utterance when it can be responded to, so its end seems to be delimited by the response of the other. Bakhtin says, “Any utterance […] has, so to speak an absolute beginning and an absolute end: its beginning is preceded by the utterances of others, and its end is followed by the responsive utterance of others” (RT 1234), so it is bookended by others. However, I feel like even the simplest grunt could be taken as an utterance as long as someone turned to the grunter was grunting in response to something said or done by an other and an other asked them what was wrong. Perhaps I take it too far. Or perhaps the fact that the grunt has some inherent meaning allows it to be considered an utterance.

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