Read Chapter 5

Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin

CITE AS: Lewis, C. (2016). Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bahktin. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 77 - 84). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Chapter 5
Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin
When I was an undergraduate literature student at the University of Illinois, I fell in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was attracted to all nineteenth-century Russian literature, perhaps because my grandparents, who lived with my family, were turn-of-century immigrant Russian Jews whose interactional dynamics resonated, for me, in these novels. Reading them was an aesthetic, personal, and pleasurable experience, as I became immersed in the characters’ cadences that fueled my childhood memories. And even after later learning about Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, I continued to feel a strong connection to Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov ([1880] 1992) for its narrative point of view and uses of dialogue, which continue to connect me to my childhood—in particular, to the tradition of D’var Torah as part of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. This tradition involves thirteen-year-olds interpreting portions of the Torah. The young interpreters are taught that they are entering a conversation that includes two thousand years of interpreters—rabbinical scholars—whose competing perspectives and translations are an expected and accepted part of the dialogue. In other words, the presence of other interpreters always already exists in the words, the language of the text, and the interpreter. As Mikhail Bakhtin would have it, “Words are half someone else’s,” meaning that language is foundationally dialogic, intertextual, and heteroglossic and that every utterance contains the traces of prior and future utterances. Thus, there were connections, for me, from Dostoevsky to my family’s conversations—rife with overlapping turns and competing perspectives—to Bakhtin and back again to Dostoevsky (whom Bakhtin explicates in his book Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics [1984]).

In graduate school, my interest in literature turned to teaching and learning, specifically how young people make meanings of literature and other signs, both as reader-interpreters and as writer-producers. Thus, my thoughts about Bakhtin are connected to my interests as a researcher whose work uses sociocultural theory, ethnography, and discourse analysis to study literacy, media education, and learning. When I read The Dialogic Imagination and Speech Genres, I understood, through Bakhtin’s lens of dialogism, not only how heteroglossic voices converge and collide in literature but also how all signs are thus constituted. In this way, Bakhtin’s philosophy of language mirrors that of his close colleague Valentin Voloshinov, who argues that the sign is inevitably a “site of struggle” (1973). As Janet Maybin puts it in her explication of Bakhtin’s philosophy of language, “Language originates in social interactions and struggle and these are always implicated in its use and meaning” (2001). In Speech Genres, Bakhtin makes it clear that genres arise and shift in and through these struggles. The “signs” of faith, doubt, responsibility, morality, and so on are all sites of struggle played out through language in The Brothers Karamazov—with each utterance responding to and anticipating other utterances, in what Bakhtin calls a polyphony of voices.

In Bakhtin’s world, polyphonic texts are not benignly so. Evaluations are produced through double-voiced texts, in which meanings are refracted through authorial interventions such as parody or irony. The same is true in social settings outside the novel, in our everyday reporting of the speech of others—the way we animate, as though we are the speakers, inflecting the speech with our own ideological formations. For example, a teacher who participated in my research was helping students understand an indigenous scholar’s perspective on the 1995 Disney film Pocahontas. As part of her pedagogy, she used direct and indirect forms of reported speech (see Bakhtin 1981) to position herself in relation to the scholar’s text and the film:

Okay, so back when the Europeans came, they considered themselves superior—better than—the Native Americans. Okay. They said, “Well, look at us; we’re civilized,” ’kay. “We live a certain way. We consider ourselves to have the correct religion. We consider ourselves to be—we’re gonna all go to heaven because we believe in a certain kind of god,” right.

Here, she animates the speech of the colonizers through her own voice, inflected with sarcasm to make sure it is understood that she did not author these words. She surrounds these utterances with indirect reporting (e.g., “they said” and “right”) to remind her students of her own distance from the colonizers. Her evaluation is clear and she has positioned her students not only to understand the scholar’s ideology but to see that ideology as the one that is most aligned with the position of indigenous people who were oppressed by the colonists.

Bakhtin was interested in signs within their social contexts—language in use, in all its complexity. He and his circle were responding to the literary and semiotic theories of their time. Conventional scholarship viewed signs as having arbitrary meanings, positioned literary texts as linguistic artifacts with language separate from social context and use, and conceptualized the author (in the case of literature) as an individual psyche. But if signs are sites of struggle, then meanings are motivated rather than arbitrary. This Bakhtinian philosophy of language—a sociological and linguistic philosophy—views signs as complexly motivated, literary texts as nested in social contexts, and the author as a socioideological self.

Given where I come from, my own socioideological self, perhaps my attraction to this line of thinking is not surprising. As a child, I was taught to distrust authority, especially institutions that could potentially be anti-Semitic, and I grew up with the tacit knowledge that fixed discourses without nuance and multiple perspectives were, more often than not, to be challenged. I brought these assumptions to my work as a teacher and have since taught the interpretations of all texts and signs, from middle school through graduate school, using the same three principles of critical literacy (Lewis, Pyscher, and Stutelberg 2015). I’m interested in (1) how signs position readers/viewers, (2) how readers/viewers position signs, and (3) how signs and readers/viewers are positioned within social, political, cultural, and spatial contexts. The first dimension addresses signs as mediational means whose effects on readers are often inscribed within the sign (e.g., who does this film address, and what ideologies are present in the film?). The second addresses the ideological formations and identity affiliations of the reader. The third addresses the sociocultural placement of texts and their consumption in particular sociocultural and spatial contexts. To demonstrate the salience of these dimensions of critical literacy, I often begin teacher workshops with a clip from the 2007 film Freedom Writers that shows the shock of the protagonist, a teacher, when her students devalue her worth in their lives and claim to “hate white people.” We ask questions (e.g., Whom does this film think you are? What does this clip make you desire? What ideologies have shaped this desire?) to discuss ideologies of texts and readers/viewers that inscribe and respond to dominant fantasies about teaching in urban schools. We look also at the DVD cover to talk about the intersemiotics of signs, such as  the large, central positioning of the actor Patrick Dempsey (famous for his portrayal of Derek Shepherd, also known as “Dr. McDreamy,” on the prime-time TV show Grey’s Anatomy) despite his small role in the film. The concept of sign selection is also relevant in what gets foregrounded (McDreamy) and backgrounded (the urban youth) within the physical and social space of the DVD cover. To consider the third dimension, we each discuss different experiences we have had as teachers, such as one that emerged for me out of a meeting with an African American mother who preferred that her son have opportunities to read “melting pot” (Sims 1983) books that had African American characters living middle class lives, rather than books raising critical issues of discrimination or oppression. The mother’s predominately white, rural community served as an important backdrop for this decision, a sociopolitical context that we, as educators, needed to consider as we thought about what critical literacy meant in that context and whose interests it would serve (Lewis, Ketter, and Fabos 2001).

Bakhtin proposes that speakers and audiences address one another by producing utterances that are constituted in an awareness of the expectations of others in the interactional context. However, authoritative discourse does not allow for the give-and-take between social voices that leads to appropriation and change. Visiting an urban charter high school that emphasizes the recording arts, I was reminded about the central role that address and authoritative discourse play in media communication and audience response. The school, with an enrollment mostly of African American males, had received some media attention that the school viewed as positive. A small national magazine had celebrated the school’s success in using hip-hop as part of the curriculum with students whom the magazine characterized as dropouts.The article’s headline included the words “Hip Hop and Dropout” printed in large, bold font. Noticing the article displayed on a table during an all-school meeting, a soon-to-graduate African American student read the article’s headline and quietly remarked that this school was neither a school for dropouts nor one that focused on hip-hop. He did not agree with the broad sweep of these generalizations about the identity of his school and its students. The school’s administration, on the other hand, was pleased for the publicity and its positive focus on the school’s successes.

This strikes me as a useful anecdote because it so clearly demonstrates that texts have little meaning outside the particularly contextualized lives and identities of their readers. Although meanings are produced, in part, through reader-text transactions, both readers and texts are situated within social, cultural, and institutional frameworks that both constrain (close) and destabilize (open) meanings. The article in the anecdote was shaped by the discourse of structural racism that participates in “framing dropouts” (Fine 1991) as black and interested in hip-hop. The young man refused to be addressed by those dominant discourses. He was an accomplished young man who had, in fact, just been awarded a college scholarship. As Garrett Duncan argues, “By critically reading the world, Black teenagers construct their identities through redefining what it is that constitutes respectable thinking and behaving in a racist society” (1995, 58). This student redefined respectable thinking and provided a corrective to the way in which the article frames black youth identity.

 It is entirely possible that some teachers and administrators at the school would have a response to the article similar to this young man’s; however, a given text can engender an open set of contradictory interpretations that depend on how and to what effect the text will be read by others—in other words, on whom the text addresses. In this case, the potential for what could be viewed as positive publicity for the school may have resulted in a positive official school response to the article. Given a national climate in which schools are generally the object of negative media attention and increasingly subject to free-market principles, it is not surprising that the article represents a school identity that could be viewed as strategically desirable. This media text was linguistically heteroglossic, with language that contained competing discourses (authoritative and persuasive) and meaning potentials. Even in this brief example, we can see how language can contain traces of prior and future utterances, simultaneously answering past utterances and addressing those to come.

These examples—the film Freedom Writer and the magazine article—highlight what Bakhtin refers to as the “centripetal” or homogenizing effects of texts existing in tension with their “centrifugal” or heterogeneous effects{AU: Please insert date and page number citation for quoted words.}. Throughout my career, I have been interested in studying how textual ideologies are shaped by multivoiced responses and meanings that can’t be controlled by teachers or assessments. By way of illustration, I’ll return to my previous example of the teacher who animated the speech of colonists. Later in the unit on Disney’s Pocahontas, she read aloud a quote from an indigenous author who was critical of the film’s representation of native women as sexually free in contrast to white women. An African American female student asked what the article meant by the phrase “sexually free.”{AU: Can the article be cited here?} The teacher explained that it might mean that native women are not as bound by the rules that would bind a white woman, and the student quipped with sarcasm, “So the white woman is holier than holy,” and followed with, “I don’t agree with that.” The teacher asked the student if she agreed that this is what the movie shows. The white students were disturbed that the author of the critique and the students in class (the African American, Latina, and Native American students, all of whom agreed with the author of the critique) were ruining an “innocent” movie for little kids. They felt that if the movie addressed issues of racism and genocide, it would not be suitable for kids.

For the African American student who spoke up, this discussion was not a scholarly exercise. It was about her embodied identity as a young African American woman in the face of mediascapes and social spaces that cast her as hypersexual. For this student, the film carried dominant racist views about black female sexuality, despite its explicit reference to Native American women, and the article—although it was a trenchant critique of the film—somehow coded and ultimately reified these dominant views for her.

This placed the teacher in an awkward position. She had chosen the article because it so effectively critiqued the Disney film, and she wanted her students to see that the author was not saying that white women are truly purer or less overtly sexual than women of color but rather that the film portrays Native American women in this way. In this case, the student translated the critical scholarly text in a way that marshaled or mobilized her indignation about the film and, more directly, about the language that constructs women of color as deviant (“sexually free”).

Bakhtin teaches us that dominant discourses are not sufficiently attuned to the incredible dialogic complexity of social worlds. More importantly, however, Bakhtin teaches us that critiques of dominant discourses are also inadequate in the face of the heteroglossic complexity that exists in the classroom I have described and in the social worlds where all of us live our lives. In the end, I am interested not only in Bakhtin’s obvious attention to structure and ideology. What really draws me to his work is the truth it seems to speak about the dense and complicated language of my childhood, resulting in a healthy (I hope) disequilibrium in relation to identity and discourse that Bakhtin so perfectly addresses. For it is this dynamic function of language that allows each of us to “create new ways of being” as Dorothy Holland and her colleagues (1998, 5) put it, to reinvent ourselves in relation to media texts and continuously emerging contexts.
Bakhtin, M. M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
———. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.{AU: Please check and confirm whether the spelling “Dostoevsky” or “Dostoyevsky” is used in this particular translation/edition.} Translated by C. Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
———. 1986. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by V. W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Dostoevsky, F. (1880) 1992. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky. New York: Knopf.
Duncan, G. A. 1995. “What Is Africa to Me? A Discursive Approach to Literacy and the Construction of Texts in the Black Adolescent Imagination.” In Toward Multiple Perspectives on Literacy: Fifty-Ninth Yearbook of the Claremont Reading Conference, edited by P. H. Dreyer, 46–62. Claremont, CA: Claremont Reading Conference.
Fine, M. 1991. Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban Public High School. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Holland, D., W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain. 1998. Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lewis, C., J. Ketter, and B. Fabos. 2001. “Reading Race in a Rural Context.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 14 (3): 317–350.
Lewis, C., T. Pyscher, and E. Stutelberg. 2015. “Critical Sociocultural Perspectives in English Education.” In Reclaiming English Language Arts Methods Courses: Critical Issues and Challenges for Teacher Educators in Top-Down Times, edited by J. Brass and  A. Webb, {AU: Please insert page range of chapter.}. New York: Routledge.
Maybin, J. 2001. “Language, Struggle and Voice: The Bakhtin/Voloshinov Writings.” In Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, edited by M. Wetherell, S. Taylor, and S. J. Yates, 64–71. London: Sage.
Sims, R. 1983. “Strong Black Girls: A Ten Year Old Responds to Fiction about Afro-Americans.” Journal of Research and Development in Education 16 (3): 21–28.
Voloshinov, V. N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Seminar Press.

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