Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the utterance
Translation by Arianna Bove at Maastricht, 2009
Bakhtin's theory of enunciation is a 'carnevalesque' integration of all the elements that Hannah Arendt's theory of action and the word had emptied out or subordinated to the totalising power of language. The recognition of the multiplicity of the semiotic, the polyphony of matters of expression (both verbal and non-verbal), the heterogeneity of linguistic and non-linguistic elements, becomes on the one hand, the basis of a 'strategic' theory of action between speakers whereby it is possible to define meaning as an 'action on possible actions' (to use Foucault's expression) , and on the other hand, it is the basis of a theory of creativity and production of subjectivity.
Bakhtin's theory has no room for the concept of the performative beause 'all speech acts' are 'social acts, not just performative ones. All utterances are 'speech acts' that engage a 'social obligation'. Despite an homology of terms, there are remarkable differences between Austin's and Bakhtin's theories of speech acts. To begin with, the latter affirms a difference of nature between language and the utterance. In order for words, propositions, and grammar rules to become complete utterances and linguistic acts, there needs to be a 'supplementary element' that remains 'inaccessible to all categorisations and linguistic determinations, one that linguistics cannot grasp'.
The word, the grammatical form, propositions, and statements separated from the utterance (from the speech act) are 'technical signs' at the service of a signification that is only potential. The individuation, singularisation, and actualisation of this potential of language operated by the utterance (this 'achievement') allows us to enter an other 'sphere of being': the 'dialogical sphere'. What makes us turn words and linguistic propositions into complete utterances, into a 'totality', are pre-individual affective forces and social and ethico-political forces that whilst being external to language are actually inside the utterance.
'The enunciated, Bakhtin says, is completely traversed by these extra-linguistic (dialogic) elements.'
In the theory of the speech act, speakers are not first and foremost linguistic or psychological subjects, but 'possible worlds' - (singularities or existential cristallisations - in the language of Guattari). They occupy 'chronotopes' (blocs of space-time, 'existential territories', in the language of Guattari), and these are absolutely irreducible. The dialogic relationship between possible worlds and processes of existential singularisation is constituted by affective, ethical and political forces. Through the utterance, these express friendships and enmities, agreements and disagreements, sympathies and antipathies. They organise the relation of cooperation that opens to the creation of possibilities or, on the contrary, establish relations of domination that fix the same possibilities.
The origin of all of these forces is not linguistic, even though they express themselves through language and signs. Rather, they are variables internal to the creation and transformation of the utterance.
Affective and ethico-political forces are firstly expressed by the voice. In an important article, Guattari notes that in the utterance one finds both the 'pre-individual voice' that expresses a will based on emotional evaluations (in his words, sensible affects) and 'social voices', ethico-political voices that express 'universes of references and values' (the beautiful, the just and the true), which are problematic affects in Guattari's words.
Wherever linguistics wills structural and differential relations between signs, Bakhtin, like the enlightened, the idiots and the mad, 'extends the voices, their dialogic relation' and the existential territories that support them.
This voice is deployed on this side of articulated language. According to Bakhtin, the voice or intonation, not yet captured in the 'phonetic abstraction' of language, is always produced 'on the threshold of the verbal and the non-verbal, the said and the non-said' and it is through it that it addresses itself to the other. This address is affective and ethico-political rather than linguistic. It 'appropriates, travels, avails itself of linguistic and semiotic elements, confirms and drifts away, critiques and legitimates meanings and established intonations'.
Voices operate a singularisation of language that we might call strategic because they distribute and 'name' speakers according to a proto-political model that structures the space of the word along the lines of power relations between speakers. The voice already engages a specific mode of action of discourse that with Foucault we can call 'the action on possible actions', because it expresses evaluation, differences and values.
'Intonation seems to indicate that the world that surrounds the speakers is full of animated forces: it is menacig, indignant, loves or flatters objects and phenomena'. In the voice, we find again the 'animism' rivendicated by Guattari, that is to say, the taking sides in an ethico-political way in relation to others and the world.
The voice expresses itself, vibrates in a dialogical space that is a sui generis 'public space'. The voice can produce itself on the basis of 'different fundamental tones' (Bakhtin) that depend on the power relations in the 'public space' where it evolves. These are power relations (of domination or of cooperation) that modulate and influence its modes of expression. The voice can be deployed and differenciate between an 'athmosphere of sympathy', of 'complicity' or of 'defiance' and 'embarassment'.
In each voice there is a double address. the voice addresses not only the addressee but also the 'object of the utterance' in so far as the object is called into being both as 'judge and witness' and therefore, as its 'ally or enemy'.
According to Bakhtin, one must radically distinguish between the 'evaluative expression', which can be affective and axiological, and 'semantic expression', because - contrary to what Wittgenstein claims - the latter can never replace or substitute the former. There will always be a iatus, an irreducible disjunction between desire and affective expressions, on the one hand, and language (its words and statements) on the other. Linguistic exclamations that we learn can never replace or substitute the cry of pain of the body.
Here lies the difference between linguistics and the philosophy of language: pre-signifying corporeal semiotics (gestures, postures, moves, attitudes), the 'universe of values' and existential territories, are part and parcel of the components of the utterance. They are, notably in Guattari, an autonomous power of the production of speech.
'Intonation and gesture are linked by a close relation that finds its origin in bodies - the 'primary and ancient matter of evaluative expression'. In each gesture, as in each intonation, always lingers and sleeps in waiting an embryo of attack and defence, menace and tenderness. For this reason every utterance always puts the speaker in a position of 'ally or witness', friend or enemy.
Even the poet, says Bakhtin, 'always works with the sympathy or antipathy, consensus or dissent' of the listener.
It is only when the voice penetrates and appropriates words and statements that the latter loose their linguistic potentiality and turn into actualised expression. It is only at that moment that words and statements are encumbered with the a unique and non reproducible role in verbal exchange.
2. The active and creative dimension of dialogic relations, their character as strategic games of 'possible worlds', and the existential singularities and spaces that support them, is evident when one compares them with the linguistic elements of the statement. Whilst the latter are 'reproducible' components, dialogic relations represent the 'non reproducible', always renewed elements of the utterance, whereby singularity arises from the evenemential nature of the utterance. These two dimensions (reproducible and non reproducible) are clearly distinguishable both in the address and in the response that the utterance calls for.
All speech acts are addressed to someone or something, respond to someone or something and through this addressing or this response they express values, points of view, emotions, affects, sympathy and antipathy, agreement and disagreement in relation to the situation, in relation to the other and to one's own utterance, in relation to other utterances and also in relation to the utterances that circulate in the public space (notably those that refer to 'the true, the just and the beautiful', as Bakhtin remarks). All these speech acts aim to an agreement or a disagreement, refer back to an enemy or a friend.
All speech acts are questions that interrogate others, oneself and the world. Bakthin's theory of enunciation implicates the world as a problem, as an event and as something that is never accomplished, unlike Austin's theory of performativity and speakers, which entails the world as convention, institution, and something to reproduce.
In his last years Guattari refers to a 1924 text by Bakhtin that talks about poetic creation, from which he draws lessons for a theory of the utterance and of the production of subjectivity in general.
Even in the case of poetry, it works not only on the signifier, but always refers back to the existential point of view. Bakthin underlines how if one wanted to account for the address it would be insufficient to stay at the level of the mere material of language. One needs to refer to material languages that are non discursive.
In the speech acts (here poetic speech acts), it is affect, the existential function, that uses and appropriates different semiotic elements to compose them and keep them together, to accomplish them and achieve them.
The existential function that Guattari calls the refrain relies on certain 'discursive chains', on certain linguistic elements, and it detaches them from their meaning and normal signification and denotation to confer to them their own movement, ultimately another meaning. In this way it plays the role of an ontological existential affirmation.
Bakhtin distinguishes between five elements of enunciation:
1) the sound side of the word, its musical aspect;
2) the material meanings of all its nuances and its variants;
3) its aspect of verbal relations and interrelations;
4) the intonation aspect that expresses its emotional and volitional orientation at the psychological level and its direction in relation to ethico-political and more specifically social values (pre-individual and social voices);
5) the sentiment of verbal activity, of the active engendering of its meaning (the feeling or affect in which one needs to include all moving elements of articulation, gesture, mimicry and others, all the inner drive of the person) - Affect expresses the existential apprehension of the world and the self that presides over the dispositions of elements of enunciation, their selection and modes of composition.
The first three components of the utterance that constitute the linguistic and semiotic elements of the utterance represent their 'reproducible' parts that can be reiterated, whereas the last two elements cannot be reproduced, they are absolutely singular, and created for the first time and in the speech act.
The fourth element is specifically dialogic and expresses both affective (emotional and volitional) evaluations and social (axiological) ones.
The last element, that represents the sentiment of activity in the creation of the word, expresses the existential and ontological force of affect. It constitutes the non-discursive element that generates not only the psychic reality of the word, but also 'meaning and appreciation'. By means of the utterance, the speaker inhabits an 'active position' (she operates in an existential self-positing as Guattari will say) in relation to the world and others: 'in other words, the sentiment and feeling of taking up a role that concerns man as a whole, of a movement that involves both the organism and semantic activity, because what it generates is the soul of the word in its concrete unity'.
Guattari draws general conclusions. With Bakhtin, he says, 'we can learn to read the utterance, its multiple voices and its multiple centres' (p. 40). The utterance and the process of production of subjectivity are 'a composition of heterogeneous modes of semiotisation (production of meaning)'. An always partial (non totalising) composition of a multiplicity of elements (both linguistic and non-linguistic) and an heterogeneity of semiotics (signifying and corporeal, iconic, pre-signifying and machinic). But it is this affect, the refrain that operates the 'enunciative crystallisation', that produces at the same time a 'relative feeling of unity' and of singularity, specific each time, to the disparate multiplicity of these linguistic elements, corporeal and axiological, that traverse the speaker. The affect is a process of existential appropriation which, on the one hand, selects the semiotic components by detaching them from their meanings and ordinary denotations, and on the other hand operates as a 'catalyst', as an attractor that keeps them together as in a musical 'motif', as in the refrain by giving coherence to these heterogeneous elements through repetition.
It is always affect that has the ability to 'transversalise' this heterogeneity of elements, to give them colour, a tone that makes them converge, in time, towards the singularity of the utterance.
Affect represents an opening of non discursivity that is at the heart of discursivity and makes it crystallise and works on it, organises it and valorises it.
Like in Bakhtin, in Guattari too, the affects that provide the utterance with the character of an existential singularity are both 'affects of sensibility' (pre-individual, volitional and emotional) and 'affects of problematics' that activate references that are 'sentimental, mythical, historical and social', universes of values and references.
This active power of the affect, despite being non discursive, is no less complex, and Guattari defines it as 'hyper complex to mark the fact that it is an example of the engendering of the complex, a processuality that is in a nascient state, a place of proliferation of becomings'.
The human sciences and in particular psychoanalysis have for too long been used to think of affect in terms of the elementary entity of pulsion and instinct. But, according to Guattari, there are also 'complex affects', highly differentiated, that inaugurate irreversible diachronic ruptures and should be called 'christic, debussyst, leninist (and as will happen, Sarkosyst). It is thus that throughout the decades a whole constellaton of existential refrains, of enunciative ruptures, has given access to a 'Lenin-language' that engages specific procedures belonging to the order of rhetorics and lexicons belonging to the order of phonology, prose and images'.
One should go back more specifically to the novelty introduced by the theory of Guattari and Deleuze, that is to say, to the role played by the existential function of affects in speech and the production of subjectivity. For the time being I just want to underline the creative elements, the forces of affirmation and transformation of the relationship to the self, others and the world, that are non-linguistic forces, because they are affective, social and political. They are exterior to language, but inside the utterance.
We find the same fundamental distinctions in the act of response to the address ('comprehension'). All speech acts are a 'question' that requires a response, but the response that the utterance awaits is an 'active responsive attitude', an 'active responsive comprehension' of the other, unlike the performative, where the other is neither autonomous nor free. For the utterance 'nothing is more terrible than lack of response'. But the 'response-act' that operates in the word is not primarily linguistic.
If, as Bakhtin suggests, rather than the 'polyphony' and heterogeneity of the semiotic linguistic and non linguistic elements of the address, we consider those of 'comprehension', we find the same multiplicity of linguistic (reproducible) and non linguistic (non-reproducible) elements. In comprehension, there is an active response-reaction that we can distinguish.
1) the psychophysiological perception of the physical sign (word, colour, spatial form).
2) the recognition of the sign (as known or unknown), the comprehension of the reproducible (general) signification of language
3) the comprehension of its meaning withint the given context (close and distant)
4) the 'active dialogic comprehension (agreement and disagreement), the insertion in a dialogic context, the value judgement, are degrees of depth and universality.
This last element, the properly dialogical element is the most important because it is what singularises and gives existential coherence to the response-reaction. It is what selects, orders and achieves the multiplicity of the different matters of expression. Linguistic comprehension is not the same thing as dialogic comprehension. The first is made up of reproductible elements (the first two elements of Bakthin's citation), the second, of non-reproducible components, singular and created by the same act of comprehension.
Comprehension is always a taking up a position, a judgement, a response - an action inside dialogical relations.
The responses-reactions express a sympathy, an antipathy', an 'agreement, a disagreement, an adherence, an objection, an execution, a stimulus to action, etc'. All responses-reactions 'refute, confirm, complete and stand upon the questions to which they are addressed.'
Unlike the recipient of the utterance in Virno, who only contemplates, is witness to and judge of the elocution ('I speak'), who, as in the classical performative, is only subjected to an institutional effect, in Bakthin the interlocutor fully participates to the accompishment of the action. Also as in the later theory of Foucault of power relations the interlocutor is active and 'free'. In the event of enunciation, one determines the dynamics and orients the actualisation. The utterance is a co-production of a polemical or cooperative co-actualisation of linguistic virtualities and worlds of values or existential territories that support them.
Similarly to Foucault's power relations, the relations of power of the speech open up an active field of comprehension, responses-reactions, and a field of possibilities that cannot be determined or actualised outside the 'making' of the utterance.
If we follow the 'making' of the utterance, we can easily see that the nature of the utterance is not performative but dialogical, strategic and evenemential. The speech act is an action on the possible action of others that starts from the ethico-political dimension and the affective dimension of the relation with the other. Bakhtin has an 'agonistic' notion of the utterance that functions as a struggle between speakers, or rather, as a form of government of others that is expressed through a whole series of techniques and tactics of which linguistic and semiotic techniques and tactics are part and parcel.
'When I elaborate my speech, I tend to, on the one hand, determine this response in an active fashion, on the other hand I tend to presume that response and this presumed response acts itself on my utterance (I mark restrictions). When I speak, I take into account the a-perceptive foundation on which my word will be received by the recepient: the degree of information that he has of the situation, his specialised knowledge in the domain of the cultural exchange, his prejudices (of my point of view) and sympathies and antipathies. Because this will condition his responsive comprehesion of my utterance'.
The choice of kinds of utterance, the choice of compositional processes and linguistic means will start from the power relation with the other, because unlike Saussure's linguistics the utterance is not simply an individual process. These choices can be determined only inside the utterance in the process of their making where the other is integrated as a living, dynamic and free element.
 ' To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of actions of others' ( Foucault , 'The subject and power' in Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982: 221)