"Intense conversation" by Sigfrid Lundberg via Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) - Bakhtin

#CertStudy, Day 9: Language, dialogue, & digital storytelling (Bakhtin, Pleasants)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

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Let’s start with a reminder of one of Lewis & Moje’s critiques of … let’s call it naively contextual theories of identity. (I’m one way at work, one way at home, one way at the grocery store, one way online, etc.) Their point is that there’s a radical particularity and a genuinely contested negotiation involved in one’s agentive enactments of identity at any given moment.

The “givenness” is significant: Who am I speaking to? What do I want to communicate about myself? (Especially vis-à-vis the other people I’m with or even just thinking about?) What are the ideological stakes of particular strategic choices in this moment? You get the idea.

Well, near as I can tell, one of the most significant thinkers in examining the role of language in these sorts of negotiations is Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin has a similar (and in Lewis & Moje’s case, explicitly influential) analysis of how individual words establish their meaning (literally “come alive”) in a particular socio-ideological (or to use the Bakhtinian buzzword: dialogic) context.

For Bakhtin, the meaning of a word is dependent on its speaker, in dialogue with both the referent object or idea as well as an anticipated reception and response from the hearer. All these factors (local factors, shouts the New Literacy Studies canon; particular contextual and situational factors, Lewis & Moje specify) are in play for meaning-making:

Indeed, any concrete discourse (utterance) finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist-or, on the contrary, 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 toward 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 plicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile. (loc. 3903)

Because it’s just so gorgeous I have to do one more:

If we imagine the intention of such a word, that is, its directionality toward the object, in the form of a ray of light, then the living and unrepeatable play of colors and light on the facets of the image that it constructs can be explained as the spectral dispersion of the ray-word, not within the object itself … but rather as its spectral dispersion in an atmosphere filled with the alien words, value judgments and accents through which the ray passes on its way toward the object; the social atmosphere of the word, the atmosphere that surrounds the object, makes the facets of the image sparkle. (loc. 3916)

All this has lots of implications for thinking not just about identity as it is negotiated through language acts, but also authorship, understandings of audience (and its inextricable role in dialogue), etc.

Healther Pleasants, in a book all about sites of learning as sites of possibility,uses Bakhtin’s idea of the  centripetal (toward the center) and centrifugal (away from the center) forces of language. Centripetal forces “allow[] us to be ‘seen’ by others as enacting recognizable identities,” and centrifugal forces “provide opportunities for innovative interpretations of existing language and discourse in the service of making each of our identities a uniquely fashioned construction rather than an essentialized and static caricature” (p. 210).

In other words, centripetal forces tend toward pushing us in the direction of using language in unitive ways (“speak like everyone else and you’ll fit in”) and centrifugal forces are the more chaotic and creative movements in which our novel uses of language take on their full, complexly “sparkly” effect (to return to Bakhtin’s metaphor for “the living word”).

Pleasants ran an ongoing digital storytelling afterschool program and was especially attentive to the ways her participants used language both to join unitive discourse communities (academic literacies, conventionally accepted storytelling techniques, etc.) and to innovate and even rebel (toward language patterns more typical of their out-of- than in-school usage, unconventional storytelling approaches,  etc.).

I think Pleasants’s centrifugal/centripetal framing is a rich way of analyzing her ethnographic data. For a chapter-length piece, I’m not sure I’d want much more theory bogging things down. But there’s definitely a lot more grist for the “theorizing digital storytelling mill” in even the short excerpt I read from Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination.

Let me speak briefly to two interesting ideas:

(1) What Bakhtin so richly calls the “living word” (rich especially in the context of Christian religious education) is the “stuff” that makes remixing powerful:

The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot not fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue. After all, the utterance arises out of this dialogue as a continuation of it and as a rejoinder to it—it does not approach the object from the sidelines. (loc. 3908)

When a digital storyteller chooses a particular piece of popular music to accompany the story, or a inserts a particular photo from a poignant life moment, or quotes a particular poem or song lyric in the narration, that person is bringing along a lot of baggage (an intentionally “loaded” word—Bakhtin delightfully calls these meanings “the sclerotic deposits of an intentional process”).

This interpretive baggage might be associated with that media artifact in the teller’s personal experience, or in the popular imagination. Remixing/sampling is about “using” that baggage, sometimes centripetally (say, the Luther Vandross sample in Kanye’s “Slow Jamz”), sometimes centrifugally (say, a Girl Talk mashup).

In other words, Bakhtin would likely agree that remix is a powerful lens for teaching interpretation, audience analysis, empathy, etc. It’s a way of getting people thinking about communication within communities of shared identity and values as well as across differences. Mary Hess has written about the need for these skills in 21st-century religious education. As Bakhtin puts it elsewhere “language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other.”

(2) In fact, that quotation continues like this:

[Language] becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own. (loc. 4131)

Yes, this excerpt further elucidates the point about remix, in ways that also point out the very Piagetian process of gaining expressive facility with language. (We encounter an unfamiliar word or usage of a familiar one, we compare it to what we already know, we either incorporate it into our existing understandings or change those understandings, and then we go about using our new knowledge—first tentatively then with increasing confidence.)

But besides hitting my Piaget trigger, the word “appropriation” fires off another association more relevant to religious education. Fowler’s imperfect but useful work on stages of faith names a key transition (often in young adults) as the individuative-reflective move wherein the believer “need[s] not simply to replace their old tacit ideological system with a new one but to choose from a place of freedom. Authority must be relocated ‘within the self’ (p. 178–179)” (that’s me quoting Fowler somewhere in The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation).

At some point on your faith journey, you have to choose what’s going to work for you. You’ve got to claim it. You’ve got to decide what it means and what that means for how you live your life. You’ve got to, returning to Bakhtin above, “make it [your] own.”

I think the whole reason why making media is a valuable faith formation activity is that in the process of curating/designing/designing—images, music, narration, story arc, etc.—you’re not just claiming the words, you’re claiming the ideas you’re expressing in them. Telling a faith story is a way of first teasing out and then (pro)claiming the epiphanies and convictions to which your experiences have led you.

Image: “Intense conversation” by Sigfrid Lundberg via Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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