by John Clarke
15th July 2019

John Clarke

Thinking critically is a demanding challenge, especially in these hard times. This blog celebrates the practice of thinking collaboratively and dialogically, drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s persistent concern with ‘dialogism’ and ‘heteroglossia’ as vital and productive features of social life.

Critical thinking should never be a lonely experience. Even if I am not engaged directly in conversation with others about the problems that confront us, I am conscious of being in conversation with an array of ‘voices in my head’. These voices are the people whom I carry around with me because they have helped me to think again, and to think better.

This is one of the ways in which I encounter Mikhail Bakhtin’s ghost: he was committed to the idea and practice of ‘dialogism’: the way in which different voices engage and open up different perspectives on the world. Bakhtin contrasted this with ‘monologism’: the singular authoritative voice telling us what to think (an experience only too familiar in academic life). Dialogism points to the existence of multiple voices (sometimes called heteroglossia) that offer us different takes on the world, different ways of thinking and feeling. It also invokes the idea of dialogue – the practice of talking together – in which we may develop ideas, sort out arguments and clarify thoughts. Such dialogue tends to be a hidden foundation for much academic work, trying ideas out, engaging in thinking with and against other people and perspectives. But it tends not to be very visible in accounts of academic work, which lean more heavily towards the fetishisation of the heroic ‘great thinker’, who has brilliant ideas and passes them on monologically.

I first encountered Bakhtin’s ghost when I was a postgraduate student in Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham which was itself an intensely heteroglossic environment, full of arguments, conversation, reflection and forms of collaborative working. A Cultural Studies interest in Bakhtin is not very surprising, since his work (across linguistics, literary studies and philosophy) made much sense for people with an interest in the entangled formations of meaning and power. But the Birmingham experience was not only about a theoretical encounter with Bakhtin (how to think about the politics of cultural) but was also deeply entwined with the emerging practices of doing critical academic work. It pointed to a practice that was recurrently about thinking again in the pursuit of thinking better and was about thinking collaboratively – dialogically – in the pursuit of better understandings and better stories, wonderfully embodied in the person and practice of Stuart Hall.

One effect of this early experience has been a constant engagement with dialogism as a foundation for my academic life in a variety of settings, including the Open University. And here Bakhtin’s ghost enters again: much of this collaborative thinking took place while we were gathered in the same place, wrestling with puzzles, problems and questions. But it also meant that my head was ‘heteroglossic’: I came to carry many of these voices around with me, reminding me of critical conversations. I confess that I find it more fun when those other voices are embodied and present in the room with me, but I am grateful for the friends and colleagues whose voices I do carry around in my head, knowing that they will help me to clarify my thoughts.

More theoretically, Bakhtin’s significance was brought to life for me by a lovely collection edited by two wonderful American anthropologists Jean Lave and Dorothy Holland (who died recently). History in Person (School of American Research, 2001) articulated for me the importance of thinking of people as ‘subjects who answer back’, and not merely repeating what power tells them to think. This understanding influenced the analytical approach in a number of projects in which I have been involved, from work on citizenship to an interest on governing strategies (and their failures). It demands attention to how people think about and live their places within systems of power, rather than assuming that they ‘know their place’. And this demands that when we act as researchers, writers, commentators, we should be wary of assuming that we know what people – or worse, ‘the people’ – think.

This brings me to my most recent encounter with Bakhtin’s ghost: it began at a seminar about Brexit and a series of comments made about people living in separate worlds or in their own ‘bubbles’. One person said it was impossible to imagine the depth of racist, misogynistic stuff that had been unleashed. I thought this was odd, not least because I could hear all of those voices in my head. I was brought up in a respectable working class area of Sheffield in the 1950s and 1960s and was thoroughly exposed to racialised, patriarchal and homophobic ways of thinking, talking and acting (alongside lots of ‘good sense’ from working class culture). I am grateful for all the other voices in the intervening years who have helped me to think again and think better, but I remain puzzled that people can see themselves as separate from (or even above) such currents. An attention to heteroglossia feels important in making sense of current social and political changes, informing both ways of analysing and ways of intervening, not least because monologic shouting doesn’t make for good political practice (any more than it makes for good teaching).

And so the new book – Critical Dialogues: Thinking Together in Turbulent Times – is a way of trying to make Bakhtin’s ghost visible (and audible) to more people. When I retired, I wanted to pay tribute to the ways in which dialogues had shaped my work and I was fortunate to find a dozen people who were willing to recreate that process and, even better, have the always unfinished results published. So I took a recorder and sat and talked with people who had helped me (and, of course, many others) to think better. I am grateful to them for demonstrating so compellingly why dialogic thinking matters.

Critical Dialogues, by John Clarke is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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