Draft of a paper given at the Polyphony and Dialogism as Ways of Organizing Conference, University of Essex, April 29th-30th, 2006



“Organizing multi-voiced organizations: action guiding anticipations

and the continuous creation of novelty”



John Shotter

Emeritus Professor, Department of Communication,

University of New Hampshire, USA



ABSTRACT: Bakhtin’s ideas of polyphony and dialogism are explored as ways of organising our own human affairs. Traditionally, language has been thought of as an already established, self-contained system of linguistic communication that sets out a set of rules or social conventions that people make use of in expressing themselves. In this account, what I will call the intellectualist, Cartesian account of language, people understand the linguistic representations contained or encoded in each other’s sentences. However, another account – an emotional-volitional account articulated by Bakhtin (1981, 1984, 1986), along with a number of others, such as Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty – is of a much more dynamic, participatory, relational kind. In it, language and the world are intertwined in a chiasmic relation with each other, in which we are shaped just as much, if not more, by the world, as the world by us. Thus, to switch to this very different view of language is also to switch to a very different view of the world in which we live: it is to see it as a living, dynamic, indivisible world of events that is also still coming into being. In this view, we understand another person’s utterances in terms of the bodily responses, the felt tendencies, they spontaneously arouse in us, responses that relate or orient us both toward them and toward events occurring in our shared surroundings. In other words, language is not a system for use by individuals to give shared expression to already clearly conceived significations, but is a way of organizing shared or sharable significations between us for always another first time – each utterance is a once-occurrent event of being (Bakhtin, 1993). In suggesting this, Bakhtin goes way beyond the Cartesian account of knowledge as an intellectual achievement between a subjective knower and objectively known events. For, in arguing for the importance of an utterance’s emotional-volitional tone, he is arguing that our knowledge as an intellectual achievements is dependent on a more fundamental, spontaneously occurring, sensuous attunement to the events occurring in our surroundings. The consequences of this very radically changed view of language-world relations for organizational inquiry and writing are explored below.




“Artistic form, correctly understood, does not shape already prepared and found content, but rather permits content to be found and seen for the first time” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.43, my emphasis).


“We must renounce our monological habits so that we might come to feel at home in the new artistic sphere which Dostoevsky discovered, so that we might orient ourselves in that incomparably more complex artistic model of the world which he created” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.272).



Let me begin by distinguishing between two kinds of difficulties, those that we call problems because we can arrive at a solution to them by the application of a method or process of reasoning (often conducted within a theoretical framework or schematism of some kind), and those that I will here call difficulties of orientation or relational difficulties, difficulties in which we need to resolve a line of action, a style or way of approach.


                Our ways of proceeding, our methods, or the steps we must take in relation to these two quite different kinds of difficulty are themselves quite different: For the difficulty to be called a problem, it must be possible to describe the initial state of affairs in terms relevant to an already well-known process of reasoning, and to ‘work out’ a clear link between the known and the unknown but desired states of affairs. But a relational or orientational difficulty presents itself as almost the reverse of this situation – for it is only after we discover a way of relating ourselves to our surroundings, a way of organizing or orienting ourselves to attend to certain aspects of our surroundings rather than others, that the data relevant to our achieving our goal can be brought to light (and then, and only then, can our problem solving reasoning be, if still necessary, applied).


                With respect to these kinds of difficulty, Wittgenstein (1953) puts the matter thus: He first notes that they have the form: “I don’t know my way about” (no.123). He then notes that one’s real need in such a situation is not to be able to say, “Now I see it” (i.e., the solution to the problem), but to be able to declare to others, “Now I know how to go on” (no.154). For ‘to see’ something is to be able to assimilate it to an already existing and known category, which in most practical situations is to ignore its unique and often important deviations from the already well known. Whilst being able to ‘go on’ is to be able to do something for a first time. In other words, the resolution of an orientational difficulty is achieved, not at an intellectual level, as something one can talk about to others, but at a practical level, as something that is manifested or shown in one’s unique way of being responsive to the unique details of a situation by one’s actions within it. The distinction between these two kinds of difficulties – difficulties of the intellect and difficulties of the will, as Wittgenstein (1980, p.17) terms them – will become more stark as my account of Bakhtin’s work develops.


                Organizationally, the talk used to resolve on a way of relating to a situation can, by working to link all the participants involved in it together as co-participants who all know, understand, and evaluate events occurring in the situation in a like manner, can work to bring it to an evaluative conclusion. Indeed, it is precisely to this second kind of difficulty, I suggest, that Bakhtin (1984) is referring to in my last epigraph quotation, in which he says that “we must renounce our monological habits” if we are to come “to feel at home” in a polyphonically organized world. But it links in also with the first epigraph quote from Bakhtin (1984): For the resolution of a relational or an orientational difficulty, a bewilderment or confusion, is always in relation to a unique and particular situation, a situation that occurs always for another first time.


                In this paper, then, I want to present some work in progress toward the resolution of difficulties of this second kind. It can only be work in progress, for, as will become apparent as I proceed, the turn to the polyphonic, dialogic “form-shaping ideology,” as set out by Bakhtin (1984, p.97), in his explorations of Dostoevsky’s achievement in his later novels, opens up a vast new ‘terra incognita’ – the vast sphere of the many different evaluative orientations, relations, or approaches that we might adopt to the others and othernesses around us – that now awaits our further explorations. It is so vast that I will ultimately select just two topics upon which to focus: 1) the pre-reflective volitions, the wilful efforts we put into organizing expressive acts in the world, and 2) how our expressive acts in their temporal contouring, i.e., in their “emotional-volitional tone” (Bakhtin, 1993), can exert an influence on the others around us, thus to shape not only their actions but their very way of being in the world.



                                                Bahktin, responsivity, and the influence of the not-yet-said


Central to Bakhtin’s (1981, 1984, 1986, 1993) whole approach to language is his emphasis on speech, on our embodied acts of voicing our words, our utterances, not on language as a system of static, repeatable forms functioning according to rules in their application. Thus central in what follows, will be a focus both on the responsivity of living and growing, embodied beings, both to each other and to the othernesses in their surroundings.


                But here I must add that, along with a focus on a persons’s responsive reactions to events in their surroundings, I want also to focus on the way in a person’s responsive reactions are always expressive in some way to those around them. Not only are they expressive of the person’s attitudes, evaluations, or feelings regarding the events in question, but also of any efforts they may be making to cope with those events – we can see directly that the man over there was ‘taken by surprise’, that the woman next to him was ‘upset’; we can also see that the man on the beach was battling against the wind, that the girl in the blue dress was trying to talk to her boyfriend who wasn’t listening, and that the child in the shopping plaza was wanting to be picked up, etc.

                In other words, whilst we can study already completed, dead entities at a distance, seeking to understand the pattern of past events that caused them to come into existence, and representing that pattern in terms of objective, explanatory theories, a quite different form of engaged, responsive understanding becomes available to us in our encounters with living, embodied beings. We can enter into two-way dynamic relationships with them, and, in allowing ourselves to be open to their movements, to their expressions, find ourselves spontaneously responding to them in ways quite impossible for dead entities.


                Involved in the different forms of engaged, responsive understanding that becomes available to us from within our dynamic, two-way relations with living, embodied beings (especially with others like ourselves), is not simply the individual knowing of facts, nor the individual knowing of a skill, but a moment by moment changing felt kind of knowing to do with how to organize or manage our own behaviour from within our lives with others like ourselves. It is a third kind of knowing which both takes into account (and is accountable to) those others, a knowing which, because of its anticipatory nature, provides us with a shaped and vectored sense of where at any one moment we are, as well as where next in that situation we might go (Shotter, 1993); and its action guiding, anticipatory nature that our understanding of living activities, of expressions, so very different from the mere movements of dead things.


                Indeed, as I will show in a moment, all the strange and special qualities of what we can call the realm of the dialogical follow from this focus on the anticipatory nature of our spontaneously occurring embodied, living, responsive, activities. Indeed, it is precisely this emphasis on the anticipatory nature of our spontaneously responsive, embodied, living relations to the events occurring around us that is basic to Bakhtin’s whole approach to verbal communication.


                As he notes: “All real and integral understanding is actively responsive... And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or her own idea in someone else’s mind. Rather, he expects response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth... Moreover, any speaker is himself a respondent to a greater or lesser degree... Any utterance is a link in a very complexly organized chain of other utterances” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.69, my emphases). Indeed, central among the many other features of such responsive talk is its orientation toward the future: “The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word; it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation of any living dialogue” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.280, my emphases). We shall find this distinction between passive representational forms of understanding and active responsive forms very important below, when we turn to the strange, chiasmic (i.e., multiply intertwined) nature of dialogically-structured human activities below.


                But here, let me emphasize that, in the very course of our listening to other person’s words, we are being bodily inclined, in an anticipatory fashion, toward responding to them in a certain way, so that if we do not respond as they expect, then, to use terms from Conversational Analysis (CA), a “repair” will be needed (Nofsinger, 1991). Indeed, so pervasive are the anticipations we arouse in our talk, that they can be seen as the ‘glue’ – albeit, at each juncture, a very locally specialized glue – holding a complexly organized chain of utterances together as an intelligible conversation or discourse of some kind. As workers in CA put it, the first pair-part of an adjacency pair establishes a conditional relevance in terms of which, whatever is said in response to it, will be inspected to see how it can possibly serve as the second pair-part of the relevant adjacency pair[1]. In other words, we not only hear the sounds made by another person as a response to our sounds, we hear them as sounds of agreement, of objection, of compliance, and so on. We have both a transitional understanding of what they have said (the semantic aspect of their utterance) and an action guiding anticipation of how to respond (the orientational or relational aspect of their utterance).


                But our sensibility in such exchanges is even more subtle and shaded than this. If the sounds we hear are sounds of agreement, we can hear them as sympathetic agreement, as patronizing agreement, as hurried agreement, as inconsequential agreement, as reluctant agreement, as unexpected or surprised agreement, and so on. Similarly with all other heard responses[2]. They are all subtly shaded, nuanced, or intonated in such a way as to enable us, mostly, to ‘go on’ with those to whom we must respond in reply, with at least decorum and courtesy, and sometimes, to ‘go on’ in ways appropriate to more complex aims: “... the word does not merely designate an object as a present-on-hand entity, but also expresses by its intonation my valuative attitude toward the object, toward what is desirable or undesirable in it, and, in so doing sets it in motion toward that which it yet-to-be-determined about it, turns it into a constituent moment of the living, ongoing event. Everything that is actually experienced,” says Bakhtin (1993), “is experienced as something given and as something-yet-to-be-determined, is intonated, has emotional-volitional tone, and enters into an effective relationship to me within the unity of the ongoing event encompassing us” (pp.32-33, my emphasis).


                Even if we are unmoving in space, as I intimated above, we can be sensed by others as making – indeed, as effortfully making – expressive movements over time, expressive movements that, in an anticipatory fashion, reach out toward the future.


                Here, I need to add a distinction made by Goffman that, to an extent, cuts across that made by Bakhtin. Goffman (1959) notes that “the expressiveness of the individual (and therefore his capacity to give impressions) appears to involve two radically different kinds of sign activity: the expressions that he gives, and the expressions that he gives off” (p.2). Both are expressive of an individual’s ‘inner life’, but the differences between them are important, for, as Goffman points out, “others may... use what are considered to be the ungovernable aspects of [a person’s] expressive behaviour as a check upon the validity of what is conveyed by the governable aspects” (p.7). Applied to Bakhtin, clearly, this means that we must distinguish between the degrees of volition that can, or in fact, have entered into the time-contouring of a person’s utterance, for it is just in those aspects of their utterances that individuals put most of their effort into contouring, that we can find their authoring at work. Whilst those aspects they utter effortlessly, will arouse a more collectively shared, impersonal response in us – but this is an issue too subtle to treat extensively here, for here I want to concern myself just with the issue of how individuals can, in their utterances, exert an organizing influence both on those around them, as well as on themselves. 


                Thus here, I think, it is sufficient to point out that in his use of the expression “emotional-volitional tone,” Bakhtin is suggesting that at every moment, as we voice an unfolding utterance, there is a degree of personal choice as to the different turns we take, the intonational time-contouring we give our utterances. So, although “the word in language is half someone else’s,” he notes (Bakhtin, 1981). “It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, 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” (pp.293-4, my emphases). Indeed, what makes a person’s words their own words, are the efforts they exert, and that we can sense them as exerting in their speech, to make their talk conform to ‘a something’ they are trying to express – we can hear these efforts ‘in’ their utterances, in their time-contouring of the emotional-volitional tone of their expressions.


                Thus the emotional-volitional tone of a person’s utterances is not something just tacked onto them as an optional extra, but is crucial to organizing the pragmatic conduct of all our communicating – one cannot give another person a piece of information (without insulting them) until one has set up an information giving relationship with them – an expectant orientation toward something yet to come – first (Schegloff, 1995). Indeed, as we shall see in a moment, all complex human activities which involve in their organization both the sequencing and the simultaneous combining of a whole multiplicity of different, (often) individually performed activities, requires – as in the performance of a piece of music by an orchestra – the continually re-orienting and re-relating of these many different activities with each other.



                       ‘Transitory understandings’, ‘feelings of tendency’, and ‘action guiding anticipations’


Crucial, then, in a number of people organizing their inter-activities with each other, is them being able, as they act, to arouse in each other, transitory understandings of ‘where’ so far in their activities they have ‘got to’, and action guiding anticipations of ‘where’ or ‘how’ next they are likely ‘to go on’. In other words, it is only in their actions that they can organize their conduct of them, not before, nor after their performance of them.


                Bakhtin (1993) makes this point thus: “This world-as-event is not just a world of being, of that which is given; no object, no relation, is given here as something simply given, as something totally on hand, but is always given in conjunction with another given that is connected with those objects and relations, namely, that which is yet-to-be-achieved or determined; ‘one ought to...’, ‘it is desirable that...’ An object that is absolutely indifferent, totally finished, cannot be something one experiences actually. When I experience an object actually, I thereby carry out something in relation to it; the object enters into relation with that which is to-be-achieved, grows in it – within my relationship to that object... Insofar as I am actually experiencing an object, even if I do so by thinking of it, it becomes a changing moment in the ongoing event of my experiencing (thinking) it, i.e., it assumes the character of something-yet-to-be-achieved. Or, to be exact, it is given to me within a certain event-unity, in which the moments of what-is-given and what-is-to-be-achieved, of what-is and what-ought-to-be, of being and value, are inseparable. All these abstract categories are here constituent moments of a certain, living, concrete, and palpable (intuitable) once-occurrent whole – an event” (p.32).


                In other words, in the invisible ‘shape’ of the unfolding dynamic of my living relations to an object (even in my simply speaking of it), is the both expression of an evaluative attitude toward it – the way it ‘matters’ to me, the ‘weight’ or ‘force’ it can exert in my spontaneous reactions to it – as well as a sense of my ‘point’ in relating to it, what its role in my overall project is. Thus even in my speaking of an object, of a “poem,” of a “quote from Bakhtin,”  of a ‘business plan,” a “spread sheet,” a “person,”, an “organization,” etc., I am never speaking neutrally, indifferently, with no particular attitude, but always with “an interested-effective attitude. And that is why the word does not merely designate an object as a present-to-hand entity, but also express by its intonation my evaluative attitude toward the object, toward what is desirable or undesirable in it, and, in doing so, sets it in motion toward that which is yet to-to-be determined about it, turns it into a constituent moment of the living, ongoing event” (pp.32-33, my emphasis). Thus, to repeat: what is expressed in the emotional-volitional tone of a person’s utterance is a “something-yet-to-be-determined... [that] enters into an effective relationship to me within the unity of the ongoing event encompassing us” (p.33).


                In other words, our talk always points beyond itself to a not-yet-determined something, to a ‘world’, to the unity of the event encompassing us within which it will have its meaning. And if I orient toward a person’s words as merely a pattern of already completed objective forms, as a set of already made objects at hand (as in a transcript, say), instead of toward the expressive movement of their words in their speaking, I will “lose the phenomena” (Garfinkel, 2002, pp.264-267); that is, I will to lose my sense both of the transitory understandings and of the action guiding anticipations of the yet-to-be-determined, generated in both speakers and listeners alike in the dialogical dynamics at work in our dialogically-structured exchanges.


                Other workers have expressed similar intuitions in different terms: Polanyi (1958) has pointed out that if we want to understand our conduct of a practical activity, instead of thinking with a focal awareness of the finalized structures of a process in mind, we must make use of a subsidiary awareness of certain felt experiences as they occur to us from within our engaged involvement in the activity, for these inner feelings play a crucial role in guiding, in being constitutive of, our actions. Polanyi (1958) introduces the action guiding character of such subsidiary awarenesses thus: “When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we attend to both nail and hammer, but in a different way... When we bring down the hammer we do not feel that its handle has struck our palm but that its head has struck the nail. Yet in a sense we are certainly alert to the feelings in our palm and the fingers that hold the hammer. They guide us [my emphasis - js] in handling it effectively, and the degree of attention that we give to the nail is given to the same extent but in a different way to these feelings... They are not watched in themselves: we watch something else while keeping intensely aware of them. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in the palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving in the nail” (p.55).


                Similarly, William James (1890), like Polanyi, directs our attention to the pervasive but misleading tendency at work in our conduct of our inquiries to ignore such transitory feelings and to focus only on final outcomes. He calls it “the Psychologist’s Fallacy:” “The great snare of the psychologist,” he says, “is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report... The psychologist... stands outside the mental state he speaks of. Both itself and its objects are objects for him” (p.196), and this can easily (mis)lead him (or her) to suppose that our processes of thought “knows it in the same way in which he knows it, although this is often far from being the case. The most fictitious puzzles have been introduced into our science by this means” (p.196).


                Indeed, what is lost when an event in the stream of thought is taken to be an object is precisely the ‘action guiding’ function of subsidiary awarenesses in providing us with an anticipatory sense of at least the style of what is to come next. Indeed, like Bakhtin above, James (1890) points out that in the stream of our living relations with our surroundings, we do not simply find ourselves confronting neutral objects whose meanings we must ‘work out’ cognitively if we are to react to them appropriately. We also directly experience ‘inclinations’ or ‘tendencies’ in relation to them, inclinations that just happen within us as an intrinsic result of our living interactions with them. Such “‘tendencies’ are not only descriptions from without,” he says, “[but] they are among the objects of the stream, which is thus aware of them from within, and must be described as in very large measure constituted of feelings of tendency, often so vague that we are unable to name them at all” (p.254). Yet, as James emphasizes, vague and unnamable though they may be, such tendencies are central in ‘shaping’ our everyday activities. “It is, in short,” he says, “the re-instatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention” (p.254).


                As illustrative here of what can occur in the intoning of an utterance, let me suggest some little experiments: 1) Lets us take a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s (1944) Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end/ And to make an end is to make a beginning. /The end is where we start from...,” (Little Gidding, p.47), and suggest that readers try the following three intonings on friends:


a) [Quick, with a flat, monotonic intonation] “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from...” [an objectivist/logical positivist reading].... likely to provoke the reaction: “What!? That’s garbled nonsense; and surely it’s not logical!”

b) [With pregnant pauses and appropriate emphases]: “What we call the beginning... is often the end..., and to make an end... is to make a beginning... The end is where we start from...” [a social constructionist reading].

c) [Again with pregnant pauses and appropriate emphases]: “What we call the beginning... is often the end, and to make an end... is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from...” [a more realist reading].


Invisible in each of these three readings, but nonetheless hearable in each, is what Bakhtin (1984) would call a different “form shaping ideology” (p.83)[3].


                2) Another little experiment:


a) [Quick with flat intonation again] “The cat sat on the mat. The mat was red, the cat was black” – Reaction: “I get the picture... so what?”

b)  [With very pregnant pauses and appropriate strong emphases]: “The cat... sat... on the mat... the mat.. was red... the cat... was black...” – Reaction: the beginning of a ghost story, a detective story?


Clearly, it is in arousing anticipations of the not-yet-said – at first vague and undifferentiated ones, and later, more well differentiated ones – that the two very different ways of intoning these words can arouse two very different transitory understandings of them, two very different ways of ‘going on’ from them. The first arouses us to say: “OK, I get the picture, but... so what?” – but then an interpretation is needed as to why it has been said at all. While the second is, or can be, directly understood; but it tantalizes us into a suspenseful waiting for what next will come.


                3) A third small experiment: take the simple statements: i) “I want to tell you something,” ii) “I want to tell you something,” and iii) “I want to tell you something,” and so on with many other different emphases. Each volitional tone, each emphasis, would lead you as a listener to relate or to orient yourself toward me differently, as you hear what I have to say. Thus, as I intentionally shape at least some aspects of the unfolding time-contour of my utterances, so can you as a listener, in being continuously ‘moved’ or ‘touched’ in one way or another, sense the ‘inner’ turns I take at each moment in populating these very common, shared words with my intentions.


                Indeed, we can have an immediate responsive sense of similar such ‘inner turns’ or choices in people’s non-verbal expressions, in say, the vigour or lacklustre of their handshakes, or the ‘droopiness’ or ‘vitality’ of their walk.  Even the ‘expressive’ movements of non-human animals can ‘move’ us (as we find in the currently popular film: March of the Penguins). In other words, what we talk of as the pragmatics, the politics, the art and the ethics of our communications with each other, are all expressed, and bodily appreciated, i.e., felt, within the (sometimes invisible) personally shaped time-contours of the events occurring between us: the authority, the care, the urgency, the inflexibility or flexibility, the precision or looseness, the sympathy, the insults, the humiliations, etc., are all felt in listening to the emotional-volitional tone expressed in another person’s expressions, in their utterances and other bodily expressed movements.



                                  Inside the strange and creative but invisible world of ‘dialogical dynamics’


Above, I picked out Bakhtins’ (1986, p.69) remark – in which he refers to the clear distinction between a passive, representational kind of understanding, and an active, responsive kind – as it can open up a way for us into an understanding of the strange, continually re-created nature of dialogically-structured human activities, into the invisible, unfolding world of dialogical dynamics. I say strange because, as we shall see, since Descartes and Newton, we have been prone to think of Nature as consisting of an assemblage of discrete material particles distributed in a homogeneous, geometrically mappable space, interacting with one another on the basis of mechanical causality that can be described in quantitative terms – a view of reality not, by the way, discovered by them, but which, when they assumed it, enabled them to develop their sciences. It excluding our spontaneously responsive, bodily responsiveness to events in our surroundings, excluded our dialogically-structured relations with them, and in so doing, rendered the continuous living creation of novelty invisible to us.


                But, as Bakhtin (1986)puts it: “An utterance is never just a reflection or an expression of something already existing and outside it that is given and final. It always creates something that never existed before, something absolutely new and unrepeatable, and, moreover, it always has some relation to value (the true, the good, the beautiful, and so forth)... It is as if everything given is created a new in what is created, transformed in it... It is much easier to study the given in what is created... than to study what is created... But in fact the object is created in the process of creativity, as are the poet himself, his world view, and his means of expression” (pp.119-120).


                In other words, to study only what is already given, the already completed objects at hand, is to “lose the phenomena” (Garfinkel, 2002, pp.264-267), i.e., we lose the transitional understandings and the actions guiding anticipations of the yet-to-be-determined, present in both speakers and listeners alike, that are generated, i.e., jointly created, in the dialogical dynamics at work in all our dialogically-structured exchanges.


                Now it is not easy to notice these jointly created, transitional or passing phenomena that occur spontaneously between us, simply as a consequence of our inter-livingness, so to speak. For, whenever one person acts spontaneously in response to another, not only can the first person’s actions not be accounted as wholly their own – for what they do is, to an extent, partly shaped by influences originating in the other – many other features of their behaviour also cannot be experienced as desired or wanted by them. These aspects of our actions are neither yours nor mine; they are truly ‘ours’ – indeed, as we saw above, we rely on such shared spontaneous responses in expecting others to respond to the ungovernable, effortless aspects of our utterances as we ourselves do, or else we could not speak our mother tongue with them. We can only credit as our own behaviour what we ourselves intend; all else just happens to or within us – and this is where all the strangeness of the dialogical (or what I earlier called “joint action” – Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993a and b) begins.


                To repeat: in such spontaneously responsive sphere of activity as this, instead of one person first acting individually, self-consciously, and independently of an other, and then the second replying, by acting individually and independently of the first, a great deal of what occurs between us just happens as we act jointly, as a collective “we.” And it happens to us bodily, in a ‘living’ way, as we spontaneously respond to each other, without our having first  ‘to work out’ such ways of responding to each other. Thus as we grow and develop into the cultural world of those around us, and learn to focally attend to these identifiable details but not to those, we retain only a subsidiary awareness of the voices and other expressions of the others who directed our looking and listening in this way; and in our acting too, we easily forget the instructions – “Do it like this not like that!” – others gave us in helping us to develop our skilled ways of acting. For on each occasion, these voices exerted a unique influence on us in a passing moment. So, although these embodied expressions of others, these other voices, are surely the primary influences we incorporate within ourselves in the course of our development into autonomous agents within our culture, their once-off, transitory nature gives them only a temporary place in our constitution. Thus, again to repeat: to focus only on what already exists in completed form is to lose sight of the transitional understandings and the actions guiding anticipations that are crucial in organizing our joint activities.


                What is crucial to us here, then, with our interest in effective ways of organizing people’s activities, with our interest in organizational change and the creative development of new organizational structures, is that in all our genuinely dialogically-structured encounters, something absolutely new and unrepeatable is always created. This is so, even when it seems that what already exists is also continually repeated. Indeed, in always being fashioned in a responsive relation to local circumstances, our activities can never be merely mechanical repetitions of previous ones. The new and unrepeatable aspects of our joint activities cannot ever occur, however, according to plan. Indeed, as we shall see, they can occur only in the spontaneous, unself-consciously intended aspects of our responsive inter-activities with the others and othernesses around us.


                It is in the temporal unfolding of an utterance, as each new word uttered gains its individuality, both in contrast with, and in relation to, the words already said, that an utterance is shaped or organized as expressive of a certain state of affairs. For there are no instant like silences separating two successive words in an utterance. Two successive moments in an utterance, two ‘passing or transitional moments’ are not simply separated[4] by their qualitative differences, by the differences made by a speaker that are indicative of a speaker’s intentions, but are also related to each other in that the earlier parts of an utterance function to motivate the later parts[5]. In Bakhtin’s (1993) terms: “From within, the performed act sees more than just a unitary context; it also sees a unique, concrete context, an ultimate context, into which it refers both its own sense and its own factuality, and within which it attempts to actualize answerably the unique truth [pravda] of both the fact and the sense in their concrete unity” (p.28). But in being answerable in this way to the circumstances of its utterance, “the act sets before itself its own truth [pravda] as something-to-be-achieved...” (p.29).


                There is thus in all our truly lived, and thus answerable, acts – if not in our merely “theoretical and theoreticized world” (Bakhtin, 1993, p.20)[6] – what Bakhtin (1993) calls a “compellent ought,” that is, in setting itself up as something-to-be achieved, it sets up before a ‘call’, an ‘urge’, or ‘enjoinment’ to action, a sense of something that is required or demanded of the action. And what we can ‘see’ and ‘hear’ expressed in the emotional-volitional tone of a person’s expressions (and those of other beings and things) are their efforts to reply to, to be answerable to, these calls.


                With respect to the spontaneous origins of language games, Wittgenstein (1980) puts it thus: “The origin and primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language – I want to say – is a refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed’[Goethe]” (p.31) – where, by the word ‘primitive’ here, he means that: “... this sort of behaviour is pre-linguistic: that a language-game is based on it, that it is the prototype of a way of thinking and not the result of thought” (1981, no.541). Indeed, this is how the voice of another can, in dialogically entering into and responsively influencing our activities, take us beyond anything that we ourselves can think or imagine. By arousing in us new bodily reactions, new action guiding anticipations, they can be constitutive within us of prototypes, of new beginnings for uniquely new ways of acting and thinking.


                Thus, the turn toward transitory, polyphonically-structured, dynamically unfolding, invisible realities that exert their very real effects on us – the ‘weight’ of their felt ‘temporal shape’ – only in the dynamics of their unfolding as we interact with the others and othernesses in our surroundings, opens up a new vast sphere of inquiry for us in our studies of organizations and of how in fact organizing is done.



                                          The sequential and simultaneous organization of complex actions


As we have already noted, we do not have to wait for speakers to complete sentences before we can understand their utterances. For present to us in our spontaneous bodily responsiveness to their voicing of their utterances as they unfold, are action guiding anticipatory understandings of what they might possibly say next. Indeed, as Bakhtin (1986) notes: “The utterance is related not only to preceding, but also to subsequent links in the chain of speech communication... [F]rom the very beginning, the utterance is constructed while taking into account possible responsive reactions, for whose sake, in essence, it is actually created... The entire utterance is constructed, as it were, in anticipation of encountering this response” (p.94). And all these relationally-responsive, “transitory understandings” happen spontaneously, as a result no doubt of the countless hours of training we have had in our prior involvements in our culture. We do not have to ‘work them out’, self-consciously and deliberately.


                Indeed, in always being fashioned in a responsive relation to local circumstances they can never be merely mechanical repetitions of previous utterances. They can be heard in the unfolding temporal contours of a person’s talk. As Voloshinov (1986) puts it: “The task of understanding does not basically amount to recognizing the form used, but rather to understanding it in a particular, concrete context, to understanding its meaning in a particular utterance, i.e., it amounts to understanding its novelty and not to recognizing its identity” (p.68). It is not its precise repeatability that is important but its “specific variability” (p.69) – or in Bateson’s (1972) terms, it is “a difference that makes a difference” (p.286) that matters. And it is this that allows us to move on from what a speaker’s words mean generally, to what uniquely a speaker means in his or her use of their words.


                However, besides the inevitable creation of something new, among the other special phenomena, occurring moment by moment within the responsive interplay of all the events and activities at work in a dialogic situation, is the creation of an emerging sequence of distinctive changes (or ‘differencings’), a sequence of dynamically changing forms, each one with its own unique ‘shape’ or ‘temporal contour’. Such ‘shapes’, although invisible, may nonetheless be felt by all participants within the ongoing interplay in the same way. Thus true dialogues with some degree of ease and intimacy are more than merely coordinated; they exhibit a common temporal contour in their unfolding, such that, as we shall see, at a certain moment in the exchange, the ‘speaking turn’ passes over from one to another by movement felt very much in common by all concerned, and at a moment felt by all in virtue of the common time-order of events.


                As an elementary example of what is meant here arises if we ask: How shall we respond to the pauses, the silences, in a person’s speech? Clearly, not all silences are the same; some are clearly pauses for further thought, others are for dramatic effect, some while waiting for signs from listeners that they’ve ‘got it’, and so on, while a certain special kind of pause occurs when, in the course of a conversational exchange, a speaker has finally succeeded in expressing all they had to say. It is in these moments that, as Bakhtin (1986) points out, there can be a change in speaking subjects: “This change can only take place because the speaker has said (or written) everything he wishes to say at a particular moment or under particular circumstances. When hearing or reading, we clearly sense the end of the utterance, as if we hear the speaker's concluding dixi. This finalization is specific and is determined by specific criteria” (p.76). The ‘invisible’ finalization of a speaker’s utterance is hearable as a transitory understanding within the unfolding relational dynamics of our dialogical relations with that speaker; and we relate to it accordingly: by beginning our reply to it.


                Indeed, in our rejoinders to each other’s utterances within an ongoing dialogue, many other transitory understandings are hearable within the unfolding dynamics of our relations with a particular speaker. As Bakhtin (1986) remarks: “[While] each rejoinder, regardless of how brief and abrupt, has a specific quality of completion that expresses a particular position of the speaker, to which one may respond or assume, with respect to it, a responsive position... But at the same time rejoinders are all linked to one another. And the sort of relations that exist among rejoinders of dialogue – relations between question and answer, assertion and objection, suggestion and acceptance, order and execution, and so forth – are impossible among units of language (words and sentences), either in the system of language (in vertical cross section)[7] or within utterances (on the horizontal plane)” (p.72). In other words, at work here is a process in which the tone in which a word is uttered to arouse specific linkages, specific relational tendencies, between itself and other words.


                A classic example of how a systematic, questioning voice, learnt from another, can help a less able person to organize her or his own thinking, is, of course, provided by Socrates in The Meno (Plato, 1956). Without going into details, Socrates shows there how a young slave boy – clearly ignorant of Pythagoras’s theorem – can be lead to prove the theorem, not by giving him any actual information, but solely by asking him an appropriate series of questions. Imagine a young boy now facing the task of having to prove Pythagoras’ theorem: if he was unable simply to remember the appropriate steps by rote, but had incorporated aspects of his teacher’s questioning voice within himself, he could also begin to attempt a proof by a process of systematically questioning himself. Aspects of his teacher’s voice would thus be invisibly or silently present in organizing his proof oriented activities.


                Indeed, as Bakhtin (1984) terms it, a version of “hidden dialogicality” would be at work: “Imagine a dialogue of two persons in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted, but in such a way that the general sense is not all violated. The second speaker is present invisibly, his words are not there, but deep traces left by these words have a determining effect on all the present and visible words of the first speaker... each present, uttered word responds and reacts with its every fiber to the invisible speaker, points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of another person” (p.197).

                In a longer article than this one, it would be useful to explore in some detail a number of concrete examples of how the voices of others can influence us deeply, examples of “hidden dialogicality” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.197), of how a person’s words can “penetrate” or be “penetrated” by the words of another (Bakhtin, 1984, p.256), and the difference between another’s “authoritative words” and our use of them as “internally persuasive words” (Bakhtin, 1981, pp.342-344). Such detailed explorations can be found, however, in Lysack (2004) and in Sullivan and McCarthy (2004) among many others.


                Here my purposes are somewhat different: my concern here is with our own voices, with the tones we can use and with the relational tendencies they can arouse us in our own ‘inner talk’ in ourselves. Indeed, as Bakhtin (1993) notes, within each of all our truly lived and thus answerable acts, there is what he calls a “compellent ought.” In its tone, in setting itself up as something-to-be achieved, it sets up before us a ‘call’, an ‘urge’, or ‘enjoinment’ to action, a sense of something that is required or demanded of us in our action. Thus it is in the temporal unfolding of an utterance, as each new word uttered gains its individuality, both in contrast with, and in relation to, the words already said, that we shape and organize our utterances as expressive of a certain state of affairs. Hence there are no instant-like gaps separating two successive words in an utterance. Two successive moments in an utterance, two ‘passing or transitional moments’ are separated[8] by their qualitative differences, by the differences made by a speaker that are indicative of a speaker’s intentions, they are instead related to each other by the fact that the earlier parts of an utterance function to motivate the later parts[9].



                                                        Conclusions: from ‘orchestration’ to ‘polyphony’


An often employed metaphor to describe the sequential unfolding of a complexly organized activity, is to describe it as “orchestrated,” as organized so that a number of seemingly independent component performances occur, not just accidentally in any old order or sequence (like cards being shuffled into a new arrangement), but occur together in relation to a commonly felt sense, not only of where the activity has been, but also of where next it is headed. We often say that when we are understanding another person, we are ‘following’ them – but if our approach here is correct, it would be better to say that we are “anticipating” them. The unfolding temporal contouring of a person’s performance (in music, its tempo) is the guiding element. It means, in Wittgenstein’s (1953) terms, that if we are ultimately to achieve an understanding of another person’s utterances, by testing and checking their ‘point’ so as to avoid them ‘misleading’ us, we must at a lower level “know how to go on” (no.154) with them – we must be attuned to their ways of acting.


                The “orchestration” metaphor is, I think, a very powerful one, and very relevant to our task of understanding how to organize the complex interweaving of many strands of differently sequenced activities. But once we move on into Bakhtin’s (1984) work on Dostoevsky’s “form-shaping ideology” (p.97), we not only find an even more complex form of organization, but also a qualitatively different one – what, following Bakhtin (1984), we can call a polyphonic form of organization, or following Merleau-Ponty (1968), a chiasmic form.


                Instead of as in orchestrated forms of composition, in which each voice is simply fitted harmoniously or systematically into the whole so far constructed, polyphonic forms work in terms of two or more independent melodic voices being related to each other contrapunctually. Thus instead of an integrated, harmonious unity, we shall find that, as Bakhtin (1984) puts it, what unfolds in Dosteovesky’s novels, is “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices... not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with his own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event” (p.6) – where the operative phrases here, I take it, is that the influences at work on each other, are all “combined but not merged” in “the unity of the event.”


                An example of where such unmerged combining occurs to form a unity, is the combining that must occur in the optic chiasma of the brain. There, the different points of view of our two eyes are combined, but not merged, to provide us, bodily, with a unified sense of “depth,” i.e., of things being near to us, i.e., within our reach, or as being far from us, i.e., out of our reach. In other words, by not being merged, but by being related in terms of their differences, there is the creation of a uniquely new relational dimension, a new unified way of relating ourselves to our circumstances, a new way of ‘seeing connections’ that matter to us in terms of our bodily relations to them.


                For Bakhtin, then, the orchestration metaphor is both too continuously harmonious and too homogeneous or monophonic; it does not highlight sufficiently the dialogic relations between the two or more distinct points of view of two or more distinct agents, that can be combined but not merged in the unity of a human event. Thus, as Bakhtin sees it, not only can we talk with others dialogically, but like seeing with our two eyes, or hearing with our two ears, we can in our own inner speech also think dialogically – in terms, not only of many different voices with different ‘logical’ points of view, but also with our inner expressions being related to each other with many different affective or emotional-volitional tones. Thus, rather than the dynamics of our consciousnesses all being of a harmonious, ‘orchestrated’ kind – a unified activity occurring within a unified medium – we can imagine them as all taking on a stranded, intertwined, polyphonic organization within themselves. Similarly, as long as the relations between all the different participants are dynamic, dialogically-structured ones, and not of a static, monological kind, we can think of our organizations as functioning similarly.  

                Philosophically, then, Bakhtin (1984) is contrasting his polyphonic account of human activities with “the faith in the self-sufficiency of a single consciousness” that he sees manifested in the quest for a single, unified truth that is “a profound structural characteristic of the creative ideological activity of modern times” (p.82). But, as he points out: “the single and unified consciousness is by no means an inevitable consequence of the concept of a unified truth. It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that cannot in principle be fitted into the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential and is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses. The monologic way of perceiving cognition and  truth is only one of the possible ways. It arises where consciousness is placed above existence, and where the unity of existence is transformed into the unity of consciousness” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.81).


                About the new form shaping ideology Dosteovsky developed in the polyphonic novel, Bakhtin (1984) remarks that it “... lacks those two basic elements upon which any ideology is built: the separate thought, and unified world of objects giving rise to a system of thoughts” (p.93)[10]. He doesn’t built up a set of logically related referential pictures from separate elements that can be proved to be true (or false), intellectually. Instead, for him, “the ultimate indivisible unit is not the separate referentially bounded thought, not the proposition, not the assertion, but rather the integral point of view, the integral position of a personality... Dostoevsky – to speak paradoxically – thought not in thoughts but in points of view, consciousnesses, voices” (p.93). Thus for him, says Bakhtin (1984)[11], an idea “is not a subjective individual-psychological formation with ‘permanent resident rights’ in a person’s head; no, the idea is inter-individual and inter-subjective – the realm of its existence is not individual consciousness but dialogic communion between consciousnesses. The idea is a live event played out at a point of dialogical meeting between two or several consciousnesses. In this sense the idea is similar to the word, with which it is dialogically united. Like the word, the idea wants to be heard, understood, and ‘answered’ by other voices from other positions” (p.88).


                Thus, if we are to renounce our monological habits and to come to feel ‘at home’ in Bakhtin’s Dostoevskian polyphonically organized world, then perhaps one thing we have to learn to do, or to teach ourselves to do, is to think in terms of imageless dynamical patterns, i.e., in terms of feelings, and to think in terms of, or to think with, the unique, unfolding time-contours aroused in us by particular events in particular circumstances. If we can do this, then more than being mere neutral thoughts residing as ‘pictures’ (propositional representations) in our heads, we must allow that our ideas, as voiced words, can arouse within us, in the same way as the actual voices of others, “compellent oughts,” as Bakhtin (1993) puts it – weighty compulsions and obligations, forceful aims and projects, as well as action guiding anticipations constitutive of that not-yet-fully-determined ‘world’ on the horizon, within which our present actions will have their meaning. This is crucial.


                Indeed, as academics, as trained researchers, it is only too easy to make ourselves unwittingly into the ventriloquists of other people’s voiced words. And in such a process, there is the “gradual obliteration of authors as bearers of others’ words. Others’ words become anonymous and are assimilated (in reworked form, of course); consciousness is monologized” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.163). Thus, it seems to me, unwittingly still influenced by Descartes’ words (see Shotter, 1993, pp.9-11), we can still feel compelled to pursue the as yet still unrealized project of knowing the world intellectually, as a system of “separate thoughts... that can by themselves be true or untrue, depending of their relationship to the subject and independent of the carrier to whom they belong... united in a systemic unity of a referential order” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.93). But to proceed like this, we must follow a number of steps: we must first suppress the ordinary, everyday connections of felt thought to things, and of our voices to things and to other voices; and then we must try to recapture them in an ideal structure (cf. Chomsly above), with an ideal ordering of precise expressions making them open to calculable manipulations[12].


                Indeed, so powerful can these voices of properly conducted academic inquiry be at work in us, that they, so to speak, can dictate to us what we must do. Hence the persistence of those whose scientific claims have been refuted in still pursuing their research programmes (Lakatos, 1978), and the branding of those who do not conform as heretics.


                In Bahktin’s Dostoevskian world, however, we find a world not built from separate thoughts about separate objects, not a unified world that can be captured in a logical system of thought, represented in a set of theoretical axioms, but a world that must be expressed, in a sense, almost musically. Thus in the future, if we do manage to write any Bakhtinian accounts of our acts of organizing, we will need to read them, not for the plot, not for their overall outcomes, but for the active unfolding of the dialogues involved – for to read the dialogues will be to participate in them. The compelling force or weight Dostoeveskian texts will lie in part at least, in the shaped and vectored reactions produced in this style of writing. Indeed, to repeat, it is the intense intermingling of inner and outer dialogues, in the drama of the “live event played out at a point of dialogical meeting between two or several consciousnesses” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.88), hearable in the emotional-volitional tone of a person’s utterance, a person’s writing, that its force can be felt.


                Thus, rather than logical, systematic, theoretical structures ‘picturing’ puzzling states of affairs, our polyphonic texts must have “eventness” – they must provide us, not with solutions to problems, but with orientational or relational resolutions – first time understandings of ‘how to go on’ in otherwise disorienting or bewildering circumstances, that arise out of our responsive hearing what they have to say to us in the emotional-volitional contours of their expression, i.e, the style of their writing. A major significance of polyphonic models, then, is in the discovery of the central role of imageless dynamical shapes and contours in the structuring our thoughts and actions, when in the past, visualizations, ‘pictures’, have play such a central role. And the major problem this presents us with, is in coming to feel ‘at home’ in such a polyphonically organized world of activities, when a major tendency in our whole way of acting in the world is to attend from these vague, inner, feelings of tendency, “often so vague that we are unable to name them at all” (James, 1890, p.254), and to attend to “the qualities of things outside” (Polanyi, 1963, p.14) that these effortful inner movements ‘point to’ or anticipate – something that can only become known to us experientially in our uses of them.




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Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

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[1]. Here are some types of adjacency pairs that have been extensively studied: assertion-assent/dissent; question-answer; summons-answer; greeting-greeting; apology-acceptance/refusal; compliment-acceptance/rejection; threat-response; challenge-response; assessment/agreement; accusation-denial/confession; boasting-appreciation/derision (see Nofsinger, 1991).

[2]. “One cannot... understand dialogic relations simplistically or unilaterally, reducing them to contradiction, conflict, polemics, or disagreement. Agreement is very rich in varieties and shadings. Two utterances that are identical in all respects (“Beautiful weather!” – “Beautiful weather!”), if they are really two utterances belonging to different voices and not one, are linked by dialogic relations of agreement. This is a definite dialogic event, agreement could also be lacking (“No, not very nice weather,” and so forth)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.125).

[3].“The deeper layers of this form-shaping ideology,” says Bakhtin (1984), “which determine the basic generic characteristics of artistic works, are traditional; they take shape and develop over the course of centuries” (p.83). What is special about Dosteovsky’s form-shaping ideology is that it works in terms of internally related ‘parts’, that is, parts that owe their very character to their relations with others parts,.. a dynamic.. growing, changing network of inter-relationships..

[4]. The very word “separation” as such is misleading; it suggests separation in a spatial sense – we need to realize that the qualitative differences of successive moments cannot be captured in spatial imagery; to differ qualitatively and to be distinct in space are two quite different notions.

[5]. As Mead (1934) notes: “That process... of responding to one's self as another responds to it, taking part in one’s own conversation with others, being aware of what one is saying and using that awareness of what one is saying to determine what one is going to say thereafter-that is a process with which we are all familiar. We are continually following up our own address to other persons by an understanding of what we are saying, and using that understanding in the direction of our continued speech. We are finding out what we are going to say, what we are going to do, by saying and doing, and in the process we are continually controlling the process itself” (p.140).

[6].“My participative and demanding consciousness can see that the world of modern philosophy, the theoretical and theoreticized world of culture, is in a certain sense actual, that it possesses validity. But what it can see also is that this world is not the once-occurrent world in which I live and in which I answerably perform my deeds” (Bakhtin, 1993, p.20).

[7]. Bakhtin has in mind here Saussure’s (1959) linguistics, in which for the purposes of a scientific analysis of language he made a distinction between synchronic (vertical cross section) and diachronic (horizontal plane) linguistics – a distinction Bakhtin thinks is impossible in living speech.


[8]. The very word “separation” as such is misleading; it suggests separation in a spatial sense – we need to realize that the qualitative differences of successive moments cannot be captured in spatial imagery; to differ qualitatively and to be distinct in space are two quite different notions.

[9]. See endnote 5.

[10]. The full quotation is: “Dostoevsky’s form-shaping ideology lacks those two basic elements upon which any ideology is built: the separate thought, and unified world of objects giving rise to a system of thoughts. In the usual ideological approach, there exist separate thoughts, assertion propositions that can by themselves be true or untrue, depending of their relationship to the subject and independent of the carrier to whom they belong. These "no-man’s" thoughts, faithful to the referential world, are united in a systemic unity of a referential order In this systemic unity, thought comes into contact with thought and one thought is bound up with another on referential grounds. A thought gravitates toward system as toward an ultimate whole; the system is put together out of separate thoughts, as out of elements” (p.93).

[11]. “The idea lives not in one person's isolated individual consciousness – if it [end 87] remains there only, it degenerates and dies. The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others” (1984, pp.87-88).

[12]. This sequences is set out by Marx and Engels (1971) in The German Ideology, in terms of three tricks for the construction of ruling illusions.