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Infrequently asked questions: The Monologic Imagination

In the online age, a tried and true method of conveying a lot of information succinctly is the “Frequently Asked Questions” portion of a webpage. In the spirit of honesty and forthrightness, we’re naming our contribution to this blog “Infrequently Asked Questions.” The topic we are focusing on is monologism, the practice of presenting one’s voice as pure and singular, unquestionably true, and, in the case of groups, unified. Monologism is a common feature of religious and political projects.

Q: Dialogism is “in” at the moment–indeed, has been in for a few decades. It’s synonymous with cherished notions like democracy, consultation, transparency, and pluralism. Why are you doing something so retro?   

A: We (Tomlinson and Millie) worked together at Monash University in Australia and shared an interest about monological projects. By this, we mean speech and other representational practices in which people not only assert their singular rightness but also try to eliminate other claims. This might sound especially familiar in the current political climate of the USA, but it’s commonly found in many political and religious arenas.

 Q: Your book ranges all over the map, from Papua New Guinea to Algeria, from Iran to Cuba. Surely not all of the things authors are looking at are the same thing? There’s no singular Monologism, is there? 

A: Right, there is no singular monologism, but there are common tendencies. When Millie was conducting research on Islamic oratory in West Java, Indonesia, between 2007 and 2014, he noticed that Muslims in that part of the world responded positively to preachers with a wide range of skills. They preferred preachers who are singers, comedians and so on. But when this activity was represented as a common good, those skills were completely ignored–and sometimes deliberately distanced. This kind of dynamic is familiar to any reader who sees a gap between what people really love to do and what they say they really love to do. The latter always moves in a monological direction, where “we” all happen to agree on an idealized standard.

Q: Why the cagey phrasing, “move in a monological direction”? Does monologue exist, or doesn’t it? 

A: Bakhtin said it couldn’t really exist except for Adam, the first human, who didn’t have a human to respond to until Eve showed up. But he also observed how nationalists attempt to unify meanings in “one consciousness” with “a unified accent.” The point is that all discourse is inherently dialogical, and any attempt to purify or singularize it is bound to fail. But we tend to side more with Mukarovsky, who argued that monologue and dialogue necessarily coexist.

Q: So monologue must fail?

A: Well, it might achieve some victories along the way, in Constitutions, coups, and religious movements where preachers are thought to represent God’s truth.

Q: Is monologue exclusively “religious” or “political”? And what do you mean by those terms anyway? 

A: We’re not going to define those terms in a blog, sorry, but we’re also not claiming that monologue is strictly a religious or political thing. We’re saying that when people represent polities and divinities, monologue seems to get used a lot, strategically. At the same time, many people attach such positive meanings to dialogue that they can work themselves into ideological pretzels over single-voicedness. One of our book’s chapters is by Philip Fountain, who observed how Mennonites who attempted to establish a creed wound up convinced that this was the wrong thing to do.

Q: So, can we talk about the current state of US politics? How does Donald Trump and his style of expression fit into this discussion?

A: It seems, doesn’t it? But the book project began several years ago, when the idea of Trump as president was still just a joke on The Simpsons. We do discuss American politics, though. The first chapter in the book is by Greg Urban, who discusses (among other things) the making of the American constitution in 1787. The founding fathers were creating something that would ideally bind in an inclusive way, but in order to do this, they had to exclude any possibility of dialogism from the consultation process. They really shut down that possibility. Some committee members had no faith in the public’s capacity to contribute to the process, as they were certain that false news was being distributed by conniving Americans, and that this would impede the committee in crafting a Constitution that would reflect the common good!

Featured image credit: “Microphone” by RoAll. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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