Mikhail Bakhtin was a 20th century Russian philosopher who expanded upon Marxist thought to define the social function of language. His work, forever ahead of its time, stumps scholars to this day. In fact, much of what Bakhtin wrote aligns with poststructuralist thought, a movement that didn’t emerge until just before his death, in 1975. In his 1935 essay “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin draws attention to the way a variety of diverse discourses work together, to explain, “a concrete socio-ideological language consciousness … where consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language” (677). To quote my favorite professor’s favorite Bakhtin, “When we stare at each other, two different worlds are reflected in the pupils of our eyes. Dialogue, the give and take of language, completes these two worlds” (Salyer). But what if the person you are starring at isn’t physically there? What happens to language when pupils are replaced by a message board, a photo, or a post? Is there a virtual give and take between dialogue and reflection in our digital world? Have we become blind to authenticity, communicating now through only that which is implied? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between, in the virtu-verse of social discourse.
Today, in the world of digital advertising, analytics reports and statistical analysis have nearly surpassed traditional communication. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could easily find the statistics for how many Japanese-American men watched the “Ice-T Lemonade” ad last Thursday on the new iPhone while taking a sh*t. Of course this would be accompanied by a pie-chart; highlighting location, socio-economic status, and if the toilet paper they were using came from Google Express.
Bakhtin claims, “a diversity of social speech types, sometimes even diversity of languages and a diversity of individual voices” (674), create language. In essence, he is defining social discourse. Living somewhere among these various social speech types, within the world of social discourse, is the individual voice. And within every individual voice lies a multi-dimensional internal-verse, full of feeling and thought. Thus, an infinite number of internal-verses exist within our social universe. But what happens when our social universe goes viral, when it itself becomes infinitesimal? How would Bakhtin define digital social discourse? What would he think of this virtu-verse? Are there benefits and consequences from communicating through the in-between?
Everyone with a smart phone walks around with the ability to jump in and out of a virtual black hole. Either they are present and participating in society, or stuck in their phone, unconscious to the “real” world. But can consciousness exist above and below a thin transparent screen?
The virtu-verse is this threshold— where social discourse and internal discourse exist consciously and unconsciously, together and separately, virtually and authentically as one.
We’ve all met someone who lives in their own world. Someone who, when they actually speak out loud, is shocked back into “reality.” For this person, entering the virtu-verse heightens their conscious identity, allowing them to virtually join the collective and enjoy unlimited new opportunities for social interaction.
There are also revenue generating aspects to consider. Throw a little money at the internet and in less than a second your computer sends a pop-up ad to the “right buyer” at the “right time” on precisely the “right quadrant” of the “right page.” Endless new jobs have also emerged, allowing more free time and a higher quality of life for people now choosing to work from home.
But can there be authenticity in virtual communication? Can humans maintain accountability and consciously exist within an unconscious digital collective?
We’ve seen the power of virtual communication work both ways to inspire the human race. A little girl from Aleppo can win the hearts of America just as easily as protesting can escalate into a state of emergency overnight. But there is a refreshing human quality to the movement behind the movement in our digital world. Something that makes a 9-year-old girl’s refusal to do her math homework reach the national news, and remind us all about the importance of teaching and learning respect. Something that raises awareness for worthy causes—remember the “Ice-Bucket Challenge?” Something that allows us to watch the celestial motion of Jupiter and four of its moons, whenever we want, just by looking in the palm of our hand.
Regardless of whether we view digital communication through a positive or negative light, recognizing its ability to empower the virtual-human collective through the social function of language is something we should all consciously embrace. While I appreciate the amenities and services a commodified internet brings, I strongly believe the human benefit, the one we are almost missing, seriously outweighs every platform for capital gain. Don’t get me wrong, I love Google Express— especially when they deliver giant bundles of Costco toilet paper right to my front door. I just don’t see the benefit of others knowing what I’m watching on my iPhone when I use it. And I suspect Bakhtin, though he claimed, “consciousness at all times and everywhere comes upon languages, not language” (677), might also feel the same way.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. (674-685). Print.
Salyer, Gregory. Uberconference.com Interview. 23 September 2016.