Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales

Sektion VIII: Internationale wissenschaftliche Organisationen und International Scientific Community

Sektion VIII:
International Scientific Organisations and International Scientific Community

Sektion VIII:
Organisations scientifiques internationales et communauté scientifique internationale

Arne Haselbach (Vienna)
Polylogue - a paradigm for cultures
Based on a different notion of "polylogue"


If a person who has never come across the word is asked what the word "polylogue" means he is likely to proceed on the basis of his knowing the words "dialogue" and "poly-". Since the word "dialogue" relates to "a conversation between two or more" such a person is likely to construe the meaning of the word "polylogue" as standing for "discourses of the many and among the many".


The notions implied in "dialogue" and "polylogue" - and their differences
In my understanding there are two major differences between the words "dialogue" and "polylogue". The first relates to the numbers involved, the second to the specificity of the participants.

As regards the numbers involved, "dialogue" refers to two or more, "polylogue" to many. Related to that is the second difference. The "two or more" that dialogue refers to are usually thought of as specific people - even if unknown -, while "the many" that the word "poly" refers to does not imply specific people.


Critique of the present usage of "polylogue"
At present the word "polylogue" seems to be overwhelmingly used relating to contacts and communication in situations which are nowadays thought of as "intercultural", "multicultural", or "pluricultural".

It is not the distinction between the notions "poly-" and "dia-" that differentiates communication within one culture from "intercultural", "multicultural", or "pluricultural" communication. What is relevant to the latter is not the number of actors involved - even if the number of people involved in communicating with and trying to understand people with quite different cultural experiences is growing at a high rate.

Relevant to the phenomena for which the label "polylogue" is presently used is that the participants in such communicative processes have different experiences than other participants and that the respective experiences have been acquired in different cultures.

Given that the notion "poly-" is not central to its present usage, I am going to use the word in a different way and give it a different meaning, the fruitfulness of which I will try and demonstrate step by step.


Polylogue - my usage
I will use the word polylogue as referring to "the many communicative transactions in a given language taking place among the unspecified many" and, in a wider sense, as referring to "all acts of behaving of the unspecified many in a given cultural setting in their interactions with others and in their dealing with the world". I will also use it as referring to the results of these processes.

A few notions are central to my usage. The first is the trivial assumption that each and every individual actor is different and unique, that each and every act of behaviour of such individuals is also different and unique. The second is the notion of "the unspecified many" in relation both to the participants and to their individual acts of behaviour. The third is the notion of a "one-to-many" relationship of actors in respect of language and of culture.


Human experiences and their traces
Before discussing polylogues in language and in culture I must make a comment on how I see the human experiencing, its traces and their working.

All the processes of human experiencing leave traces behind. These traces constitute interrelated and overlapping clusters built as network structures. What we call experience of an individual thus has a structure of a patchwork of interrelated and intertwined networks. These clusters come in all sizes and densities. Both clusters and their components are partly autonomous. The network clusters can be accessed when inputs are transformed after having been received as well as from other such network clusters. Such network clusters are not exclusively accessed, can be accessed from many others, and can be accessed more or less easily. In processing informations - incoming or self-stimulated - the interim forms of processing flow through some such clusters and to other such clusters. Such flows among a variety of different clusters are going on all the time.

This indirect description is based on experiencing thinking, on thinking about thinking, and on the fact that the mode of working of the human neural system is plurifurcation.


Language as polylogue and as result of a polylogue
Any learner and any user of a given language is in a "one-to-many" relationship to all other actors - past and present - who speak (or spoke) that language. In learning and speaking that language learners are faced with (interim) results of a polylogue and participates in an on-going polylogue. In that "one-to-many" relationship the learner or user is the "one", and the polylogue is the "many".

Every instance of speaking, of thinking, and of writing in a given language is part of the on-going polylogue in that language.

There are two sides to every instance of an on-going polylogue: each instance makes use (of earlier results) of the polylogue, but each new instance also contributes itself to the (on-going) polylogue.

Every instance in a polylogue has an actor as its producer; producing and receiving (interpreting what one has heard) are two different instances; the language competence of an individual is an individualized partial version of the polylogue - partial, since it reflects his experiences in the polylogue; a given historical state of a language is a depersonalized version of the historical development of the polylogue at a given time.

Despite the fact that every instance of a polylogue is produced on the basis of an individualized version of the polylogue, - in certain respects - it does not matter much who the producer of that instance is. Whenever people try to communicate they are interested in making the addressee understand what they intend to communicate. That leads to using language according to one's expectations of how the other will interpret what one says. That creates feed-forward loops. One's own interpretations of what one hears are based on feed-back loops. The mesh of all those feed-back and feed-forward loops (of which there are many more than the ones mentioned), which work in all producers and interpreters of language, produces quite similar results in the many actors involved. Thus, in polylogues the room for negotiating meanings becomes relatively small - while there remains a bit more room for choosing among available meanings.


"One-to-many" relationships - Polylogues as Figurations
Polylogues as "one-to-many" relationships work according to the notion "figuration" developed by Norbert Elias (see e.g. "Was ist Soziologie", Juventa, Weinheim 1970/19867).(1)

Take the meaning of words. Every individual participant in language discourses, of course, plans somehow what he says and uses his words with a meaning intended to be understood in a certain way. But in figurations the outcome of the many individually planned (communicative) acts is non-planned. It is the cumulative uses (and their interaction effects over time) that result in which meanings become widely diffused, accepted, and dominant. The result, thus, just happens to come out of those processes, irrespective of what any individual intended.

When one applies this mechanism to language processes it shows that it is the polylogue that leads to the stereotyping of the meanings of words in a language.

Such "one-to-many" relationships working as figurations are a feature of each and every situation in which speakers of a language and actors in a culture find themselves.


Learning a language as a child - Growing up into a culture
Polylogue is the situation in which a child gets acquainted with the world of language. First the child meets with a rather limited number of individualized variants of the polylogue. In the course of growing up the number of individualized variants of the polylogue from which it collects its experiences over time keeps growing. The child experiences the instances as linked in various ways and some of the parts of those instances as closely similar - with variations - to earlier ones.

When a child starts to speak it tries to apply its experiences to form sounds and experiments with them and their meaning by observing their effects on others. In some cases this experimentation will lead to specific reactions which are directly addressed to the child producing additional experiences in the process. The child, thus, starts to participate in the polylogue and continues to develop his individualized version of the polylogue.

That description shows that the format of polylogues is always twofold: individual participants in a polylogue experience a multitude of instances which are individually patterned sequences of behaviour of many different people and enact a much more limited number of such instances themselves.

Growing-up into a culture - primary socialization - in the course of which a child acquires the habits, basic values, ways of thinking and practices of that culture - works the same way.


Inserting one-self into a polylogue at a later stage
When someone inserts him-self into a group or professional culture this takes place at a time in the life of individuals when they already have a huge amount of experiences which has brought about a large number of overlapping and intertwining clusters of knowledge. These clusters are not only available in passive existence, they are also accessed when stimulated by (components of) circumstances.

Take the scientific community as an example. A scientific community - national or international - is not a tightly knit group with one polylogue but consists of what has been labeled "academic tribes". The scientists working in a discipline (or in another kind of institutionalized field) - taken together - exhibit many of the aspects of cultures: they form a community, a network of communication, have (a) tradition(s), (a) particular set(s) of values and beliefs, a domain, a mode of inquiry, a conceptual structure and a limited number of types of discourse (T. Becher, "Academic Tribes and Territories", Open University Press, 1989).

Studying a discipline, becoming a member of the scientific community is entering a group polylogue - both language-wise and culture-wise - in a longish process.

In the language of a discipline one can distinguish two groups of words: The first consists of everyday words which have developed a specific disciplinary meaning, the second contains those words which have been specifically created by some author and found acceptance in the disciplinary polylogue.

With words in the first group scientists-to-be start off with the existing cluster and add the new experience to that cluster as one among the many variants it contains. With repeated use in disciplinary contexts the disciplinary meaning develops more and more flow-channels with other clusters and - in that process - becomes first a sub-cluster and later a cluster of its own. The overlapping and intertwining is less visible in the case of words specific to the discipline - but exists nevertheless, since at least a few notions from everyday polylogues were used in establishing the meaning of these words and continue to linger vaguely in the background.

Culture-wise, scientists-to-be enter one of the academic tribes - their training is a multi-year process - by acculturation into a disciplinary culture, by acquiring its behavioural patterns, and by adapting to and developing their version of the disciplinary polylogue with all its disciplinary jargon, and with its do's and don'ts.

The sciences are professional cultures - most of them transnational. But scientists - having become members of their respective academic tribe - remain members of their other cultures and continue to participate in the latter's activities and in their respective polylogues. - This is especially important in the social and cultural sciences. The plurality of cultural polylogues in which they are well versed as well as the different social and natural settings in which they live should be considered a potential value-added for the further development of those sciences.


Intakes from one polylogue by another
Individuals can come a relatively long way in entering a culture which they have not grown up into.

Cultures - as polylogues - work differently. Cultures can and do accommodate many notions and practices from other cultures/polylogues but the resistance of a cultural polylogue rests in the large number of actors, their engrained behaviours and the dissonances new entries into the polylogue can lead to.

Imports of a behavioural type (thinking and acting) are usually brought into a culture by people who have experience with a setting in which these ways to think or act are part of a cultural polylogue. But if and when imports start to spread within a polylogue most of the people experiencing their use will not have that experience. Thus, they get disconnected form their supporting linkages. They change their character due to that loss and due to new connections being built. Thus, intakes usually differ from what was imported.

In growing up into a culture - or in the longish process of entering a group culture later in life - new experiences are also isolated but remain so only for a short while. Soon they get their multiple relations with other (thinking or acting) practices, which in most cases lead to a new plausibility of what in the first instance produced dissonance, which by and large disappears in the process.


Polylogues are, thus, the setting and the processes

and, at the same time, polylogues are the setting and the processes

Polylogues are central to all phenomena of living cultures.

I assume that the notion of polylogues - as sketched here - opens a different avenue in thinking about language(s) and culture(s) in all the main aspects: in their working, their continuity and their change.



1 A warning to all those who may have read the French version: Norbert Elias "Qu'est-ce que la sociologie?" (Agora, Ed. de l'Aube, La Tour d'Aigues 1991). The specifically introduced neologism "figuration" has disappeared in the translation since it has been rendered as "configuration".

Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales

Sektion VIII: Internationale wissenschaftliche Organisationen und International Scientific Community

Sektion VIII:
International Scientific Organisations and International Scientific Community

Sektion VIII:
Organisations scientifiques internationales et communauté scientifique internationale

© INST 1999

Institut zur Erforschung und Förderung österreichischer und internationaler Literaturprozesse

 Research Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies

 Institut de recherche de littérature et civilisation autrichiennes et internationales