Academic journal article Style

The Uncertainties of Conversational Exchange: Dialogue Monitoring as a Function of the Narrative Voice

Academic journal article Style

The Uncertainties of Conversational Exchange: Dialogue Monitoring as a Function of the Narrative Voice

Article excerpt


In their Introduction to Text Linguistics, Robert de Beaugrande and Wolfgang Dressler propose a view of the text as a self-regulating cybernetic system as a means for resolving some of the difficulties associated with text processing. (1) They cite Beaugrande's earlier work:

   Beaugrande (1980a) concludes that a text constitutes a CYBERNETIC
   system which continually regulates the functions of its constituent
   occurrences. Whenever a textual occurrence falls outside the
   participants' systems of knowledge about language, content, and
   purpose, the STABILITY of the textual system is disturbed and must
   be restored by REGULATIVE INTEGRATION of that occurrence, e.g. via
   additions or modifications to one's store of knowledge. Text
   utilization is blocked only if regulative integration fails, e.g.
   if irresolvable discrepancies persist. (36)

Beaugrande and Dressier hold that such a model will work "under normal conditions" where "preference knowledge" is shared by a "communicative community" and where in time any "noticeably idiosyncratic outcome" will be regulated (36). Though the model sets definite limits to what a text can do, the authors reject the idea that it creates a compulsion to conform. This is because "a text whose format and content were entirely in conformity with established knowledge would possess an extremely low degree of informativity" (36). The payoff for the imposition of limits appears to be big. As Beaugrande and Dressler contend, the cybernetic textual system allows for "the constant removal and restoration of stability through disturbing and resuming the continuity of occurrences" (36). Under one kind of interpretation, the removal and restoration of stability offers itself as a workable understanding of creativity. Moreover, in the opinion of Beaugrande and Dressier, preference knowledge "merely enables participants to find an orientation for creativity and to provide or recover its motivations within a given textual system" (37). Nevertheless, the delayed payback for this view of the text turns out to be extremely high also. This is because the functional principles of the system Beaugrande and Dressier are proposing turn out to exclude whole classes of utterances from consideration. Untroubled by the implications of these exclusions, the authors justify that this is necessary because "certain classes of occurrences" are likely to "impede utilization or to render it hard to control" and are "therefore considered inopportune" (37). The utterances Beaugrande and Dressier suggest for exclusion include "ambiguities, contradictions, or discrepancies" and "in-jokes and paradoxes" (37).

It is an unfortunate upshot of the theory of the text as a self-regulating cybernetic system that conversational exchange between characters in narrative fiction is therefore considered "likely to impede utilization or to render it hard to control" (37) Perhaps inadvertently, what Beaugrande and Dressler have ruled out are exactly those aspects of narrative fiction that make its reading so interesting. Examples of ambiguity, contradiction, discrepancy, in-jokes, and paradox in novelistic conversation are not hard to find. Take as a typical instance Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. The frequency of each of these classes of occurrences is noticeably high. Oliver's reply to Sowerberry after his initiation to the funeral business, for example, is an instance of ambiguity:

'Well, Oliver,' said Sowerberry, as they walked home, 'how do you like it?'

'Pretty well, thank you, sir,' replied Oliver, with considerable hesitation. 'Not very much, sir.' (50)

Contradiction in serial dialogue also occurs in the early pages of the novel:

'Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade,' said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

'So you'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o'clock,' added the surly one in the white waistcoat. …

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