Mihkail Bakhtin: The Word in the World

AutorPechey, Graham
PealkiriMikhail Bakhtin : the word in the world / Graham Pechey
IlmunudLondon ; New York : Routledge, 2007
ViidePechey, Graham 2007. Mikhail Bakhtin: the word in the world. London; New York: Routledge.

Agains this precipitate appropriation of Bakhtin by the liberal academy it is no use appropriating him as precipitately for 'Marxism'. What can safely be said is that his thinking is very closely akin to the independent tradition of Western Marxism and at odds with the Soviet Marxism dominant in his time. This uncritical internalization of late-modern scientism, incipient in Friedrich Engels, congealed in the period of the Second International into a dogmatic historical optimism and an economic determinism - in short, a metaphysics of the economic 'base'. Western Marxism, by contrast, is characterized by a preoccupation with those novel Western discourses which were beginning to call themselves the human sciences. A reductive account might suggest that this current of thought had simply internalized the opposite pole of the antinomy identified by Marx himself in the Grundisse, that it was little more than a late-modern variant of that Romantic anti-capitalism which posed aginast the dystopia of a society commodified from top to bottom the utopian possibilities of 'art'. This may be true of George Lukács, whose cultural conservatism helps to found such alliance as existed between Soviet and Western Marxism. It is in always Walter Benjamin that we find a means of moving beyond Marx's paralysing antinomy. (Pechey 2007: 14)
Later on in the book, Bakhtin's thought is also contrasted with the semiotics of the Tartu school which is said to be built on the 'structural' 'base'.
Of course, Bakhtin's notion of the 'personality' has nothing whatever to do with the monadic individual of what Marxists would call 'bourgeois individualism'. Dostoevsky's 'profoundly personalized' world is also (Bakhtin insists) 'profoundly pluralistic': by 'personality' we are to understand the usbject as shifting function of intertextual boundaries (PDP, 26). Still, there is - as Ken Hirschkop has argued - a problem with the idea of a plurality of interacting consciousnesses, inasmuch as their interaction in the space of the text somewhat dubiously stands in for the truly objective space of the social itself. We can (on this view) only rescue Bakhtin from the charge of 'subjectivism' either by associating polyphony with carnival or by opposing to the humanist reading which sees behind the 'roles of real life' a 'certain irreducible freedom' a 'radical' reading which (for its part) sees the unfinalizability of the Dostoevskian 'personality' as an emblem of 'the ever-present possibility of change'. Two points need to be made here. First, the link with carnival only becomes available in the edition of 1963. Second, unexceptionable as both this link and the alternative ('radical') reading may be, they are not necessary. Even in the 1929 edition of that work, the space of the text is not as falsifying of the social as Hirschkop makes it out to be: Dostoevsky's hero-ideologues are not all that unlike the subjects of a genuine Gramscian hegemony: 'philosophers' or potential author-functions whose 'common sense' must be rendered critical and self-critical by the dialogical agency of those professional authors of revolution called 'intellectuals'. At the very least we could say that there is a strong proto-political or quasi-political dimension to the Dostoevsky book, with polyphony shadowing forth the strategies and forms of subjectivity proper to a real politics of popular sovereign. (Pechey 2007: 21-22)
This is relevant to my interest because Ju. Lotman's understanding of 'personality' is equally troublesome.
'That which is individual' is not essential; conversely, that which is essential is not individual but rather Bewusstein überhaupt, 'consciousness in general'. Or, as Bakthin puts it in what is probably the shortest sentence he ever wrote: 'Only error individualizes' (PDP, 81). Truth and individuality are reconciled (can coexist) only on the side of the author: in the hero the power of an idea to mean is either negated by his individuality or only affirmed at the cost of the latter. (Pechey 2007: 26)
This viewpoint is not an uncommon one. I tend to disagree with it. It's too simple and doesn't seem to apply to my field.
Music might indeed be generalized: not, however, as the paradigm of art's universal contentlessness, but rather as an extreme case of the hospitality all art offers to content that is other than cognitive. (Pechey 2007: 38)
Something to the effect that music has no semantics. Perhaps not cognitive semantics as such, but certainly there is something about music which makes us... well, maybe it is 'individualized' semantics.
Form, in a word, is authorship - authorship understood not empirically, as the agency of the originating and punctual act of producing the work, but transcendentally, as the condition of the possibility of aesthetic form in general. To understand this transcendental meaning of authorship is to see that it is absent from cognitive activity: real individuals write scientific works, but the works themselves are inwardly authorless in so far as the unity of their meanings is secured on the plane of the object and of reference. In aesthetic form (the phrase is effectively tautological) there is not only an activity but also the feeling of activity in a subject; it is the intensely felt activity of an axiological relation to content; in verbal art it is 'the feeling of generating the signifying word', of 'moving and assuming a position as a whole human being' (PCMG, 209). The unity and individuality engendered by form are reflexive rather than referent-oriented, 'the unity of an activity that returns to itself, finding itself anew' (PCMF, 310). It is as if Bakhtin is borrowing the motif of reflexivity so central to FOrmalist poetics and relocating it from the material of the empirical work to the form of the work conceived as a perennial potentiality of meaning. (Pechey 2007: 44)
The 'feeling of activity in a subject' bit is interesting. I wonder how this would pan out in performance art.
And appropriately enough: for the dematerialization of form - that is, the reduction with which he hopes both to replace and, more, consequently to carry through the Formalists' de-psychologizing reduction - entails not at all its rarefaction, but rather its rebodying. When Bakhtin writes that this authoring which is form is an 'activity of the entire human being, from head to foot' and that he enters into the event and stands over against its hero 'as one who we sense both a will to radicalize the claim of the aesthetic against the nihilism of the native Russian avant-garde and the strained hyperbole of a transcendental reduction taken to breaking point (PCMF, 316). No sooner has Bakhtin detached form from language than he provokes a crisis in his thinking by taking form precipitately towards the body and its life-world. The impossibility of reduction looms; and the rest of Bakhtin's work might then be seen as the revenge of language upon its consignment as 'material' to instrumentality in his early work. (Pechey 2007: 45)
I suspect this is where I got the idea for "Reembodying the semiotics of culture". If you're gonna mark passages in a book about literary theory and type them in with comments later on, you're gonna have a bad time.
However brave a gamble Medvedev's first anti-Formalist polemic had been, his rewriting of it six years later is the sad product of a cultural context altered out of all recognition. The context of his use in this book of the scriptory equivalent of an airbrush is largely one of the gross manipulation and extension of terms and of the criminalization of all debate that does not proceed from official premisses to official conclusions, without true give and take, the fully weighted existence of another view having been banished by fiat beyond audibility. The major causality of Stalinist semantics is the description 'formalism' itself: its upper-case version had had a specific application to a specific school of literary theory; its lower-case version is a confiscation of this term which generalizes it not only beyond literary theory but also beyond theory itself - in short, to the practice of art as such, to all the arts. (Pechey 2007: 51)
I'm kind of afraid of this one day happening to semiotics. An absurd thought, but we may never know.
Chronotope, 'time-space': Bakhtin's neologism is even more of a stranger to us than 'dialogism'; the latter is at least in the dictionary. Perhaps that is why, at least in the anglophone contexts, it has not been given the welcome accorded to that category or to 'carnival', a phenomenon from the margins which is licensed now in our studies no less than on our streets (in both cases with unobtrusive policing). (Pechey 2007: 82)
Although "chronotope" (chronos; topos) makes perfect sense any use of this word is an automatic allusion to Bakhtin, while dialogism and carnival can be used in other senses.
Bakhtin defines the chronotope as 'the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature' (FTC, 84). He seems, though, to imply that all discourse is chronotopic insofar as it must somehow thematize its own inescapable conditions, and that 'abstract thought' is the function of a repressed but still inwardly determining chronotopicity. (Pechey 2007: 84)
That is, not only chronos and topos but the "intrinsic connectedness".
Chronotopicity militant wrenches apart what 'feudal' discourse brings together, brings together what it sundered: ordinary contexts evaporate in a potentially infinite context portended by tjese extraordinary meetings. To the strongly affirmed spatio-temporality of the world there corresponds the equally strongly affirmed corporeality of the body, and this correspondence is signified by their interpenetration. Meaning is generated in a logic of the concrete, in simultaneities and coextensions. All the bodily functions appear in Gargantua and Pantagruel as so many 'series' which are 'at times parallel to each other and at times intersect each other' (FTC, 170). Bakhtin uses Rabelais to 'think' a world of existential parataxis, where the human body signifies universally by drawing all signifiers to itself. It is almost as if he were trying single-handedly to make good the absence in Russian history of a 'Renaissance' or 'Rabelaisian' moment, and to supply the goods of an epochal shift that his own national culture had never had in practice - or, rather, had had only vicariously, in versions imported from those classicizing culture by means of which the rising social elites of early-modern Europe had sought to consolidate their power. (Pechey 2007: 98)
Strongly affirmed corporeality of the body, indeed.
There is neither a first nor last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the gialogue of past centuries, can never be staable (finalized, ended once and for all) - they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue's subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time. (MHS, 170)
The last thoughts written down by Mikhail Bakhtin before his death turn not on the meaning of life but rather on the life of meaning. The gesture is characteristic: the 'meaning of life' could not be other than a monologicla 'transcription' and generalization of that force field of the singular and situated which (for him) is life as it is lives and endlessly becomes. The whole internally open-ended work of his life is brought to an external end with the word 'great time', by circulation and return of semantic energies, the interaction of live contexts in infinite dialogue across hundreds and even thousands of years. (Pechey 2007: 127)
Heartwarming. Dressed in bakhtinian jargon but heartwarming.
Before we live in those purely conceptual objectivities called 'society' or 'history' we live absolutely in meaning; the infinity and eternity of meaning are both the outcome and the making-good of our own finitude. Meaning is always everywhere because we as individuals can never be, although/because we end both spatially and temporally where and when our bodies end. (Pechey 2007: 130)
Once again affirming the strong corporeality of the body.
To be is to understand: understanding is the activity called forth both by texts proper and by those potential texts-to-be called human acts. Texts are events and not those quasi-spatial entities: systems or structures. The text is at once that which is nothing if not understood and yet also that which can never be 'completely translated', in the sense of being subordinated to a 'common logic' (PT, 106). Complete translation would effect a logical reduction of the text, its de-realization as a text-event, the resolution of all of its elements into a potential metalanguage and their re-realization in another text. Structuralism is the naranoic idela of 'complete' translation, inasmuch as it takes the text as far as possible towards the extreme pole of language-as-sign-system - the highest hierachical level of removal from its radical 'eventness' or historicity. Both 'poles', according to Bakhtin, are 'unconditional': there is the logical absolute of the ultimate metalanguage, and there is the ontological absolute of the 'unique and unrepeatable text' (PT, 107). All knowledge begins with such singularities; what is distinctive about hermeneutic understanding is simply that it strives to theorize such singularity and thus to remain within and faithful to that realm of the unique for which 'the text' is so potent a figure. (Pechey 2007: 132)
Here: behaviour-in-text (text proper) and behaviour-as-text (potential texts-to-be).
Bakhtin's last reflections in 'Towards a Methodology for the Human Sciences' begin with the word understanding, capitalized, and like a single note or chord struck at the start of a piece of music. Understanding is a complex, composite act whose phases - component acts, as it were - have their 'semantic independence', even as they merge in the whole 'empirical act' itself (MHS, 159). These phases are: perception; recognition; understanding 'significance' in the 'given context'; and, finally, 'inclusion in the dialogical context' (MHS, 159). Only the last of these is in a proper sense actively evaluative, extending beyond the immediate context to deep-universal meanings in the dimension of great time. (Pechey 2007: 144)
Flirting again with the idea of unifying very different lines of thought, lets take another at the idea that "the body is a surface of events which are traced by language and then dissolved by ideas": here the body could be both the subject and object of perception (zero), recognition (iconicity), relation with language (indexicality) and realization in the semiosphere (symbolicity). Here the signs are not "dissolved by ideas" but realized for "inclusion in the dialogical context".
T its strongest, then, the argument of 'Author and Hero' becomes a polemic against the shortcomings of 'thought' itself. As we rad, it becomes ever clearer that the author's surplus of 'inner and outer seeing' is being offered as an alternative to that universal aporia of a typically disembodied and desituated modern subjectivity to imagine its body in the world by recourse to a 'thought' which relativizes the I and the other - renders them mutually convertible, at the cost of their de-realization. The thought which 'has no difficulty at all in placing me on one and the same plane with all other human beings' (AH, 31) may be the thought which in going abroad from itself conquers nature and the object, proud of its strenght. Its weakness lies in its failure to acknowledge in existential terms the real price to be paid for that fiction of thought's power and facticity. My consciousness may and can encompass the world, but it can never imagine my outward appearance and my body's boundaries as encompassed by the world. Technological crutches such as the mirror and the photograph are dismissed by point of a 'possible other' or as 'raw material' for a mechanical 'collation' of myself, while leaving me stranded in mere contingency (AH, 32, 34-45). Bakhtin may be on shaky ground in the case of photography: few today would see it as 'authorless'; we would be inclined, rather, to equate it with the painted portrait as alone enabling that subsumption under the category of the other by which I see the whole of myself in the world along with everybody else. Bakhtin shows himself to be reviving the older sense of 'aesthetic' as having to do not just with 'art' in a narrow definition but with bodily and sensory experience across the board: it is thus that we find him moving easily from this case of a portrait of myself to my 'absolute need' in life for the other if I am to be born anew as an 'outward human being on a new plane of being' (AH, 35-36). I am not given as an outward body in myself but created as such by the other; I owe my freedom from the solipsism of an 'absolute consciousness' (AH, 22) to my bringing-to-birth in the horizon of the other. (Pechey 2007: 159)
Almost a complete page, but contains so very much which I still need to decode. One of these remarks, on the aesthetic of the bodily and sensory experience, is exactly what I wondered about when reading about the aesthetic function.
In dancing, my exterior, visible only to others and existing only for others, coalesces with my inner, self-feeling, organic activity. In dancing, everything inward in me strives to come to the outside, strives to coincide with my exterior. In dancing, I become 'bodied' in being to the highest degree; I come to participate in the being of others. What dances in me is my present-on-hand being (that has been affirmed from outside) - my sophianic being dances in me, the other dances in me. ... Dancing represents the ultimate limit of my passive self-activity, but the latter occurs everywhere in life. I am passively active whenever my action is not conditioned by the purely meaning-directed activity of my I-for-myself, but rather is justified from present-on-hand being itself, from nature; that is, whenever this present-on-hand being is elementally active in me rather than the spirit. ... Passive self-activity ... does not enrich being with what is in principle unattainable; it does not alter the meaning-governed countenance of being. (AH, 137)


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