Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy

Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy

Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy

Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy

Synopsis

This book makes a radical break with earlier interpretations of Bakhtin's work. Using recent Russian scholarship, Ken Hirschkop explodes many of the myths which have surrounded Bakhtin and his work and lays the ground for a new, more historically acute sense of his achievement. Through a comprehensive reading of Bakhtin's work, Hirschkop demonstrates that his discussion of the philosophy of language, literary history, popular festive culture, and the phenomenology of everyday life revolved around a lifelong search for a new kind of modern ethical culture. A detailed examination of the major works reveals the careful interweaving of philosophical and historical argument which makes Bakhtin at once so compelling and so frustrating a writer. Hirschkop treats Bakhtin not as a metaphysician or a philosopher for the ages, but as a writer inevitably drawn into the historical conflicts produced by a modernizing and democratizing Europe. As a consequence, Bakhtin becomes a more sober but also more original writer, with a striking contribution to make to the definition of the democratic project.

Excerpt

No doubt some will think the subtitle of this book is forced or inappropriate. After all, they will probably say, Bakhtin mentions the word 'democratic' or 'democratized' only a few times in all of his work, and by all accounts he was neither convinced of the value of politics nor democratic in whatever political sympathies he had. All of which is true. If, nevertheless, I think democracy should be central to any study of Bakhtin's work, it is because I have become convinced that the last thing we should worry about these days is whether or not we are capturing the spirit of Bakhtin's work. For capturing its spirit has not got us very far. It has left us not with a knowledge of his work, but with a series of Bakhtin- figures or totems, each equally ambitious, equally insightful, equally dogmatic, and absolutely different from every other figure. The spirit of Bakhtin's enterprise usually turns out to be something global, impressive, fairly vague, and uncannily familiar, which makes me think that the letter of his work is what we should be looking at. In the detail of his texts-- wherein God dwells, of course--lie the problems, the sources, the unacknowledged debts, the historical negotiations and tensions, which may or may not add up to something whole. Bakhtin has been a heroic figure with a few brilliant insights; we need to make him a man caught in his circumstances, and struggling to make sense of them. We need a more technical, more difficult, less inspiring Bakhtin, and this book is an attempt to find one.

It might be better to say: we need a more 'historical' Bakhtin. A Bakhtin who does not deliver philosophical verities about dialogue, or a new ontology of language, but, something more modest and more pointed. When Bakhtin wrote about dialogism, it was in the context of the culture around him; when he wrote of heteroglot language, it was as a creature of modern Europe. The crises he faced were distinctly of his time, the ethical pressures and confusions the historical fate of twentieth-century Europe. If we fail to see this (as Bakhtin himself sometimes did), we use his words not as a bridge between our world and his, but as a way to fill in the river itself. In that flat expanse we will find not a particular conception of dialogue, a specific model of language, an argument for novelistic prose which makes historical sense, but language as such, dialogue as such, novelness as such, as if these were metaphysical substances travelling . . .

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