Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Bakhtin after the Boom: Pro and Contra (+)

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Bakhtin after the Boom: Pro and Contra (+)

Article excerpt

My topic today is the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895--1975) and the contours of his posthumous life. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed an explosion of interest in Bakhtin, a thinker who hitherto had been almost wholly unknown outside his native land. Indeed, in Soviet Russia itself he was 'discovered' only in the early 1960s, already an old man teaching in a pedagogical institute in the provinces, with one major publication to his name (1929), a dissertation defended after the Second World War, and a trunk of manuscripts stretching over fifty years. Suddenly translations proliferated, intermediaries emerged to explain them, a biography was heroically pieced together -- and Bakhtin's categories spread like wildfire through the academies of the world, encouraging literary critics and cultural theorists to rethink familiar terrain in terms of dialogue, carnival, chronotope. None of those concepts were completely new, nor were any of them especially precise. But to a much greater extent than the earlier bo oms in structuralism, deconstruction and post-structuralism, Bakhtin was accessible -- and palpable. Although his writing style could not be called elegant, it swarmed with living, moving consciousnesses. Bakhtin did resemble the structuralist thinkers in his love for overarching binaries, categorical generalizations, and the clever diagram, yet readers did not feel especially oppressed or depersonalized by these geometries. At times it even seemed that Bakhtin purposely set up a binary so that it would not stand, so that he could reveal both sides as equally, fatally deficient. His best arguments were made or broken not on abstract metaphysics but on bodies and voices.

Most importantly, it was clear that Bakhtin had no interest in undermining the tools of his trade. In this, he was being true to the conservative, custodial approach to high culture characteristic of the Soviet literary establishment in the 1930s through the 1950s. Russian intellectuals of that time were so harassed, so accustomed to political intervention and violence against both poetry and poets, that they valued this martyred aesthetic sphere to an extraordinary degree and lived a good deal of their real lives within its precious space. Quite understandably, they were not easily persuaded that the primary resources of literature were somehow suspect or impotent. Ideologies which decreed that the word could not hold meaning, or that the author could not realize an intent, or that we are governed not by consciousness but by obscure, uncontrollable, pre-scripted impulses, were slower to catch on in Soviet Russia -- and not only because of state-mandated Marxist--Leninist--humanist constraints on texts and me thodologies. Bakhtin belonged to a generation of literary professionals that believed in the literary word as an indestructible, almost sacred thing. This high status lent both the literary word, and the author who employed that word, a certain spiritual autonomy. During the Stalinist years, many Russian literary scholars became excellent textologists, literary historians, and translators, because the general feeling was that in times of very great trouble, the most vulnerable and valuable dialogues to preserve were not the so-called 'relevant' ones, that is, discussions about the text such as routinely crop up with every new generation of readers or critics (communications of that sort were bound to be capricious, manipulated, unfree) but rather the dialogues that were already fixed inside the work, those taking place between author and text, or among the created characters within the fictional world. In any event, it was imperative to save the artwork from falling victim to the time and space that surrounde d it.

I emphasize this Russian context for Bakhtin, because by and large such a custodial attitude toward art has not answered to the experience or priorities of the sunnier academies in the West. …

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