Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Reading:: The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship

Originally posted: Wed, 17 Mar 2004 11:31:51

The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics

by P. N. Medvedev

Honestly, I have very little interest in poetics. But I do have a strong interest in language philosophy, and like the other works of the Bakhtin Circle, this 1928 book roots its exploration of its subject matter in a sociological understanding of language. A Marxist understanding? I'm not really an expert on Marxism, so I can't speak to the debate over whether Medvedev's book was genuinely Marxist or whether it used "protective coloration" to hide non-Marxist ideas. But at any rate, it thoroughly criticizes the Formalist school for ignoring society, culture, history, and dialogue -- just as Voloshinov criticized Freudianism in 1927 and linguistics in 1929 for the same sins. Put these books together with Bakhtin's 1929 book on Dostoyevsky and you get a central set of working assumptions about language philosophy with wide-ranging implications across the spectrum of language use.

So what are some of these working assumptions? One is that language is inherently ideological -- that is, inherently oriented to a particular sociocultural sphere of activity. I don't think that Medvedev uses the term dialogue, but clearly he's talking about the same phenomenon Voloshinov so brilliantly discusses in 1929. For Medvedev as for the other members of the circle, the ideological aspect of language is what makes it meaningful and alive; the utterance is material, social, historical, and every concrete utterance is a social act. Medvedev further postulates that utterances involve "social evaluations," evaluations that are multileveled (occurring at the level of the broad historical sweep but also on the order of days, minutes, and seconds). These social evaluations interpenetrate each other "dialectically" (and here I think we could use the term "dialogically," since Medvedev seems to be driving at that concept).

Another is that the social nature of language implies the social nature of human cognition. Anticipating Voloshinov's later argument, Medvedev says that social evaluation organizes the work of cognition itself; we think in "inner speech," he says, but that speech is not made up of the formal elements of words and sentences but rather in socio-ideological utterances couched in "inner genres." The ideological nature of genres -- seen themselves as ideologies or views on the world -- distinguishes them from the later notion of schema that was the rage in cognitive psychology for a time.

A little personal story: I bought this book at Half Price Books here in Austin in 1997, when I was interning at Schlumberger. The receipt, and my original notes, were still in the book. Back then I was very excited to read it; now, after reading Voloshinov's two books, I am indifferent. Medvedev does indeed take the insights from the Bakhtin Circle and apply them to poetics, but he doesn't seem to develop them further. If you're interested in looking at the Bakhtin Circle's works, honestly, I think you should start with Bakhtin's book on Dostoyevsky (which I'll be reading next), then work through Voloshinov's two books before coming to Medvedev. Unless you're interested in Formalism, I suppose.

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