Friday, February 25, 2005

Reading :: The Formal Method of Literary Scholarship (supplemental notes on dialectics)

Originally posted: Fri, 25 Feb 2005 11:59:52

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

by M.M. Bakhtin, P.N. Medvedev

I reviewed this book earlier, but I've returned to it to more closely examine how Medvedev understands dialectic. I just did something similar with Voloshinov's 1929 book -- see that review for a little more context. Here, I'll cut to the chase.

Medvedev does seem to be looking for a system in which to place dialogue. He frames the book in terms of ideology, just as Voloshinov does, and within that frame he extensively discusses what he terms social evaluation (p.119 on). Social evaluation, in Medvedev's view, is connected to economic class. In terms of social evaluation, different levels of analytical scope are dialectically connected to each other (p.121) (a point that I made in an article a couple of years ago, although I wasn't using dialectic in particular). Medvedev's interest in system leads him to look on familiar Marxist territory: base and superstructure, laws of development, and of course ideology (pp. 3-4). He allows that a "will to system" gives way to a desire to understand organic unity in the world (p.6), but it seems that this organic unity is understood along Marxist lines and contrasts with Bakhtin's buzzing, chattering disunity.

Dialectic pairs seem to abound in this book as they did in Voloshinov's. The levels of scope I've already mentioned (p.121). Others include the dialectic between philosophy and world (p.6), extrinsic and intrinsic (p.67, 158) (a pair that dialectically yields an ideological horizon (pp.153-154)), and the dialectical conception of the individuality and interaction of ideological phenomena (p.30). Interestingly, Medvedev uses the same example of the water molecule that Vygotsky cribbed from Engels, but in reverse -- likening literary criticism to pulling the oxygen out of the molecule (p.22).

Like Voloshinov, Medvedev agrees with Bakhtin on key points about dialogue, but strays on others. Like Bakhtin, Medvedev sees each utterance as a social act (pp. 120-121) and understands expressive intonation as historically unique (p.122). Medvedev also sees genre as having a double orientation not described as dialectic (p.131; cf. p.135, where he discusses the reality of genre vs. the reality accessible to it). He understands genre as a way to conceptualize reality, just as Bakhtin does (p.133), and even thinks that inner speech, in utterances, constitutes inner genres (p.134). Like Bakhtin and Voloshinov, he doesn't understand inner speech as a stream of words (p.133). On the other hand, like Voloshinov but unlike Bakhtin, Medvedev understands utterances as agreeing with or negating (p.91; 165). This is key, I think, because (as I argued in the Voloshinov review linked above) it betrays an ultimate allegiance to dialectic as a philosophical method in which theses and antitheses must meet to develop new syntheses and new truths. Bakhtin is looking for personal truths; Marxists, and I think Medvedev as well, are looking for more broadly based ones. >

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