Sunday, March 14, 2004

Reading:: Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

Originally posted: Sun, 14 Mar 2004 10:45:06

Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

by V.N. Voloshinov

What a difference two years makes. Voloshinov's Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1927) had some interesting things to say about a Marxist-dialogic understanding of psychology, but it was not terribly sophisticated. But Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) is. I can scarcely believe it's written by the same person. (Some would say it wasn't, but let's leave that alone for now.) Marxism develops the dialogic approach in far more detail and sophistication than the first book or Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), and in clearer detail than Bakhtin's own Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics. And wheras the other books deal with the realms of psychoanalysis, poetics, and literary criticism, Marxism deals with sociolinguistics, a more general topic that touches directly on quotidian lived experiences.

Some readers have commented that Marxism isn't really Marxist and that the references to dialectical materialism, etc. were intended more to placate the censors than to develop Marxism. Certainly they're the thickest just at the beginning and the end of each chapter. I'm sure that these references do indeed serve to show allegiance to Soviet Marxism (just as contemporary academics, myself included, use gender-neutral language to demonstrate allegiance to feminist principles). But in either case, the conscious inclusion doesn't necessarily mean subterfuge! My (unschooled) take is that the Bakhtin circle did indeed want to develop Marxism and did indeed see value in the materialist monism that it described. But they wanted to develop it further, faster, and in different ways than would be permissible under Stalinism. (Vygotsky had the same problem: after his death, his works were banned for a time.) I wouldn't call the Bakhtin Circle's works Marxist, especially not Bakhtin's, but at the least it was the result of an earnest dialogue with Marxism.

Speaking of dialogue, Marxism is full of the term and its explications. I've gone over some of this in the review of Freudianism, so let me restrict myself to the high points. (My copy of the book has sticky notes on nearly every page, that's how rich the book is.)

First, consciousness is discussed in detail as a dialogue, one that takes shape in material signs. Dialogism is material monism. Those familiar with Vygotsky will see essentially the same argument here. Along with this point, Voloshinov notes that

consciousness has become the asylum ignorantiae for all philosophical constructs. It has been made the place where all unresolved problems, all objectively irreducible residues have been stored away. Instead of trying to find an objective definition of consciousness, thinkers have begun using it as a means for rendering all hard and fast objective definitions subjective and fluid (p.13).

This passage could have been written by Latour, who complained in one of his books that we assign too much importance to cognition and calls for a ten-year ban on cognitive explanations! Latour is a monist too, and he is impatient with the dualism that so often shows up in cognitive research and theory. But he later "repealed" his ban in his review of Edwin Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild, which presented a monist, symmetrical understanding of cognition as distributed across the material environment. Latour and Hutchins, I'm sure, would nod approvingly when reading Voloshinov's take on distributed cognition: "Cognition with respect to books and to other people's words and cognition inside one's head belong to the same sphere of reality, and such differences as do exist between the head and the book do not affect the content of cognition" (p.34). But Hutchins might disagree with what Voloshinov says two pages later: that psychology must be grounded in ideological science (p.36).

Ideology, again, is a major theme in the book. And Voloshinov's discussion of it, though it sometimes goes under the name of "dialectic," is definitely dialogical. He even anticipates Bakhtin's discussion of the utterance, of words as two-sided acts shared by speaker and addressee, and of genre -- and he talks about "behavioral genres" (p.96), stabilized forms of behavioral interchange.

I could go on and on about this book, which I remembered fondly from my studies at Iowa State and which I find to be even richer now. In many ways I think it's the clearest expression of the Bakhtin Circle's work on dialogism. We usually think of The Dialogic Imagination as the authoritive text on this, but Marxism is the better bet for my money. Check it out.

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