Friday, February 25, 2005

Reading :: Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (supplemental notes on dialectics)

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

Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

by V.N. Volosinov

In an earlier entry, I discussed this book in its broad outlines. Here, I focus on the question of where Voloshinov differed from Bakhtin in his understanding of dialogue and dialectic. Bakhtin is pretty clearly not enchanted with dialectic in his 1929 book. (Okay, I have the reworked version rather than the original, but I don't think Bakhtin praised dialectic even in the original version.) But in this book, also published in 1929, Voloshinov certainly seems to be interested in discussing dialogue within a dialectical framework. Is he really? Or is this just a way to escape the censors? It's very hard to tell for sure, and more knowledgeable scholars have split on the question.

Here, I'll take Morson and Emerson's reading as a base. They say that "Voloshinov changes Bakhtin?s theories by accepting his specific descriptions of language but then accounting for language so described in historical-materialist terms. Bakhtin describes language as not systematic; Voloshinov agrees, but argues that this asystematicity only leads us to look for an external system to explain it. That system is Marxism as Voloshinov understood it. Indeed, the reformulation of Marxism was central to Voloshinov?s whole enterprise, as it was not for the non-Marxist Bakhtin" (p.125). So they say. And a rereading of Voloshinov seems to support this view.

In terms of system, Voloshinov does seem to look for one. Although he questions system in an enacted sense (p.78), he talks quite a bit about class struggle (p.23) and how it shapes language in systematic ways that certainly sound Marxist. He focuses on structure and process (pp. 96-97), and looks for an ideological system (p.33) with ideological laws that govern language (p.38). And, like Vygotsky, he frames language development as a dialectic generational process in which modern language emerges from primitive ones -- although he manages not to be as teleological as Vygotsky sometimes sounds (p.106).

In terms of dialectic, we see the same kinds of pairings that we saw in Vygotsky's works. Inner-outer, psyche-ideology (pp. 33; 35; 39-40), psyche-existence (p.25), necessity-freedom (p.81), subject-object (p.82), as well as the constant tension among contexts (p.80). These pairings all involve tensions, tensions that are often explicitly labeled as dialectical. Indeed, dialectical contradictions are said to be embedded in the sign (p.23).

In terms of dialogue, Voloshinov uses the same example Vygotsky does in Thought and Language -- Dostoevsky's drunks -- but rereads the dialogue in terms of active reception involving value judgments (p.103). Whereas Vygotsky thinks of dialogue as a chain of reactions, Voloshinov understands it as always occurring, even when the person isn't speaking. That's why they part ways when it comes to written language, which Vygotsky sees as monologic and Voloshinov sees as "vitiated dialogue" (p.111). Monologic utterances, in Voloshinov's understanding, are those that do not allow an active response (p.78; cf. 117).

These characteristics seem very Bakhtinian, especially the notion of active reception (which also sounds like Medvedev's notion of social evaluation). But Voloshinov also diverges from Bakhtin's understanding of dialogue in several ways. First, he understands utterances as agreeing with or negating each other (p.80) -- a stance that Bakhtin rejects in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, where he subtly critiques dialectics for conceptualizing utterances as simply agreeing or disagreeing, theses and antitheses. In Bakhtin's understanding, utterances can be identical yet diverge in meaning and import; that divergence is usually partial or in shades, not crudely for or opposite. Second, Voloshinov speaks almost entirely of the sign, something that Bakhtin rarely mentions. Voloshinov sees the word as an inner sign (p.14), and he sees every outer sign as engulfed by inner signs (p.33). Again, I think "sign" is a bit crude for Bakhtin.

Finally, and tellingly, Voloshinov frames the entire book in terms of ideology (p.9) (as did Medvedev in his book, published a year earlier). Ideology becomes a way of fitting dialogue inside a Marxist framework, I think, by providing the ultimate unity of thought (or absolute frame) that Bakhtin tried so hard to avoid. That is, by bringing in ideology, Voloshinov gave himself the option to objectivize or externalize various perspectives and to essentially monologize them, making them identical for various groups. Once one accepts that a group has the same ideology, developed through a cultural struggle, it becomes easier to argue from a Marxist perspective that dialogue is unsystematized, since that systematicity can be recovered on the ideological level. We can see how Voloshinov found it easier than Bakhtin to see dialogue as assertions and negations.


Blogged with Flock

No comments: