Saturday, September 24, 2005

Reading :: Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism

Originally posted: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 10:23:22

Mikhail Bakhtin : Between Phenomenology and Marxism

by Michael F. Bernard-Donals

Just after the beginning of the fall classes, I placed this book on the counter in the department's office along with my other stuff so that I could go back and make coffee. (I drink a lot of coffee, and the DRW buys the good stuff.) As I'm about to pour myself a cup, I hear my colleague Trish Roberts-Miller say, "Oh! Clay, you're teaching Michael Donals' book? That's great!" Apparently they taught together in Missouri. Small world.

I wasn't teaching from this book, though. I picked it up because I had become very interested in the difference between dialogics and dialectics and I wanted to know what others thought about it. Bernard-Donals doesn't address the question head on, but he does have some really interesting thoughts on how Bakhtin is situated. Some of these thoughts are quite foreign to me: I came to Bakhtin from the perspective of North American genre theory, which emphasizes sociocultural explorations of lived activity. Bernard-Donals, in contrast, comes from the perspective of literary criticism. Consequently, he cites a stableful of scholars whose work I haven't read and don't plan to read (Althusser, Eagleton), and what he means by "Marxist" tends to be deeply grounded in these critics' work. Consequently, "his" Bakhtin sounded quite a bit different from "mine."

Bernard-Donals' argument, in a nutshell, is that Bakhtin occupied an ambivalent position between phenomenology and Marxism. He drew on phenomenology for his exploration of individual human cognition and human aesthetics. But when he turned to social aspects and formations, he drew on Marxism (pp.2-3). Bakhtin, however, never reconciled the two -- and consequently, different camps "read" different Bakhtins.

All right, I thought to myself as I read this. I'm not terribly familiar with phenomenology, and I'm cautious about what is entailed by Marxism in literary criticism -- and Bakhtin, though we tend to consider him a language philosopher, mostly worked through literary criticism. So let's see how this develops.

The first three chapters primarily deals with the issue of phenomenology, and Bernard-Donals has lots of interesting things to say here about individual cognition (with some footnotes on Vygotsky; see p.30). He does a good job of explaining the difference between dialogue and dialogism, for instance (p. 34). And, although he doesn't bring in dialectic specifically, he suggests in his discussion of answerability that one's situation and interpretation never match (p.57). He hits his stride pretty well here.

But just as he does, he gets a stone in his shoe. In Chapter 4, he turns his attention to the Marxist texts. What are Bakhtin's Marxist texts, you may ask. Simple: the ones that don't bear his name.

That's right, he's referring to the three books that were ostensibly written by the other members of Bakhtin's circle, Voloshinov and Medvedev, both of whom were card-carrying Marxists. These texts have long been disputed -- which is to say, they seem to strongly reflect many of Bakhtin's ideas, and they are certainly better than the other books by their putative authors, but Bakhtin was silent on whether he had actually had a hand in them. They are markedly different from Bakhtin's other books in that they quote Marx and Engels, invoke dialectic (positively), discuss ideology, and follow the sorts of moves that got books published in Stalinist Russia. It's worth noting, as many have, that these books (published in 1927-1929) were quite different from Bakhtin's Dostoevsky book, published in 1929.

So when Bernard-Donals notes the strong Marxist cast in these texts, and the relative absence of phenomenology, one would expect it to be a strong argument against Bakhtin's authorship of them. Bernard-Donals actually addresses the controversy: "That Marxism and the philosophy of language and The formal method bear the name of authors other than Bakhtin does not seem reason enough to remove these books from the Bakhtin canon" (p.88). He acknowledges some of the proofs against Bakhtin's authorship, then argues that Bakhtin's overall project is "at least in some respects fellow-traveling with historical materialism" (p.88). Yes, but that isn't proof that Bakhtin did or did not write the disputed texts. Somehow, the question gets lost and Bernard-Donals emerges at the end of the paragraph simply assuming that Bakhtin really was the texts' author! Perhaps there is an argument here that simply eludes me.

To be fair, Bernard-Donals argues that Bakhtin treats language as "ideological material" in other, undisputed books as well as the disputed ones. But that resemblance -- which is not surprising, given the pervasiveness of the Marxist project in the Stalinist years, the Marxist orientation of the Bakhtin circle, and the consequent elevation of the questions that Marxism tended to ask -- seems to be miles away from actual proof. Not all materialist theories are dialectical materialism. Not all sociologically oriented theories are Marxist.

And so the second half of the book frustrated me. Bernard-Donals concludes, after comparing Bakhtin's work with that of historical materialists, that Bakhtin "did not offer a theory of social transformation per se" (p.132). He offers criticism of this gap. But this is what distinguishes Bakhtin so sharply from the Marxist project, isn't it? Bakhtin turned from dialectics to dialogics, from the Engelsian evolution of everything to the ritual decrowning of Rabelas, from the scientific monologue envisioned by Vygotsky to the circling, circulating, unfinalizable dialogue in Dostoevsky. >

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