Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Reading:: Freudianism: A Critical Sketch

Originally posted: Tue, 09 Mar 2004 08:28:13

Freudianism: A Critical Sketch

by V. N. Volosinov

Freudianism is the first of four books produced by the Bakhtin Circle in the extraordinarily productive years of 1927-1929. It was followed by P.N. Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), M.M. Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics (1929), and Voloshinov's own Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929). All deal with one of Bakhtin's favorite subjects -- dialogue -- and begin lines of exploration that Bakhtin explores in his later work. For that reason, some have alleged that Bakhtin actually ghostwrote the other authors' books. I'm going to avoid rehashing the argument here except to say that if Bakhtin wrote all four books, he was one busy son of a gun.

The Bakhtin Circle was cut short, just as so many other projects were violently cut short during the Stalinist period. Nevertheless, reading this book -- which I think is the weakest of the four -- helps us to see where this productive group of scholars was going and how they attempted to apply dialogue to various aspects of social and humanistic pursuits. I say dialogue here, though Voloshinov tends to use dialogue and dialectic interchangeably. (Bakhtin most certainly did not.) It's hard to tell how committed Voloshinov was to Marxism, since the book is quite light on references to Marxist authors: Marx and Engels make an obligatory appearance, for instance, but they are not quoted in depth. The concept of dialectical materialism, on the other hand, is used extensively. Voloshinov uses it as an instrument -- usually a blunt instrument -- to dismantle the assumptions of Freudianism.

Let's get to the heart of the critique. Voloshinov argues that Freudianism fails to place the individual psychology in its sociohistorical milieu, thus ignoring the effects of class struggle, economics, and other material conditions and therefore confusing individual traumas with sociocultural movements. Sounding like Vygotsky, he argues that individual consciousness is best understood as a dialogue, one that may be internalized to an extreme degree but nevertheless exists, an ideological dialogue/dialectic that has been turned inward. Voloshinov goes on to ridicule Freudian notions such as the "unconscious" and the "censor"; these are fictions, he says, that mask the essentially social nature of the psyche. The "unconscious" is merely a verbal-ideological dialogue (p.86); consciousness equals ideology (p.77); things and thoughts are of the same material (p.82), which is to say, Voloshinov advocates a sort of materialist monism (p.21). As James Wertsch notes in his foreword to the book, Voloshinov's macrosociological account complements Vygotsky's microsociological one. (Ironically, in an appendix, Voloshinov attacks A.R. Luria -- a member of the Vygotsky Circle -- for his interest in Freudianism.)

Those who are familiar with Bakhtin will note passages that sound quite familiar. (Wertsch helpfully points them out for us on p.xii.) For instance, Voloshinov states that "every utterance is the product of the interaction between speakers and the product of the broader context of the whole complex social situation in which the utterance emerges" (p.79).

I wouldn't read Freudianism for its critique of Freudianism. But it is illuminating in terms of how the Bakhtin Circle had begun to conceptualize dialogue and utterance. The thing that I was most interested in studying, though -- the differences between dialogue and dialectic -- remain blurred, probably out of concern for the censor's pen. Hopefully Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, which I'll read next, will have more answers.

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