I’ve been reading a lot of Todorov’s summaries and explanations of Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism as it spanned his entire career. In fact, I just finished Todorov’s short book _Mikhail Bakhtin; The Dialogical Principle_. I found it to be both dense and enlightening. I think that it’s not the book to start with if you’ve never encountered Bakhtin before because Todorov frequently refers to Bakhtin’s theories on heteroglossia, polyphony, and (of course) dialogism while assuming that the audience already has a firm grasp on each of these dynamic elements within Bakhtin’s meandering theories.
Here are some of my own (meandering) notes written after reading the book:
Much of my own critical studies of culture and literature as they revolve around Bakhtin’s own theories focus on notions of popular culture as represented and commented on by art. We know that Bakhtin wrote an entire book (Rabelais and His World) on the carnivalesque, and this book makes a number of defining statements on popular culture and its wish to break free from accepted or status-quo culture. Todorov brings up the same issue of popular culture’s existence and questions Bakhtin’s notion of just what popular culture constitutes. He makes the point that “the mythical image” that supposed popular culture wishes to remake into its own remains contingent on power structures of the times. Todorov makes this point by raising the issue that “culture…[during the renaissance and medieval eras] [was] the preserve of an elite fundamentally alien to the ‘people'” (78). But still he agrees, as Bakhtin states, that forces remain in absentia and in praesentia, or in anthropological opposition to each other; likewise, according to Bakhtin, these forces would be called centrifugal and centripetal. But the most important part that remains relevant to all kinds of culture today is the remaining distinction that can be made from both theorists delineation’s between “serious” culture and “subversive” culture (the latter being the culture of laughter).
I think an easy example of the serious culture and subversive culture coming into contact with each other would be Kanye’s incident at the VMAs and Obama’s condemnation of the musical artist’s horning-in on the ceremony. The interaction between the two, Obama’s calling Kanye a jackass, breaches the barrier between serious culture, that of politics, laws, all the things that embody seriousness, with that of popular culture, a phenomena propelled by the visceral and capricious buying habits furthered by the individualistic need for satisfaction. The effect is humorous, hyperbolic, and subversive. One might first ask why Obama would bother to take the time to make a statement on something so innocuous as the VMAs, especially in regard to passing judgment on a mouthy artist operating within the circle of popular music. But it did happen, and the immediate effect, according to Bakhtin’s theory, is a dialogical subversion of power structures.
I found another interesting point that Todorov unravels from Bakhtin’s various writings in regard to how humans conceptualize things. I know, that’s an enormously broad topic, one that Todorov favors highest among Bakhtin’s disparate ideas. Bakhtin himself calls it philosophical anthropology, a term coined to describe the act of creating art. In attempting to describe it, Bakhtin wishes to understand human existence, and for those who have studied Foucault, who started his revolutionary work some twenty years after Bakhtin started his own, the Other becomes a prime agent in understanding and explicating this subject. Taking perspective as the subject, the other, therefore, becomes an entity impossible to conceive of without having the links that relate the subject to the other or others.
People’s connections to others are intrinsic in how people perceive the world. Bakhtin argues this in his roundabout way and Todorov doesn’t refute the notion. But quite interestingly, Todorov unravels Bakhtin’s ruminations on how the self becomes self-conscious. Bakhtin argues that how we see ourselves is intrinsically bound to the other’s perception of us. Bakhtin argues this point by using examples of how children both acquire speech, and accordingly, learn how to identify their own body parts; children borrow “baby talk” from their parents (96). Bakhtin states, “In this sense, the body is not a self-sufficient entity; it needs the other, his recognition and his formative activity” (47).
Putting the issue aside that this notion presages contemporary psychoanalysis, we can get to a clearer understanding of how Bakhtin weighs the issues at stake. Environment, language, vernacular, idiom, consciousness itself, are all perceptions hinging on information received from others. And once a person matures to adulthood, the circle continues. In his Dostoevsky book, Bakhtin makes the point that one becomes him or herself when this person can reveal him or herself to another, “through another and with another’s help” (311). He has much more to say on the subject of self, so if you’re interested please pick up his wonderful book _Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics_.
Todorov also brings up the topic of love and how Bakhtin explains it. Love, for Bakhtin is of course a highly conditioned and perspective-driven activity. But the most important point he makes, stemming from his theory that people gain a sense of self from others, is that one cannot love another as one loves oneself. Bakhtin states “one cannot love oneself as if one were one’s neighbor…Suffering, the fear for oneself, joy, all are qualitatively and deeply different from compassion, the fear for other, common joy…” (44). Regardless of how one becomes a self-assured, heteroglossic self, what’s received is different from what one projects and assumes upon others. “You,” “me,” and “her” are drastically different parallel pronouns that provide false analogies between disparate entities that cannot be so easily reduced. Bakhtin puts it quite clearly when describing how one conceptualizes the love and understanding for others: “in all cemeteries there are only others” (99).
If you’re a follower of literature you’re probably wondering where art fits in the midst of this mish-mash of theoretical meandering. Well, Bakhtin often raises the question of the artist’s role or job in creating art, especially when one considers all the social and environmental forces at work. After all, how does an author inhabit the heads of many characters if he cannot truly conceptualize the other, as Bakhtin argues? This is where his theories on artistic creation emerge.
Bakhtin, therefore, distinguishes two distinct stages of an artist’s creative act. The first stage is empathy or identification; it is during this stage that the novelist steps into the shoes (or place) of the character. The second stage is when the novelist re-enters his own character as writer. Bakhtin calls this second movement “finding oneself outside,” which Todorov translates as extopy (99). Thus the author closes himself off from himself, enters the character of another, as integral to himself as that of the other who formed him, then re-emerges as himself again, knowing that expressing his “self” in art would be impossible because of the self’s contingencies on the other. The author can only relate to the other through his own sense of self: “Only the other as such can be the axiological center of the artistic vision” (99: 163). An event, then, whether in a novel written by a man born into destitute poverty, or by a woman who was the queen of Lichtenstein cannot be reduced solely in terms of that author’s environmental stimuli. The consciousness that catalyzed each respective novel is consciousness made up of many others, each feeding, instilling, detracting, and reinforcing this same consciousness in many ways.
Leaving the topic of the author, Bakhtin takes a gouge at bourgeoisie methods of finding a solution to a problem, specifically in terms of discourse, noting that this method is comprised of explaining how one got to the problem and not what the problem actually may be. He labels this method as reification of discourse. Intrinsic to the bourgeoisie method, ideological discourse is central to enlightenment thought. Bakhtin argues that not only in literature, but also in the human sciences, a tendency exists that research begins with the question of the “dominant viewpoint” for the purpose of getting at the easiest “solution” to whatever this contemporaneous problem may be. In later works Bakhtin makes similar pronouncements about modernism.
The last issue I’d like to mention is Todorov’s noting Bakhtin’s comments on Hegelian dialectics and how they compare to Bakhtin’s theories on dialogism. Quite simply, Bakhtin labels Hegelian philosophy as only leading to a monological understanding of ‘everything’ and leading to a finalizable explication of literature. Bakhtin says in reference to Hegel’s work: “Monist Idealism is the least favorable ground for the flowering of a multiplicity of unmerged consciousness” (Todorov 104). Using this same statement, Bakhtin refers to Dostoevsky’s pluralistic work to contrast Hegel’s monastic dialectic theories that wish to unify all areas of thought into one monological ‘Phenomenology of Spirit.’ To Bakhtin, Dostoevsky’s novels represent a world comprised of many desperate elements that speak unto themselves as reflected by the many self-propelling voices found within. Bakhtin drives at supporting the many voices that occur, each with their many destinies and profusion of lives, each fortified by the other in their profusion of actualizing themselves in a world, not centralized and objective, but liberal and permeable by another, never being finalized, closed.
Bringing the author back into the discussion, Bakhtin identifies Dostoevsky’s method of taking the author’s position out of the story, showing that the author’s goal is not to place him or herself in a state of isolation independent from others. Dostoevsky may or may not be commenting on the larger theme of individualism that the Romantic era championed, and which is an inherent part of capitalist or bourgeois society. Bakhtin feels that Dostoevsky is against idealism and decadence which breeds “desperate loneliness” (105).
Quite fittingly, as the American economy seems to be slowly rebounding from a crash brought on by capitalist greed and unchecked idealism, pundits and politicians are beginning to prescribe solutions to prevent such a tragedy (which ironically hurts the working class the most) from ocurring again. To fix the situation, experts wish for Americans to collectively buy more, consume more. In terms of how this paradigm might be commented on in literature, Bakhtin would argue that the hegemony that capitalistic individualism exerts onto people is really a violent, alienating act that disjoints the many voices possible in a heteroglossic populace.