For the past three decades, Mikhail Bakhtin has been more of an industry than an individual. Not only an industry, in fact, but a flourishing transnational corporation, complete with jet-setting chief executives, global conventions and its own in-house journal. In the field of cultural theory, this victim of Stalinism is now big business. Most of the mouth-filling terms he coined – dialogism, double-voicedness, chronotope, heteroglossia, multi-accentuality – have passed into the lexicon of contemporary criticism. A cosmopolitan coterie of scholars, some of whom have devoted a lifetime to his texts, have long since struggled to appropriate him for their own agendas. Is he a Marxist, neo-Kantian, religious humanist, discourse theorist, literary critic, cultural sociologist, ethical thinker, philosophical anthropologist, or all these things together?
That this once obscure Soviet philologist is now a star of the postmodern West is less surprising than it might seem. For there is hardly a hot postmodern topic that Bakhtin did not anticipate. Discourse, hybridity, otherness, sexuality, subversion, deviance, heterogeneity, popular culture, the body, the decentred self, the materiality of the sign, historicism, everyday life: this precocious post-structuralist, as Graham Pechey calls him, prefigured so much of our own times that it is surprising not to find allusions in his work to Posh and Becks. Since little of this culture is the direct result of his influence, one might claim that had Bakhtin not existed, there would have been no need to invent him.
Why this curious parallelism between the age of Stalinist terror and the era of the iPod? The answer is fairly obvious. Just as Bakhtin’s work is among other things a coded critique of Soviet autocracy, so postmodernism springs in large part from the rout of modern Marxism. In the work of Baudrillard, Lyotard and others, it began as an alternative creed for disenchanted leftists. Its obsession with discourse makes sense in an age short on political action. Instead of setting fire to campuses, American students now cleanse their speech of incorrectness. If Marxism had been shamefully coy about sexuality, postmodernism makes a fetish of it. The warm, desiring, palpable body is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production. Instead of grand narratives that lead to the gulag, we have a plurality of mini-narratives. Since doctrinal absolutes dismember bodies, relativism is the order of the day. If castrating homosexuals is part of your culture, it would be ethnocentric of me to object. Revolution is no longer on the agenda, but sporadic subversions may stand in for it. Class politics yields to identity politics. The system cannot be overthrown, but at least it can be deconstructed. And since there is no political hope in the heartlands of capitalism, where the proletariat has upped sticks without leaving a forwarding address, the postmodern gaze turns mesmerically to the Other, whatever passport (woman, gay, ethnic minority) it happens to be travelling on.
Bakhtin, too, was a fifth columnist. He was born in the provincial Russian town of Orel in 1895, the son of an untitled nobleman turned banker, and studied classics at Petersburg University. His years as a student coincided with the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Bakhtin, the Bolsheviks, Futurists and Formalists emerged more or less at the same explosive historical moment; and though he was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian rather than a Marxist, Bakhtin lived through a period of heady cultural synthesis in which a marriage of Communism and Christ didn’t seem out of the question. If he was not exactly a historical materialist, his thinking was both historical and materialist. The intensely communal bent of the Russian Church, along with its spirituality of the senses, played its part in this alliance. So did its quasi-materialist belief in the sacredness of the bodily. It was a faith which hymned the humanity of Christ and the complex richness of everyday life. Behind Bakhtin’s fascination with the materiality of the word, as Pechey’s title suggests, lies an incarnational theology. The Word-made-flesh is the figure in the carpet of his work.
After the revolution, Bakhtin worked in a number of small towns, dogged by poverty and ill-health. He suffered from osteomyelitis, and had a leg amputated in 1938. This celebrant of the body was in pretty poor shape. He was also a fanatical smoker, a habit which eventually resulted in emphysema, and despite his admiration for Rabelaisian feasting seemed to survive on nothing but tea, which he downed by the gallon. Deprived of cigarette papers in the Second World War, he deprived posterity of some priceless insights by tearing up one of his own manuscripts to roll his tobacco.
In the town of Nevel, Bakhtin taught in a school; in Vitebsk he lectured at the Institute of Education. Still acceptable to the Soviet regime at this early point, he also ran a literary circle for the regional Communist Party and taught courses on aesthetics to workers in the arts. In 1924, he returned to St Petersburg, where he eked out a dismally meagre state pension by lecturing to informal groups in private apartments. Here, as always, he was surrounded by a close group of anarchically minded writers and eccentric polymaths. Indeed, the story of his life is the tale of one such coterie after another; they seemed to form spontaneously around him in whatever godforsaken backwater he happened to wash up. He was a man who practised dialogism as well as preached it. By the late 1920s, however, the kind of religiosity which his circle promoted was in increasing disfavour with the state; and in 1929 Bakhtin was arrested for membership of a religious circle, anti-Communist proclivities and corrupting the young by his teaching. The thinker whose notions of dialogism, subversive irony and indirect speech ran back to Socrates now seemed about to suffer his predecessor’s fate.
What saved the ailing Bakhtin from certain death in a labour camp was, appropriately enough, a book. His great study of Dostoevsky’s poetics appeared with providential timing in the year of his arrest, securing a favourable review from Anatoly Lunacharsky, commissioner of education and amateur cultural theorist. Saved from the camps, he was sentenced instead to six years of relatively mild exile in Kazakhstan. As an intellectual child abuser, he was forbidden from teaching there; but his wife, Elena Alexsandrovna, took odd jobs to keep the pair alive, and this devotee of Dante and Goethe ended up teaching accountancy to pig farmers as part of the collectivisation effort. Having served his time in Kazakhstan, he settled in Saransk, where he lived for a while in a disused jail and taught at the Pedagogical Institute as a one-man world literature department. He also gave a lecture on aesthetics to workers at a light-bulb factory, and became something of a local celebrity. From there, at the height of the Great Purge of the 1930s, his wanderings took him to Savelovo in the Mordovian republic, where he would have starved to death without the generosity of friends.
Throughout this period, Bakhtin was at work on the doctoral dissertation that was to become Rabelais and His World; and in 1946 he submitted the work for examination. His examiners took offence at its scatology, sexual explicitness, folkloric sentimentalism and scorn for dogma, and he was granted the degree only 12 years later. It was not until the 1960s that his gradual rehabilitation got underway, partly through the good offices of the Formalist scholar Roman Jakobson. Bakhtin enthusiasts in the Soviet Union, at least one of whom did not realise that the great man was still alive, pressed for the republication of the Dostoevsky book, which after a protracted struggle with the authorities saw the light of day again in 1963. After an intensive press campaign, the Rabelais book eventually appeared as well, its scatology prudently bowdlerised (‘penis’ became ‘bâton de mariage’). The Bakhtins, now both seriously ill, secured places in a Moscow hospital with the help of the daughter of Yuri Andropov. They moved from there to an old people’s home usually reserved for inmates from the Third World, and were finally granted residency in Moscow.
Rather as life and death are interwoven in Bakhtin’s carnivalesque vision, so his reputation flourished as his body failed. Lionised by literary scholars, sought out by aged Formalists and acclaimed by the intellectual young, he died in 1975, just as literary theory was riding high in the West. His last words, despite his having denied in his work that there was any such thing as a last word, were ‘I go to thee.’ Religious Bakhtinians take ‘thee’ to mean God; Marxist Bakhtinians take it to mean his wife, who had died four years earlier.
Bakhtin’s central concept of dialogism does not mean bending a courteous ear to others, as some of his more liberal commentators seem to imagine. It means that every word or utterance is refracted through a host of other, perhaps antagonistic idioms, through which alone its meaning can be grasped. It thus bears an affinity with the post-structuralist concept of textuality. There can be no unmediated truth. We come to ourselves, as many modern thinkers have claimed, through a medium which is profoundly strange to us. Language for Bakhtin is a cockpit of warring forces, as each utterance finds itself occupied from within by alien significations. Every sign glances sideways at other signs, bears the traces of them within its body, and faces simultaneously towards speaker, object, context and addressee. Like human subjects, words are constituted by their relations to otherness, and language is always porous, hybrid and open-ended. There was never a first word, and there could never be a last one. The inherent unfinishedness and unpredictability of language – the fact that I can never deduce from any two of your words what the third one is going to be – is a token of human freedom, and thus in a broad sense political. Signs are never self-identical, and always mean more than they say (a surplus that includes what they don’t say). The enemy is what Bakhtin dubs ‘monologism’, meaning the kind of meta-language which seeks to subdue this irrepressible heterogeneity. At times in his work, it is a polite word for Stalinism. Language is torn between ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal’ forces – the former decentring, the latter centralising. National languages aspire to be monological but are in fact thoroughly ‘heteroglossic’, spawning a multiplicity of dialects and speech styles.
In all these ways, Bakhtin’s work marks a momentous shift from language to discourse. Whereas Saussure and his disciples reduced language to a formal, contextless system, Bakhtin is seized by everything in language that cannot be formalised: context, intonation, implication, the materiality of the word, the non-said, the taken-for-granted, ideological evaluations and the social relations between speakers. If communication is what makes us human, linguistics can never be entirely distinguished from ethics.
The verbal sign, then, is ‘multi-accentual’, an unstable force which lives only in its orientation to other signs. Bakhtin’s cultural interests are accordingly in those forms – carnival, Menippean satire, the novel and so on – which represent a mighty ‘polyphonic’ contest of discourses, with one form of signification relativising and decentring another, one kind of idiom invading, subverting, citing, framing and dismantling those around it. The chief literary name for this is the novel, that mongrelised genre which – unlike epic, pastoral or tragedy – is entirely without rules, and which in Bakhtin’s eyes is less a definable form than a deconstructive force. The novel lives purely in its dialogic relation to other literary modes, cannibalising and parodying them. It is a maverick anti-genre, deviant and non-canonical, a secular scripture which shows up all discourse as partial and provisional. In Bakhtin’s view, it is no accident that this great collision of verbal forms arose in both the Hellenistic era and the Renaissance from the ruins of some more authoritative ideological system.
In Rabelais and His World, this orgy of signification takes to the street in the form of a carnival. In the Russian tradition of the holy fool, the ancient art of the people debunks all transcendental signifiers and submits all official values to satiric parody. Like the novel, it celebrates flux and mutability, the dynamic and unstable. All absolute values are ridiculed and relativised. Against the high-mindedness of official doctrine is pitted the lethal power of laughter. Travesty, disfigurement and inversion (nose/phallus, face/buttocks, sacred/profane, man/woman, high culture/low culture) rampage for a euphoric moment through the byways and marketplaces. Rigid oppositions are scabrously dismantled. Birth and death, destruction and renewal, body and spirit, wisdom and folly, the anal and the angelic are sent packing with their tails in each other’s mouths. Orifices are seen as the places where bodies breach their boundaries and merge ecstatically into each other. Everything about the practice is ambiguous, Janus-faced, too slippery to be pinned down. Carnival deflates the sublime and portentous; and behind this desublimation lies the bathos of the Christian gospel, for which salvation comes down to the gift of a cup of water. As the first movement in history to consecrate the common life, Christianity stands at the source of Bakhtin’s preoccupation with the everyday, just as it lurks distantly behind the current fascination with popular culture.
Probably the best book on Bakhtin to have appeared so far in Britain is Ken Hirschkop’s Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy, published in 1999. Hirschkop’s book has the edge on Pechey’s study in several ways. For one thing, Hirschkop, unlike Pechey, reads Russian, and has served his time in the Moscow libraries. For another thing, Hirschkop writes lucid, companionable prose, whereas Pechey’s artfully wrought eloquence occasionally sails close to verbosity. He has rather too eager an ear for the solemnly resonant phrase, and at times can even wax mildly parsonical in tone, as in ‘the sinful hubris of modern reason produces in the 20th century the terroristic heresies of its characteristic politics.’ Despite his admiration for Bakhtin, Hirschkop can be sharply critical, whereas Pechey has scarcely a bad word to say of him. The well-nigh flawless thinker with whom he presents us is far from unfinished, evolving, ambiguous and conflictive, whereas Hirschkop is particularly good at flushing out his shifts and inconsistencies. Finally, though Hirschkop is a Marxist, he is not bent on hijacking Bakhtin for his own position; whereas Pechey, a Marxist-turned-Christian, is eager to do precisely that. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Word in the World is a finely perceptive study of formidable intellectual subtlety; but beneath its rather involuted academic prose it is also a deeply partisan affair.
Pechey argues persuasively that Bakhtin was out to rewrite the history of modernity. Epistemology yields to aesthetics, as the abstract reason of the Enlightenment is replaced by the sensuous particularity of art. A brutally instrumental rationality makes way for a form of communicative reason. The falsely autonomous subject of the modern age is overturned by the dialogical self. In all these ways, the aesthetic in the modern age becomes the repository of lost or sidelined forms of knowledge. Pechey argues this case with skill and force; but he can’t resist demonising his various opponents in the most undialogical fashion. The flawed, rich, stunningly original work of the Russian Formalists is dismissed as so much critical technocracy. Indeed, the book proposes an outrageous parallel between them and the Stalinists. All avant-gardes (Rimbaud? Cubism? Surrealism?) are to be consigned to hell (Pechey’s own language) as literary Leninism, conspirators in the very modernising projects they are meant to challenge. This glib caricature might have come as a surprise to Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in 1930 as Stalin’s grip tightened. Pechey misses the true complexity of a European Modernism that was both ultra-modern and anti-modern at the same time. Modernity is a matter of ‘abstract ideas and bloodless epistemology’; there is nothing to be said in favour of the Enlightenment (democracy? feminism? liberalism? universal rights?); and though Bakhtin suffered under the barbarous irrationalism of the Soviet regime, we are invited to admire ‘any group which has reason to suspect Reason’ (note the scare cap).
Though Pechey wants to rescue Bakhtin from the mildest taint of Marxism, he is somewhat inconsistent on this score. The suggestion that Bakhtin wrote a couple of Marxist texts under the names of two of his colleagues is at one point scornfully repudiated as a ‘delusion’; yet elsewhere these works are said to have been ‘inspired’ or even ‘ventriloquised’ by him. The fact that Bakhtin probably welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution in his own idealist way passes unmentioned. Pechey wouldn’t, he assures us rather stiffly, want to ‘politicise’ his author’s work; yet he reads it more than once as anti-Soviet polemic, and even allows that Bakhtin adhered to a form of ‘quasi-“Western Marxism”’ (one observes the double qualification). Elsewhere in the book, this judicious formulation becomes, rather more recklessly, Bakhtin as a precursor of post-colonialism – though rather dismayingly Pechey, a South African, seems to think that there is little or nothing to choose between the apartheid state of his homeland and the ‘orthodoxy of subversion’ which opposed it. A disillusionment with the ANC, along with that shift to the right known as growing older, might well have played its part in his own evolution from Marxism to Christianity. In so far as Bakhtin, too, may well have shifted from a distant sympathy for Marxism to an understandable antagonism to it, the book may have its autobiographical dimension.
For all its over-drawn oppositions, Pechey’s study is an intellectual tour de force, the fruit of a thinker who has meditated long and deeply on his subject. One might recall, however, that there is nothing inherently positive about change, dynamism, plurality, hybridity and open-endedness. What has altered since Bakhtin’s time, although neither Pechey nor the postmodernists seem to have noticed, is that if these were once alternatives to the system, they are now entirely indispensable to it. No regime is more in love with the multiple and dynamic than late capitalism. One might remember, too, that one virtue of Marxism has been its insistence that there is no need to cobble together an alternative modernity, since that alternative lies deep in modernity itself. The very forces which make for human misery and oppression can also make for emancipation and wellbeing. Perhaps this, after all, is the most audacious form of dialogism.