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Boundaries Versus Binaries

Boundaries Versus Binaries:

Bakhtin in/against the
History of Ideas
Graham Pechey
Who or what is Mikhail Bakhtin? The two monographs we
have on him agree on an identity: Bakhtin is a philosopher.

The compliment, however well meant, could be lethal.

Bakhtin was born in Orel in 1895 and died near Moscow in
1975. This bald statement of a life defined by its extremities
elides the tortuous route that took him from one time and
place to another; it also glosses over both the fellowship of a
‘circle’ which it was his good luck to have around him in the
early years and the intellectual loneliness that followed in the
Stalin period, six years of which he spent in internal exile.

These biographical motifs find their echo in a thinking which
is preoccupied with dialogue and with the time-space of
narratives, and these themes in their turn exactly characterize
the thought itself: Bakhtin always speaks with more than one
voice and his concepts are nothing if not ‘wandering’, in the
sense of being internally open-ended. After an early NeoKanlian phase, polemics were published against Freud and
Saussure and Russian Formalism under the signatures of
Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev. Between a monograph on Dostoevsky in 1929 and another on Rabelais in 1965
Bakhtin published nothing; what he wrote in that time has
now seen the light of day, along with the early writing to
whose spirit he is held to have returned in the fragments of his
final years. It is this extraordinarily varied body of work that
is now being raked over for whatever it can yield of unity or
inner logic, and this at a time when (witness the great movements of democratic renewal going on before our eyes) we
should rather be celebrating its singular ability to make the
various idioms of modernity – secular and spiritual, political
and personal, ‘high’ and popular – speak to each other.

One such project of unification is that of Tzvetan Todorov,
for whom Bakhtin belongs to the ‘intellectual family’ of
existentialism. l Tucked away as it is in a footnote, this affirmation might escape our notice if it weren’t implicitly
announced in the bold script of a sub-title borrowed from
Martin Buber: The Dialogical Principle. Bakhtin in Todorov’s rendering becomes a proto-existentialist distinguished from all others by his elaboration of a theory of
discourse or what Bakhtin himself, seeking to move beyond
the sentence to encompass the ‘whole utterance’, calls a
‘translinguistics’. Even this is doubtful when we think of
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s grounding of language in intersubjectivity and his contestation of dominant linguistic theories
very much on their own terrain. Bakhtin is neither a phenomenologist with a flair for semiotics nor (like Emile BenveniSle) a linguist who leavens and widens his technical interests
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

with a little phenomenology. Rather than affirming an identity we should turn our attention to his specificity as a thinker,
and we can do this by saying that language for him takes place
not in the neutral space of ‘communication’ but in a charged
and irreducibly sociopolitical space of its own endless making and remaking. It will not do to deny either the existentialist or the semiotician in Bakhtin, but merely to add to each
other these two moments of his thinking without that third
dimension modifying both is to throwaway the subversive
potential of these two major bourgeois responses to the twentieth-century crises of (respectively) the subject and of representation. Bakhtin then enters the history of ideas as a character with an honoured minor role in the great Western narrative
of ‘human freedom’.

Against this precipitate appropriation of Bakhtin by the
liberal academy it is of no use appropriating him as precipitately for ‘Marxism’. What can safely be said is that his
thinking is very closely akin to the tradition of Western
Marxism and at odds with the Soviet Marxism dominant in his
time. This uncritical internalization of high-bourgeois scientism, incipient in Friedrich Engels, congealed in the period of
the Second International into a dogmatic historical optimism
and an economic determinism – in short, a metaphysics of the
‘base’. Western Marxism by contrast is characterized by a
preoccupation with the ‘superstructure’ and a deep dialogical
engagement with those novel Western discourses which were
then beginning to call themselves the ‘human sciences’. A
reductive account might suggest that this current of thought
had simply internalized the opposing ‘romantic’ pole of the
antinomy identified by Marx himself in the Grundrisse as
besetting bourgeois thought ‘until its blessed end’; that it was
little more than a late-bourgeois variant of that Romantic anticapitalism which posed against the dystopia of a society commodified from top to bottom the utopic possibilities of ‘art?

This may be true of Georg Lukacs, whose cultural conservatism helps to found such alliance as existed between Soviet
and Western Marxism. It is in WaIter Benjamin that we find a
means of moving beyond Marx’s paralysing antinomy.

Benjamin’s welcome to aesthetic modernism is a recognition
that the text of dissident and experimental late-bourgeois
writing must be engaged in its textuality rather than dismissed
in its ideality: the way out of the Entfremdung of reification is
not through the category of the totality but through Verfremdung, an alienation-effect which makes ‘art’ directly

Now Bakhtin also represents this insight, with the differ23

ence that his engagement with modernism is rather with its
theoretical and philosophical than with its literary discourses.

He constructs in this engagement an anti-Hegelianism which
is compatible with, though by no means the same as, Marx’s,
and which is characterized by what we might call a return to a
pre- Hegelian moment in the German philosophical tradition.

He makes this move in the context of a polity and an economy
that constituted the world’s first exception to bourgeois hegemony, and if in one respect he is the beneficiary of this
placing – forever sharpening as it does his sense that the
theoretical is inescapably the political- he is also in the short
term its victim: in the atmosphere of understandably suspicious defensiveness that reigned in the workers’ state under
siege, his tactical heterodoxy might look like treason. In the
sub-text of the polemics of the 1920s – and then more overtly
in the Dostoevsky book, where the signature of Dostoevsky
perhaps protected him – we can sense a critique that aligns
itself with Lukacs’s in History and Class Consciousness,
while at the same time distancing itself from the Hegelianism
of that text. The moment on which Bakhtin fixes is that of
Kant and Goethe: he finds in the discourses of this moment a
means of resisting Hegel ‘s total absorption of the world in the
absolute self-knowledge of Spirit, his abolition of a multiform
objectivity in a uniform subjectivity. Ernst Bloch’s use of
Goethe against Hegel and Ernst Cassirer’s similar use of Kant
provide close parallels for Bakhtin’ s project in this early
period. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is a text acknowledged by Bakhtin and Voloshinov as a Western ally of their
own enterprise, and its publication in the year of Lukacs’s
heterodox offering dramatizes its importance in the latter’s
formation. In Bakhtin the word and the body live on their
boundaries, just as the sensible and the intelligible do in
Cassirer and the present and future do in Bloch. Bakhtin takes
his cue from a stage of bourgeois thought in which (as in
Schiller, for example) the aesthetic had yet to lose its worldly
moorings and be launched to lose itself in the sea of Spirit, as
a mere cancelled phase of which philosophy is the
subl(im)ation. He interrupts the passage of this stage into that
hypostasis of cognitive consciousness which is idealism at its
limit, ‘philosophical monologism’ at the height of its ambotion. It is not for nothing that Bakhtin cites Kant at the
beginning of his essay on the chronotope – the time-space
complex that unites in one perspective the events of narratives
and the texts that realize them – and insists on the Bildungsroman fragment on the chronotopic character of Goethe’s thinking.

Where does this leave Bakhtin? In my view he ends up
somewhere between Western marxism and post-structuralism, more politicized than the latter and with a more sophisticated theory of discourse than the former has ever produced.

Encoded in the polemic with Freud and Saussure and Formalism – not as its ‘truth’ but simply as one of its bearings – is a
complex dialogue and critical consensus with the Neo-Kantianism of Cassirer, the heterodox Marxism of Lukacs, and (to
bring another name into the equation) the existential theology
of Buber, whose I and Thou was also coincidentally published
in 1923. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language makes a
tactical alliance with some of the motifs of classical Marxism
in its Soviet variant in order to ventilate the claims of an
alternative, at once anti-scientistic and anti-Hegelian, to the
dominant Marxist tradition. In the NEP phase of early Soviet
history the die had not decisively been cast, and a re-invention
of Marxism which is fructified by a dialogue with Western
discourses that offer an alternative route out of Hegel was still
a possibility. What we choose to call these discourses matters
little: the important point is that they provide a ground for

dissent from the ofticial triumphalism of the (then) communist movement and for a rejection at once of the classical
speculative dialectic and of the dialectics of nature. In its
polemic against the available versions of a proto-structuralism, Bakhtinism precociously invents a post-structuralism
which also revives aspects of Marx’ s project that had been
lost in the philosophizing of his heirs.

One of these aspects is the ambivalence of Marx’ s dialectic of history, its suspension between a ‘tragic’ and a ‘progressivist’ perspective. This comes through in the books on Dostoevsky and Rabelais and in the profound meditation upon the
relationship of the serious and the comic that is contained in
them. Bakhtin castigates utopian socialism as idealist, but it is
equally clear that the alternative of ‘scientific’ socialism
establishes a dichotomy that he would want to undermine.

Against the monologism of ‘actually existing’ scientific socialism in the Stalinist period he poses the popular utopia of
‘laughter’ and ‘carnival’, dialogism that has taken to the
streets. The other aspect of Marx’ s project revived in Bakhtin
is apparent mainly in the polemical phase of the 1920s: it is
his anti-systemic, critical, deconstructive way with the concepts of bourgeois thought. Marx’ s deconstruction of the
commodity is echoed in a deconstruction of that severest of
all casualties of corn modification as Bakhtin and his colleagues saw it: the sign. They do for linguistic and poetics/
stylistics what Marx had done for economics. What Lukacs in
1923 calls the’ formalism’ or the’ abstract and formal method’

of political economy is replicated in the ‘abstract objectivism’

of Saussure’ s linguistics and in the famous’ formal method’ in
Russian literary studies. 3 In short, we find in works like
Marxism and the Philosophy of Language the prolegomena of
a Capital of the ‘superstructure’.


Perhaps the most direct route to an understanding of Bakhtin’ s
specific anti-Hegelianism is through his pronouncements on
the dialectic. A gnomic sentence from one of his later works
provides a starting point: ‘Dialectics was born of dialogue so
as to return again to dialogue on a higher level. ‘4 What this
seems to imply is that the classical speculative dialectic is
itself the product of a dialectical process; it is the ‘abstract
product’ which results when dialogue (in Bakhtin’s strong
sense, discourse conceived as inherently ‘double-voiced’ or
dialogical) is monologized by being located in a ‘unique
abstract consciousness’ – when, in short, its ‘division of
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

voices’ is abolished in a single voice.5 By staying there, however, we have only explicated the first stage of Bakhtin’s
critique, a preliminary re situation of the dialectic within a
process which it claims to transcend as that process’s privileged metalanguage. We remain in this explication at the level
of the signified. Moving to that of the signifier – reading
Bakhtin’s sentence not as a sentence but as an utterance, not
as exhaustible in a paraphrase but as an (inexhaustible) answer – we can see in its language nothing less than a parody of
the language of the classical dialectic, bringing out the critical
force of the (non-)concept of dialogism by putting dialogue
into priority. He blows apart the closure of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model (the negation of the negation) by putting
what for dialectics would be mere ‘mediation’ in the place of
the thesis, so that it undergoes rather than effects the
Aufhebung. Thus:



DIALOGISM (‘synthesis’)

What is ‘restored’ is not identity or self-coincidence but
non-identity; the ‘synthesis’ is a term which undermines as an
active force all synthesizing and homogenizing projects whatever. Bakhtin’s mock synthesis is that which all institutional
or conceptual syntheses endlessly posit themselves against.

The philosophy of Hegel is from this perspective a kind of
felix culpa of discourse, propelling dialogue-in-itself into the
dialogue-for- itself which is dialogism. The logic of particular
and universal is first reversed and then displaced altogether.

That which lives unselfconsciously outside itself encounters a
unitary meaning on its inside – it acquires what Bakhtin calls
in an early formulation an ‘inner terrltory’6 – only to recoil
from this discovery into a militant ‘outsideness’, an explicit
politics of the boundary removed altogether from the logic
and implicit politics of the binary. Thus:

Others as given


Others for others …

In Bakhtin’s ‘philosophy’ there is a use of the language of
rationality which is always at the same time a parodic displacement of that language, a dialogization of its monologism. Dialectics does not magically convert itself into an (or
the) antagonist of metaphysics by taking on the attribute or
assuming the ‘content’ of matter rather than spirit. It will remain a metaphysics unless and until it is truly radicalized in
that self-parody of dialectics which now goes by the name of

This radical politics of the boundary has its fullest elaboration, for Bakhtin, in the existential poetics of Dostoevsky.

What the various exitentialisms have in common is a (pettybourgeois) protest against Being in general, a revolt of beingin-the-world against a metaphysics experienced as unfreedom, a disempowering tyranny of the essence. Now if
Bakhtin’s anti-philosophy is refracted through the tragic personalism of Dostoevsky it is nonetheless no more to be identified with the latter than with an optimistic collectivism imposed from above. Orthodox Marxism recognized only one
route out of Hegel: that of diamat. Bakhtin asserts the right to
dialogue with other post-Hegelian voices which do not implicate the thinker in the materialism/idealism binary and which
help him to question the very form of the dialectic itself.

Idealism is opposed not because it is a philosophy of the spirit
but because it is the most authoritarian and totalitarian monologism imaginable. Spirit is opposed not because it is not
matter but because it is one of the names of the identical
subject-object, and to assign the role of identical subjectRadical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

object to anything else (even the proletariat) is to remain
within an identitarian or idealist problematic. Any systematic
alternative to the latter sooner or later finds itself to be no
alternative at all. There can be no ‘dialogics’ – to use a
barbarous and falsifying term much in use now but with no
basis whatever in Bakhtin. Indirection is not simply a response to the danger of direct assertion under Stalinism; it is
an internal imperative of Bakhtin’ s thinking. Which is as
much as to say: there are in Bakhtin only ‘philosophy effects’

generated by discourses that are not in themselves ‘philosophical ‘. The liminal discipline of translinguistics is not a
philosophy – not even a ‘philosophy of language’ – but rather
a discourse which signals certain philosophical bearings and
has effects that might be called philosophical, while it is more
directly preoccupied with other business: either polemicizing
with other disciplines of the sign or working on and within
these special sites of dialogism called ‘novel’ and ‘carnival’.

Bakhtin’s ‘philosophy’ is in this sense strategic rather than
systematic, a matter of polemical or parodic glancing blows
that avoid confronting systems with their elaborated antitheses or antidotes because of the complicities this entails. We
are not surprised to find that the late ‘experiments in philosophical analysis’ never get beyond the status of the ‘note’ or
the fragment. ‘Every entry into the sphere of meaning is
accomplished only through the gates of the chronotope’: thus
Bakhtin, concluding his last completed piece of writing.7
Even abstract thought (he claims) is impossible without
‘temporal-spatial expression’: like Marx and Derrida Bakhtin
knows that theory is always situated in and exceeded by
history and materiality.

Some of Bakhtin’s radical readers might have a problem
with the parenthesis that closes the sentence we have taken as
our starting point and which for the purposes of this analysis
I have thus far suppressed. The full sentence actually reads:

‘Dialectics was born of dialogue so as to return to dialogue at
a higher level (a dialogue of personalities)’. Now it is obvious
that Western canonizers of Bakhtin would seize on this parenthesis as a means of identifying him with a personalist ‘philosophy’ (rather as Western political commentators view
glasnost in the Soviet Union and similar experiments as so
many approximations to a perfected liberalism in their own
far from democratic polities). Our answer to this should not be
to excuse a late aberration in Bakhtin but rather to affirm the
burden of his parenthesis by first of all reconstructing the
context to which it plainly alludes – I mean the moment of the
Dostoevsky book of 1929 – and then showing how this emphasis on ‘personalities’ might be remobilized in our context,
and without any awkward apology. I have already implied
that Bakhtin’s ‘strategic’ (anti-)philosophizing is inseparable
from the positive hermeneutic of this great monograph, a
hermeneutic which has as its negative obverse a critique of
the instrumental rationality of class society. What needs to be
emphasized now is that this text marks the transition from the
polemicizing and sociologizing of the 1920s to the politiciZing and historicizing work of the 1930s – from the deconstruction of theories of signification which perpetuate the inside/
outside binary in theory to an exploration of the forms and
institutions which deconstruct it in practice. In the polemical
work under other signatures we have something like a sociolinguistics or a speech-act theory: translinguistics in this
phase tends perhaps to take the sociopolitical space of discourse as ‘given’ whereas in the later phase it extends to an
exploration of how hegemonies are organized, how the space
of the sociopolitical ‘real’ is created. When the whole of
Bakhtin’s actual context was in creative flux – when the
revolution still enabled a carnival of ideas – there was a

tendency for the subject and the referent to be substantialized.

When this carnival is over, Bakhtin is driven to seek out sites
and times where the play of signifiers is a manifest material
force and ‘play’ is itself the ‘work’ of history.

Against the Formalists, for whom ‘discourse in art’ was
the function of a cancellation of the text’s social dimension,
Bakhtin and his colleaguies then rethought ‘art’ as an intensified sociality, a deepening and opening-out of the immanently






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social character of ‘discourse in life’. If in the 1920s ‘art’ is
thus assimilated to ‘life’, in the 1930s ‘life’ is assimilated to
‘art’: in the midst of ‘ideology’ Bakhtin conjures up (in Karl
Mannheim’s sense) a ‘utopia’ of popular and novelistic deconstruction. It doesn’t require much perspicacity to read the
supersession of carnivalesque counter-culture in a new official culture described in the Rabelais book as an allegory of
the betrayal of the revolution of 1917. Much more fundamental is the shift from the implicit homogeneity of a referent
given before discourse to a referent understood as both irreducibly heterogeneous and issuing ceaselessly from the ‘creative work’ of discourse itself, in an active and collective
making of the future. Discourse is never conceived by Bakhtin
as anything other than actively interventionist, but in the
1930s he moves from a stress on the power of the utterance to
‘resolve situations’ to an almost hyperbolic affirmation of the
power of popular assertion to turn the world upside down.

Bakhtin’s answer to the abolition of popular politics under
Stalinism is a reconstruction of the space of the sociopolitical
as the realized and realizing self-activity of the ‘people’ – of
‘historical becoming’ as inseparable from powerful acts of
meaning which no ‘power’ can destroy without ultimately
destroying itself.

Hindsight makes it possible for us to see the Dostoevsky
book as the point of transition between these two phases:

defined by its difference from both of them. Between the sociologizing imperative of the polemical texts and the historicizing imperative of the work on carnival and the novel, this
book is the locus classicus of that existentializing imperative
which we need to recognize – and affirm – as a perennial force
in Bakhtin’s thinking. By contrast with the aggressive assertion of an alternative objectivism to the’ abstract objectivism’

of Saussurean linguistics and Formalist poetics, the book on
Dostoevsky seems almost wilfully ‘subjectivist’. Now from
one perspective this could be seen as Bakhtin grasping and
closely engaging with the problem of the subject which (as I
have argued elsewhere) the Formalists had ‘prematurely and

undialectically’ bracketted out, in a cancellation of the subjectivity matching that cancellation of sociality already mentioned. 8 From another perspective this text’s (alleged) ‘subjectivism’ could equally be seen as a tactical return to
Bakhtin ‘s earlier meditation on the ethics and aesthetics of
intersubjectivity. If the polemics sought to contextualize the
text (against Formalism), and if the later work on canival
textualizes the context (against Stalinism) – thereby opening
up the referent as a site of praxis – then the Dostoevsky book
may be said to textualize the subject, against a composite
opponent which includes idealism, its literary analogue in the
homophonic novel,9 and their common root in the ‘reification
of man’ under capitalism.

This then is the project of Problems of Dostoevsky’ s Art;
and at first glance it seems somewhat quixotic and otherworldly to be proposing a definition of dialogism as ‘a dialogue of personalities’ in the first year of the First Five-Year
Plan, arguing the epistemological merits of a kind of writing
in which ‘self-consciousness’ is the ‘dominant’ when collectivization was already in train. Of course Bakhtin’s notion of
the ‘personality’ has nothing whatever to do with the monadic
individual of bourgeois individualism. Dostoevsky’s ‘profoundly personalized’ world is also (Bakhtin insists) ‘profoundly pluralistic’:lO by ‘personality’ we are to understand
the subject as a shifting function of intertextual boundaries.

Still, there is – as Ken Hirschkop has argued – a problem with
the idea of a plurality of interacting consciousnesses, inasmuch as their interaction in the space of the text somewhat
dubiously stands in for the truly objective space of the social
itself. We can (on this view) only rescue Bakhtin from the
charge of ‘subjectivism’ either by associating polyphony with
carnival, or by opposing to the humanist reading which sees
behind the ‘roles of real life ‘ a ‘certain irreducible freedom’ ,
a radical reading which sees the unfinalizability of the Dostoevskian ‘personality’ as an emblem of ‘the ever-present
possibility of change’.n
Two points need to be made here. First, the link with
carnival only becomes available in the edition of 1963. Secondly, unexceptionable as both this link and the alternative
(radical) reading may be, they are not necessary. Even in the
1929 edition the space of the text is not as falsifying of the
social as Hirschkop makes it out to be: Dostoevsky’s heroideologues are not all that unlike the subjects of a genuine
Gramscian hegemony: ‘philosophers’ or potential authorfunctions whose ‘commonsense’ must be rendered critical
and self-critical by the dialogical agency of those professional
authors of change called ‘intellectuals’. At the very least we
could say that there is a strong proto-political or quasi-political dimension to the Dostoevsky book, with polyphony shadowing forth the strategies and forms of subjectivity proper to
a real politics of popular sovereignty.

The parallel with Antonio Gramsci can be carried further.

The image that Bakhtin hits upon when trying to distinguish
Dostoevsky’s ‘pluralistic’ world from the ‘unified, dialectically evolving spirit, understood in Hegelian terms’ is an
institutional metaphor that his Italian contemporary would
have approved: namely, the church ‘as a communion of unmerged souls, where sinners and righteous men come together’ .12 Gramsci’ s concept of the revolutionary party is not
far removed from this catholic inclusiveness ascribed by
Bakhtin to Dostoevskian polyphony. Gramsci’s more general
philosophical project – in which, centrally, metaphysics is
redefined against vulgar-materialist orthodoxy as ‘any systematic formulation that is put forward as an extra-historical
truth, as an abstract universal outside of time and space’13 – is
very close to the specific anti-idealism of Bakhtin’s text of
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

1929. (Bakhtin, moreover, would have had before him in the
writing of Nikolai Bukharin the representative of orthodox
anti-idealism who is the object of Gramsci ‘s critique.) A close
look at the metaphors Bakhtin uses to give a sense of the
relationship between author and hero in the homophonic novel
leads us ineluctably to a homology between the poetics of the
latter and the politics of absolute rule. Consider, for example,
the claim that everything from the author’s side which might
have ‘as it were, sentenced’ the hero functions in Dostoevsky
not as a means of his ‘finalization’ but as ‘the material of his
self-consciousness’. Besides this forensic metaphor, there are
recurring tropes of surveillance and rebellion: the Dostoevskian hero is not ‘a being that can be spied on, defined,
predicted apart from its own will, “at second hand”‘, and he is
in ‘revolt’ against ‘his literary finalization’ .14
After 1929, the insistence on Dostoevsky’s exceptionalism is played down and ‘polyphony’ disappears from
Bakhtin’s vocabulary until the edition of 1963. Radek’s association of Dostoevsky with Proust and Joyce in 1934, not to
mention Lukacs’s denunciation of two years before, would of
course have made any heroization inadvisable. Bakhtin’s
recourse to generalizations about ‘the novel’ springs however
not so much from caution of this specific kind as from a more
general logic of his politics of theory in the 1930s: it was
inevitable that the dialogized ‘voices’ of Dostoevskian polyphony would become the dialogized ‘social languages’ of
novelistic ‘heteroglossia’ (that is, ‘many-Ianguaged-ness’)
when his argument was not (overtly) with philosophies and
novel types – or indeed with the reification of class society but (covertly) with the Stalinist state itself. The difference
between this position and that of the Dostoevsky book is
nonetheless in no sense the difference between a covert presence of the political and its overt absence: what after all unites
them is the emphasis on the novel as an image of civil society,
in Gramsci’s (rather than Marx’s) sense. Polyphony stands
for the ideal condition of civil society; homophony for its
contamination by the ‘I-it’ relations of the state. That this
homology is not fanciful should be clear from the occasional
excursions Bakhtin makes into the ‘sociological’ explanation
of Dostoevskian polyphony in a text otherwise given over to
its immanent ‘formal’ description. Dostoevsky’ s work is the
novelistic correlative of the effect of capitalist relations upon
the hitherto mutually deafened and blinded sectors of Russian
civil society. Capitalism arrives with ‘catastrophic suddenness’ and breaks down the insulation of these ‘diverse worlds

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

and spheres’, bringing them to self-knowledge through
knowledge of each other, making their contradictory unity
and interdependence a fact of consciousnessY The ‘art’ of
Dostoevsky is nothing less than the orchestration of these

If we need any further proof of the political thrust of the

Dostoevsky book we need only turn to Anatoly Lunacharsky’s (broadly favourable) review, written by the People’s
Commissar of Education when Bakhtin was already on his
way to internal exile in Kazakhstan, and thereby starkly
dramatizing the contrast between state repression and dialogue within civil society which is not only implicit in the
book but actually brought into the open (to be sure, as a matter
of ‘history’) in the review itself. Dostoevsky is presented by
Lunacharsky as one of those ‘great personalities’ of nineteenth-century Russia who sought and tragically failed to
organize the forces of civil society against the absolute state. 16
This ‘first great petty-bourgeois writer in the history of our
culture’ not only reflected the confusion of his class but also
served as its ‘powerful and much-needed organizer’ .17 His
project, within his fiction and without, was to detach the
“‘inner” understanding’ of Orthodox religion from its ‘outward forms’ – in other words, to compel an institution compromised by its relation to the state into an institution of civil
society from which that state might be opposed. 18 The church
as a utopic ‘coinherence of souls’ [sobornost]l9 provides him
with the means to take his distance not only from the autocracy but also from any revolutionary socialist solution. In
Lunacharsky’s reading of Dostoevsky-through-Bakhtin the
writing is effectively construed as a positive gain conjured out
of Dostoevsky’s inevitable failure – inevitable not just because of his impotence as an individual, but also because he is
an organic intellectual springing from a class with no historic
mission and little power to rescue Russian civil society from
what Gramsci would later call its ‘gelatinous’ condition.

It is also a reading which is not without a more sharply
contemporary relevance than Bakhtin would have felt free to
enforce. Lunacharsky ends his review with (among others)
the following very striking observation: ‘If we ourselves find
no positive ideas in Dostoevsky we must remember that we
are not as yet a majority in the country.’20 In this formulation
Lunacharsky makes the leap from ‘Dostoevsky’ as the name
of an active intervention in civil society under the autocracy
to ‘Dostoevskyism’ [Dostoevshschina] as a force within civil
society under the workers’ state. The perspective held out
here is one of proletarian hegemony as something to be fought
for politically and dialogically in a situation where not only
the vanguard party but also the proletariat itself is a numerical
minority. ‘Dostoevskyism’ is a material force within civil
society which Lunacharsky seeks not to repress by administrative decree – in a move which would threaten the very
survival of civil society itself – but to redeem (as it were) by
promoting a critical inflection of its motifs, by acknowledging its hold over the other classes making up the ‘people’ and
engaging it in critical dialogue.

I would not wish to suggest that Lunarcharsky’s case is
identical with some supposedly Bakhtinian ‘message’ contained in the Dostoevsky book. Neither would I claim that
‘Hegel’ in that text is (as Fredric Jameson says it is in Louis
Althusser) a code for ‘Stalin’. What I am suggesting is that
this powerful Soviet official’s appraisal of Bakhtin-Dostoevsky is itself a political intervention within contemporary
civil society; that it is predicated upon the permanence and
value of this site of the dialogical negotiation of power; and

that it brings out for us what is at stake when the name of
Dostoevsky is invoked by Bakhtin (or anybody else) in 1929.

Invoking that name in that year is not perhaps after all as
perverse an act as it might have seemed. Beyond this, affirming Dostoevskian personalism as an ‘ideology of the text’

(rather than as the ‘philosophy’ of Dostoevsky ‘himself’) is
not inconsistent with that open-ended logic of the collective
always in the process of becoming which is the dialectic in its
non-speculative version. ‘Polyphony’ as a metaphor for that
spiritual diversity which is the ‘dialogue of personalities’ is
admittedly wildly at odds with the kind of metaphor favoured
by the contemporary Russian avant-garde. Formalism and
Futurism take their metaphors from the economic base, in an
aggressive de theologization of aesthetics which landed them
in an ahistorical and abstract objectivism that saved them
neither from the revenge of the subject nor from official
denunciation. Bakhtin’s metaphor is not only a musical one: it
calls to mind (more specifically) a particular kind of ecclesiastical music and therefore by extension the church itself that is to say, that part of the social formation which pre-revolutionary intellectuals like Dostoevsky sought to claim for
civil society against the state.

Putting the Formalists’ ‘device’ alongside ‘polyphony’ we
can see that the more traditionalist of the two metaphors is by
far the more politically astute, however unrevolutionary it
might sound next to its modernist and productionist counterpart. Its great merit is that it identifies – against the complementary reifications of ‘art’ and the ‘economy’ – the real
hegemonic battleground in any society undergoing revolutionary transformation, where sociality and subjectivity are
forever born together. But ‘polyphony’ also has a philological
meaning from the late nineteenth century, which Bakhtin
(trained, like Gramsci, as an historical linguist) must surely
have known: ‘the symbolization of different vocalsounds by
the same letter or character’ .21 The senses of phonemic-diversity-within-graphic-unity on the one hand and melodic-diversity-within-harmonic-unity on the other cross-fertilize (as it
were) to produce a translinguistic concept of considerable
power, in which the ‘characters’ of a certain kind of fiction
are conceived as bearing within themselves the difference
they have with respect to each other.

Such ‘characters’ are of course precisely those dispersed
author-functions Bakhtin calls ‘personalities’. If I am to make
good my claim that a radical reading needs to affirm rather
than apologize for this emphasis on the subject, then I must
show not only that this subject is exhaustively textualized but
that its textualization has ethico-political and theoretical
implications that challenge Western rationality. The Dostoevskian ‘personality’ is defined by Bakhtin as ‘pure selfconsciousness in its totality’ ,22 polyphony being the kind of
novelistic discourse in which such self-consciousness is the
‘dominant of representation’. In effect, this ‘free’ personality
is a principle of radical immanence – or (better) a zone of
absolute resistance to transcendence, situated where no metalanguage or metanarrative can reach it. It is ‘free’ in the sense
that it is only ever represented under the aspect of its own selfpositing activity. Its work is like that of a black hole in
discursive space, exerting so strong a gravitational pull upon
all around it that it has always already drawn into itself all
actual or potential ‘final words’ about itself. If the characters
of homophony are not in this sense personalities that is because they are merely empirical individuals from whom the
‘direct power to mean’ has been confiscated and monopolized
by the ‘author-monologist’. In a dialogue of personalities the
power to mean is freely exercised on all sides, and the obverse
of this thoroughgoing authenticity is the abolition of all idio28

syncrasy. Bakhtin uses the concept of this ‘consciousness for
its own sake’ to counter the monological or philosophical
fiction of the un incarnated and un situated idea, the idea which
‘belongs to no one’ and does not happen in time.23 Homophony combines an empiricism of the character with an idealism
of the author: the ideas of characters are mere psychological
attributes (more or less erroneous, or at least non-affirmable)
while those of the author alone are meanings. ‘That which is
individual’ is not essential; conversely that which is essential
is not individual but rather Bewusstsein uberhaupt, ‘consciousness in general’. Or, as Bakhtin puts it in the shortest
sentence he ever wrote: ‘Only error individualizes. ’24 Truth
and individuality are reconciled (can coexist) only on the side
of the author: in the hero the power of an idea to mean is either
negated by her or his individuality or only affirmed at the cost
of the latter.

There is no paradox in saying that this extreme personalism is the very reverse of any subjectivism. Not to understand
this is not to have understood that Bakhtin thinks by way of
extremes: subjectivity thQught as pure immanence inverts
itself into an immanent sociality; when everyone is absolutely
an author no one is absolutely in authority. If Bakhtin’s
metaphor-concepts are at odds with those of Formalism, it is
nonetheless certain that he had already matched their extremist gestures in his own style of thinking. If he textualizes the
subject (as I have suggested he does), he does so by giving the
subject the same status as Formalism gives to the text: instead
of the ‘self-valuable word’ freed from ‘motivation’ we have
‘pure self-consciousness’ freed from the heteronomy of ‘character’ and ‘plot’. The (linguistic) signifier privileged by Formalism becomes the signifier as actor specialized to the task
of signifying itself in the world and the world in itself. The
result is something not unlike what J ameson calls the “‘abso-

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Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

lute formalism” of Marxism itself’ with its ‘dialectical and
historical self-consciousness’: in short, an absolute formalism whose other face is an absolute historicism, Gramsci’s
‘absolute humanism of history’.25
Listen to Gramsci himself, on the special stance of the
Marxist philosopher:

Consciousness full of contradictions, in which the philosopher himself, understood both individually and as
an entire social group, not only grasps the contradictions, but posits himself as an element of the contradiction and elevates this element to a principle of knowledge and therefore of action.26
Bakhtin would find little to disagree with in this Gramscian

summary of how the ‘philosophy of praxis’ refuses with its
refusal of the Hegelian dialectic the ‘single position outside
of history’ on which its system rests. 27 The philosopher of
praxis and the polyphonic author have in common a continuing existential act of auto-situation – an ongoing self-positing
which at once presupposes similar acts in others and opens a
space for those others to empower themselves. The dialogue
of the intellectual and the class is as much a dialogue of
personalities as that of all the subjects (author included) in the
polyphonic novel: both would define themselves against what
Bakhtin calls the ‘pedagogical dialogue’28 of idealism in
which knowledge confronts ignorance unilaterally and unequally.

Authenticity, historicity, legitimacy: it is the profound relationship that Bakhtin’ s thinking helps us to develop between
these three terms – their transformation into each other, their
dynamic homology so to speak – that unfits it for the purposes
of that repressive parochialism which the West seeks to pass
off as universality and freedom. Authenticity is what the
heroes of polyphony display supremely; polyphony is the
interaction of authentic existents who resist in all their discourse the bad faith of objectivization. It is at the same time
(at least in Dostoevsky) an exclusively synchronic interaction, its contradictions coexisting in textual space rather than
unfolding in fictional time. Polyphony’s association with
synchrony is to be explained by its suspicion of diachrony as
a dimension compromised by the latter’s association with the
classical dialectic. Diachrony fosters the illusion that the
dialogue of personalities can be resolved in some higher
unity. The resolute synchrony of polyphony not only offers a
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

dimension in which authenticity and irresolution can flourish;
it is also the condition of a founding of historicity against that
History which is only one of the more subtle guises of Being.

The synchrony inhabited by the subjects of polyphony is a
formal or textual allegory not of stasis but of perpetual possibility. This specific temporality of the project is the natural
element of the unfinalizable hero and it is bound up also with
the narrative that is always enterable, in which everything is a
pure instance of discourse, and in which the power of hypothesizing an end to the story is in no one subject’s hands.

The roles of author and hero stand in a relation of infinite
asymptomatic approach to each other, in a distinction which
is always relative and never absolute. When there is nothing
outside this pure immanence of consciousnesses there is by
the same token nothing outside of the pure immanence of
history, nothing given from somewhere else in the sense of
escaping that implication in narratives which is shared by
representer and represented alike. Posed in directly political
terms, these issues of ‘representation’ become issues of ‘legitimation’; the idioms of authenticity and historicity undergo
translation, opening up a perspective of a legitimacy which
explicitly carries over into the realm of power their (already
powerful) challenge to a dominant ontology and epistemology.


I am not suggesting that polyphony is to be precipitately
re-read as a code for ‘democracy’: to do so would be equivalent to reading Dostoevsky as a realist of the English or
Western European variety. Polyphony offers us a position
from which Western humanism and uni versalism can at the
very least be problematized – that is to say, seen in the light
(or rather dark) of what they exclude or repress. It is the
poetics of a politics that in Western Europe found fleeting expression in the insurgent stage of the bourgeois revolution,
rather than the poetics (like realism) of an established bourgeois order. Its bearings lie among those class~s which have
never ruled and which epitomize revolt rather than revolution: either the subaltern classes of the late pre-capitalist
period who speak an antinomian language (like the Ranters),
or those intermediate classes of late capital whose language of
crisis is one or other version of existentialism. Women under
patriarchy, the global underclass of imperialism – any group
which has reason to suspect Reason – will gravitate towards
this idiom of revolt. Occupying the ground of Bakhtin-Dostoevsky what we gain is not an alternative ‘philosophical’

vision but a scepticism about the legitimacy of all victorious
classes that do not listen to these marginalized voices, a sense
of the complicity of ‘enlightenment’ and (yes) secularization
itself with the hegemony of the European bourgeoisie. If the
class whose mission it is to end classes as such is not to
become an author-monologist of history like its immediate
forerunner, it will need to establish its legitimacy on the quite
new basis of a complex dialogue with the discourses of groups
for whom the tragedy of enlightenment is a matter of direct
experience. In the Soviet Union in 1929 the refusal of a
dialogue of personalities within civil society (that is, of groups
or individuals with an equal power to mean) would lead to a
forced collectivization of the economy and over it all a state
which had effectively swallowed civil society and reduced it
to a ‘cult of the personality’ of the leader himself.

Such a dialogue will not be the mere verbal accompaniment of an opportunistic alliance between a hegemonic (or
hegemonizing) class and other constituencies, a tolerance of
unpalatable idioms for the sake of the masses they deliver into
action. ‘Unpalatable’ in this case means unpalatable from the
philosophical standpoint of a vulgar materialism or from the
political standpoint of a ‘workerism’, given that the themes of

these discourses are usually either religious or personalist or
nationalist, or a combination of these three. Polyphony adumbrates a hegemonic style which gives these supposedly superseded languages their full weight. Religion is more than the
mere epiphenomenon of a past mode of production – precapitalist, culpably ‘pre-scientific’, even ‘objectively reactionary’: a third-world liberation theology is at this moment re-inventing religion as a mode and code of popular assertion.

Personalism as a post-Hegelian revolt against the category of
the totality might have been caricatured by Marx in the early
example of Max Stirner; in Dostoevsky (as Bakhtin points
out) he is one of the prototypes of Raskolnikov. 29 We should
perhaps attend as much to Dostoevsky as to Marx in evaluating this tradition as it develops through Nietzsche to existentialism. If nationalism is irredeemably petty-bourgeois and
therefore always politically suspect for any narrowly instrumental-functional ‘class analysis’, it is indubitably also an
indispensable force in the current movements for liberation
from colonialism and neo-colonialism – without which even
the organized working class would not get beyond corporatism and trade-union consciousness.

Indeed it is in the revolt of the colonized against their
subalternity that the dialogue of personalities has been most
effectively mobilized of late. Bakhtin’s philosophizing is of
the kind that finds Dostoevsky’s writing (in a Levi-Straussian
phrase) eminently ‘good to think with’; today’s followers of
Bakhtin would do well to ‘think with’ the great living and
ongoing narratives of decolonization, whose supreme heroideologue must surely be Frantz Fanon. ‘The truth about the
world, according to Dostoevsky, is inseparable from the truth
of the personality’:30 what Bakhtin says of the polyphonic
novel’s typical protagonist applies also to the writing of
Fanon; confession and generalization interpenetrate in a discursive ambience where every uttered or imaginable ‘final
word’ of the colonizer about the colonized is answered, anticipated, matched, faced and fought past. The anti-philosophizing of Black Skin, White Masks takes the form of an
autobiographical narrative which is at the same time an allegory (a sort of putative or potential history) of everybody in
the colonized condition. It is unmistakably the writing of a
person in a situation, apostrophizing friends and foes, casting
backward and sideways glances as he takes his distance both
from negritude and from a sympathetic metropolitan view
which sees this antithesis to colonial racism as a mere phase to
be dialectically transcended. What Fanon’ s writing insistently says to us is that a politics of the boundary is nothing if
not incarnated: any exposition courts the danger of reducing
this order of intensely engaged thinking to the bloodless
categories of a metaphysics. If that is all one can say about it,
that is because ‘it’ is an inapposite pronoun in this context;
because it demands to be spoken or written not ‘about’ but
‘with’, in solidarity rather than commentary. Such agonistic
thinking always throws a merely cognitive consciousness into
disarray. Fanon’s whole output shows that the adumbration or
institution of a Bakhtinian ‘dialogue of personalities’ is nothing less than a revolutionary act.

The question ‘Who or what is Mikhail Bakhtin?’ resolves
itself into the question ‘Where is he today?’ Now that Fanon
is dead, his project is most closely paralleled in the pedagogic
writing of Paulo Freire – that Gramsci of the Third World, for
whom revolution is impossible without ‘dialogical cultural
action’ – and in the theatre of Augusto Boal, whose ‘poetics of
the oppressed’ moves beyond a (Brechtian) poetics of the
‘enlightened vanguard’ to free the spectator into action action which is a ‘rehearsal of revolution’. In the work of
these living teachers of liberation the discourse of ‘high

existentialism’ has (as Jameson says of Fanon, who inspired
both of them) ‘fallen into the world’; its motifs have
‘migrat[ed] outside philosophy departments altogether, into a
more frightening landscape of praxis and terror’ Y They are
doing for the margins what Western Marxism sought to do for
the revolutionary process in the metropolis – tracking the oppressor and exploiter down the latter’s last outposts in culture
and in consciousness, inventing new ways of activating the
self-articulation of the oppressed – and doing it moreover in
writing that is first and last pragmatically oriented: like
Bakhtin’s writing, in short, in being only strategically ‘philosophical’ and yet more devastating in their philosophical implications than any Western ‘system’. It is a profound irony of
our postmodern era that these genuine correlatives of
Bakhtin’s thought should both be found in the southern half of
the American continent: while the liberal academics of that
continent’s aggressive northern imperium produce and reproduce themselves as intellectuals in misreadings of his work,
Bakhtin himself lives in the fighting, praying, dialogizing,
camivalizing thinkers of the continental body’s transgressive
lower half.


Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1984, p.


Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973, p.


Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, London,
Merlin Press, 1971, p. 105.

Speech Genres and Other Essays, Austin, University of
Texas Press, 1987, p. 162. This sentence comes from a text
of 1974.

Problems of Dostoevsky’ s Poetics, Manch~ster, Manchester
University Press, 1984, p. 293 (note: there is no complete
English translation of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art, the
1929 version of this book); and Speech Genres, p. 147.








‘Toward the Aesthetics of the Word’, Dispositio, 4, 11-12
(p. 305). This text dates from 1924, and was first published
in the Soviet journal Kontekst in 1974.

The Dialogic Imagination, Austin, University of Texas
Press, 1981, p. 258.

Graham Pechey, ‘Bakhtin, Marxism and Post-Structuralism’, in F. Barker et al (eds.), Literature, Politics and Theory, London, Methuen, 1986, p. 121.

The homophonic novel is Bakhtin’s term for novels with a
‘mono logical ‘ dominant; polyphony is the converse case of
dialogism in dominance.

Problems, p. 26.


Ken Hirschkop, ‘The Social and the Subject in Bakhtin’,


Poetics Today, 6,4 (1985), p. 774.

Problems, pp. 26-27.

Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, London, Lawrence and


Wishart, 1971, p. 437.


Problems, pp. 51,58, 59.

Ibid., p. 19.

Anatoly Lunacharsky, On Literature and Art, Moscow,
Progress Publishers, 1973, p. 88.


Ibid., p. 99.

Ibid., p. 102.

Ibid., p. 88.

Ibid., p. 105.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary entry on ‘polyphony’.

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990





Problems, p. 48.

Ibid., p. 79.

Ibid., p. 8I.

Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form, Prince ton, Princeton
University Press, 1971, p. 373; Gramsci, Prison Notebooks,

Prison Notebooks, p. 405.

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Problems, p. 8I.

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Ibid., p. 78.

Fredric Jameson, ‘Periodizing the 60s’ in The Ideologies of
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Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990


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