I still haven’t actually read much of Bakhtin (on whose smoking habits I reported here, and with whose concept of “reported speech” I had fun here), but I keep coming across things that make me want to read more; the latest is Terry Eagleton’s article in the LRB (a review of Graham Pechey’s Mikhail Bakhtin: The Word in the World). This part is especially intriguing:

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.

I don’t think I agree that “linguistics can never be entirely distinguished from ethics,” but it’s an intriguing idea, and I certainly like the concept of “dialogism” as presented by Eagleton. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Charles Perry says:

    I’m sorry, but to me this all sounds like the worst academic vice — belaboring the obvious (in this case, presuming to anatomize all the bits of static that make communication challenging) while presuming the dubious (that bit about linguistics sort of being ethics).

  2. Notice that what Bakhtin identifies as language is interpreted by Charles Perry as the challenge of communication. Perry is correct in implying that, whether obvious or not, communication is challenging, but neither he nor Bakhtin is talking about “language” per se.
    The Sanskrit linguist Bhartrihari in the sixth century C.E. distinguished between three aspects of language: what goes on inside the speaker to produce language, language delivered into atmospheric air, and comprehension which takes place in the mind of the listener.
    What concerned Saussure was the relationship between the speaker and the delivered language. What concerns Bakhtin is the relationship between the two speakers as they operate in the culture of the language involved. The former is language as structure, the latter is language as communication.
    When Perry talks about belaboring the obvious, he seems to be talking about a culture and a society in which everybody appears to be open and free. When Bakhtin talks about discourse, it seems to me that he is only to be understood in the terms of the “open” vs. “closed” elements of society such as have been characteristic of both Russia and Sovietism at least since Ivan the Terrible.
    An example of that type of thinking lies in the example of the Western “Soviet experts” of the mid to late 20th century whose job was to determine what was happening in Soviet government on the basis of who stood on top of Lenin’s tomb to review the parades on Soviet holidays. In a “closed” society, that same role accrues to every citizen in terms of how each communicates with the other.
    How obvious the belaboring depends on how torturous is the interrelationship between the independent individual and the reigning overview of the society in which he lives. The question we are faced with now is how torturous is the restraint posed by each society, or in the current U.S., to what extent is “political correctness” and the spirit it generates being effective imposed.
    But back to the issue of “language” — which is not a single construct but rather a set of distinct features and structures. Confusions arise when symbolic reference points are independently interpreted by each unique human speaker according to his own understanding of the dictates of the social culture. What may seem obvious to one may be radically different from what seems obvious to someone else. OR — that’s just one part of what language is all about.

  3. John Emerson says:

    What is the original Russian of “Material Bodily Lower Stratum”? Is it as bad in Russian as in English.
    I am pro-Bakhtin but don’t especially like the way he writes. IIRC (subject to correction), he survived Stalin et al by holing up with his books in some godforsaken provincial dump.

  4. perhaps antagonistic idioms
    i’ve been saying this since i was a teenager.
    we called it “antagonistic evolution”
    through the introduction of oblique and non-sequitorial language events within a given ‘conversation event’ the mind electrically will sometimes corruscate into a new frame of reference or synthesize some new construct.
    in corp speak, they call it, “thinking outside the box”
    we were just stoners.
    its good to know we had maybe a little bit more going on than whoa, dude
    this seemed very well rendered:
    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.
    although, i would challenge “political” with “energetic optics,” but it really doesn’t matter,
    there so much information everywhere and in everything, whatever it is you are looking for,
    given the correct modality or modulation or intention, you can probably find it..
    I’m too dumb to respond here usually, but I read Bahktin sometimes, and like him. His work on Rabelais is pretty cool and interesting to read.

  5. The problem is, Bakhtin had his one idea in that book (he had one other in his Rabelais book): but he doesn’t really develop it, doesn’t go into any detail. All he does is draw up lists of good and bad literature. Plus, he says silly things about classical quotation in post-classical texts.

  6. John Emerson: the place you’re referring to is Saransk. There are legends about how he had refused to leave the place, even after his “rediscovery”. Andrei Bitov, for instance, writes in his “Pushkin House”: “A motive for “proposing” him [Grandfather Odoevtsev] was the revival of M.M. Bakhtin’s reputation and the first information about him, given by V.V. Kozhinov: that Bakhtin suffered not in 1937 but in 1928, which, in a way, saved him; that he has lost a leg; that the money that has suddenly appeared (from reprints of his books), he hides inside the samovar; that he’s afraid to leave his Saransk…”

  7. What is the original Russian of “Material Bodily Lower Stratum”?
    It’s материально-телесный субстрат [material'no-telesnyi substrat], and it sounds perfectly normal in Russian (for this level of discourse, obviously—it’s not a phrase you’d use at the grocery store), which allows you to combine pretty much any two adjectives in a similar hyphenated construction which is sometimes awkward to render in English. It doesn’t help that the translator, for reasons not known to me, has chosen to render субстрат as “lower stratum” rather than “substratum.” It might also help to keep the hyphen: “the material-bodily substratum.” Still clumsy in English, though.
    The relevant sentences read, in both languages:
    Ведь сущность гротеска именно в том, чтобы выразить противоречивую и двуликую полноту жизни, включающую в себя отрицание и уничтожение (смерть старого) как необходимый момент, неотделимый от утверждения, от рождения нового и лучшего. При этом самый материально-телесный субстрат гротескного образа (еда, вино, производительная сила, органы тела) носит глубоко положительный характер. Материально-телесное начало торжествует, ибо в итоге всегда оказывается избыток, прирост.
    “The essence of the grotesque is precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life. Negation and destruction (death of the old) are included as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation, from the birth of something new and better. The very material bodily lower stratum of the grotesque image (food, wine, the genital force, the organs of the body) bears a deeply positive character. This principle is victorious, for the final result is always abundance, increase.”

  8. John Emerson says:

    It would seem that “physiological substrate” would work. I like the concept, but the English is horrible.

  9. Having no background knowledge of Bakhtin, this conversation is a bit over my head, but I do have one slightly relevant quibble to make.
    Part of the beauty of language indeed lies in our ability to form syntactic constructions that we’ve never heard before, and thus it can be infinitely unpredictible.
    On the other hand, while the proposition “that I can never deduce from any two of your words what the third one is going to be” is a lovely thought, it is not quite true. There are always clichés and stock phrases, due to whose ubiquity one can sometimes predict what another is about to say.

  10. Not expecting an answer but
    has anyone read:
    Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature (Paperback)
    by David Williams
    I don’t know much, but I found alot of pertinent
    stuff to my own limited researches.
    I have several texts on the late classical cultures
    of Alchemy, but that’s all i can reall think of off-hand that say “late classical” in the title
    or headings..
    i don;t have anything that says “post-classical”
    except in relation to Mayan culture..
    I wonder what work has been done on correlating
    African and American myth structure into grotesque studies.
    a comparison of american indian coyote stories
    and dogon fox stories might be good.
    the coyote stories have a vagina dentata
    which is identified by David Williams as a cyclical cathect..
    Right now I am looking at Nero’s historical representation as a version of grotesque
    or some such.. trying to go backwards
    from the discovery of the aurea domea
    through the ruin
    Nero fiddling though a myth
    constructs a palpable version of a kind of
    protean los, or cultural as a non-normative accident devouring itself
    a “katapoiesis”
    what senses of
    “evaluation schemas”
    “the moral taint in data organization”
    can we construct
    something like that
    judgement as a version of cultural erasure.
    what is the ‘structural’ meaning of moral judgement ..
    what gets encoded by erasure?
    sorry to yak.
    i’m a conrad fan too..

  11. sorry to yak.
    Don’t be silly—yakking is what we do best here at the Languagehat Café!

  12. Up in smoke:
    “Within the United Kingdom Carlyle’s success was assured by the publication of his three-volume work The French Revolution, A History in 1837. After the completed manuscript of the first volume was accidentally burned by the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s maid, Carlyle wrote the second and third volumes before rewriting the first from scratch.”
    (Carlyle Wiki)

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Bah. Postmodernist-like waffling.
    I’ll keep it short and qupte the proverb: “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”

  14. hehe. :)
    maybe the feeling that gave him
    Dr. Teufelsdrockh!
    “This world will grind me limb from limb!”

  15. “The closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets.”
    that’s pretty much like a folk heuristic version
    of Walter M. Elsasser’s “Reflections on a Theory of Organisms: Holism in Biology”
    I like that! thanks.

  16. this is Elsasser’s “transcomputationalism”
    at the cellular level if interested at all.
    He was born in 1904 and died in 91, and given
    a medal by Reagan. Post-Modernism.
    I think we need an onopoietic name for our era.
    Something like
    the “Mediary Intermedullan Chungratsong”
    They should have temporal maps
    drawn as monstrous human bodies with wounds
    skull forest with excema etc..
    buttocks scaly with silicon chip fabs +

  17. This review by Eagleton sounds wonderful. As a writer I find Bakhtin both profoundly relevant and terrifying.
    Suppose I write a book and the text is influenced by Gertude Stein and don marquis and Frank O’Hara in its approach to punctuation. So it starts out within a particular discourse, a particular dialogue that was chosen by me. Great.
    I then get an offer of publication. Suddenly my text will be governed by contractual provisions — provisions which, needless to say, will not be made public. I’ve never published a book before, but I’m a bit nervous. The boilerplate contract gives the publisher the last word on matters of “style” — meaning punctuation, grammar and the like. I ask my lawyer to change this. He does. I sign off on the contract, the publisher signs off on the contract. In theory, then, I have the last word; my text will be what’s shown to the public.
    The copy-editor goes through the text and makes thousands of gratuitous changes that alter the texture. Readers of this blog will certainly be familiar with Language Log’s DAILY battles with the ill-founded notions of grammatical and punctuational correctness trotted out in the likes of Strunk & White, notions that have achieved wide cultural currency. In other words, even details of grammar and punctuation are signifiers — they have the capacity to signify “correctness”, “legitimacy”, or (of course) alignment with Stein, marquis, O’Hara, that riff-raff — and these are embedded in power structures which are themselves enforced by different linguistic discourse (the language of a legal contract).
    Now, as a newcomer to this business I imagine that legal rights — those spelled out in legal language — speak for themselves. I have only to invoke this contract for its terms to be respected. I veto the majority of the copy-editor’s changes. I have 5 other books that I want to finish; if I am embedded in legal discourse that holds good, I can finish those other books, while Book A goes to the printer. I make nice noises to the copy-editor and production manager, nice noises nice noises, I am happy to consider any suggestions, but (nicely) my contract gives me the last word. Production manager: nice noises nice noises nobody will do anything you don’t like. MS goes back to publisher; production manager and copy-editor are HORRIFIED because characters obsessed with numbers have failed to, um, spell out numbers below 100, shame will be brought on Miramax. The production manager has never read Gertrude Stein. So the copy-editor whites out all the author’s mark-up and sends the text to the printer and it all has to be done again, and all the other books are dead in the head, and these are really not the arid wastes of theory that some seem to find in Bakhtin.
    No. What we’re seeing is that ALL published texts are governed by discourses which are kept out of sight. Reviewers are not sent a copy of the author’s contract before reviewing the book; they’re told nothing about the power of the author’s agent or lawyer; but without information about the contract you don’t know what the author was legally required to do, and without information about the force of the agent’s discourse you don’t know whether the contract was worth the paper it was written on.
    It would be easy to ask other questions. Why don’t we see languages other than English in English texts, when they can be seen and heard on the streets of New York and London and so many other places? When they appear without apology in hundreds of multilingual blogs? Most Jews come across Hebrew texts even if they don’t have them in the home; if one can see the texts in one’s life, why can’t they appear without a lot of stage-managing in texts? Why is the notation of mathematics systematically censored out of “literary” texts? & so on & on…

  18. Helen,
    It won’t let me publish my response,
    but here it is:

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