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Bakhtin Circle Philosophy Culture and Politics

Bakhtin Circle Philosophy Culture and Politics

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We have seen how one of Bakhtin’s main concerns in his early work
was the need to bridge the gap between life and culture (Tihanov
2000a), existence and knowledge, which the neo-Kantians, like Kant,
regarded as essentially separate. Such concerns inevitably demanded
a significant encounter with the philosophy of Hegel, who regarded
life and culture as aspects of a dialectical and teleological process:
becoming. This stress on ‘becoming’ became a central aspect of life-
philosophy, which, however, maintained the fundamental split
between the two. On the one hand there was the realm of becoming,
of life, and on the other was the realm of timeless validities and
values that constituted culture. This rigorous dualism was already
breaking down in the last works of Paul Natorp, but it was in the
work of Cassirer that the shift towards a Hegelian resolution was
definitively stated.
Cassirer combined a rationalistic neo-Kantian account of
knowledge with a Hegelian evolutionist and holistic approach to
argue for a unity of gradually unfolding forms of life that maintained


the neo-Kantian distinctions between the object domains of the
sciences. In The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, these ‘forms of life’ were
redescribed as ‘symbolic forms’ within which the dialectical process
that Hegel had highlighted occurred. For Hegel, phenomenology
studies the way Geist1

(mind/spirit)‘appears’, that is objectifies itself
in things in order to appear ‘for itself’ as something opposite to itself.
Cassirer similarly argued that symbolic forms such as art, myth,
language and so on study and recall the various objectifications of
life. This ‘recollection’ is not only historical, but, like Hegel’s phe-
nomenology, is the study of what is essential. The philosophy of
Geist is characterised by Hegel as the representation of the route to
true knowledge that consciousness takes as a matter of necessity.
‘Essence’ must ultimately ‘appear’ at the end of a course of develop-
ment. Cassirer replaced Hegel’s account of dialectical logic with an
account of the ‘law of symbolisation’, and argued that all symbolic
forms necessarily move through ‘mimetic’ and ‘analogical’ stages
before reaching a ‘purely symbolic’ phase in which the essence of
the form ‘appears’. Cultural history (now separated from the history
of ‘civilisation’) becomes a mind-driven liberation from immersion
in the world of sensation. However, while Hegel argued that in the
final stage all perspectives on being are transcended by a final trans-
parent concept, Cassirer maintained that each form must maintain
its integrity. Thus, while accepting Hegel’s narrative, Cassirer
complained that for Hegel philosophy deprives ‘various cultural
forms ... of their autonomous and independent value and subor-
dinates them to its own systematic purpose. Here is the point of
contrast with Kant’ (Hendel 1955: 34). Bakhtin, as we shall see,
follows this selective appropriation of Hegel.
Voloshinov, who was the first in the Circle to engage with
Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in a sustained fashion, was
well aware of the significance of the work. In his 1928 plan for
Marxism and the Philosophy of Languagehe notes that Cassirer’s book
shows that

It is precisely on the ground of the philosophy of language that at
the present time the scientism and logicism of the Marburg School
and the abstract ethicism of the Freiburg School are being
overcome. By means ofthe inner form of language (as a semi-tran-
scendental form)movement and historical becoming is being
introduced into the petrified realm of transcendental-logical

106The Bakhtin Circle

forms. It is also on this basis that an attempt to re-establish the
idealist dialectic is being made. (LDV 87–8)

This is central to Bakhtin’s reorientation for, as we have seen,
dialogue becomes the ‘inner form’ of language. In Cassirer’s volume
on language, the first, ‘mimetic’ stage of the dialectical progression
is reached when, by means of uttered sounds, primitive man tries to
reproduce a sensory impression as faithfully as possible. Cassirer
argues that this stage breaks down as different cultures and languages
come into contact with each other, and as a result of the growth of
an analysis of language. At the next ‘analogical’ stage, the sign refers
to reality and communicates the speaker’s relationship with reality.
Ultimately any mediated or immediate relationship between reality
(thing) and symbol is seen to be untenable and understanding is
liberated from close adherence to the concrete world of sense impres-
sions. Attention turns towards the activity of the subject and towards
the full realisation and application of the symbolic character of inter-
pretation, so that the symbolising process becomes self-conscious
and self-referential. In a key passage from the volume on language,
Cassirer argues that the value and specific character of both linguistic
and artistic formation lies in the ‘progressive removal’ from ‘the
immediately given’, for ‘the distance from immediate reality and
immediate experience is the condition of their being perceived, of
our spiritual awareness of them’ (Cassirer 1955a: 188).
For Cassirer, all symbolic forms must ‘be emancipated from the
common matrix of myth ... Theoretical, practical and aesthetic con-
sciousness, the world of language and morality, the basic forms of
community and the state – they are all originally tied up with
mythico-religious conceptions’ (Cassirer 1946: 44). In the second
volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which we know Bakhtin
read in detail, Cassirer shows that myth, like art, science and
language, is a configuration towardsbeing, and that the specificity of
myth lies not in its content but in ‘the intensity with which it is
experienced, with which it is believed – as only something endowed
with objective reality can be believed’ (Cassirer 1955b: 5–6). Mythic
thought allows no detachment, it stands in awe of what confronts
it, having ‘no will to understand the object by encompassing it
logically and articulating it with a complex of cause and effects; it is
simply overpowered by the object’ (Cassirer 1955b: 74). The
mythical world is one of conflicting powers: every natural
phenomenon is filled with those powers and is therefore perceived

The Novel and Literary History (1934–41)107

as if permeated by emotional qualities. Everything in the mythical
world is friendly or hostile, alluring or repellent, fascinating or
threatening because the primitive mentality views nature assympa-
thetic, that is, as a fundamental ‘solidarity of life’ in which the viewer
has no unique and privileged place.
Scientific thought aims systematically to liberate the observer
from observed phenomena and obliterate all trace of mythical
perception, but such activity only restricts myth to certain spheres,
it does not, and indeed cannot, destroy myth itself. Myth remains in
the ‘expressive function’ of symbolism, where there is no difference
admitted between ‘image and thing, the sign and what it designates’
(Cassirer 1955b: 72). Art, like myth, is dependent on the perception
of expression, but there are significant differences between the two.
Myth is overwhelmed by this perception, whereas art couples depth
of feeling with ‘the distance accompanying the universality of
objectification’. Human life is ‘bound and fettered’ in mythical
experience, whereas in art it becomes ‘aesthetically liberated’ (Krois
1987: 139). As well as an ideal history of the unfolding of
autonomous symbolic forms from the common matrix of myth,
Cassirer’s work also presents a theory of conflicting social forces. The
main conflict is that between mythical and non- (or anti-) mythical
conceptions of the world. Cassirer presents a dialectic of mythical
and critical symbolic forms. Although a distinct and irreducible
symbolic form, myth can and does enter into combinations with
other forms and has a particularly close kinship with both language
and art. Critical thought must minimise this influence by showing
the fundamental gap between sign and object signified.
Cassirer’s influence on Bakhtin was profound. As a former pupil of
Simmel and a critical enthusiast for Scheler, this last major Marburg
neo-Kantian’s endorsement of a neo-Hegelian historicism was bound
to weigh heavily in Bakhtin’s estimation. Furthermore, a major
project to publish Hegel’s complete works in Russia was under way
at the end of the 1920s, and his status as a precursor of Marxism was
being stressed. This position entered literary scholarship, where
Georg Lukács was attempting to create a Hegelian Marxist theory of
the novel (though with his own neo-Kantian twist), culminating in
his 1935 article on the novel for the Soviet Literary Encyclopediaand
a major debate on the novel at the Moscow Communist Academy
in 1934–35. Hegel thus had scholarly and ideological respectability
in Russia at a time when censorship was extremely tight (Tihanov
2000b: 269–70), and this provided Bakhtin with a perceived oppor-

108The Bakhtin Circle

tunity for publication at just the time when he was discovering
Cassirer’s original way of wedding neo-Kantianism to Hegelianism.
Furthermore, the debate on the novel in the Soviet Academy opened
the way for Bakhtin’s philosophical ideas to be combined with obser-
vations drawn from work on literary history by Russian and Soviet
scholars such as Aleksandr N. Veselovskii (1838–1906), Ol´ga M.
Friedenberg (1890–1955) and the Formalists.

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