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Bakhtin and the Politics of Criticism Author(s): Ken Hirschkop, David Shepherd and Gary Saul Morson Reviewed

work(s): Source: PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 116-118 Published by: Modern Language Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 28/10/2012 13:07
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It is as well that the stake in this farcelike repetition of history is not the fate of a nation but the interpretation of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin. 116 . ed. 1991. II [The Bakhtin Collection 2]. The journal omits titles before persons' names. phenomenological. individualistic Slavic theoretical tradition.). their power is limited" ("Perepiska iz dvukh mirov" [Correspondence between Two Worlds]. 10 Astor Place. the literary-critical establishment. This is no accident. Bakhtin and the Politics of Criticism To the Editor: Of late Gary Saul Morson has set himself an ambitious task: to replay the Russian revolution. Bakhtin's conceptions of the individual and of the role and meaning of consciousness are derived from neo-Kantian. The editor reserves the right to reject or edit Forum contributionsand offers the authors discussedan opportunityto reply to the letters published. our trans. and regrets that it cannot considerany letter of more than 1.commentingon articles in previous issues or on matters of general scholarly or critical interest. Bakhtinskii sbornik. for all the grand claims he makes for a liberal. these people control only the universities. Kujundzic and V. party. This beguiling vision should not go unchallenged. However. Morson takes Bakhtin's criticism of "theoreticism"as an endorsement of what is effectively a rather vulgar brand of Anglo-Saxon empiricism (Introduction 228). whom Morson wishes to claim for the ersatz Russian liberalism (what he has called elsewhere the "counter-tradition") he imagines himself representing. for the Russian context of which Morson makes so much is largely a projection of his own brand of cold-war liberalism back onto an earlier time.e.000 words. Makhlin. etc. here in America. and religious sources. none of which have much to do with Morson's preoccupations and all of which are theoretical (i. In seeking to present Bakhtin as part of a Russian tradition that values "the initiative of individuals" against all claims made on the basis of abstractions (class. discouragesfootnotes. Moscow. Modern Language Association. His introduction to the Russian cluster (107 [1992]: 226-31) presents the "politicization of current criticism" as a repeat of Marxist errors against which he and other Slavists have been immunized by "the Soviet and Eastern European experience. They can't arrest me. just as Bakhtin's critique of theoreticism is) with a vengeance. abstract. 31-43.). standing Kerensky-like against the moder-day equivalent of the Bolshevik party. New York. lest non-Slavists be tempted to accept Morson's account of the relevant intellectual history. Readers of his introduction will have noted that.Forum PMLA invites members of the association to submit letters. but with himself in the role of Russian liberal. 38. typed and double-spaced. NY 10003-6981. Morson offers little in the way of historical evidence to connect Bakhtin to such a tradition.." In a letter to a Russian colleague recently published in Moscow he allows the parallel with the "gruesome facts of Soviet history" a little more scope (227): "Of course. Letters should be addressed to PMLA Forum. D.

it is difficult to make sense of his absolutization of the claims of consciousness without reference to it. His "prosaic" Bakhtin is a political creature in disguise. To take the most obvious example. Rather. but then so are a number of other traditions (indeed. Bakhtin's prizing of individual self-determination in neoKantian terms leads him to explicit condemnation of liberal political economy and its real-world correlate -social systems that reify. It is not true that "[f]or 'theoreticism' Morson would have us read 'Marxism.however.In one live thegood people:women.a sexually normalwhite Americanmale who believesin bourgeois You can guess that I am endowedwith all democracy. Introduction 227). to turn it into an endorsement of the "'normal' or 'civilized"' character of "WesternEuropean or American social systems" (Morson. The difference between my statement and their misleading rendition of it is rather typical of their letter as a whole. of course. But wasn't the American social system proof against just such repression?What went wrong? Nothing. and heterosexualsparticular. of all places. politically driven case.our trans.of course." . for it is drawn from quite another source: a vision of the Soviet Union. men. ("Perepiska" Nobody need look to the United States for evidence of this sharp and uncompromising divide between dissident intellectuals and domineering conformists.most scandalously. as a result of these departments' dominance. I do not even thesebad qualities.. really. would complicate Morson's polemical and. and he has chosen Bakhtin as his whetstone. the worstthingin the worldis. philosophy of life. theseare now the truesourceof evil in the world.. of an America under the sway of "'hegemonic' literature departments" is scarcely more convincing (Introduction 227).. and neo-Kantianism itself. European The sentence in my introduction from which the quoted phrases are drawn appears before I even discuss Bakhtin. it is closer to the neo-Kantian socialism espoused by the likes of Hermann Cohen or the communitarian vision associated with Martin Buber. the critique of theoreticism staged in Bakhtin's early essay "Towards a Philosophy of the Deed" is for the most part a critique of certain strands of neo-Kantianism by recourse to theoretical motifs drawn from phenomenology. the worldis dividedinto two opposingcamps. reform-minded towardWesternEuropeanor American social systemsa movetowarda "normal" or "civilized" society. If the role he seeks is that of noble dissident. For sure this is not Marxism. which Morson thinks has somehow found a second life in. Morson simply has an ax to grind. however. He sustains this position throughout his career.' . One has to distort the entire philosophical structure of Bakhtin's work.homosexuals. America itself. whites. KEN HIRSCHKOP Universityof Southampton DAVID SHEPHERD Universityof Manchester Reply: Criticizing my PMLA introduction. or "biologize" the human by depending on self-interest as a motor of social action.". If his aim is intellectual debate. For Morson. it needs to be said. If anyone is bending the humanities to the ends of political calculation. outlined in the letter referredto above. having little to do with the complexities of social and philosophical debate in Russia." so that Bakhtin's critique of the former can come out sounding like an advertisement for "American progressive ideals" (227).Forum 117 To have to refer to Bakhtin's actual intellectual sources. materialize. Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd write: One has to distortthe entirephilosophical structureof Bakhtin's work. it marks the difference between many Russian intellectuals of today and their American counterparts by noting that Russianscall each step [w]ithoutirony. The sentence has nothing to do with what Bakhtin thought or would have endorsed.' so that Bakhtin's critique of the former can come out sounding like an advertisement for 'American progressive ideals. For "theoreticism" Morson would have us read "Marxism. Unfortunately.Therefore.the non-Western world-nonwhites and all those who speak out againstthe West in generaland the United Statesin The West.) publicopinion. something else is called for. "historical materialism" is criticized on a couple of occasions. considerit necessaryto repentor justify myself before "correct" 38. To examine this work as social philosophy with any seriousness would lead to conclusions quite different from Morson's. it is Morson. turn it into an endorsement of the "'normal'or 'civilized"'characterof "Western or American socialsystems. he is welcome to it. at one point Bakhtin claims that "economic materialism" offers an accurate analysis of the depraved condition of European society). But then his vision. and. and..

indeed. (4) Most Slavists and Russians diverge widely from the larger American theoretical world in their view of Bakhtin and in the use they make of his terms and concepts. 1989). Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford UP." The authors flail around at everything in sight without ever seriously addressing the major contentions in my introduction to the Russian cluster. and Thomas A. were all examples of theoretism. structuralism. endorsements. Robert F. As my opening example illustrates. which contains a detailed summary of Bakhtin's essay "Toward a Philosophy of the Act" (Evanston: Northwestern UP. And they adopt alternately outraged and sneering tones when referring to some of the most commonplace of historical and political judgments. to "Bakhtin. which are these: (1) Most American Slavists are rather alienated from the predominant trends in academic literary theory. (Dislike of Stalinist tyranny becomes for them coldwar hysteria. They use quotation marks in such a way as to suggest they are quoting my personal point of view when in fact they are quoting my description of others' viewpoints. GARY SAUL MORSON Northwestern University Intentions. Genres. And while Hirschkop and Shepherd insist on German sources. theoretism (our preferred translation of the word) as Bakhtin coined the term applies to many doctrines that think away the "eventness" of events and see the messy particularities of experience as capturable at least in principle by a system of rules or laws. (Do these two scholars from British universities think I mischaracterize American Slavistics?) (3) This familiarity with Soviet history also leads most American Slavists to be suspicious of Marxists' claims to be the champions of social progress. but the intragroup controversies often differ from the intergroup conflicts. . Foundationalism. As for our "effectively" saying-that is. and. They fantasize a range of opinions and projects for me. visions. For Bakhtin. and Temporality" (New Literary History 22 [1991]: 1071-92) and "Prosaic Bakhtin" (Common Knowledge2 [1993]: 35-74). We do say that in contrast to the picture of him common among a number of British and American commentators. (In my PMLA introduction. hostile to Marxism. of utopianism. Symmetry To the Editor: Although I agree with many of the substantive points in Barbara Hodgdon's Forum reply to Lucien Goldschmidt. among my recent articles. Tolstoy explodes system after system in War and Peace. they overlook this theme in Goethe-hardly an Anglo-Saxon empiricist -to whom Bakhtin devoted a study. and of the penchant for abstract social systematizing common among the prerevolutionary Russian intelligentsia. they conflate the ideas and viewpoints I have stated as my own with those I have ascribed to others.) And I have argued that in his antipathy to theoretism he belongs to a tradition of Russian writers and thinkers-some of whom were active liberals-who saw the danger of Marxism. I quote two of his withering comments on it. although their real grievances seem to lie with the views of Bakhtin and literary theory that I have expressed in books and articles over the years. I can hardly correct all the misrepresentations in their letter. In a short reply. was the ambitious range of motives. and axes to grind that they project onto me. but if readers would like to know what I did say about Bakhtin. tasks.118 Forum As Caryl Emerson and I have explained at length. For instance. and Freudianism. Nowhere do I (or does Emerson) say that Bakhtin was an American liberal. to our introduction to Rethinking Bakhtin. apart from its rather hectoring tone. our not sayingthat Bakhtin endorsed "Anglo-Saxon empiricism": surely Hirschkop and Shepherd are aware of attempts in many cultures and philosophical traditions to argue the irreducibility of the particular to the general. To take a Russian example. Extensions and Challenges. arguments that literary value is entirely relative to social needs or to political power and attempts to reduce all aesthetic categories "ultimately"to political ones are neither new nor attractive to most American Slavists. (2) Most American Slavists are acutely aware of the pitfalls of political reductionism because of their familiarity with Soviet cultural history. 1990). Bakhtin would not have considered himself a Marxist and was. My introduction to the Russian cluster appears to have presented Hirschkop and Shepherd a convenient pretext for launching an attack. This is not to deny that there are also wide divergences on this subject within the first group.) It is their representation of my views that deserves their term "farcelike. I refer them first to the book I wrote with Caryl Emerson. as well as the Marxism he knew and lived under. Russian formalism. What I found most startling in a first reading of Hirschkop and Shepherd'sletter. Fleissner.