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This review appeared in Volume 2 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Bakhtin and the "Empire of Evil"

by Clive Thomson and Anthony Wall

Mikhail Bakhtin: Cleation of a Prosaics, by Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990. 530 p. ISBN 0-8047-1821-0.

Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson set out with the ideal of giving their readers a dispassionate analysis (p.xv) of Mikhail Bakhtin's writings. The result, surprisingly enough, is the opposite -- an impassioned presentation of one of this century's most ubiquitous thinkers. We make this central point at the outset for two reasons: it allows us to admit openly that the discursive site from which we write is not intended to be dispassionate; and to counter the very real possibility that "this monumental work" (see dust-jacket), because of its sheer size, impressive scholarly apparatus, and appearance of objectivity, should become the standard (and unquestioned) guide to Bakhtin's thought. We shall show the many qualities of this study, as well as what we consider to be its hidden agendas, one of which should be of serious concern to semioticians.

A first reading of this book is enormously pleasurable. It begins with a brief biographical sketch, and this is followed by a rigorously and coherently argued analysis of Bakhtin's thought, spread over ten chapters. A chronological principle of exposition is rejected by the authors in favour of an organization in terms of topics and problems. Three global concepts (prosaics, unfinalizability, dialogue) are posited as the key elements informing Bakhtin's work: "(These concepts) appear separately and together, explicitly and implicitly, in various combinations and emphases in Bakhtin's work" (p.10). Morson and Emerson maintain that "(a)lthough Bakhtin's thought underwent real development and surprising change, one can discover problems that recur with varying but impressive intensity throughout his life" (p.10)

We are left, after our first reading of this study, with an image of Bakhtin as an extraordinarily rich and original thinker. Although Morson's and Emerson's approach, on one level, appears analytical, non-linear, and non-teleological, they nevertheless provide their "comprehensive study" (dust-jacket) with a chronological substructure in the form of a chart (see p.66) that lays out "the shape" of Bakhtin's intellectual career. According to them, Bakhtin went through five distinct "periods": "Period I" covers the Kantian or neo-Kantian works from the early 1920s; in "Period II", Bakhtin wrote Problems of Dostoevsky's Creative Art (published in 1929); "Period III" (the 1930s) includes Bakhtin's theoretical works on the novel ("arguably his most durable contribution to literary st¨dy", p. 11); in "Period III b" (the 1940s), the Rabelais study was written; and "Period IV" (the 1950s to Bakhtin's death in 1975) includes a variety of shorter essays on speech genres, general problems in the humanities, etc. However, the problematic nature of any such periodization, and of this particular way of chopping up Bakhtin's life, is never seriously dealt with in the book. More on this later.

Such an approach is designed, in the authors' paradoxical formulation, "to trace connections without imposing a system " (p.10) and to go beyond the structuralist (Tzvetan Todorov), embryonic (Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist), or teleological (no example of this is given) models "for organizing an author's oeuvre" (p.4) that have been used to date. Given this somewhat heavy-handed effort to put in place "a different approach" (p.7), a persistent question came to mind as we worked our way through the study in our successive readings: how really different is their approach? Our brief answer is -- not very. We shall show throughout our commentary why and how we arrived at this conclusion.

Bakhtinian textology

Morson and Emerson, both Slavists who have been working on Bakhtin for many years, provide us with the most detailed and rigorous analysis of Bakhtin's work to date, an analysis that has the advantage of being based on an intimate acquaintance with the corpus in Russian. The critical apparatus used to present the analysis is practically impeccable and should serve as a model: the "Table of contents" (four pages long) provides the reader with an invaluable and detailed overview of the study; the system of abbreviations used to refer to Bakhtin's complex textual corpus is economical and "user-friendly"; several charts serve as succinct and efficient summaries of Bakhtin's ideas; the combined subject and proper name index (29 pages long) that concludes the volume allows the reader to find in mere seconds what he or she is looking for. Even more impressive is the sustained and systematic care that Morson and Emerson exercise in the manipulation of their own critical vocabulary. Readers receive just the right amount of reminding as they move through the transitions between chapters. No superfluous repetition here. There is only one minor improvement that we can suggest regarding Bakhtinian textology as presented via the chart ("the Shape of a Career") on page 66. It would have been helpful if the chart had included dates for the five periods in Bakhtin's career and if the chart had included the dates of composition and publication of the works listed. (Permit us as well a very minor correction of detail: the French spelling of Bakhtin is Bakhtine, not "Bachtine", p.4)

The "Works Cited" section of this book deserves separate attention. Relatively short (a mere seven pages), it contains primarily a liberal selection of secondary literature on Bakhtin published in the United States. References to the massive literature in other countries and in other languages (except Russian) are conspicuously absent. Notable for their absence are, in particular, studies published in other English speaking countries, for example Great Britain, where a tremendous amount of innovative work has recently emerged. Thus it is not a simple question of English-language bias that is at the heart of the matter. What this means is that Morson and Emerson have chosen to situate their "Bakhtin" primarily in an American critical context. Indeed, their polemical "other" is repeatedly yet two other American Bakhtinians -- Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark. The (bibliographical) company that Morson and Emerson choose to keep is, in itself, significant. Their explicit dialogue is with a version of Bakhtin that turns out, on a very basic level, to be similar to their own -- a Bakhtin, who, as Graham Pechey (1989) has lucidly written, is put into the "cold storage of intellectual history", a mere "topic in the history of ideas" (p.39). It is even more significant that Morson and Emerson choose not to situate themselves in relation to Bakhtinians like Agusto Ponzio (Italy), Renata Lachmann (Germany), Ken Hirschkop (England), Myriam Diaz/Diocaretz (Netherlands) or André Belleau (Quebec), all of whom have made major contributions to understanding Bakhtin from within a materialist or sociological problematics. It is hardly adequate to refer summarily, as Morson and Emerson do, to the existing critical literature as, alternately, "libertarian" (p.43), "misreading" (p.4) or part of a misguided Bakhtin "cult" (p.xiv). This is just one facet of a larger, implicit strategy that results in an Americanized version of Bakhtin. It is possible that Morson and Emerson would not object to our calling their Bakhtin American. After all, they do admit the possibility of a "French Bakhtin" (p.4). Incidentally: the Works Cited section lists two entries referred to as "unpublished manuscripts".

Bakhtin's "messy" thought

Morson and Emerson claim that it is impossible to encapsulate Bakhtin's changing and messy thought within overarching or totalizing concepts and that Bakhtin's intellectual interests and gargantuesque intellectual curiosity were prone to change, even radical change. The authors acknowledge in their very first sentence that books on complex thinkers "require a kind of unity that their though may not possess" (p.1) and they make admirable efforts to develop in their study a sense of " 'non monologic unity', in which real change" is possible (p.2). However, an implicity "negative unity" -- not to be confused with a thematic or systemic unity which is what could be called "monologic unity" -- lingers through the book. This negative unity is intimately linked, we want to argue, to the Americanization of Mikhail Bakhtin: to the levelling out of the contrasting and often times contradictory strands of his texts and, ultimately, to his depoliticization.

What gives an eerie sense of negative unity to this thorough and provocative study of Bakhtin's thought is a set of assumptions about what Bakhtin is not. Despite the protean figure that Bakhtin the intellectual is seen to be and despite the admitted inconsistencies in Bakhtin's writing, especially as regards the carnivalesque, this book expresses an unabashedly loud and oft-repeated claim that Bakhtin was not a semiotician and above all not a Marxist. This second negative unitary feature runs through Morson's and Emerson's entire study and reveals some of the weakest links in what is otherwise, as already stated, a brilliantly argued book.

If indeed Bakhtin's thought was as closely linked to the concept of mess (see pp. 29-30, 36, 45, 50, etc.) as Emerson and Morson claim (we are tempted to ask where they find the concept in Bakhtin's writing), it is from the very start rather astonishing that the protean Bakhtin could remain systematically and staunchly antisemiotic and anti-Marxist throughout his entire life. For a thinker like Bakhtin who was against all forms of "theoretism" (a concept that Morson and Emerson borrow and significantly transform from Bakhtin's early essay "Toward a Philosophy of the Act" (first published in Moscow in 1986)), surely such stubborn and unquestioning anti-positions or even nonpositions, would be in themselves untenable. The authors of Mikhail Bakhtin implicitly agree with commentators like Ken Hirschkop (1989) who see a distinct turn in the late 1920s toward a more sociological slant in Bakhtin's thinking but they refuse to go any further than to say that "Bakhtin mights have been spurred to articulate a social, but non -Marxist, theory of discourse after confronting the Marxification of his ideas in Voloshinov's book" (p.87, emphasis in the original).

Nowhere in this study do we learn the differences between a non-Marxist social theory of discourse and a Marxist one. What are the differences? Does one emphasize socio-economic factors while the other does not? Does one emphasize a teleological view of history while the other does not? Does one cite Marx while the other does not? Morson and Emerson nowhere articulate how they are able to do so; they seem to know instinctively how to draw this curious distinction, this all-inclusive binary distinction, we might add. All thinkers are either Marxist or non-Marxist, or so it would seem. And it is on such an unstable footing that the authors of Mikhail Bakhtin base their revival of the authorship feud surrounding the texts published by the Bakhtin Circle. Voloshinov's Freudianism and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, for example, are Marxist and binary, whereas Bakhtin "appears less willing than his associates to deal in dichotomies" (p.77). But if binary thought is a distinctive feature of Marxist and dialectical thought (and in Morson's and Emerson's book dialectics and Marxism are lumped together in one big offensive sack), then what are we to make of the opposition between Marxist and non-Marxist thought with which the authors of Mikhail Bakhtin are quite preoccupied? They write:

the avoidance of binaries was essential to Bakhtin's account. It marked an important difference between his thought and both Formalism (with its taste for categorical opposition) and Marxism (with its dialectical model). (p.446).

Bakhtin might have been an inconsistent, "messy" thinker whose thought, at times, was incompatible with strict Marxism, but it is unrealistic to picture him as continuously and unflinchingly anti-Marxist. Like most intellectuals living in Russia in the early 1920s he must have once in a while shared at least a tiny glimmer of the generally optimistic enthusiasm that followed the October Revolution.

Morson and Emerson use the expression, "the burden of proof", in relation to Michael Holquist's claims about the authorship debate (i.e., it is up to Holquist to prove beyond the slightest doubt that certain "Marxist" texts were written by Bakhtin even though they had been signed by someone else), and yet Morson and Emerson allow themselves elsewhere to make claims based primarily on speculation about Bakhtin's resolutely non-Marxist stands and his oblique references to Marxist thought, and they do this without producing any hard evidence. All we get in their book are claims that Bakhtin was non-Marxist, but they never once give a detailed explanation of what the expression "non-Marxist" might mean, and it is almost as though we are supposed to believe that Bakhtin was indeed non-Marxist, simply because it is claimed so often that he was so, in a kind of perversion of the Pascalian argument of the force of habit.

We might wish to refer to Wittgenstein, whom Emerson and Morson quote several times (curiously enough from the Tractatus, the most un-Bakhtinian of Wittgenstein's texts). We are reminded of the later Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigation (paragraph 265) where he jokes about a person wishing to confirm the truth of what he has just read in the newspaper by buying numerous copies of the same newspaper so that he can read the same article over and over again. It is not entirely unfair to say that Morson and Emerson rely heavily of the rhetorical strategy of repeating an unargued claim in order to convince us that it must be true.

If we check under "Marxism" in their marvellously detailed Index, we see subsections such as "Bakhtin's various criticisms of Marxism" and "non-Marxist social theory", to give but two examples. It is instructive to explore these particular entries. If we turn to these pages referred to to Under the first heading ("Bakhtin's various criticisms of Marxism"), we find no "criticisms" or arguments at all but rather Morson's and Emerson's claims about Bakhtin's position. It is simply stated that the 1929 Dostoevsky book "was, first, a (veiled) statement against Marxism" (p. 85), and in the next part of the same sentence Marxism is conflated with dialectics.

Many of Morson's and Emerson's argument against Bakhtin as a Marxist are merely speculative suggestions about how to read Bakhtin's politics (the verb "to seem" is frequently used): "Bakhtin added a sociological dimension to his psychology in the 1930s as an attempt, it would seem, to enrich his theory with Voloshinov's insights while avoiding the latter's Marxism" (p. 201); "Although Bakhtin does not attack specific opponents, it would seem that he has in mind such finalizing approaches to the self as Freudianism and Marxism" (pp.265-266); "Finally, the Dostoevsky book also seems to have an implicit political agenda, which is anti-Marxist" (p.267) (our emphases). These are just a few of the examples of what the index describes as "Bakhtin's various criticisms of Marxism". The passages indicated as expository of Bakhtin's "non-Marxist social theory" are similar to the previous examples we have seen in the sense that no substantial arguments are offered. We see once again a heavy reliance on verbs of appearance (see also the negative reference to semiotics in the second quotation): "Faced with the challenge of a sophisticated sociological poetics, based to a considerable extent on Bakhtin's own ideas, Bakhtin appears to have responded with theories of language and literature that were sociological without being Marxist (...)" (pp.118-119); "In our reconstruction of events, Bakhtin, reacting to some of Voloshinov's formulations, arrived at theories of language, literature, and the psyche that were not only sociological without being Marxist, but also precise without being semiotic" (p. 206); "In passages like these (from "Discourse in the Novel"), we see Bakhtin engaging sociological problems while avoiding a Marxist framework: his apparent answer to Voloshinov and Medvedev" (p. 355) (our emphases).

Nowhere do Morson and Emerson quote anyone we might call a semiotician except, perhaps, for Lotman and Uspensky -- whom they cite once in a footnote on page 476. Semioticians function as a kind of frightful strawman who represent everything systematic in cultural studies. And yet the negative comments seemingly directed toward all semioticians and "semiotic totalitarianism" (p.28) pale in comparison with the condemnation of anyone classified as a Marxist. Marxism is presented as an intellectual or political stigma, no matter how long or how superficially one has been involved in this philosophical system.

What is unfortunate about this whole issue is that it takes up an inordinate amount of space within Morson's and Emerson's intellectual account of Bakhtin. The categories "Marxist" and "non-Marxist" take on an evaluatory tone whereby all that is deemed Marxist is somehow undesirable. The emotional and moralizing tones involved end up blinding the otherwise lucid authors to a number of weaknesses and inconsistencies in their own presentation. They form a strategic element in their own insistent denials and claims regarding the authorship issue (which for many of us is another otiose question). It is now considered a given in Bakhtin scholarship that the requirements for absolutely irrefutable evidence in favour of Bakhtin's authorship of the disputed texts are impossible to satisfy. All claims that Holquist and others have made about the authorship issue are nevertheless subjected to amazingly close scrutiny by Morson and Emerson -- it is even suggested that those who promote the publication of the disputed texts under Bakhtin's name might have purely commercial motives. Their argument boils down to the claim that Bakhtin could not have written the disputed texts because this would mean that he was a Marxist at least for a while. This explains why other texts, where the authorship issue cannot be used to dismiss them as un-Bakhtinian, such as the Prefaces to Tolstoy's works, are simply written off as "window dressing" and "parody" (p.112). Morson and Emerson refuse to allow others to use the same arguments in support of the position they themselves oppose, claiming that (s)urely even in Russia people sometimes mean what they say" (p.109) and that the assumptions that "a great writer must be consistently great" (p.108) is impossible to defend. Bakhtin must have been having a bad day when he wrote some of his texts (the Tolstoy Prefaces and Rabelais )!

Given this cavalier dismissal of everything dialectic, utopian or collective as completely unacceptable in a correct version of Bakhtin's thought, it is difficult not to feel a certain impatience with the vagueness and lack of pertinent examples when we read the following:

The great historical models, including Marxism, also fail to be more than superficially historical according to Bakhtin's criteria. For as those models are usually employed, they more or less guarantee in advance the significance of anything one might find. In his Soviet context, Bakhtin would have ample reason to fault this king of thinking. But Western Marxism would also usually fall short. (p.44)

Morson and Emerson never seriously represent the (perceived) enemy's position, even though they state at one point that to "(t)ake on responsibility with respect to a discourse, or any kind of authority, it is necessary not to dislike it, but to enter into a dialogue with it -- that is, to test, assimilate and reaccentuate it" (p.220) (emphases in the original). They are more interested in taking pot shots at Marxism through farstretched, oblique references, despite the fact that Bakhtin argues, in a passage they quote, that scholarship, even when it is technically accurate at deciphering allusions, nevertheless ends up narrowing the meaning of what is being read because a great work's image is "always deeper and wider, it is linked with tradition, it has its own aesthetic logic independent of the allusion" (p.445). (Morson and Emerson are quoting from Rabelais and his World, p.114).

Bakhtin's carnival

The unwillingness to entertain the possibility of any Marxist tinge whatsoever in Bakhtin's thinking creates very serious problems indeed when we turn to what many commentators have considered Bakhtin's best work, his book on carnival and Rabelais. Many readers of Bakhtin, including the British left, greatly appreciate the Rabelais book, because it allows the theorization of the social aspects of human existence and an escape from the aporiae attached to the notion of the separate ethical individual in complete control of his or her destiny. The collective spirit and utopian public spaces are openly discussed and given great praise in the Rabelais book. It is no doubt because of these topics that the Rabelais book is ingeniously shuffled out of the Bakhtinian canon by Morson and Emerson.

Rabelais and his World is seen by Morson and Emerson, on one hand, as an aberration i n Bakhtin's thought. Such a position is indeed difficult to square, on the other hand, with another of their positions -- that Bakhtin is a "messy" thinker. It is hard to imagine how anything aberrant could occur within the thinking of someone as "messy" as Bakhtin. But even semioticians can understand, as does Umberto Eco in his Opera Aperta, that within a "messy" (or entropic) set of propositions, inconsistencies are not aberrations; rather order and consistencies are abnormal. Morson and Emerson are faced with a challenging task: how to dismiss as a "dead end" a work which takes up an enormous space within the Bakhtinian corpus and a work whose main concepts appear solidly in other works.

Morson and Emerson discredit the Rabelais book on several grounds -- most importantly on ethical ones. Using a moralizing tone, they characterize carnival as obscene and vulgar in comparison with the quiet, "responsible" language of Renaissance humanism. Carnival is "irresponsible" whereas ethical individuals, by definition, are responsible. The vision of carnival expounded in the Rabelais book is thus claimed -- unconvincingly -- to be profoundly different from the one put forward in the chronotope essay and in the third chapter of the revised Dostoevsky book. In other words, a study of the period (which Morson and Emerson call III a) just before the one (III b) in which the Rabelais book was written and the period (IV) immediately following the Rabelais book shows that the carnival outlined in Rabelais and his World is not the same as the one described before and after that same book. Bakhtin's Rabelais is therefore dismissed as inconsistent.

This argument, though neat and tidy, just doesn't hold. First of all, it does not take into account Bakhtin's "Rabelais and Gogol" essay. This essay has not yet been published in English translation (it exists in several other languages). This little essay, written in 1940 as a chapter for the Rabelais book but revised and reworked up until 1970, has an abundance of "undesirable" elements like collective popular laughter, carnivalesque collectivities, universal power of laughter, grotesque human bodies, hawkers, eating, drinking and sex. Morson's and Emerson's argument implies that nowhere in Bakhtin's work outside of the Rabelais book are there utopianism, collective bodies, or insistence on laughter as a valid semiotic mode of communication. Such a suggestion also flies in the face of our reading of the revised Dostoevsky book where, for example, the idea of genre memory cannot function without a notion of the collective memory or, for that matter, a reading of the chronotope essay where there is strong elements of utopianism, as witnessed by the following passage quoted by Morson and Emerson: Rabelais' task was "the re-creation of a spatially and temporally adequate world able to provide a new chronotope for a new, whole and harmonious man, and for new forms of human communication" ("Forms of Time and of the Chronotope", p.168).

Morson and Emerson seem to take the etymology of the word "utopia" literally as a time and space that are nowhere and conclude from this that all utopia are hopelessly abstract. What they fail to recognize is that there is a tremendous difference between what an author, say Bakhtin, explicitly says about utopia and what that same author actually implies about utopia with the ideas and concepts that are used in what is written and said. A similar ambiguity runs through Bakhtin's writing when he explicitly condemns metaphoric discourse in several passages, claiming that metaphors are basically monologic -- this is an issue intelligently dealt with by Helga Geyer-Ryan (1987) -- even though his writing is loaded with all kinds of metaphorical expressions. Surely there are important differences then that must be recognized between chronotopes as represented in texts and the chronotopes within which writers and readers must critically function. Morson and Emerson apparently recognize this type of distinction between represented utopia and utopia as an element of someone's thinking but they do this only in the most convoluted of sentences when they claim: "What Bakhtin offers is the utopia of an anti-utopian thinker" (p.94)

A number of major problems flow out of Morson's an Emerson's dire need to show the Rabelais book as unfaithful to "their" Bakhtin. The problem is, of course, that all Bakhtin's texts are very different from one another. Why is it that the inconsistencies of the Rabelais book are so great as to justify its dismissal? These inconsistencies are related to the purported equilibrium which elsewhere persists among the three "global concepts" of unfinalizability, dialogue, and prosaics. Other significant inconsistencies discerned in other Bakhtinian texts are, however, quietly explained away. How is it that certain inconsistencies are used as evidence to support the hypothesis that Bakhtin could not have written certain texts while inconsistencies in the Rabelais book are simply signs of "provisional solutions" (p.207)? How is it that Bakhtin is perceived to make other important shifts in his thought, such as the shift toward a central role for "the word" after the first period, while other shifts such as the shift to a collective body are simply dismissed as inconsistent? Why is it that the disputed Medvedev and Voloshinov texts are categorically denied the status of Bakhtinian texts but these same books frequently play a pivotal role in many of Morson's and Emerson's arguments. This is likely to confuse readers as to which arguments were Bakhtin's, Voloshinov's or Medvedev's? (See pp.39,40,42, etc., where affinities among the three thinkers are underlined).

But the way in which Morson and Emerson interpret Bakhtin's well-known "leap" into the study of language is perhaps the most disturbing element of their reading of the carnivalesque. It is strongly suggested that one important reason why the Rabelais book is not vintage Bakhtin is that book's tremendous stress on laughter "represents an experiment with unfinalizability at the expense of dialogue", whereas normally Bakhtin is exclusively concerned about the word (p.453). This surprising linguistic provincialism seems to suggest not only that Bakhtin could never have been a semiotician because modes of communication such as bodily contact and laughter are not a serious semiotic means of expression but also that some common strands of thought about language do not seem to have changed very much from the days of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf desperately wished to show his patriotic and optimistic audience that American-style democracy does not necessarily entail complete freedom or ability to say in the English language everything that human beings are capable of expressing. (See Emily Schultz's (1990) Bakhtinian reading of Whorf of this account). It is as if pure language, free of all the hard facts of social human existence, would somehow be able to cleanse us of all that is undesirable about our social nature.

The Problem of "rich strangeness"

Morson and Emerson, as we have seen, set out to explore, with a "different approach", the "rich strangeness and surprising fruitfulness of (Bakhtin's)intellectual career" (dust jacket). In a narrow sense, they manage to achieve this objective. We have little quarrel with much of their commentary on Bakhtin's individual works, except, of course, on the Rabelais book. Their perspective on the early essays and on the break that followed is much more convincing than what previous critics have written. We do get a clear sense of the tremendous diversity of Bakhtin's thinking from this book. But things run amuck at many crucial moments. The effort to provide a negative unity for their study of harping on what Bakhtin was not ends up working against Morson and Emerson. Another problem of a similar nature relates to the way in which the authors, in spite of themselves, it would seem, lock themselves into several binarist or hierarchized mindsets. On one hand, Bakhtin's three global concepts are said to exist "in various combinations and emphases in Bakhtin's work" (p.10), but later on, they become hierarchically organized during the writing of the Rabelais book (unfinalizability takes over at the expense of dialogue). Bakhtin's life is divided into five seemingly diverse "periods", but the fourth period is labelled "iii b", thus suggesting an inferior hierarchical status in regard to the other periods. This impression is further compounded by the fact that 1, Il, iii a, and IV are invariably called "periods" while iii b, the period during which Bakhtin got into the "dead ends" of his Rabelais book, is very often referred to as a "phase". Indeed, this very way of numbering suggests the idea of progress. And yet no steadfast reasoning is provided for the exact places where the boundaries are to be drawn between periods. The last period, by its sheer length in relation to the other periods, seems to dominate all the others. It is indeed difficult to believe that nothing changed in the last twenty five years of Bakhtin's intellectual life. If nothing else, such a long period of stability suggests that we might need to take into account a diminishing sharpness and dynamism in Bakhtin's last years. This is perhaps further reason not to take as Gospel everything he wrote in his notes. Morson and Emerson say they want to avoid the embryonic model of intellectual biography but organic metaphors regularly slip into their usage ("(Bakhtin's) ideas genuinely grew", (p.63, authors' emphasis). The authors never really get beyond the either/or syndrome (either continuity or discontinuity; either unity or incoherence) that they explicitly reject at the outset. In the final analysis, they come down most frequently, as is perhaps inevitable, on the side of the more stable of the two terms -- continuity. It is obvious that we still must wait for that elusive phenomenon, sought after by so many Bakhtinians, an account of the thinker's ideas that would show them in "a state of becoming", or to use Bakhtin's own terms, in a "multiplicity of focuses" ("From Notes made in 1970-71", p.155)

Bakhtin the ethicist

Enough said about the principle of negative unity which we see as one of the defining characteristics of this study. The Morson and Emerson Bakhtin also has a "positive unity" that we would want to call the ethical Bakhtin. Amid the "messiness" of Bakhtin's thought, we find, according to the authors, three "problems that recur with varying but impressive intensity throughout his life": "the dynamics of the creative process", "the nature of ethics", "the value of work" (p.10). Morson's and Emerson's explanation of Bakhtin's ethics remains diffuse and vague, as in the following passage:

Judged by the entirety of his work, Bakhtin is, if anything, an apostle of constraints. For without constraints of the right sort, he believed, neither freedom nor creativity, neither unfinalizability nor responsibility can be real". (p.43)

Although what is meant here is difficult to figure out, Morson and Emerson seem to be suggesting that Bakhtin's work provides the individual, above ail, with series of moral precepts that ought to lead to responsible behaviour. But nowhere do we learn how to recognize such behaviour when we see it. This ethical Bakhtin is decidedly empty of content -- a collection of hollow maxims, divorced from any situational or context-bound means that would allow us to put those maxims into practice. We wonder why the ethics advocated in this book must always be a matter of the individual and why ethics must be religiously held separate from everything that smacks of social groups or collective identities.

Such pronouncements as the one quoted above sound similar to a certain conservative political discourse that we have been hearing over the past decade. The reasons for the title of our article should now become clear.

The most recent appropriation of Bakhtin's ideas, as represented by Morson's and Emerson's new book is, in our view, a part of that more generalized movement. Rather than working out the numerous possibilities for innovation that Bakhtin's thought on language, culture, psychology, and social change has to offer, and rather than working out the consequences of what the international community is trying to say about these possibilities, this particular view of what Bakhtin ought to be, in the West at least, all too often paints a vision of the future cast in the cliché-ridden binary opposition that many of us have grown to disrespect. In many important ways, it is entirely true that Bakhtin is "becoming" something in the hands of his commentators, even if those same commentators do not appear to be interested in elaborating a new methodology capable of dealing with the complex notion of "becoming" as a possible avenue in their own research. One way of respecting what "becoming" could possibly mean in Bakhtin's complex writings is to respect from the outset, not to destroy, ideas that appear alien or even threatening. Ultimately, for any person brought up and educated in North America, including we would suggest many North American Slavists, Bakhtin wrote and spoke in many different and strange chronotopes. It seems totally inappropriate to try to impose a moral order upon this otherness, to claim implicitly that certain texts are more important than others (how important are the early texts, for example?) While other texts are either declared to be inferior or not Bakhtinian. We are not entirely convinced that what we need now is this new purified Bakhtin, the product of systematic exclusion and weeding out of its undesirable elements. Such strategies make us worried when other "undesirables" such as semioticians and contemporary theoreticians of culture get hammered with the same wide club.


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press (contains the chronotope essay and "Discourse in the Novel")

--- (1976) Freudianism: A Marxist Critique. I.R. Titunik, trans. New York: Academic Press.

--- (1986) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Ladislav Matejka and l.R. Titunik, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

--- (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Caryl Emerson, ed. and trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

--- (1978) "Rabelais et Gogol", in Daria Olivier, trans. Esthétique et theorie du roman. Paris: Gallimard.

--- (1968) Rabelais and is Worid. Hélene Iswdsky, trans. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Clark, Katerina and Michael Holquist (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Eco, Umberto (1962) Opera aperta. Milan: Bompiani.

Geyer-Ryan, Helga (1987) "Redevielfalt als poetisches Prinzip. Bachtin, Brecht, Harrison und das epische Gedicht", in Josef Strutz, ed., Robert Musils "Kakanien" -- Subiekt und Geschichte. Festschrift fuer Karl Dinklage zum 80. Geburtstag. Munich: Fink, pp. 244272. Hirschkop, K. and D. Shepherd (1989) Bakhtin and Cultural Theory Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pechey, Graham (1989) "Colonization and Decolonization in Bakhtin", in Hirschkop, Ken and David Shepherd, eds. Bakhtin and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Schultz, E.A. (1990) Dialogue at the Margins: Whorf, Bakhtin, and Linguistic Relativity Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958) Philosophical Investigations. London: Blackwell.

C.R. Thomson is an Associate Professor of French at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada. He has edited several collections of essays on Bakhtin's work and has published widely on the Bakhtin Circle and French Naturalism. He is editor of the Bakhtin Newsletter an annotated bibliography of works published on Bakhtin's thought .

A.J. Wall is an Associate Professor of French at the University of Calgary (Canada). He has written several articles on Bakhtin and contemporary French and Quebecois literatures and is responsible for collecting German-language entries for the Bakhtin Newsletter.

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