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Critical Essay by Caryl Emerson
Baxtin studies have come of age. For evidence of this one should look not at the exploding number of references, nor at the extraordinary seepage of his name into unlikely disciplines, nor even at the frequency of old themes now being newly reworked under the labels "dialogic" or "carnivalesque." Signs of maturity are registered, rather, in the nature of the dialogue. In the past two years, several "stabilizing" events have occurred.
A major biography has appeared in English (Clark and Holquist). A Festschrift in Baxtin's honor has been compiled by his former students in Saransk (S. S. Konkin), and the Soviet Academy of Sciences has published a summarizing account of Baxtin scholarship in the West (Maxlin). Half a dozen professional journals … have sponsored forums or special issues on Baxtin. In the Soviet Union, the concepts of dialogism and chronotope have been progressively refined—most creatively by the scholars of the Tartu School, who devoted an entire issue of Trudy po znakovym sistemam (17 ) to the structure of dialogue as a semiotic mechanism. In 1986, large chunks of the remaining archival material from the early 1920s were published in the Soviet press. In a recent review essay of the latest Soviet anthology of Baxtin's writings, Sergej Averincev claims that Baxtin has achieved the status of "classic"—and thus merits a thoroughly researched, multi-volume academy edition of his works, not another one-volume sbornik.
The task is thus no longer one of maiden translation or primary explication, but considerably more difficult. We must now ask: Has the body of Baxtin's writing been articulate and forceful enough to stimulate a genuine counter-voice—as opposed to the mere backlash predictable in the wake of any cult figure? Do Baxtin's core theoretical ideas survive when they are applied, or does continued work with them only bring into focus their paradoxical, perhaps even fatally flawed sides?
It is this most recent stage that I would like to address in this essay. "Problems with Baxtin's Poetics" are, of course, everywhere: his astonishing logos-centrism (that is, his presumption that if you can't talk about an experience, you didn't have it), his often naive personification of genres, his reluctance to analyze artistic wholes, his narrow and unsympathetic definition of the lyric, his idealization of carnival, and the general imprecision of his terms. Some of these problems, to be sure, become less problematic as more of the archive becomes available. Among the recently published material, for example, is an ingenious analysis of Puškin's lyric "Dlja beregov otčiznoj dal'noj"—an analysis that demonstrates Baxtin's thorough appreciation of the complexity and multi-voicedness of lyrical form. But large, troublesome areas remain.
Bakhtin on the Epic Tradition:
It is impossible to achieve greatness in one's own time. Greatness always makes itself known only to descendents, for whom such a quality is always located in the past (it turns into a distanced image); it has become an object of memory and not a living object that one can see and touch. In the genre of the "memorial," the poet constructs his image in the future and distanced plane of his descendents (cf. the inscriptions of oriental despots, and of Augustus). In the world of memory, a phenomenon exists in its own peculiar context, with its own special rules, subject to conditions quite different from those we meet in the world we see with our own eyes, the world of practice and familiar contact. The epic past is a special form for perceiving people and events in art. In general the act of artistic perception and representation is almost completely obscured by this form. Artistic representation here is representation sub specie aeternitatis. One may, and in fact one must, memorialize with artistic language only that which is worthy of being remembered, that which should be preserved in the memory of descendents; an image is created for descendents, and this image is projected on to their sublime and distant horizon. Contemporaneity for its own sake (that is to say, a contemporaneity that makes no claim on future memory) is molded in clay; contemporaneity for the future (for descendents) is molded in marble or bronze.
Mikhail Bakhtin, in his "Epic and Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination, 1981.
A good starting point might be the title of this essay. For the problems, clearly, are not only with Baxtin's poetics, but with the very way he uses the word "poetics." Baxtin does not, of course, have in mind the traditional neoclassical model, that is, poetics understood as a fixed hierarchy of genres or aesthetic norms. But even more radically, he does not have in mind a poetics exclusively of art.
Here we might compare Baxtin with his Russian Formalist compatriots. For the Formalists, the very concept of a "poetics" implied the relative autonomy of art from life. Baxtin, in contrast, aggressively combines the two. Thus he has little use for notions of "poetic language," for what the Formalists called "literariness," or for the purely aesthetic function. But we should note that Baxtin combines life and art in a very special way.
First, he situates the separation of art and life historically, that is, as something that may or may not be true at any given time or place, and always as a matter of degree. To use his terminology, the separation of life and art is not given, dan, but posited, zadan. And then, Baxtin does not presume that in the many and energetic efforts of aesthetes to keep art and life apart, art has been the only side to benefit. In his first published essay, a six-paragraph fragment entitled "Art and Responsibility" dating from 1919, Baxtin concludes that the whole fraught question of the art-life boundary has in fact worked to the mutual convenience of both sides. "Both art and life desire to lighten their respective burdens," Baxtin writes, "for it is, after all, easier to create without answering to life, and easier to live not reckoning with art." Then there follows one of Baxtin's more elusive and provocative formulations: "Art and life are not one, but they must become united in me, in the unity of my responsibility."
We might say, therefore, that two realms confront one another in each individual: the ethical and the aesthetic. Where they meet is what we call the "I." This special sense of the "I" as a threshold concept—or, better, as a boundary phenomenon—has its counterpart, of course, in Baxtin's model of the utterance: not a slice of system, and not an individual speech act, but a unique exchange between or among people. The ethical-aesthetic boundary is also analogous to Baxtin's larger concept of the self as a social entity. The self is a special relation among the voices that inhabit us; as Baxtin would say, the socium lives within us. But it is important to emphasize that this socium is not an undifferentiated mass; the social always partakes of the accents and intonations of each individual speaker. The social self, therefore, is not the generalized self, the self that can be reduced (as in certain facile Marxist or Formalist models) to economic class or psychological reflex. As it is with self and society, so it is with life and art. The two are separate and irreducible, but the pattern of their responses to each other determines the shape of the self. Expanding this scenario into a theory of art, Baxtin claims that such patterns of ethical-aesthetic interaction shape the inner form of the artwork itself.
The process is discussed in the early manuscripts, where Baxtin takes to task the Formalist idea of the device as art's marker and guarantor of the creative act. The aesthetic project, Baxtin insists, begins not with the device but with the creation of a second consciousness in addition to the author. What makes any work aesthetic is the degree to which this second consciousness can follow its own laws—in the presence of that primary force, the author, who strives to surmount it. In this struggle, aesthetic form belongs to the author, ethical content to the hero.
Elsewhere in the manuscripts, Baxtin illustrates this "struggle" through an analysis of lyrical and dramatic texts. Every poem—or for that matter every aesthetic event—is, Baxtin claims, a "reaction to a reaction." The primary reaction belongs to the protagonist and is therefore ethical: the hero reacts from within a world that is real to him, with gestures that (from his point of view) have real consequences. The secondary reaction is aesthetic: the author, from his outside point of view, shapes the events of that created world. In highly structured metric poetry, such a "reaction to a reaction" sets up rich countercurrents, which Baxtin investigates in terms of the protagonist's "realistic intonation" and the author's "formal rhythm." Since all these variables must of necessity be expressed externally on the same verbal plane, they will struggle for dominance. The more subtle and well-crafted this struggle between ethical "real-life" acts and the author's aesthetic shaping of them, the more satisfying the artwork.
What follows from this radical inter-penetrability, even inter-responsibility, of life and art is one of the peculiar constants of Baxtin's universe: the presumption that literary or aesthetic categories must have their real-life ethical counterparts. Thus a problem in the poetics of art will always have its analogous problem in a poetics of life. From this set of parallel problems with Baxtin's poetics I hope to map out two major troubling areas.
The first troubling area is that cluster of concepts all designating one or another kind of multiplicity or openness: those unlovely, overworked words—dialogism, unfinalizability, polyphony, heteroglossia. What all these terms share is a commitment to a special sort of change, change that is neither systematic nor systemic. In this Baxtin again differs from the Russian Formalists, whose theories of literary history were largely predicated on the evolution of literary, and nonliterary, systems. For Baxtin, most change is of a different order.
Here we must return to Baxtin's early, as yet untranslated writing before 1925. For it is a peculiar lopsidedness of Baxtin's received image in the West that the so-called "Baxtin School canon" (which includes the work authored by Vološinov and Medvedev) begins only in 1926, after Baxtin had discovered language as a central metaphor, and after he had targeted Saussurian concepts of language as his principal foe. Before this time, the central concept for Baxtin was not slovo (the word) but postupok (the act). What was to become, in the late 1920s, a juxtaposition of responsible utterance versus system is cast in the early writings as life versus theory, as the act versus any abstraction of the act. In these early manuscripts, published as "K filosofii postupka" ("Toward a philosophy of the act"), Baxtin makes a passionate plea—very much in the spirit of Gercen and Tolstoj—against abstraction as the chief enemy of personal responsibility. As soon, Baxtin writes, as the content of any cognitive act (thought as well as deed) is torn away from its concrete embodiment, an independent logic begins to govern it, it begins to develop spontaneously (samoproizvol'no) and we are at the mercy of its logic. We cease to exist actively in our own act. What is only posited in life suddenly appears as given. And as a result, we lose all that is "absolutely new, creating, impending in the act, all that by which it lives."
In these early writings, Baxtin directly addresses what he considers to be a shortcoming of Kantian ethics. Our individual will is indeed creatively active, Baxtin asserts, but our will "does not in any way generate a norm or a general position." Laws and norms of all sorts—and here Baxtin has the categorical imperative in mind—cannot be productively active first principles in the real world of events. "It is a sad misunderstanding, the legacy of rationalism," Baxtin writes, "that truth [pravda] can only be the sort of truth [istina] that coalesces out of generalized moments; that the truth of a position is [taken to be] precisely what is repeatable and permanent in it." In fact, Baxtin claims, language as such—permeated by intonation, emotion, intention—is not capable of expressing the logically abstract moment. Thus any act or word which does not arise responsibly out of its own nonreproducible context and author, any act which is the product of abstraction or of some "immanent law of development," can invade our lives as a "terrifying and destructive force." Baxtin dismisses as unlikely the dangers at the opposite extreme—that is, the possibility that an act, thus stripped of any ethical system, might become arbitrary or irrational. In fact, he would dismiss the very opposition between objectivity (supposedly systematic and rational) and subjectivity (the presumed realm of the individual and the arbitrary). Such a dichotomy is itself a fiction, Baxtin insists, a "rationalist prejudice." "The act, in its integral wholeness, is more than rational, it is responsible."
Fifty years later, near the end of his life, Baxtin reaffirmed this optimistic role for the asystemically creative personal act. He jotted down in his note-book that cultural phenomena can be approached in two ways. First, he wrote, there is "the study of culture (or some area of it) at the level of system and [then] at the higher level of organic unity: open, becoming, unresolved and unpredetermined, capable of death and renewal, transcending itself, that is, exceeding its own boundaries." In art and in life, "unfinalizability" seems to mean for Baxtin that at any point in the development of a word, a culture, a person or a text there is a multiplicity of possibilities which are not implicit or inscribed in earlier stages. Thus the world can genuinely surprise us, and we can surprise the world. Each of those terms—dialogism, polyphony, heteroglossia—presupposes not just change, but unpredictable change.
One could say, then, that Baxtin's fundamental value is newness, creativity, what he himself called (in one of his awkward neologisms) sjurpriznost', "surprisingness." It should be stressed, however, that "surprisingness" is never generated by chaos, nor is it the product of some aleatory principle. Surprise, as Baxtin sees it, is saturated with responsibility. This point is worth stressing, because the image of Baxtin in current literary theory is somewhat askew. Due to the extraordinary popularity of the essays from the 1930s translated as The Dialogic Imagination—and due to some misplaced emphases on the part of Baxtin's early interpreters, including myself—the dominant image is now that of the "libertarian Baxtin," the apostle of freedom who rejoices, Bakunin-like, in the undoing of rules, in centrifugal energy, in carnival clowning, in novels as loopholes, and in sly denials of authorship. To be sure, a strain of utopian anarchism has always been strong in Russian thought, which is no stranger to the wedding of millenarian fantasies with holy foolishness. But Baxtin in fact insulates himself against that sort of thought better than it at first appears. Judging him not only by the essays of his best-known middle period but by the evolution of his work as a whole, Baxtin is, if anything, an apostle of constraints.
Thus he does not advocate the sort of novelty that makes a self-conscious "cult of the new," or that claims to make a fresh start by canceling out all previous movements or norms. Baxtin's aesthetic does not necessarily privilege modernism or modernity. On the contrary, Baxtin rarely mentions the modern novel, and he saw Futurism—and other forms of radical experimentation in art—as largely spurious attempts at novelty, spurious to the extent that they denied the past and diminished the presence of the responsible individual in the aesthetic act. What Baxtin seems to have sought was newness that did not stress the autonomy of the present or the future, but that addressed the past in unanticipated, productive ways—and invited similar approaches to itself.
Let us first consider how this idea of unpredictable, but response-laden, change works in Baxtin's poetics of literary art. Here, of course, it would be truer to say "poetics of the novel"—or even better, prosaics of the novel—for the novel embodied for Baxtin the essential open principle. No friend of New-Critical, structuralist, or neo-Aristotelian notions of closure and autonomy, Baxtin was forever on the lookout for genuine baggy monsters to staff his eccentric pantheon of master-novels. In this pantheon, true novelists are those like Dostoevskij, who somehow manage to locate themselves among their characters and not above them, and who appear to grant their characters in art the same cunning mix of freedom and necessity that we all know in life. The novel, Baxtin intimates, is the only art form of true potentiality.
This "freedom in openness" that supposedly characterizes polyphonic works has been, perhaps, the most trouble-some aspect of Baxtin's theory of the novel. Baxtin, at any rate, thought so: as he wrote his literary executor Vadim Kožinov in July 1961, "more than any other thing, the position of the author in the polyphonic novel has given rise to objections and misunderstandings" (cited by Averincev and Bočarov). And well it might. Polyphony has been misunderstood as many things: as authorlessness (that is, as an abdication of the author), or as relativism (that is, as the indifference of the author), or as a disdain for the finished whole of an artwork. It has even been taken to mean—by (among others) Rene Wellek and, more recently, Joseph Frank—as the failure of an author to establish any responsible point of view.
A careful reading of Baxtin's texts absolves him, I believe, from most of these charges. He specifically states that polyphonic authors are neither absent nor passive: they are profoundly active, but active in a way different from monophonic authors. As regards the problem of relativism, Baxtin was equally explicit. In the Dostoevskij book he wrote, with perhaps regrettable understatement, that "we see no special need to point out that the polyphonic approach has nothing in common with relativism (or with dogmatism) … both … equally exclude all argumentation, all authentic dialogue, by making it either unnecessary (relativism) or impossible (dogmatism)." What makes relativism and dogmatism twin sins for Baxtin is that both shut off the possibility of new, meaningful exchange. For one must be capable of some commitment in order to propose the new and suspicious of total commitment which denies the possibility of the new. The alternative to both relativism and dogmatism is the situation Baxtin elaborates in his "K filosofii postupka": a world in which one makes committed statements, but recognizes them as provisional.
We might sum up the polyphonic position in this way. Because an artistic work is decentered and the authority in it is provisional does not mean that it ceases to embody value, or that it celebrates the impossibility of meaning, or that it begins to "play." On the contrary, Baxtin and his circle repeatedly insist on the necessity of concrete meaning and value in every utterance. The final chapter of Vološinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language ends on an impassioned plea for "the revival of the ideological word … the word with its theme intact, permeated with confident social value judgments, the word that really means and takes responsibility for what it says." Baxtin assumes that words and values are historical, social, and therefore conditional. But to admit this much is not to endorse ethical relativism, for that would release individuals from the obligation to assign value. In like manner, authors do not relinquish an "authorial point of view" when they choose to design works in which the truth of a situation is to be found among speakers, rather than embedded within a single speaker. But such authors do, of course, reconceive the structure of truth.
Charges of authorlessness and relativism, then, cannot really be sustained against the polyphonic novel. But the final problem with Baxtin's concept of aesthetic "openness" is not so easy to dismiss. This is Baxtin's reluctance to deal with the whole of a work of art, and especially with the whole of novels. This reluctance is all the more unfortunate, because one of the few things that aestheticians of almost all persuasions agree upon is the primacy of unity in an artwork—be it a unity of structure, or more loosely a unity of effect, or even (as in some modern works) a unity in the calculated failure to achieve unity. Baxtin admits that the issue is important, but endlessly defers dealing with it. None of his work sounds like a New-Critical reading, or even like its post-structuralist inversion.
It is possible, of course, that Baxtin declined to analyze individual novels rigorously because the claims he made for their "polyphonic" authors—and for Dostoevskij in particular—are very overstated. And he might have been urged toward overstatement because of that parallel set of poetics we must always keep in mind. Baxtin appears to seek in novels only what he can transpose into a philosophy of living.
Let us move, then, to the other side of the chart, to the poetics of life. The problem of human closure, that is, of the properly finalized life, is discussed by Baxtin at length in his early manuscripts. There he makes it clear that "finalizability" is both necessary and desirable—as long as it is not the act of a single isolated consciousness. Closure, Baxtin assures us, is something we can never will from within our own life. Our own inner consciousness always knows how partial and open-ended our every act and utterance really is; we appear whole to others, but not to ourselves. Thus the only whole gift we can give others is our death, because only after death can the other's "aestheticizing" of our personality begin.
Death, as Baxtin conceives of it, can be an aestheticizing agent because it makes wholes possible; thus it is always in the past or the future, never in the present, which can only anticipate or remember it. From our living present, we can only describe someone else's death. Tolstoy's Ivan Il'ič notwithstanding, we can never take a stance of closure with respect to our own selves.
Baxtin's reluctance to engage the artistic whole in novels might well have something to do with his tendency to link it with death, that is, with the way in which lives are given closure. Here a contrast with Georg Lukács might be helpful. In his Soul and Form and Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues that aesthetic form functions as a sort of compensation for the fragmentation and alienation of modern life. The modern novelist's task, he claims, is to impose form on a world otherwise devoid of necessary value. The price we pay for taking pleasure in this form is the knowledge that any world thus portrayed must be eternally a fiction. For Baxtin, in contrast, the novel's task lies in a representation of the openness of development, in an unfolding of potentials that are precisely unforeseen, as yet unformed, and can therefore mimic real experience. And thus—while Baxtin and Lukács agree that the novel is the genre best suited to depicting man's struggle in a world without a priori forms—Lukács expects novelists to bestow form on their novels and novelistic characters to bestow form on their lives. The novelists Baxtin celebrates are much less likely to redeem humankind through be stowed meaning. That, perhaps, is the task of readers, who close down the text in their own ways and in so doing liberate an author from captivity to his own epoch. Baxtin links the baggy, open-ended novel with redemption not because he cares any less about truth but because he is persuaded that only real death, not real life, has the sort of meaning that can be redeemed through wholeness.
To appreciate the analogies Baxtin intends here between life and art, we must remember that for Baxtin authorship is an everyday activity. Nothing could be further from Baxtin's poetics than the insistence—shared in different ways by Romantics, New Critics, and Formalists—that authorship is something special. On the contrary, it is the very business of living. We author others at each encounter with them, and are in turn "authored" by those who interact with us.
Here we should note a crucial distinction Baxtin draws between inner and outer self. The inner self is always open, potential, hopeful, not-yet-concrete; this Baxtin calls the "I-for-myself." This inner "I" always knows that whatever it does is provisional; any act could, and should, have been better and different. The outer self, in contrast, is the personality others perceive and help bring into being. This so-called "I-for-others" is always to some extent closed, finalized, and identified with completed deeds—because that is the only self others can see. Both of these "I"s are socially constituted; one, however, is relatively open, the other relatively closed. And they are absolutely indispensable to each other: we could not go on living if we felt that what we have been so far for others is all we can become. Thus Baxtin can write in his final notes that genuine creative existence, a true quest for one's own word, is always "a striving to depart from one's own words—with which nothing essential can be said." In this scheme of things, we literally do not know what we have said, or who we are, until others respond to us.
This privileging of the outside perspective is a constant feature of Baxtin's approach to the world, and provides the necessary constraint on his too-easily-sung hymn to freedom. "Insideness," one's "I-for-myself," might indeed be free, but freedom in that raw state cannot contribute anything significant to understanding. Genuine freedom and understanding lie not on the inside but on the outside. This is true even for so interior a form as autobiography. When we tell the story of our own lives, Baxtin insists, what speaks in us most often is not direct experience or memory but a narrator with someone else's values and intonations, "the valuable other in me," as Baxtin puts it. "I-for-myself," he says, "is not capable of telling any stories."
Thus even autobiographical value—our own self's sense of itself—is composite, with a unity that is only posited. As heroes of our own ongoing life we want to live, to keep options open. But as authors of our own biography we strive to assign value, to consummate and shape; we see here traces of the struggle between inner (ethical) and outer (aesthetic) pressures that define any creative act. Thus Baxtin can conclude that even one's own biography is bestowed: "I receive it as a gift from others and for others."
This continual presence of the embodied other in all acts of identity is, according to Baxtin, the one guarantee that genuine authorship will continue to occur. At the end of his early essay on authors and their heroes, Baxtin devotes a special section to the "Problem of the Author." There he delineates possible causes for a crisis in authorship and style. Three major misunderstandings, he claims, can trigger a crisis in authorship. The first occurs whenever aesthetic movements endorse a "cult of the artist." Authors during such a time (Baxtin has Romanticism in mind, and doubtless Symbolism as well) are unwilling to "humble themselves to the status of toilers," and they resist defining their place in existence "among others and alongside others." This resistance to the cult of the artist was, of course, also part of the Formalist ethos, which proclaimed the poet a craftsman, not a seer. But Baxtin goes further. From the later perspective of the Dostoevskij book we see that Baxtin already poses, in this early essay, a homology between art and life: how polyphonic authors place themselves among their own created characters—as participants in an event, not as masters of it—is also the ideal model for poets functioning in society.
The second crisis (indeed related to the first) occurs whenever authors lose faith in their right to be outside another. In such instances the author insists that life can be viewed correctly only from within; the act of understanding then comes to mean entering an object and judging the world through its eyes. Both God and religion become interiorized and psychologized, and one's creative energies "withdraw from the boundaries, thereby leaving them to the mercy of arbitrary fate." Such a shrinking of the "I" happens, not surprisingly, when life begins to "fear boundaries and strives to dissolve them, having lost faith in the essentialness or benevolence of the force shaping it from without." When the "I" of an author ceases to be a boundary phenomenon, it ceases to be altogether.
The third type of authorship-crisis is more conventional, and draws Baxtin's poetics firmly back into the aesthetic sphere. Authors may find themselves paralyzed, Baxtin intimates, when their position of outsideness becomes too purely, too "painfully ethical." Such an ethical imperative, which summons consciousness to action and judgment in the world, acts to destabilize the boundary separating human beings and their art. Aesthetic authorship is threatened when there is "no confident, calm, unshakable and rich position of outsideness."
We see, therefore, that Baxtin's dictum on "art and life uniting in me" in no sense sanctions an erasing of boundaries between the two spheres, nor does it "reduce" art to life. What such union makes possible, rather, is an awareness of parallel challenges in the ethical and the aesthetic realm. Through aesthetic authoring we can—in Baxtin's wonderfully suggestive phrase—"exit into the unity of the event," that is, abandon the open, but sterile, I-for-myself and allow ourselves to be defined in interaction with others.
Here the problems begin in earnest, on both sides of Baxtin's poetics. We recall that dialogue and unfinalizability in a poetics of art raise compositional problems: can authorial intention in fact be encoded in "open heroes" and "open plots," and do not such concepts misrepresent the control an author exercises over the shape of the text? In a poetics of life, analogously, this endless deferment of one's self to the other for finalization raises moral and ethical questions. What, ultimately, can we call our identity? Since the very concept of responsibility assumes that there is a self to be responsible, how do we define personal morality?
All the ready ways out of this dilemma prove equally problematic. If, for example, it is truly up to others to complete us, then what we must do is seek not to remain ourselves (which in any case would be an impossibility, if not a contradiction in terms); we must instead seek the key to our freedom in permitting ourselves to be finalized by more than one person, perhaps even by as many people as possible. An analogue suggests itself in Baxtin's theory of "speech genres." In that essay, Baxtin argues that "individuality" as we know it is not a function of radical originality but depends, rather, upon our ability to assimilate the many conventional templates made available by our particular culture and time. It follows that we are flexible and rich in our individuality to the extent that we have mastered—and can therefore choose among and recombine—the speech or behavioral genres that others recognize and share. In the same way, one might argue, we must have many outside "finalizers" to express our multiple selves and our multiple potentialities for self.
But in this scenario of ever-expanding otherness, what does it mean to be "true to oneself"? What continuities does the multiple self know, and—more importantly—how does it express its responsibility? Baxtin clearly had these questions on his mind all his life. In his final notes he remarked, with what must have been a certain fatal weariness, "Are there genres of pure self-expression…. Do there exist genres without an addressee?" But still one feels a certain uneasiness at the casualness with which Baxtin dismisses—or declines to engage—what is genuinely problematic in this issue.
For him, the presence of the other and of the other's response is so indispensable to human being that other considerations—and perhaps even moral ones—are shunted aside. As Baxtin concludes in his late essay on the role of the text in the human sciences ["Problem of the Text"]:
For the word (and consequently for a human being) there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response. Even a word that is known to be false is not absolutely false, and always presupposes an instance that would understand and justify it, even if in the form: "anyone in my position would have lied, too."
Lies, it seems, are better than nothing. And for some, this is a troubling form of tolerance. The moral dilemma here is the one confronting all socially-based theories of self: the possibility that the others who shape the self may be wrong.
Baxtin suggests that any finalization has value, because it completes us from a point of view fundamentally inaccessible to us and thus enriches our sense of self. But surely this makes light of the politics involved. If, as Baxtin insists, the worst human state (what he calls absolute death or non-being) is "the state of being unheard, unrecognized, unremembered," then do we ever have an inner, ethical right to non-response? Do we have a right to say: "Don't touch me, I don't want to be finalized by you," or, in more familiar language, "You are to blame, for making me see myself that way"? Within Baxtin's ethical universe, there appear to be few legitimate options for being left alone.
Baxtin does provide a loophole, to be sure—the same loophole he claims that Dostoevskij provided for the Underground Man. He reserves for the self an infinite supply of additional words to counter any outside verdict, positive as well as negative. But in Baxtin's scenario even these inner words—which save us from the trap of definition and final judgment—must in turn be finalized from without in order to achieve any stability of definition, any biographical validity. Baxtin is fully aware of the implications of this progression. "As something possessed by otherness," he wrote in the 1920s, "biographical value is precarious. The biographically valuable life hangs by a thread, for it cannot be definitely grounded internally…. [Thus] biographical life … is always enveloped by a naive faith, its atmosphere is warm. Biography is deeply trustful, but naively so (without crises); it presupposes a kind, gentle activity situated outside it and encompassing it, but this is not the activity of the author, who is in need of such activity right alongside the hero."
Baxtin's implied potential other lives forever on friendly boundaries and continuums. This is a major difference, as has been pointed out, between Baxtin's model and the discontinuous stratifications and incompatible discourses of Foucault; Baxtin's other always works to define us in ways we can live with. The self is presumed resilient or vigorous enough to incorporate, or counter, any definition the other might thrust upon it—and the other, as a rule, rises up to meet the self from a warm and trustful atmosphere. Baxtin characterizes this ideal otherness succinctly in his final notes, where he writes: "Benevolent demarcation and only then cooperation…. The more demarcation the better, but benevolent demarcation. Without border disputes. Cooperation."
This leads me to the second major troubling area in Baxtin's poetics, what we might call its presumption of "benevolence" or "benignness." Just as in Baxtin's scheme of things an openness to others can never really be threatening, so Baxtin seems to assume that dialogue just naturally optimizes itself for its participants. Is it not equally plausible that making dialogue happen takes a lot of inner work, work that is not social in its essence but more like moving rocks in a field you want to plow, or a struggle against terror? This idea is beginning to be developed in some provocative "revisionist" criticism against the Baxtinian model. One of the most persuasive is Aaron Fogel's Coercion to Speak, a study of Joseph Conrad from an antidialogic perspective. What Fogel suggests is that dialogue is not the normal human relation at all; that most human speech is forced, under constraint, and that Conrad is a master at portraying this truth in novelistic form. The exemplar here is the wretched Razumov in Under Western Eyes, who comes home one evening to a dialogue he never chose to enter and spends the rest of his life trying to regain control over his own, lost word. With that "Russian" novel of Conrad's in mind—so obviously modeled on Dostoevskij—we might rethink Baxtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics.
It has often been noted that Baxtin's book on Dostoevskij affords spiritual inspiration to the reader but is not, at many crucial points, true to the spirit of Dostoevskij. Most of us would agree that many characters and scenes in Dostoevskij's novels are genuinely pathological; so, often enough, is Dostoevskij himself. In Baxtin's reading, however, both the man and his work somehow come out therapeutic. Even the tortured moves of the Underground Man ultimately come to represent a celebration of unrealized potential, the right to postpone forever the final world. A similar tender warmth envelopes Baxtin's discussion of the Idiot, Prince Myškin. Baxtin appropriately places Nastasja Filippovna, the infernal heroine, in a "carnival hell," but Myškin he places in a "carnival heaven"—because the Prince strives so mightily to finalize others benevolently, to release them from their most desperate selves and even to deny the existence of those negative selves. But surely this ignores a crucial paradox in Dostoevskij's novel. When the Prince exclaims to Rogožin, "Parfen! I don't believe it!" or to Nastasja Filippovna that he knew "she was really not that sort of woman," he monologizes his fellow characters—and this move they will inevitably resist. Myškin's stubborn reductive benevolence is itself a central factor impelling the novel's heroes to their destruction.
Readers of Baxtin's book on Rabelais (and the other texts on carnival) might experience a similar discomfort—a sense that the dark side has somehow evaporated. In those works, Baxtin rejoices in the open orifices and robust laughter of the Renaissance body. To be grotesque is to be forever available for fundamental change. But openness and laughter—and this is the important point—do not necessarily affirm any new or significant value. Sometimes the most they can document is the potential for survival, and sometimes they signify the purest desperation. Yet Baxtin refuses to admit nihilism, absurdity, or pain into his Rabelaisian poetics of the body. Such bodies always embody positive and concrete meaning.
The noncontinuity between these two corporealities—the individual mortal body and the regenerating folkloric body—is also felt, in somewhat altered form, beneath Baxtin's remarkably benign construct for cultures of laughter. Historians of carnival have been quick to point out that real-life carnival can be both conservative and repressive, and can function as a societal safety valve that domesticates conflict by sanctioning victimization. Critics have also noted that Baxtin projects a rather eccentric image of the people's appetites: he tends to consign all formal and elevated aspects of carnival life—and of noncarnival life as well—to the "official spheres" of culture, while ascribing to the folk a passion solely for life's mocking and open forms.
There are also complications in Baxtin's model when cultural boundaries are crossed. Its image of the common people might indeed reflect the Rabelaisian carnival experience. But it is—as Lotman and Uspenskij have pointed out—quite foreign to medieval Russian culture. There the guffaw was not open or ambivalent, it was the laugh of Satan.
Only occasionally in the Rabelais book does Baxtin let it be known that real carnival—or, for that matter, the real Rabelais—is not his primary concern. Drawing on the work of the Soviet Renaissance scholar Leonid Pinskij, Baxtin reveals his underlying agenda, the connection between laughter and truth. The purpose of carnival laughter in literature is to work a change on readers: to liberate them from fear, and thus free them to create. Laughter purifies the world by making it possible to see. And this, according to Baxtin, is the paradoxical truth of Rabelaisian negation. Neither affirmation nor denial are fixed points; what matters is the movement from a negative to a positive pole. That liminal moment, so familiar to us from Formalist concepts of ostranenie but used here to such different purpose, is where all genuine learning takes place.
Here, I suggest, we glimpse Baxtin's version of a world in a state of grace. In that world, learning is always possible because value is already there, presumed to exist in a myriad of concrete forms always on the brink of transformation and nourished by a basically benign environment. Baxtin is a Heraclitian pantheist. He presumes no conflict in principle between an organism and its surroundings, just as he presumes no conflict in principle between self and society. This "benevolent environment" for life is much more than a nod to evolutionary biology. Baxtin connects essential benevolence with consciousness itself. As he discusses the issue in his early essay on authors and their heroes:
A certain degree of warmth is necessary in the value-laden atmosphere surrounding me in order for self-consciousness and self-utterance to be realized, in order for life to begin…. One lives and becomes conscious neither within a guarantee, nor within a wilderness…. One can only live in faith.
A faith so constituted is an attitude, a search for higher authority, and precisely as a search it is always open to redefinition. In fact, Baxtin would probably argue that ultimate value exists largely in order to make striving meaningful. Since genuine seeking (like true dialogue) can only take place between embodied subjects, each of whom possesses the power to change the other, higher authority is never abstract or impersonal. Here Baxtin resembles his great contemporary in exile, Nikolaj Berdjaev, for whom Godmanhood was intimate and reciprocal—and in whose Christian, personalist socialism man could be redeemed from the Fall not by asceticism, and not by mere obedience, but only by creativity.
This brings me to my final and most general point about Baxtin's "benevolence." The celebration of an ability to create something new is but one example of Baxtin's extraordinary privileging of the immediate future. He has little interest in distant or abstract futures, in the conventional utopia; when he says that "everything is still in the future and will always be in the future" he means the cutting edge of the present, tied with innumerable strands to now. But this stance carries within it an inevitable tension. Baxtin both insists upon the reality of events in the present, and at the same time wants to make it possible for closure not to happen—for events not to add up, stick, or cripple future action. Events can be laughed away. The future is important not as the sum of past events, but as the realm of newly-arranged value. In contrast to some American post-structuralists, Baxtin draws his primary data not from the category of "always already" but rather from the category of "always about to be." The "always already" component in Russian formalist criticism—its reliance on recombining old forms, its negative thrust, its equation of aesthetic experience with subtraction of meaning, and the absence in it of a genuinely constructive, creative impulse—was in fact the master complaint that the Baxtin Circle lodged against the Formal Method. True freedom is freedom of creative judgment. But there is little here of the "judgmental": what matters in the act of judging is not condemnation, not catching-in-the-act or any other such legal category. What matters about judging is its potential transformative power.
We might illustrate Baxtin's ideas by applying them to the concluding chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitrij is indeed a man unjustly finalized by others. The court that finds him guilty of murder is a caricature; its judges and jurors cannot even reconstruct the outer event. But the act of being judged brings about a transformation in the accused and makes possible a new self. As Baxtin jotted down in his final notes, one's inner freedom "cannot change existence, as it were, materially (nor can it want to)—it can change only the sense of existence … This is the freedom of the witness and the judge. It is expressed in the word."
Here we recognize in Baxtin's poetics a reinterpretation, from a dialogic perspective, of stoicism. And this is intriguing because for Baxtin—unlike the Stoics—self is always social.
This powerful, open role for the future makes Baxtin's world remarkably free of bitterness, and singularly incapable of comprehending texts of true rage. Winston Smith, after all, lived in a world where he was all too free to "change the sense of existence" and reassess the significance of facts. It is one of the inspiring ironies of Baxtin's life that his work—all produced under Soviet conditions and much of it under Stalinist conditions—seems so little poisoned by the realities that Orwell confronted in 1984. This benevolence of Baxtin's is the most appealing and perhaps the most troublesome aspect of his poetics; as in the most challenging of Christ's parables, the capacity to affirm seems closely tied to a tolerance of injustice.
Where does this leave us as critics of Baxtin's legacy? We might consider first his poetics of literary art. In this realm it is clear that dialogue, heteroglossia and polyphony should not be invoked as strict technical terms for analyzing the structural whole of a literary work. They are rather like functions which can govern select patches of certain novels—rarely the whole of a novel, and not all novels. There are, nevertheless, genuine differences between dialogically and monologically inspired works. A dialogic work invites a certain sort of response. It may be more loosely constructed; its ending may not be planned in advance, and therefore the significance of any particular incident in it cannot be guaranteed. The work can be designed so that at each moment of reading the openness of each act is paramount—thus the act itself potentiates many patterns, but need not conform to any single one. By such criteria, Tolstoj is perhaps more thoroughly polyphonic than Dostoevskij.
As part of a poetics of life, "benign openness" offers a slightly different mix of benefits and dangers.
Here one must ask: is Baxtin's huge privileging of the future, his insistence on the creative potential of the next response and the capacity of response to transfigure event, really compatible with responsibility for events? Can we—as Baxtin put it in that 1919 essay—answer for art with our life, if we endlessly defer the meaning of that life as we wait for the next response to it to come in? At what point does one stand still and take stock in one's own voice? Read Baxtin carefully, and he will tell you: never. When you stand still you are dead, and others take stock of your life. To be conscious is to always have an exit—or at least to be always looking for an exit. In contrast to this benign scenario, we might consider an alternative vision, the perhaps apocryphal story of Dostoevskij's final thesis at the Engineering School in Petersburg where he was a student in the 1840s: a fortress designed with no windows and no doors.
One final way of viewing the problematics of openness might be to consider the ambiguities in the Russian abstract noun otvetstvennost'. Its root is otvet, the word for "answer" or "response," and the conventional English equivalent for otvetstvennost' is "responsibility." But Baxtin plays with the word, using it in contexts that suggest not only responsibility but also "answerability," that is, an openness to new answers, responsive listening. Between this privileging of the future where everything is open, and a recognition that action cannot be undone and must be answered for, lies the challenge of combining, if possible, the responsively new and the morally responsible. For Baxtin, the supreme value in life is the potential for creativity. But much in his own model makes the pursuit of this value problematic.
Some of these problems are inevitable, given Baxtin's priorities and the cast of his mind; they are the blindnesses, as it were, that must accompany his insights. Other problems can be traced to a "fetishization" of certain highly visible and marketable sides of Baxtin—especially the carnivalesque—to the exclusion of more "conservative" concerns arguably more central to his thought. And yet a third set of problems with Baxtin's poetics can actually be eased by a consideration of the ethical position Baxtin mapped out for art in his early manuscripts. This position underwent considerable—and often surprising—change throughout Baxtin's life, re-emerging in his final years as central to his vision of the human sciences. Several ideas suggested by these earliest and latest writings might serve to summarize the problems raised in this essay.
First, Baxtin was not just offering a new poetics, he was undoing the very idea of a poetics. For he seems to have associated impersonal systems of all sorts with the mode of thinking proper to a "poetics" of the aesthetic world: initially an Aristotelian poetics of closed wholes and well-shaped plots, but soon Formalist, then Structuralist, and—had he lived to hear of it—quite certainly deconstructionist. "[I have] a different understanding of specification," he wrote near the end of his life, in response to the methodologies of formalism and structuralism. For Baxtin, the specific in the human sciences was always found in the nongeneralizable human context and not in a code, or, as he put it, in depth rather than precision. The realization that no two living contexts could ever repeat themselves sufficiently to create a genuinely applicable code—a fact that guaranteed, not undermined, the authenticity of meaning and value—is the first step toward understanding Baxtin's ideas on wholeness and unity.
As Gary Saul Morson and I will argue in our forthcoming study of Baxtin, such an idea of specification is less poetic than it is prosaic. This is prosaic in both senses of the term: both prose-like as opposed to poetical, and ordinary, that is, pertaining to and celebrating the mass of unmarked everyday decisions that require work of us precisely because we cannot ground them in general norms, principles, or the drama of clean-cut openings and closings. Baxtin is a singer of middle spaces. A "prosaic" approach to his work, therefore, might shed some light on what many consider to be the most problematic sides of Baxtinian poetics: its insistence on decentering and "openness" in the novel, and its presumption that this openness is essentially benign.
A quote from the early manuscripts will illustrate "prosaics" with a difficult but crucial Russian phrase. "We live," Baxtin writes, "in a world of exitless reality, not of random potential." Note that for Baxtin this "exitlessness" is a very good thing. Random potential, mere possibility, always splits me off from the world; it is, as Baxtin says, the "unbridled play of empty objectivity," an "infinity of cognition" that no one has yet signed.
The positive term in that little sentence, then, is "exitless reality," bezysxodnaja dejstvitel'nost', the world you cannot get out of and cannot help answering for. This is not, significantly, the no-exit of no meaning but the no-exit of unlimited meaning. And in this context, doublevoicedness, loophole, carnival—all those terms of freeing-up and letting-go—do not mean "getting out of it," escaping meaning, but simply getting out of one thing into something else, getting a second chance at it that will again bind you and bind your act. Polyphony is the tie that binds, not releases, and polyphonic bonds are infinitely more complex and delimiting than those in a monologic text.
For this reason one could argue that the weakest, least consistent, and most dangerous category in Baxtin's arsenal is the concept of "carnival." Properly placed in his world, carnival is valuable solely as a mechanism for laughing at system, not for laughing at individual answerability for acts. For a prosaic world must begin with personal responsibility. What is important is not the holiday (with its masks, its extraordinary inversions and suspensions of personality) but rather the ordinary, unrepeatable, radically individual everyday event, events of the sort that novels are made of. What is also not important—what is even fraudulent—are all systems that would claim to classify those events and rank them according to impersonal hierarchies. Few contemporary -isms, from Marxism to post-structuralism, would wish to claim such freedom from system.
More helpful here than any dialogue with twentieth-century theoretical trends might be Baxtin's debt to the Orthodox, Slavophile strain in Russian romanticism. Much in the Baxtinian dualistic universe recalls mid-nineteenth-century debates between Westernizers and Slavophiles. The world is a battleground between material and moral freedom. On one side (the West) there is mere external unity, logic, system, coercion—that is, centripetal forces. The other side (Orthodoxy) has access to cel'noe bytie, "integral existence," which alone makes faith possible. From that stable position the self can reach out in a voluntary, centrifugal gesture and never fear difference.
For both Baxtin and these early Slavophiles, politics is a distortion and a burden. Their implied communities are outside political parties, and perhaps even outside history itself. If indeed, as Baxtin claims, there can be no human unit of less than two consciousnesses, then the upper limit seems also to be of cozy, chamber-room dimensions: not humanity, not a state or institution, but people we can see, touch, and alter by our everyday authoring. Under these conditions, individuality is not suppressed in collectivity but is, in Konstantin Aksakov's celebrated phrase, "most free in a chorus." To the extent that this miraculous balance is achieved in life and in art, Baxtin's poetics ceases to be problematic.
Caryl Emerson, "Problems with Baxtin's Poetics," in Slavic and East-European Journal, n. s. Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 503-25.
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