Authorial Life

Poetry Nation Review

January 1986

Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle,
translated by Wlad Codzich (Manchester University Press)

What we knew as ‘the Bakhtin school’ or ‘Bakhtin and his circle’ has turned out to be one man. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) wrote as Voloshinov on linguistics, as Medvedev on literary scholarship and as himself on specific authors such as Rabelais and Dostoevskv. Tzvetan Todorov is not much concerned with Medvedev, so refers throughout his study to `Voloshinov/Bakhtin’. Whatever the nomenclature, the signi­ficance of the work studied is this: the extension of the Russian formalists’ interest in how texts work to comprehend the Marxists’ interest in how history works.

Todorov might at first seem ill-suited to honouring this endeavour, since his own reputation has been that of a thorough-going structuralist: hence one who shares the purr formalist’s distaste for temporal process. As recently as 1975, in The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, he still worked defiantly within the synchronic dimension. That is, lie was treating language and literature as timeless, given systems to be explained by abstract theories of signification and syntax. How far has he tailored such measurements to suit Bakhtin?

For the trouble with Bakhtin is that it is he who seems to suit everybody else. He has proved especially convenient, however, not to structuralists but to some of their inheritors. For example, a neat affinity has been assumed between Bakhtin’s principle of ‘carnival’ and Derrida’s deconstruction. Bakhtin related Rabelais’ comic subversion of the categories of medieval ideology back to the folk festivities of the medieval period itself. He also related it forward to the ‘polyphonic’ modern novel, initiated by Dostoevsky, in which voices are set free to speak scandalously without the author’s intervening in the interest of dignified, epic coherence. It would seem but a short step from Bakhtin’s double-account of subversion to the endless play of signification which Derrida’s followers call ‘textuality’’.

The Dialogical Principle is virtually silent on carnival and polyphony. Todorov is much more interested in investigating the philosophical and anthropological basis of dialogue itself. Where he does forget the limits of structuralism, it is to admit into his exposition heresies such as author, history and meaning: anathema also to deconstruction, which insists on play as remorselessly as its parent insisted on system. Thus what we would seem to be witnessing here is a shift from synchrony to diachrony, structure to process, which parallels Bakhtin’s own venture beyond the dead-end of that formalism favoured by some of his peers. We may for a moment put off deciding just how far Todorov has moved. What we can say emphatically now is that a (more predictable) shift to deconstruction has simply not occurred.

Before further considering Todorov’s position, it may be as well to provide a brief paraphrase of Bakhtin’s work, conscious that brevity runs the risk of appearing as facile appropriation.

Bakhtin (as Voloshinov) rejects Saussure’s account of lan­guage, by which individual speech-acts merely exemplify an objective and (for purposes of analysis) static structure. For him the ‘utterance’ comes first, with its implicit context or ‘scena­rio’. A speaker, a topic and a listener have to be recognized; a continuous ideological exchange — what Bakhtin calls `dis­course’ — acknowledged. Language, in short, is material social consciousness, a process of production and reproduction made possible only by human interaction. For linguistics Bakhtin substitutes ‘translinguistics’.

He (writing under his own name) approaches literature with the same ‘dialogical’ interest. Just as speaker and listener are engaged in a present dialogue which is inseparable from the historical struggle for meaning, so do past author and present reader themselves belong to a continuing dialogue, that of inter­pretation. Bakhtin refuses the temptation of premature unity in understanding: the difference between the two texts, author’s and reader’s, must be preserved, not because there is no end to signification but because the struggle for meaning goes on.

If this sounds like leftish humanism, then so be it. Certainly it makes more general sense of Bakhtin than does a fixation upon that one notion of ‘carnivalization’. But does this give us Todorov’s position? I think it does. Distinguishing between natural and human sciences, he says that the former has an object but the latter has a subject, ‘man as producer of texts’ (the emphasis being on ‘producer’). Similarly, summarizing Bakhtin’s theory of meaning, as opposed to signification, he concurs: ‘It is meaning that relates the utterance to the world of values, unknown to language.’ Or again, he is at pains to emphasize that if we say the meaning we identify in a text is never final, it is because understanding is always historical, ‘a relation between two cultures’, not a game played in timeless isolation.

A certain tentativeness is appropriate here, since the author’s announced intention is simply ‘to have Bakhtin’s voice be heard again: so that the dialogue can finally begin’. What the book consists of mostly is summation not commendation. But what is implicit there has become explicit enough in Todorov’s recent review of a Bakhtin biography (TLS, 14 June 1985). Deeming the biographers to have got their subject wrong theoretically, he insists and enthuses that Bakhtin aspired to ‘truth’: ‘the truth of the world and not of books’. Thus:

He did not believe in a pre-established truth, in certainty or dogma; he was for dialogue and against monologue, for variety and against unity. This battle has obvious political overtones: Bakhtin attacks the official culture and ideology for being monolithic and argues for tolerance and plurality. But we mustn’t stop there: he is neither a relativist nor a nihilist. There is no absolute truth but this does not mean that we can each have our own truth; each of us lives in society, in the midst of others and ultimately of all mankind … If each of us is our own master, what would be the point of our coming together?

In seeking to avoid relativism and nihilism, we would do well to choose our exponents of Bakhtin carefully. Julia Kristeva, though she may properly call the literary aspect of the dialogical principle ‘intertextuality’, too glibly assumes that Bakhtin is also anticipating Barthes’ report of the death of the author: a report which the Russian theorist would have laughed at (perhaps did) as greatly exaggerated. We cannot each have our own truth; authorial life was and remains a factor in the text.

If we wish to relate Bakhtin and dialogue to another critic and another principle, we might do worse than to consider T. S. Eliot and impersonality. The man who sought meaning in and between the texts which successive individual talents add to tradition, and who himself wished many voices, past and present, to be heard within his own poetic utterance: he would seem a fitting participant in any conceivable discourse in­volving Bakhtin. Having fully registered the subtle similarities as well as the grosser differences between the two, we would at least be able to engage seriously in that more extensive dialogue which Todorov sees his book as facilitating.

Laurence Coupe