A bit of Bakhtin
Terry Eagleton reviews a new book on Mikhail Bakhtin:
Bakhtin’s central concept of dialogism does not mean bending a courteous ear to others, as some of his more liberal commentators seem to imagine. It means that every word or utterance is refracted through a host of other, perhaps antagonistic idioms, through which alone its meaning can be grasped. It thus bears an affinity with the post-structuralist concept of textuality. There can be no unmediated truth. We come to ourselves, as many modern thinkers have claimed, through a medium which is profoundly strange to us. Language for Bakhtin is a cockpit of warring forces, as each utterance finds itself occupied from within by alien significations. Every sign glances sideways at other signs, bears the traces of them within its body, and faces simultaneously towards speaker, object, context and addressee. Like human subjects, words are constituted by their relations to otherness, and language is always porous, hybrid and open-ended. There was never a first word, and there could never be a last one. The inherent unfinishedness and unpredictability of language – the fact that I can never deduce from any two of your words what the third one is going to be – is a token of human freedom, and thus in a broad sense political. Signs are never self-identical, and always mean more than they say (a surplus that includes what they don’t say). The enemy is what Bakhtin dubs ‘monologism’, meaning the kind of meta-language which seeks to subdue this irrepressible heterogeneity. At times in his work, it is a polite word for Stalinism. Language is torn between ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal’ forces – the former decentring, the latter centralising. National languages aspire to be monological but are in fact thoroughly ‘heteroglossic’, spawning a multiplicity of dialects and speech styles.
In all these ways, Bakhtin’s work marks a momentous shift from language to discourse. Whereas Saussure and his disciples reduced language to a formal, contextless system, Bakhtin is seized by everything in language that cannot be formalised: context, intonation, implication, the materiality of the word, the non-said, the taken-for-granted, ideological evaluations and the social relations between speakers. If communication is what makes us human, linguistics can never be entirely distinguished from ethics.
This sort of linguistics was all over my time in English studies, and it’s been handy to me over the years. It’s a rebuttal to those who think that everything – absolutely everything – can be reduced to a mechanistic materialist universe. They let the tail that is theory wag the dog that is human. The crown jewel for this crowd is the denial of free will.
Then there’s the ‘fun with the Bible’ crowd, who cling to the idea that words mean only what they mean and they don’t mean anything else, especially when God writes them with a flaming sword. Too bad that idea best describes a religion other than Christianity, where our book is a mash of times, places and sources. I like to think that there’s a message in that; I mean, you can’t just ignore it, can you?
“The inherent unfinishedness and unpredictability of language – the fact that I can never deduce from any two of your words what the third one is going to be – is a token of human freedom… ”
Indeed. I take exception to the idea that there never was first word because that is nonsensical. Nothing comes from nothing, and yet here were are, conversing. It is simply that the first word is the person from which being begins.