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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

"Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world" by Michael Holquist

Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin was a student during the Russian revolution; his brother who fought for the White Guards took English exile and died a professor of linguistics at Birmingham University in 1950. Philosopher Bakhtin survived the turbulence of post-revolutionary Russia, Hitler's invasion, and the Stalinist regime and wrote (sometimes under borrowed names) a series of works in which philosophy merges with literary criticism under the doctrine of Dialogism. 

He was therefore a neo-Kantian who believed, with Kant, that "The world, the realm of things-in-themselves, really exists, but so does the mind, the realm of concepts. Thought is the give and take between the two." (p 4) Bakhtin understood "perception as an act of authoring" (p 7). This means that there are "Problems that confront anyone seeking to heed Socrates injunction to 'Know thyself!'": is there a single 'self'? (p 12); "How can I know myself? ... How can I know if it is I or another who is talking?" (p 13).

I read this book because The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough had mentioned Bakhtin's heory of Dialogism and made me interested. Holquist's explanation was so well written that what might have been an impenetrable explanation of a highly complicated doctrine was actually fun to read. Some of the fascinating insights included:
  • Existence itself is seen as a dialogue and one which involves necessary limitations. "You can see things behind my back that I cannot see ... cognitive time/space ... is the arena in which all perception unfolds." (p 21)
  • "Dialogism's master assumption is that there is no figure without a ground. The mind is structured so that the world is always perceived according to this contrast." (p 22)
  • "Dialogism is the name not just for a dualism, but for a necessary multiplicity in human perception." (p 22) Dialogism is a library of novels like Borges 'Library of Babel' (p 30)
  • Dialogue "is present in exchanges at all levels - between words in language, people in society, organisms in ecosystems, and even between processes in the natural world. ... dialogue is carried on at each level by different means." (p 41)
  • "Bakhtin maintains that in cognition the time of the self is always a present state without beginning or end." (p 45)
  • Infancy is "a stage without speech in which organisms have difficulty with otherness not directly tied to their biological needs" (p 52) Infant comes from Latin in = not fans = "present participle of fari 'to speak'" (p 93)
  • Autism and schizophrenia involves "the inability to mediate between inner speech and the social dimension of language" (p 52) "Official discourse is autism for the masses" (p 52) 
  • "In the totalitarian state, language seeks to drain the first person pronoun of all its particularity." (p 52)
  • "An utterance ... is always an answer to another utterance that precedes it" (p 60) "The utterance is always on the border between what is said and what is not said." (p 61)
  • Bakhtin shares with Hegel and Lukacs "a vision of history conceived as the history of consciousness". (p 73) He should have read Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind!
  • For example, "the Homeric Greek heroes ... do not sense a distinction between themselves, their society, and nature ... modern men ... seem to wander the world alone, alienated from themselves and their culture" (p 74); the novel is "an expression of transcendental homelessness" (p 74) Sounds interesting to compare the Odyssey with Ulysses! Perhaps M should also have read The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson.
  • "In Bakhtin's history, the criteria by which higher degrees of consciousness can be judged are not singularity and unity as in Hegel and Lukacs, but rather multiplicity and variety ... dialogism conceives history as a constant contest between monologue and dialogue ... it is a sequence that has no necessary telos built into it." (p 75)
  • "In Hegel's dialectical version of history there is an iron law of entelechy [the realization of potential] at work ... similar to the theory of cognitive development ... found in Piaget." (pp 77 - 78). Lukacsian cognitive development like Piaget's has irreversibilities. (p 78) "The novel 'arises' suddenly in the modern period because the cognitive conditions that make it possible were lacking in earlier ages." (p 78)
  • "Given Bakhtin's emphasis on inner speech" his theory closer to Vygotsky than Piaget.
  • Piaget: a genetic innate pre-fixed approach to development: "Individual children were conceived as local instances of a general algorithm." (p 80); Vygostsky assumes nurture rather than nature, culture, social milieu.
  • "Both Bakhtin and Vygotsky ... assume that thought is inner speech" (p 80)
  • Bakhtin talks about "the dark chaos of my inner sensation of myself" (p 81)
  • Bruner points out that the way a mum talks to a kid tends to follow a pattern: (p 81)
    • Attention grabber: "Oh look, Richard!"
    • Question: "What's that?"
    • Answer: "It's a fishy."
    • Affirmation: "That's right."
  • "The adventure novel of ordeal ... the main body of the story consists of a potentially endless number of adventures as the hero repeatedly attempts to save the bride from monsters, brigands, and so on; and in the conclusion the two lovers are united. ... The time is 'empty' in the sense that events are not connected to each other in any causal relation; none of the events is linked in a sustained consequence." (p 109) "No matter how frequently the hero rescued his intended bride ... he gets no older or wiser: 'These hours and days leave no trace'" (p 110)
  • "The 'adventure novel of everyday life'" is more realistic and the "hero bears some responsibility for the changes in his life. These changes may be abrupt metamorphoses ... but ... they create a pattern of development in the biography of the hero as he moves from guilt through punishment to redemption." (p 110)
  • "Some kind of correlation exists between the characteristic plots inside Greek romances and the world of experience outside those texts" (p 111) although the adventure plot type goes right through to Sir Walter Scott: "Bakhtin provides a long catalogue of such recurring patterns (the chronotype of the road, of the trial, of the provincial town, and so on)." (p 112) 
  • "Most so-called 'formula fiction' ... is formulaic precisely in the degree to which it deploys what Bakhtin calls 'abstract adventure time'" (p 118)
  • "St Augustine in his Confessions ... told his life before conversion as a temporally sequential narrative that ceases on the day when he hears the voice of God in a Roman garden: after that point in his twenty-first year he gives no more chronology, but an unplotted meditation on the mystery of time." (pp 136 - 137)
  • "Bakhtin is saying that Kant was right to emphasize the central role of time/ space categories in perception ... Time and space do indeed work ... as the shaping tools by which the potentially infinite variety of the world is molded into specific forms." (p 151)
  • "Because consciousness cannot have a (consciously perceived) beginning or end, it is experienced as 'infinite'" (p 165)
  • The Great Gatsby:
    • Oxymoron is "the most characteristic feature of Nick's narrative voice" (p 170)
    • "A grotesque incompatibility dominates all the incidental features of the narrative" (p 171)
    • "No discrepancy felt between the improvisatory nature of jazz and the linear nature of history". (p 178)
I thought this would be dry philosophy but I loved it. August 2017; 181 pages

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