Ken Hirschkop's argument in Mikhail Bakhtin: an aesthetic for democracy

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  • Central idea: There's an intimate relationship between language and democracy: At the beginning of this study I argued that the novel denotes a form of modern intersubjectivity, which can be found outside of printed texts as well as within them. (p. 252) More specifically, Hirschkop is interested in the intersection between intersubjectivity and narrative. Dmitri Nikulin's review of this text make several useful observations: (1) that he focuses on Bakhtin's aesthetics at the expense of his ethics; (2) that language is bound up with stressing a particular kind of narrative, that is history - It seems Hirschkop has a sense of history that's primarily aesthetic; (3) dialogism in Bakhtin turns out to be primarily intersubjective:
  • Dialogue itself is, of course, impossible without recurring to a language, particularly to a language in its intersubjective function (its “double-voiced word”), which both unites and separates the I and the other (and, to an extent, the I-for-myself and the I-for-the-other). Dialogue is not, however, just a particular, historically developed form of language. Although Bakhtin unequivocally recognizes the dialogicality of language (at least, its inevitably dialogical overtones; cp. Sobranie sochineniy [Collected Works], T. 5, Moscow, 1996, p. 238 et al.), he nevertheless stresses that the dialogical interaction is primarily defined not by language (i.e., that dialogue is not solely a linguistic phenomenon), but by a particular structure of the person (her unfinalizability, represented through the voice), independently of both purely ideological and linguistic discourse (cp. “Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book” and Sobranie sochineniy, 63 sqq.).
  • Close and careful reading of Bakhtin makes it clear that the person, for him, is not (at least, not only and not primarily) “an ideal framed by the traumas and transformations of modern Europe,” as the author puts it (203); that it is not the case that “the subject of dialogism finds itself in dialogue not with other persons but with other languages” (222), but exactly the opposite. The person (or personality) for Bakhtin is a fully independent and “unmerged consciousness” (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 17 et al.), interacting with other, equally independent persons, represented through independent, individual voices. Although Hirschkop’s reconstruction may be a consistent one, it does violence to the interpreted texts, and consequently has to overlook, if not ignore, a number of Bakhtin’s key notions, which are mentioned in a rather cursory way (e.g., that of the “event”, p. 210-211, 221-222; the “voice,” which is identified with a “socio-ideological language,” p. 262, cp. p. 228), since they obviously do not fit the author’s rigid interpretative scheme.Review by Dmitri Nikulin, New School for Social Research

My own problem with this text is technical: While beautifully researched, parts are poorly cited and poorly substantiated.

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