Tzvetan Todorov: Chapter Three: Major Options in Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle

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Author(s):Tzvetan Todorov
Read: First read November 26, 2008; reread March 23, 2014
Thesis: The social proceeds the individual and meaning is always socially produced; form and content are interdependent and cannot be considered in isolation.

  • Divided into two sections: the Individual and the Social and Form and Content. The author identifies these foci as dichotomies ever present in Bakthin’s writing. Consequently, this highlights (a) the specific texts where these foci are elucidated. These are Freudianism (1927) attributed to Voloshinov/Bakhtin; The Formal Method in Literary Studies (1928) signed by Medvedev; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) signed by Voloshinov; and (b) Bakhtin’s writing as a socio-cultural response to trends in Freudianism and formalism characterizing the scholarship of his day.

The Individual and the Social: B/V's critique of Freud hinges on sequencing and emphasis: According to B/V, Freud holds the subconscious precedes language and is specific to individuals. B/V holds that language comes before the subconscious and that although the subconscious is specific to individuals, it is their context more generally (class, historical moment) and no particular individuals (mother, father) that shape its significance. If Freudianism grounds human psychic life on a biological base and understands the unconscious as preceding or external to language, B/V argues that we always encounter this through the veil of language - we always encounter the self through the other.

  • Bakhtin argues for the psyche’s constitution through the event of engagement, thus opposing biological and individualistic psychology.
  • Meaning is always socially produced - so, for instance, we need to think about the ways in which the microsociety of the physician and patient shape the exchange (on the couch, etc.) - this apparatus isn't, in other words, neutral.
  • The production and reception of meaning is the act that founds language - meaning implies community - no utterance can be attributed to an individual - all utterances imply interlocutors (this could be further broken down...[see connections])
  • The road that links internal experience (the expressible) to its external objectification (the utterance) is entirely in social territory.
  • The figuration of two births maps Bakhtin’s sense of sociality: first, we are physically born; then, we are socially born. The latter birth is additionally important for two reasons. On the one hand, self-consciousness arises through an Other. That we recognize ourselves through the eyes of an Other leads Bakhtin to conclude that intersubjectivity precedes subjectivity. Similarly, because experience is mediated by language, every thought presupposes systematic communication, making language itself intersubjective (as socially produced) as well as necessary for the production of individual subjectivity.
  • This conviction challenges a understanding of the utterance as quintessentially individual, a cornerstone of both Saussure’s abstract objectivism and romantic ideals of individualisc subjectivism (see Marxism and the Philosophy of Language). For Bakhtin, the individual is always social.
  • B/V posits that we should perhaps think about the difference between the conscious and the unconscious as the difference between two models of discourse.
  • Nevertheless, observes Todorov, Bakhtin fails to follow up on the role of the social in the formation of the individual by accounting for the impact of singularity that a work or individual can produce. Bakhtin’s research on specific authors may consider issues related to genre, history, etc. but little discussion is afforded to the individual author... or is the point rather that the author is differently imagined?

Form and Content: In contrast to Bakhtin’s prioritization of the social over the individual, he affords neither content nor form any particular privilege. These aspects are instead intertwined and he's taking issue with those who attempt to consider them in isolation. Their relations are as important as their respective constituencies, something Bakhtin identifies as lacking in the (Russian) Formalists’ emphasis on form as distinct from context. B imagines what he's doing as a form of 'synthesis' that absorbs the work of the Foralists but also goes beyond it.

  • On B's view - we need to consider a literary work in relation to literature more generally AND within it's broader context - both types of relations must be considered... B argues that the formalists are wrong to isolate the study of literature from the study of art more generally--which is to say aesthetics (his word, not mine); they're also wrong to isolate the study of literature from the study of philosophy. The danger of the Formalists 'aesthetics of materials' is that it risks the valorization of empty and dead forms - this is what happens when form and content are separated.
  • B's critique of the Formalists should be understood as one of participation AND opposition. It's a question of what links him and what separates him. B imagines what he's doing as a form of 'synthesis' that absorbs the work of the Foralists but also goes beyond it. He's careful to acknowledge the literary movement’s cultural contributions, an attribution more indicative, perhaps, of his immediate political situation than their actual influence on his work.
  • “Western Formalism” (viz. German formalism, including the work of Riegle, Worringer, Wolfflin, etc.) made a more positive impression on B, owing to them being less reductive than the Russian Formalists. What distinguished this group from their Russian contemporaries was a refusal to privilege form of content and concurrent resistance to “…positivism (formalism) and idealism (ideologism).” (37)
  • From this school he also absorbed an interest in architectonics, that is to say: a notion of poetics as fundamentally structural: form becomes content. But T argues that B is keen to recast this as structural (though I think architectonics is a term that still figures in his work from the 1930s). Perhaps more important is that architectonics/structure pushes Bakhtin to formulate his theory of mediation (see The Formal Method of Literary Studies), which Todorov refers as an “…acoustic event that occurs when an utterance is proffered.” (39) Mediation as a process of enunciation does not presume a binary of sender/receiver. Instead, the presence of two social entities translates the voice as it moves from the sender to the horizon of the receiver. Hence, human subjectivity is actualized through situated utterances (39-40)—through the material presence of the discourse and its signification.
  • It's also useful to note that B calls this a process of 'social evaluation'- see below
  • To this end, Todorov concludes: “It would be legitimate then to grant to Bakhtin the position to which he aspires, namely that of synthesis that comes after the ideologist ‘thesis’ and the Formalist ‘antithesis’. It is in this sense that he is a ‘post-Formalist’: he exceeds Formalism, but only after having absorbed its teachings.” (40)
  • Note that Bakhtin understands content as 'ideology' in a very specific sense.

List of relations:

  • a literary work in relation to literature
  • a literary work in relation to art (aesthetics) more generally
  • a literary work in relation to its general context
  • a literary work in relation to its specific context - generating meaning through it's enunciation within an horizon that shapes its social evaluation

Reflections:Perhaps an obvious critique of Bakhtin's emphasis on the social is that he underestimates the individual as a locus for situated interactions. I don't believe that Bakthin is saying individuals are not unique, but I'd like to hear more about his particular sense of this uniqueness. How does he understands individual agency? This question is absent from Todorov's digest.


  • What would it mean to think about individuality as a particular manifestation of intersubjectivity?
  • The idea that 'meaning implies engagement' seems connected to CP's current work on evaluation - communities of evaluation.
  • If no utterance can be individually attributed and all imply an interlocutor, what does this mean in practice? How can we begin to acknowledge multiple interlocutors?
  • B/V's imperative style works polemically here but how to get beyond this? This connects to the initial notes from the Commons Course (spring 2014).
  • Todorov makes a curious claim claim at the end of the section on the individual and society: 'No attempt will be made to follow up these theses concerning the predominance of the social on the individual, with the explanation of singularity that a work (or an individual) can produce. Bakhtin's books on specific authors--Rabelais, Dostoevsky--actually raise questions of genre, epochs or general theory, not individuals. Bakhtin will reamin faithful to this opinion all his life.' Hmmm...
  • A useful discursive strategy - emphasis on participation and opposition - in this case, what links B to the formalists and what separates him.
  • Explore B's approach to social evaluation with CP's work on evaluation/valorization. This ideas is further evaluated in T's chapter on the utterance in this same text.

Return to I'm reading... * Post-doc * Main Page

I'm reading... * Post-doc * Main Page Language:

  • themes
  • Marxism - marks all three of these texts
  • human psychic life
  • microsocieties - doctor/patient
  • intersubjectivity comes before individuality
  • subjective and objective - abstract objectivism and individualistic subjectivism
  • the event of engagement
  • two births
  • conscious and unconscious - two models of discourse
  • internal experience (the expressible) and external objectification (the utterance)
  • objectification
  • content and form
  • positivism and ideology
  • voice
  • social evaluation
  • horizon
  • mediation
  • architectonics/structure
  • enunciation

Significantly, B uses the metaphor of the thread, a figuration that also bound together Neil Cummings inaugural lecture at Chelsea November 25, 2008. It's also been stitched into my collaboration with Josh Love in the form of "threading" as a particular and individualistic creative practice. Bakhtin writes:

"Every element of the work can be compared to a thread joining human beings. The work as a whole is a set of these threads, that creates a complex, differentiated, social interaction, between the persons who are in contact with it." (as quoted in Todorov, 40)

But how is this thread threaded by the individual if the thread is already socially produced?