Chomsky's Challenge: The Pertinence of Bakhtin's Theories
|In his Foreword to Bakhtin and Otherness,
Michael Holquist described first the pleasures of elaborating projects
with friends, and then the degree to which the achievement was
mitigated by "the outbreak of war in the Middle East and the mounting
tensions in the Soviet Union." In my introduction to the same work, I
noted that it had been one year and a half since Holquist and I had
discussed the idea of collaborating on a volume concerning Bakhtin
studies, and that now, "amidst an escalating allied-forces led war in
the Middle East wherein so-called high technology equipment is used to
murder, massacre and maim civilian populations and soldiers at each
passing moment even as the enormous resources used to develop and
engage such equipment deprives human life of basic human needs, we are
on our way to delivering the issue to the printer." We had both
claimed some relevance of Bakhtin's work within such a context; my
suggestion was that "we should not misconstrue or falsify original
research intentions or findings in order to make them 'fit' into
useful political practice, we must find ways of researching and acting
which will provide the tools necessary to unveil coercive,
authoritarian, inhumane and anti-social actions of local, regional,
state, national and international political and economic policy
makers," and Holquist postulated the importance of Bakhtin in
addressing such issues: "the relevance of Bakhtin's work accomplished
in -- and speaking to -- a time darker even than this, cannot be
highlighted in a more lugubrious fashion. Let us hope that the
dialogue itself will have what Bakhtin calls a 'homecoming festival.'
Neither of us had foreseen that the carnage brought on by the many
types of weapons unleashed upon those Iraqi soldiers in the desert and
upon the large city of Baghdad would be joined by the carnage of
internationally-sustained post-war starvation and disease, hailed
under the banner of 'sanctions.' Five years later, the allies can
claim victory in their courageous fight against the newborn and the
young in a society now unable to afford basic medical treatments such
as vaccinations and anti-biotics. The 'homecoming festival' was
reserved for Wall Street, and the dialogue ostensibly limited to
individuals of murdering convictions. Nor could we have foreseen the
consequences of nationalist uprisings in the former Soviet Union,
glimmerings of which were at that time surfacing throughout the
Baltics and Eastern Bloc. The question, to recall Holquist's words, is
'Has Bakhtin's work spoken to this period?' Since there are very few
elaborate discussions of such questions available to us this regard
undertaken by Holquist or anybody else, I'd like to introduce a
formidable challenger, Noam Chomsky. Although the examples will be
taken from Bakhtin, and in particular his approach to literature,
broader application could be foreseen across a spectrum of literary
The easy answer to the question of how Bakhtin's work on the novel, or any other literary criticism for that matter, can be applied to contemporary political issues is: not at all. The issues for literary theory, although various, are not generally taken to include the analysis of aerial bombardment of civilian populations. Nevertheless, from the vast array of practices encompassed by such a spectrum one can reasonably draw out a number of apparently valuable textual strategies such as discerning relations between particular discourses and a broader social discourse, evaluating the impact of particular texts within historical or institutional moments, or unearthing properties of texts which shed some light upon issues of concern within given societies. These approaches, and the analyses that follow in their train, seem to provide some justification for the study of literature and the application of tools employed for that purpose to issues of social concern. And the huge industry of cultural and literary studies that makes some claim to advancing our understanding of social processes seems to testify to this fact.
There is another point here, being that Bakhtin's corpus is more properly speaking an entire philosophy based upon the self's relationship with the other; categories such as 'answerability,' 'dialogism,' 'polyphony' and even studies of the carnival testify to Bakhtin's interest in the social domain more broadly conceived. But the burning question cannot be avoided: Does (Bakhtinian-inspired) theory go beyond literature and individual utterances, or indeed does it even go beyond the uttering of truisms, in regard to our understanding of (repressive) social phenomena? To answer such a question in a general sense is to wade into the pools of epistemology and to immerse ourselves in questions of what kinds of knowledge are made available to us as readers when they have mastered to 'tools' that theory offers. In a more particular sense, the question concerns the relatively well-known (but nevertheless discipline-specific) notions such as heteroglossia, dialogism, speech genres and polyphony, and the applicability thereof to the detonation of multi-ton metallic objects which send shrapnel which penetrates the skin of persons with the objective of maiming or killing within a maximally large area upon detonation. I will outline grounds for such a discussion, and then propose at the end of this contribution that the work itself is not applicable to the study of the disenfranchised, the oppressed or the bombarded majority of the world except by extension, an extension that goes beyond the work itself and into what it implies in terms of possible worlds.
To evaluate the validity of Bakhtin's work to the
less-than-intriguing but nevertheless highly pertinent subject matter
known as corporate-backed profit-based decisionmaking leading to First
World expansionism is to make some claim about the nature of
knowledge, and the possibility of its advancement. Since nothing about
the theories in question suggests grounds for believing that the
physical processes of murdering or maiming are (for whatever ends) at
issue, then there could be some claim about the validity and
applicability of the theories to our understanding of human behaviour.
The sciences in question, therefore, are admittedly 'social,' in
contrast to the 'pure' sciences which have contributed to advancements
in the domain of matter and natural processes. To ensure that the
terms are well-defined, for an eventual assessment of Bakhtin's work,
we'll turn to relevant excerpts from personal correspondence from Noam
What are Pure Sciences?
Despite his innumerable contributions to social sciences research, generally in the form of political analysis, philosophy or historical research, Chomsky adamantly declares that his only contributions to the advancement of knowledge are made in the linguistic realm, deemed 'scientific.' The degree to which this linguistics research is scientific according to his own criteria is of concern; but first the grounds for said assessment need be clearly set forth.
According to Chomsky's rather rigid criteria, scientific research exists principally in three disciplines; natural sciences, mathematics and physics (and by extension some work in chemistry, biology, astronomy and so forth). To work within these disciplines requires an understanding of knowable physical processes, processes which can be studied with the expectation or the hope of repeatable and predictable results. Thus each veritable contribution to contemporary scientific research (things were rather different in previous eras) generally makes some reference to an existing body of knowledge (even if the goal is to refute), which means that there is an important initiation to the field that is generally assumed: 'Outside the hard sciences and mathematics, there really isn't a lot that is beyond the reach of people without special training.' The 'hard' sciences that Chomsky has in mind here are moreover theoretically oriented, excluding therefore most psychology, much in the way of medical treatments, and so forth. Of the latter he says that 'as we move further from the domain of the 'exact sciences' (say, to medical practice, or automobile design), we find that theoretical knowledge rapidly tails off and reliance on intuition and experience correspondingly increases, and it's correspondingly easier for error to perpetuate.' Notice here that there is an important distinction between theoretical work and, say technological advancement. So 'hard' sciences excludes, from Chomsky's perspective, work that has some superficial resemblance to exact sciences, for example machine translation or 'artificial intelligence:' 'Machine translation is a very low level engineering project, and artificial intelligence is largely fraud, dismissed by most serious scientists and lacking any results, as its leading exponents concede, after 45 years of endless hype.' Moving closer to human concerns, of the type that might help explain the nature of living beings, Chomsky also sees a certain explanatory potential: On natural sciences, as compared to social sciences, Chomsky says that social sciences 'don't have anything remotely like the explanatory character that parts of the natural sciences have developed since the 17th century revolutions (principles remote from any superficial generalizations, nontrivial deduction of surprising empirical consequences from them, unification of what appear to be entirely disparate aspects of the world, insight into hidden structure and principles, etc.).' The fact remains, however, that no matter how far we've come since the 17th century, we have but scratched the surface, and there is little hope of making much progress on the vast array of complex issues in this domain.
Even the small number of comments allows us to view a kind of
epistemological spectrum that moves from exact or pure sciences to
natural sciences (where relatively speaking far less is known or
perhaps even knowable), and towards what he most frequently refers to
as 'intuition.' On the borders lie the vast unknown, the properties of
the human mind or the universe which remain so far from our grasp that
we have rarely begun to even formulate appropriate questions to deal
with them. This is the 'mystery-for-humans' category, a precarious
region which just happens to contain the most significant issues
relating to human existence, questions about which have been posed in
similar ways since as far back as the Greek era (at least) and with
similarly unsatisfactory answers. This is often the area where social
sciences dwell, and where highly complex theories are formulated with
some debatable advancement. On the side of the debate that refuses
(most) knowledge claims in this domain stands Noam Chomsky, and his
powerful critique forces us to confront some very tough questions.
What are Social Sciences?
Social sciences according to Chomsky's criteria is therefore a misnomer, an attempt to provide credibility to what could often be characterized as a series of truisms, assumptions and observations which, at our present level of understanding, could never be proven. Chomsky has two overall categories (three, if one includes fraud) according to which he divides up most work in the social sciences. The first is the simple 'exposing of facts,' which in the domain of political sciences for example involves 'giving an analysis of the background within which it naturally fits and arises, the factors that lead it to be suppressed or distorted as it passes through the doctrinal system, the role of obedient intellectuals, etc.' When one moves from the observation or setting out of the facts to the deeper truths that these (political) observations reveal, then one is in the domain of 'analysis.' The critical point here is that Chomsky, in his own words, 'is not aware of the existence of any theories, in any serious sense of the term, that yield insight in the analysis case, including work on the nature of totalitarianism, internal filtering, and all the rest.' What most social scientists call 'analysis' is, in his sense, 'pretty obvious,' and indeed he 'gets irritated when intellectuals dress it up as something more than that.' Political science, which is one of the areas to which Chomsky contributes in a major way, comes under particular fire. 'As for political science theory, it is mostly trivialities or nonsense, as far as I know, dressed up in big words for careerist purposes.' In the hierarchy of useful social sciences research, Chomsky suggests that 'political theory seems to me much less illuminating than history, anthropological theory than sensitive descriptive anthropology, etc.).' And even in areas that one might have thought important to Chomsky, like 'radical' theory, is often 'so obvious that few people would even bother saying them, except maybe in the opening lecture of a course, after which you get down to business.' Taking the side of the exact sciences, Chomsky happily abhors the suggestion that he engages in this political work in 'social theory:' 'I think you are quite right to separate me from the others you mention and say I'm not a social theorist. The only question I would raise is whether that honorific term applies to anyone. I've never found social theory, where plausible, to be much more than common sense.' This kind of dressing-down of social scientists has sometimes raised fury; a recent TLS exchange between Chomsky and a political scientist from Berkeley gave space to such discussion, turning around the question of whether or not Chomsky has a 'theory' for his social science work. Chomsky's conclusion? 'In a large measure I write without a theory. Then he [the political scientist] presented the theory that animates his work, which turns out to be precisely what I do (like anyone), except that I don't call it a theory, rather a collection of truisms.' Moving along the social sciences spectrum, one encounters other fields that have important impact for the society, such as philosophy. Despite the fact that Chomsky has done significant philosophical inquiry, he nevertheless applies similar criteria to its evaluation. Commenting upon the marked lack of philosophical references in his work, he says: 'It's true that I don't appeal to philosophical texts, in this connection, because I don't find them terribly revealing. Sometimes they are suggestive, but usually I find that when I've cleared away the usually unnecessary rhetoric and complexity, what remains is pretty straightforward. I feel the same about the areas of philosophy where I have done a fair amount of writing and research (philosophy of mind, philosophy of language).'
So from Chomsky's perspective, the social sciences are for the most part the region where notions obvious to any highschool student are batted around, couched in the kind of terminology and approaches that make it look serious, and sound like 'exact sciences.' The highschool student example is in no way derogatory for Chomsky; indeed if something sounds sensible to a child or an adolescent, it is from Chomsky's perspective more likely to be more truthful than the wisdom espoused by a 'public intellectual.' None of this is to say that Chomsky would limit social sciences research, indeed the very thought would reek of the kind of Stalinism that he has spent his life condemning. Nevertheless, one must in his sense evaluate the utilisation and pretensions of social scientists as a measure of their value for things beyond say academic careerism or, worse still, the legitimation of (say) the explosion of devices upon helpless residents of Baghdad. 'To the extent that the social sciences have any intellectual content and are more than either ideological claptrap or descriptive taxonomy (a limited extent, in my opinion), they are no different from other areas of science, as far as I can see.' The measure of this intellectual content is, as previously demonstrated, highly problematic. Indeed it is upon grounds of evaluation that the social sciences versus exact sciences research becomes clear: '[T]here is a noticeable general difference between the sciences and mathematics on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. It's a first approximation, but one that is real. In the former, the factors of integrity tend to dominate more over the factors of ideology. It's not that scientists are more honest people. It's just that nature is a harsh taskmaster. You can lie or distort the story of the French revolution as long as you like, and nothing will happen. Propose a false theory in chemistry, and it'll be refuted tomorrow. Fakery in scientific experiment is a very marginal phenomenon, contrary to what you read in the press, and is quickly discovered, for a very simple reason: people replicate, and its their professional task to check results and the thinking that leads to them. There's no comparable discipline outside of a few areas of human thought.'
Social sciences do have a role to play, as long as practitioners steer clear of simple careerism, whereby academics multiply complex treatment of simple subjects for personal gain. Worse, is the danger that the academic justify, with his or her position or complicated prose, authoritarian efforts undertaken in the name of some dubious programme (Skinner's brand of behaviourism comes to mind in this regard). But the problem is not just with the individuals and their careerist agendas; it is also that 'theoretical understanding is, in my opinion, very thin outside of a few areas, something I've written about a lot.' This is not to say that serious speculation is without interest, but moreover that healthy scepticism, exhibited on many occasions by bewildered students, might be a healthy response to convoluted theories. And this kind of common sense approach may yield important results in pursuits which, although challenging, are certainly worth pursuing. Chomsky himself encourages this kind of endeavour: 'If someone can come up with a nontrivial theory that has some bearing on matters of human concern, with conclusion of any credibility that would alter the ways in which I or others view these matters without access to the 'theory,' I'd be the first to immerse myself in it, with delight. What I find, however, is intellectuals posturing before one another.'
The final issue here, before turning to specific examples, is the relationship between social and exact sciences. It is a widely-held view amongst social scientists and humanities researchers that somebody should regulate scientific research to ensure that it doesn't pursue unacceptable ideological aims. The notion, for example, that the sciences are part and parcel of dominant ideology has been at the basis of many studies of contemporary society. Once again, with a characteristic refusal of regulating agencies, Chomsky takes on the issue of whether scientific research or findings reflect something in the social compendium within which they emerge. 'It is possible that the exact sciences would look somewhat different in a more egalitarian society, because the distribution of effort would change so that the topics under study would receive different emphasis. Perhaps some aspects of human biology would, say, receive more attention than they do now, and some aspects of particle physics less (thought that is far from obvious). However, it is highly unlikely, contrary to contemporary fashion, that sciences themselves would look much different.' In Chomsky's sense, science builds upon existing knowledge which in most areas is highly restricted. The natural sciences, for instance, 'are largely driven by internal considerations, by what can be studied next, what is on the fringes of understanding. This is true, I think, to a far greater extent than is believed by people who have not paid much attention to them. To take a contemporary example, Congress may decide to spend a ton of money on cancer research, but those who work on the topic will explore the properties of cells in the only ways they know, hoping that something will lead to insight into cancer.'
It should also be clear that the inverse relationship, which
manifests itself for example in the application of scientific research
to social sciences, is more often than not an application of one
barely-understood scientific theory to a completely unrelated area of
humanities or social sciences. Literary theory is dogged by
hare-brained efforts to apply tiny fragments of scientific work taken
wholly out of context to literary or social phenomena. A contemporary
example is chaos theory, understood by neophytes thanks to the handful
of one-liners about the 'butterfly effect' that were included in the
film Jurassic Park. Intriguing and provocative, but far from
the theory itself and even further from a claim to knowledge. So these
are the two broadly-defined areas of study to which specific examples
can be compared. First, some reflection upon a scientific project in
linguistics, and then some discussion of Bakhtin's work with the same
unit of measure.
Is Linguistics a Pure Science?
Linguistics is generally classified in the humanities or social sciences; but with Chomsky's work over the last 40 years there has been considerable progress in the field and he indeed claims a place for it in the more exact sciences domain. The issues are complex, but worth setting out briefly. His most recent book (cited from the original manuscript), The Minimalist Programme, is a significant advance in the field and a notable deviation from previous work. It is motivated by two related questions: (1) what are the general conditions that the human language faculty should be expected to satisfy? (2) to what extent is the language faculty determined by these conditions, without special structure that lies beyond them? The shift in what could probably be considered social sciences questions occurs very rapidly, because Chomsky postulates that 'to the extent that the answer to question (2) is positive, language is something like a 'perfect system,' meeting external constraints as well as can be done, in one of the reasonable ways. The 'minimalist' program for linguistic theory seeks to explore these possibility.' It does so through a series of assumptions, most notably that 'there is a component of the human mind/brain dedicated to language -- the language faculty -- interacting with other systems.'
Chomsky's vision of the language faculty also presumes the existence of at least two components: 'a cognitive system that stores information, and performance systems that access that information and use it in various ways.' For present work, Chomsky is particularly concerned with the 'cognitive system,' and he uses some of the theories elaborated earlier on, notably the Principles and Parameters approach, to address issues raised by the model and by the data for which it hopes to account. Details concerning the programme are complex and they presume significant prior knowledge. But the theory is speculative and bold, and to the extent that it could ever be proven, would go a long way towards explaining the most fundamental issues concerning typology, language variation, language acquisition and by extension one (important) aspect concerning the nature of the human mind. For example, an upshot of this approach would be to suggest that 'the apparent richness and diversity of linguistic phenomena is illusory and epiphenomenal, the result of interaction of fixed principles under slightly varying conditions.'
So, returning to the initial question, how 'perfect' is the language? 'One expects 'imperfections' in morphological-formal features of the lexicon. The essential question is whether, or to what extent, this component of the language faculty is the repository of departures from virtual conceptual necessity, so that the computational system is not only unique but in some interesting sense optimal.' Learning to ask the right questions about this computational system and resolving them with the (by now massive amount of available) data could lead to important advancements in the study of language and the mind. Initial indications suggest some promise for the programme, however huge amounts of work remain to be done before any verdict can be drawn. Chomsky concludes the introductory chapter of The Minimalist Programme with cautious optimism, and with plans for continued study: 'Whether these steps are on the right track or not, of course, only time will tell.'
The proposed model is still in the state of 'bold speculation,' and
it differs quite considerably from previous overall models that
Chomsky and others have developed to explain various linguistic
phenomena. Is the description provided on track with the pure sciences
model as previously described? To the degree that it can be confirmed
by empirical data, yes. However there is some possibility that the
entire project still fits more closely with the 'mystery-for-humans'
category than with 'exact sciences.'
Is the Study of Literature a Social Science?
Two areas of research outside of pure sciences offer in Chomsky's sense particularly valuable analyses, but for the most part these areas touch on the mysteries of human existence. The first is history: 'Historical studies are another matter. One can learn a lot from history, as from life, as long as it avoids the pretentious tomfoolery required by intellectuals for career and power reasons.' Examples of pretentious tomfoolery are important for this discussion, since they'll help guide an analysis of Bakhtin's pertinence, at least from Chomsky's perspective. One term that Chomsky mentions is Foucault's 'épistemé': 'When Foucault says I'm working within a particular 'épistemé' because of time-culture limitations, he could be right, and I would even agree to listen to him if he or anyone could offer as much of a hint of a rational, credible argument. He couldn't, and no one else can either, so I'm afraid I have no choice but to dismiss this as more of the games that intellectuals play when they have nothing in their heads but must try to seem important to themselves and to one another.' Pierre Bourdieu, another theoretician whose work has been applied to literature, doesn't suffer any less. 'Doubtless there is a power structure in every speech situation; again, that is a truism that only an intellectual could find surprising, and seek to dress up in appropriate polysyllables.' And Lyotard? 'As for Lyotard and the post-modern age, I await some indication that there is something here beyond trivialities or self-serving nonsense. I can perceive certain grains of truth hidden in the vast structure of verbiage, but those are simple indeed.'
The 'grains of truth' to which Chomsky refers are indeed perceived,
and then evaluated with our 'intuition,' which basically means that we
don't know how it is evaluated. What we do know is that we have
intuition and that it seems to be one component of a broader mystery
that has come to be known as 'human nature.' This nature has been
postulated fundamentally by Chomsky in his work since early on, for
simple reasons: 'My belief in human nature doesn't guide me in
anything, because it is a truism. The question is: what is human
nature? The answers to that, if we could find them, would not be
truisms. We have some insight, in some areas; typically, those remote
from the areas in which important questions of human and social life
arise. Beyond that, we rely on intuition, experience, and hopes.' Some
of the insights are scientific, and Chomsky does presume that, barring
knowledge that we simply seem intrinsically unable to discover, we
shall some day know important things about this category. For the
moment, we rely upon things like intuition and domains such as the
arts. This is where literature become significant: 'I have, I'm sure,
been powerfully influenced by fiction, including what I used to really
immerse myself in when I had more time -- Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,
Turgenev, Eliot, Dickens, etc.' 'Powerfully influenced' is strong
language for Chomsky when discussions of formative mediums or
individuals arise. This makes it particularly significant in terms of
its knowledge claims: 'Literature is an entirely different matter. We
learn from literature as we learn from life; no one knows how, but it
surely happens. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter
comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry
(science), which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity,
but has a rather narrow scope -- a product, I assume, of special
properties of human cognitive structure.' So there is something
outside of the social sciences-exact sciences spectrum, and sitting as
it does on the margins of our understanding, and describing as it does
the central element of our nature (creativity), it could in fact be
deemed critically important. Indeed, if the minimalist programme
postulations are true, then creative uses of language may be at the
centre of our own humanity. So 'literature is not a social science. If
literature is illuminating, that doesn't tell us anything about the
power and value of social science.' Okay, but what about literary
theory? And how should one characterize Bakhtin's work within these
categories? Could his work have anything to say about human behaviour,
as deviant as bombardment or as invigorating as dialogue?
What is Bakhtinian Scholarship?
The work of M.M. Bakhtin is particularly intriguing with regards this discussion. The time during which he wrote the bulk of his work was one of the darker moments in human history. Although he did not address the pertinent political issues of Stalinism, Bolshevism, totalitarianism or any other general descriptions of the period, his work is generally taken to be a powerful (though couched) criticism of discursive practices that reigned therein. Furthermore, he (and persons in his 'circle) also made bold speculative statements pertaining to a wide number of fields, including linguistics, psychanalysis, theology, social theory, historical poetics, axiology, philosophy of the person, vitalism, formalism, and the works of Dostoevsky, Freud, Goethe and Rabelais. Some of his speculations, for example his work on speech genres (written in 1952-53), have subsequently received qualified recognition following large scale projects concerning the effects that learning foreign languages might have upon linguistic development (none; it appears that genres of discourse are organized in similar ways as languages). So there are inklings of a 'model' in his work which, though not on the same scale as (say) the minimalist programme, nevertheless with some explanatory power for general language performance. There are also some inklings of a 'model' of discursive practice in his description of polyphony or heteroglossia, notions which alert us to the extreme diversity of language practices contained within a given national language. The upshots of this proposition, including the idea that local speech situations contain chronotopically-specific lingo ('shop-talk'), that utterances reflect the situatedness of the speaker and the context to which s/he is speaking, the ways by which speech acts are built upon interaction rather than monologic transference of information, and so forth. These approaches, especially when compared to the models against which it was thought through (in a dialogic fashion), such as formalism, seem to be more valid. Without wanting to push the argument towards the absurd, it is nonetheless clear that even if this model were more valid than a formal one, that there is no direct implication concerning corporate expansionism or the bombing of a particular group right back to the middle ages.
There are in my opinion a number of interesting upshots, to such theories which may make them politically valuable. The first emerges from the statement that Bakhtin's theories, even in the absence of scientific proof of the type described by Chomsky, do 'seem to be more valid.' We are, in other words, back to the domain of intuition, common sense. Much of Bakhtin's work reflects insights glossed from literary texts, and what he seems to be saying in many cases has the feeling of being 'correct' in ways that are similar to the 'feeling' of vitality that we have when reading a novel by Dostoevsky. In other words, if we take Chomsky's adage that we learn from history as we learn from life, or his sense that literature seems to influence us and talk about truly important issues without us really knowing how, and we apply it to Bakhtin's work, then there could emerge the sense that his work has that mysterious power of explanation that is not direct or verifiable but nevertheless present. This is, in other words, an argument based upon nothing other than a sentiment that 'mystery-for-humans' issues are addressed usefully by Bakhtin because he is offering up a 'mystery-for-humans' series of intuitions as possible explanations. This doesn't get us very far, but it probably gets us further than the other possibility, which is that Bakhtin's work is applicable to speech situations because his insights are pure common sense. Everybody knows that we speak differently to lovers than to policeman, priests than to co-workers. Everybody knows that particular working environments generate certain kinds of linguistic relations amongst participants, including coined terms for oft-used tools or manoeuvres. Everybody knows that we use snippets of ideas or expressions when speaking with people, particularly when discussing a topic that we know about from a very small number of sources. Everybody knows that the person with whom one is speaking helps direct the conversation, and that different people make us articulate things in different ways, some of which actually making us feel like different people depending upon the speech performance in question. Bakhtin's work from this perspective is good only because it makes intuitive sense, because it says things that, to use Chomsky's adage once again, any child or highschool student could understand.
There may be something else going on, particularly in the application of Bakhtin's work to issues in the realm of politics or cultural studies. What Bakhtin seems to imply in most of his writings is that societies ought to be open and diverse; there is the clear suggestion in many of his texts that when societies close down upon themselves that there is little hope for injecting new ideas, methods of speaking, diverse perspectives and so forth. These societies die a monologic death at this point, while other places, more cosmopolitan and open to the world, celebrate dialogic diversity. This is an obvious argument to employ if one seeks to encourage immigration, to discourage nationalism, to encourage toleration, and so forth. So his work in this sense becomes 'politically correct,' what we want to hear. In order for it to become acceptable, however, certain undesirable elements must be evacuated, notably the dangers presented to ruling classes or status quo politics by such openness. The carnivalesque is not simple toleration, it is a boiling cauldron of potential creativity which may either scald or nourish, but it will certainly never congeal. So here is a political implication of Bakhtin's work; if he is right that vitality is a good thing, and that maximal openness creates such vitality, if only in a linguistic sense, then his corpus could be put to work for us good guys. The challenge, of course, is that the argument suggests that undesirable theories must be similarly entertained, that we the good guys ought not look for theory simply on the basis of whether or not it confirms what we already believe to be good, or true, or useful.
There is one final option, which would be to examine Bakhtin's
entire corpus in terms of its overriding political assumptions. Here,
perhaps, is the point at which it could truly be applied to Gulf War
analysis, or times darker even than this one. Every important notion
in Bakhtin's work speaks to Chomsky's sense of inherent human creative
potential. When he postulates dialogism as a desirable state, and
envisions the carnival or the public square or the multi-voiced novel
as utopic spaces of possible dialogism, then he is giving an overall
vision of what speaking situations must look like if they are
to be of any interest. He doesn't write about propaganda or
totalitarianism or (in more literary examples) poetry because they
don't meet his criteria for acceptable or interesting space. In this
respect, the carnivalesque is not a strange abberation in his work but
a central notion, confirmed and reconfirmed by studies of dialogism or
answerability. He offers grounds for questioning oppressive political
practices by pointing out ideal speech situations, thereby coupling
commonsensical ideas (we ought to be free and unfettered) with a
series of literary observations about how interesting free and
unfettered utterances are for the reader. So he ends up talking Gulf
War politics without ever mentioning politics, because he shows the
absurdity of cheering for one side or the other in such an activity
because the activity itself comes out of fundamentally deviant kinds
of human organization. Bakhtin's work, in other words, cannot in any
way be applied to status quo politics except to question them in a
totally radical way. There is no hope for the vitality of human
creativity in present day hierarchical structures, or in any kind of
fashioned political doctrine. People must be free to exchange and
converse and migrate and explore in an unfettered way, whatever the
consequences, for Bakhtin's vision of human vitality to flourish. His
work may indeed be valuable for a political vision; but one must be
willing to view the project for what it really suggests and not what
we want to hear, for careerist or politically expedient reasons.
Barsky, Robert F. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent.
Toronto: ECW Press, 1996 (in press).