I Contain Multitudes

Terry Eagleton

  • Mikhail Bakhtin: The Word in the World by Graham Pechey
    Routledge, 238 pp, £19.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 415 42419 6

For the past three decades, Mikhail Bakhtin has been more of an industry than an individual. Not only an industry, in fact, but a flourishing transnational corporation, complete with jet-setting chief executives, global conventions and its own in-house journal. In the field of cultural theory, this victim of Stalinism is now big business. Most of the mouth-filling terms he coined – dialogism, double-voicedness, chronotope, heteroglossia, multi-accentuality – have passed into the lexicon of contemporary criticism. A cosmopolitan coterie of scholars, some of whom have devoted a lifetime to his texts, have long since struggled to appropriate him for their own agendas. Is he a Marxist, neo-Kantian, religious humanist, discourse theorist, literary critic, cultural sociologist, ethical thinker, philosophical anthropologist, or all these things together?

That this once obscure Soviet philologist is now a star of the postmodern West is less surprising than it might seem. For there is hardly a hot postmodern topic that Bakhtin did not anticipate. Discourse, hybridity, otherness, sexuality, subversion, deviance, heterogeneity, popular culture, the body, the decentred self, the materiality of the sign, historicism, everyday life: this precocious post-structuralist, as Graham Pechey calls him, prefigured so much of our own times that it is surprising not to find allusions in his work to Posh and Becks. Since little of this culture is the direct result of his influence, one might claim that had Bakhtin not existed, there would have been no need to invent him.

Why this curious parallelism between the age of Stalinist terror and the era of the iPod? The answer is fairly obvious. Just as Bakhtin’s work is among other things a coded critique of Soviet autocracy, so postmodernism springs in large part from the rout of modern Marxism. In the work of Baudrillard, Lyotard and others, it began as an alternative creed for disenchanted leftists. Its obsession with discourse makes sense in an age short on political action. Instead of setting fire to campuses, American students now cleanse their speech of incorrectness. If Marxism had been shamefully coy about sexuality, postmodernism makes a fetish of it. The warm, desiring, palpable body is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production. Instead of grand narratives that lead to the gulag, we have a plurality of mini-narratives. Since doctrinal absolutes dismember bodies, relativism is the order of the day. If castrating homosexuals is part of your culture, it would be ethnocentric of me to object. Revolution is no longer on the agenda, but sporadic subversions may stand in for it. Class politics yields to identity politics. The system cannot be overthrown, but at least it can be deconstructed. And since there is no political hope in the heartlands of capitalism, where the proletariat has upped sticks without leaving a forwarding address, the postmodern gaze turns mesmerically to the Other, whatever passport (woman, gay, ethnic minority) it happens to be travelling on.

Bakhtin, too, was a fifth columnist. He was born in the provincial Russian town of Orel in 1895, the son of an untitled nobleman turned banker, and studied classics at Petersburg University. His years as a student coincided with the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Bakhtin, the Bolsheviks, Futurists and Formalists emerged more or less at the same explosive historical moment; and though he was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian rather than a Marxist, Bakhtin lived through a period of heady cultural synthesis in which a marriage of Communism and Christ didn’t seem out of the question. If he was not exactly a historical materialist, his thinking was both historical and materialist. The intensely communal bent of the Russian Church, along with its spirituality of the senses, played its part in this alliance. So did its quasi-materialist belief in the sacredness of the bodily. It was a faith which hymned the humanity of Christ and the complex richness of everyday life. Behind Bakhtin’s fascination with the materiality of the word, as Pechey’s title suggests, lies an incarnational theology. The Word-made-flesh is the figure in the carpet of his work.

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