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Bakhtin Speech Genres And Other Essays About Life

SPEECH GENRES AND OTHER LATE ESSAYS By M. M. Bakhtin. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. 177 pp. Austin: University of Texas Press. Cloth, $25. Paper, $10.95.

THEODOR ADORNO, the German cultural critic whose own esthetic theory has come down to us in a set of sparks and flashes, once wrote that a fragment is ''a work which has been tampered with by death.'' In ''Speech Genres and Other Late Essays'' we have the analogously brilliant fragments of Mikhail Bakhtin's lost and last works. The Soviet thinker's contributions to esthetics, linguistic and social theory have had a tremendous impact in the West since their emergence in the late 1960's from the oblivion to which history had condemned them.

Bakhtin's three works of the late 1920's on Freudianism, Formalism, and Marxism and the philosophy of language were published under the names of others in his circle; his study of Dostoyevsky appeared under his own name in 1929, just before his sentence to exile, and then was suppressed; his work on Rabelais, finished in 1940, did not appear until 25 years later. Yet the re-emergence of his works through translation and a major biography by Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark in 1985, 10 years after Bakhtin's death, has led to his reclamation by schools as diverse as liberal humanism, Eastern Orthodox mysticism and neo-Marxism. The potential uses of Bakhtin's thought are greatly augmented by the appearance of this collection, which includes his most obscure as well as most recent writings.

The book is made up of six pieces that the editors - Michael Holquist, a professor of comparative literature at Yale University, and Caryl Emerson, an assistant professor of Russian literature at Cornell University - have arranged in order of complexity. The first, and simplest, is the ''Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff,'' an essay written in 1970 for that Soviet intellectual monthly under the title ''Use Opportunities More Boldly!'' Here Bakhtin calls for literary scholarship to address the broad history of culture, including how we arrive at the concept itself.

From 1936 to 1938 Bakhtin pursued a major project on the Bildungsroman, one that would have provided an important complement to and divergence from his work on the novels of Rabelais and Dostoyevsky. The manuscript was destroyed early in the German invasion; Bakhtin smoked the conclusion of the book, its prospectus and preparatory sections as cigarette wrappers during the paper shortages of that period.

The remarkable fragment included here continues the remarks Bakhtin made about various forms of the Bildungsroman in earlier studies, but it stands out for its claims about the 18th century's awakening to new forms of temporality. Goethe provides a paradigmatic ''conversion experience'' in the literary sense of time: his rejection of a Romantic estrangement from the past and his insights into variations in the cultural and natural landscapes, his sense of the temporal in the whole visual field, make this essay interesting as much to those studying the history of visual experience and even tourism as to those studying the novel. THE two central essays of the collection, ''The Problem of Speech Genres'' and ''The Problem of the Text,'' are clear expositions of Bakhtin's positions on linguistics, subjectivity, intention and reading. But these are perhaps best summed up in ''Notes Made in 1970-71,'' where he refers to his ''love for variations and for a diversity of terms for a single phenomenon.'' Because of the notebook-like qualities of these essays, we have an opportunity to see Bakhtin's mind at work, its recursiveness and its remarkable capacity for both inclusion and negation.

Here his linguistic and esthetic theories are placed within a more general philosophy of the person that stresses the productive tensions between the speaker's creativity and society's hold on meaning. Bakhtin's ear for the nuances of speech behavior is startling. Passages on silence, slips of the tongue, laughter, the language of such behavior as toadying and the emphasis in the final notes on the relations between speech genres and the emotions open important areas of inquiry.

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Mikhail Bakhtin: Speech Genres and Other Late Essays


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. V.W. McGee. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

{MB—from Introduction by Vern W. McGee ix-xxiii}
In Bakhtin’s thought the place from which we speak plays an important role in determining what we say (x).

Working as always with a specular subject (a self derived from the other), he makes it clear that speakers always shape an utterance not only according to the object of discourse (what they are talking about) and their immediate addressee (whom they are speaking to), but also according to the particular image in which they model the belief they will be understood {MB—Bakhtin understands this image to be a higher power, an abstract concept, a discipline or body of knowledge, a political institution, humanity in general, etc…}, , a belief that is the a priori of all speech. (xviii)
A common theme running throughout is the need to exceed boundaries, while still recognizing that only through awareness of the very real restraints at work in mental and social life can we do so. (xix)

A note of caution is in order here: Bakhtin’s call to liberation is everywhere informed by a stern awareness of necessity’s central place in the biological limits of our perception, the structure of language, and the laws of society. Our very status as the subjects of our own lives depends on the necessary presence of other subjects. Thus, when Bakhtin says “we are suffocating in the captivity of narrow and homogeneous interpretations,” he is not suggesting there is some freedom beyond interpretation. All understanding is constrained by borders: freedom consists in knowing insofar as possible—for our ability to know is controlled by contextual factors larger then mere individual intention—what those borders are, so that they may be substituted by, translated into different borders. Speech genres provide a good example of this relative degree of freedom: the better we know possible variants of the genres that are appropriate to a given situation, the more choice we have among them. Up to a point we may play with speech genres, but we cannot avoid being generic. There is no pure spontaneity, for breaking frames depends on the existence of frames. (xix)

Bakhtin is arguing here that art is only one (if a fundamentally important) sphere of the larger activity of aesthetics, which encompasses as well most other aspects of life as lived by men and women who manifest their humanity by authoring utterances. Just as in the logosphere that is our home there are genres at work in all our speech, not just in art speech, so is there “everyday ritual,” ritual not confined merely to political or religious life (xx). {MB—end of introductory comments}

There exists a very strong, but one-sided and thus untrustworthy, idea that in order better to understand a foreign culture, one must enter into it, forgetting one’s own, and view the world through the eyes of this foreign culture. This idea, as I said, is one-sided. Of course, a certain entry as a living being into a foreign culture, the possibility of seeing through its eyes, is a necessary part of the process of understanding it; but if this were the only aspect of this understanding, it would merely be duplication and would not entail anything new or enriching. Creative understanding does not renounce itself, its own place in time, its own culture; and it forgets nothing. In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others. (Bakhtin: 6-7)

In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding. It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly (but not maximally fully), because there will be cultures that see and understand even more). A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sideness of these particular meanings, these cultures. We raise new questions for a foreign culture, ones that it did not raise itself; we seek answers to our own questions in it; and the foreign culture responds to us by revealing to us its new aspects and new semantic depths. Without one’s own questions one cannot creatively understand anything other or foreign (but, of course, the questions must be serious and sincere). Such a dialogic encounter of two cultures does not result in merging or mixing. Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched. (Bakhtin: 7)

{MB--Dialogical speakers} do not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his own idea in someone else’s mind. Rather, he expects response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth. (69)
Each rejoinder, regardless of how brief and abrupt, has a specific quality of completion that expresses a particular position of the speaker, to which one may respond or may assume, with respect to it, a responsive position. (72) {MB says—Bakhtin reminding us that all “utterances” are socially situated; see Holloway/Kneale 1999, 77}

Understanding is always dialogic to some degree. (Bakhtin, “The Problem of the Text”: 111)

No natural phenomenon has “meaning,” only signs (including words) have meaning. (Bakhtin, 113) {MB—Thus, if Nature has meaning, it is as a sign/symbol we have constructed/recognized, not as nature itself.)

Can languages and dialects (territorial, social jargons), language (functional) styles (say, familiar daily speech and scientific language and so forth), enter into these relationships, that is, can they speak with one another and so forth? Only if a nonlinguistic approach is taken toward them, that is, if they are transformed into a “world view” (or some language or speech sense of the world), into a “viewpoint,” into “social voices,” and so forth. (Bakhtin, “The Problem of the Text”: 119)

With such transformations the language acquires a unique “author,” a speaking subject, a collective bearer of speech (people, nation, occupation, social group, and so forth). (Bakhtin, “The Problem of the Text”: 119)