The Battle over Mikhail Bakhtin


Among the first Western scholars to react skeptically to the Bakhtin authorship claim was I.R. Titunik, a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Michigan who was in the process of publishing an English translation of Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language just as Ivanov's paper appeared in 1973. Titunik mistrusted the fogginess and secrecy of Soviet academia. "It is common practice," he later wrote, "in countries like the Soviet Union to remake the past by fiat; we see no reason to follow suit." Other scholars intimated that the Russians thought they could sell more books under Bakhtin's name. They suggested that the Soviet copyright agency, VAAP, might be behind the move for reattribution. The Soviet Union had joined the international copyright treaty in 1972, and agents of VAAP had tried to get Bakhtin to acknowledge authorship of the disputed texts; he had refused.

Then, in 1984, after years of painstaking research, Yale professors Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist published their jointly written biography, Mikhail Bakhtin (Harvard). Endorsing the Russian consensus, Clark and Holquist not only asserted Bakhtin's authorship of the disputed texts but devoted as much space to them as to major works published under his own name.

Arguing that he wrote the disputed texts "as" Voloshinov and Medvedev, Clark and Holquist explained that Bakhtin had a very loose sense of "ownership" of texts, that he cared little for attributions, and, of course, that he needed the money. The Marxist passages in the books, they suggested, should be understood as Bakhtin's attempt to "ventriloquize" his friends' styles. But more importantly, Clark and Holquist insisted that the Marxism of the disputed texts had been exaggerated and mischaracterized. The attack on the formalists in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, for example, centered around formalism's failure to integrate historical and social context into its theory of literature. This criticism happens to coincide closely with Bakhtin's own view, though he had a complex vision of the interrelationship of language, society, and history, which Marxists did not share.

Elsewhere, in a critique of Saussurean linguistics, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language argues that language is the social medium par excellence and that the history of linguistic--and literary--development is the history of people using, appropriating, twisting, and re-forming language in the constant call and response of social activity. This might well be a Marxist argument; or it might be a non-Marxist, Bakhtinian argument. Take away a few hortatory proclamations--such as "the Marxist method bears directly upon these problems"--and there is nothing in the book that conflicts with Bakhtin's other writings.

Clark and Holquist also claimed to have more concrete evidence that Bakhtin had written the disputed texts. However, the evidence they provided was mostly secondhand: remarks Bakhtin's disciples said they had heard him make on various occasions. In their most categorical statement, the biographers claimed that Bakhtin had written an article, "Contemporary Vitalism," under the name of his friend, the biologist Kanaev. When questioned, Clark and Holquist said they had incontrovertible evidence to support their claim. But due to unspecified personal commitments, they could not divulge it.

Clark and Holquist's book was greeted as the definitive biography of Bakhtin--a status it still holds today. But Princeton Slavic studies professor Caryl Emerson found herself growing increasingly skeptical. In 1984, when she translated Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, she had accepted Clark and Holquist's thesis that Bakhtin "gave away his manuscripts to his friends." But by 1989, she no longer believed the evidence was persuasive. "We assumed what we heard in the early 1980s was true," says Emerson. "But by the late 1980s, there was still no documentary evidence; no manuscripts had come to light that would have indicated whether [the books were] Bakhtin's, Voloshinov's, or Medvedev's." Emerson teamed up with another skeptic, Gary Saul Morson, at Northwestern University, to write a critical study which mounted a powerful case against attributing the disputed texts to Bakhtin. The result of their collaboration was Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford, 1990).

First, Morson and Emerson argued, the burden of proof in any attempt to reattribute the authorship of a book should fall on those who advocate the change, and since no material evidence had surfaced, Voloshinov and Medvedev should remain the presumptive authors. Second, Morson and Emerson suggested why it might be in the interests of Soviet and Western editors and publishers to attribute the books to Bakhtin, regardless of the shakiness of the evidence. Third, they noted the "hagiographical" character of the intellectual cult of Bakhtin, which might account for a desire to ascribe all interesting texts to him--much as Hermes Trismegistus became the "author" of all medieval texts on alchemy.

But finally, Morson and Emerson's case returned, again, to the Marxism of the disputed texts. The attribution of these Marxist texts to a non-Marxist had necessitated "Byzantine reading strategies," they argued. Why go through all the trouble? "Voloshinov and Medvedev's works are sincerely Marxist," they wrote. "In our view, they represent a particularly complex and rewarding form of Marxism, and are among the strongest works on language and literature of our century."

Curiously, this praise for the sophisticated Marxism of the disputed texts came from two scholars who themselves had little sympathy for Marxism. In fact, elsewhere in Creation of a Prosaics, Morson and Emerson repeatedly try to separate Bakhtin, whose thought they admire, from any version of Marxism, which they do not. Their vision of Bakhtin is one of a man who would have objected to Marxism as overly programmatic and hostile toward human agency. They quote Sartre observing that "Marxism tends to `dissolve' real, historical people `in a bath of sulphuric acid'" and add that "Bakhtin would doubtless have agreed with this critique."

IN MORE recent essays and in a new book, The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin (Princeton), Emerson has continued to argue for Bakhtin's resolutely apolitical stance. "When admirers of [Bakhtin's] thought smuggle politics into his scenarios," she wrote in 1995, "more often than not the result is appallingly contrary to Bakhtin's overall orientation. (We witness just such distortion, for example, when `carnival' is attached to the spirit of Marxian revolution or when Bakhtin's rogues, jesters, and fools are celebrated as `the organized voice of the oppressed.')" She adds: "Bakhtin would have found unsatisfactory...current aggrieved readings of Mark Twain as a racist or Shakespeare as a sexist."

Morson, too, has independently elaborated a vision of Bakhtin as a "radical conservative." "At odds with reigning American orthodoxies," Morson writes in a 1993 essay, "Bakhtin believed without apology in the value of the Western literary tradition.... He did not believe in the `death of the author.'" Morson's position on the disputed-texts question is unwavering: "The unnecessary, unsupported, and arbitrary ascription to [Bakhtin] of V.N. Voloshinov's and P.N. Medvedev's books created the weird impression that he was some sort of Marxist."

Morson and Emerson's effort to reclaim an antirevolutionary Bakhtin is at least partially motivated by the reception of Bakhtin in the West. The study of Rabelais, the first of Bakhtin's books to be translated, contains his ideas on "carnival," and happened to appear just before the 1968 Paris student uprising, which many at the time saw as carnival in action.

This coincidence has colored Bakhtin's reception here, making him seem like a Russian variety of the French engagé critic. Julia Kristeva extrapolated her theory of intertextuality from Bakhtin's thoughts on dialogue. Fredric Jameson used Bakhtinian dialogue in The Political Unconscious to articulate the way that hegemonic discourses contain and replicate counter-discourses. African-American studies scholars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker Jr., have forged a link between Bakhtin's "double-voiced word" and W.E.B. Du Bois's famous description of the "double consciousness" of African-Americans.

Throughout the 1980s, the conflict over Bakhtin's personal politics, and over his authorship of the disputed texts, developed in the self-contained environment of Western Slavists. With the exception of Clark and Holquist, Western links to Russian Bakhtinists remained tenuous. But in July 1991, just a month before the fall of Soviet communism, Russian and Western Bakhtinists came face-to-face in large numbers for the first time, at the Fifth International Bakhtin Conference, in Manchester, England. And here, the conflict shifted contexts once again, this time becoming something like a Tower of Babel of mutual incomprehension.

      For the word is not a material thing but rather the eternally mobile, eternally fickle medium of dialogic interaction. It never gravitates toward a single consciousness or a single voice. The life of the word is contained in its transfer from one mouth to another, from one context to another context, from one social collective to another, from one generation to another generation.

      Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

These days, Russian intellectuals do not call people they like Marxists. Nor do they call thinkers they admire political. The very word "political," as the Russian Bakhtinist Vitaly Makhlin puts it, sounds "somewhat odious" to contemporary Russian ears.

Russian Bakhtinists at the Manchester conference met the more political interpretations of Bakhtin presented by Western academics with dismay. They were unable to comprehend how Western academics could enlist Bakhtin in propounding the "utterly discredited discourses" of Marxism and feminism. In delivering his paper at Manchester, Vyacheslav Ivanov, while discussing Bakhtin's purported relevance to various neurological topics, managed to slip in an ad hoc comment about recent discoveries of substantial differences between the male and female brains. This did nothing to improve relations between the Russian and Western contingents.

Another source of tension was a natural proprietary attitude on the part of the Russian Bakhtinists. It was absurd, they felt, for non-Russian-speaking Westerners with no understanding of Soviet intellectual history to lecture them on the meaning of Bakhtin. And the Russians were further baffled by Western Bakhtinology's fascination with the disputed-texts controversy. For the Russians, it was clear that Bakhtin was the author of these books. Furthermore, the books' Marxist language did not particularly interest them; in the Russians' view, the entire Soviet literary corpus is filled with Marxist boilerplate that reveals nothing about its authors' convictions.

At the conference, the Russian and Western receptions of Bakhtin were almost diametrically opposed, in a fashion that curiously inverts the clichés of ideological opposition between Russia and the West. The West's Bakhtin was typically oriented toward the social or interpersonal determination of language--the "sideward glance" my word casts toward everyone else's. Russia's Bakhtin was oriented in precisely the opposite direction. He is the thinker who imagines how the individual may claim authorship of his own word--how I can assert the freedom of my own utterance, over and against the social milieu.

Vitaly Makhlin, often cited as the Russian academic with the best understanding of Bakhtin's Western reception, has summed up this inversion for a Russian audience:

      If in Bakhtin's homeland in the period "after communism" we are witnesses to a trend which, in both elite and mass culture, tries almost polemically to prove and demonstrate that, living in society, it is possible to be free from society, possible socially to assert and justify oneself "on the far side of the social," then in other countriesin contrast to the absolute majority of post-Soviet approaches and evaluations of Bakhtin's thoughtsocial intuitions, social evaluations predominate.

An individualist interpretation of Bakhtin seems utterly implausible to the Western reader. The Bakhtin of dialogue, of the border-blurring communal "carnival body" an individualist? It is difficult to imagine a Western reader invoking Bakhtin's name in the same sentence with those of John Locke and J.S. Mill. But what if, throughout your education, you had been exposed only to views of language as a vast, impersonal force determined by social and historical pressures? What if all the critical theory you had read treated literature uniformly, as the product of economic and social events? Imagine if the Romantic vision of the will to self-expression, so absurdly dominant in American popular culture, were entirely absent from your official literature, circulating instead only as an underground, "private" samizdat thesis. Then try reading Bakhtin.

Once figure and ground are reversed in this way, a completely different Bakhtin leaps to the fore. Suddenly, the hero becomes the individual speaker, wresting control over her word out of the lifeless grasp of the OED and the Chicago Manual of Style. Bakhtin becomes the philosopher of responsibility for one's own word--the philosopher of authorship.

      A man never coincides with himself. One cannot apply to him the formula of identity A=A.

      Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

Since the Manchester conference, the divided Bakhtin industries of West and East have begun to merge into one discursive community. Russian and Western Bakhtinists all go to the same conferences now, and all have access to largely complete editions of Bakhtin's texts. At the same time, some of the issues that once divided the two communities have faded. Marxism in the West elicits more polite smiles now; the question of whether Bakhtin was a Marxist seems rather tired and anachronistic. Bakhtin has come to be seen as a thinker specifically of his times--one with neo-Kantian roots, whose ideas evolved in the peculiar conditions of the Soviet twentieth century.

On the issue of the disputed texts, however, differences between the American and the Russian responses persist. In Russia, the consensus on Bakhtin's authorship remains strong enough that, under the editorship of Vitaly Makhlin, all of the disputed texts are being republished in a series titled Bakhtin Under a Mask. At last, Voloshinov and Medvedev have had their names stripped from the covers. In America, meanwhile, although the majority of Bakhtinists believe Bakhtin wrote the books, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language continues to appear under Voloshinov's name.

So should the disputed texts be integrated into Bakhtin's canon or not? What should we make of the conflict between the "conflationists" who would do so and "non-conflationists" who would not?

Recently, the anecdotal evidence that persuaded Russian scholars of Bakhtin's authorship has been presented more forcefully to a Western audience. Sergei Bocharov, one of Bakhtin's rediscoverers, published an article in the Papers of the Modern Language Association in 1994 that went a long way toward settling the debate. The article recounted Bocharov's conversations with Bakhtin in the early 1970s. According to Bocharov, Bakhtin made it clear that he had largely written the texts but did not want to claim authorship because he did not approve of the form in which they were published. It is not clear whether his misgivings stemmed from additions that were not to his liking or from his having deliberately written the books in a voice not entirely his own.

Bocharov's article also made public the "proof" that Clark and Holquist had referred to in their biography--the decisive evidence that Bakhtin had written the article "Contemporary Vitalism" in Kanaev's name. This consisted primarily of a letter from Kanaev, in which he stated: "I am sending you a photocopy of an article by M.M. [Bakhtin] published under my name. I already told you that in the summer of 1925 M.M. was living in Peterhof and, as usual during those years, was short of money. He wrote this article to earn some. I did not take part in the writing but only procured the necessary works and facilitated publication." Obviously, this letter says nothing about the other, more important disputed texts; but it does render the possibility that Bakhtin wrote them more plausible.

One Western Bakhtinist whose views have shifted over the last few years is Caryl Emerson. She still believes that Bakhtin should not be credited as the author, but she is no longer so sure that he didn't actually write them. "I choose to respect Bakhtin's own reticence in signing these texts," she says. "That does not assume that he didn't write them.... I am now more sympathetic to the possibility that a large portion of the actual prose--not just the ideas and inspiration--was penned by Bakhtin." Her continued "nonconflationist" stance is based on her conviction that one ought to respect Bakhtin's own right to dissociate himself from the texts. "However much he authored and gifted these texts to others," she says, "Bakhtin felt that the form in which they were published in the 1920s was not a form to which he chose to sign his name. I think you have to respect an author in terms of his own signature."

OF COURSE, if we follow Bakhtin's thoughts on this issue, the question of an author's "signature" becomes complicated. An author's work always emerges from a dialogue with other voices: journalists with their editors and with the newspaper-buying public; novelists with other novelists and with the novel-reading public. For Bakhtin, one could argue, the Marxist hegemony in late-1920s Russia and the necessity of filtering his work through Marxist rhetoric were just such dialogic influences; they do not make the Bakhtinian elements of the disputed texts inauthentic. And if the question is not whether Bakhtin is "responsible" for the texts but whether the texts are important in understanding Bakhtin, most scholars, including Caryl Emerson, believe the answer is an unambiguous yes.

At this point, it's apparent that the dispute over the texts is no longer a dispute about either the facts of the case or clashing ideologies. It has settled into a fundamental and perhaps irresolvable discussion over the meaning of authorship. Is the fixation of authorship a moral necessity--the only way to hold a human being responsible for his words? Or is authorship nothing but a legal fiction, an attempt to nail down what cannot be nailed down--the ceaseless dialogic ebb and flow of language?

The disputed-texts controversy might be taken to support either of these positions. Either way, it illustrates the tragedies that occur under social regimes that do not allow people to assume ownership of their own word. Bakhtin was lucky; he managed to live long enough to sign his name to a few books he was not ashamed of. It must have been quite a release, after living so long under the conditions he described in a 1943 diary entry: "In these times, it is impossible not to lie."

Matt Steinglass is a writer living in New York.

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