Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Louis Sass reviews Reaction Formations

Jonathan HallReaction Formations: Dialogism, Ideology, and Capitalist Culture: The Creation of the Modern Unconscious. Boston: Brill, 2019. 286 pp.

Review by Louis Sass

29 April 2020

In Reaction Formations: Dialogism, Ideology, and Capitalist Culture, Jonathan Hall adopts Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Valentin Voloshinov’s concepts of “dialogism” and “monologism” in order to explore what he terms “the subjective aspect of the conflicts and crises engendered by the culture of capitalism” (p. 1). For the two Russian thinkers, as for their compatriot the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, dialogue is the source and foundation of human consciousness, which is, in effect, an internalization of linguistically mediated interactions with other human beings, whether real or imagined. As a result of this grounding, human thought always involves a certain “outsidedness” (p. 268): it incorporates an alien viewpoint, the partly unpredictable “others” to whom one’s thoughts are necessarily addressed, and whose possible response may be anxiously anticipated (p. 29).

As Hall points out, this constitutive outsidedness renders human consciousness unavoidably incomplete and open to change, but for this very reason, also liable to inspire various kinds of “reaction formation” from those who find change threatening, whether to a personal sense of stability or to entrenched economic and political interests. These “reaction formations” can be understood as yearnings for a condition in which only a single (monologic) discourse or point of view prevails. The essential dialogism of human consciousness means, however, that there cannot be any actual monologues, only the false illusion or the hope thereof.

Given the foundational status of the dialogical in human experience and society, the dynamics just described might be expected to be universal. Hall, however, views them as especially characteristic of capitalist society; and this, according to Hall and his Russian mentors, is because capitalism’s paradoxical combining of economic and social dynamism and inventiveness along with powerful demands for political conformity and subordination, places it in a “historically prolonged ‘state of emergency’” (p. 103). Capitalism’s very dynamism (“All that is solid melts into air”) brings on intense attempts to overcome or otherwise deny the desirability and even the possibility of change.

Hall devotes several rich chapters to analysis of these would-be monologues. One chapter discusses reactive ideologies whereby the early modern church and state, unsettled by novel economic forces, represented threatening new discourses as chaotic or diabolical, while simultaneously organizing spectacles of power meant to impose monologic messages of authority. Other chapters focus on particular literary personages, such as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. The hyperconscious underground man engages in a quasi-solipsistic series of pseudo-dialogues with imagined (usually envied) others whose every response he attempts to anticipate—in the futile, self-undermining hope of “coincid[ing] with himself” (p. 42) by eliminating the unpredictability that is essential to dialogue (and indeed to consciousness) as such.

This learned book exposes the reader to any number of important themes discussed in the Russian dialogic tradition, often with intriguing linkages to the thinking of Freud and Lacan, of Hobbes, Marx, Weber, and Althusser, as well as to such literary figures as Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Quevedo, among others. Hall’s many-layered perspective will especially appeal to those having a serious, prior interest in the “Bakhtin circle” and the various debates associated with that group.