Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Winter 1983

Volume 10 Issue 2
    • 225Gary Saul Morson
    • The more we spoke, the more we discovered disagreement behind our agreements and envisaged different implications for the same—or were they the same—ideas. “I suppose that’s what Bakhtin meant when he wrote that agreement, not just disagreement, is a dialogic relationship,” she reflected. “Agreement is never identity. It always presupposes or becomes the occasion for differences—which I guess may be one reason why it can be so profitable to agree.” I could detect Kuhn’s concept of a scientific consensus here but agreed anyway.

      It turned out, in fact, that I had hidden disagreements with all the contributors to the collection. I had undertaken the project with the evidently quixotic hope that we could create, in imitation of Bakhtin’s eccentric circle of linguists, Marxists, Christians, biologists, and literary theorists, a circle of our own. “You want to be a living allusion,” she would say. By the end of that afternoon, however, neither she nor I were confident that we could—despite all the views we did share—ever sign both our names to the same introduction. “Not to be a Formalist,” she interrupted, “perhaps it’s a question of form…”

      Moi: …You know, the most appropriate form for an article introducing Bakhtin would be a dialogue, since dialogue is his central concept.

      Elle: Of course, if you can speak of a center in a writer so eccentric. How would it begin?

      Moi: Well, like Notes from Underground, on an ellipsis…That would illustrate his idea that all speech is a response to words that have been uttered before, that we never confront a linguistically virgin world, that each utterance is a response to other utterances and is formulated in expectation of a response to it—all that might be developed later on in the dialogue. Moi could explain it all to Elle.

      See also: Gary Saul Morson, Tolstoy's Absolute Language

      Gary Saul Morson, associate professor and chairman of Slavic languages at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s “Diary of a Writer” and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Tolstoy’s Absolute Language,” appeared in the Summer 1981 issue.

    • 245Caryl Emerson
    • Both Bakhtin and Vygotsky, as we have seen, responded directly or indirectly to the challenge of Freud. Both attempted to account for their data without resorting to postulating an unconscious in the Freudian sense. By way of contrast, it is instructive here to recall Jacques Lacan—who, among others, has been a beneficiary of Bakhtin’s “semiotic reinterpretation” of Freud.17 Lacan’s case is intriguing, for he retains the unconscious while at the same time submitting Freudian psychoanalysis to rigorous criticism along the lines of Bakhtin. By focusing attention on the dialogic word, he encourages a rereading of Freud in which the social element (the dynamics between doctor and patient) is crucial. As Lacan opens his essay “The Empty Word and the Full Word”:

      Whether it sees itself as an instrument of healing, of formation, or of exploration in depth, psychoanalysis has only a single intermediary: the patient’s Word….And every word calls for a reply.

      I shall show that there is no word without a reply, even if it meets no more than silence, provided that it has an auditor: this is the heart of its function in psychoanalysis.18

      The word is conceived as a tool not only in the external world but also of an autonomous internal world as well. And what emerges, it would seem, is a reinterpretation of the role of dialogue in the painful maturational process of the child. For Vygotsky, the child’s realization of his separateness from society is not a crisis; after all, his environment provides both the form and the content of his personality. From the start, dialogue reinforces the child’s grasp on reality, as evidenced by the predominantly social and extraverted nature of his earliest egocentric speech. For Lacan, on the contrary, dialogue seems to function as the alienating experience, the stade du miroir phase of a child’s development. The unconscious becomes the seat of all those problems that Bakhtin had externalized: the origin of personality, the possibilities of self-expression. The je-moi opposition in the mirror gives rise to that permanent for “a locus where there is constituted the je which speaks as well as he who has it speak.”19 And consequently, the Word takes on an entirely different coloration: it is no longer merely an ideological sign but a potent tool for repressing knowledge of that gap, the face in the mirror, the Other. Lacan’s celebrated inversion of Saussure’s algorithm, with the line between signifier and signified representing repression, created a powerful but ominous new role for language. The child is released from his alienating image only through discovering himself as Subject, which occurs with language; but this language will inevitably come to him from the Other. Thus speech is based on the idea of lack, and dialogue, on the idea of difference.


      17. See Ivanov, “The Significance of M. M. Bakhtin’s Ideas,” p. 314.

      18. Jacques Lacan, “The Empty Word and the Full Word,” in Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, ed. and trans. Anthony Wilden (Baltimore, 1981), p. 9.

      19. Lacan, from “La Chose freudienne” (1955), quoted in Wilden, “Lacan and the Discourse of the Other,” in Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, p. 266.

      See also: Stephen Toulmin, The Inwardness of Mental Life

      Caryl Emerson, assistant professor of Russian literature at Cornell University, has translated (with Michael Holquist) The Dialogic Imagination, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (forthcoming 1984). She is currently at work, on a study of Boris Godunov in Russian cultural history

    • 265Susan Stewart
    • According to Bakhtin, the reason that literature is the most ideological of all ideological spheres may be discovered in the structure of genre. He criticizes the formalists for ending their theory with a consideration of genre; genre, he observes, should be the first topic of poetics. The importance of genre lies in its two major capacities: conceptualization and “finalization.” A genre’s conceptualization has both inward and outward focus: the artist does not merely represent reality; he or she must use existing means of representation in tension with the subject at hand. This process is analogous to the dual nature of the utterance, its orientation simultaneously toward its past contexts and its present context. “A particular aspect of reality can only be understood in connection with the particular means of representing it” (FM, p. 134).Genre’s production of perception is not simply a matter of physical orientation; it is also a matter of ideology: “Every significant genre is a complex system of means and methods for the conscious control and finalization of reality” (FM, p. 134). According to Bakhtin, nonideological domains are “open work,” not subject to an ultimate closure; but one goal of works of art is precisely to offer closure, a “finalization” that accounts for their ideological power and their capacity to produce consciousness. In the particular finalization of genre, we see a continual tension between tradition and situation.25 As Terry Eagleton suggests in Criticism and Ideology, “A power-loom, for one thing, is not altered by its products…in the way that a literary convention is transformed by what it textually works.”26 Analogously, Bakhtin writes that “the goal of the artistic structure of every historical genre is to merge the distance of space and time with the contemporary by the force of all-penetrating social evaluation” (FM, p. 158). It is perhaps because of this purported goal that Bakhtin himself seemed to prefer the novel, which he viewed as a meta-genre incorporating at once all domains of ideology and all other literary genres. Finally, we must emphasize that Bakhtin’s model of genre rests upon his insistence that literary evolution is not the result of device reacting against device, as Viktor Shklovsky believed, but rather of ideological, and ultimately socioeconomic, changes.


      25. For a discussion of the tension between genre and performance, and between tradition and situation, in folkloric performances, see Hymes, “Folklore’s Nature and the Sun’s Myth,” Journal of American Folklore 88 (Oct.-Dec. 1975): 345-69.

      26. Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology, p. 73.

      See also: Susan Stewart, The Marquis de Meese

      Susan Stewart is associate professor of English at Temple University. She is the author of a book of poetry, Yellow Stars and Ice (1981), and two books of literary theory, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (1979) and On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, and the Collection (forthcoming 1984).

    • 283Michael AndrĂ© Bernstein
    • For Bakhtin the “gradual narrowing down” of the carnival’s regenerative power is directly linked to its separation from “folk culture” and its ensuing domestication as “part of the family’s private life.” Nonetheless, Bakhtin’s faith in the inherent indestructibility of “the carnival spirit” compels him to find it preserved, even if in an interiorized and psychological form, in the post-Renaissance literary tradition, and he specifically names Diderot, along with Molière, Voltaire, and Swift, as authors who kept alive the subversive possibilities of a Saturnalian laughter (pp. 33, 34). But, of course, as Bakhtin himself recognizes, much more has changed in both the nature and the effects of that laughter than merely its locus of action. The crucial difference, according to Bakhtin, is a new sense of terror felt at the heart of the post-Renaissance carnival grotesque:

      The transformation of the principle of laughter which permeates the grotesque, that is the loss of its regenerating power, leads to a series of other essential differences between Romantic grotesque and medieval and Renaissance grotesque…The world of Romantic grotesque is to a certain extent a terrifying word, alien to man…Something frightening is revealed in that which was habitual and secure. [Pp. 38-39]

      Directly linked to this burden of terror, of laughter as a response to dread, not exuberance, is a change in the literary function of madness:

      Other specific traits are linked with the disappearance of laughter’s regenerating power…. The theme of madness is inherent to all grotesque forms, because madness makes men look at the world with different eyes, not dimmed by “normal,” that is by commonplace ideas and judgments. In folk grotesque, madness is a gay parody of official reason, of the narrow seriousness of official “truth.” It is a “festive” madness. In Romantic grotesque, on the other hand, madness acquires a somber, tragic aspect of individual isolation. [P. 39]

      Bakhtin’s typology of laughter, for all its richly textured local insights, is haunted, from its inception, by a wistfully nostalgic longing for a realm of pure and ahistorical spontaneity, a rite of universal participation whose essentially affirmative character is guaranteed by its very universality. The most characteristic feature of such a carnival is, in fact, its abolition of all distinctions between participant and viewer:

      Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it…. It has a universal spirit: it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. [P. 7]

      Yet as soon as the question of representation arises, whether in Rabelais or in his successors, the “footlights” which separate actor and spectator, reader and character, come into being, introducing the very divisions the work’s themes deny. Belatedness, the knowledge of coming after the festival has already been fragmented, is thus not limited to a post-Rabelaisian, bourgeois culture; it is itself a condition of every Saturnalian text, and what has changed is not the inclusiveness of the carnival per se but the literary consequences of acknowledging that belatedness.

      See also: Michael André Bernstein, Image, Word, and Sign: The Visual Arts as Evidence in Ezra Pound's "Cantos"  ·  Michael André Bernstein, “These Children That Come at You with Knives": "Ressentiment", Mass Culture, and the Saturnalia

      Michael André Bernstein, associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic and Prima della Rivoluzione, a volume of verse. He is currently at work on a book about the Abject Hero and literary genealogy.

    • 307Michael Holquist
    • All of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work stands under the sign of plurality, the mystery of the one and the many. Unlike the third eye of Tibetan Buddhism, which gives those who possess it a vision of the secret unity holding creation together, Bakhtin seems to have had a third ear that permitted him to hear differences where others perceived only sameness, especially in the apparent wholeness of the human voice. The obsessive question at the heart of Bakhtin’s thought is always “Who is talking?” It was his sense of the world’s overwhelming multiplicity that impelled Bakhtin to rethink strategies by which heterogeneity had traditionally been disguised as a unity. In his several attempts to find a single name for the teeming forces which jostled each other within the combat zone of the word—whether the term was “polyphony,” “heteroglossia,” or “speech communion”—Bakhtin was at great pains never to sacrifice the tension between identity and difference that fueled his enterprise. He always sought the minimum degree of homogenization necessary to any conceptual scheme, feeling it was better to preserve the heterogeneity which less patient thinkers found intolerable—and to which they therefore hurried to assign a unitizing label.

      Bakhtin’s metaphysical contrariness has the effect of making at times appear to be indiscriminate, as when he refused to recognize borders between biography and autobiography or, more notoriously, between speaking and writing. But, as I hope to show, these apparently cardinal distinctions are for Bakhtin only local instances of unity that participate in and are controlled by a fare more encompassing set of oppositions and differences. All this places an extra burden on those who seek an overarching design in Bakhtin’s legacy: the apparently unitizing term “Bakhtin” proves to be as illusory—or more illusory—in its ability to subsume real distinctions as any other, if we submit it to a Bakhtinian analysis.

      See also: Wayne C. Booth, Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism

      Michael Holquist is professor and chairman of the department of Slavic languages and literatures a Indiana University. With his wife, Katerina Clark, he has just completed Mikhail Bakhtin, a study of Bakhtin’s life and works, forthcoming in the autumn of 1984. He is currently working in Moscow.

    • 321Christine Froula
    • There are, of course, many important differences between the deployment of cultural authority in the social context of second-century Christianity and that of twentieth-century academia. The editors of the Norton Anthology, for example, do not actively seek to suppress those voices which they exclude, nor are their principles for inclusion so narrowly defined as were the church fathers’. But the literary academy and its institutions developed from those of the Church and continue to wield a derivative, secular version of its social and cultural authority. Since Matthew Arnold, the instutition of literature has been described in terms which liken its authority to that of religion, not only by outsiders—Woolf’s woman “divining the priest”—but by insiders who continue to employ the stances and language of religious authority; see, for instance, J. Hillis Miller’s credo in a recent issue of the ADE Bulletin: “I believe in the established canon of English and American literature and in the validity of the concept of privileged texts. I think it is more important to read Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton than to read Borges in translation, or even, to say the truth, to read Virginia Woolf.”9 Such rhetoric suggests that the religious resonances in literary texts are not entirely figurative, a point brought out strikingly by revisionary religious figures in feminist texts. In her recent essay “ ‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” Susan Gubar cites as some of the “many parables in an ongoing revisionary female theology” Florence Nightingale’s tentative prophecy that “the next Christ will perhaps be a female Christ,” H. D.’s blessed Lady carrying a “Bible of blank pages,” and Gertrude Stein’s celebration of The Mother of Us All.10 The revisionary female theology promoted in literary writing by women implicitly counters the patriarchal theology which is already inscribed in literature. The prophesied female Christ, blank Bible, and female Creator revise images familiar in the literary tradition, and, in contrast to earlier appropriations of religious imagery by Metaphysical, Pre-Raphaelite, and other poets, make visible the patriarchal preoccupations of literary “theology.” These voices, like the Gnostic voices recovered at Nag Hammadi, are only now being heard in chorus; and Pagels’ study of “the gnostic feminism” (as the New York Review of Books labeled it) helps to illuminate some aspects of a cultural authority predicated on the suppression or domination of other voices.

      See also: Susan Gubar, 'The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Creativity

      Christine Froula, associate professor of English at Yale University, is the author of A Guide to Ezra Pound’s “Selected Poems” and of the forthcoming “To Write Paradise”: Syle and Error in Pound’s Cantos. She is currently working on a book about literary authority in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

    • 349Stanley Fish
    • It might seem at this point that I am courting a contradiction: If antiprofessionalism is a form of professional behavior and if professional behavior covers the field (in the sense that anything one might urge will be a manifestation of it), then how can I fault Bate for using antiprofessionalism to further a professional project? By collapsing the distinction (on which antiprofessionalism runs) between activity that is professionally motivated and activity motivated by a commitment to abstract and general values, have I not deprived myself of a basis for making judgments, since one form of activity would seem to be no different from or better than any other? The answer is no, because the consequence of turning everything into professionalism is not to deny value but to redistribute it. One deconstructs an opposition not by reversing the hierarchy of its poles but by denying to either pole the independence that makes the opposition possible in the first place. If my argument that there can be no literary criticism or pedagogy that is not a form of professionalism, it is also that there can be no form of professionalism that is not an extension of some value or set of values. Whereas before one was asked to choose between professionalism and some category of pure value (which, significantly, could only be named in the vaguest terms), the choice can now be seen as a choice between different versions of professionalism, each with its attendant values. To say that antiprofessionalism is a form of professional behavior (and is therefore in a philosophical sense incoherent) is not to have closed the discussion but to have identified the basis on which it can continue by identifying the questions that should now be asked: What kind of professional behavior is antiprofessionalism? and What are its consequences? The answer is that, at least in its literary form, it urges impossible goals (the breaking free or bypassing of the professional network) and therefore has the consequence of making people ashamed of what they are doing. The psychological distress that marks this profession, the fact that so many of its members exist in a shamefaced relationship with the machinery that enables their labors, is in part attributable, I think, to literary antiprofessionalism, which is, as a form of professional behavior, almost always damaging.

      See also: Stanley Fish, Working on the Chain Gang: Interpretation in the Law and in Literary Criticism

      Stanley Fish’s most recent work is “Wrong Again: A Reply to Ronald Dworking,” Texas Law Review (August 1973). His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry include “With the Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida” (Summer 19820 and “Working on the Chain Gang: Interpretation in the Law and in Literary Criticism” (September 1982).

    • 365Walter Jackson Bate
    • II. Without mentioning what most of the article is about, Fish plucks out some remarks from a small part of it and condemns me as being antiblack, antifeminist, and so forth. It seems to me that Fish, after removing a few sentences from context (forgivable—we all do it; there’s a limit to the amount one can naturally quote), then does three other things: (1) he summarizes or rephrases these remarks in such a way as to turn them into a polemical statement; (2) he makes an inference—all his own; and (3) he then attacks the inference he has made. In his second paragraph, speaking unfavorably of the old-fashioned hope of finding universal values, he states: “It follows, then, … that works which advocate or have their origin in particular attitudes, strategies, sectarian projects, or political programs do not qualify as literature and should not be treated as such by literary scholars” (p. 350; my emphasis). It by no means ”follows,” except perhaps in Fish’s mind. It follows merely that some of these concerns—if pursued in isolation from other contexts and in a spirit of propaganda—are not, by themselves, an adequate substitute, or replacement, for approaches (broadly historical, sociological, moral, stylistic) that may provide a center from which to move to the subjects Fish mentions. I certainly have no wish to exclude these subjects from the curriculum. In fact, I have probably devoted as much of my teaching to some of them, especially political writing, as has Fish. I realize that for Fish himself our reactions in reading are inevitably subjective and that no text can be viewed as a settled thing. But I must plead that the reader, before condemning me because of Fish’s remarks, judge me by what I said rather than by what he inferred or magnified. I said only that, facing a decline in numbers of students, English departments found it more tempting than ever to provide courses on subjects often removed from larger contexts and treated in comparative isolation rather than to require more general study of history, philosophy, sociology, or psychology. I should like to repeat that I was not condemning departments for doing this. I felt it was rather sad that what Fish calls the “market,” and the fondness of so many students now for propagandistic approaches, should force us to jettison much that was more rigorous and demanding therefore less popular.


      Walter Jackson Bate is the Kingsley Porter University Professor of English at Harvard University. Among his many books are John Keats (1963) and Samuel Johnson (1975), both of which were awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

    • 371Edward W. Said
    • At one point Fish says that a profession produces no “real” commodity but offers only a service. But surely the increasing reification of services and even of knowledge has made them a commodity as well. And indeed the logical extension of Fish’s position on professionalism is not that it is something done or lived but something produced and reproduced, albeit with redistributed and redeployed values. What those are, Fish doesn’t say. Then again he makes the rather telling remarks that he is “turning everything into professionalism” (p. 361)—an instance of overstating and overinsisting at a moment when what he is really arguing for can neither be formulated nor defended clearly. To turn “everything” into professionalism is to strip professionalism of any meaning at all. For until one can define professionalism—and the particular values associated with it—there is very little value in going on about the incoherencies of antiprofessionalism. Fish resorts to the reductionist attitude of telling us that professionalism is what is, and whatever is, is more or less therefore right, which by only the slightest extension of its logic is a view no less applicable to antiprofessionalism.

      On the other hand, Fish does say that the profession has changed, that new ways of doing things have emerged, that values are contested within and without the profession. Those kinds of observations, however, have to be pursued, made me more concrete, put in specific historical contexts, one of which is the fact that professions are not natural objects but concrete, political, economic, and social formations playing very defined, although sometimes barely visible, roles. Unfortunately, Fish commits the lobbyist-s error by obscuring and being blind to the sociopolitical actualities of what he lobbies for even as he defends its existence. Thus when Fish alleges that the reason most literary professionals “exist in a shamefaced relationship with the machinery that enables their labors” is because of their damaging antiprofessionalism (pp. 361-62), he is making an observation whose form is assertive but whose sense is tautological since he neither defines the professional and professionalism nor specifies “machinery” and “labors” with any precision at all. For if you take the extraordinary step of reducing everything to professionalism and institutionalism as Fish does, then the very possibility of talking about the profession with any intelligibility is negated. Few would dispute Fish’s important point, that all interpretive and social situations are in fact already grounded in a context, in institutions, communities, and so forth. But there is a very great difference between making that claim and going on to say that so far as the literary profession is concerned, “the profession” is the context to which “everything” can be related.


      Edward W. Said’s most recent work is The World, the Text, and the Critic. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions” (Summer 1978) and “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community” (September 1982).