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Caryl Emerson, "Bakhtin as Anarchist"

"Bakhtin as Anarchist"

Caryl Emerson

[An excerpt from "Bakhtin After the Boom: Pro and Contra," Journal of
European Studies,
March 2002 v32 i1 p3(24).]

[T]he question of Bakhtin's Russianness is highly contested, and in
closing I will touch only on two areas where I think he partakes of a recognizably
mainstream Russian tradition.

First, there is much in Bakhtin's thought that is anarchist. By which I mean:
if Bakhtin can dispense with an institution, an impersonal norm, a mechanical
causality, he will do so. For all his formal style as a professor and for all
the reverence with which he approached the culture of the past, he had a
powerful animosity against 'official life', 'officialese', lobbying for
hierarchical recognition, all of which he perceived as cowardly alienation
irresponsibility. This animus fed both his fondness for carnival and
him during his long years of not being read and not being heard.But
anarchism is, of course, of the warmly organic and loving sort. It partakes
not of Bakunin's bomb-throwing but rather of Kropotkin's mutual-aid society,
with its uncompromising individuality and its repudiation of Social
Cooperation and an open curiosity, Bakhtin felt, were just as natural to the
human organism as struggle -- although he was unsentimental about these
processes, did not minimize the work involved, and had an extremely high
threshold for acceptable human behaviours. For all his militarized rhetoric
and his own life-long experience of excruciating pain in his own body, the
struggles Bakhtin portrays tend to be carnivalized ones, cheerfully
anaesthetized. He found real hostility theoretically uninteresting. By and
large he was phlegmatic toward those who attacked him personally; and as
regards his own person, he was uninsultable.

The first half of Bakhtin's idea, then, is anarchist; the second half, I
suggest, is idealist. This does not mean utopian: by temperament, Bakhtin was
far too patient, too much of a Stoic, and far too sly to qualify as a utopian
thinker. He was also too committed to the Other to associate himself with any
idealism limited to 'the phenomenology of self-experiencing'. (37) Bakhtin's
idealism was of a special sort, just like his anarchism. It had learned much
from the nascent science of sociology, and was turned outward into the world.
It shares a great deal with that brand of Russian neo-idealism practised
before the First World War, which included among its advocates such eminent
philosophers as Peter Struve, Semyon Frank, Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai
Berdyaev (38) (the last three became distinguished religious thinkers in the
emigration). These thinkers were united in their belief that idealism -- that
is, 'living by ideals' rather than by materialist or deterministic doctrines
-- was the best guarantee of ind ividual responsibility and civil liberty in
Russian, or perhaps in any, society. How should we look on ideals, if we wish
them to deliver our life into freedom?

First, an ideal -- just because it is spatially or temporally distant -- is
not for that reason abstracting, homogenizing or depersonalizing.
of this Russian school, like Bakhtin one generation later, were committed
personalists who regarded the individual self (in Russian, lichnost',
'personhood') as the central value of philosophy, its most precious capital.
They took their inspiration from Kant's 'subjective idealism', with its
insistence on the human being as an end in itself and not a means, rather
from those more monistic, objective idealisms -- such as Hegel's -- which
aimed to restore lost unity in a future Absolute. But they were devoted to
making Kantian categories more concrete. Thus did Bakhtin pursue with such
interest Weber, Scheler, Rickert, Simmel. In this variant of sociologically
informed philosophical pluralism, there are potentially as many ideals as

Second. An ideal need not be a fixed or permanent value. The content of an
ideal can change. All that is fixed is the status of the ideal within a given
person's purview. And thus, third: living by ideals is not, in the
sense of the word, 'idealistic'. Quite the contrary. Absolute ideals --
the worldly utopia of the positivists -- are not posited because we expect to
arrive at them and live serenely inside of them. I posit an ideal because I
want to orient toward it, in a world that otherwise offers me little by way
security, reasonableness or reward. Thus living by ideals is supremely
realistic. Coherence or justice is at no point expected from the outside
world, nor is it imposed upon that world. If early twentieth-century history
taught these Russian thinkers anything at all, it was that external events
could never be counted on to cohere for their individual benefit; their feet
were planted securely on concrete, ruined ground. But if events could not be
presumed beneficent, then at a ny moment each individual could always choose
to answer for a coherent response to an event. It is this individual freedom
over the response that the ideal facilitates. In a word, positing ideals
wholeness possible in my life.

Radically personalist, responsive, anarchist, idealist: Bakhtin's vision of
the world demanded very little of the world, and yet aimed to make every
person feel less helpless within it. There are not many provisions in
Bakhtin's writings for changing that world objectively. His primary tools are
particularity, humility and trust. What that is called as a philosophy I am
not sure. But now that the front of the boom has passed and we feel
comfortable with dialogue, chronotope, carnival time-and-space, we might try
to take that problem on.