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Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays
Translated by Vern W. McGee; edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist

Six short works from the last of Bakhtin's extant manuscripts published in the Soviet Union.

Series: University of Texas Press Slavic Series no. 8

January 1987
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208 pages | 6 x 9 |

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays presents six short works from Bakhtin's Esthetics of Creative Discourse, published in Moscow in 1979. This is the last of Bakhtin's extant manuscripts published in the Soviet Union. All but one of these essays (the one on the Bildungsroman) were written in Bakhtin's later years and thus they bear the stamp of a thinker who has accumulated a huge storehouse of factual material, to which he has devoted a lifetime of analysis, reflection, and reconsideration.

  • Note on Translation
  • Introduction by Michael Holquist
  • Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff
  • The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel)
  • The Problem of Speech Genres
  • The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis
  • From Notes Made in 1970-71
  • Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences
  • Index

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"To strive at higher mathematical formulas for linguistic meaning while knowing nothing correctly of the shirt-sleeve rudiments of language is to court disaster."
Benjamin Lee Whorf, "Linguistics as an Exact Science," 1941

"...there can be neither a first nor a last meaning; [anything that can be understood] always exists among other meanings as a link in the chain of meaning, which in its totality is the only thing that can be real. In historical life this chain continues infinitely, and therefore each individual link in it is renewed again and again, as though it were being reborn."
M. M. Bakhtin, "From Notes Made in 1970-71"

The first recognition in the United States of Bakhtin's status as a major thinker came in 1968, when he was included among a group of internationally known theoreticians contributing to a volume of Yale French Studies on the topic "Game, Play, Literature." The identification of Bakhtin provided in the notes on contributors has an unmistakable diffidence about it: "M. Bakhtin... is reaching the end of a long career, but only recently have the boldness of his speculation and the breadth of his ideas been appreciated outside the restricted circle of his Russian friends and colleagues." Less than a mere two decades later, Bakhtin is being hailed as "the most important Soviet thinker in the human sciences and the greatest theoretician of literature in the twentieth century." And in March 1985, the executive director of the Modern Language Association announced a "trend-spotting contest to PMLA readers... I will offer [a prize] to the first reader to locate the earliest mention in PMLA of any of the following: Bakhtin, Barthes, Derrida, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, and Karl Marx." In the great marketplace of ideas, Bakhtin has obviously risen very high.

It is, however, a curious fact that of all the names listed in PMLA's roster of trends, Bakhtin is surely still the least known, if only in the sense that much of his work is still unavailable in English translation. Although deceased, he is similar to the still living figures with whom his name is so often conjoined, for in his case as in theirs we lack a complete canon of finished works. He is a figure very much still in the process of becoming who he will be. There can be no question, then, of "introducing" Bakhtin at this point in his unfolding. But before describing each of these essays individually, we may briefly ponder the effect they may have as they appear in English for the first time.

In Bakhtin's thought the place from which we speak plays an important role in determining what we say. A little uneasy, then, about the place from which I myself speak, I suggest that Bakhtin has achieved the degree of eminence at which those who invoke his name can be divided into a number of different camps or schools. There are those who have responded to him primarily as a literary critic; others have seen him as social thinker; still others value him as a philosopher of language (and, of course, these shadings tend to blend into each other in any specific appropriation of Bakhtin). But increasingly a suspicion is beginning to dawn that his work may best (or at least most comprehensively) be thought of as philosophy of another kind, a philosophy across the boards: he is being perceived as belonging to a tradition of systematic philosophy of a sort that did not automatically equate "system" with "method" as we do now. Since the time of Kant, we have with ever increasing insistence perceived system as a closed order rather than as an open-ended series of connections. System for Kant meant not only the rigorous application of a fully worked out and absolutely coherent set of categories. System also implied that no major question should be treated in isolation: thus, any consideration of reason had to answer demands not only of logic or epistemology, but of ethics and aesthetics as well. It is in this latter sense only that Bakhtin's thought might be labeled systematic: the sense he seeks to invoke when he calls—as in these pages he so frequently does—for an "open unity." These essays, then, will provide new confirmation and questions for each of the rapidly emerging Bakhtinian tendencies. But since most of the essays come from very late in Bakhtin's activity, at a point when he was again meditating the global questions that had sparked lively debate during the "philosophical evenings" of his youth, they will deepen awareness of Bakhtin's status as a thinker. For these essays are all attempts to think various specific topics in light of the more comprehensive categories we usually associate with philosophy.

The collection of Bakhtin's essays in this book first appeared together in a volume called Estetika slovesnogo trorchestva (Aesthetics of verbal creativity) published in Moscow in 1979. The book was edited by two highly respected scholars: Sergey Averintsev (born 1937), a philosopher and historian admired by Bakhtin; and Sergey Bocharov (born 1927), a literary critic who was particularly close to Bakhtin during the last years of his life.

The 1979 anthology was similar to a collection of Bakhtin's essays that had been published in 1975 (translated into English as The Dialogic Imagination); in both, the pieces included came from different periods in the author's long life; and in neither were the essays organized around any single, unified theme. The reason for such apparently casual editing was in both cases the same: the editors, aware of how quickly publishing conditions can change in the Soviet Union, were eager to get as much of Bakhtin into print as they could while they could. Aesthetics of Verbal Creativity, then, contained pieces written in Bakhtin's first phase and in his last. It included the first essay Bakhtin ever published, "Art and Answerability," which appeared in 1919 when he was a young man of twenty-four, but it also contained what is probably the last thing he wrote before his death in 1975, "Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences." The later, less patently philosophical pieces here are mostly devoted to questions of what linguists now call "pragmatics," including excerpts from unpublished manuscripts devoted to literature and essays on the distinctiveness of the human sciences among other forms of knowledge. This translation does not contain everything that was published in 1979 as Aesthetics of Verbal Creativity, but does include most of the literary essays, and all those on pragmatics and the human sciences from that volume. The essays in this edition have been arranged once again according to the degree of their complexity (not necessarily of their importance) with the literary essays first, followed by the essay on speech genres (pragmatics), concluding with three essays on the larger implications of conceiving dialogue as the root condition of human being.

This volume opens with a transcript of Bakhtin's remarks to a reporter from Novy Mir, the "liberal" monthly journal read by most Soviet intellectuals. We begin with this piece because it presents some of Bakhtins most fundamental assumptions in their most economical and uncomplicated expression. He had been asked what he thought of the state of literary scholarship in 1970, and he used the opportunity not only to point out some inadequacies, but to suggest a positive program of improvement. Not surprisingly, Bakhtin's program for other critics is essentially the program that had organized his own work for over fifty years. Thus, although the title this piece was given by the editors of Novy Mir when it appeared in November 1970 ("Use Opportunities More Boldly!") sounds rather silly, it fairly captures the aspect of Bakhtin's message that would have been of most immediate consequence to other intellectuals at the time: despite some of the unique difficulties literary scholars have to confront in a society like the Soviet Union, there is no excuse for not doing more serious work. This was a message he above all had the right to convey, for, as everyone knew, the profoundest and most unorthodox of his own works had been written under external conditions far worse than those that existed in 1970.

Bakhtin does not shy away from praising specific critics or, by exclusion, attacking others. Those he honors among the living, such as the great Orientalist Konrad, the medievalist Likhachev, or Yury Lotman, leader of the so-called Tartu School of Semiotics, are all very different from each other in their specific methodologies. They nevertheless all share the habit of stitching whatever text they analyze into a deeply realized cultural context. The other figures Bakhtin mentions with approval-the founder of the great Kharkov School of philologists, Potebnya; Veselovsky, the founder of comparative literature in Russia and a scholar with encyclopedic knowledge of Italian culture; and the Formalist Tynyanov-all insist on the central role the history of culture must play in any analysis of a literary text.'

The specific way Bakhtin chooses to discuss culture in this essay dramatizes the extraordinary continuity in his long life, while making clear as well the variety and diversity of the different stages that constitute his career. For instance, the emphasis on openness, on unfinishedness (nezavershennost) that is so much a feature of his earliest work is still evident here in his opposition to Spengler's habit of treating cultural units as closed monads, finished systems.

But unfinishedness is only one of the key concepts from Bakhtin's early period that is invoked in these remarks made fifty years after their first appearance in his notebooks: others are outsidedness (vnenakhodimost) and the distinctive use he makes of the word "body," as when he talks about "material bearers of meaning" in terms of "bodies of meaning." The terms and their relation to each other are the same as those found in texts from the early 1920s, but the level at which they operate is different: in "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity," he discusses relations between writers and the characters they create; in 1970, he discusses the relation between one's own society and other cultures that are foreign to it in space or time. But in the case of both relationships the analytical model is the same: he stresses the need first to use one's understanding to penetrate the other person or the other culture as deeply as possible; but then, having done this, he stresses in both cases the no less urgent need to return to the perspective provided by our native self or our native culture. Circa 1920, he writes, "a pure projection of myself into the other, a move involving the loss of my own unique place outside the other, is, on the whole, hardly possible; in any event it is quite fruitless.... Aesthetic activity proper actually begins at the point when we return into ourselves and to our own place outside the [other] person...."; in 1970, he says, "a certain entry as a living being into a foreign culture, the possibility of seeing the world 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.... 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" ("Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff").

The essay on the Bildungsroman is actually a fragment from one of Bakhtin's several lost books. In this case, nonpublication cannot be blamed on insensitive censors. Its nonappearance resulted, rather, from effects that grew out of the Second World War, one of the three great historical moments Bakhtin lived through (the other two being the Bolshevik Revolution and the Stalinist purges). Sovetsky pisatel (Soviet Writer), the publishing house that was to bring out Bakhtin's book The Novel of Education and Its Significance in the History of Realism, was blown up in the early months of the German invasion, with the loss of the manuscript on which he had worked for at least two years (1936-38). Bakhtin retained only certain preparatory materials and a prospectus of the book; due to the paper shortage, he had torn them up page by page during the war to make wrappers for his endless chain of cigarettes. He began smoking pages from the conclusion of the manuscript, so what we have is a small portion of its opening section, primarily about Goethe.

Goethe is a major figure in Bakhtin's personal pantheon for reasons that are apparent in the fragment here translated. Rabelais and Dostoevsky had in their turn permitted him to write a history of large-scale cultural transformations (similar to what the Annales School of French historians have called transformations of mentalités). Such novelists enabled Bakhtin to use a literary genre to focus data from a number of different areas that—without such a prism—would be hopelessly diffused. Goethe, too, serves as a center around which Bakhtin can lay open a whole age. We see in this fragment why Bakhtin thought of himself less as a literary critic than as a "philosophical anthropologist," for the questions he seeks to answer in his study are less those that occupy other historians of literature than questions about the nature of human consciousness under particular cultural and historical conditions. Bakhtin was throughout his life obsessed by Kant (eighteenth-century Germany constitutes a kind of Golden Age in his thought); we see Bakhtin here once again posing the question with which Kant always opened his course on anthropology—"What is Man?"—where the answer depends on specific shadings of the temporal and spatial categories used to organize the world at different historical moments.

This fragment also manifests a tendency in Bakhtin's work methods that characterized him early and late: the tendency to think through a central problem by coming at it in a number of different texts, each of which has its own particular way of bringing out nuances less apparent or even missing in the others. Bakhtin's first years as a mature thinker are marked by different versions (some possibly of book length) of his phenomenology of self/other relations; in the twenties, there are different books devoted to the linguistic and societal implications of such a phenomenology; and in the thirties we see at least six texts devoted to the novel as a genre, of which the book on the Bildungsroman is one. It is not surprising, then, that it shares many of the concerns, and even some of the locutions, of other works in the thirties. Like the others, it attempts to distinguish a period's most deeply held cultural values through analysis of the formal constructions by which the age's greatest artist manifested time/space perception in the novel. Yet again we are given an account of chronotopes as they are present in adventure novels, biographical novels, and the novel of ordeal, a catalog of types also found in "Discourse in the Novel" (1934-35) and in the monograph on Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope (1937-38). But all of this has a different resonance in the specific context made available by Goethe, who calls up associations with new works or whole genres not treated in other essays of the 1930s.

Of course, what is chiefly remarkable about this fragment is the view of Goethe it provides. There are suggestive similarities with the vision of Goethe we get in Emil Staiger's monumental three-volume study. But this fragment is notable for the inventiveness with which Bakhtin documents that quality of wholeness, which he sees as the distinctive feature of everything Goethe did, as a man, a scientist, a poet, or a novelist—even as a town planner." There are many reasons to deplore the loss of the total manuscript of which only this fragment remains, perhaps not least that it would have provided a counterweight to the overly exuberant appropriations recently made of carnival as Bakhtin bodied it forth in his Rabelais book dating from this same period: the concept of education, of self-formation, that was at the heart of the larger book shows us a Bakhtin honoring such apparently conventional values (even if, as in Goethe's case, taken to an unconventional extreme) as measure, balance, and civic rectitude. Carnival as we have it in Rabelais (or at least in Bakhtin's book on Rabelais) calls out for the dialogic context that education, Erziehung, provides in Goethe (or at least in Bakhtin's Goethe fragment). This essay manifests, then, a stoic sense of external constraint common to all the pieces included in the present anthology.

"The Problem of Speech Genres," the piece giving this anthology its title, is extremely dense because it takes up within relatively small compass a topic to which Bakhtin planned to devote a large book during the last twenty years of his life (The Genres of Speech). The essay as it is presented here was written in 1952-53, while Bakhtin was still teaching at the Mordvinian State University in Saransk, but shows evidence of Bakhtin's own editing that makes it more organized and cohesive than some of the others here included. It will fit better, too, into the expectations of those who value Bakhtin primarily as a philosopher of language, the Bakhtin of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, for it takes up once again the difference between Saussurean linguistics and language conceived as living dialogue (or, as Bakhtin sometimes called it, meta- or translinguistics).

Perhaps the most important aspect of this essay is the light it sheds on Bakhtin's understanding of the differences between literary and everyday language—that bugbear of the Russian Formalists (and their heirs)—as graduated rather than as absolute. He begins by pointing to the irony that genres have been studied only in the areas of rhetoric and literature, whereas the enormous ocean of extraliterary genres from which those two disciplines have drawn their forms has remained unexplored. Yet it is from that ocean that they get their life: there are primary genres that legislate permissible locutions in lived life, and secondary genres made up out of these that constitute not only literary but all other text types (legal, scientific, journalistic) as well. In fact, what distinguishes one human undertaking from another, one science from another, is the roster of genres each has appropriated as its own. Secondary genres may be more complex, but they are still part of the spectrum of possible genre types that includes at its other pole the most banal expressions we use every day at work, with our friends, and so forth. What ensures the connectedness of all genres, from the most highly wrought experimental novel to the simple salutations with which we greet our families when returning home from work, is the fact that they are all constructed out of the same material: words.

But genres are constructed with words not as they exist in the system Bakhtin here calls mere language, but rather as they are present in communication. The distinction between the two is not, as is sometimes assumed, merely a reformulation of the difference between langue and parole, general system and particular performance. "Communication" as Bakhtin uses the term does indeed cover many of the aspects of Saussure's parole, for it is concerned with what happens when real people in all the contingency of their myriad lives actually speak to each other. But Saussure conceived the individual language user to be an absolutely free agent with the ability to choose any words to implement a particular intention. Saussure concluded, not surprisingly, that language as used by heterogeneous millions of such willful subjects was unstudiable, a chaotic jungle beyond the capacity of science to domesticate.

Bakhtin, on the other hand, begins by assuming that individual speakers do not have the kind of freedom parole assumes they have: the basic unit for the study of actual speech practice is the "utterance," which, "with all its individuality and creativity, can in no way be regarded as a completely free combination of forms of language, as is supposed, for example, by Saussure... who juxtaposed the utterance (la parole) as a purely individual act, to the system of language as a phenomenon that is purely social and mandatory for the individuum" ("The Problem of Speech Genres"). The problem here is that the great Genevan linguist overlooks the fact that "in addition to the forms of language there are also forms of combinations of these forms" (ibid. ). These forms of combinations of forms are what Bakhtin calls speech genres. And although he recognizes their enormous variety, he is able to conclude, unlike Saussure, that the immediate reality of living speech can be studied, for although "each separate utterance is individual... each sphere in which language is used develops its own relatively stable types of these utterances" (ibid.).

This essay, then, not only outlines what such stable types are, but suggests implications for the study of linguistics, literature, and other human sciences. Since this essay is one of Bakhtin's most pellucid, I shall not dwell on these, but remark only that, for those concerned with the thought of Bakhtin himself, this piece holds great interest as a further contribution not only to his translinguistics, but to his conception of the subject. Given its emphasis on normative restraints that control even our most intimate speech, the essay should at the very least sound a cautionary note for those who wish to invoke Bakhtin in the service of a boundless libertarianism.

"The Problem of the Text" is typical of most works from Bakhtin's last years in that it is not so much an essay as a series of entries from the notebooks in which Bakhtin jotted down his thoughts. Keeping such notebooks was a habit he had developed in his youth and one he maintained throughout his career. This lifelong dialogue with himself accounts for many of the features that characterize Bakhtin's style (or, more accurately, one of Bakhtin's styles): the allusive structure of his remarks and the repetitiveness that so often bothers readers trained to value more economical and forensic presentation. Anyone expecting a finished, consecutively prosecuted argument in these pieces that have been torn out of the notebooks is bound to be frustrated. But the suspension of such expectations reveals a style that has its own rewards: not the pleasure we derive from an author who compels us to believe his logic is ineluctable, but the excitement that comes from seeing a mind at work while it is at work.

Such a style diminishes the capacity of titles to name a text's subject, for it is a style that never focuses on any single topic. Most of the titles for these late pieces have been assigned by Bakhtin's editors; they have done an excellent job, but it is in the nature of Bakhtin's modus operandi that in many cases these titles could just as well be applied to other texts from the same period. Thus, while this particular piece has been called "The Problem of the Text," and while, indeed, it is a meditation most concentrated on that topic, it also contains long sections devoted to related but different topics announced in titles of other pieces, such as speech genres, the status of the author, or the distinctiveness of the human sciences.

This piece is of particular importance because, in worrying the problem of how a text relates to its context, the essay has a good deal to say about the general topic of dialogue, the central category in Bakhtin's thought and yet the most misunderstood aspect of his work. Bakhtin himself must bear part of the responsibility for the widespread confusion that characterizes appropriations of "dialogism." For while dialogue is a frequently invoked concept in most of what he wrote, there are relatively few places where he concentrates on the subject in any detail, as he does here. The cloud of binaries at the beginning of the piece (repeatable/nonrepeatable, natural science/ human science, thing/meaning, etc.) is later resolved into a set of relations that are revealed to be not binary, but tertiary: "The word is a drama in which three characters participate (it is not a duet, but a trio)" ("The Problem of the Text"). 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, a belief that is the a priori of all speech. Thus, each speaker authors an utterance not only with an audience-addressee, but a superaddressee in mind: ". . . in addition to [the immediate addressee] the author of the utterance, with a greater or lesser awareness, presupposes a higher superaddressee (third), whose absolutely just and responsive understanding is presumed, either in some metaphysical distance or in distant historical time.... In various ages and with various understandings of the world, this superaddressee and his ideally true responsive understanding assume various ideological expressions (God, absolute truth, the court of dispassionate human conscience, the people, the court of history, science, and so forth)" (ibid.).

If there is something like a God concept in Bakhtin, it is surely the superaddressee, for without faith that we will be understood somehow, sometime, by somebody, we would not speak at all. Or if we did, it would be babbling. And babble, as Dostoevsky shows in his short story "Bobok," is the language of the dead.

Dostoevsky was very much on Bakhtin's mind—as usual—during 1970 and 1971, as we can see in the fragments printed here from the notebook he kept in those years. Although seventy-six years old and a transient moving between hospitals and homes for the aged, he was energized by the excitement his republished works had aroused and his head was full of new projects. These included several extremely ambitious studies, among others a big book on sentimentalism and a major article for Questions of Philosophy, the leading Soviet philosophical journal, that was to be a manifesto showing how both the natural and human sciences could be reconceived in light of his dialogism. But in the winter of 1971, Bakhtin's deeply loved wife and his truest other, Elena Aleksandrovna, died, and he was cast into a deep depression that kept him from realizing most of his writing plans.

The notebook entries included here, however, were jotted down before his wife's death, when Bakhtin was still full of energy. They reflect a figure of great intelligence, erudition, and life experience at the height of his powers. 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. The tone here is hortatory as he encourages others to conceive more expansive borders between utterances ("There can be no such thing as an isolated utterance" ["From Notes Made in 1970-71"]), at one level, and between whole modes of knowledge, at another ("The distinction between the human and natural sciences. The rejection of the idea of an insurmountable barrier between them" [ibid.]). He celebrates the infinite possibility of interpretation, deploring at the same time the way "we have narrowed it terribly by selecting and by modernizing what has been selected. We impoverish the past and do not enrich ourselves. We are suffocating in the captivity of narrow and homogeneous interpretations" (ibid.).

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 than 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. Bakhtin had serious differences with Gestalt theorists such as Koffka, but the central concept in their psychology he maintained with even greater vigor than they in his translinguistics: there is no figure without a ground. Even dialogue needs monologue.

These notebook entries are a useful corrective, then, to the carnivalistic image of Bakhtin now abroad, for they come back again and again to the power of frames. There is much in these notes on such characteristic Bakhtinian topics as the situatedness of the subject, the distinctiveness of the Dostoevskian novel, and the myriad complexities concentrated in the activity we call authorship. But behind each of these separate topics there is an overarching insistence on the degree to which our lives are drenched in signs and conventions. Yet another border Bakhtin asks us here to acknowledge is that between life and ritual. Conventional wisdom holds that our everyday existence is semiotically "pure," uncontaminated by the theatrical markedness that is most obvious in ceremonies; but "pure everyday life is a fiction... Human life is always shaped and this shaping is always ritualistic" ("From Notes Made in 1970-71"). Thus, a major border between private and public life is here breached, as well as that between aesthetics as it is now-narrowly-understood and aesthetics as it has been understood in former ages (as in Kant's third critique). 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" (ibid.), ritual not confined merely to political or religious life. The legacy of these notes is less a series of dicta than it is a catalog of questions open for further exploration, none more pressing, perhaps, than: "It is customary to speak about the authorial masks. But in which utterances (speech acts) is there ever a face and not a mask...?" (ibid. ).

This volume concludes with jottings from the notebook Bakhtin kept in the middle seventies, when he began work again after recovering from the grief of his wife's death. He had been encouraged to rework an unfinished piece abandoned in the late thirties or early forties that had the provisional title "On the Philosophical Bases of the Human Sciences." Beginning with the old text, Bakhtin made a number of notations in 1974 that are translated here. This was the last project on which Bakhtin worked before he died on 7 March 1975.

We conclude with this piece not only because it is Bakhtin's last, but because it picks up on many of the other concerns of this anthology with the greatest conciseness. He returns again to the obsessions of his youth-the difference between dialectic and dialogics, the world as event (sobytie), intonation, the difference between text and the aesthetic object, philosophy (especially German philosophy in general and Kant in particular), and the persistence of the past. He makes clear his differences with both the Formalists (once again because in his view they underestimate content and oversimplify the nature of change) and Structuralists (because even in the best of them, he feels, there is too rigid a conception of "code").

These notations made on the edge of the grave are, not surprisingly, greatly concerned with continuity in time, that "great time" in which all utterances are linked to all others, both those from the primordial past and those in the furthest reach of the future. There is a special poignancy, then, in Bakhtin's evocation of Marc Bloch's book The Historian's Craft. This classic apologia for remembering is invoked by Bakhtin because it so passionately articulates the need to conceive living wholes." But there are other reasons as well why Bloch is an instructive instance. He was a founder of the Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, the review around which formed the great school that produced Febvre, Braudel, Le Goff, and many others. But after the French defeat in the Second World War, Bloch's Jewishness precluded return to his post at the Sorbonne, and he went into virtual exile in the south of France. Like Bakhtin in his exile, Bloch continued to work, using schoolboy notebooks, as Bakhtin always had. And like Bakhtin, too, Bloch was arrested. But unlike Bakhtin, the French historian was shot for his role in the underground resistance. Bakhtin remembers Bloch for remembering the French medieval peasants (in Les caractéres originaux de l'histoire rurale française), silent for so long, who, in Bloch, found their voices again, much as the even ruder and older makers of carnival found their voice again in Bakhtin. Bloch is a very recent link in a chain that goes back into the darkest past; by remembering Bloch, Bakhtin not only forges another link, but demonstrates the truth of his own concluding words: "Nothing is absolutely dead...."

These essays themselves, it is hoped, will serve to forge further links between cultures as they become available to a new generation of scholars in the West.



“. . . in many ways the best of Bakhtin.”
New York Times Book Review


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