Chapter 6. Conclusions

Rhetoric, aesthetics, ethics, politics—one might think that only one of those four directly concerns how things should be versus how they are. Still, as in Aristotle, so too in Bakhtin, ethics casts its net wide. Thus for the Russian thinker, poetics and aesthetics count as moral sciences concerned not just with the laws of form, but with an artist’s responsibility to art and life. We can think of that as the ethical side to Bakhtin’s dialogism. If all utterance is socially embedded, then none of it is immune to another’s evaluation. Otvetstvennost’—answerability or responsibility—becomes, then, more than an aspect of human language. It becomes the very thing that gives meaning to human existence. Taken in context, it becomes the thinker’s response to Stalinism, a centripetal discourse that believed itself answerable to none, and would stop at nothing to silence dissent. [1]
Yet Bakhtin, committed though he was to this many-voiced, center-fleeing vision of social discourse, arguably did not always think and write in tune with himself. In his writings, dialogue explains the linguistic side to human sociality; it supplies a framework for understanding literary creation. Yet it represents discourse not just as it is, but as it ought to be. Thus dialogue, simultaneously a tool of analysis and a defining ideal, points to fault-lines within approaches to which we apply the label “dialogical.” For if a concept as value-laden as that provides the road-map for scholarly investigation, then does not the discourse of scholarship fall prey to a normativity Bakhtin himself might well have called “centripetal”? Is not scholarship so guided being guided not simply by theory, but by ideology?
I have been talking just now about Bakhtin. But one can surely say that about any discourse—intellectual, political, artistic, social—grounded in the sorts of commonalities, Vološinov’s ideological chain, without which no sharing of ideas can happen. How, then, to free our discourse from limits imposed by its ideological grounding? One way, perhaps the only way: to intervene with a system of rules to make sure that no single vision predominates. But if our study of dialogue has revealed anything, it is that all such interventions, seeking, as they do, to shape social discourse to fit some preconceived notion of what discourse should be all about, inevitably carry the earmarks of ideology. We need, then, to be realists. Rather than approach dialogue as a neat balancing act, we need to face the fact that individual voices will always seek power over others; that countervailing power derives only from a shared commitment to discursive freedom; that any shared commitment, no matter how benign, carries the potential to tyrannize over individual or group consciousness. For dialogue takes place in the space between perfect harmony and perfect chaos, the former, a featureless soundscape with nothing to listen for, the latter, mere noise drowning out whatever music there might be. Caught between those extremes, dialogue feels the tug of both: I speak to prove that I am one of you, I speak to assert my individuality. Driving dialogue will, then, be its attraction to either or both poles, a life-force insofar as it propels our sociality, a destructive force if it comes too close to consummation.


[ back ] 1. Responsibility-answerability (otvetstvennost’), the focus of early essays (“Toward a Philosophy of the Act,” “Art and Answerability”: Bakhtin 1990:1–3; Morson and Emerson 1990:68–74), remained fundamental to Bakhtin’s thought from beginning to end.