Some Bakhtin for the cut…

You’ve got to love any theorist that rolls his manuscripts and smokes them when he’s out of rolling papers. I decided I had better try to make some notes on “Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences.” The essay is as dense and rich as poetry, and full of things I’ve been thinking of. I’m still having trouble with accepting the concept that any mode of thought is monologic, though I would grant that some discourses are more dialogic than others. However, the limits of expression that Bakhtin proposes make sense. It’s amazing how well his description of “understanding” fits with modern brain science. While the acts of understanding are perceived as unitary, each act is independent:

  1. Psychophysiologicaly perceiving a physical sign (word, color or spatial form)
  2. Recognizing it (as familiar or unfamiliar)
  3. Understanding its significance in the given context
  4. Active dialogic understanding (agreement/disagreement)

There are two separate modes of understanding in this model. The understanding of significance (comfortable and familiar vs. disquieting and unfamiliar). It seems to me that there are two sub-processes that must fracture at this level; the reflexive, animal response and the higher level linguistic response to the image as sign.

That’s why I distrust monologism. It seems to me that “active dialogic understanding” is in some part, a conversation between that animal level and the more machine/thinking level. I really love Bahktin’s conclusion that “each particular phenomenon is submerged in the primordial elements of the origins of existence,” and that this awareness is not synonymous with individuality. The act of linguistic recreation of the world is an act which means to move to a higher sensual realm, a realm of flight in language. Disquieting is my word, not Bahktin’s, because it seems to me the more the process of thought moves away from concrete reality into symbol, the more alienated we become from our animal selves. It seems so presumptuous to proclaim, as Pasternak’s poem “August” cited by Bakhtin does, that the word gives the world its image:

Farewell, spread of the wings out-straightened
The free stubbornness of pure flight,
The word that gives the world its image,
Creation: miracles and light.

Is the reconstitution of symbols purely a matter of “filled-in recollections and anticipated possibilities”? These are the things that support the idea that identity is socially constructed; I think to value this aspect over the other divergent path of consciousness, into the animal depths, into the “primordial elements of the origins of existence,” is to miss the real resonance of Bakhtin. I think that the image of the world created through writing and images is a dialogue between that animal side and the metalinguistic, the expression of individuality by conversation and interrogation of concepts, as understood within the small time in which we dwell.

The realization that you cannot construct yourself through writing, that an active renovation of the psyche through the creation of images is a fools project, comes later. Writing ourselves into existence? Sounds great, but a person still must eat and excrete. Is writing a creative process, a recycling process of accumulative images, or an excretory process? I’m leaning toward the latter. Internal conversation creates images, and when they swell up they must be released. They are not images of self, but of a dark aggregate of waste material that must be expunged.

The true author cannot become an image, for he is the creator of every image, of everything imagistic in the work. Therefore, the so called image of the author can only be one of the images of a given work (true, a special kind of image) . . . The author-creator cannot be created in that sphere in which he himself appears as the creator.

Bakhtin raises the possibility of a third consciousness, outside the concepts of I and other, “a ‘neutral’ world where everything is replaceable,” and “question and answer are inevitably depersonified.” Contrary to the conception of Romanticism as being a celebration of the individual, I think the majority of its writers were in tune with this concept. They pushed language to its edge, not to define themselves, but to somehow create such a barrage of images that an outline of that “primordial consciousness” might emerge. I particularly like his delineation of two lines of thinking: reification and personification. Do we write to make our world palpable, in the same way the animal world is, an impossibility given the distance we have between our conscious and animal minds? Or, do we write to reveal a self that inevitably recreates nothing more than endless images?

The real mystery is not in the said, but in the unsaid. That’s where I think the surrealists were onto something. They were attempting to dance upon an edge, and the boundary of that edge is forever shifting:

The “unconscious” can become a creative factor only on the threshold of consciousness and the word (semiverbal/semisignifying consciousness). They are fraught with the word and the potential word. The “unsaid” as a shifting boundary, as a “regulative idea” (in the Kantian sense) of creative consciousness.

I think Bahktin was right to emphasize tone as a central concept of consciousness, and its striking how much that word reaches across disciplines and modes of understanding. We can’t help but try to embody not only the practical significance of images and feelings, but their tone. And tone seems to be more connected with the animal side of the unconscious rather than the practical sorting of symbols, at the risk of choosing too obvious a word, I must insist that tone resonates across that shifting boundary of consciousness.

Maybe in the end, it’s all shit. The painter Robert Williams once suggested that it was a useful conceptual exercise to stand in front of a supermarket, and picture the state that all the colorful products on the shelves would be in within just a few weeks. They would be processed, and turned into brown. It’s a humbling thought, and a thought that anyone who seeks to write or create images should bear in mind, I think.

In the end, it’s the dialogic nature of the creative self, constantly conversing with a concept of “great time” vs. “small time,” and at once a best friend, and worst enemy, to both of these things

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend –
Or the most agonizing Spy –
An Enemy – could send –

Secure against it’s own –
No treason can it fear –
Itself – it’s Sovereign – Of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe –

Emily Dickinson #579