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BAKHTIN'S ETHICAL VISION by Richard A. Lynch It is very easy for the reader to forget that in his Problems ofDostoevsky's Poetics Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin is speaking about characters in literature, artistic creations, rather than about real people and real relations. Especially in light of the positions argued by his colleague V. N. Voloshinov in Freudianism: A Marxist Critique and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, it seems quite plausible that Bakhtin was articulating an ethical viewpoint from which he could discuss social relations through his discussion of characters' and authorial relations in Dostoevsky 's novels. If he were, then he would be engaged in what we can call a mediated discourse. Though it cannot be established as a certainty, in this essay I shall show the plausibility of the claim that Bakhtin was engaged in such a mediated discourse. This essay, too, will be in part a mediated discourse. By discussing Bakhtin's analysis of the relationships between Dostoevsky and his characters, I hope to explicate Bakhtin 's ethical vision, and provide a prolegomena for discussion of real social relations, which could then be continued without further discussion of Bakhtin. What, then, do I mean by a "mediated discourse"? A mediated discourse is one that purports to talk about one topic, while it is through that discussion also talking about a different, perhaps more abstract, topic. By removing or distancing oneself from what one really wants to talk about, one can often circumscribe the intended topic and thereby be able more clearly to make a statement about that topic. For example, if we wanted to describe love, we could discuss it immediately with a Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 98-109 Richard A. Lynch99 manifesto on the topic. We could choose instead, however, to analyze love poetry, and then use our analysis of that medium to make statements about the topic, love. This latter method of discussion is a mediated discourse. Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics exemplifies such a mediated discourse: rather than discussing social relations explicitly , Bakhtin finds in Dostoevsky's novels an artistic world about which he can say many things he would like to say about society. Social relations are discussed more explicitly by his student—or, as some claim, by Bakhtin himself under a pseudonym—V. N. Voloshinov. Let us look at Bakhtin's discussion of Dostoevsky's novels to see what he does say about them. We can then explore why he would use a mediated discourse, and examine what Bakhtin and his colleague/double do say about society. For Bakhtin, the most important feature of Dostoevsky's novels and stories is their polyphony. As he states at the very beginning of his treatise, in the author's note, Dostoevsky "created in our opinion, a completely new type of artistic thinking, which we have provisionally called polyphonic."1 Bakhtin describes this polyphony as follows: A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness, a genuine polyphony offully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky's novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness ; rather a plurality ofconsciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event, (p. 6) The first thing we notice in this description is that more than one voice is present in a polyphonic novel. Earlier critics (whom Bakhtin discusses) have taken this to mean that no one character had exclusive representation of the author's voice (i.e., that Dostoevsky's opinions are spoken by several characters) in the novel. For Bakhtin, however, polyphony runs deeper than that. The position of the author's voice is problematical in Dostoevsky's novels, and may not even be present in many cases. As Bakhtin points out, this attempt to understand the multiplicity ofvoices in terms of a shifting authorial ideological position is an attempt to monologize the novel. In Bakhtin's understanding, the author's position is removed from that of any of the characters, and therefore on an equal level as the characters. And thus, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 98-109
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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