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Reticence and the Fuzziness of Thresholds: A Bakhtinian Apology for Quietism


This article discusses implicit conceptions of reticence in the early philosophical writings of Mikhail Bakhtin. Contrary to the image of Bakhtin as a thinker of dialogue, polyphony, and voice, it finds a strand in Bakhtin’s thought that suggests that there might be good reasons for remaining silent and not stepping into the world in speech: in reticence, the human being avoids both judgment and being judged, eludes the risk of the addressee’s absence or unreliability, and resists the finality of utterance that shares in the finality of death. This essay makes a case for a Bakhtinian apology for quietism and seeks to contribute to recent work in Common Knowledge on that subject. Bakhtin’s conception of reticence is usefully understood with reference to threshold situations: in withholding a future word, a human being hovers on the borders of nonbeing and being, on the borders of the present, future, and past. In this sense, reticence is allied to conceptions of fuzziness and blur that have also been concerns of this journal in recent years. In making these claims, the essay relates Bakhtin’s thought to a Russian literary tradition of thinking about silence (Tiutchev’s and Mandelstam’s Silentium poems), as well as to a more broadly European intellectual context (Arendt and Heidegger, for example), where thinkers understand being in terms of becoming and understand disclosure through speech.

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