- Keeping the Self Intact During the Culture Wars: A Centennial Essay for Mikhail Bakhtin
The more demarcation, the better, but benevolent demarcation. Without border disputes. Cooperation.Mikhail Bakhtin, ”From Notes Made in 1970–71”
In November 1995, Mikhail Bakhtin turned one hundred. His international fame, the overuse and dilution of his terms, the embarrassment we now feel upon hearing the words “dialogue” or “carnival” dropped once too often in academic conversation, all speak to his status as a classic, still richly generative of ideas but already ripe for parody. This essay will address one aspect of Bakhtin’s legacy that has received somewhat less attention in the West (except where it overlaps with the ever-popular carnivalesque): his contribution to an academic field known in Russia as “culturology.” 1 I will suggest that Bakhtin was concerned with broad questions of culture from the very beginning of his intellectual career, but that these questions, in his peculiar formulation, have resisted easy or accessible treatment. To focus the issue we must turn to Bakhtin’s early essays and his final writings; the famous, familiar dialogic and carnivalesque structures of the middle years will be less in evidence.
The West has nothing quite like Russian “culturology.” It should not be confused, for example, with our “multiculturalism,” which carries a specific anti-European, anticapitalist bias and usually cooperates with the political left. In Slavic countries, there is no single political agenda attached to the field, which is philosophical, speculative, anthropological, and often openly “ethnographic.” Culturologists ask such questions as: What is a community? How does a culture change and survive crises? Can one culture study another culture that is radically different from it? Can cultures genuinely learn from one another—and if so, on what basis—or can they only exploit and assimilate, that is, interact solely in terms of dominance and power? Do the humanities and the exact sciences in a given culture each generate their own distinct methods and criteria for success, or is there some level at which all mental activity is [End Page 107] the same? Bakhtin had something to say on all these “culturological” questions. In the 1920s he opened his first major philosophical treatise on the “crisis in culture and philosophy,” and his final writings in the 1960s and ‘70s repeatedly address the task of becoming an individualized—and socially integrated—personality (what in Russian is called a lichnost’) through the proper sort of contact with culture, both one’s own and others’. Before examining some implications of Bakhtin’s position, however, let me offer some working distinctions.
There are, I suggest, three possible approaches we can take to another culture. First, we can assume that people everywhere are pretty much the same. Although languages, habits, aesthetic preferences, behavioral patterns vary widely, underneath—so this argument goes—people basically concur about “human values” and perhaps even about how best to secure them. This is the sunny assumption behind courses that teach “political science” and, more broadly, diplomacy: that there is a science of “people management,” that it trains experts, and that these persons can be posted one year to Brazil, the next to Mozambique, then on to Moscow, and the skills accumulated at one post will be applicable to the next. At this utopian extreme, such a philosophy presumes a potentially full translatability between cultures: all that is needed is good will, attractive advertisement, and the patience to seek out the necessary equivalents. The positive benefits of such a position are obvious, for they are the usual ecumenical, altruistic, and universalizing virtues; the dark sides of the doctrine lead us to cultural imperialism and to a stupefying naiveté about the genuine multiplicity of the world.
A second approach to the study of cultures might be seen as the opposite of the first. At its purest extreme, it assumes that cultures are so untranslatable, so irreducibly unique and different from one another, that the best we can do, for the duration of our relations with them, is to try to become what they are. Forget yourself and your own past, so this doctrine goes; when abroad, do not dress or act like an American, become that...