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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 42-60

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The Unasked Question
What Would Bakhtin Say?

Mikhail Epstein

No one has asked, but someone should answer. That Europeans who lived until recently under communist regimes have not been asked what we think of the direction that the humanities—the discourses of philosophy, historiography, literary theory, the hermeneutic disciplines—took in our absence from Europe, took without contribution or critique from Moscow or Prague, is an interesting subject to pursue. But just as important is to answer, or begin answering, the question itself: the question no one has thought to ask.

I can only speak my own mind, of course; but I am not likely alone in finding that, in front of the Iron Curtain (as opposed to behind it), developments in the humanities, at least since the 1970s, have been untoward. Academics in the West have been issuing death warrants to aspects of culture, as if presiding at a military tribunal: death to metaphysics, death to the author, death to history, death to utopia, death to originality, death to the human (and consequently, the humanities). Napoleon reputedly said that a man worth the name has by the age of majority murdered his father: a striking expression, but I wonder if it would not be a better (though more difficult to attain) proof of maturity to find ways to understand and live with your progenitor, befriend him, help him to understand and live with you. Besides, any progenitor worth the name cannot be killed off, certainly not by his heir—the legacy, the echo, the memory go on and on. (Is Napoleon, in any potent metaphorical sense, dead?) My point being that, if the [End Page 42] humanities are to reach majority and maturity, humanists will need to take a less heroic and adolescent view of our role. Our job is not to thrust and parry. We are or should be more like midwives, assisting at births, helping out the family in exciting transitions. We have not heard enough in recent years about continuity, generation, and nascent phenomena.

I am thinking in particular of the "embryonic approach" associated with Mikhail Bakhtin; by no means has enough been made of it in the West. But the best route to the Russian legacy, I believe, is by way of Thomas Kuhn, an American. Kuhn's notion of the "paradigm shift" has become industrialized over the past forty years, and much effort has been expended by young and not-so-young Napoleons in overbearing it recently. But rethinking the notion, resituating it, in Slavic Formalist terms may prove of use now. In any case, there are passages in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which borrowed its basic idea from Gestalt psychology) that remind me of Victor Shklovsky's argument about "defamiliarization":

Rather than being an interpreter, the scientist who embraces a new paradigm is like the man wearing inverting lenses. Confronting the same constellation of objects as before and knowing that he does so, he nevertheless finds them transformed through and through in many of their details. ... It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well. 1

What Kuhn accomplished, it could be argued, was to demonstrate the applicability of Shklovsky's model of artistic estrangement to the great revolutionary shifts in science: both involve change of vision and the consequent defamiliarization of canons, postulates, criteria, even objects. "The technique of art," as Shklovsky put it, "is to make objects 'unfamiliar.' ... Art removes objects from the automatism of perception." 2 Kuhn himself famously relied on a pictorial metaphor to make his point. Referring to Gestalt experiments with drawings that could be read in two quite different ways, Kuhn wrote: "What were ducks in the scientist's world before the revolution are rabbits afterwards." 3 Today, the role of these animals in our conceptual field are played by post- and proto-, prefixes that are dealt with like antonyms but are virtually synonymous. Everything is always in transition...


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