Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The individual has become another system

"[Kristeva] introduced the term [intertexuality] while sketching out Bakhtin’s account of the irreducibly dialogical nature of utterance, quoting from his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics: “if semantic and logical relations are to become dialogical they have to be embodied . . . they must enter another sphere of existence: they become discourse . . . and acquire an author, that’s to say some one whose utterance they are”. She glossed this “dialogical” quality as designating “language taken up in practice by an individual”. Bakhtin thought any linguistics which concentrates on language as a supra-individual system (Saussure’s langue) and on signs considered as decontextualized items inevitably neglected this quality, because dialogism arises, and contributes to how we make sense, only in a concrete, historical world containing specific agents (the realm of Saussure’s parole). For example, a Bakhtinian might say, nothing formulable as langue in the two sentences “I got some anti-depressants from the doctor this morning” and “Mary’s coming to stay for a fortnight”, nor in their formal conjunction, would justify understanding an implicit “because” between them. However, when uttered in rapid succession by an individual whom the interlocutor knows to be disposed to gloom in Mary’s presence, the “because” clearly transpires. To miss it might actually be to miss the utterance’s drift.

Now that pragmatics is a familiar part of linguistics, students of language might well be underwhelmed by such instances and what they imply, but Kristeva was speaking at a time when, and in a place where, the role inferences like this “because” play in our interpretations was not clearly recognized. The langue/parole distinction, along with the disastrous treatment of “language” as equivalent to “code”, still entranced attempts to think about communication. The specific cognitive environments in which utterances are exchanged were thought foreign to the systematicity of langue, and systematicity had been laid down as a prerequisite for semiological science. It was awkward for Kristeva to admit how emphatically Bakhtin specified dialogism as something which happens between individuals. He does so when commenting on real, spoken “rejoinders in dialogue” or on the manner of a fictional text: “dialogic reaction personifies every utterance to which it responds”; Dostoevsky’s writing has a “mouth”, casts “verbal sideward glances”; in every phrase and, what’s more, between the phrases, “a person is wholly present”.

-- Eric Griffiths, "Stay Alert" (click here for the full article in the TLS)

"Igitur lies down in his tomb, for a poetry divorced from meaning is ultimately suicidal." -- Rosanna Warren


Burger's dialectical criticism, emering from a philosophical and sociological tradition in debate with Hegel, Marx, Lukács, Adorno, and Benjamin, is essentially concerned with the structure of society and with ideologies that express that structure. For him, "one question moves to the center of literary interpretation, the question concerning the social function of literary works." The most frequently recurrent phrase in his book on the avant-garde is "bourgeois society," and that fact shows where his real interest lies: with society, not with art. His angle of vision allows him some keen observations: "In bourgeois society, it is only with aestheticism that the full unfolding of the phenomenon of art became a fact, and it is to aestheticism that the historical avant-garde movements respond." Furthermore, in the course of the nineteenth century, with the dominance of the bourgeoisie "the corm-content dialectic of artistic structure has increasingly shifted in favor of form." And, "with the historical avant-garde movements, the social subsystem that is art enters the stage of self-criticism." There is truth in all these statements, but an inadequate truth for anyone who does not believe that art is a "social subsystem." My own vision differs fundamentally from Burger's. I believe that art is not (only) a symptom of social systems, nor (only) a language of protest - failed or not - in relation to a social system, but a mode of inquiry with its own authority and vocabularies of forms developed over the ages. To relegate art to the merely "aesthetic" is to refuse to recognize its powers of radical analysis and representation. As I do not accept class structure as the key determinant of reality, I object to seeing art subordinated to philosophy and sociology and their claims of "science" (another word Burger uses frequently). Let us turn the tables and see philosophy and sociology subordinated to art's quest for reality. Burger himself quotes form Schiller's "On the Aesthetic Education of Man," a far more comprehensive statement of the role of art: "We must be at liberty to restore by means of a higher Art this wholeness in our nature which Art has destroyed."

Henri Meschonnic writes much more intimately of art than Burger does, from within the practices of poetry and poetics. Linguistics and philosophy, instead of sociology, give him his tools of analysis. His Modernité modernité is dedicated to rescuing an enduringly innovative impulse in the arts from historicism and academicism: "Modernity is an effect of language - of discourse. It is history as discourse. It is irreducible to historicism, which would imprison it in the means of production of an epoch. An epoch of meaning."

-- Warren, from a note to her essay, "Mallarmé and Max Jacob: A Tale of Two Dice Cups"


mgushuedc said...

If I may:

"It is precisely this isolated, closed human person, thrown back on himself or herself, who is also paradoxically the most open of beings. For persons have intelligence, are capable of intellectualized knowledge, and through such knowledge are open to the entire universe, to everything. Through their intelligence, women and men can take into themselves, in one way or another, all there is - which is not of course to say that they all do so or that even one of them ever does so, but only to say that the possibilities of knowledge open them to all the universe and all the universe to them. A human being is open closure - and thus is more than a 'system,' for no system can have such openness and such closure."
-Walter Ong

Don Share said...

Thank you, yet again. Ong is really fascinating... and imagine that he was a president of the MLA!!