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Re: [xmca] Bahktin question


Yes, powerhouse is the word! I never know what to make of Bakhtin. The devil and Christ are THIS close--except that Vygotsky, with his belief in conceptual hierarchy, development, and the power of abstraction, is the son of Man and the angel of God, and Bakhtin, with his Chagall-like power to turn the whole house on its roof, is really old Nick.

About a year ago, Mike and Andy and I were struggling with Chapter Six of "Mind in Society", and Mike expressed some annoyance with the fact that Vygotsky doesn't ever really give a definition of "development". The "definition" of development turns up again in the part of Chapter Six of "Thinking and Speech" which we are translating into Korean this morning. 

Here (6.4 in the 1956/1982 version, although it's part of 6.3 in the original 1934 version) Vygotsky clearly says that learning is simply the exercise of a given function and development is conscious awareness and mastery of that function. But that's only true with this particular developmental stage. It's a definition that really doesn't make sense at earlier stages (e.g. infancy where there is essentially no practical consciousness to speak of) or at later ones (e.g. adolescence where conscious awareness actually becomes part of the dilemma rather than part of the solution). 

I think that with Vygotsky, and also with Bakhtin and Volosinov, the usual Aristotelian rules of exposition are somewhat turned on their heads. I think our Russian friends recognized that a definition is really just a very short kind of story about a particular word and that VERY often it is SO short that it is really circular (e.g."Once upon a time in space there was a kind of time-space called a chronotope").

So to break the circle, they set off with a bunch of words that other people have used in this particular situation. In the course of their adventures, they often find that these words become hollowed out; they lose the specific content they originally had and they become filled with a very different content. Andy calls this "critical appropriation", and sometimes he refers to "immanent critique"; it seems to me that they are two moments of the same adventure.

You can see Vygotsky doing this with "development", and also with "spontaneous concepts", and with the whole slew of terms for preconceptual formations we find in Chapter Five (heaps, complexes, pseudoconcepts, etc.) By the time Vygotsky is done with them, they are unrecognizeable; he has hollowed them out like a pumpkin and placed his own candle inside, grinning at us in the darkness.

I think Bakhtin is really setting out with two different sets of baggage. On the on hand, he's got the formalists' distinction between "plot" and "skaz" (roughly, the story, and the way the story is told, but as you will see in Bakhtin's hands they are merged into a kind of plotskaz, maybe a sklotz). 

On the other he's got Einstein's notion of "space time" as a continuous set of four dimensions, and in fact they ARE completely continuous, because as Mandelbrot points out there are fractional dimensions (1.2 dimensions, 1.3 dimensions etc.) in between.

It's also relativistic in another way (that is, a NON-Einsteinian way, although of course Holquist doesn't recognize this). It's something that does not pre-exist words but gets talked into being in the course of a particular narrative. In this way it's more to do with skaz than plot, but it has to do with the abstract geometry of skaz rather than merely the narrator's intonation and affective attitude.

Consider the way that action movies are strctured. Because they rely a lot on lower psychological functions (especially involuntary attention) they have a camera change every three seconds or so. The plot, therefore, has to be sequenced (skazzed) like a TV commercial or a piece of hardcore pornography: one damned thing after another followed by the premature ejaculation of money by the consumer. 

This is the "chronotope" that Bakhtin calls "adventure time". There is essentially no time between adventures, and as a result no reflection and no development. For all the pretentious talk about "I must destroy you in order to make you indestructible", Wolverine is the same adamantine figure at the beginning as he was, er, well, before the beginning.

Fortunately, there are other kinds of chronotope that privelege reflection, critical awareness, and conscious mastery, and for Bakhtin the Dostoevskian novel is supreme amongst these. Because the author ABDICATES control of his main character, it becomes possible for the author and the reader alike to fully contemplate and contest his every move and even his inability to move; his thoughts and his inability to think them. Above all, it becomes possible for the character to develop, as if in real time.

The problem is that Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and their friends recognize that the good old Aristotelian definition is a lot closer to adventure time-space than it is to Dostoevskian time-space. Definitions are not the place to begin; they are something that has to emerge in a rather Wittgensteinian way, when you go up to somebody on the street and tap them on the shoulder. 

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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