Poetry as Extorreor Monolothe: Finnegans Wake on Bakhtin

By | 1 February 2013

Lyric poetry as totalitarian speech? As Maria Scanlon indicates in her review of the critical literature, scholars have been quick to offer reasons why we should not take Bakhtin’s ‘foreclosure on poetry’ at full face value: such reasons have ranged from seeing poetry as ‘a code word for socialist realism, literature he could not openly attack in Stalinist Russia’, to seeing Bakhtin’s stance as a fundamentally polemic one, amounting to a critical attack upon either formalism, or a more widespread Russian ‘poetry-over-prose prejudice’ (Scanlon 4-5). Then there is the question of chronological consistency: Scanlon points to a passage in one of Bakhtin’s writings from the de-Stalinised 60’s (‘The Problem of the Text’) which suggests that any such equation of lyric with monologue (unless in critique of poor work!) is absurd:

Is not any writer (even the pure lyricist) always a “dramaturge” in the sense that he directs all words to others’ voices, including to the image of the author (and to other authorial masks)?

(Bakhtin 1986 110)

Nor was Bakhtin’s distance from his own opinions solely in retrospect: David Richter cites some of Bakhtin’s texts from the pre-Stalinist 1920’s which demonstrate similarly subtle accounts of lyric to the one I have just quoted (Richter 1990 11-12). William Batstone, on the other hand, reads both these earlier and later passages as consonant with the 1930’s attacks on lyric. Wherever one stands on Batstone’s readings (I personally find them at once cogent and unconvincing), it is certainly true that the ‘dramaturge’ comment is nothing like a full recantation. Batstone is happy to stare in the face the consequence of this, stating baldly that Bakhtin loved poetry and lectured on it constantly, but ‘never revised his view of “lyricness”’ (Batstone 100). I quite like the idea that Bakhtin never did so out of perversity. Why should a scholarly thinker maintain the fiction that he is the same as himself?

This brings us back to the question of ‘I-cracy’. In the following I am going to add my voice to what Scanlon describes as the ‘smattering of writers’ who have taken issue with Bakhtin’s theory of poetry (Scanlon 2). I will not discuss her and others’ critical responses in depth, however, other than to suggest that they tend to involve arguing for the existence – usually in attenuated form – of specific cases of poetic polyphony, but leaving Bakhtin’s overall claims in tact. So Michael Eskin, for instance, will argue that while certainly reductive, Bakhtin’s theories do allow ‘for the polyphony of other, prosaicized poetic, texts, especially […] of poetic texts produced in the twentieth century’ (Eskin 390). Scanlon offers a similar exceptionalism in relation to 20th century poet Robert Hayden’s ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ (10-18). Shemtov, on the other hand, states that

I do not attempt to dismiss Bakhtin’s arguments regarding poetry in general, but I do challenge his theories, if only on the grounds that they overlook the social and contextual attributes of prosodic conventions and the possibilities for hybridization that poetic languages (in contrast to poetic language) open. (Shemtov 85)

This is probably enough to indicate that Scanlon, Eskin and Shemtov’s somewhat timid qualifications nonetheless leave Bakhtin’s disparagement of ‘poetry in general’ unchallenged.

As such these thinkers are only so far from Ken Hirschkop’s rather more open embrace of Bakhtin’s thinking on the matter. Hirschkop’s concern is Bakhtin’s ‘concepts of dialogism and monologism, which underlie the novelistic/poetic division’ (Hirschkop 4). Rather than offering nuances and singular exceptions to the rigid genre theory Bakhtin’s comments on poetry seem necessarily to entail, Hirschkop seeks to challenge the idea that the overall dialogism/monologism division is a rigid, essentialist one. To this end, Hirschkop points, among other things, to Bakhtin’s distinct awareness of contexts of reception, which ‘change through history’ and serve to render the same text ‘capable of being monologised and dialogised at different moments’ (5). Bakhtin’s theory of poetry is thus not about attributing an essence to poetic speech at all. But when one reads Hirschkop referring elsewhere in the text to e.g. ‘the poetic attempt to contain and inflect popular impulses by institutionalising them in the literary’ (5), one sees that for this sort of argument too, the poetry we now have and read is, for all its lack of an enduring essence, apparently so currently allied to the forces of oppression that you can effectively name it as the very institution of oppression itself. In short, Hirschkop takes us to much the same place as the above three commentators: for all the nuancing and de-essentialising, his and their position is that, in general, lyric as we now write and read it can correctly be labeled ‘authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative’ (1981c 287).

I would suggest that the dissatisfactoriness of all these analyses lies in their authors’ failure to take into consideration the genre of their very own utterance; doing so would have pushed to absurdity, as I hope to do here, Bakhtin’s implicit, if unannounced and uninterrogated, contention that lyric and scientific speech are varieties of each other. That is to say, my contribution – and it strikes me that I am the first to say this1 – will be to suggest that what Bakhtin has really done in these essays is to confuse the lyric I with the academic one, the bearer, if problematically so, of his own analysis. That argument will involve unpacking what Lacan is getting at in his reference to scholarly ‘I-cracy’, along the lines of my first claim above: scholarly discourse has less to do with objectivity than with the consistency of the speaker’s ego. For if Bakhtin’s theory of lyric is about anything, it is about the fantasies packed into scholarly speech and in some measure realised, or at least policed, in the institutions around it.

3. The I that masters

The first thing to say about Lacan’s theory of the ‘I-cracy’ of ‘University discourse’ is that it is not immediately obvious. We have been long accustomed to criticising and/or defending scholarship on the grounds of its claim to objectivity. So Roland Barthes will coin ‘ex-nomination’ as a term to describe the classic bourgeois act of treating one’s particular prejudices as if they might be shorn from all moorings in place or time, as if they were true irrespective of the interests of the speaker (Barthes 138). So Anthony Giddens, on the other hand, will criticise post-structuralism on the grounds that it undermines the objectivity of scholarly truth claims, with all sorts of effects on the potential political value of invoking them (Giddens 46). The football gets kicked back and forth: objectivity is seen as spurious and class-interested, objectivity is seen as the thing that transcends such particular identities. The curious thing in all this, however, is that one can hold thetically to the radical positions one attributes to Barthes, or even Derrida, and yet do so in the course of a writing that sounds markedly the same as that produced under a more positivist set of assumptions.

This stylistic convergence underlines Lacan’s point. For none of our questioning of objectivity is the issue according to him. It is rather that the rise of science, and scientifically-inflected scholarship, over the previous 400 years, makes most sense when understood as the rise of a particular type of subjectivity, the very one that both pro- and anti- post-structuralist commentators find themselves adopting as a matter of course. It involves the scholar’s implicit insistence upon the consistency of his or her own identity. That knowledge of the world might flow from such an insistence is not excluded by Lacan’s approach. His point is rather that it is unlikely psychoanalytic interpretation will. As he puts it:

The myth of the ideal I, of the I that masters, of the I whereby at least something is identical to itself, namely the speaker, is very precisely what the university discourse is unable to eliminate from the place in which its truth is found. From every academic statement by any philosophy whatsoever, even by a philosophy that strictly speaking could be pointed to as being the most opposed to philosophy, namely, if it were philosophy, Lacan’s discourse – the I-cracy emerges, irreducibly. (63)

They will seem strange bedfellows, but A.J. Ayer’s The Problem of Knowledge provides a convenient way to flesh out these observations of Lacan’s.2 Ayer asks what it means to say that I know that something is the case. By his reading of the logic of our everyday language use, my claim to know anything will only be granted by others if the following three conditions are met: 1) it’s true 2) I am sure that it’s true and 3) I have the right to be thus sure (Ayer 35). Ayer’s crucial point is that while all three of these conditions are necessary, the most cogent of them is actually the third, the possession of the right to be sure. For even though we can only be said to know something if it is actually true, this does not imply that stating a truth is enough. A parrot can do that. ‘If someone reaches a true conclusion without appearing to have any adequate basis for it, we are likely to say that he does not really know it’ (33). We require the knower to demonstrate their right to be sure, which is to say, we require them to have followed a process we recognise as valid.

An example demonstrates that this is clearly the case:

If someone were fully persuaded of a mathematical proposition by a proof which could be shown to be invalid he would not, without further evidence, be said to know the proposition, even though it was true. (31)

The close to infallible status of mathematical knowledge underlines that the emphasis of a knowledge attribution is much more on the fact that the knower has followed a process recognised to be valid, than that they are in possession of a timeless truth. What it also underlines is that the scholarly pretense of de-authoring one’s knowledge claims – ‘one knows’, or ‘we know’ – is little more than window-dressing; the critics of ideology, whether post-structuralist or otherwise, err in imagining that an attack upon such tropes gets anywhere near the roots of oppressive knowledge structures. As Ayer’s example indicates, we do not ultimately allow knowledge claims that have been propounded simply on the grounds that something is the case. Indeed, the question is only peripherally about objectivity and much more about the drama of the subject. The real issue is that the knower has followed a process that grants him the right to know, and can demonstrate that.

To put this in the terms of Joyce’s professorial parody (‘these events […] are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all’ (110)) and ignore the befuddling logic in which he sets them: one might say that it’s not enough for a historian to claim – ‘objectively’ – that such and such an event has taken place. For him or her to make that claim, the matter first and foremost has to have taken person, the person of the one investigating it and now pronouncing it true, having got there by way of a process we recognise as valid. The event’s status as true is ensured subjectively. When we call such claims objective we are really, and often for dubious reasons, denegating the subjective step essential to any such attribution. Knowledge takes person and nowhere is this more palpable than in the research reports of the contemporary university.

The corollary of this – and the way those Mikealls and Nicholists come into the picture – is that the I who makes a knowledge claim has to be the same as the I who can demonstrate his or her fulfillment of said institutional practices of validation. There is no way an academic can claim to know anything academically without implying an identity between i) himself as the person stating that knowledge and ii) that other self who runs the lab, or reads the books, or interviews the poets – the one who in short followed due process. The one is responsible for the other, right down to the footnote. Or rather, the I masters all of them. Hence the ‘I-cracy’ Lacan refers to, ‘whereby at least something is identical to itself, namely the speaker’ (63).

It is on these grounds that I will claim that Bakhtin’s characterisation of the lyric poet is really more aptly applied to the scholar. Take the quotation given some pages above, mutatis mutandis:

The language of a scholar is his language, he is utterly immersed in it, inseparable from it, he makes use of each form, each word, each expression according to its unmediated power to assign meaning (as it were, ‘without quotation marks’), that is, as a pure and direct expression of his own intention.’ No matter what ‘agonies of the word’ the scholar endured in the process of creation, in the finished work language is an obedient organ, fully adequate to the author’s intention.

(1981c 286; amended where bolded)

Scholarship’s celebrated indifference to presentational questions, its imputed lack of style, provides one seeming exception. But actually, to see style as irrelevant is really not all that different to claiming that one’s real meaning is expressed regardless. The point is the univocity of intention: the I who obtained the right to make a knowledge claim hereby makes it, and no slip of the pen in this ‘extorreor monolothe’ I actually write (‘fought nightly’), or tongue in these words I actually speak, can be noticed and allowed to undermine my writerly identity with that other biographical I, the one who followed a valid method. (But what if that slip indicated the existence of more than one of me? Ignore it.)

To put it in these Adamic terms indicates something of the drama of scientific and scholarly composition, the ‘agonies of the word’ (I am now on my 15th major draft of this essay, which I have been working at intermittently for over three years since the initial writing, with innumerable tamperings in between, and I finally have decided through a combination of satisfaction and despair that it is finished) which one does indeed go through in the course of trying to hold it all together. Some worthy things are often discovered in the process – electricity; that cigarettes cause cancer; the critiques of neoliberalism – by that trenchant, rigorous individual who refuses to flinch from what he or she knows to be true, by way of a valid method, and will insist on saying publicly.

  1. It’s worth mentioning Paul De Man’s curiosity as to the fact that Bakhtin characterises poetry as an ‘epistemological’ discourse concerned with the truth of objects, something De Man finds of more than passing interest (De Man 345). But that is about as close as anyone gets to pointing out that Bakhtin’s theories of lyric are actually most aptly applied to the very form in which he states them: scholarly prose.
  2. Ayer’s is of course merely one of a tradition of discussions of knowledge as ‘justified, true belief,’ a theory one can take back to Plato. For a fine contemporary exposition in relation to the question of whether art can ever amount to knowledge, see Scrivener. I could well have drawn on his writing, or many another’s, to make the analysis.
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