A new mission for the old master?

Bakhtin and the Human Sciences
May 21, 1999

Interpretations of the legacy of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Russia's most significant philosopher of culture in this century, have provided in the past 20 years disparate and controversial accounts of his importance.

Bakhtin's thinking seems to have been embraced by those seeking to explain literary and cultural phenomena, yet less by academics in sociology, psychology, anthropology, and political science. The Russian sage appeared to be of somewhat circumferential value to this latter group of scholars. They knew, of course, the mandatory catchwords of his oeuvre, but they feared that research based on the inclusive notions of dialogue, heteroglossia and carnival was in danger of proving the obvious or of compromising the idea of rigour and accountability.

This volume tries to enhance Bakhtin's reputation in the human sciences. The 13 articles are organised under four rubrics: "Dialogics", stating the attractiveness of Bakhtin as an alternative to established lines of interpretation in sociology and psychology; "Carnivals", exploring the significance of his theories of the body and their applicability to the post-colonial regime of discussion; "Conversations", confronting Bakhtin with thinkers such as Merleau-Ponty, Mannheim and Bourdieu; and "Ethics and everyday lives", preoccupied with moral philosophy and the sociology of the everyday.

The reader may find rewarding Dorothy Smith's account of the dangers besetting the dialogical reading of sociological texts, Peter Hitchcock's provocative "The grotesque of the body electric", elaborating some of the ideas of Oscillate Wildly (Hitchcock's recent book on the fortunes of cultural materialism in the climate of economic globalisation), Michael Gardiner's and Raymond Morrow's subtle comparisons between Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty and Mannheim, respectively, and two articles in part four:

"Bakhtinian perspectives on 'everyday life' sociology" by Courtney Bender, and "The norms of answerability: Bakhtin and the fourth postulate" by Greg Nielsen, in which Nielsen is concerned to see Bakhtin in his vital debt to, and departure from, neo-Kantian social philosophy.

This volume may not alter the inclinations of sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and political scientists, but it invites a fresh perspective on the value of Bakhtin and his circle's work for the human sciences. Before the sceptics are convinced, however, we need to know more about the substance of Bakhtin's originality in the 1920s and 1930s, not only in the West but also in Russia - a line of interrogation that remains sidelined here.

Galin Tihanov is a junior research fellow, Merton College, Oxford.

Bakhtin and the Human Sciences

Editor - Michael Mayerfeld Bell and Michael Gardiner
ISBN - 0 7619 5529 1 and 5530 5
Publisher - Sage
Price - £45.00 and £15.00
Pages - 235

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