THEORIES OF THE POSTMODERN
Bakhtin and Kristeva
Working within the confines of the Soviet Union, a place where words, thoughts and deeds were monitored, the literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) examined, in an intellectually safe way, how language cannot be controlled by a central authority. Because he had fought in the White Russian army against the Bolsheviks, Bakhtin was undoubtedly already a person of interest to Stalin, and his prominence at the center of the “Bakhtin” Circle in Vitebsk in the early 1920s would have raised his profile even further. Interestingly, he and the painter Marc Chagall were in that city, the town of Chagall’s birth, at the same time; and Vitebsk, now in Belarus, was a center of avant-garde excitement. Due to his adherence to Christianity, Bakhtin was arrested by the Soviets in 1929 and sent to Siberia. His sentence was shorted to six years, possibly because he had written a well-received book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, that same year. Bakhtin, who had a degenerative bone disease and would live in bad health for the rest of his life, doggedly continued his rethinking of Russian Formalism. His best known ideas which concerned the novel, a relatively new art form, and its manifestations of dialogue, heteroglossia and the carnivalesque, filtered into European literary theory initially through Julia Kristeva (1941-) in Paris.
Bakhtin’s work on the novel began in the 1920s and continued to be developed until his death in 1975, but it is best to begin with his idea of the “chronotrope” or the combination of space and time. The literary “genre” will be a reflection of the way in which a particular culture, whether Greek or Roman or Renaissance, organizes a narrative, which is also the way in which humans conceptually navigate time and space. Each culture conceives of time as it relates to space in a different fashion and the chronotrope manifests itself in literature. Bakhtin explained the relationship between a cultures’s sense of time and understanding of space and the ways in which the collective narratives were structured in his work, “Forms of Time and the Chronotrope in the Novel: An Essay on Historical Poetics” (1937-8/1973). As Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, in Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out, the re-presentation of a particular chronotrope is characteristic of a particular age and a single work can contain overlapping or coexisting chronotropes that were inherited or borrowed from other times. Bakhtin explained,
“Within the limits of a single work and within the total output of a single author we may notice a number of different chronotropes and complex interactions among them, specific to the given work or author; its is common, moreover, for one of these chonotropes to envelop or dominate others.”
In tracing the evolution of language or the attitude towards language, Bakhtin contrasted the Greek world view of circular time as evidenced in “adventure time,” played out in epics or in tragedy to the realization in the Roman era that language was relative, situational, time-based and not universal or timeless. In response to the modern understanding of malleable language, Bakhtin introduced the idea of “heteroglossia.” Typical of the theoretical approaches of his time which used binaries, Bakhtin set monologic against dialogic, or paired the monoglot and the heteroglot, as explained in his other essays on his theory of the novel, “Discourse in the Novel,” “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” and “Epic and Novel: On a Methodology for the Study of the Novel.”
All of these essays explored Bakhtin’s contention that language responds to changing world views–the nature of space time, the chronotrope. Bakhtin focused on the novel, because this new type of literature was written in the immediate present tense and was therefore a barometer of social conditions and changes. Most importantly, the novel has inherited hundreds of years of Western literature, from romance to biography, and therefore combines different chronotropes, allowing the novel and its characters to speak dialogically or in many voices. Unlike the language employed for scientific works, for academic explanations, for government information and so on, which claim a universal and transparent mode of expression, the novel make no such truth claims and has the freedom to subvert the supposed neutrality of language. Bakhtin, from the very beginning, was interested in genres and the ways in which a society “tells time.” In addition Bakhtin was concerned with social class and the ways in which authors borrow quotations (a manner of speaking) from different locations, from the street or the drawing room, that allow the writers to mimic various voices; heteroglossia.
For Bakhtin and his Circle, the key term was “utterance,” meaning that language is a human activity and is located within a specific social chronotrope. As Bakhtin and his colleague, Valentin N. Volosinov, wrote in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, “A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor.” However, for the French who took up the ideas of Bakhtin, “Intertextuality,” a term coined by the Bulgarian theorist Julia Kristeva (1941-) became the translation of his concepts. These imported ideas on language were developed in contrast the formal structures of Ferdinand de Saussure and for the Parisian intellectuals who were also looking for alternatives to formalism and structuralism, Bakhtin’s literary theories fell upon fertile soil. As an Eastern European, Kristeva had access to the writings of Bakhtin and his Circle and, when she came to Paris in 1966, she brought the linguistic critique of Bakhtin with her.
However in mingling with the Parisian intellectual milieu, Kristeva made important changes to Bakhtin’s interpretations of plural voices in literature and came to her own definition of “intertextuality.” As is obvious from the account of Bakhtin’s essays above, he and his Circle were still clinging to the notion of representation in that the heteroglossia of a novel was illustrative of the various chronotropes evidenced in the utterances of the characters. Over time, Kristeva further destabilized the notion of the “self,” psychologicalizing language under the influence of Jacques Lacan and eliminated Bakhtin’s personalization of the author due to Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction. Thanks to the sponsorship of Roland Barthes (1916-1980) who invited her to present the writings of Bakhtin to his seminar, Kristeva became a prominent figure in French philosophical thought. Her presentation was subsequently published in Critique as “Bakhtine, le mot, le dialogue, et le roman” (“Word, Dialogue and Language”) in 1966. However, Kristeva was a student and it was Barthes who spread her ideas through his own articles which began to reexamine the relationship between author and reader and among texts themselves.
The concept of Intertextuality that Kristeva put forward was based in Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic novel–multiple voices in narrative context, “heteroglossia,” and “dialogism,” meaning that all dialogue is inherently dialogic or intertextual. In order to “utter” the speaker must know the language and must have cultural competence in that language. While dialogism is true of “everyday” speech, literary writing had acquired a “special” status with the presumption of the author as the supreme creator. The omnipotent author, or more precisely the theoretical device that confines a book to a single voice, constitutes a monologue, stripping language of the other’s intentions. The result is a suppression of the natural and existing dialogue resulting in a binary opposition: exposition and analysis: the exposition of the author and the analysis of the theoretician. The reader is eliminated from the equation. The various chronotropes are suppressed in favor of a fiction of plentitude and precision that effectively stops any further or alternative analysis. Authority is upheld but at a cost. One can understand the theory of intertexuality is a return of the repressed, that which haunts the text: the multiple and excluded voices which were actually created by the writer but written out by a formal analysis of the work’s structure.
When she gave her paper, Kristeva incorporated Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, which expounded on the carnivalesque or the incorporation of the unauthorized and informal language of popular culture and the “lower” classes. The carnival was a medieval custom that allowed a periodic release of the antic and the forbidden into official culture. It was on those occasions that the real culture of real people, unfiltered by abstractions and embedded in actual experience, was released. These subterranean levels of commentary lodged within legitimated forms of discourse include parody, the grotesque, earthy and of the body. As Bakhtin wrote,
“To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one…. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving”
In contrast to the bête noir of Barthes, the “realistic” novel, which Bakhtin stated was “monologic,” the dialogic novel put forward by Bakhtin emphasizes the carnival, the power of parodic language and the discovery of the plural which destroys hierarchal difference and levels the text. Kristeva, in her turn, argued that every text is under the jurisdiction or rule of other discourses in that each text is “created” by other texts. A text is differential and historical, a play of divergent times or temporalities or Bakhtin’s “chronotopes,” and contains traces and tracings of otherness and of other genres. Texts are made out of cultural or ideological norms and conventions of the genre that are recognized by the activated reader/viewer who is familiar with the styles and idioms in the language and with the clichés and formulas. As Kristeva wrote in her 1966 essay,
Bakhtin postulates the necessity for what he calls a translinguistic science, which, developed on the basis of langauge’s dialogism, would enable us to understand intertextual relationships; relationships that the nineteenth century labelled ‘social value”or literature’s moral “message..” Dialogue and ambivalence are borne out as the only approach that permits the writer to enter history be espousing a ambivalent ethics: negation as affirmation. Dialogue and ambivalence lead me to conclude that, within the interior space of the text as well as within the space of texts, poetic language is a “double.”
Given that the process of intertextual references is governed by the rules of discursive formation, the structure of the literary system need not depend upon the author’s intentions, and there are no moments of authority, no points of origin, only the purposes of reading. The auteur is a construction based upon a series of texts that retrospectively creates the author/auteur, rather than being a writer as the one who created the texts. The identification of the intertext is an act of interpretation on the part of the reader. Because the writer may or may not be aware of all the “voices” deployed, the author’s intention is not at issue. The writer is a reader of a text before s/he creates texts and the work of art is shot through with references, quotations, and influences and because what is produced is a cross-fertilization of a book, it is these networks that are of interest. The undermining of the authority of the writer undermines the enclosure of the book, problemizing both entities. Intertextuality is a subversive activity.
Kristeva links intertextuality to transgression: “We should particularly emphasize this specificity of dialogue as transgression giving itself a law so as radically and categorically to distinguish it from the pseudo-transgression evident in a certain modern “erotic ” and parodic literature..” In contrast the assumption that there is an official mode of discourse, all such “laws” constitute a kind of textual ideology, so that language is not timeless or universal but subject to cultural code and these codes are site and time specific. The conscious use or awareness of the intertext is a conscious manipulation of what Barthes called the “circular memory of reading,” which could refer to the use of italics and commas to indicate sources. However, this kind of restrictive reading is a mere catalogue of “influences” or “sources” and other assertions of the “presence” of the “author,” which restrict the reader’s free intertextual reading of the text. In contrast to the formal analysis, Kristeva called active and intertextual reading an “aggressive participation.”
In her later work, The Revolution of Poetic Language (1974/1984), Kristeva took the idea of the carnival and recast it as the semiotic in which the maternal or “feminine fluidity” or that which is yet unfixed would be a transgressive invasion or inscription (inter-writing) into intertextuality. In other words, the feminine becomes a kind of under-text, which is pre-symbolic or semiotic but also makes the symbolic possible. Therefore, a “fluid reading” would both accept and look for examples of other texts that have somehow entered into the primary text, always supposed to be “pure.” But no text is pure or whole or centered. Every text is an intertext, composed of multiple texts. It is easy to assume that all Kristeva means is that one text may quote another text, but this is not what she is saying. Kristeva was always interested in the Other, particularly the primal Other, the female which has been suppressed by the Law (of the Father) and haunts the (male) official text and subverts the singular (patriarchal) authoritarian voice. Both Bakhtin and Kristeva were very interested in subversion of the social order as manifested in literature as a form of literary social activism, not so much on the part of the writer him or herself but on the part of the reader who was re-directed, away from unity and towards polysemy.
Sometimes the importance of a concept such as intertextuality is what subsequent readers, writers, and creators make of the initial concept and how the theory becomes a trope. In a generalized way,the point of intertextuality became that in order for a writer to writer and/or for a reader to read, for an artist to make art, for a spectator to see the object, many references already ready need to be put into play. Structuralism always insisted that meaning is dependent upon a network of relations, what Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to “family resemblances,” and Kristeva was following the logical consequences of the significance of the “network.” However, it is important to understand that there is a difference between intertextuality as subversion of class and authority and intertextuality as a mode of reading. One type of analysis has political implications and the other is a mode of understanding literature without subverting authority.
“Quotations” or heteroglossia need to be understood as the acknowledgement of the importance of polyvalence or the network of language that creates any cultural object. Of course, no cultural object can ever be created out of a space of purified ontology or untouched origins and to be created and, in order to be understood, all objects are dependent upon other objects. That being said, Kristeva is not making the same argument that Harold Bloom made, that art comes out of art. She is saying that art depends upon a network of semiotic relationships that allow the object to function meaningfully in the culture. “Quotations” are not direct re-statings of another author: quotations and references and borrowings are the many ways in which the culture expresses itself across time.
The quotations that comprise the inter-text are forgotten fragments, half-realized displacements that distort and redefine the “primary utterance,” presumed to be the “original” and “creative” voice of the author, and relocates that utterance within another linguistic and cultural context. The use of quotation generates tensions within the reader and analyst pulled between the belief system that valorizes the auteur as the originator and the awareness of the dissemination of meaning and how meaning is made. The quotation or heteroglossia demands a non-linear or fluid reading or an awareness of multiplicity. Holding on to the now-discredited concept of “Originality” may not be the best way to read the work, because the assumption of originality or of the artist-as-origin limits the reading and denies the richness of the text/s. For example, in film noir movies made in Hollywood in the 1940s, one reads through the films and confronts the heteroglossia of the mystery novel, the detective novel, the cultural concern about the Depression, the male fear of the female, the male-made narrative that controls the account, silencing of the subversive voices of the woman, the criminal and even the Law itself. By wrenching oneself out of this trap of the narrator’s voice, the reader can activate the multiple voices and texts, from pulp fiction to Hemmingway.
Any work of art must contain traces of imitation, appropriation, quotation and reference that can mobilize the reader’s creative performance or a performity by the reader. Following Bakhtin’s logic, the history of genres as a sequence is undone–we are familiar with the original “road movie” and know that this journey comes from an antique source, The Odyssey. Therefore, the single unified voice of the narrator unravels and meaning and significance must be constructed out of known genres and borrowed voices, and all authors rewrite the works of predecessors–old voices become new voices. When literature is analyzed from a Postmodern perspective, a text becomes allegory or an assemblage of past genres. Action on the part of the reader preempts the authoritarian idea of the expert and subversive language substitutes itself for subject or the author’s singular voice. The text or artwork is not longer a sacred object but a space of language at work. The artwork is now a fabric composed of multiple codes, suggesting a new activity for the reader/analyst who finds an intertext. The new activity of the intertext is not author-dominated and places the emphasis on the reader or viewer. The text cannot exist as a hermetic or self-sufficient whole and does not function in a closed system. The reader’s experience may lead to new interpretations, for texts enter via the author and via the reader and have the effect of undermining authoritarian reading in the singular.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.