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Bakhtin: The Precocious Post-Structuralist

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Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books has a very interesting critique of a new book on the writings of the revolutionary Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who suffered greatly under the repression of the Stalinist state, and was exiled to “internal exile” in Kazakhstan. Bakhtin’s veiled criticisms Russian autocracy continue to resonate today. From LRB:

That this once obscure Soviet philologist is now a star of the postmodern West is less surprising than it might seem. For there is hardly a hot postmodern topic that Bakhtin did not anticipate. Discourse, hybridity, otherness, sexuality, subversion, deviance, heterogeneity, popular culture, the body, the decentred self, the materiality of the sign, historicism, everyday life: this precocious post-structuralist, as Graham Pechey calls him, prefigured so much of our own times that it is surprising not to find allusions in his work to Posh and Becks. Since little of this culture is the direct result of his influence, one might claim that had Bakhtin not existed, there would have been no need to invent him. Why this curious parallelism between the age of Stalinist terror and the era of the iPod? The answer is fairly obvious. Just as Bakhtin’s work is among other things a coded critique of Soviet autocracy, so postmodernism springs in large part from the rout of modern Marxism. In the work of Baudrillard, Lyotard and others, it began as an alternative creed for disenchanted leftists. Its obsession with discourse makes sense in an age short on political action. Instead of setting fire to campuses, American students now cleanse their speech of incorrectness. If Marxism had been shamefully coy about sexuality, postmodernism makes a fetish of it. The warm, desiring, palpable body is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production. Instead of grand narratives that lead to the gulag, we have a plurality of mini-narratives. Since doctrinal absolutes dismember bodies, relativism is the order of the day. If castrating homosexuals is part of your culture, it would be ethnocentric of me to object. Revolution is no longer on the agenda, but sporadic subversions may stand in for it. Class politics yields to identity politics. The system cannot be overthrown, but at least it can be deconstructed. And since there is no political hope in the heartlands of capitalism, where the proletariat has upped sticks without leaving a forwarding address, the postmodern gaze turns mesmerically to the Other, whatever passport (woman, gay, ethnic minority) it happens to be travelling on.