Critical Inquiry 10 (2):307-319 (1983)

All of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work stands under the sign of plurality, the mystery of the one and the many. Unlike the third eye of Tibetan Buddhism, which gives those who possess it a vision of the secret unity holding creation together, Bakhtin seems to have had a third ear that permitted him to hear differences where others perceived only sameness, especially in the apparent wholeness of the human voice. The obsessive question at the heart of Bakhtin’s thought is always “Who is talking?” It was his sense of the world’s overwhelming multiplicity that impelled Bakhtin to rethink strategies by which heterogeneity had traditionally been disguised as a unity. In his several attempts to find a single name for the teeming forces which jostled each other within the combat zone of the word—whether the term was “polyphony,” “heteroglossia,” or “speech communion”—Bakhtin was at great pains never to sacrifice the tension between identity and difference that fueled his enterprise. He always sought the minimum degree of homogenization necessary to any conceptual scheme, feeling it was better to preserve the heterogeneity which less patient thinkers found intolerable—and to which they therefore hurried to assign a unitizing label.Bakhtin’s metaphysical contrariness has the effect of making at times appear to be indiscriminate, as when he refused to recognize borders between biography and autobiography or, more notoriously, between speaking and writing. But, as I hope to show, these apparently cardinal distinctions are for Bakhtin only local instances of unity that participate in and are controlled by a fare more encompassing set of oppositions and differences. All this places an extra burden on those who seek an overarching design in Bakhtin’s legacy: the apparently unitizing term “Bakhtin” proves to be as illusory—or more illusory—in its ability to subsume real distinctions as any other, if we submit it to a Bakhtinian analysis. Michael Holquist is professor and chairman of the department of Slavic languages and literatures a Indiana University. With his wife, Katerina Clark, he has just completed Mikhail Bakhtin, a study of Bakhtin’s life and works, forthcoming in the autumn of 1984. He is currently working in Moscow
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DOI 10.1086/448248
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