Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Bakhtin and Cultural Theory

Whatever the government says, the 80% cut to universities' teaching budgets represents a massive ideological assault on higher education. By one stroke of the true blue Tory pen they're saying politics, sociology, philosophy, literature, geography, art and music, media, psychology, economics, languages, IR, film, business, history, law, American studies, cultural studies, and religious studies are worth less than the good old hard sciences. Never mind the vital economic and cultural contributions humanities subjects make. Never mind how the new fees structure will not make up the shortfall.

The imminent passing of the first of these miserable measures provided the context for Keele Professor
David Shepherd's inaugural lecture, 'The Theory of Culture and the Culture of Theory'. He opened with a quote from Martha Nussbaum's latest book, Not for Profit (2010). While this polemic is a defence of the humanities against the science/technocratic fetishism of government elites. She paints a picture of a set of disciplines in retreat, as barely tolerated by policy makers and declining amongst the generations coming up through formal schooling and further education. But this, Shepherd believes, is a mistaken view. In a perverse way the government's removal of public subsidy for humanities subjects is a vote of confidence in them: they're deeply rooted and sufficiently robust to be able to thrive even after massive fee hikes. Which is just as well, as he argues the humanities "cultivate capacities for critical thinking and reflection, keeping democracies alive and wide awake".

What's all this to do with cultural theory? For Thomas Osborne in
The Structure of Modern Cultural Theory (2008), theory is a vitally necessary humanistic project. It defends the humanities because it promotes/enhances society's critical faculties and ensures the Enlightenment project remains live and relevant. It is, if you like, the humanities becoming conscious of itself. But as any student of the social sciences will tell you, this rationalist "function" has sat uneasily with the postmodernist and poststructuralist trends that emerged during the latter third of the 20th century. It has been a productive, if complex and at times highly abstract tension that has generated considerable insights into how contemporary (Western) societies operate and "be", but its legacy has been the dawning of a "post-theoretical" age.

At least that's what Terry Eagleton argues in 2003's
After Theory. Shepherd illustrates this with an observation of drawn from John Guillory's 1993 book, Cultural Capital. He notes a tendency for scholars and critics to use theory to give their works an appearance of rigour. If this insight is cut and pasted into Eagleton's view of cultural theory's direction (and taken in conjunction with his critique of postmodernism), this is a recipe for overtheorisation. Rather than pursuing criticism commensurate with Enlightenment values exegesis has become a banal application of fashionable theories to equally voguish cultural artifacts for self-recursive professional reasons. Why produce challenging work that critiques power relations and/or the movements of capital when one can advance career goals by watching Gardener's World through a Lacanian lens?

This 'culture of theory' that has held cultural theory in its hegemonic thrall is symptomatic of its failure. Drawing on the work of Robert Scholes, Shepherd suggested that despite the achievements cultural theory has won, it has failed to explain to the dominant class what the humanities are all about. Because it has not inculcated a humanist virtue in elite circles, cultural theory is at least part-culpable for being held in indifference and open to cutting from education budgets.

To get cultural theory back on track (and as a professional 'Bakhtinologist'), Shepherd argued there is a thing or two we can learn from
Mikhail Bakhtin. Often thought of and treated as a literary critic, Bakhtin was in fact a philosopher. According to interviews before his death he was forced by the circumstance of working in Stalin's USSR to use literary criticism (of Dostoyevsky and Rabelais) as a foil for writing philosophy. The translation and reception of his works in Anglophone scholarship coincided with its poststructuralist moment and therefore Bakhtin was appreciated in those terms. It's not surprising as his best known contribution to cultural theory - his approach to the 'carnivalesque' - sat very easily with deconstructive and destabilising theoretical moves of the time. Bakhtin's discussion of the carnival in Rabelais stressed its erosion of boundaries, of the transgression of norms, inversion of hierarchies, the celebration of bodily functions and the evocation of fire as a force redolent of death, rebirth, and regeneration. And therefore, in spite of his own denunciations of 'theoreticism' in the 1920s, his incorporation into the PoMo canon contributed to the after/post-theory malaise by his positioning (by others) as the latest trendy theorist with an new and interesting way of looking at things. However Bakhtinian studies and scholarship are now passing into a second phase.

Returning to general cultural theory for a moment, Robert Scholes - like Eagleton - believes cultural theory has lost sight of how language and modes of representation work. Shepherd suggests it needs turn its critical gaze upon itself. Doing so reveals the theory of culture depends on a (more broadly understood) culture of theory. For example, in Eagleton's case, even the most radical social theory draws from existent cultural forms and established traditions.

Bakhtin is especially useful for re-establishing theory because he offers a means of reflection (which characterises the latest wave in Bakhtin studies). Bakhtin distinguishes between monologic and dialogic discourses. The former are conceited modes of thought (usually, but not exclusively, the hard sciences) that refuse to consider themselves as the outcome of definite historical-cultural processes. Monologic discourses fall into the trap of thinking they exist because they're true, and that's all there is to it. Dialogic discourses are, as the name implies, deliberative and reflective. They are characterised by understanding the constituted nature of themselves and any other mode of thought, and by applying a little bit of cultural theory-as-reflection to a situation, the value of the humanities can be brought out.

For example, Shepherd cited the inspiring rescue of the Chilean miners. This was trumpeted by the international media as a triumph of scientific ingenuity and tenacity. But with a little bit of reflection, this is as much a victory for the humanities too. The psychologist - whose opinions were regularly featured in reports - is a product of social scientific institutions. Ditto the army of councillors on standby. Ditto the artists drafted in to keep the miners' childrens' spirits up. Ditto the think tanks advising politicians prior to the disaster of the dangers of Chile's copper mining industry. And on it goes. The humanities made a vital, albeit
unseen contribution to the eventual happy outcome.

For Shepherd cultural theory's way out of the doldrums is a case of 'a little more reflection, a little less action, please'. But I think he's making the sort of theoreticist argument that would have wound Bakhtin up 80-odd years ago. Aligning cultural theory more explicitly with Enlightenment values is a good thing. But reflection in the Bakhtinian sense described in Shepherd's lecture is actually quite weak and, dare I say it,
old hat. While it has a place in ideology critique, it does not go deep enough to the root of cultural theory's problems. Reflection here is a purely theoretical-analytical move to highlight commonly invisible/suppressed complexes of social practices. It does not dig into the institutional habitat of cultural theory: of the very strict demarcation between cultural theory and the radical conclusions it poses, and the privileged but structurally separated out domain of the academy. It is a call to arms, of demanding the ruthless criticism of all that exists completely divorced from a simultaneous stress on the need for a practical politics.

This situation was particularly acute in the previous period with neoliberalism riding roughshod over anything smacking of socialism. The decline of socialist and radical politics saw some former activists opt for academia. But now, indisputably, radicalism is on the rise again. It won't be a commitment to reflective theoretical practice that will shape cultural theory over the next few years. It's the capacity to join with the new generation who've taken to the streets.


Boffy said...


I think this article at The Commune, is very interesting because it questions exactly WHAT is being defended. I'm interested in it because it ties in with much of the stuff I have been trying to get across, which is that the Left have allowed the Right to dictate the agenda to it. The Left has ended up with what is in reality a very conservative (small c) position of defending the status quo, rather than being advocates of advance from that status quo.

I had a discussion with Bill Jeffries from Permanent Revolution about that a while ago, and a point he had made to someone else that it was necessary to first defend before you can advance. I pointed out that this was very ironic for a position that is called Permanent Revolution, because the whole basis of the idea of PR as set out by both Marx and by Trotsky is the idea that you can only defend by advocating advance! The footballing equivalent is the best form of defence is attack.

If you read Trotsky's Action programme For France, at the same time as arguing for a defence of bourgeois demcoracy against the fascists, he does so by arguing that the only effective means of doing that is through forms of proletarian struggle, and proletarian democracy. So he argues for the setting up of factory Committees, Peasant Committees, Workers Defence Squads, and a programme of socialist demands to mobilise the workers. Similarly, in his strategy for Spain during the Civil War he argued against the Stalinists who wanted to limit their demands and actions to just what was acceptable to their bourgeois "allies", and called for the dismantling of the Officer Corps and so on.

The Left needs once again to learn to be brave, to stop defending the lesser evil, and to stand under its own banner. We can never win the working class to Socialism, if we continually advise them to be satisfied with one type of Capitalism as opposed to another.

Chris said...


I think you touch upon an important aspect of the cuts here. You could extend this to local authority decision making, when budgets are tight the easier budgets to cut are cultural/leisure budgets and protect (or cut less!) highway maintenance and the like.

But as you point out the qualitative aspect of ‘culture’ cannot be overestimated and apart from aiding critical thinking, art, books, music, sport etc enrich humanity and aid human advancement.

A problem is that the ruling classes tend to keep ‘culture’ at arms length from the ‘masses’ and systematically attempt to halt the mental capacities of the ‘masses’. The tabloids and ITV are proof enough of this. But then people become protective of this debased culture because it is part of a persons identity and when people feel exploited and unjustly treated they become defensive about who and what they are. So people who try to aid others to expand their horizons are considered paternalistic etc.

I am puzzled by Boffy’s response, if the bourgeois attempted to restrict democracy we would scream blue murder, what makes the arts etc any different? And Boffy believes the cuts are NOT necessary, so why his he arguing against defending cuts to the arts and humanities? That seems a bit daft.
What we should argue is that only in a socialist society can human creativity be utilised to its full potential.

Phil said...

I don't think Boffy is arguing against defending humanities, rather that the position of offering an alternative vision of its provision in higher education is the best way of preserving it. The same is true of anti-cuts campaigning generally - it's all well and good to be against something, but that position is immeasurably strengthened if an alternative can be fielded.

Boffy said...


I'll confirm your point, but I have as previously stated no intention of responding to a rather nasty troll. You'd think that an entire post based around the idea actually cited of "being advocates of advance from that status quo" would be pretty difficult for any intelligent person to mistake as meaning opposing any Cut or retrenchment from where you are!!!

That I think is the importance of some of the work that Comrades at the Commune are doing also in moving beyond the idea simply of a Stalinist "Stages Theory" of defence towards a more dialectical response of combining defence with attack, of questioning the nature of Statism. Some of their stuff on Italian Autonomism is useful from that perspective too.

Phil said...

Despite 'stages theory' being one of the Anti-Christs of the Stalinist perversion of Marxism for the main Trotskyists groups in this country, I'd agree that none have grasped a more dialectical understanding of defence/attack. Small wonder formally decentralised groups appear more attractive to the newly radicalised.

Boffy said...


I don't know if you saw Paul mason's Newsnight report a week or so ago. He was talking about just this. He was arguing that a kind of "asymmetrical" warfare had developed. On the one hand, protesters of all varieties from the tree huggers, through to the anti-Cuts, anti-tuition fees protesters had developed just such a decentralised organisation, more or less lacking in any kind of hierarchy, and this was capable of quickly adapting, changing tactics etc. On the other hand, the Establishment is by nature hierarchical, and could not stop being hierarchical without losing much of where its power and authority comes from.

I'm not sure I buy the argument completely, and I certainly don't buy the idea that some kind of total social overturn could be brought about by such means, I'm not ready to sign up to a course on Kropotkin, because I think there are plenty of examples of where it can't work beyond a certain level of protest. However, I do think that a combination of decentralised organisation - which ultimately is what a Commune is - can develop the kind of workers "self-government" that Marx describes, and which I have been advocating. It can be both a flexible tactic, and a strategic means by which workers develop their own economic and social power as well as their own confidence and class consciousness. But, we still need a mass revolutionary workers party, as Marx outlined.

Chris said...

“but I have as previously stated no intention of responding to a rather nasty troll.”

Well luckily we have Andy to interact with! And as for nasty, pot and kettle.

The problem with the idea that Boffy is actually advocating going beyond what already exists and into a new horizon is that in reality he isn’t, even if he thinks he is!
Many a nice word about workers forming co-ops and neglecting state power, and other far flung ideas which imagine a rosy future somewhere down the line, but in the here and now defending what we have is THE game in town. And defending things that raise people above the level of the animal seems as important to me as defending freedom of expression, trade union rights and the rest. We should apply the same principle, I don’t think Boffy does.

The programme for the future really won’t be built in a day. And I suggest to comrades that leaving state power in the hands of the capitalists while we sit down with workers over coffee and explain to them the wonders of co-operative labour is a tactical mistake. But then most comrades already know that.