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Ethics, Politics and the Potential of Dialogism

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When, in the early 1980s the ideas of post-structuralism seemed rampant within academic critical theory, the appearance of the flawed English translation of Mikhail Bakhtin's central essays on the novel seemed to offer a very promising alternative perspective.1 Bakhtin's model of discursive relations promised to guard the specificity of discourse from being obscured by a web of determinations, while allowing the development of an account of the operations of power and resistance in discourse that could avoid the nullity of Derrida's hors-texte and the irresponsible semiotic hedonism of the later Barthes. Marxist theorists such as Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and Allon White immediately and effectively seized upon the translated work of the Bakhtin circle to bolster their arguments, but, as translations of the earlier and later philosophical material appeared, it became apparent that the relationship between work of the circle and the Marxist tradition was very problematic. With this, the American anti-Marxist Slavists – some of whom had been responsible for certain of these translations – moved onto the offensive, arguing that Bakhtin's work was fundamentally incompatible with, and in principle hostile to, Marxism. Occasionally, they went further, arguing that Bakhtin was quite unconcerned with politics and questions of power, being an ethical, or even a religious philosopher before all else. The Americans did have a point. Bakhtin certainly was not a Marxist and the Marxism of some of his early colleagues and collaborators was of a rather peculiar sort. Furthermore, the key problematic area was indeed Bakhtin's ethics which, it became ever more apparent, underlies his most critically astute and productive work and serves to blunt its political edge. Important points of contact between the work of the Bakhtin circle and Marxist theory do persist, however, as Ken Hirschkop and Michael Gardiner, among others, have continued to register. In this article, examining some of the sources of Bakhtin's philosophy, which have only just been revealed in the new Russian edition of his work, we shall analyse the features of Bakhtin's ethics that stifle the political potential of dialogic criticism, and we will suggest ways in which that potential may be liberated.

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