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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2010) : 169--83
Borderline Subjectivity
The Futurity of the Present in Bakhtin’s Work
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan
Rubric A: The Ethics of Temporality



The paper reads Bakhtin’s philosophical itinerary through the prism of continental philosophy in an attempt to reconstruct the philosopher's conception of subjectivity from the incomplete corpus of his surviving works. The introductory section focuses on the work of Henri Bergson, suggesting that his privileging of time over space in the theory of the “durée,” formulated at the turn of the twentieth century, is a response to this ancient paradox of omniscience vs. free will, which serves as the point of departure for the work of Bakhtin and some of his continental contemporaries (notably Merleau-Ponty and Levinas). The discussion then focuses on the transition in Bakhtin’s work from the early essay “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” (ca. 1922--1924), where the conception of authorial omniscience is founded on a synchronic and ocular paradigm, to Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929; 2nd ed. 1963), which inaugurates, according to Bakhtin, a “small-scale Copernican revolution.”

            The full implications of this revolution, philosophical rather than literary, become clearer if we relate it to the “chronotope of liminality,” which is at the very core of Dostoevsky’s work, a persistent questioning of physical, cultural, and psychological boundary-lines and enclosures. I would suggest that Bakhtin extrapolates the same conception of liminality to the workings of the genre of the novel, to discourse as such, and ultimately to the dynamics of ethical subjectivity which is, by definition, non-coincident with itself and, as such, refuses  be subsumed and enframed under the gaze of an authorial other. The principle of polyphony which informs Dostoevsky’s work, and the irreducibly dialogic quality of his characters’ discourse, inaugurate a radical shift, a Bakhtinian rather than Dostoevkian revolution, in the conception of both inter-subjectivity and intra-subjectivity: from the ocular to the auditory, from synchrony to diachrony; and, most significantly, from aesthetics to ethics.


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