What is Different About Reading, After Bakhtin?

Babara Green, OP
Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, CA

1. The underpinning of his anthropology/theology, literary critical insights and strategies takes it basic shape from the continuous and simultaneous processes visible in biblical dymanics which include God and creatures, authors and characters, authors and readers --- the whole process of using language:

Though the Bible does not talk theoretically about these processes but articulates them subtly and is extremely receptive to them, to Bakhtin's constellating them. Though Christians are likely to see the NT as ``the'' place for sympathetic co-understanding, the OT has its own pervasive traces of God's leaning toward creation in torah (instruction-become-law), in shekinah (abiding presence), in hokmah (wisdom). These are biblical processes, not Christian per se, granted for Christians the process is clearest in Jesus. Bakhtin's thought is not foreign to the Bible but born and nurtured there.

2. All authoring/reading (i.e., all phases of the ``construction process'') is intensely dialogical at all levels and in all layers, whether we think of the dialogical nature of language in general, the distinctive engagement where discourses cross explicitly and deliberately, or the very specialized case of polyphonic authoring (of which there is little in the Bible). That is, as authors and readers interact, as characters engage in direct discourse and are associated with motifs, all this reverberating and intersecting language is available to a reader who will select what is significant from huge sets of possibilities. Meaning is transactional, constructed ``on site,'' not abstractly, universally, a-contextually. The challenge is to be as aware as possible of the many options, of the diverse and rich associations attending every encounter, to be as conversant as possible with all the players (including other readers) so that when we interpret, it is appropriate to the circumstances we are working in. There is no ``the message'' able to be extracted neatly and reliably from its multiple particulars. There is minimal value in snippeting bits out of context to buttress other positions.

3. Bakhtin insisted upon the utter relevance of the historical-social-cultural particularities which were a part of the original shapings of the text, granted he did so somewhat abstractly and surely whithout all the tools that have become available in the last generation or so of social-scientific study. He saw little value in the universals which, though still clogging commentary, are now seens by many as domineering, exclusive, and assembled naively by a narrow band of readers. The problem is that as criticism has learned so much more about how to get at such cultural factors in general, it has also become more obvious that little is known about the world of the OT/HB, comparatively speaking. That is, if the text cannot be assumed to be a window onto the culture it seems to be discussing, when what it is referencing remains largely hidden from us, difficult to deal with as one would wish to do. Some scholars talk in terms of three overlapping but also distinct biblical entities: first, an ancient Israelite culture (which existed in the last millenium BCE); second, a biblical culture which is derived from the OT/NT narratives; and third, a scholarly culture projected (mostly falsely) by biblical scholars. That may be extreme, but there is some truth in the hint that much of what has been pushed as ``assured results'' is no longer feasible. The best way forward is to try to reconstruct relevant circumstances but with the chastened assurance that we know very little. Often our assumptions, especially when foundationally unexamined in some aspect, are not useful; the ``applying'' of similarities is one of these.

4. After Bakhtin --- with his insights --- there is a fresh interest in genre, not such much as a mappable, classifiable and predictable form but as a path which thought and language take while working out a problem (between author and reader, among characters, and so forth). Attention to genres of various sizes (Bakhtin talked about larger or secondary genres and smaller or primary ones) which collaborate to help us work out key questions and participate in the thinking-out process which constructed the text earlier. Specifically, notions like riddle, wordplay, questions and the assemblages of features which cohere to give shape to characters are all able to be exploited so that the text is much richer and more complex than when we are asking it to refer more reductively. Attention to such features (and diminished interest in some of the more obvious surface features) seems reminiscent of pre-critical readings that we associate with the church fathers and doctors and with Talmudic and other rabbinical commentary. But since this fresh scrutiny of interplaying elements draws now also on historical-critical, literary-critical, hermeneutical and ideological factors, such study is not simply a throwback to a simpler era. Care with genre leads us away from monologic and reductionistic interpretation.

5. New, thanks to Bakhtin, is a much more heightened awareness of the intensity of language as it constantly intersects: words, motifs, phrases and longer encounters are all filled with ``language members'' which bring to bear on their present locations many associations from their past lives (so to speak). How characters (and narrator) talk is not simply reducible to what they say. All language is playing a wider game of associations, if we can pick up on it. The more interrogations we can muster at the places we engage language, the better. Linked here is the rich web of associations, the interlocking web spun around biblical texts by other readers. We may not choose to read exactly as they have done --- since our circumstances are so radically different from those of most fomer readers. But we are better off for knowing how other readers have seen; the more, the better. All readings are potentially though not perhaps specifically helpful at a given moment, when any of us is working on a given project of reading. Again, a result is the decentering of single correct and definitive interpretations.

6. Bakhtin has a whole other set of great ideas/strategies/insights besides the ones being utilized here, helpful to reading in many ways: utterance, surplus of seeing, addressivity, loophole, chronotype, varieties of speech; they are all part of his more or less coherent (though not quite systematic) approach to texts, language, and relationships and the process of participating in them. As they are utilized appropriately, more possibilities emerge. These are opportunities to celebrate and engage, not problems to be eliminated.

7. It becomes clear from what he says that our best reading/interpretation/construction rises from a deeply ethical place, from some question or sense of urgency and commitment that is most deeply part of who we are as we read. Again, such customizing does not preclude our questons being shared with many others, but it does mean that our readings are characterized by integrity, to the extent that we know what we are talking about and talk about what we know deeply and hold most urgently. Again, our insights are not truisms to-be-announced to the universe. Bakhtin talks about signing our readings (and our lives), being answerable for what we say and how we live (and for what we live and how we say). By turns we will read suspiciously, graciously, generously, resistantly, hungrily, lovingly --- as needed; what is excluded is reading passively or malevolently, disconnectedly, falsely, irresponsibly. Our reading habbits are shaped by and shape our habits of interacting with various others. Insofar as our ``constructive processes'' are part of our orienting toward what is of ultimate value for us (e.g., toward God), then as we gain insight, ``get perspective'' from this sort of reading, advance in self-knowledge, and increase our sympathetic awareness of others, we are changed, transformed. This sort of reading is healthy though messy and difficult to systematize.


More can be found in Professor Green's book, Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Scholarship; An Introduction (Atlanta, Scholars Press, 2000).