The Refiguration of the Anthropology of Language

Review Essay Excerpt 

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Mikhail Bakhtin. Translated and edited by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. xliii + 333 pp. n.p. (hard cover).    

Readers of this journal encountering a review of a volume on the poetics of Dostoevsky will perhaps feel that the ''refiguration of social thought'' noted sev­eral years ago by Geertz (1980) has now reached unfettered extremes of meta­phoric fancy. What, they might ask, has a 50-year-old work of literary criticism on novels written a hundred years ago to do with the problems that confront to­ day's scholar in the anthropology of language? The answer, of course, lies in the promise offered by Bakhtin's insistence that in language the forces of dialogue struggle constantly with the forces of monologue. The enormous impact of Bakh­tin's work, already felt with earthquake strength in literary studies (as evidenced by the presence of an introduction by superstar critic Wayne Booth in the present volume), and now beginning to appear with equal force in the anthropology of language, derives from the opportunity that Bakhtin found in the figure of the dialogue for a move beyond structuralism. This trend is not moving in the direc­ tion of a dispairing poststructuralism, especially in its deconstructionist version, which denies the materiality of language and speaking, but in the direction of an extended, ''translinguistic'' structuralism which, by admitting the dialogic side of language to its rightful place in analysis, will open the way to a truly social, human science oflanguage. A linguistic anthropology founded in this new science will admit the heteroglossic, centrifugal forces in speech communities to a central place. It will be able to encompass a diversity that admits struggle between speak­ ers and ways of speaking as well as functional balance between them. These tasks are extraordinarily difficult within a linguistic anthropology that derives its theo­retical models exclusively from what Bakhtin called "formalist" structuralism, which restricts the scope of analysis to the centripetal forces of system. But it can address the realities of diversity without abandoning the tools of structuralism in their proper domain, for linguistics in the narrow sense retains a place in Bakhtin's science of language.

Jane H. Hill was Regents' Professor and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

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