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The Avant-Garde as Ideological Creativity

(Treading in the Steps of the Bakhtin Circle)

Vladimir V. Feshchenko

Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to engage the ideas of the Bakhtin Circle into the study of the so-called historical Avant-Garde. Voloshinov's, Medvedev's and Bakhtin's works on language as ideology are considered in the limelight of artistic practices contemporaneous to 'bakhtinians' themselves. First, the article focuses on the manner in which the Bakhtin Circle authors reconsider the concept of ideology, taking it out of political realm and entering it into the semiotic field. The study of ideology, according to Voloshinov, encompasses various fields of one's ideological creativity. Ideology in this interpretation describes the relationship of the individual to the social, the inner form to the external sign. To grasp the peculiar realization of creative ideology in Avant-Garde creativity, the paper approaches three key-note concepts - the avant-garde environment, the avant-garde consciousness and the avant-garde communication. The 'avant-gardeness' is manifested in the fact that not just a style of arts or a specific worldview model changes, but the very system of life and, consequently, the system of lifestyles and mindsets, that is, the ideology, undergoes mutation.

Most of the terminology that will be used in this paper is borrowed from two works: Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) by Valentin Voloshinov and Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928) by Pavel Medvedev. It is in these works dating back to the 1920s - which was the era of the Avant-Garde in arts and society - that the concept of ideology was first applied to linguistic and literary issues. And although the philosophy of the Bakhtin Circle authors is based on Marxism in a considerable degree, the concept of ideology here is taken back out of its political context of class society and entered into a larger yet specific area.

While in German Ideology Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels distinguished several different understandings of ideology, their thinking is preoccupied more with the meaning that later on was appropriated by the political discourse and political philosophies. Whereas originally Marx and Engels consider ideology as an idealistic view, according to which the world is seen as realization of ideas, thoughts and principles, later on they proceeded to think of ideology as a kind of thinking process, and, eventually, as a converged method of treating reality, based on constructing a false reality which stands out for reality itself. Hence the conception of ideology as a delusive and false consciousness representing specific interests of a particular class, which stands out for the interests of the whole society. The falsity and delusion of ideology was captured by Marx's well-known maxim from Das Kapital: "Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es"† ("They don't realize that, but they are doing that").

The critique of ideologies as specimens of 'false mass consciousness' since then has been at the highpoint of philosophical investigations, up to the present times. Think of such modern ideologists as Peter Sloterdijk, Slavoj Žižek and Boris Groys. Throughout the XXth century the concept of ideology was, and still is into the XXIst, mainly the heritage of Marxist thinking, consider Antonio Gramsci, Clifford Geertz and Herbert Marcuse, on the one hand, and Louis Althusser, Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton, on the other.[1] The French Marxist-oriented semiotician Roland Barthes equaled ideology and metalinguistic myth, which is, according to him, an ideological delusion that turns reality into a sign (1996: 55). A more balanced and, so to say, ideologically neutral standpoint was held by the Dutch linguist Theun van Dijk (1998).[2]

Now, in what manner is the concept of ideology reconsidered by Valentin Voloshinov, Pavel Medvedev and Mikhail Bakhtin?[3] Not being orthodox Marxists themselves, the Bakhtinians virtually abandoned the political and economical sense of the term. By contrast, they actualized the meaning of ideology as defined by Georgy Plekhanov and his follower Nikolay Bukharin as a system of views and ideas, through which human relationships with reality and each other are realized and evaluated (Bukharin 1988: 39-49).

Ideologics for authors of the Bakhtin Circle is a synonym for semiotics, for anything to do with signs. "Everything that is ideological has a sign meaning", Voloshinov claims (2000b)[4].† People's relationships to reality and each other is what Voloshinov means by ideology, whereas the contents of language signs as it is conventionally understood by linguistics and semiotics, mainly covers these two types of relationships. Vladimir Alpatov even goes so far as to identify Voloshinov's concept of ideology with the semantic theory (2005: 211).

A similar understanding of ideology in semiotic terms was later developed by Charles W. Morris. In his book Signification and Significance (1964), which combines his research on the theory of signs and of values, he was indirectly speaking of ideology when using the notion of 'conceived values' as developed within the framework of his trichotomous typology (object values, operative values and conceived values). Understood as programs, planning and, therefore, in their close relation to action are nothing less than ideologies in Voloshinov's sense. Moreover, these concepts can help interpret the pragmatic ideologies of the Avant-Garde.

The study of ideology, according to Voloshinov, encompasses various fields of ideological creativity ('ideologicheskoe tvorchestvo') - be it science, arts, morality religion or whatever). Each of these fields involves particular features of the material, forms, and objectives of ideological creativity. Hence Voloshinov & Bakhtin's terms of 'scientific ideology' ('nauchnaja ideologija'), 'everyday life ideology' ('zhitejskaja ideologija') and the like. As Inna Ageeva fairly mentions, Voloshinov's treatment of the concept of ideology, on the one hand, characterizes the society in general, and on the other, predetermines the private life of individuals - members of this society (2008: 101-112).† Ideology in Voloshinov's interpretation describes the relationship of the individual to the social, the inner form to the external sign. In this respect the assertion about 'deep strata' of the 'form-generative ideology' ('formoobrazujushchaja ideologija') is elaborated by M. Bakhtin (1972) on the example of Dostoevsky's novels.[5] Although Bakhtin & Voloshinov made direct references to the Marxian concept of ideology, they came very close to de Tracy's conception (see below).[6] So, in my further analysis I will be guided by this specific view of ideology as a form-generative and sign-generative system (with no reference to Noam Chomsky's generative grammar, however).

†I will not get deep into the history of the term of ideology as it was originally defined by Antoine Destutt de Tracy and Ethienne de Condillac. I will just mention that in their work Eléments d'idéologie (1801-1815) ideology was seen as a study of ideas, an analysis of human abilities and principles of their semiotic expression based on Condillac's philosophy.[7] This understanding is, in my opinion, more relevant if we speak about the concept of ideology in the Bakhtin Circle. A similar take on ideology was later developed by the French semioticians Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva[8], in their turn influenced by Bakhtin's writings, one way or another. Worthy of note is also an attempt to justify the specifically aesthetic ideology of literature by late Paul de Man (1996). So, this is the concept of ideology understood beyond the political realm, but rather, as a special set of practices of ideological communication, in literature, language and arts.[9] In this respect, the object of my following consideration will be the creative ideology of the Russian Avant-Garde.[10]

To grasp the peculiar realization of creative ideology in Avant-Garde creativity, I would like to approach three key-note concepts - first, the avant-garde environment; second, the avant-garde consciousness; and third, the avant-garde communication.[11] In this regard, I deliberately will not be speaking about the political implications of the Avant-Garde's ideology, connected with the 'class struggle'. In no denial of the relevance of these implications[12], I will focus upon the 'extrapolitical' understanding of ideology, that is, on the internal ideology of the avant-garde outlooks.

I cannot dwell in detail here upon how I understand the concept of the Avant-Garde. There is no generally accepted understanding of it.[13] I can only briefly argue that what I am interested in above all is not the literary-historical aspect of the Avant-Garde, but rather the specifically avant-garde way of thinking and acting. I adhere to Alexandar Flaker's (1985; 1989) concept of the 'avant-garde formation' which highlights the nature of the avant-garde performance as both an individual and collective act.[14]† Thus, the concept of the Avant-Garde is placed into a larger context of ideological creativity (encompassing such different fields as philosophy, sociology, aesthetics, semiotics, linguistics etc.).

†Ironically enough, neither the term 'avant-garde' (in its extensive cultural meaning) nor the term 'ideology' (in Voloshinov's semiotic use) was used in the so-called era of the historical Avant-Garde (1910-30s).[15] Even when they sometimes came together, they did so with an explicitly political flavor: the avant-garde was thought of as the "advanced, progressive part of the society", and the ideology in the meaning of "ideological class struggle". The term 'avant-garde' was first brought into socio-cultural theory by the American critic Clement Greenberg (1939), virtually at the end of the historical Avant-Garde. It is notable that Greenberg discusses the problem of "the avant-garde culture" with respect to study of how an individual's aesthetic experience relates to the social and historical context that shapes this experience. There is a short way from here to Voloshinov's analysis of ideology, considering the fact that Greenberg was a downright Marxist. Yet Voloshinov is way too far from considering himself an avant-garde-thinking scholar. And Bakhtin's negative attitude to his contemporary avant-gardists is well-known.[16]

So what is the point of reconciling Bakhtin Circle's explanation of ideological creativity, on the one hand, and this broad yet paradoxically specific understanding of avant-garde creativity? Is it plausible to apply the ideas of the Bakhtin Circle to the study of avant-garde mentality in general, and the Russian Avant-Garde in particular, and if so, which exactly are the most topical issues raised by Voloshinov-Medvedev-Bakhtin in this respect?[17]

To approach the understanding of avant-gardeness (or, avant-garde situation, as the contemporary Russian poet Gennady Aygi promptly put it), we need an integrated, multi-aspected treatment of the Avant-Garde as an ideological formation in a binary frame of reference, where one axis is sociality and the other is aesthetics. For Medvedev, thus, literature studies are just

a branch of a broader science of ideologies, embracing all areas of human ideological creativity on the basis of a unified principle in understanding their subject matter and an integrated methodology of its analysis (Medvedev 2000: 186).[18]

The Bakhtin Circle's notion of ideology helps, accordingly, to trace some common points where the social and the aesthetic come together, as well as to see how aesthetic experience of an artist (a writer, a poet, a philosopher) or of an artistic sociality (a community, a group, whatever) is founded by social experience. Speaking in terms more familiar to the Russian humanities, this is a problem of how life creation is transformed into creativity as such. Similarly to Voloshinov's discussion of the relation between the meaning and the sign as an ideological relationship, I would like to analyze the relation between the social and the creative activities of an artistic personality and/or artistic community as a matter of ideology. So, next, I will go through three concepts from the writings of the Bakhtin Circle.

The first is ideological environment ('ideologicheskaja sreda'). It is, according to Medvedev, the

materialized explicit social consciousness of a given community. It is determined by its economical being and determines, in its turn, the individual consciousness of each member of the community (2000: 196).

So, human consciousness connects to the being through the medium of the ideological realm surrounding it. What is this realm made of? The forms of ideological environment can be represented by language, conventional gestures, artistic images, myths, etc., Medvedev notes. The sociological method, as Voloshinov claims in tune with Medvedev, makes possible the study of ideological creativity. This method can be applied to arts in the following way: "the non-artistic social environment affecting it from the outside encounters in it the immediate internal response" (Voloshinov 2000a: 74). Thus the message of this method is that the realm of being, which is the realm of life, is not co-articulated mechanically by the realm of consciousness, which is the realm of signs, but is coordinated with it through values of social environment.

It is crucial to understand, Medvedev suggests, the specificity and unity of the ideological environment. Man and his mind exist in this very time and this very space, and this timeness and spaceness of environment constitutes the specific type of consciousness and the specific form of ideological creativity. Therefore, instead of maintaining idealism as a study of independent existence of ideas in human consciousness, Medvedev sets forth a certain type of 'ideologism' that connects the emergence of ideas in consciousness with the specific, unified and integrated everyday and social experience.

It is noteworthy that even Bakhtin's contemporary Yuri Tynanov, a scholar seemingly extraneous to the Bakhtin Circle's ideas, drew a distinction between the 'author's environment' and the social environment, preferring to study the latter, which he calls the 'social range' ('social'nyj rjad'):

Especially unreliable here is a straightforward way to study the author's psychology and throwing a causative bridge from the author's environment, his everyday life and his class, to his works. [.] Clearly, the question here is not about his individual psychological conditions, but about objective ones, about evolution of functions of a literary range in relation to the nearest social one† (2002: 202-203).

Approximately in the same years as the 'Bakhtin scholars', Russian formalists attempt to overcome the crisis of their own methodology, approaching sociological strategies. Tynyanov and† Jakobson declare that "the studies of language and literature proceeds from categories of natural-historical sciences to those of social, or rather, sociological ones" (1928: 36). In a meaning close to Voloshinov & Medvedev's, Roman Jakobson speaks of ideology in the same years, noting the social nature of a sign: "I am referring not to psychological processes, but to phenomena of an ideological kind, namely to signs forming social values" (1929: 102).

These arguments about the ideological environment and the ideological realm appear to be predominantly practicable for the study of avant-garde creativity. It is in early XXth century that literature goes through socialization of all spheres of creative life. The variety of all possible kinds of creative associations - groups, circles, societies, clubs, cabares, artistic organizations etc.[19] - can account for a most dense and active ideological environment, where creative experience was self-esteemed in extreme individualism, on the one hand, and extreme collectivism, on the other. Individualism experienced as collectivism is an inherent feature of any avant-garde performance. And it is this high degree of 'ideologicity' of the avant-garde environment that accounts for the avalanche-like growth of all various kinds of organizational activity - from numerous institutions and societies, both official and unofficial (among them OPOYAZ, MLK, Religiozno-Filosofskoye Obshchestvo, GAKhN, VKhUTEMAS, GIII, ILYAZV, GINKhUK, VKhUTEIN and innumerable others), to utopian and often imagined associations like Alexey Remizov's Obezvolpal and Velimir Khlebnikov's Society for Chairmen of the Globe ('Obwestvo Predsedatelej Zemnogo Shara'). No wonder that with the coming to power of totalitarian ideology this kind of socializations gradually vanished, eventually being substituted with the officially proclaimed socialism.[20]† In this way ideology according to Marx pushed out the possibility of ideology according to Voloshinov. Quite consistently, his books on the Marxist philosophy of language also appeared to be pushed out from official linguistics and forgotten for a long time. Ideologies differ - that must have been the judgment of the Soviet academia.

The second concept I'm interested in is the ideological consciousness ('ideologicheskoe soznanie'). It is through and due to ideological consciousness that the human mind comprehends and appropriates socio-economical and natural being, Medvedev continues (2000: 196).† Voloshinov reiterates that consciousness can only be realized in semiotic, i.e. ideological embodiment. Consciousness is thus a material product, a sign product of ideological consciousness, which is, nevertheless social rather than individual, that is, it's shared by a whole community (Voloshinov 2000b : 356).

Specific character of ideological consciousness is again most vividly manifested in avant-garde creativity. Speaking of avant-garde consciousness as a matter of ideology, one should draw a continuous line between the individual and collective acts of creativity. The boundaries between the former and the latter are basically blurred. A good example can be the School of Analytical Arts headed by Pavel Filonov. The ideology of the School was fully and wholly defined by Filonov himself, the Master, thus conveying the policies of collective mind and spirit, shared by all disciples of his school. And the common consciousness of all Filonov School artists is manifested in techniques almost undistinguishable from each other. Moreover, the School's ideology and consciousness involved not only the artistic element. They strongly believed that what they are doing is not just arts, it is science and religion as well. A typically avant-garde type of ideological consciousness, indeed.

Finally, the third ideological factor relevant for the Avant-Garde, is ideological communication ('ideologicheskoe obwenie'). Arguing against subjectivist theories in philosophy and humanities, Medvedev claimed that an isolated individual cannot create ideologies. It is only in the process of social interaction and social communication that the ideological creativity is implemented (2000: 190). Communication is the environment where an ideological phenomenon acquires its ideological value, its sign quality. But communication, Medvedev remarks, cannot be discussed in a simplified manner - as a crowd of people getting together at a concert hall or at an arts exhibition. Forms of cognitive communication are extremely complex, sophisticated and they lie in specific ideologies: "Every act of cognitive reflexion is determined by people's mutual commitment, and the more complex, varied and orderly this mutual commitment is, the more substantial and deep is the cognition" (2000: 196). For example, communication in literature is not about how the author and the reader are connected, but it is about the ideological relationship depending on the environment and the consciousness of this particular author and this particular reader.

According to Voloshinov and Bakhtin, communication is arranged as a sequence of specific speech acts corresponding to various situations of social interaction. Thereby, speech acts are not limited to just utterances and dialogues, Voloshinov specifies, rather they are engaged in 'everyday ideological communication'. Forms of signs are determined by both people's social organization and by conditions of their interaction and communication. Bakhtin views the relationship between the literary hero and the author as a model of ideological communication. A character in Dostoevsky's novels is a lively embodiment of an incomplete, self-conscious idea. In this regard, a quote from Bakhtin, this idea "is inter-individual and inter-subjective, the sphere of its being is not individual consciousness, but ideological communication between consciousnesses" (1972: 147). Such a conception of ideology as communication between minds, between consciousnesses, allows to throw a new light on the phenomena of avant-garde creativity viewed as ideologically communicative.

In the avant-garde environment, the carrier of which is avant-garde consciousness, peoples' interaction is characterized by a specific type of avant-garde communication. A particular case of it is the interaction between text of life and text of creativity. The model of literary text in avant-garde writings is built similarly to the model of the author's whole life context, sometimes even the 'world context' (using Bakhtin's term 'mirovoj kontekst'). Think of Khlebnikov, first and foremost. The communicative process is taking place here between the author as the author of his life and the author as the hero of his life, the same being true for his texts and writings. Becoming his own idea, the avant-garde author takes to the extreme affinity his 'everyday life ideology' and the creative ideology. The system of life modifies the system of worldview, and vice versa, and all this is happening through ideology as a link between the personality, the sociality, and the world.

The conclusion that may be drawn is the following. The 'avant-gardeness' is manifested in the fact that not just a style of arts or a specific worldview model changes, but the very system of life and, consequently, the system of lifestyles and mindsets, that is, the ideology, undergoes mutation. Using Karl Mannheim's term from Ideology and Utopia, it can be said that the Avant-Garde inaugurates a new 'style of thinking'. The avant-garde ideology can be best described in general by the words of Kazimir Malevich from the 1/42 Non-objectiveness manifesto dated 1920s: "The man has shifted to the new circumstances and must create a new form of new relationships" (2003: 132). This is a truly ideological statement, indeed, which correlates with the three concepts I have discussed above: the new circumstances standing for ideological environment, – new form - for ideological consciousness, and new relationships - for ideological communication. These three concepts allow to analyze the stylistics of ideas incidental to this or that type of its realization[21].

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[1] A valuable 'Marxist' comprehensive contribution to the theory of ideology can be found in Eagleton 1991. Another work by this author (Eagleton 1990) is devoted to the analysis of relationship between ideology and aesthetics. For general discussions of the notion of ideology see Larrain 1979; Thompson 1984; Caruso 2002; Hawkes 2003; Rossi Landi 2005; Duncker 2006.

[2] Other titles dealing with the issues of ideology and language include Adorno 1964; Ponzio 1973; Pêcheux 1982; Pupovac 1986; Hodge and Kress 1979. A specific view on language as ideology was developed by the† early Soviet linguist Vassily Abaev in the 1930s, see reedition of his works in Abaev 2006.

[3] For Bakhtin's and the Bakhtin Cirlce's contexts of ideology, see Walton 1981; Gardiner 1992; Brandist 1996; Tihanov 2000; Tihanov 2002; Ageeva 2008; Bondarenko 2008; Tchougounnikov 2008.

[4] All translations from Bakhtin, Voloshinov and Medvedev, as well as from other titles in Russian and French hereafter, are mine.

[5] Cf. in this respect Kohlhauer 1995

[6] In his unfinished paper on Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, the late Maxim Shapir (2008) suggests a close reading of Voloshinov's work with particular attention to the concept of ideology. In spite of many acute observations, Shapir's approach to this book as an expression of totalitarian, anti-philological and postmodernist ideology appears somewhat biased.† This being said, the preparatory nature of these notes should be taken into account.

[7] Destutt de Tracy was a materialist who, following Condillac, derived all ideas from sensory impressions. His philosophy angered Napoleon, who influentially trashed 'ideology' and 'ideologues'. Marx took over Napoleon's negative spin, and used 'ideology' to critique German philosophers, whose 'idealist' philosophy was exactly the opposite of Destutt de Tracy's materialism. For Condillac's and de Tracy's views on ideology as a study of signs see Busse and Trabant 1986; Andresen 1988; Lanina and Lanin 2004. For links between ideology and semiotics in general see Threadgold et al 1986; Dos Reis 1993; Petrilli 1993; Ponzio 2004.

[8] J. Kristeva (2004) develops Bakhtin's notion of an 'ideologeme'. Treating a text as an ideologeme places the literary text into a more extensive context of society and history, that is †into the ideological realm. It should be noted, that notwithstanding her commitment to Marxism, in this case Kristeva uses Bakhtin's reference on ideology with no political connotations whatsoever.

[9] Consider the French anthropologist Maurice Godelier's definition of ideology as "the ideal within the real" (1978) or Roland Barthes' formula "the ideological is that within what the idea is condensed" (2004: 223).

[10] To my knowledge, the only book discussing specifically the issues of Russian Avant-Garde literature through the prism of creative ideology is Ivanyushina 1993. A volume of proceedings of the recent conference The Russian Avant-Garde and Ideology, which took place in Belgrade, Serbia in September, 2007, is to appear in early 2009 (Ičin 2009).

[11] Hereinafter, the term 'Avant-Garde' (capitalized) shall be used designating the historical period (cf. Antiquity, Middle Ages, Silver Age etc.) of the 1910-30s. To distinguish this culturally-historical term from a respective culturally-theoretical term - extra-historical and fundamentally general - the latter shall be used as 'avant-garde' (lower-case). The same applies to the attributive use of the term (as in "avant-garde creativity").

[12] For sociological and political implications of the Avant-Garde ideology cf. Poggioli 1962; Rosenberg 1967; Bürger 1974; Hadjinicolaou 1982; Groys 2003; Sers 2004. See also the special issue 'Debates on the Avant-Garde' of the Russian leftist-oriented newspaper Chto delat? / What Is to Be Done?, August 17, 2007.

[13] Yet attempts have been made to define the term Avant-Garde (Weightman 1973; Bäckström 2001, particularly in its relation to Modernism and Post-Modernism (Calinescu 1987). For terminological discussions of the Russian Avant-Garde cf. Biryukov 2006;† Sarabyanov 2000; Girin 2002; Vyugin 2008.

[14] The term 'formation' refers here not so much to Marx's 'economical formations' as to Michel Foucauld's "discursive formations' (see Revzina 2005).

[15] The term was occasionally used by Guillome Apollinaire, Theo van Doesburg, Robert Desnos, Alexandre Benois and several other critics around the globe, following the trend which began with O. Rodriguez's essay (1825), where artists were called the 'avant-gardists of mankind', and continued in late XIX century French art criticism (cit. in Calinescu 1987).

[16] It seems to me that his passion for Velimir Khlebnikov, expressed in his interviews with Duvakin (Bakhtin 2002), rather accounts for Khlebnikov's independent thinking and poetry than for his identity as a futurist.

[17] For possible applications of Bakhtin's aesthetic theory to avant-garde poetics see Pechey 2007: 33-55 ('Aesthetics and the avant-garde').

[18] For Medvedev's own views on poetics, as different from and similar to Bakhtin's, see Medvedev and Medvedeva 2006; Tamarchenko 2008.

[19] The significance of this sociocultural phenomenon for the Russian Avant-Garde's literary life and ideological environment as a whole is exhaustively demonstrated by Manfred Schruba's handbook (2004) and Andrey Krusanov's three-volume chronicles (1996; 2003), the last of which is to appear soon.

[20] Compare with the French Avant-Garde anti-totalitarian association Collège de Sociologie (see Hollier 1995), whose creative† ideology focused on the notion of 'totality' as opposed to the dominant contemporary political ideology of Fascist Germany and Communist USSR - the totality of public activities of a human being, an 'integral personality' (P. Klossowski).

[21] This paper is an abridged, updated, and more specifically revised variant of another publication in Russian, which is still to appear. In that larger version, I made two case studies applying The Bakhtin Circle's ideology conception to avant-garde socialities. In addition to describing idiostyle as an individual style of a particular author, we consider ideostyle as a principle for ideas functioning in a sociality of authors.† Within this framework, I studied the collective forms of creativity represented† by two mutually different associations. The first is Volfila, a large, officially established organization of 1920s headed by Andrey Bely; the other is an esoteric, almost hermetic community of close friends calling themselves Chinari. It would be quite a tempting challenge to study the Bakhtin Circle itself in terms of ideology understood in this way - their own way, in fact.† The plenary lecture by Yuri Medvedev and Daria Medvedeva at the latest Bakhtin conference in London, Ontario, as well as their recent publications, are most stimulating in this direction. But this is something that is still to be done.