Dialogue and Desire: Mikhail Bakhtin and the Linguistic Turn in Psychotherapy

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Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and cultural critic, was one of the pioneers of the 'linguistic turn' in philosophy and is now widely associated with the concept of the dialogical self and dialogical psychotherapy. However, whilst dialogism is the concept for which Bakhtin is most well known in psychotherapy, it is, in isolation, open to a wide range of interpretations that can be claimed by diverse and conflicting ideological positions. The radical contribution that a more inclusive reading of Bakhtin could bring to psychotherapy only becomes apparent when dialogism is understood in the context of Bakhtin's philosophy as a whole, and when Bakhtin himself is brought into a dialogical relationship with other thinkers. By bringing Bakhtin into dialogue with the controversial French anthropologist, Rene Girard, the centrality of desire in language and human social life is woven into the concept of the dialogical self and the practice of dialogical psychotherapy. This book will be of keen interest to students interested in the contemporary relevance of Bakhtin's thinking as well as psychotherapists concerned with the complex relationship between language, consciousness and the art of psychotherapy.

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CHAPTER ONE: Who was Mikhail Bakhtin?

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Although little known during his lifetime, since his death in 1975 this Russian philosopher and cultural theorist has achieved immense popularity among academics in the West as his influence has extended beyond literary criticism and philosophy across the humanities and even further to psychotherapy. In stark contrast to Bakhtin's penury and relative domestic obscurity, his ideas have become the springboard for many notable Western academic careers. Scholars from diverse perspectives, from Marxists to theologians, from feminists to postcolonial theorists, from sociologists to linguists, and literary theorists to psychologists, have all declared an interest in Bakhtin. As Graham Pechey (1989) observed, one of the interesting characteristics of Bakhtin's ideas is their capacity to migrate across national and disciplinary boundaries and make themselves at home in very different fields of intellectual endeavour. However, Edward Said (2001) warns that when theories travel beyond their original and temporal context, they can lose some of their radical power. One of the central arguments of this book is that the Bakhtin invoked in psychotherapy is a much tamer and less controversial figure than the Russian Bakhtin and that the radical implications of his thinking for psychotherapy extend far beyond the notion of the “Dialogical Self”. Moreover, outside the field of psychotherapy, Bakhtin's thinking is highly contested, making any unitary or monologic interpretation problematic.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Bakhtin, Dialogism, and European Philosophy

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The previous chapter introduced the field of Bakhtin studies, drawing particular attention to the potential problems of interpreting Bakhtinian ideas for the practice of psychotherapy. This chapter discusses dialogism, the Bakhtinian concept that has been most influential in psychotherapy theory. This necessitates some exploration of the many meanings that have been attributed to dialogism as well as the overall context in which Bakhtin developed his ideas. Bakhtin did not write in isolation but in dialogue with other thinkers as others have subsequently written in dialogue with him, so some acknowledgement is needed of Bakhtin's relationship with European philosophy in order to contextualise his thinking. As Hirschkop (1999) wrote, interpretations that put Bakhtin into solitary confinement (136) are both inaccurate and an oversimplification of his writing. Far from being a thinker in isolation, Bakhtin was swimming with some of the dominant philosophical currents of his time.

Although a classicist by training, Bakhtin and others of his generation wrote and studied under the reigning influence of Kant and is now considered by most scholars1 to have been a fellow traveller with the diffuse but highly influential philosophical movement known as the neo-Kantians. Bakhtin's dialogism originates in his dialogue with Kant and is best understood, in this context, as a philosophical idea about nature of meaning rather than as a linguistic concept. An important aspect of Kant's influence on Bakhtin is Kant's concern with our relationship with the world, which led to Bakhtin's profound interest in how we interpret the world and our experience in it (Holquist, 1990). The second half of the 19th century saw a “return to Kant” in German philosophy in an attempt to recover a unity between philosophy, the natural sciences, and culture and as a reaction against individualism and psychologism.2Anyone struggling to relate Bakhtin's early works, with their concerns with aesthetics, authoring, and creative activity, to psychotherapy should bear in mind that the early Bakhtin was trying to overcome the separation of art from life and culture from science in an attempt to recover a unity of experience and being. Psychology, like the other human sciences, only emerged as a separate discipline with its own body of knowledge in the early 19th century, largely divorced from its parent discipline of philosophy. Since Freud, psychotherapy has traditionally been much more catholic in its knowledge base but, to the extent that it has relied on psychological theories, this has constrained its effectiveness in understanding and finding solutions to human problems and has led to a certain degree of introverted navel-gazing among its practitioners. In his emphasis on human difference and the uniqueness of each human being, Bakhtin exposes some of the limitations of approaching any encounter with another individual with preconceptions.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Bakhtin, the Dialogical Self and Dialogical Psychotherapy

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Just as interest in critical theory in North America created the conditions necessary for the reception of Bakhtin in literary studies (Wachtel, 2000), the development of a psychology of the “self”, inspired by James Mead, both coincided with Bakhtin's dialogic conception of consciousness (Hermans, 2004) and paved the way for what has come to be known as the “Dialogical Self”. The first part of this chapter will give a brief overview of the “Dialogical Self” and the importance of Bakhtin's analysis of linguistic style in the modern novel in his interpretation of dialogism. The second part of the chapter examines some of the ways in which dialogical concepts derived from Bakhtin have been used in conjunction with two different models of psychotherapy; the third part compares dialogical approaches with other linguistic approaches to psychotherapy.

In psychotherapy, Bakhtin has become associated with a concept of the self that is “dialogical” i.e. that consists of a number of different “voices” that speak to each other from different “positions” or points of view (Stiles, 1997, Hermans 1996, 2004). These voices may have a historical origin, for example the voice of a parent, or they could have a more general, societal origin such as social class or social expectations of women or men, or be the voices of groups in society that we belong to such as a political party, football club or a religious faith. William Stiles (1997) suggests that the concept of “voice” can be understood as akin to that of role, in a sociological sense, or as that of object, in the psychoanalytic sense, or even, from a Jungian perspective, as an archetype:

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Some Limitations of Dialogism as a Model for Psychotherapy

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Bakhtin's dialogic conception of self and consciousness, in the context of the growing influence of discursive approaches in psychotherapy, apparently offers an optimistic alternative to post-structuralist accounts in proposing a less alienated account of human self-hood that, as Gardener (1998) argues, while being socially determined also possesses a degree of agency and free will. Rather than focus on the ways in which we are constrained and determined by language, Bakhtin seems to celebrate discourse in a way that suggests that the self has at its disposal the endless creative potential of language. His concepts of polyphony and dialogism apparently complement and inform contemporary progressive agendas of acknowledging, respecting and valuing human cultural difference and diversity.

As well as stressing the diversity of social and cultural life, Bakhtin and Voloshinov emphasise communication as a fundamental and defining feature of the human self and, by implication, the healing potential of dialogue, the intersubjective process of talking, listening, and creating meaning.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Interdividual Psychology and the Dialogical Self

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In the last chapter I discussed some of the limitations of a Bakhtininspired dialogical model of consciousness for the theory and practice of psychotherapy. It was argued that a dialogical model is far from an exhaustive explanation for human consciousness and is therefore inadequate on its own as a model of psychotherapy. I argued that Girard's theory of mimetic desire offers an alternative account of consciousness that, while it sometimes contradicts, can also complement and supplement the dialogical account.

The dialogical approach is a discursive structural analysis of both external dialogue between people and inner dialogue. Bakhtin's later account of dialogism suggests that human speech cannot be other than dialogic and that even apparently monologic discourse is animated by a concealed or hidden dialogism: as Bakhtin (1981) said, ever since the first word was spoken, words cannot help but be interrelated to other words. However, just as Bakhtin's dialogical analysis of Dostoevsky's novels does not fully convey the complexity, depth or moral purpose of his writing, an analysis of dialogue in psychotherapy does not fully take account of the desires and the moral dilemmas with which the patient and therapist are struggling. What the patient communicates is always more than language alone can convey. In looking only at discourse, the dialogical approach tends to find binary oppositions rather than triangular relationships and significations of difference, rather than sameness. Bakhtin, like most literary critics, used non-literary disciplines as analytical tools to deepen his understanding of Dostoevsky. Girard, however, approached the novels themselves as a source of knowledge. He found that while Dostoevsky wrote about the same issues in his earlier works, his understanding of the motives and meanings involved in his characters’ behaviour deepened in the later works; this could be read as a critical commentary of his early work that reflects his own development as a writer (Douchemel, 1988).

 

CHAPTER SIX: Towards a Further Integration of Interdividual Psychology and Dialogical Consciousness via Developmental Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Linguistics

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In the last chapter I discussed in greater detail how Girard's interdividual psychology could contribute to dialogical self theory, while acknowledging that a theory of desire on its own is not a sufficient or adequate basis on which to construct a model of human functioning that could usefully inform psychotherapy. I further argued that while the dialogical model and the interdividual model are complementary accounts that together have the potential for a greater understanding of human functioning and that although both are necessary, neither on their own nor in combination are sufficient. The linguistic turn in psychotherapy that conceives of the self as dialogical is reductive in that it offers a structural analysis of consciousness without adequately accounting for desire or motivation. The scope of interdividual psychology encompasses an apparently exhaustive range of human behaviour and subjective experience but is still inadequate in either accounting for or describing those aspects of human behaviour that are not governed by imitation, rivalry and, competition. In largely confining themselves to the symbolic realm of experience, both models could be said to perpetuate dualistic ways of thinking in that they do not take enough account of the fact all that human experience is embodied experience and therefore of human physiology.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Bakhtin's Ethics and Psychotherapy

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The previous chapter discussed how human interaction and communication is a complex but integrated phenomenon of which language itself is only a part. In focusing only on the dialogical in Bakhtin, psychotherapy misses the full significance of the contextual matrix in which dialogical consciousness is embedded in Bakhtin's thought as a whole, leading to an overly linguistic view of consciousness. The human body was a central and recurring theme in Bakhtin's thought, although he approached it from an ethical and philosophical perspective that is very different to the perspectives discussed in the last chapter. This chapter will discuss a theme that is widely seen as being common to all Bakhtin's writing, which is an ethics of interpersonal relatedness that is grounded in the principle of incarnation, i.e. the Word made flesh. In Bakhtin's thought dialogism is superior to monologism (PDP, pp. 81–82), closed systems of thinking such as abstract theory are inferior to those that are open as a result of human activity (Bakhtin, 1990, 194), the official is inferior to the unofficial, and dogma or fixed codes of any kind, from an ethical perspective, are inferior to the unique and unrepeatable concrete event (Bakhtin, 1993, pp. 23–24). Bakhtin (1990, 1993) is concerned with the particular rather than the general, lived experience rather than abstract ideals. Love and forgiveness in the context of the intimate I and Thou relationship, with what Holquist (1993) identifies as their associated themes of “authoring,” “responsibility,” “outsideness” and “participatory thinking,” are for Bakhtin far more important than the impersonal values of justice or fairness. Bakhtin would have abhorred the blanket generalisations about human subjectivity that passes for “scientific” research in clinical psychology and psychiatry.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Towards a Bakhtinian Practice of Psychotherapy

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… the embodiment of meaning in mortal flesh—is born and dies in the world and for the world; it is totally given in the world and can be consummated in the world … As such … it can be a hero. [Bakhtin, 1990, p. 111]

In this concluding chapter I will discuss how a more inclusive reading of Bakhtin, together with a qualified reading of Girard, could contribute towards finding a direction for a practice of psychotherapy inspired by Bakhtinian ethics. The dialogical aspects of Bakhtin have already been widely used to inform theory and practice in psychotherapy as discussed in Chapter Three. In this chapter I will focus on the other aspects of Bakhtin's thinking that I think are the contextual background in which the dialogical should be understood.

As previously discussed, there are many conflicting interpretations of Bakhtin and therefore when using his concepts in psychotherapy there is a need to be explicit about our own chosen interpretation. It is first necessary to return to the difficulties posed about the use of Bakhtin in psychotherapy theory and practice discussed in Chapter One. Two main questions emerged: given the uncertainty about the meaning of Bakhtin's most important concepts, how can psychotherapists justify the use of one meaning over any other? If there is an overall coherence to Bakhtin's works, can psychotherapists selectively appropriate particular concepts without distortion by removal from their wider context?

 

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