Variations of Being

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Towards a Philosophy of the Act is a twice abandoned work. Extra-textually, it had been left for half a century in a Saransk lumber room, along with other early writings of Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, until students of his uncovered it in 1972. Although this abandonment is often accounted for by the fear (& personal memory) of censorship & imprisonment, such relinquishment was certainly characteristic of the writer. The last copy of a now-lost manuscript on the eighteenth century German novel, “Bakhtin — an inveterate smoker — used as paper to roll his own cigarettes during the dark days of German invasion (which gives some idea, perhaps, of how cavalierly Bakhtin regarded his own thoughts once they had already been thought through)” (Holquist xxiv-v).

There was also an intra-textual abandonment. The work remains a fragment, a fact that illuminates its own philosophy. Incompleteness, while not yet a virtue, is surely an inevitability. Conscious fragmentation is pure honesty.

The basis of this philosophy of the act is interaction (after Cartesian empiricism): the self in communication with other(s) & with itself. From these interactions with other people, we obtain “a concept of Being only as possible Being, & not essential, actual, once-occurent, inescapably real Being. This possible Being, however, is incapable of becoming, incapable of living” (15-6). To unpack this sentence, let us consider the child — it shows the change in thinking we require to observe. Following a similar excuse as geocentric logic, before the child comes to terms with the living existence of others, it is only permissible that it should see itself as the critical being. Eventually, its universe will fall apart: the child is not at its centre, nor is there an agreed collective axis. The child will come to see itself as a variation in recognising the free will of others which will overthrow the idea that the child’s identity is absolute.

It is inherent to Being as variation that you yourself are accountable for the one you choose: “The answerable act or deed alone surmounts anything hypothetical, for the answerable act is, after all, the actualisation of a decision — inescapably, irremediably, & irrevocably” (28). We must pay careful attention to the breaking into actuality from the hypothetical here: theorizing is not Bakhtin’s purpose, rather to describe life as it is experienced relatively in particularities. It is this shape that anti-systematism in philosophy often takes.

As such, there can be no ethical ideology & no doctrines. Truth is relative, then. This is coincidental with Kant’s Copernican Revolution, that human understanding cannot escape the human mind. This seems counterintuitive to the systematic thought Kant propounds. It is. The global pursuit of rationality has taught us to value objectivity — distance. “It is an unfortunate misunderstanding (a legacy of rationalism) to think that truth [pravda] can only be the truth [istina] that is composed of universal moments” (37). Here, the pre-transcripted* is essential for it hasn’t yet fallen to requisite distance.

There is no defence that could make you free of your freedom. This is what Bakhtin calls the “non-alibi in Being” (40), where answerability will not be lifted, never relieved. True, one may try to forget, but “[a] life lived on the tacit basis of my alibi in Being falls away into indifferent Being that is not rooted in anything” (43). This too is a choice, as the passivity is not enforced.

The abstract-sense aspect, when it is not correlated with inescapable actual uniqueness, has the character of a project: it is something like a rough draft of a possible actualization or an unsigned document that does not obligate anyone to do anything. Being that is detached from the unique emotional-volitional center of answerability is a rough draft, an unacknowledged possible variant of once-occurrent Being; only through the answerable participation effected by a unique act or deed can one get out of the realm of endless draft versions & rewrite one’s life once & for all in the form of a fair copy. (44)

This is the philosophy of the act. It is also the meeting point of literary theory & existentialism. The essential is to assume wholly, by becoming answerable for, your unique acts, & your Being through these acts. Uniqueness is dependent on the once-occurent, otherwise there is nothing but possibility & the hypothetical; there is never an event.

To account for yourself, you must also account for your history, which interacts & interlocks with human history (this was our starting point in naming “interaction” the philosophy’s basis). Unfortunately, those who have the greatest influence over this public history have a tendency of submitting to “a severing from the once-occurent context & the loss of once-occurent participation [—] especially frequent in the case of political answerability” (53). A fortuitous lack of principles is precisely what is required of leaders in objective cultures. They promote its perpetuation & give an alibi to being.

Life is elsewhere.


* The pre-transcribed refers to an act before it is morphed by thought, record, recollection, or awareness: it is the act as we don’t know it, the act as we cannot discus it. Nothing distances it from itself. In Bakhtinian terminology, this is the “once-occurent”.


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