Sunday, February 5, 2012

About Bakhtin and the Academy

A few days ago, I heard from a friend of mine that Bakhtin scholars today are earnestly discussing some claims that he plagiarized from the work of another writer (the German scholar, Cassirer) in his dissertation thesis, Rabelais And His World. The article cited as the source of this debate is one published by Brian Poole in the South Atlantic Quarterly (Duke University), 2001. The wikipedia talk-page on this issue, where Bakhtin scholars discuss the claims made by Poole and its viability for inclusion in the main wikipedia page on Bakhtin, is instructive: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3AMikhail_Bakhtin.

It is apparent that some scholars, such as Poole (2001) and Hirschkop (1998, 2001) are convinced that Bakhtin did plagiarize some parts of his dissertation thesis (which, for the record, was finally rejected - he was denied his doctorate by his university in Soviet Russia because of the perceived subversive nature of his dissertation and his arguments on the power of freedom of expression contained therein) from Cassirer's work on Renaissance philosophy. However, as all Bakhtin scholars point out, it would be difficult for any contemporary academic to understand the conditions that he worked under in Soviet Russia, fighting inter-war poverty, institutional control on scholarship and the so-called pressures of academic recognition.

I am no apologist for plagiarism, as I hate plagiarism in all forms and consequently harbour some kind of strong personal dislike for all those (especially in my university) who plagiarize without guilt or consequence. Whole papers are plagiarized at Delhi University - no one could dispute that. Plagiarized papers are, as per standard academic practice, penalized. However, I have seen many people present arguments in class or during tutorials without due citations. Such forms of "plagiarism" are more difficult to detect because they are conducted verbally. In principle, I believe that citations should be made when using specific references taken from someone's work, but general arguments do not need to be supported by citations.

At the same time, I am also against the kind of extremist arrogance of American academia that leads to claims of discrediting whole works of scholarship based on a few instances of plagiarism. I am against the seemingly "fundamentalist" approach used in unilaterally "discrediting" scholars based on perceived inadequacies. I am mainly against the arrogant language of opposition used to transact such discourses. American academia and American universities in general suffer from a kind of professional self-satisfaction.

If American academics wish to point out that something or the other is plagiarized, I would rather have them literally point it out - and that's all. I will decide for myself, if at all, whether or not I wish to re-examine the worth of someone's contribution to scholarship and knowledge.

Also, Anglo-American academia tends to promote a kind of structural fallacy - you have to fall into a certain structural "category" suitable for academic purposes. Here is an excerpt on Bakhtin (Pollard 2008): "This means that however little we know or understand [of] Bakhtin, we can make him mean what we want him to mean and the greater the historical and epistemological distance we are from him, the less likely are we to be challenged." Her preceding argument refers to the many-dimensional aspects of Bakhtin's works that apparently make him a jack of all trades, to use a less academic idiom.

I think it is unfair and logically inconsistent to expect any scholar, a human being, to devise a particular "school" or "canon" - for posthumous academic use basically - within his lifetime, ensuring that his interests and ideas remain loyal to that one particular thing or set of things. Academia betrays a lack of spontaneity.

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