Arms and the (Hu)Man

In an recent post, I quoted poet and emeritus professor of education James McGonigal on inspirational teaching as a form of “dialogism.” The fundamental concept, from Russian literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), is that the self is not whole in itself, but only in dialogic relationship with all that is Other, especially other selves.


Stay with me for a moment. This is good stuff. 


The term “transgredience” is important here. Yes, there is a gap between mind and world, between I and not-I. But that’s a boundary that can be overcome, according to Bakhtin. It can be “transgressed” or crossed (trans- is “across” and gress- from Latin gradior means “walk, step, go”).


How can it be transgressed? Think of it this way, says Bakhtin. You and I are looking at each other.


Artist Damien Hirst

I see more of you than you can see of yourself. Right? I see everything you can see of yourself plus more: I have what he calls a “surplus of seeing.” I see your forehead and the wall behind your head, for example. The same is true for you as it relates to me. You have a surplus of seeing, too. You see more of me than I can see of myself. Now, what if we add together our surpluses? That way each of us gets a fuller picture. (Or put it the way I did in the earlier post: what if some teacher is skillful enough to show you what you cannot see, on your own, of or within or about yourself?)


In a sense, this is a wonderfully positive way to think about our need for each other, isn’t it? The value of community? Nothing is anything in itself.


But here’s the problem. Or the apparent problem. If I cannot exist except in relation to a not-I, that is, except in relation to an other or outside, then in what sense or what degree am I free? After all, I do not create that outside upon which I depend for my very existence as a self. It is simply there, assigned to me.  Does that outside press upon me so heavily that I am, in effect, without free will?


Great question. As for Bakhtin, he would say no, not quite. As Michael Holquist puts it in Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World, there is something beyond the tyranny of the now. Go back to the two people facing each other. If I sit there long enough, you’ll leave (taking with you your particular description of my forehead) and someone will take your place (who may have nicer, or at least different, things to say about my appearance). So although I may be dependent upon and shaped by the outside, I am not entirely at its mercy. I am not entirely determined by it. Over time, the other changes. Yes, it’s a struggle to generate meaning in our lives (Holquist 37):


A dialogic world is one in which I can never have my own way completely, and therefore I find myself plunged into constant interaction with others—and with myself. In sum, dialogism is based on the primacy of the social, and the assumption that all
meaning is achieved by struggle.


But in that there is room for struggle, there is always hope. Clearly.


So here we are finally at the brink. Willing to jump with me, intrepid reader (or maybe I’ve lost every last one of you, and at this point I’m talking only to the “not-I-in-me,” which is really okay)? What if Bakhtin’s two transgredients are in fact wearing masks?


Performance artist and WordPress blogger Chun Hua Catherine Dong
Performance artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong

You see the difficulty. Bakhtin says that the deterministic threat of the extrapersonal social force (the English phrase is Holquist’s) can be mitigated or evaded. We are free after all. But what kind of dialogue can take place if the “you” whom I see is actually not you, and the “I” whom you see is, well, wrong? This is simplistic, but put it this way: Suppose all of you say to me, “Jim, there’s no question about it: you’re a lawyer through and through. No, no, we won’t hear different. It’s written on your face. Now here’s your desk. Your first client is Koch Industries. They need help figuring out how to channel money to hard-right conservative causes without leaving any fingerprints. Get to work!”


That’s a language founded on a lie (remember: you all conspired to force that mask onto my face). As Holquist puts it: “Extreme versions of such language would be religious systems and certain visionary forms of government that have as their end that prelapsarian condition in which words are not necessary. Speech falls away because—in the state such ideologies wish to underwrite—no mediation is necessary since everyone’s thought is in step with everyone else’s. There is no difference between individual and society.” Official, monologic speech replaces dialogue; totalitarianism replaces freedom. Horrors.


That, in essence, is what the man pictured here was asking about 2000 years ago, in a work that despite its extraordinary influence through the ages, is today misunderstood and under-appreciated.



Publius Vergilius Maro was born on October 15, 70 B.C., in northern Italy. He died on September 21, 19 B.C., as he was returning to Italy from Greece. We know little about him. The biographies that we have are full of improbable, even fantastic anecdotes. Moreover, inferring facts about an author from his or her own writings is a dubious undertaking. We do know that Vergil composed at least three poems, all of which survive: the Eclogues, also known as Bucolics, a collection of ten pastoral poems; the Georgics, which has the form of an agricultural treatise; and the Aeneid, an epic in the mold of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.


In the last-named poem, Vergil tells the story of a warrior, Aeneas, who leads a remnant of the Trojan people out of the city that the Greeks are pillaging and burning. These Trojans make their way westward, and after many trials and tribulations, they reach Italy. There, with their allies, they fight a war against an allied force of Italian peoples, including the ancient Latins. In the end, the war is decided by a duel between Aeneas and Turnus. The former first wounds and then, ignoring his plea for mercy (read: rejecting dialogue for monologue), kills the latter. End of poem.


I’m sure that I will have more to say about this poem in a later post or later posts For now, here’s the conclusion of an article of mine that came out in 2012. You can see, I hope, the points of contact among what Bakhtin is proposing about dialogism, why McGonigal and I think certain teachers stand out as “inspirational,” and one genius poet’s deep concern that when the interests of the many — of the state — force an individual to play a role, to wear a mask, to pull on a helmet, then that (hu)man becomes capable of anything.


81dN-HkuqCL._SL1446_“[The first words of the poem, arma virumque,] anticipate a pattern of relationship in the poem between arms and the man, that is, between outside and inside, ‘it’ and ‘I,’ objective causation and human volition. The man in arms embodies and symbolizes, as the poem has it, a paradox of the human condition: that we cannot live outside of history, and yet within it, we are subject to an unending struggle to maintain our individuality and humanity, the foundation of which is our will, our ability to choose, our control over our own lives. ”


Dark, yes. But without the courage to stare into the abyss from time to time, how will we recognize it when we arrive at its very edge?


Thanks for reading. “See” you back here soon, I hope.


P.S. If you are chomping at the bit for more, you may peruse this, if you’d like:




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