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Dec 10, 2018

Practical polyphony

A friend of mine Dmitry Grigoriev had passed away a year ago, from a brain cancer. He was 43. Next week, a group of his friends and colleagues are doing a conference in Moscow honoring him. As I was thinking what to say, I though Dima was that rare person with a highly developed polyphonic mind.

The idea of polyphonic mind comes from Mikhail Bakhtin. In very basic terms, it is an ability to house a conversation among several opposing points of view within one’s mind. It is not just the trick of holding two opposing thoughts in your mind, no; it is the ability to have them engaged with each other in a dialogue. This kind of ability starts with giving credence to a point of view you may disagree with, the ability to ventriloquize the other, to speak on his or her behalf. That alone is very hard. So if you a liberal, try to think ad speak as a conservative, without making it a mockery. Dima could do that easily. He was politically somewhat more on the Left, but could pick up a nationalist or a liberal kind of reasoning on almost any subject, and make it sound convincing.

The next level of skill is to make those distinct voices sound like one complex melody. Those of you who know music, would recognize the perm instantly – it is when several distinct melodies form one polyphonic sound that is harmonious rather than cacophonous. Bakhtin took the analogy from music to show how it could be done in thought. His examples were Dostoevsky’s novels, where characters clash, disagree, and yet somehow, create one common narrative. Dima’s every paper and even a Facebook post was a little bit like that. Here is what Bakhtin wrote about Dostoevsky:

  • "Where others saw a single thought, he could find and feel two thoughts, a bifurcation. Where others saw one quality, he uncovered the presence of another, opposite quality. In his world, all that seems to be simple has become complex and heterogeneous. In every voice, he could hear two arguing voices, in every expression – a crack and a predisposition to turn into another, contrary expression; in every gesture, he detected confidence and uncertainty simultaneously; he perceived the deep ambiguity and polysemy of every phenomenon."
This kind of thinking is rare, but not that rare. For example, Bill Clinton is like that. He can could like both Al Gore and George Bush. He disagreed, but was always compassionate and understanding to the other side of the argument. He even encouraged Trump to run for President (Well, this one is perhaps taking it too far).

The polyphonic mind can appear flaky or void of principles. That is just fine with me; principals are highly opverrated. The ability to engage with others is a much more valuable skill than having stuck to some pre-determined principles. It also may appear less than productive. Polyphonic thinkers value the process of dialogue over the results of it, whether it is a decision, or a political victory. However, democracy is more procedural than outcome-driven, so people like that are invaluable for any democratic system. I which we had more people like Dima. Polyphony is a learned skill, although it probably has some personal pre-dispositions.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate this! I was just reading this MPI report ( on how to communicate with others about immigration in a "fact-free world, but surely there is no mention here of a basic principle such as polyphony. I am grateful to be reminded of the ethics of polyphony, thank you!