Dialogue and Desire: Michael Bakhtin and the Linguistic Turn in Psychotherapy by Rachel Pollard

Hepple, J., 2009. Dialogue and Desire: Michael Bakhtin and the Linguistic Turn in Psychotherapy by Rachel Pollard. Reformulation, Winter, pp.10-11.


Dialogue and Desire: Michael Bakhtin and the Linguistic Turn in Psychotherapy by Rachel Pollard (2008) UKCP, Karnac Series.

It is my pleasure to review Rachel Pollard’s excellent book. This is a substantial piece of work and Rachel’s attention to detail, respect for the myriad sources that underpin this dialogue, and her ability to turn an elegant phrase make this something of an epic but highly rewarding read for the philosophically inclined CAT therapist.

Rachel weaves together many threads that up until now may have been hanging loosely. Her primary subject is the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and its interface with psychotherapy theory, which can be coined as the ‘dialogical self’. The second major thread is the work of René Girard and his theory of ‘mimetic desire’. She goes on to bring these ideas into dialogue and suggests that dialogism alone may not fully account for human desires and emotions that ‘make meaning meaningful’. Girard’s ideas involve triangulations and the driving need to imitate others, resulting in violence and conflict in human affairs; ‘our desires arise because of what we perceive to be a lack in ourselves, which the other possesses’. Rachel’s account of Girard’s re-framing of the infanto-centric Freudian Oedipal dynamics is refreshing, and the concept of ‘conspicuous non-consumption’ as ‘perhaps the most intense competition of all’ is delightfully contemporary.

Those of you interested in the dialogical self in CAT will find Rachel’s exploration of various streams of Bakhtin’s work very illuminating. Rachel has previously emphasised her concerns around the limitations of a dialogical approach in psychotherapy, particularly the danger of a lack of finalisability, leading to dismay and confusion at the end of therapy, as the need to ‘believe in something’ is unfulfilled. In this longer exploration of Bakhtin, however, Rachel allows some ‘celebration’ of dialogism by allowing ‘uncertainty, unknowability, messiness and unpredictability’ into the work of therapy. She also demonstrates for us many imaginative ways in which Bakhtinian ideas can enter into dialogue with psychotherapy and CAT. Of particular interest is the moral obligation that comes with the act of being the attentive other in the therapy relationship; the duty owed by this ‘surplus of seeing’. As Rachel summarises: ‘For Bakhtin (1990), failing to attend actively to another is a failure of love’.

Rachel gives a much-needed account of the differences between ‘polyphony’ and ‘heteroglossia’ as the difference between many voices and many languages (the latter taking on specific social and temporal contexts). Perhaps the biggest idea arising from Rachel’s exploration is her synthesis of Bakhtin’s ‘outsideness’ with Girard’s concept, of ‘human sameness’, coining the term ‘insideness’. Insideness, she suggests, is the potential to ‘know other people from our interior knowledge of ourselves’. This, she describes, as the source of empathic connection and is an embodied experience in which physiological responses cannot be separated from the psychological. This links nicely with a discussion of Bakhtin’s ‘carnival’ and the humour and ‘transgressive togetherness’ of the ‘joyful anarchy of the body’. Psychotherapy is thus concerned with the fluctuating interplay between these two sorts of knowledge. Insideness is concerned with the commonality of human suffering, outsideness with the role ‘the individual usually unwittingly plays in the perpetuation of their own suffering’. This takes me to CAT’s relational restatement of counter transference as either empathic (identifying with the bottom role position) or reciprocal (taking the top role position) and the way CAT brings linking procedures into dialogue from our knowledge of enactment in the therapy relationship.

Girard, in Rachel’s account, also resonates well with CAT. For example, Girard’s conceptualisation of narcissism ‘not as an essence but a strategy’ takes us, in one easy step, to an Admiring to Admired and Contemptuous to Contemptible SDR: ‘The successful narcissist creates an illusion of self-love and self-sufficiency that actually depends on the desire of the other to sustain it. Metaphysical desire, in which the self is experienced as insufficient or inadequate in relation to the other, is humiliating and painful: a away of avoiding this is by imposing it on others’. So, desires can be very relational and very CAT in this account.

If you are looking for a lot of CAT in this book, then you will be disappointed. Rachel, perhaps due to her addressee being primarily an academic audience, seems to distance herself from CAT and does not really illustrate CAT’s dialogic heart with clinical material. She takes issue with Mikael Leiman’s position on the primacy of signs, favouring utterance as the indivisible unit of disclosure. Her critique of reciprocal roles and self-states as failing to take into account social and cultural history does not, I feel, do justice to the way these concepts are used by therapists and clients. I recently heard Tony Ryle robustly defend the predictable criticism of reciprocal roles as ‘reductionist’ by describing them as a necessary simplification and therefore a starting point upon which to build shared understanding.

Overall, Rachel’s work has greatly extended my understanding of a number of Bakhtin’s concepts and introduced me to many threads of understanding that I had not before encountered. I congratulate her on the achievement of bringing some very complex ideas to a wider audience.

Full Reference

Hepple, J., 2009. Dialogue and Desire: Michael Bakhtin and the Linguistic Turn in Psychotherapy by Rachel Pollard. Reformulation, Winter, pp.10-11.

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