Refuse That Final Word

“The more authoritarian a social regime is, the more insistently it will simplify the possible responses—always converging on thumbs up or thumbs down—and demand the correct one. I don’t think we live in a totalitarian, or even an authoritarian regime—not even close—but in any given culture there are always authoritarian subcultures, and we have more of those than we used to, because our social media empower such attitudes and practices and demands. And to accept those attitudes and practices and demands is to undergo a diminution of personhood.

Someone who lived under a genuinely totalitarian regime, the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, often wrote about what he called the “surplus,” a term he used in several ways. The one I want to emphasize is this: The surplus of any human being (me, you, my neighbor) is what exceeds description, what cannot be expressed in any sociological definitions of identity. In his magnificent essay “Epic and Novel” (1941), Bakhtin writes of the “surplus of humanness” that each of us possesses and that makes us—this is a numinous term for him—“unfinalizable.” No one can say the last and complete word about any of us. It is the ambition of all authoritarian regimes, social or political, to utter that final and definitive word about whoever comes within its orbit; it is, for Bakhtin, an ethical imperative to refuse that final word, whether uttered about myself or my neighbor.”

-Alan Jacobs, “You Are Not a Server.” The Hedgehog Review. April 26, 2022

I enjoyed this little essay. Then, I realized I follow the author. Alan Jacobs has a blog and a newsletter that is currently on hiatus. He focuses on Christian themes and is not always my cup of tea. But, it’s worth occasionally dipping in for pieces like this one. Other recent writing from him can be found at his website.