The Dialogic Imagination Essay - Critical Context

Mikhail Bakhtin

Critical Context

The critical context for Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism is, appropriately, double and must therefore itself be understood dialogically. It must be placed within the contexts of not only the specific intellectual setting in which it was formulated but also the poststructuralist period of the 1980’s, when Bakhtin’s posthumously translated works began to exert such a great influence in the West on critics. Much of what is included in The Dialogical Imagination was written in response to Russian Formalism, at the time the most influential school of literary thought in the Soviet Union. Bakhtin’s debt to the Formalists is undeniable, but it is their differences that are most significant. Where the Formalists stressed the distinction between literary language and everyday speech, Bakhtin noted the similarities and dialogic relations. For their methodological precision he substituted a far more speculative approach, concluding that no text (or utterance) can be reduced to the sum of its literary devices. Bakhtin’s emphasis on the openness of literature and language made him suspect not only to the Formalists but also to the Soviet authorities, whose revolutionary Socialist experiment (toward which Bakhtin was sympathetic) had already degenerated into repressive monologue. It is this same openness, coupled with his having anticipated so many of the most important ideas of later narratologists, that has made him so attractive a figure in the 1980’s. Bakhtin’s challenge to the naive assumptions upon which traditional theories are based is especially remarkable when one considers when and under what trying circumstances he conceived them. Yet they are no more remarkable than the evenhanded way in which he has coupled these challenges, as well as an insistence on the novel’s (and language’s) essential indeterminacy, to an equally strong commitment to the novel’s social and communicative functions—a commitment that calls into question many of the most fashionable claims of such influential critics as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.