Bakhtin, Mikhail (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Mikhail Bakhtin 1895–1975
(Full name Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin; also transliterated as Bachtin and Baxtin; also published under the names P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov) Russian critic, essayist, and literary theorist.
The following entry provides an overview of Bakhtin's career. See also Mikhail Bakhtin Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.
One of the most significant literary theorists of the twentieth century, Bakhtin is noted for his studies of the relationship between language, popular culture, and the history of the novel as a literary genre. Claiming that language is an evolving entity whose form and meaning are constantly molded by history and culture, Bakhtin rejected rigid systems of thought that could not account for what he termed "heteroglossia": the polyphony of languages and perspectives that make up modern society and are reflected in its art—most strikingly for Bakhtin in the novel.
Born in Orel, south of Moscow, Russia, Bakhtin grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania and the Russian port city Odessa. He attended Novorossia University and later transferred to Petersburg University, from which he graduated in 1918. Bakhtin began writing in Petrograd during the postrevolutionary regime of Joseph Stalin, publishing his early works, Formal'nyj metod v literaturovedenii (1928; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship), Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk (1927; Freudianism: A Marxist Critique), and Marksizm i filosofija jazyka (1929; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) under the names of his students Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov to avoid the censorship and possible exile or execution common to intellectuals during the Stalinist administration. Despite his precautions, Bakhtin fell into disfavor with the government and was arrested in 1929. Due to his poor health, he was exiled to the Russian territory Kazakh rather than sent to prison camp. Before leaving, however, Bakhtin published Problemy tvorčestva Dostoevskogo (1929; Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics) under his own name; the book was immediately suppressed by the government. Bakhtin lived in Kazakh from 1929 to 1936, preparing his dissertation on the works of François Rabelais. Completed in 1940, Tvorčestva Fransua Rable i narodnaja kul'tura srednevekov'ja i Renessansa (Rabelais and His World) was suppressed by officials until 1965. Bakhtin taught at the Mordovian Teachers' Training College until the beginning of World War II, when he took time off to work on another manuscript. He returned to the college after the war, where he remained until his retirement in 1961. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Bakhtin's reputation outside the Soviet Union grew with the publication of Vo-prosy literatury i estetiki (The Dialogic Imagination) in 1973, and with the increasing academic interest in deconstructionist and structuralist theory. He died in Moscow in 1975.
Bakhtin is credited with introducing several seminal concepts to the field of literary theory. Contemporary critics comment that in the earliest works Bakhtin's ideas proved to be precursors to much modern structuralist and poststructuralist theory. In The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, Bakhtin criticized Russian Formalism's essentialist approach to literature, positing instead a sociological materialist method of study. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language outlines Bakhtin's sociohistorical theory of language, criticizing Ferdinand de Saussure's biophysiological linguistics. Freudianism: A Marxist Critique evaluates Freudian psychoanalysis from a Marxist materialist perspective. In his later works, Bakhtin expanded upon his sociohistorical focus—which he would eventually term "heteroglossia"—applying it to literature as well as linguistics. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics presents the ideas of polyphony and dialogism. Contending that Dostoevsky created a new kind of novel by giving each of his characters an individual voice unmarked by his own beliefs and opinions, Bakhtin believed that Dostoevsky's work proved that authors could escape their own reality in order to create another. The various voices of the novel together form what Bakhtin termed "dialogism"—the democratic and polyphonic intermingling of "high" and "low" forms of language and culture that reflects the heteroglot society at large. The concept of dialogism appears in most of Bakhtin's works and forms the basis of many of his literary and cultural theories. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin examined medieval and Renaissance European culture through an analysis of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. Using the concepts of carnival and the culture of laughter—both of which helped the underclasses in medieval and Renaissance times to parody official languages and established notions of high culture, as in, according to Bakhtin, Rabelais's free display of the human body—Bakhtin asserted that the carnival liberated and empowered those in the lower strata of society. The collection of essays entitled The Dialogic Imagination outlines Bakhtin's theory of the novel and includes much of his language theory, particularly in the essay "Discourse in the Novel."
After decades of suppression in Soviet Russia, Bakhtinian theory emerged in the West in the early 1960s as a major force in modern linguistics. Characterized by an aversion to the more systematized theories of such thinkers as Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, Bakhtin's concepts favored contextual openness and dialogue. Tzvetan Todorov and other critics have perceived this as evidence of an inherent lack of structure and therefore a major flaw in Bakhtin's work. Other critics such as Michael Holquist contend that Bakhtin's approach, while less structured than others, is not without order and reflects his conception of the novel: Bakhtin's "concept of language stands in relation to others … much as the novel stands in opposition to other, more formalized genres. That is, the novel—as Bakhtin more than anyone has taught us to see—does not lack its organizing principles, but they are of a different order from those regulating sonnets or odes." Controversy has also surrounded Bakhtin's theory of the carnival. Many scholars believe that the carnival primarily served not as a form of liberation and empowerment for the lower classes—as Bakhtin asserted—but as a practical method supported by the upper classes for defusing the frustrations of the underclasses, thus squelching real revolutionary fervor. Nonetheless, many critics have praised Bakhtin's attempts to "democratize" literature and theory, maintaining that his depiction of literature as a product and reflection of popular rather than high or elite culture is emblematic of humanistic social ideals. Stanley Aronowitz has written: "Bakhtin is the social theorist of difference, who, unlike Derrida and Foucault, gives top billing to historical agents and agency. For Bakhtin, there are no privileged protagonists, no final solutions, only a panoply of divergent voices which somehow make their own music."
Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk [as V. N. Voloshinov] (criticism) 1927
[Freudianism: A Marxist Critique 1976]
Formal'nyj metod v literaturovedenii [as P. N. Medvedev] (criticism) 1928
[The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship 1978]
Marksizm i filosofija jazyka [as V. N. Voloshinov] (criticism) 1929
[Marxism and the Philosophy of Language 1973]
Problemy tvorčestva Dostoevskogo (criticism) 1929
[Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 1973]
Tvorčestva Fransua Rable i narodnaja kul'tura srednevekov'ja i Renessansa (criticism) 1965
[Rabelais and His World, 1968]
Voprosy literatury i estetiki (essays) 1973
[The Dialogic Imagination, 1981]
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[In the following excerpt, Shukman surveys Bakhtin's major works and disputes the assumption that works published under the names Medvedev and Voloshinov are solely attributable to Bakhtin, due primarily to what she considers drastic stylistic differences between the three scholars.]
Outstanding among scholars who survived the decimation of the Leningrad intelligentsia in the late twenties and thirties is the literary historian, theorist and philosopher, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin. By the time of his death at the age of eighty in 1975, Bakhtin's reputation as an original thinker in the semiotic-structuralist manner was rapidly growing, both abroad and in his native land. Eulogies from, among others, Julie Kristeva (1970) and the Soviet semiotician Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov (1973) spoke of Bakhtin as a man before his time by virtue of his ideas on the notion of text, on the communicative functions of language, and on the binary structures of culture. As a literary scholar his work was already widely known through his studies of Dostoevsky (1929/1972) and Rabelais (1965). The year of his death saw the publication in the Soviet Union of an important collection of papers, for the most part previously unpublished, Questions of Literature and Aesthetics (1975). These papers … concentrate for the most part on problems of the novel and of discourse in the novel, topics that have been central for Bakhtin's literary...
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[A Bulgarian-born French critic, Todorov is a significant scholar in structuralist and post-structuralist theory. His writings include Littérature et signification (1967); Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970; translated and published as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 1973); and Théories du symbole (1977). In the essay below, Todorov explores Bakhtin's theory of the utterance as rooted in social context.]
Bakhtin formulates his theory of the utterance on two occasions: once during the late twenties, in the texts signed by Medvedev and especially by Voloshinov; and in several works published at the end of the fifties, some thirty years later. I will present these two syntheses separately, although there is no great difference between them (in fact, the only changes involve accentuations of various aspects of the utterance).
The first general formulations concerning the utterance are already to be found in Freudism (1927); one page of The Formal Method in Literary Studies (1928) evokes this problem from a similar viewpoint, with an insistence on the social rather than the individual nature of the utterance; but Bakhtin introduces here a new notion, which is not reiterated in subsequent writings: that of a discursive strategy.
Discursive strategy plays a particularly significant role in daily...
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[In the following essay, Wall discusses the importance of fictional characters to Bakhtin's theory of the novel, examining the notion that "heteroglossia," or "other-voicedness," is the defining characteristic of the genre.]
The present essay explores the nature of characters and narrators in the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin and his circle. Our project is a hazardous one because Bakhtin's texts do not provide us with a systematic discussion of this problem. As a consequence, it must be understood that the passages we have selected for discussion are taken out of a variety of contexts in his essays. As well, they come from all of his various intellectual periods. We have tried to systematize the concept of character in a series of texts where no such system exists, and we can only hope that ours is the position that Bakhtin would have espoused.
In order to understand his concept of character we must first discard all notions of language as langue and think of it rather as parole, that is, as a pure product of interpersonal contacts. Bakhtin's conception of character is so original that we feel compelled to define it first by saying what it is not, before being able to explain what it is.
When we try to make sense of Bakhtin, it is advisable to approach his texts with a particular question in mind and to let them answer. In Bakhtin's eyes, this is the way that Dostoevsky, his...
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[Anchor is an American historian and translator. In the following essay, he examines Bakhtin's interpretation of the carnival as a liberating experience in popular culture and shows the important role it plays in his theory of the novel.]
Mikhail M. Bakhtin is best known for his visionary conception of carnival—the carnivalesque, "carnival consciousness," "the culture of laughter"—as a model for the regeneration of time and the world and the emancipation of the human spirit: "This carnival spirit offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" [Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helen Iswolsky, 1968]. Bakhtin elaborated this model most fully in his best known work, Rabelais and His World, written largely in 1940, though not published until 1965, partly at least because of its anti-Stalinist implications. But the role of the carnival spirit and its revolutionary potential—its power "to consecrate inventive freedom, and to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted,"—this conception of the carnival spirit is fundamental to all of Bakhtin's work, dating back to the 1920s, and clearly goes beyond...
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[In the essay below, which was originally published in 1983, Stewart analyzes how Bakhtin's linguistic theories reject the abstract conception of language in favor of a purely social, "practical" one.]
During the period of the New Economic Policy, as Lenin sought, rather abashedly, to approach communism via a new form of "state capitalism," and as the concrete mode of peasant existence was being transformed into the abstractions of industrial labor, the contradictions between synchrony and diachrony, between "sincerity" and "irony," between insistences simultaneously upon meaning and "multivocality" were in full flower. The work of the Bakhtin school may be located within this milieu of contradiction. It is clear that Mikhail Bakhtin's project was not a linguistics but, to use his word, a "metalinguistics," an attempt to avoid an essentialist view of language and to see, within a social and historical frame, the creation and uses of both language and the term "language." [In an endnote, Stewart directs the reader to Gary Saul Morson's essay, "The Heresiarch of Meta," PTL 3, (October 1978): 407-27, for more information on this.] As Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics:
The point is not the mere presence of several linguistic styles, social dialects, etc., a presence which is measured by purely linguistic criteria; the point is the dialogical angle at which...
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[In the essay below, Jackson presents an overview of Bakhtin's texts and themes.]
Two citations from Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) are enough to suggest the difficulty involved in coming to any terms (in that phrase's sense of a unifying label and a temporal enclosure) with this increasingly important Russian writer. The first citation comes from his third chapter, "The Idea in Dostoevsky": "It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential and is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses." Later, in talking about catharsis, he says: "Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future." What marks this pluralistic approach where nothing is conclusive, according to Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, is "variety, nonrecurrence, and discorrespondence," a self that "never coincides with itself," an open, subversive, "carnivalistic" view of literature and the world. In Bakhtin's texts, laughter becomes a crucial "weapon" (military metaphors abound in his style), and polyphony, dialogism, intertext, utterance, and heteroglossia become the crucial code...
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[An American critic and educator, Emerson is the translator and editor, with Michael Holquist, of The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin (1981) and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays by Bakhtin (1987), as well as the author, with Gary Saul Morson, of Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (1990). Here, she explores problems in the application of Bakhtin's theories.]
Baxtin studies have come of age. For evidence of this one should look not at the exploding number of references, nor at the extraordinary seepage of his name into unlikely disciplines, nor even at the frequency of old themes now being newly reworked under the labels "dialogic" or "carnivalesque." Signs of maturity are registered, rather, in the nature of the dialogue. In the past two years, several "stabilizing" events have occurred.
A major biography has appeared in English (Clark and Holquist). A Festschrift in Baxtin's honor has been compiled by his former students in Saransk (S. S. Konkin), and the Soviet Academy of Sciences has published a summarizing account of Baxtin scholarship in the West (Maxlin). Half a dozen professional journals … have sponsored forums or special issues on Baxtin. In the Soviet Union, the concepts of dialogism and chronotope have been progressively refined—most creatively by the scholars of the Tartu School, who devoted an entire issue of Trudy po znakovym...
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[A Belgian-born American literary theorist, critic, and educator, de Man was a pioneer in establishing the theoretical movement known as "deconstruction," which he promoted in such works as Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971), Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (1979), and The Resistance to Theory (1986). The discovery in 1987 of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi articles written by de Man for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium in the early 1940s complicated the controversy already surrounding deconstruction, with some critics noting what they considered the biased, political nature of the movement. In the essay below, originally published in 1983, de Man analyzes Bakhtin's notion of dialogism and criticizes the ways in which it has been employed by subsequent thinkers.]
The set of problems that surrounds the relationship between fiction and reality in the novel recurs in many forms to organize contemporary theories of narration as well as of the relationship between narrative, discursive, and poetic language. Much is at stake, stylistically, philosophically, and historically, in these discussions whose importance, not only in the realm of theory but also in the practical sphere of ethics and politics, is superseded only by their difficulty. The higher the stakes the harder the game. Such situations, conducive to obsession...
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[Holquist is an American critic, educator, and translator whose works include Dostoevsky and the Novel: The Wages of Biography (1977) and the biography Mikhail Bakhtin (1985, with Katerina Clark). In the following excerpt from his book Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, Holquist traces fundamental issues in Bakhtin's theories of language and society.]
Mikhail Bakhtin made important contributions to several different areas of thought, each with its own history, its own language, and its own shared assumptions. As a result, literary scholars have perceived him as doing one sort of thing, linguists another, and anthropologists yet another. We lack a comprehensive term that is able to encompass Bakhtin's activity in all its variety, a shortcoming he himself remarked when as an old man he sought to bring together the various strands of his life's work. At that time he wrote:
our analysis must be called philosophical mainly because of what it is not: it is not a linguistic, philological, literary or any other particular kind of analysis…. On the other hand, a positive feature of our study is this: [it moves] in spheres that are liminal, i. e., on the borders of all the aforementioned disciplines, at their junctures and points of intersection.
But if we accept even so privative a sense of "philosophy" as a way to describe the sort of thing...
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[In the following essay, Hoy applies Bakhtin's model of textual dialogism and the carnivalesque to an analysis of contemporary popular culture.]
Mikhail Bakhtin is acknowledged in increasingly wide circles as a sensitive observer of popular culture in its socio-historical context. His acute study of the folkloric rituals of carnival—from the phallophors of epic Saturnalia, whose role was to joke and cavort obscenely, to the rogue comedians at turn-of-the-century country fairs—uncovers a vast and fertile dialogue of heteroglossia. Not only at the carnival but pervading all levels of language, Bakhtin identifies infinitely shifting heteroglottal strata made up of loosely bound generic wholes, subgeneric wholes, accents, systems, dialects, and constantly fragmented layers of language working together, or at battle, or at play. This dialogic scheme covers, in The Dialogic Imagination and Rabelais and His World, most epic drama and Russian and European nineteenth-century realist literature and invites its own extension into areas of recent Western popular culture.
Although Bakhtin insists that the novel is the key form of the time, his advantage over everyone else working on novel theory is his appreciation that the novel, rather than assimilating its language to form, shapes its form to languages and consequently appears as what Michael Holquist describes as a "supergenre," ingesting and engulfing...
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Clark, Katerina, and Holquist, Michael. Mikhail Bakhtin.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, 398 p.
Discusses Bakhtin's life and works.
Bauer, Dale M., and McKinstry, Susan Jaret, eds. Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, 259 p.
Collection of essays that apply Bakhtinian theory to feminist literary analysis.
Booth, Wayne C. "Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism." Critical Inquiry 9, No. 1 (September 1982): 45-76.
Applies a feminist reading to Bakhtin's analysis of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel in his Rabelais and His World.
Emerson, Caryl. "Russian Orthodoxy and the Early Bakhtin." Religion and Literature 22, Nos. 2-3 (Summer-Autumn 1990): 109-31.
Asserts that Bakhtin's religious beliefs combined spiritual Russian Orthodoxy with academic Western European philosophy and assesses how those beliefs contributed to his cultural and literary theories.
Guéorguiéva-Dikranyan, Névéna. "Historicity and the Historical Novel in the Work...
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