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."