Mikhail Bakhtin

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Ann Shukman (essay date 1980)

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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of his death saw the publication in the Soviet Union of an important collection of papers, for the most part previously unpublished, Questions of Literature and Aesthetics (1975).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 studies since the 1920s. There is also an English translation of the volume, The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Professor J. M. Holquist.

For a major thinker so close to us in time much about Bakhtin still remains unknown: the circumstances of his leaving Leningrad in 1929 immediately after the publication of the book on Dostoevsky, of the six years spent in remote Kustanai, of the loss in the early days of the war of a major work on the European novel; it is not clear why the publication of the study on Rabelais was delayed for twenty years, nor how he came to live and work in Saransk. Finally, and most importantly, there still remains the problem of the Bakhtin canon. When in 1973 Ivanov published his long and appreciative study of Bakhtin's contribution to semiotic thinking, he made the claim that Bakhtin was in fact the author of, or at least very largely responsible for, the books known as V. N. Voloshinov's Freudianism (1927) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) and P. N. Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), as well as several papers published under Voloshinov's and Medvedev's names. Voloshinov and Medvedev, both established scholars in their own right who perished in the thirties (Voloshinov disappeared in 1934, Medvedev was 'illegally repressed' in 1938), were, according to Ivanov, close associates and pupils of Bakhtin. Bakhtin, possibly because of the onset of what was to become chronic osteomyelitis, seems to have had no established employment in Leningrad in the twenties, though he was associated with the State Institute for the History of the Arts, and with the State Publishing House. Voloshinov and Medvedev, both evidently enthusiastic Marxists, could, so the argument goes, have lent their names and status to get Bakhtin's work published. The main source of information on Bakhtin's life to date merely notes the friendship and scholarly associations among the three men, which dated back to the early twenties when all three were in Vitebsk. Bakhtin himself during his lifetime neither denied nor confirmed Ivanov's claims publicly. The question is no doubt more complex than Ivanov gave his readers to understand, and until the publication of more of Bakhtin's archive the question remains an open one….


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of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929/1972) is Bakhtin's best-known work and the first to be widely translated. As a profound and original reading of Dostoevsky's fictional writings and an epoch-making investigation of types of discourse in the novel, the book is still essential reading for anyone concerned with the theory of the novel, or with Dostoevsky studies. Julia Kristeva's preface to one of the two French versions (1970) claims Bakhtin as a pioneer thinker in the theory of the anti-representational text, and of language as a self-creating process. Although Bakhtin's theory of the novel is based on discourse rather than on represented world, for him behind each 'voice' that makes up the plural novel-text is a 'consciousness' which is an ultimate reality; and Kristeva's epistemological void is alien to Bakhtin's personalism, steeped as it is in Western humanist values.

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is the cornerstone of Bakhtin's later thinking and, although his ideas were added to, modified, and rephrased, the essential is already here. The book is divided into five substantial chapters. The first considers previous Dostoevsky criticism and puts forward the notion of the 'polyphonic' text. It was Dostoevsky's genius, according to Bakhtin, to be the first writer to come to a new manner of artistic thinking that presented human consciousness in all its fullness and thereby broke out of the shackles of 'monologic' artistic thinking:

The originality of Dostoevsky lies not in the fact that he monologically proclaimed the value of the personality (others had done this before him), but in that he was able to see the personality objectively-artistically, and to show it as another, someone else's, personality, without making it lyrical, without fusing his voice with its, and at the same time not reducing it to a reified psychic reality.

The polyphonic work is constructed on the principles of dialogue, so that there is no one dominant voice, but a plurality of voices (consciousnesses) of equal validity, among which the author's may be one.

The second chapter discusses characterization in Dostoevsky's works and authorial attitudes to character. The Dostoevskian character, Bakhtin suggests, is presented through his own self-awareness: all the fixed objective qualities of the character, his social position, his personal characteristics, his environment, even his appearance, are presented through the character's own reflections. In novels before Dostoevsky's the self-awareness of the character was usually one element only in the construction of the character. In Dostoevsky's works the author does not 'reserve anything for himself', the character lives himself in endless ideological confrontations and discussions with himself and with others. The third chapter, 'The Idea in Dostoevsky', discusses the treatment of ideological material in the novels and how it is essentially bound up with characterization.

The fourth chapter looks at Dostoevsky's works from the perspective of classical and West European literature and suggests that the novels belong to the genre of Menippean satire and 'carnival' literature. In later works, discussed below, Bakhtin looks to these sources as the originators of the genre of the novel as a whole, and these ideas are the basis for his study of Rabelais.

The final chapter entitled 'The Word in Dostoevsky' is the key section for the understanding of Bakhtin's theory of discourse in the novel. By 'word' (slovo) Bakhtin means 'language in its concrete and living totality' as against the abstract and systematized language studied in linguistics. This is language in its essentially dialogic functioning, the 'discourse' of actual communication. One of the central notions running through Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is that of dialogue, understood in the widest sense as the continuous flow of verbal communication in which man thinks, enters into social relations, and out of which he builds his literature and ideologies. 'For dialogic relationships are … an almost universal phenomenon that permeates all human speech and all relationships and manifestations of human life, in general everything that has sense and meaning'. Closely connected with the notion of dialogue is the notion of consciousness. The ultimate reality that lies beneath all human activity is the individual personality and its self-awareness in consciousness. Consciousness is itself dialogic, is in dialogic relationships with other consciousnesses, and can be revealed only through dialogue.

For there to be dialogue (or polyphony) there must be awareness of the 'other's' voice, the 'you' which is neither 'I' nor 'he'. A key concept in Bakhtin's thinking about language is the opposition 'own voice'/'other's voice'. This concept can be neatly expressed in Russian (svoi: 'own'/chuzhoi: 'other's') but translates more clumsily into English where chuzhoi has been variously rendered as 'someone else's', 'another's', even 'alien', or 'reported' (as in the English version of Voloshinov 1929). Bakhtin's typology of prose discourse distinguishes three main types, of which the third type, two-voice discourse, the most important type for the novel, is based on the own/other's distinction.

1. Discourse focused directly on to its referent which expresses the speaker's ultimate meaning.

2. 'Object discourse' (the speech of a represented character).

3. Discourse that focuses on 'another's discourse' (chuzoe slovo) or 'two-voice' discourse. This, the largest category, is further subdivided into:

(a) Unidirectional two-voice discourse (for example, first-person narrative, narrative by a narrator, stylization);

(b) Multidirectional two-voice discourse (this group includes all kinds of parody, and any reporting of another person's speech with a change of accent);

(c) The active type (or, reflected 'other's discourse')—this group includes: hidden internal polemic, polemically coloured autobiography, any discourse 'that glances round at another's discourse'; it includes also any replique in dialogue, as well as hidden dialogue.

Bakhtin points out that these schematic categories are in no way mutually exclusive, and in reality merge into one another, but a study of discourse 'from the point of view of its relationship to another's discourse has, it seems to us, exceptionally important significance for the understanding of literary prose' a view which many literary scholars today would agree with.

Bakhtin's ideas in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics give rise to at least two major objections, both of which Bakhtin was to some extent aware of and on which he commented. Firstly, if the polyphonic text is the open-ended self-revelation of a plurality of voices, then what gives the text its unity and actual finiteness? Bakhtin does no more than point to this problem in the Preface; but the problem is a real one and, being unresolved, leaves Bakhtin's theory a theory of discourse in the novel rather than a theory of the novel. The second objection is perhaps a weightier one: can one have any theory of literature, or theory of an aspect of literature, that ignores, as Bakhtin does, the boundary between fiction and life? The Dostoevskian character, we are told, 'rebels' against his literary embodiment, enters into 'free' dialogic relationships with the authorial voice. But this kind of 'life' of the character, his parity with the author, is in reality a fiction and an illusion, the 'own' and the 'other's' voice being both in fact the product of an author. Against this, Bakhtin argues as follows:

On this point we should forestall a possible misunderstanding. It might seem that the independence of the hero contradicts the fact that he is wholly given merely as an aspect of the work of literature and consequently is wholly, from beginning to end, created by the author. In fact this contradiction does not exist. We are arguing for the freedom of the hero within the bounds of the artistic intention, and in this sense, the freedom of the hero is just as much created as the unfreedom of the object- [i. e. reified] hero.

For, Bakhtin then argues, to create is not the same as to invent. Creation 'is bound both by its own laws and by the laws of the material with which it is working'; creation, in fact, 'merely reveals that which is given in the object itself'. These remarks should probably be interpreted to mean that art is a search for truth, and that truth is truth whether it is within the fictional world or without. One is left with the feeling that what Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is ultimately about is a philosophy of man rather than a theory of literature. It is interesting to note in this connection how far Bakhtin is from the Formalist position: for them the starting point was the notion of literariness, the qualities which mark off literature from nonliterature.

These objections apart, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is a seminal work: it not only laid the foundation for many of the key ideas in Bakhtin's later thinking, but it opened up a totally new way of considering the novel. In his subsequent writings on the novel Bakhtin moved on from the idea of the polyphony of the Dostoevskian novel to a view of the essential polyphony (or 'polyglottism'—mnogoyazychie was his later term) of all novels as compared with other genres. His investigations into the prehistory of the European novel led him to explore the binary nature of human culture and to give profound significance to the formative role of unofficial, 'carnival' or 'laughter' culture. He developed some original notions about the time structures of literature, and of the novel as compared with other genres, seeing the novel as essentially open-ended, concerned with the flow of time, and with contact with contemporaneity, as against the epic, for instance, whose time was distanced and closed. Through all his works is the underlying notion of man and of human values, as the hub of all literary activity.

The years spent before the war in remote regions far from the main centres of Russian cultural life were fruitful ones for Bakhtin. By the mid thirties he had completed 'The Word in the Novel' (1935), a book-length study of the stylistics of the novel…. This work, like most of Bakhtin's work from this period, was published only in 1975. It begins with a criticism of contemporary stylistics which, Bakhtin argues, has so far been unable to deal with the novel as such. This is because stylistics has been 'deaf to dialogue'. The second chapter explores the differences between the word in poetry and the word in the novel: unlike the essentially polyglot nature of novel-discourse, poetry-discourse is characterized by its unitary and incontrovertible nature:

The world of poetry, however many contradictions and hopeless conflicts are revealed in it by the poet, is always illumined by unitary and incontrovertible discourse. Contradictions, conflicts and doubts remain in the object, in the thought and experiences, i.e. in the material, but not in the language. In poetry the word about doubt must be a word without doubt.

Subsequent chapters discuss polyglottism in the novel, the 'speaking man' in the novel, and the development of the European novel.

In 1937–8, Bakhtin completed a large work on the European novel of education of which only a section, 'Forms of Time and of Chronotopos in the Novel', survives (1938). This study, to which Bakhtin added concluding remarks in 1973, is a masterly survey of the representation of time and space in the novel. Bakhtin argues that the chronotopos (lit. the time-space) has important genre-defining significance for literature: 'One can say directly that it is the chronotopos which determines genre and subtypes of genre … The chronotopos as a form-content category also determines (to a considerable extent) the image of man in literature. This image is always essentially chronotopic'. Bakhtin follows these ideas through in considerations of the Greek novel; the works of Apuleius and Petronius; biography and autobiography in ancient literature; historical inversion and the chronotopos in folklore; the books of chivalry; the functions of the rogue, buffoon and fool in the novel; the chronotopos in Rabelais and its roots in folklore; the idyllic chronotopos. The concluding remarks briefly survey the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel. This study must be classed as one of Bakhtin's finest works. As with the notion of dialogue in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, so here with the notion of the chronotopos, what could have been a mere technical device becomes the starting point for a rich investigation into the nature of man in literature and the function of literature in human culture.

By 1937 Bakhtin had returned from exile and was settled near Moscow at Kimry, and by 1940 he had completed his doctoral dissertation on Rabelais (this was not defended until 1946, when it was awarded not a doctor's but merely a kandidat's degree; it was published only in 1965). At this period, Bakhtin gave two lectures to the Institute of World Literature in Moscow, eventually published (in 1975) under the titles 'From the Prehistory of the Novel-Word' (1940) and 'The Epic and the Novel' (1941)…. These two papers admirably summarize Bakhtin's thinking about the novel. The first paper is in two parts, the first discussing the interplay of languages in the novel, and the second considering the origins of the novel which, Bakhtin argues, arises from two factors—laughter and polyglottism (mnogoyazychie). Bakhtin surveys the currents of parody and travesty in classical and medieval literature, which led to the great novels of the Renaissance period. He concludes:

At the end of the middle ages and at the time of the Renaissance parodic-travestying discourse burst all barriers. It burst into all the strict and closed direct genres … Finally there appeared the great novel of the age of the Renaissance, the novels of Rabelais and Cervantes. It is precisely in these two works that the novel-discourse which had been prepared by all the forms discussed above and also by the heritage of antiquity revealed its capabilities and played its titanic role in the formation of the new literary-linguistic consciousness.

In 'The Epic and the Novel' Bakhtin summarizes the principal differences between epic and novel. The novel, he says, is the 'sole genre in process of becoming, because it reflects more profoundly, more essentially, more sensitively and more quickly the becoming of reality itself'. The novel is distinguished by its 'three-dimensionality' which is bound up with the polyglot consciousness that is realized in it. The novel has radically different time-coordinates from those of other genres, by virtue of its central concern with the present and the process of becoming, and its images are radically different as befits its concern with contact with passing life. The epic world, on the other hand, 'is completed [zavershen] through and through not only as a real event of the distant past, but also in its purport and its values: it cannot be altered or reinterpreted or revalued … This is what determines the absolute epic distance'. Bakhtin goes on to discuss the role of memory and cultural values in the formation and preservation of literature, the opposition of official and unofficial literature, the role of carnival literature in the origin of the novel, and the particular importance of the Socratic dialogue and Menippean satire in this process, and he ends up with a discussion of the image of man in the novel.

In Bakhtin's study of Rabelais (1965) we find the fullest exposition of his ideas on the role of unofficial art, of the 'carnival' in culture. Carnival laughter is universal, everyone can and does laugh at everyone and everything including the sacred. This is laughter 'at the world'. But it is ambivalent laughter: 'It is merry and exultant and yet at the same time mocking and ridiculing. It negates and affirms, buries and resurrects'. All cultures have had their unofficial, carnival side, but in the Renaissance the laughter-culture came into the open: 'The Renaissance was, so to speak, the direct carnivalization of consciousness, world-outlook and literature'. Bakhtin's approach to Rabelais, unlike that of previous Rabelais scholars, was to show that his work stems from these traditions of popular 'laughter-culture', and he examined in detail how various forms of popular, unofficial art are reflected in Rabelais' work.

It is witness to Bakhtin's stature that in the darkest years of Soviet history and of his own personal life he could conclude this magnum opus with the words:

We repeat, every act of world history has been accompanied by a chorus of laughter. But not in every age has the laughing chorus had a coryphaeus like Rabelais. And although he was the coryphaeus of the popular chorus only in the age of the Renaissance, he revealed the original and difficult language of the laughing people with such clarity and fullness that his work sheds light on the popular laughter-culture of other ages as well.

To turn now to the works whose authorship is disputed, these are discussed here in what seems to the present writer to be the descending order of Bakhtin's involvement. Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is in many respects nearest to the rest of the Bakhtin canon. It applies the notion of dialogue to a general theory of language, starting from the premise that 'speech interaction is the basic reality of language'. The book is divided into three sections. There is first an important, though sketchily worked out, semiotic theory. For Voloshinov there can be no sign without ideology (by this he means that no sign is without cultural significance or value), and conversely no ideology (scientific knowledge, literature, religion, ethics, etc.) that is not expressed in signs and sign systems. Signs, besides being ideological, are also material and social. Consciousness too is linguistic and hence sign-bound. These views show affinity with the ideas of C. S. Peirce (for instance, 'Man—a Sign'), with which Voloshinov was evidently not familiar, and with those of Ernst Cassirer (Philosophie der symbolischen Formen), with which he evidently was. For all three thinkers, man's mental activities are sign-creating and sign-bound. The particular originality in Voloshinov's thinking is the emphasis on the materiality and social nature of the sign.

The second part of the book, devoted to the philosophy of language, is a powerful criticism of current linguistic theories which Voloshinov treats under two main headings: 'individualistic subjectivism' (von Humboldt, Wundt, Vossler and Croce), and 'abstract objectivism' (Saussure and the Geneva school, whose origins may be found in the ideas of Descartes and Leibniz). Against these trends Voloshinov proposes a theory of language based on the utterance which is taken as 'a point in the continuous process of speech communication'. His is a sociological approach to language, which sees language as inextricably bound up with ideology, meaning as context-bound, and all essential language activity, even the process of understanding, as dialogic.

The third part of the book, which is of particular interest to literary scholars, is an application of these ideas to an area of syntax: the forms of direct, indirect and free indirect speech. The analysis uses the 'own/other's' opposition and is concerned with the various ways by which a second interlocutor's words are reported by a first interlocutor. This extensive and penetrating study of the two-voice discourse in literature complements and elaborates on the typology Bakhtin outlined in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Although in some respects superseded by more recent studies, Voloshinov's study remains a classic pioneering work. A recent elaboration of its ideas in the Soviet Union is Boris Uspensky's Poetika Kompozitsii (1970).

If Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is to be ascribed at least in part to Bakhtin, then at a rough guess one might ascribe the Marxism to Volshinov and the philosophy of language to Bakhtin. The emphasized materialism of the first part sounds like an intrusion of another's voice into Bakhtin's own discourse and it is hard to agree with the translator of the French version that 'There can, of course, be no question of doubting Bakhtin's Marxist convictions; the book is Marxist through and through …'. A sociological approach need not necessarily be a Marxist one, and an extension of Bakhtin's theory of consciousness based on dialogue into a sociological theory of language based on dialogue was a natural and logical one. Bakhtin's evidently deeply held personalist understanding of man would not necessarily commit him either to adopt or to reject any one particular doctrine: for the essential Bakhtin seems to have been a man of extraordinarily open mentality to whom all dogmatism was alien.

Another work that appeared under the authorship of Voloshinov is a slender volume on Freud (1927). This too has been ascribed to Bakhtin, but here the evidence would seem to be more slender. A fairly superficial reading of Freud's main ideas with certain notable omissions (as Neal Bruss points out in his excellent commentary), the book's main interest probably lies in the extension of the theory of discourse and the criticism of Freudianism for its neglect of linguistics, a criticism that sounds rather hollow today. The main thrust of Voloshinov's criticism is directed against Freud's ignoring the social reality of human discourse, the fact that 'self-consciousness in the final analysis always leads us to class consciousness … Here we have the objective roots of even the most personal and intimate reactions'. This is a fairly pedestrian work and one which it is hard to ascribe to the pen of Bakhtin.

Another alleged contender for inclusion in the Bakhtin canon is P. N. Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928). This is an extraordinarily uneven work. It starts (Part One) with a cogently argued programme for a Marxist theory of literature, one which would get away from the crude content/form approach and look at the work of literature as an ideological unit of form and content in which the structures of socioeconomic life are refracted. It argues against an oversimplified reflectionist theory of literature. The book then goes on in Part Two to an erudite and sophisticated account of Formalism in West European (mostly German) art scholarship, and an overview of the Russian Formalist movement. The rest of the book (Parts Three and Four), however, shows a marked change of tone as specific items of Formalist thinking are brought under review. The selection here is biased in the extreme: attention is focused almost exclusively on the earliest, Opoyaz works; Tynyanov, one of the most brilliant of the Formalist theorists, gets scant mention; Jakobson hardly figures at all. Those topics that are chosen for discussion are criticized in a naive and clumsy way: the plot/story (fabula/syuzhet) opposition is treated in a crudely reflectionist way; Shklovsky's fruitful ideas on the laws of plot-construction (elaborated by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale, published in the same year as Medvedev's book) are dismissed in a scant two pages. It is perhaps unfair to operate with hindsight, but from Medvedev's clumsy polemic it would in no way be possible to envisage the enormously fruitful heritage of Russian Formalism in modern structuralist and semiotic thinking. It is hard to resist the impression that two hands were involved in this book, and if one of them was Bakhtin's then the temptation to ascribe Part Two to him is overwhelming, and if Part One also then the presentation of Bakhtin as non-Marxist will have to be revised. If he is really responsible for the whole book, then he must also be the author of the pre-run (1925) and the re-hash (1934), neither of which has so far been ascribed to Bakhtin.

The problem further arises of how to fit in Bakhtin's own earlier critique of Formalism, written in 1924 and published only in 1975. In this work, Bakhtin criticized the Formalists on three main counts: for their ignoring of aesthetic considerations, for their isolation of literature from the totality of culture and cultural values; and for their overemphasis on material, especially language material. This early work shows the main line of Bakhtin's thinking:

Artistically-creating form gives form above all to man, and to the world only as to the world of man … As a result, the relationship of form to content in the unity of the aesthetic object has a special personal character, while the aesthetic object is a kind of special realized event of action and reaction of the creator and the content.

This work is a plea for a fuller understanding of the work of literature as the bearer of aesthetic and personal values. It shares with Medvedev (1928) a criticism of the overemphasis on language (and the use of linguistics in literary criticism), but it differs from Medvedev in not having a sociological approach, still less a Marxist one.

The canonic face of Bakhtin was always turned against two tendencies in contemporary linguistic and literary scholarships: against any kind of monologic tendency, that is, any attempt to make language or literature into a static, reified, object; and against all attempts to deprive language and literature of their rightful burden of ideology and values. In place of these tendencies Bakhtin offered a conception of language and literature that emphasized process and open-endedness, that saw language and literature as inseparable from cultural values, and dialogue, in the widest sense, as the natural medium for man's cultural life. It is Bakhtin's too long neglected genius that he put forward these new conceptions, and offered a methodology for their application.

Ann Shukman, "Between Marxism and Formalism: The Stylistics of Mikhail Bakhtin," in Comparative Criticism, Vol. 2, 1980, pp. 221-34.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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."

Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1981)

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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 verbal communication by determining its form as well as its organization. It gives form to everyday utterances by establishing both the style and the genre of the verbal expression. Strategy is to be understood here in a broad sense: politeness represents but one of its moments. This strategy can pursue different directions, moving, as it were, between two poles—the compliment and the insult. The strategy is determined by the set of all social interrelations between the speakers, by their ideological horizons, and finally by the concrete situation of the discussion. Whatever may be its particular nature, such a strategy determines our every utterance. There is no discourse without strategical consciousness.

In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), Bakhtin accomplishes a major step by forsaking his general theories to propose instead a detailed description of the utterance: this will constitute Chapter 3 of the second part, entitled "Verbal Interaction."

One may recall the criticism which Bakhtin voiced about the "individualist subjectivism" school (Vossler and his disciples): although superior to that of Saussure insofar as it does not ignore the utterance, yet it mistakenly believes that this utterance is individual.

Any moment of the expression-utterance one may observe will invariably be determined by the real conditions of the speech-act, primarily by the nearest social situation. Verbal communication will never be understood or explained without a reference to its link with the concrete situation.

In other words, the difference between an utterance and a proposition (or a sentence), a unity of language, is that the former is necessarily produced within a particular context which is always social. This sociality has a dual origin: first of all, the utterance is addressed to someone (this implies the existence of a micro-society comprising two people, the speaker and the addressee); secondly, the speaker himself is always a social being to begin with. These are two primary elements of the speech-act context which we need to consider in our interpretations of an utterance.

Let us first observe the role of the addressee. The utterance is established between two socially organized people: should there be no real interlocutor, then he is presupposed, in a certain sense, as a normal representative of the social group to which the speaker belongs. The discourse is oriented towards the interlocutor, towards what the interlocutor is.

Instead of the individual interlocutor we can thus imagine a certain type of addressee or, in other words, a certain horizon of reception; a notion we shall again encounter in an article published the following year (1930):

From the daily primitive utterance to the achieved poetic utterance, each one invariably comprises, as a necessary ingredient, an "implied" extra-verbal horizon. We can analyze this living and concrete horizon in terms of three components: spatial, semantic, and of values. The value horizon assumes the most important role in the organization of a literary work, especially in its formal aspects. [V. Voloshinov, "O granizakh poetiki i lingvistiki," in V bor'be za marksizm v literaturnoi nauke, 1930]

As we shall see, Bakhtin later returns to this question of values (although the suggestions formulated above will not be pursued).

The sociality of the speaker is equally important, albeit less evident. After taking certain precautions (acts of acoustical phonation and perception are indeed individual but they do not concern the essential aspect of language: its significance; a biological and individual "I-experience" does indeed exist, however, unlike the "we-experience," it remains inaccessible), Bakhtin states that the expression of an individual is not individual in the least.

There can exist no experience beyond its incarnation in signs. This immediately precludes the possible principle of any qualitative difference between interior and exterior.(…) Expression is not organized by experience, but on the contrary, experience is organized by expression which, for the first time, imbues this experience with form and direction. Aside from material expression, there is no such thing as experience. Moreover, expression precedes experience; it is the cradle of experience.

A footnote to the last sentence declares that this "assertion was in fact originally drawn from certain statements of Engels" which are to be found in Ludwig Feuerbach; beyond this, we can perhaps perceive a more distant and common source in the work of Humboldt (the inspiration for "individualist subjectivism"): an experience is preformed by the possibilities of its expression. Once we have located the formative traces of an expression at the very core of the expressible, then whatever its sources may be, there can no longer exist any sphere which is entirely devoid of sociality (since words and other linguistic forms do not belong to the individual).

Only the inarticulate animal cry is truly organized within an individual physiological system.(…) But even the most primitive human utterance, produced by the individual organism, is already organized in external terms, through the inorganic conditions of a social milieu which shapes its content, significance, and meaning. The very howls of an infant are "oriented" towards its mother.

We might formulate this observation by saying that every utterance can be perceived as part of a dialogue, in the general sense of the word; only in his subsequent writings will Bakhtin define this more specifically (as a dialogue between discourses).

Verbal interaction is the fundamental reality of language; and dialogue, in its narrow sense, is a single form, though clearly the most important one, of verbal interaction. But dialogue can be interpreted in a much broader manner, as referring not only to the direct verbal communication which is voiced between interlocutors, but also encompassing every form of verbal communication.

As a first important consequence of this new framework, we must radically distinguish between meaning in language from meaning in discourse or, to use the terminology adopted by Bakhtin at the time, to distinguish meaning from theme. In and of itself, this distinction is nothing very new; however, it will quickly become so, due to the increasing importance Bakhtin attaches to the theme. Indeed, the standard oppositions of that period between current and occasional meaning, between fundamental and marginal meaning, or between denotation and connotation, are equally fallacious in that they favor the first term, while in fact discursive meaning, or theme, is never marginal.

Thus we will strictly reserve the term "meaning" for language ("langue"); meaning is recorded by dictionaries, and any one meaning is always identical to itself (since it is merely potential): in other words, like all other linguistic elements, it can be repeated.

Meaning in opposition to theme, will represent those moments of an utterance which can be repeated and yet remain identical to themselves. Meaning actually signifies nothing except for the potentiality, the possibility of meaning within a concrete theme.

In contrast, the theme—like the utterance as a whole—is unique and cannot be repeated, since it arises from the interaction of meaning with the equally unique context of the speech-act.

Let us call the significance of an entire utterance its theme.(…) In fact, like the utterance itself, the theme is individual and cannot be repeated. It is an expression of the concrete historical situation which engendered the utterance.(…) It must then follow that the theme of an utterance is not only determined by the linguistic forms which compose it—words, morphological and syntactical forms, sounds, and intonation—but also by the extra-verbal aspects of the situation. And if we should lose these aspects, we will not be able to understand the utterance, as if we had lost the most important words themselves.

One essential feature of a theme, and therefore of an utterance, is that it is endowed with values (in the broad sense of the term). Vice versa, meaning, and therefore language, do not share this relation with the world of values:

Only an utterance can be beautiful, just as only an utterance can be sincere, delusive, courageous, or timid, etc. These value determinations are linked to the organization of utterances and literary works insofar as they involve the functions assumed by the latter within the unity of social existence and, above all, within the concrete unity of an ideological horizon.

The idea of an evaluative dimension in the utterance is further pursued by the article already referred to, "On the Boundaries Between Poetics and Linguistics." Bakhtin investigates the possible formal embodiments of this value judgment; and first considers the use of non-linguistic means.

Let us say that any evaluation which is incarnated through the (verbal) material is an expression of values. The human body itself will provide the original raw material for such an expression of values: gesture (the signifying movement of the body) and voice (outside of articulated language).

Within language itself, phonetic means are naturally to be distinguished from semantic means; and somewhat more remarkably, these are classified according to a dichotomy between selection and combination; this division is familiar today, but was unpublished at the time (although one may seek its origin in the work of Kruszewski).

We must distinguish two forms of value expression [in poetic creation]: 1) phonic and 2) structural [tektonicheskuju], whose functions can be separated into two groups: first, elective (selective), and secondly, compositional (organizational). The elective functions of the social evaluation emerge through the choice of lexical material (lexicology), the choice of epithets, metaphors, and other tropes (the entire range of poetical semantics), and finally, through the choice of a "content." In this way, most stylistics and certain elements of thematics belong to the elective group.

The compositional functions of the evaluation determine the level and hierarchical positioning of each verbal element in the work as a whole; they also determine its general structure. This involves all problems of poetic syntax, of composition in its literal sense, and finally of genre.

In the first book signed by Bakhtin himself, which is devoted to the work of Dostoevsky, the utterance will assume a new dimension, whose importance will steadily increase: every utterance can be linked to preceding utterances, thereby giving rise to intertextual relations. In this first edition, Bakhtin does not concern himself with general theories but rather with a typology of the utterance, thus he merely states:

No member of the verbal community will ever discover any words in language which are totally neutral, devoid of another's aspiration and evaluations, or free of another's voice. No, a word is apprehended through the voice of another which will remain forever imbedded within it. A word reaches one context in terms of another context, penetrated by the intentions of another; its own intentionality encounters a word which is already inhabited. (In the second edition of the work, 1963, the instances of "intention" will disappear to be replaced by osmyslenie, interpretation, and mysl', thought.)

In a previously cited article, signed by Voloshinov, these contentions, as well as several others, are paraphrased with one curious variation: "intonation" here replaces "intention":

For the poet, language is permeated with living intonations; it is entirely contaminated by social considerations and by the embryonic phases of social orientations. The creative process must continually struggle with such elements; it is from among their midst that one must choose one linguistic form or another, one expression or another, etc.… An artist never receives any word in a linguistically virginal form; it has already been 'impregnated' by the practical circumstances and poetic contexts in which it is encountered.(…)

This is why the work of a poet, like that of any artist, can only accomplish certain transvaluations, or certain displacements of intonation; these will be perceived by the artist as well as his public through the perspective of previous evaluations and intonations.

Let us now turn to the second synthesis which appears in the notes written during the fifties, and published after Bakhtin's death, under the title "The Problem of the Text"; the "Methodological Remarks" of the second edition Dostoevsky presents a summary of these issues. The frame of reference is no longer sociology, as it was thirty years earlier, but now involves translinguistics, the new discipline Bakhtin intends to found, whose primary object will be the utterance. Three factors are immediately set forth to distinguish an utterance from a sentence: an utterance has a speaker and an object, moreover it partakes in a dialogue with previous utterances.

The utterance is determined not only by its relation to the object and the speaking subject—the author (and by its relations to language as a system of potential possibilities, or givens) but, most importantly from our perspective, it is directly determined by other utterances within the framework of a certain field of communication. In simpler terms: purely linguistic relations (that is to say the object of linguistics), comprise the relations between one sign and another, or several others (in other words all systematic or linear relations between signs). The relations an utterance may have with reality, the real speaking subject, and other real utterances, that is to say, those relations which render the utterance true, false, or beautiful, etc., can never become an object of linguistics.

We must make a slight digression at this point concerning the speaking subject, the speaker. He is viewed as a constituent element of a speech-act and thus of an utterance; at the same time, one refers to the image of the author which is deduced from the utterance; and one naturally tends to project the second onto the first. However, a clear distinction between the two must be maintained. An author produces an entire utterance which does comprise the "image of the author" but he himself is a producer and never a product, natura naturans instead of natura naturata.

Even if an author-creator could create the most truthful autobiography of confession, he would still remain excluded from the universe he has portrayed simply insofar as he has produced it. If I should recount (or write) an event I have just experienced, then the mere act of narrating (or writing) this event will place me outside the time-space in which it has occurred. It is impossible to be absolutely identified with one-self, to reconcile one's veritable "I" with the "I" of his narration, just as it is inconceivable to lift oneself up by his own hair. However realistic and authentic a represented universe may be, yet it can never be chronotopically identical to the real representing universe in which the author-creator of the representation is located. For this reason, it seems to me that the term "author's image" is quite unfortunate: what has become an image of the work and thereby entered its chronotope, is a product, not a producer. "The author's image," when perceived as the image of the author-creator, is a contradictio in adjecto; each image represents something which has been produced and cannot be a producer.

Let us return to the general scheme of the utterance. We have seen that language ("langue"), the speaker, the object, and other utterances are all to be taken into consideration; we must not forget the addressee.

Discourse (like any sign in general) is interindividual. All that is said or expressed exists outside the "soul" of the speaker; it does not belong to him. Discourse cannot be attributed to the speaker alone. He clearly holds inalienable rights over the discourse, but the auditor has certain rights as well, as do those, whose voices reverberate in the words chosen by the author (since there are no words which do not belong to somebody). Discourse is a drama with a cast of three characters (not a duet, but a trio). It is performed outside the author, and one may not introject it (introjection) back into him.

Meaning, a property of language, will be opposed here to significance; this more familiar term replaces theme and links the utterance to the world of values which language does not know.

Isolated signs, and linguistic or textual systems (insofar as they represent a unity of signs) can never be true, false, or beautiful, etc. Only an utterance can be exact (or inexact), beautiful, just, etc.

We can summarize the preceding observations by reconstituting a communication model according to Bakhtin, and by comparing it with the currently more familiar model which Roman Jakobson has presented in his article "Linguistics and Poetics."

Bakhtin       object   speaker utterance auditor       intertext       languageJakobson       context addresser message addressee       contact       code

Two kinds of differences are immediately apparent. Jakobson isolates "contact" as an independent factor. This is absent from the Bakhtinian model, yet the relation to other utterances (which I have designated here as the "intertext") is absent from Jakobson's schema. There are then a series of differences which would seem to involve minor questions or terminology. Jakobson uses rather general terms (semiotic as well as linguistic) and they reveal the influence of his frequent associations with communication engineers. "Context" and "object" both correspond to that which other language theorists would call the "referent."

But after a more careful scrutiny, it is clear that the differences are much more important, and that the terminological discrepancies betray a deeply-rooted opposition. Jakobson sets forth these notions as a description of "the constitutive factors in any speech event, in any act of verbal communication." While for Bakhtin, there exist two radically distinct events, so distinct that they necessitate the use of two independent disciplines, linguistics and translinguistics. In linguistics, words and grammar rules provide the initial basis for the formation of sentences; in translinguistics, one starts off with sentences and the speech-act context eventually to obtain utterances. From Bakhtin's point of view, any attempt to formulate a proposal concerning "any speech event," that is to say, of language as well as discourse, would be futile. In the very schema I have drawn above, the "language" factor is not to be considered on a par with the others.

Moreover, it is no accident that Bakhtin says "utterance" instead of "message," "language" rather than "code," etc.: he quite deliberately rejects the use of engineering language to speak of verbal communication. This language could all too easily lead us to perceive a linguistic exchange in terms of telegraphic work: in order to transmit a certain content, one telegrapher first encodes it with a key and then broadcasts it; once contact has been made, the other uses the same key to decode the message and recover the initial content. This image does not correspond to discursive reality: in fact, prior to the speech-act, the speaker and the addressee literally do not exist as such; it is only the discursive process which thus defines them in relation to each other. For this reason, language is not to be considered as a code; for this reason as well, Bakhtin cannot possibly isolate one "contact" factor amidst the others: the entire utterance is contact, but in a stronger sense of the word than the "contact" of radiotelegraphy or electric work.

It is quite curious to find a page in the book signed by Medvedev which criticized the Jakobsonian model of language, thirty years before it was actually formulated; however one must note that the critique was written as a reply to certain theories of the Formalist group—to which Jakobson belonged.

That which is transmitted cannot be separated from the forms, the means, and the concrete conditions of the transmission; whereas the Formalist interpretations tacitly presuppose an entirely predetermined and immutable communication, as well as an equally immutable transmission. This might be explained schematically in the following manner: let us take two members of Society, A (the author), and B (the reader); for the time being, the social relations between them are unchangeable and immutable; we also have a prepared message X, which A must simply deliver to B. In this prepared message X, the "what" ("content") is distinct from the "how" ("form"), since literary discourse is characterized by the "set toward the expression" ("how") [this is a quotation from the first published text of Jakobson].


The schema set forth above is completely wrong. In actual fact, the relations between A and B are in a state of continual formation and transformation; they are further modified during the very process of communication itself. There is no prepared message X; it is established by the communicative process between A and B. Moreover, it is not transmitted from one to the other but is built between them like an ideological bridge through the process of their interaction.

Thus, in 1928, we can discern a rather precise prefiguration of certain recent French language theories which are sometimes based on the work of Benveniste (for example those of Oswald Ducrot or François Flahault).

As we now turn from the model of the particular utterance to the set of utterances constituting the verbal life of a community, we should note the fact which would appear to be most striking in the eyes of Bakhtin: there exists a large, but nonetheless limited, number of utterance or discourse types. One must indeed beware of two possible extremes: first, to recognize the diversity of languages and ignore that of utterances; secondly, to consider this variety as being individual and therefore limitless. Besides which, Bakhtin accentuates difference rather than plurality (one need not attempt to conceive of any common denominator which would reconcile various discourses; the argument here runs counter to the idea of unification). To designate this irreducible diversity of discursive types, Bakhtin introduces a neologism, raznorechie, which I translate (literally but in Greek) as heterology; this term is flanked by two parallel neologisms, raznojazychie, heteroglossy, or diversity of languages, and raznogolosie, heterophony, or diversity of voices (individual).

We will recall that every utterance is oriented towards a social horizon which comprises semantic and value elements. The number of these verbal and ideological horizons is quite high but not unlimited; and every utterance necessarily falls within one or several of the discursive types determined by a horizon.

There are no longer any words or forms in language which are neutral and belong to no one: it appears that language has been pillaged, pierced through and through by intentions, and accentuated. For a consciousness which exists within language, it is not an abstract system of normative forms but a concrete heterological opinion of the world. Each word evokes a profession, a genre, a trend, a party, a particular work, a particular man, a generation, an age, a day and an hour. Each word evokes a context and the contexts within which it has experienced an intense social life; every word and every form is inhabited by intentions. Contextual harmonies found in a word (of the genre, of the trend, of the particular individual) are inevitable.

Through the preceding enumerations we can already see that the stratification of language in discourse is not restricted to one dimension. In the course of the most detailed study which he devoted to heterology (in "Discourse in the Novel," text of 1934–35), Bakhtin discerns up to five types of stratification: genres, profession, social levels, ages and regions (dialects strictu sensu). Let us merely note that social class does not play a different role from that of profession or age group: it is simply one diversifying factor among several others.

In a certain sense, heterology is inherent to society; it is engendered spontaneously by social diversification. But just as the unique state attempts to contain this social diversity by means of its laws, so do the authorities fight the diversity of discourse by aspiring to a common language (or rather idiom).

The category of common language is a theoretical expression of the historical processes of unification and centralization—an expression of the centripetal forces in language. A common language is not a given; in actual fact it is always ordered, and opposes genuine heterology at every instant throughout the life of a language. Yet at the same time, this common language is perfectly real when seen as a force which overcomes this heterology, constrains it within certain limitations, assures a maximum mutual comprehension, and is crystallized in the real, albeit relative, unity of literary and spoken (everyday) language, which is the "proper language."

Bakhtin will refer, as one can see, to this tendency towards unification as a "centripetal force" and by the same token, to heterology as a "centrifugal force." Different types of discourse themselves favor one force over the other for varying reasons. For example, the novel (or what Bakhtin defines as such) reinforces heterology, while poetry does not; for heterology is linked to the representation of language, which is a characteristic feature of the novel.

While the principal sorts of poetic genres develop within the flow of the centripetal unifying and centralizing forces which inform verbal and ideological existence, the novel, as well as other related genres of literary prose, emerged historically within the flow of decentralizing, centrifugal forces.

Therefore, the high periods of the novel correspond to those which witnessed a weakening of centralized power.

The embryonic forms of novelistic prose appear in the heteroglossic and heterological world of the Hellenistic epoch, in imperial Rome, also in the decomposition and decadence of the verbal and ideological centralism of the medieval church. Similarly, the period of fruition of the modern novel is always tied to a general decomposition of verbal and ideological systems, to a process of reinforcement and intensification which opposes linguistic heterology in the literary dialect but also outside it!

On the other hand, as Bakhtin remarks, the different theories or philosophies of language are always born in the wake of unifying movements; this moreover explains their helplessness when confronted by heterology. Thus, for example, the sad fate of stylistics when it tackles the novel: a "Ptolemaic" discipline cannot account for a "Galilean" genre.

Traditional stylistics ignores the kind of combination whereby languages and styles merge in a superior unity; it has no means of approaching the particular social dialogue of languages within a novel. This is why stylistic analysis is not oriented towards the novel seen as a whole but only towards one or the other of its subordinate stylistic aspects. The specialist bypasses the distinctive characteristic of the novelistic genre; he transforms the object of his study, and instead of the novelistic style he in fact analyses something completely different. He transposes an orchestrated symphonic theme in the place of a piano.

Bakhtin enumerates several other examples of such helplessness in the face of heterology:

The poetics of Aristotle, the poetics of Augustine, Medieval religious poetics of the common language of truth, the Cartesian poetics of Neo-Classicism, the abstract grammatical universalism of Leibniz (the idea of universal grammar), the concrete ideologism of Humboldt—whatever may be the distinguishing nuances—these all express the same centripetal forces of sociolinguistic and ideological existence; they all serve the same objective: the centralization and unification of European languages.

The rather surprising name in this roster is Humboldt, a distant source of inspiration for Bakhtin, as we know, and an advocate of linguistic diversity, that of languages as well as that of individuals (language expressing a national spirit, the utterance—an individual one). However, Humboldt forgets a crucial gap between these two: social diversity. Beyond the unicity of Classicism and the Romantic infinite variety, Bakhtin seeks a third path: that of typology.

Tzvetan Todorov, "Bakhtin's Theory of the Utterance," translated by Claudine Frank, in Semiotic Themes, edited by Richard T. De George, University of Kansas Publications, 1981, pp. 165-78.

Principal Works

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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]

Anthony Wall (essay date Fall 1984)

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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 favorite author, treated the characters of his novels. Once created, they seemed to speak for themselves. The responses obtained from any interview with Bakhtin's texts contain just as many questions as they do answers. Consulting Bakhtin does not simply consist of looking up "character" or "hero" in an index at the back of his books, for Bakhtin does not provide us with indices. It can never be like feeding a question into a computer, because no separate piece of data in the hypothetical printout would be a logical extension of the others. Bakhtin-data qualify and/or contradict each other when used to answer a single question or a series of questions.

Narrative works of literature are often regarded as monologues emanating from a position of power. Bakhtin's view of narrative, however, as language composed of special sorts of dialogue radically changes the way in which we see characters. They are the sources of dialogue in the text. His view does not lead us to reject the concept of character altogether, unlike that of others who dismiss the very notion of "character and everything it implies in terms of illusion and complicity with classical meaning and the appropriating economy that such a reasoning supports" [Hélène Cixous, "The Character of Character," New Literary History 5 (1974)]. It is important to clarify Bakhtin's conception of character for the simple reason that it occupies a central role in his overall theory of novelistic discourse.

An early article by Bakhtin entitled "The Author and the Hero in Aesthetic Activity," written between 1922–1924, hints at the new direction of this concept. The article deals with the differing perspectives available to narrators and characters and with the relationship between them. Bakhtin gives examples of the hero's domination of the author, of the author's domination of the hero, and of the hero as his own author.

An important consequence of Bakhtin's view of dialogic discourse in the novel is present in the current rejection among narratologists of the "assumption that a narrative is necessarily a discourse by the narrator" [Ann Banfield, "The Formal Coherence of Represented Speech and Thought," PTL 3 (1978)]. This outlook appears to be shared by writers from very different backgrounds such as Julia Kristeva and Hans Robert Jauss. The novel is more than a dialogue between an author and a reader: it is an exchange amongst dialogic positions within the text itself.

Seen against contemporary theory of the concept of character, Bakhtin's proposals occupy an intermediary position. Traditionally, characters are seen as remnants of a writer's past, as mere appendages to his thought. They are presented as incarnations of certain opinions in his intellectual development or of a representative of a social group in his mind. They have been seen as objects of a central monopolistic vision or even as signs of some hidden personality. In opposition to such conceptions, French structuralists sought to free the idea of character from this psychological aura and to promote him primarily as a structuring element of the story. Theorists of the Greimassian school have further reduced characters to the status of products of the plot, or rather of the intrinsic structure and logic of narrative in general. Some modern trends in structuralist criticism do try to combine structural and "human" elements of character in a way that is foreign to the view we take to be Bakhtin's. Fernando Ferrara, for example, sees the "social personality" of characters as the "essential nucleus" of a middle structure situated between deep structure, social norms and values, and the surface structure of the text.

Many other features commonly found in a variety of views about character are completely lacking in Bakhtin's writings. For example, he does not see character as a "cluster of appurtenances": characters for Bakhtin are not products of their environment, that is, objects in themselves. They are seen as voice sources in the text. Furthermore, Bakhtin is not interested in finding out whom each character is supposed to represent in reality. Nor does he attempt to discuss in detail an onomastic theory of individual characters' names. This, too, would reduce characters to a mere appendage to a foregone conclusion.

For Bakhtin, a character is not a simple filter of the author's intentions or desires, nor a mere paper entity devoid of all real significance. Character is not a psychologically based entity nor a simple product of textual structures. Our objective here will be to pinpoint the middle ground that the Bakhtinian character occupies, first by ridding the concept of the psychological aura one might be tempted to attribute to him. In this way we can at least hope to find Bakhtin's original view of what constitutes the novelistic character.

In this study of his writings on character, we shall use the following five theoretical questions as guideposts for our analysis:

1) the concept of the separate character-individual

2) unfinishedness

3) character as a point of convergence

4) the question of hierarchy

5) the question of identification.

The polemical text, Freudianism. A Marxist Critique (1927), signed by Voloshinov, attacks the very heart of the traditional notion of character. The author refuses to grant the existence of an isolated psychological consciousness in human beings, of the independent, psychological entity upon which we normally base our image of human beings in literary texts. For Bakhtin, the idea of a subjective, isolable consciousness in a human being, and thus in the literary character, is nothing less than a false notion. The nature of literary character that we seek to define will have to be based elsewhere than in the psychological uniqueness of a separate entity.

We see a development of this position in Rabelais and His World (written largely in 1940). As the author notes, characters in ancient literature and especially in Rabelais' works cannot be conceived as something based on a split between inner and outer factors. Novelistic characters were originally universal figures, very often born in carnivalized works where the boundaries between exterior (spectators) and interior (actors) were neatly swept away.

In this regard, it is very easy to make an analysis of personalized narrators and characters based on a false premise. As we can discern in reading Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929), the consciousness of that which we call a character is never a self-contained entity, but rather, like the living ideas that characters incarnate, it is in constant interaction with everything that surrounds it. "In Dostoevsky's works the consciousness is never self-sufficient; it always finds itself in an intense relationship with another consciousness." "The principle category of Dostoevsky's artistic vision is not evolution, but coexistence and interaction. He saw and conceived his world chiefly in space, not in time."

Because of this constant interaction, the boundaries that set off each character are by definition fuzzy and forever moving. In one untranslated essay ("On the Philosophical Bases of the Humanities" [1941]) Bakhtin posits the basic difficulty of knowing others from inside of one's self, an unknowability because each individual has a different perspective and purview. Each individual is unknowable to every other individual precisely because of the different set of experiences, contacts, and range of vision that each individual possesses. In the same respect, the individual is equally unknowable to himself because, given his unique but limited field of vision, there are certain aspects of himself he cannot see. Bakhtin wrote in 1970 that

a person can never really see and interpret as a whole his own outward appearance; mirrors and photographs cannot help him here; only other persons can see and comprehend his outward appearance precisely because they occupy a different spatial plane and because of the fact that they are not the same.

But even if he is separate, the individual is nonetheless unisolable, because if we were able to isolate a single individual, that is, to assign him precise boundaries, this would be to presuppose a thorough knowledge of the outer limits of what constitutes an individual. The same can be said of the novelistic character. We cannot determine for a single character specific bounds which unequivocably delimitate him from all other elements of the text. Because he has no perfectly isolable body or psychological entity, the character is in constant interaction with other characters, each of which posits the image of a current passing through the whole of the text, currents which have countless possibilities of confluence and branching apart.

It could also be said that characters are in constant contact with an unending generation of ideologemes in and outside of the work. [In an endnote, Wall explains the term "ideologeme" by quoting Bakhtin from The Dialogic Imagination: "Every word/discourse betrays the ideology of its speaker; great novelistic heroes are those with the most coherent and individuated ideologies. Every speaker, therefore, is an ideologue, and every utterance an ideologeme."] The most important of these ideologemes is the very institution of literature which, being formulated by social discourse, in itself without beginning or end, is also a living receptacle of other ideological forms.

The novelistic character must therefore be envisaged against the dialogic background of anonymous social discourse. In this context, the speech of characters, alongside of narrators and "inserted genres," must be seen as those components of the novel which allow heteroglossia to enter the text. [In an endnote, Wall explains the term "heteroglossia" by quoting Bakhtin from The Dialogic Imagination: "At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions—social, historical, meteorological, physiological—that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve. Heteroglossia is that which a systematic linguistics must always suppress."] Heteroglossia enters through their discourse. Discourse is in itself to be viewed as a polyphonic conveyor of otherness. Each separate line contains other languages in it, and each character who expresses his field of vision through speech speaks a language which contains the language of others. Social discourse is an unending ebb and tide, and the character who transmits it is therefore a product of unfinishedness.

We now see the unfinished nature of Dostoevsky's creations due to the fact that they are so self-aware, and as a result, undefinable. No matter how the narrator wishes to depict them, they are aware of his commentaries and can easily prove him wrong.

A loophole is the retention for oneself of the possibility to alter the final, ultimate sense of one's word. If the word leaves this loophole open, then that fact must be inevitably reflected in its structure. This possible other sense, i.e. the open loophole, accompanies the word like a shadow. According to its sense, the word with a loophole must be the last word, and it presents itself as such, but in fact it is only the next-to-last word, and is followed by only a conditional, not a final, period.

If it is true that a work of art as a whole can achieve a certain "aesthetic" completeness, characters by contrast are always unfinished. Characters are carriers of social discourse and as such cannot be finished. Furthermore, they enter into the ever changing dialogic world of the reader. The character is twice under dialogic influence. He is unfinished because unisolable, and unfinished because of the social discourse of which he is composed and in which he must participate.

In the essay "Epic and Novel" (1941), character is defined through the retention of his potential capacity, by his power of "incongruity with himself." This is the power to be more than a mere function. As we have seen in Bakhtin's book on Dostoevsky, this aptitude of the character is translated by his constant need to keep in reserve the "last word."

Early texts signed by Voloshinov are particularly useful for understanding Bakhtin's later statements on character. In "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art" (1926), for example, the word "hero" is used almost as a metaphor for content:

any locution actually said aloud or written down for intelligible communication (i.e., anything but words merely reposing in a dictionary) is the expression and product of the social interaction of three participants: the speaker (author), the listener (reader), and the topic (the who or what) of speech (the hero).

If we bear in mind this equalizing metaphor of character seen as a special kind of literary content, we can interpret other statements in which characters are viewed as incarnations of ideas in their capacity as novelistic events or as ethical subjects who bear the weight of evaluating contemplation. In his study of Dostoevsky's poetics, Bakhtin states that that Russian novelist elaborates in aesthetic terms a "sociology of the consciousness"; that is, we can picture character as the point of intersection of a specific but unspecifiable set of voices in the text. These voices come from that underlying verbal interaction that literary discourse is particularly apt at capturing. Indeed, the ideas expounded in the book Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) enable us to understand that this special "content" to which character was earlier assimilated is this same coming together of social voices in literary form. Any possible individuality attributable to a personage "can only be completely discovered and defined in this process of interaction." Character is no static, abstract entity but rather an active ingredient in the event of novelistic discourse.

Being active means a character is more than a point of convergence. He is essentially the literary incarnation of a field of vision. He is constituted by a specific purview made up of certain points of view, but is also constituent of others. In the essay "Discourse in the Novel" (1934–1935), Bakhtin speaks of "character zones," zones of influence which infiltrate, as it were, other zones. A character is both a point of convergence and a point of emanation for social voices in the text.

And since characters form an integral and active ingredient in the workings of the novelistic text, and since they are not abstract entities but rather products of "objective" social forces, they are necessarily sensitive to important structural variants of a particular genre (psychological novel, adventure novel, Bildungsroman, etc.) and to different genres (novel, epic, drama, tragedy, etc.). A character is always determined by the particular text in which he participates.

The problem one faces in trying to present the novelistic character in Bakhtin's theory lies in the level of abstraction we must reach for. We should remember that for Bakhtin, however, character "in general," that is in abstracto, does not exist. He is always part and parcel of a specific aesthetic object serving the communication between a novelist and a reader, and of a specific relationship between narrator and narratee within the text itself.

This point leads us to examine the relationship between narrators, narratees, and characters, as well as those distinguishing features that allow us to differentiate between heroes and minor characters.

Bakhtin states in his essay "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel" (1937–1938) that the problem of the personalized narrator is a problem of modern literature. The narrator came into being primarily as a vehicle that allowed the author to see through the eyes of someone else, to speak in the language of someone else. More often than not, this was the foreign language of someone who did not understand, the language of the fool. The infiltration of otherness in literary discourse is the essential trait which distinguishes the novel from other literary genres.

In the monologic novel, it is the narrator and/or the main character who speak most directly the language of the author. Yet this is only one possibility of novelistic discourse. Characters can also be the organizational center of the novel. In the polyphonic novel, the narrator comes into the line of vision of the self-aware characters. Characters are the narrator's equals. And we can imagine works where characters get out of the control of the narrator, such as Diderot's Jacques le fataliste. Depending on the type of insertion afforded someone else's voice, the narrator can submit himself to the character's word, be equal to it, or dominate it.

It is precisely the development of silent, personal reading which historically would have permitted the evolution of the novel as a genre capable of accommodating so many voices in a single line. The fact is that silent reading actualizes no single voice in particular but leaves all the possibilities equally open. The reversibility of the traditional schema that depicts the narrator in control of the speech of characters is that contribution of Bakhtin's poetics which enables us to view characters as currents or zones of influence which pervade every nook and cranny of novelistic discourse. In this sense, narrators are seen to exist on the same plane as other characters. Each character is present in secret ways which only a careful reading can bring forth and detect.

Therefore, it cannot be said that a narrator necessarily dominates the characters in a novel. As Bakhtin notes, even the social status of the main character can impose upon the narrator various linguistic positions. In this regard, the social rank of the hero can also influence the range of genres open to the author:

The basic stylistic tone of an utterance is therefore determined above all by who is talked about and what his relation is to the speaker—whether he is higher or lower or equal to him on the scale of the social hierarchy…. The most important stylistic components of the heroic epic, the tragedy, the ode, and so forth are determined precisely by the hierarchical status of the object of the utterance with respect to the speaker.

If we assume that the narrator can be subjected to the influence of certain characters, then we must ask what becomes of the author in respect to his creations. We must remember that the author always looms behind the entire dialogic interplay of the novel. He is situated not in the various language planes present in the voices of characters, but rather at their point of divergence. Consequently, we must not consider characters' languages to be simple extensions of the author, for this would be just as gauche, says Bakhtin, as taking characters' grammar mistakes and saying the author has bad grammar. Bakhtin argues that we must rid ourselves of the notion that all literary characters are mere incarnations of the author's sole volition. The good novelist manages to create a literary facsimile of that social dialogue which constitutes human language. It is only the poor novelist who cannot produce a viable literary image of social dialogue. Therefore, we must not search for the style of the novelist in the sum of all the stylistic, semantic and syntactic variants in his text, because the unified style of a novelist is something that does not exist. The novel contains styles. Furthermore, what would be his own personal style becomes inevitably lost in the general interaction of the characters' and narrators' styles. The most important feature of Bakhtin's conception of character is that it allows for, but does not require the full potential of the character to be exposed vis-à-vis narrators.

The character, as a result, once created, lives on in the text not through the power of his creator but solely by virtue of the life given to him by each new reading. We can see character as a sort of latent force in the very pages of a closed text, a force that is ignited with the reader's participation. He is reborn each time, since we can view the novel in its incarnations of fictive entities communicating amongst one another as the "process of communication in statu nascendi" [Floyd Merrel, "Communication and Paradox in Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz: Toward a Semiotics of Character," Semiotics 18 (1976)].

In treating briefly the second question of the hierarchical distinctions between heroes and minor characters, one must concede that this distinction remains on the whole undeveloped in Bakhtin's texts. In Rabelais and his World, for example, he often speaks of "heroization" without ever defining the term. He does nevertheless briefly touch on the matter when he says that in the monologic novel it is the hero who transmits the author's point of view. Elsewhere he states that it is the hero who can surpass his mere structural and social role in the novel, whereas the minor character remains a mere function. We are certainly far from a comprehensive set of criteria for defining the term hero.

It could be nonetheless argued that the wherewithal is provided in Bakhtin's texts to develop such a theory. Minor characters, as distinguished from major characters, would be those whose number of constitutive voices could be easily counted. For the major character, such an exercise would be futile because of his complexity. It is precisely the major character who must contain, as Jauss writes, the "power to surpass all our expectations" [Hans Robert Jauss, "Levels of Identification of Hero and Audience," New Literary History 5 (1974)]. Being of uncertain boundaries, the character's voices can be heard where we least expect to find them. He can take on voices that we least expected to hear. We could never count and give the origin of all his voices, and this point tends to confer a negative definition of what would be the hero in Bakhtinian terms.

Still, in this context, we can understand J. Kristeva's claim that Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics presents us with an early sketch of a theory of the subject. We can compare Kristeva's claim to what H. Cixous has written about the concept of character:

So long as we take to be the representation of a true subject that which is only a mask, so long as we ignore the fact that the "subject" is an effect of the unconscious and that it never stops producing the unconscious—which is unanalyzable, uncharacterizable, we will remain prisoners of the monotonous machination that turns every "character" into a marionette. ["The Character of Character," New Literary History 5 (1974)]

It is, however, difficult to ascertain if it is a would-be theory of the subject that prompts Bakhtin not to discuss in greater detail the distinction between hero and minor characters or whether it is a linguistically induced oversight brought on by the frequent use of the Russian term "geroj," which can be used generically to cover the general idea of literary character but which more often than not is used to convey the signified of its English cognate. Thus Bakhtin can semantically slide from one concept to the other as if both had been dealt with extensively. Philippe Hamon, in his article "Pour un statut sémiologique du personnage," notices the same problem of a confusion of the terms "hero" and "character" in Tomashevsky's writings but does not mention the idiomatic peculiarity of Russian itself.

Whatever the reason for the lack of a thorough discussion of the hero/minor character distinction, whether it be a simple oversight, a conscious refusal, or neither, it is this theoretical hole that keeps Bakhtin from analyzing the phenomenon of the reader's identification with characters and specifically with the hero. Indeed, the reader's perception of a hero in connection with a valued set of social givens is what permits this phenomenon to occur.

Any quick reading of Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics readily convinces us that Bakhtin viewed the novelistic character as more than just a paper entity, more than the mere sum of all the passages of a novel referring to the same fictive individual. The literary character attains a special status in the novel over and above that afforded to other linguistic entities of a text precisely because readers happen to be human beings who identify with human figures more readily than with trees, rocks, and the weather, even if all of these elements are fictional entities. We can still question the validity of showing simplistic characters, mirror images of a simplistic view of what constitutes a human being, without rejecting outright the concept of character. In the polyphonic novel the hero is complicated enough to capture the reader's imagination and to lead him into new unexplored grounds beyond, perhaps, the reaches of manipulative ideology.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to contend that Bakhtin chose to ignore the problem of the reader's identification because it is not specific to the novel, whose superiority to other literary genres he wished to demonstrate. The nature of the novelistic hero requires a special kind of understanding by every potential reader, but this question remains nevertheless absent in Bakhtin's writings.

He does provide some bases for such a discussion. We understand that any such discussion must take into account the dialogic background of the reader. This, we have seen, is a major factor in the unfinishedness of a character and consequently in his capacity to speak to successive generations. The presentification of literature in general carried out by the novel genre is responsible not only for the possibility of dialogic relations between author and characters, but also between reader and characters. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Bakhtin hints that gauging the variance in distance between reader and author and among reader, author, and characters can be a determinant factor in mapping out various modes of satiric and parodic literature, to name but two instances.

The pursuit of the question of the reader's identification with characters in the text could also lead to valuable insights into problems such as the ways in which the culture industry can manipulate its consuming public. It is always important to explore the means by which an author can move a reader through literature, and it is essential to determine what role character plays in this theatre, through his, and not just the author's, relationship with the reader.

Finally, the often latent importance of the role characters play in Bakhtin's theoretical concepts can be seen in the many metaphors where the idea of hero or character is employed. To give but two brief examples, in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, haphazard thoughts unanchored in social contact are compared to "novels without heroes"; in the article "Epic and Novel," Bakhtin speaks of the novel as having become the "leading hero in the drama of literary development." These metaphors underscore what has already been said concerning the positive and active roles that the concept of character fulfills in Bakhtin's thought.

A thorough study of these metaphors would show that this concept of character was ingrained in Bakhtin's writings on literature; were he in fact to be developing a theory of the subject, this theory would not entail a dismissal of the notion of character, but rather a remodelling of it to suit his conception of the novel. The problem of a polyphonic novel presupposes the existence of characters who function not as simple human mannequins but as interdependent sets of voices in the text.

To arrive at our schematic picture of how Bakhtin viewed the concept of character, it was necessary to paste together passages scattered about in different contexts of Bakhtin's multifarious interests. This is a dangerous approach because we may have assumed a constant line of thought throughout his writings. There is no one single Bakhtin, and we have tried to recognize this aspect of his theoretical texts by letting pertinent passages cross one another dialogically, as it were, in answer to the questions put to them in our study.

The picture sketched in such a manner cannot be a systematic program of how to analyze character à la Bakhtin. Such a system does not exist. As always, Bakhtin's writings, when carefully considered, can lead us to rethink certain literary concepts and prompt us toward new directions. The research of Ann Banfield, for example, is one possible direction in which Bakhtin's "theory" of character could lead us. A study of character in Bakhtinian terms has to concentrate on developing devices for listening for the voices of each character in the most unexpected instances, and this rather than attempting to assign him defined limits through a study of his physical appearance, personality traits, social origins, domicile and such. For Bakhtin, a novelistic character is an unclosed set of into-nations, harmonies and overtones that we can assign to one more or less personalized figure of the text, a set of voices actualized in a different manner with each separate reading of the text.

A thorough look at character can lead us in this way to the very essence of dialogue in the novel. Through a study of Bakhtin's conception of characters, we see more clearly how one theoretician managed to throw aside the yoke of a single master's dogmatic voice which has always hampered anyone wishing to use the path of dialogue as a means of reaching for something true.

Anthony Wall, "Characters in Bakhtin's Theory," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1984, pp. 41-56.

Robert Anchor (essay date Spring 1985)

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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 cultural history in the usual sense, as a relatively specialized mode of cultural analysis in the tradition of, say, Burckhardt, Huizinga, and Friedell. What Bakhtin aimed for (and produced) was a richly textured, historically and aesthetically informed model which would transform cultural analysis into cultural critique from the standpoint of the utopian potential to be found in the diverse manifestations of the carnival spirit, a spirit Bakhtin regarded as itself universal.

For Bakhtin, carnivalization—always a source of liberation, destruction, and renewal—flourished in premodern times as a social practice, nurtured by a rich and pervasive folkloric culture. It began to deteriorate in the seventeenth century with the triumph of absolute monarchy and the birth of a new official "serious" culture which excluded the general population and its culture of the "marketplace." The carnival spirit survives in modern times (in both capitalist and socialist societies) principally in the realm of literature, specifically in the novel. For the novel, as Bakhtin tried to show in his radical reinterpretation of its history and distinctive aesthetic properties, is unique among literary forms in being an antigenre that is as old as literature itself, that alone has the capacity for constant self-renewal, and that, in the carnival spirit which informs it, thrives on travestying and parodying all "systems"—political, epistemological, and cultural—and pointing up the arbitrariness of all norms and rules, including its own. For Bakhtin, the novel is not merely one literary form among many, but the very image of culture in general, the genre of Becoming. To understand the novel, then, as the parodic genre par excellence, the genre that historicizes by disclosing the conditions that engender claims of unconditionality, is to understand what carnival was as a social practice that once provided people with an actual experience of life without hierarchy in opposition to the fixed categories and humdrum institutions and rhythms of official culture.

The purpose of this essay is to present a coherent account of the main lines of Bakhtin's thought, especially the relationship between his conception of carnival and his ideas concerning language and literature. This task is complicated by the fact that Bakhtin's writings themselves are carnivalistic in nature, often deliberately playful and inconsistent. His zestful wealth of surprising allusion gives to many a passage in his works something of the colorful, carnivalesque aura he looked for in all great literature. Gary Saul Morson scarcely exaggerates when he says: "Ideas are often toys for him; he is extravagant in his expression of them, and he could have used a good editor" ["The Heresiarch of Meta," PTL 3 (1978)]. Indeed, some of Bakhtin's arguments—for example, that Dostoevsky is linked to the "underworld naturalism" of the Menippea of Petronius and Apuleius, or that Rabelais was more of a populist than a humanist—have the appearance of a scholarly trapeze act. But, then, Bakhtin always maintained that words cannot be conceived apart from the voices which speak them, that every word, therefore, raises the question of authority, and that all language (including his own) necessarily engages in contest and struggle. Given the realities of life and literature in Stalinist Russia, it is not surprising that Bakhtin (like many other Russian intellectuals) resorted to an Aesopian language of indirection and circumlocution to question the authority of that totalitarian regime, as well as to deceive the censorship and circumvent its vigilance. What is surprising is that Bakhtin succeeded in creating from such a situation a critical vision of society and culture in which the utopian dimension reveals itself as a transfiguration of historical phenomena that still manages to preserve a viable connection with the requirements of institutionally structured life.

Bakhtin's conception of carnival (the totality of all the various festivals, rituals, and forms of a carnival type) is grounded in an anthropology—an intuition of the individual as existentially free, unique, and unpredictable, hence impossible to understand, except within his own point of view, and equally impossible to categorize or define in any fixed and immutable fashion. This intuition is basic to Bakhtin's analysis of the origins and history of the novel and its indebtedness to the most ancient forms of folk humor (in which mockery of authority, both divine and human, was fused with rejoicing), and basic also to his insight into carnival as the vital link between life and literature. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929), Bakhtin writes:

The carnival forms, transposed into the language of literature become powerful means of artistically comprehending life, they become a special language, the words and forms of which possess an extraordinary capacity for symbolic generalization, i. e., generalization in depth. Many of the essential sides, or, more precisely strata of life, and profound ones at that, can be discovered, comprehended and expressed only with the help of this language.

Unlike many other leading literary scholars of his generation (e.g., Curtius, Auerbach, and Spitzer), Bakhtin sought the novel's progenitors not only in the literary hierarchy it parodies, but also in the extraliterary forms of folk humor which, like the novel itself, are suffused with a sense of "jolly relativity," a consciousness of the historicity of all social and literary forms. The novel was born when the three principal kinds of folk humor—ritual spectacles like carnival pageants, comic verbal compositions, and genres of billingsgate—fused and entered the literary tradition they so often parody, a tradition fathered by Rabelais and Rabelaisian in spirit.

The link Bakhtin established between carnival and the novel is that both challenge the instrumentality of society by challenging the way in which words, objects, and actions signify in ceremony and serious discourse. Carnival, with its peculiar logic of the "inside out" and "turnabout," was an enactment of the world turned upside down, a period of institutionalized disorder, a set of rituals of reversal which sent time flowing backwards and temporarily suspended the rules regulating what was permitted and forbidden in speech and conduct. Carnival converted the town or city into a theater without walls, transformed the streets and squares into a stage, and abolished all distinctions between actors and spectators. The defining feature of Bakhtin's utopian conception of carnival is in fact this vision of society as a community of equals, a realm of pure spontaneity and freedom, a rite of universal participation whose essentially affirmative character is guaranteed by its universality.

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the world, or of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part.

To the "serious" culture of the Middle Ages, which banished laughter from all its spheres, carnival juxtaposed its "feast of fools" and other ritual inversions of the official world and its canons. Carnival crowned and uncrowned mock kings and clergymen, celebrated obscene versions of religious ceremonies, and wore clothing inside out and upside down. Carnival provided an occasion for social protest, but also for social control that often erupted into violence through which members of the upper classes eliminated opponents of the lower classes. Carnival masks, costumes, and grotesque distortions of the body served to destabilize fixed identities and role differentiations. Contemporaries aptly described carnival as "a time of 'madness', in which Folly was king." The festive popular images epitomized in carnival—preserved in engravings and pamphlets in which mice eat cats, wolves tend sheep, children spank parents, carts precede horses, rabbits trap hunters, geese roast cooks, and the like—signified a parodic inversion of the official world with its intricate network of social definitions and claims to immutable authority that, Bakhtin believed, "reveal[s] the deepest meaning of the historic process."

Bakhtin's incorporation of these inversions and transformations of carnival was crucial to his conception of the ambiguous complexity of the novel and its capacity to discover, comprehend, and express deep strata of life accessible only to the language of carnivalization. The defining characteristic of Bakhtin's theory of the novel may be stated in terms of its relationship to time, to the historical process. The novel is the only genre that continues to develop, that is never completed. The novel is ever novel, ever contemporary, hence ever inconclusive and open-ended. Unlike every other literary genre, the novel conceives itself as of the present moment, and is ever aware of its location within the flux of history. In his essay, "Epic and Novel" (1941), Bakhtin writes: "From the very beginning the novel was structured not in the distanced image of the absolute past but in the zone of direct contact with inconclusive present-day reality." The novelistic perception of the world is deeply and self-consciously relativistic; it regards all assertions of timeless norms and canons as time-bound and thus ephemeral. In the novel, conventions are always just that, never more than arbitrary, ever given to change, transitory codifications of hierarchy. Born of parodies of linguistic and social norms—its predecessors include the "serio-comical" genres of antiquity (Socratic dialogues, Menippean satire, and dialogues of the Lucianic type) and medieval parodic grammars and monkish travesties of religious rituals—the novel emerged as the literary expression of the world in process, a macaronic mixture of linguistic forms, the old and the new, the dying and the procreating, beginnings and ends.

The polar opposite of the novel in this respect is the epic in which "the tradition of the past is sacred. There is as yet no consciousness of the possible relativity of the past." The epic past is an "absolute past"—closed, complete, retrospective, walled off from all subsequent times, above all the times of the epic narrators themselves. The epic hero, like the absolute past to which he belongs, is finished and complete, entirely externalized, "hopelessly ready-made." He views himself exactly as his society views him and as he anticipates his descendants will view him because he assumes they will hold the same views and values held by him and his contemporaries. No steady succession of times connects the epic past and its heroes with the present, or even with the past as experienced in the present. On the contrary, the epic past resists the possibility of approach, familiarization, or reevaluation; it is always opposed in principle to any merely transitory, future-oriented past. In the epic absolute past, only what comes "first" is good, and all the really good things—"beginnings," "founders," "ancestors"—occur only in this past, which is the sole source and beginning of everything good for all later times as well. The epic absolute past, then, is not simply one temporal category among many but a "monochronic and valorized" category, one that is normative and conclusive, remote and immutable.

Epic gives way to the novel when laughter is invoked to deprive the epic past of its distanced and sacrosanct character, and to bring the past into familiar proximity to the present. To be comical, Bakhtin argues, an object or image must be close at hand, where it can be divested of the fear and piety it inspires at a distance; where it can be examined, questioned, judged, ridiculed, and finally forgotten, so that creativity may be renewed. In the comic world, in contrast to the epic, "there is nothing for memory and tradition to do"; laughter delivers the object or image into the hands of "free experimental fantasy." Comedy thus contemporizes the past, makes the past accessible to the present, transforms it into a relative and relevant past. But Bakhtin also distinguished clearly between modernizing the past, which distorts its uniqueness, and contemporizing the past, which requires "an authentic profile of the past, an authentic language from another time." A parody can only be funny after all if we know what is being parodied. If a parody violates a former code, then that code must always be implictly there and recognizable in the parody itself. In other words, parody is as much a reassertion and revitalization of the code it travesties as it is the violation of that code. Parody, then, produces its unique comic effect not by "modernizing" the past, but by abolishing the temporal distance between the two codes and juxtaposing the present code to the past one within the same temporal frame—that is, by carnivalizing the temporal dimension itself. "Novel" and "epic" are, for Bakhtin, not genres in the usual sense, but rather stages in the development of genres; he might have said that every genre begins as a novel and ends as an epic.

The language of comedy transposed into the language of the novel thus produces a radically new temporal model of the world in which "there is no first word (no ideal word) and the final word has not yet been spoken." By destroying the distancing plane, the novel challenges the hierarchy of times with its linear, monological ideology. Through contact with the ever uncompleted present, time and the world become genuinely historical for the first time. Persons and events lose their finished and remote quality; and past, present, and future merge into a single, indivisible, ever-unfolding temporal continuum. Thus, for the novelist, personality is always in the making, never exhausted by the plot, never defined or definable once and for all. Unlike the epic hero, who is always equal to himself and to others' expectations of him, the novel's hero exists in a continual process of flux and redefinition, ever eluding finality. The novel's hero, like the novel itself, dwells in the zone of incompleteness; what both preserve through time is their openness to time, i.e., their contemporaneity. Depicting the present in all its inconclusiveness, the novel itself is ever inconclusive, ever at one with Becoming. In this inconclusive context, all the semantic and ideological stability of the past is lost; its sense and significance are constantly renewed and transformed as the context continues to unfold.

Thus, from the very beginning, as Bakhtin tried to show in the essays that make up The Dialogic Imagination, the novel developed as a literary form that had at its core a new way of conceptualizing time in which the hierarchization of temporalities played no role. As the literary form of Becoming, as the only literary form that brings the past into direct contact with developing reality, the novel could never be merely one genre among others or have a canon of its own. On the contrary, the novel not only parodies the other literary genres, it also parodies its own forms whenever they threaten to ossify. The novel seeks paradox and is at home in the interstices of human experience. But the novel does not simply play on its own definitions and the definitions of other genres, it also questions the literary frame itself, probes the boundaries of literature as a whole and its relationship to life outside literature. For the novel knows the boundaries of literature as simply another social convention, as arbitrary and historical as any other. In the presence of the novel, all other genres necessarily change. Bakhtin conceived the history of literature in fact as a constant struggle between the novel and the other genres, a struggle in which the novel compels them to acknowledge and abdicate their claims to unconditionality and to establish contact with the indeterminate present. By the "novelization" of the other genres Bakhtin did not mean their imitation of the novel, but rather their liberation from everything that would congeal them, and the novel itself, into stylized forms fated to outlive themselves. "Novel," in other words, is what Bakhtin called all those forces at work within a given literary system which reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system.

It is not surprising that Bakhtin sought and found the origins of the novel and novelistic discourse in just those transitional periods—between the classical and Hellenistic, and between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—when past and present confronted and interpenetrated each other in carnivalistic fashion. In the Hellenistic period, Bakhtin argues, the carnivalization of culture produced prenovelistic works, like the Menippean satire, which parodied the absolute past of the classical age, with its "hopelessly ready-made" heroes and unitary language, in a style that is hybrid, multi-voiced, dialogic (or polyphonic)—a style in which there is a constant interaction among conflicting linguistic and ideological meanings and different time-frames. The ancient parodic travestying forms contributed to later novelistic discourses by creating a distance between language and reality that allowed for multiple meanings within the same text, thus subverting the architectonic myth implicit in the classical literary consciousness, and in every subsequent monologic consciousness, of an absolute identity or fusion of words with a particular ideological meaning.

Bakhtin suggests that late medieval man also lived simultaneously in two worlds, defined by a series of oppositions: sacred/profane, virtue/vice, official/unofficial, social hierarchy/utopian equality, Latin/vernacular, classical-normative/carnival-grotesque. In the literature of the waning Middle Ages, as in Hellenistic parody, the tendency was toward "a laughing double" for every serious form. The playing off of one (comic) version of the world against another (serious) version, epitomized in carnival, highlighted the importance of the border zone where seeming opposites collided or coexisted in ambiguous and often tensely charged relationships, as in the macaronic verse of the Carmina Burana. Carnival rituals and literature conveyed simultaneous messages about food and sex, religion and politics. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of medieval carnival is that it was polysemous, meaning different things to different people within the same cultural context. Pagan meanings were juxtaposed to Christian ones, modifying both but obliterating neither; and the result, Bakhtin suggested, must be read and understood as a palimpsest. Just this carnivalization of culture, this interaction of incongruous linguistic and ideological perspectives within the same text produced the novel in the Renaissance.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the boundary line separating the official cult and ecclesiastical ideology from the culture of laughter was in dissolution. The lower genres began to penetrate the higher levels of literature, and laughter began to enter into all spheres of ideological life. This process was completed during the Renaissance and found its highest expression in Cervantes, Shakespeare, Grimmelshausen, but especially in Rabelais in whom the destruction of the old world-view and the creation of a new one are indissolubly interwoven. The medieval rogues, clowns, fools—those "life's maskers" who claim the right to be "other" in this world, "the right not to make common cause with any single one of the categories that life makes available;" and who, through their wholly theatricalized beings, reassert "the public nature of the human figure"—became the progenitors of the modern novel's heroes, those marginal figures who elude social definition and finality, who ever test and contest the conditions of their existence. The novel as a distinctive literary form was born when medieval culture, with its dualism and eschatological conception of history (the creation of the world, the fall from grace, the first expulsion, redemption, the second exile, and the final judgment—concepts in which the time of this world is devalued and subsumed to extratemporal categories), gave way to a "generative" time: a time measured by creative acts, constant birth and rebirth; a time in which death is not decisive in the larger socio-historical scheme of things; a time "maximally tensed toward the future." Rooted in the genres of folk humor and carnival narrative, and reflecting its parodic and metacultural origins, the novel depicts moments of maximum indeterminacy that call all fixed forms and structures into question. Standing outside and defying cultural hierarchies, the novel and its heroes become agents of a sociolinguistic universe that "defamiliarizes" existing conditions by playing off one mode of arrangement or perspective against another, revealing in the process possibilities for historical transformation.

For Bakhtin, then, literary structure is not something that exists unto itself, which can be discovered by the static segmentation and analysis of individual texts. His view of the novel as the site on which contesting and contested discourses of different periods, groups, or classes engage one another as sociolinguistic forces implied, rather, that literature—indeed, culture in general—must be understood as a system of signification that dialogically manifests itself and its multiple meanings in all their historical specificity and social valence. Bakhtin was one of the first in fact to propose a model for interpreting not only phenomena like carnival and carnival narrative, but for interpreting any sign system, be it literary or nonliterary, verbal or nonverbal. This original conception of culture ("high" and "low" alike) as the symbolic exchange of language, circumscribed and permeated by a specific historical environment, was the outcome of Bakhtin's novel attempt to solve what was in his time, and still is, the key problem confronting literary theory: to square the formalist conception of the autonomy of literature with the obvious fact of literature's interaction with other social phenomena.

Or, to rephrase the question in light of the vigorous debate Saussure's synchronic model stirred among Russian literary scholars of the 1920s: how can one speak of literary history, of the process of becoming, of intertextuality, if what is meant is simply a sequence of self-referential linguistic structures? On the one hand, Bakhtin agreed with Saussure and the Russian formalists in placing language at the center of literary theory and in positing a sharp and categorical distinction between the world as a source of representation and the world as represented in literature. When text is confused with context, words with the things they stand for, Bakhtin warned, the result is some form of naive naturalism, mimesis, reflection theory or psychologism, all of which in various ways obscure the differences between what is aesthetic and what is social in literature. On the other hand, Bakhtin joined with Marxist scholars (notably P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov, with whom, or under whose names Bakhtin published some of his own work) in criticizing the formalist conception of language as an ahistorical system that posits a radical disjunction between the aesthetic and the social. Viewing both models as themselves contesting discourses confronting each other dialogically as it were, Bakhtin sought to synthesize elements of each to produce a theory of literature that would neither conceal nor exaggerate the boundary line between the aesthetic and the social, expressing his own position by an organic metaphor suggesting symbiosis:

However forcefully the real and the represented world resist fusion, however immutable the presence of that categorical boundary line between them, they are nevertheless indissolubly tied up with each other and find themselves in continual mutual interaction; uninterrupted exchange goes on between them, similar to the uninterrupted exchange of matter between living organisms and the environment that surrounds them. As long as the organic lives, it resists a fusion with the environment, but if it is torn out of its environment, it dies.

Reacting against the "abstract objectivism" of Saussurean linguistics (the idea of language as a system of conventional, arbitrary signs of a fundamentally rational nature), Bakhtin and the members of his circle emphasized the speech aspect of language. Not the sentence, but the utterance—which differs from the linguist's sentence not in length or substance, but in its contextuality, its "historicity"—stands at the center of Bakhtin's conception of language. For Bakhtin, there is no such thing as a "general language" that is spoken by a general voice, that may be divorced from a specific speech act, which is charged with particular overtones. Living discourse, unlike a dictionary, is always in flux and in rebellion against its own rules. The recurring motifs in The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), and the works published under Bakhtin's own name—"the concrete life of the word," "the living word," and "the word within the word"—bespeak an emphasis on the here and now, on the intensely immediate exchange between living people in actual historical and social encounters. Language, when it means, is somebody talking to somebody else, even when that someone else is one's own inner self. To understand an utterance, therefore, means to formulate a reply to it (even if not to make it overtly), to evaluate it, to determine its meaning within a particular context. Understanding is thus itself dialogue. It follows, moreover, that "meaning" does not belong alone either to the speaker or the listener, but to the interaction between the two.

In point of fact, the word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser and addressee…. I give myself, verbal shape from another's point of view, ultimately, from the point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is territory shared….

The French linguist, Emile Benveniste, would later verify Bakhtin's insistence on the impossibility of isolating language from discourse, or discourse from subjectivity, through his analysis of linguistic components he claimed can only have meaning in actual discursive situations. In "Subjectivity in Language" (1958), Benveniste argues, for example, that the pronouns "I" and "you" lack the standardized and conventional significance of other linguistic terms. "I" always implies a speaker to whom it refers, and "you" always implies a listener whom the speaker addresses. These roles are endlessly reversible, as are the signifiers which depend upon them; the person who functions as a speaker one moment functions as a listener the next. These pronouns are also only intermittently activated, and thus have only a periodic meaning. In the intervals between speech utterances, they cease to mean anything at all.

There is no concept "I" that incorporates all the I's that are uttered at every moment in the mouths of speakers, in the sense that there is a concept "tree" to which all the individual uses of tree refer…. We are in the presence of a class of words, the "personal pronouns," that escape the status of all the other signs of language. Then what does I refer to? To something very peculiar which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is pronounced, and by this it designates the speaker. It is a term that cannot be identified except in what we have called elsewhere an instance of discourse and that has only a momentary reference…. It is in the instance of discourse in which I designates the speaker that the speaker proclaims himself as the "subject." And so it is literally true that the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language. [Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary E. Meek, 1971]

Benveniste notes that language also contains other elements whose status is equally dependent upon discourse, and equally marked by subjectivity—words, that is, which take on meaning only in relation to a subject. Verb forms imply a similar conceptualization of time, one keyed to the moment in which discourse occurs. Benveniste shows in "The Nature of Pronouns" (1956) that "the 'verb form' is an inextricable part of the individual instance of discourse: it is always and necessarily activated by the act of discourse and in dependence on that act." And in "Subjectivity in Language," he asserts that "language is marked so deeply by the expression of subjectivity that one might ask if it could still function and be called language if it were constructed otherwise."

Another Bakhtinian insight that informs Benveniste's theory is that subjectivity is entirely relational; it only comes into play through the principle of difference, by the opposition of the "other" or the "you" to the "I." In other words, subjectivity is not an essence but a set of relationships. Moreover, it can only be induced by discourse, by the activation of a signifying system which precedes the individual, and which determines his or her cultural identity. Benveniste (following Lacan) demonstrates that, in ordinary conversational situations, the speaking subject automatically links the pronouns "I" and "you" to the mental images by means of which it recognizes both itself and the person it addresses, and it identifies with the former of these. In "Language in Freudian Theory" (1956), Benveniste describes discourse in precisely these terms:

All through Freudian analysis it can be seen that the subject makes use of the act of speech and discourse in order to "represent himself" to himself as he wishes to see himself and as he calls upon the "other" to see him. His discourse is appeal and recourse: a sometimes vehement solicitation of the other through the discourse in which he figures himself desperately, and an often mendacious recourse to the other in order to individualize himself in his own eyes. Through the sole fact of addressing another, the one who is speaking of himself installs the other in himself and thereby apprehends himself, confronts himself, and establishes himself as he aspires to be, and finally historicizes himself in this incomplete or falsified history…. The subject's language (langue) provides the instrument of a discourse in which his personality is released and creates itself, reaches out to the other and makes itself be recognized by him.

For Benveniste, then, as for Bakhtin, language is emphatically not a unitary, coherent system, separable from ideological and cultural flux. Because "the word" (i.e., the utterance as distinct from the sentence) is shared territory, the same set of words can differ in meaning in different verbal interactions. And because even the simplest communication act is never uniform, never transparent, never ahistorical, no amount of analysis of language as a synchronic "system" is sufficient to explain how words can (as Alice marveled) mean so many different things. The formalist idea of an utterance as simply a collocation of linguistic features Bakhtin would regard as a fundamental misconception of verbal exchange. For him, an utterance is shaped from within by the speaker's expectations of the listener's responses. And these expectations are in turn a product of all the speaker knows, or thinks he knows, about the listener (the attitudes of his social group, his personal history, the nature of his ties with the speaker) and the occasion and purpose of the utterance. Thus, we can understand the meaning of a speech act, Bakhtin and his group would argue, only when we succeed in connecting it to the linguistic and extralinguistic context in which it occurs, to the unstated social premises on which it depends. It would be impossible, for example, to recognize irony, parody, or stylization without reference to the context of another utterance, since they all rely for their meaning on something outside themselves. As Voloshinov put it, "the whole utterance is, after all, defined by its boundaries, and these boundaries run along the line of contact between a given utterance and the extraverbal and verbal (i. e., made up of other utterances) milieu."

In other words, no communication can be understood on the level at which it occurs because it is only at still higher orders of contextualization that the communicative system comes to be defined. This means that global patternings of meanings which are immanent in the organization of a cultural system at all levels can never be entirely reduced to a unique, determinate meaning in some local situation of occurrence or realization. At the higher levels of semiotic organization these discursive formations constitute an entire culture. The multiple conflicting "voices" in dialogic discourse form the basis of a social process in which identity, status, and ideology among various social groups may generate conflict and change within the sociolinguistic system itself. This can happen because a cultural system comprises an ordered system of codes which determine both the distribution of meanings in society as well as ownership and access to the means of production of social meanings. Hence the ever-present possibility of misunderstanding.

Thus, Bakhtin could claim that language is the most sensitive barometer of social and historical change. The synchronic and diachronic dimensions of language, he argued against the formalists, can never be separated, even for purposes of analysis, because "whatever a word might mean, it is first of all materially present, as a thing uttered, written, printed, whispered, or thought" [The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics]. At any given time, language consists of a multitude of jargons, dialects, and discourses of regional and social subgroups, all more or less successful, depending upon their social scope and ideological authority. Language, in other words, is always languages, defined by "multi-speechedness," "heteroglot from top to bottom," ever in motion. To a synchronic view of language, however, change must appear as but an irrational force distorting the logical purity of language. There is no development, only inexplicable disruption. "What interests the mathematically minded rationalists is not the relationship of the sign to the actual reality it reflects nor to the individual who is its originator, but the relationship of sign to sign within a closed system already accepted and authorized." Once an analysis excludes the utterance and its necessary socio-historical context, change can only be described in terms of the altering of the components of a sentence—which is something like describing the history of philosophy as a random succession of ideas. As Bakhtin saw it, language is a dynamic process in which an endless contest between langue and parole, between canonization and innovation, is fought out at every level.

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process…. Consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language.

Literary language is also a jargon like any other, used in a particular milieu and in a specific speaker-listener relationship. The very existence (not to mention the primacy) of literary language in some cultures but not in others is itself a salient social fact about it, and social changes that affect everyday language will eventually affect literary language as well. it is only by conceiving language itself as not merely permeated by ideological values, but also as constituted out of the social interaction in which those values are born, live, and die that we can begin to understand a literary text as part of a social process. As Medvedev and Bakhtin tried to show in The Formal Method In Literary Scholarship, the literary work participates in the larger economy of material and ideological production. "Literary history is concerned with the concrete life of the literary work in the unity of the generating literary environment, the literary environment in the generating ideological environment, and the latter, finally, in the generating socio-economic environment which permeates it."

To put it another way, the life cycles of literary forms do not run their course within a closed aesthetic space, independent of what goes on in the world outside literature. Literary forms have no predictable life-span, and mere frequency of use has nothing to do with their durability or obsolescence. Literary forms become obsolete when they no longer tell, or are thought to tell, the truth about the world, and there is no predicting how long it may take for this perceived failing to overtake a particular form. But changes of this kind, when they occur, always bear the traces of a material history and culture antecedent to the change itself. As Bakhtin wrote in "Discourse in the Novel" (1934–35):

When discourse is torn from reality, it is fatal for the word itself as well: words grow sickly, lose semantic depth and flexibility, the capacity to expand and renew their meanings in new living contexts—they essentially die as discourse, for the signifying word lives beyond itself, that is, it lives by means of directing its purpose outward.

The final point here—that consciousness is linguistically (and through language socio-historically) determined—forms the central argument of Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1927). Here Voloshinov and Bakhtin reject Freud's distinction between the conscious and unconscious in favor of the view that the unconscious is simply a variant of the conscious, differing from it ideologically but not ontologically. What Freud called the unconscious (the realm of repressed drives and desires), Voloshinov and Bakhtin rename the "unofficial conscious" as distinct from the ordinary "official conscious" whose ideologies may be shared openly with others. The language of the unofficial conscious is "inner speech"; the language of the official conscious, "outward speech." But both (as Lacan and Benveniste would argue) operate according to the same general rules governing all verbal behavior. Inner speech is essentially the same as outward speech, differing from it only in the matter it addresses. Both are sociohistorically determined. The structure of every utterance, internal or external, is social, as is every experience it expresses.

The verbal component of behavior is determined in all the fundamentals and essentials of its content by objective social factors…. Therefore, nothing verbal in human behavior (inner and outward speech equally) can under any circumstances be reckoned to the account of the individual subject in isolation; the verbal is not his property but the property of his social group (his social milieu).

Far from being private, inner speech is the most sensitive and immediate register of social change. Although both variants of consciousness are ideological through and through, ideology has a different status in each. The primary difference consists in the greater stability of the official conscious whose ideologies are shared by the group as a whole. At this level, "inner speech comes easily to order and freely turns into outward speech or, in any case, has no fear of becoming outward speech…. In a healthy community and in a socially healthy personality … there is no discrepancy between the official and unofficial conscious." But once an ideology ceases to be shared by the group as a whole, as happens when it no longer expresses the group's real socioeconomic interests, a gap develops between the two levels of consciousness which disrupts their internal dialogue and stifles inner speech. And the greater the gap between them, the more difficult it becomes for the motives of inner speech to find verbal expression, and the more apt they are to turn into a "foreign body" in the psyche and to become "asocial." This doesn't mean, however, that every motive in contradiction with the official ideology is doomed to become asocial and lose contact with verbal communication; a "censored" motive might well engage in a struggle with the official ideology.

If such a motive is founded on the economic being of the whole group, if it is not merely the motive of a déclassé loner, then it has a chance for a future and perhaps even a victorious future…. Only, at first a motive of this sort will develop within a small social milieu and will depart into the underground—not the psychological underground of repressed complexes, but the salutary political underground. That is exactly how a revolutionary ideology in all spheres of culture comes about.

The master text of Voloshinov's and Bakhtin's political underground is Notes From Underground, in which the narrator's tortured soul and "anti-social" tendencies bespeak the disintegration of the official ideology (and through it, his own disintegration), against which he rants in the name of the rights of repressed consciousness—the right to be "other" in this world, to be unique and unpredictable, to throw everything into question, including oneself. "We are oppressed at being men—men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man." In contrast to Lukács, for example, Bakhtin argues that the hero interests Dostoevsky in the Notes, and throughout his writings, not as a typical (or atypical) manifestation of a fixed and stable external reality, nor as a profile composed of objective features which, taken together, constitute his identity. What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world, but first and foremost how the world appears to his hero, and how the hero appears to himself. In a Dostoevsky novel, the rules governing the psyche coexist on the same level as the rules governing the state. Dostoevsky politicizes his heroes, in other words, by giving their inner speech the same weight and status as the outward speech they contest, thereby undermining its stability and ideological authority. The hero's voice in a Dostoevsky novel is only one, albeit the central one, in a chorus of voices in which any "authoritative" discourse can in fact be made to appear relative. In thus revising Freud's conscious/unconscious dichotomy and insinuating it into his interpretation of Dostoevsky, Bakhtin was in a sense, as Michael Holquist suggests [in "The Politics of Representation"], giving voice to his own dilemma, the dilemma of a Dostoevskyan underground man "sending out transcoded messages from the catacombs"—one being that "in the history of literary language, there is a struggle constantly being waged to overcome the official line … a struggle against various kinds and degrees of authority."

It is in Dostoevsky, and in Dostoevsky alone, that Bakhtin finds the polyphonic ideal fully realized: the ideal of the coexistence, interaction, and interdependence of several different, relatively autonomous consciousnesses that express simultaneously the various contents of the world within the unity of a single text. "What Dostoevsky's characters say constitutes an arena of never-ending struggle with others' words, in all realms of life and creative activity … the life experience of the characters and their discourse may be resolved as far as plot is concerned, but internally they remain incomplete and unresolved." This greatest of all literary contrapuntalists genuinely surrenders to his characters and allows them to speak in ways other than his own. Heroes are no longer reduced to the dominating consciousness of the author, as they are in monologic narrative (in Tolstoy, for example, with whom Bakhtin often compares Dostoevsky), and secondary characters are no longer encompassed by and reduced to their usefulness to heroes—or to the author. Dostoevsky's characters are, in short, respected as full subjects, shown as consciousnesses which can never be fully defined or exhausted, rather than as objects fully known, once and for all, in their roles—and then discarded as expendable.

Bakhtin shared with Dostoevsky a view of the individual as comprehensible only within his own point of view (his "confessional self-utterance"), hence impossible to define or categorize in any permanent and immutable fashion. This view—indeed, all the significant aspects of Bakhtin's thought—is apparent in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, the only one of his writings of the 1920s he published under his own name. This work, which may be read as Bakhtin's own confessional self-utterance, clearly rests on a vision of the world as essentially a network of subjects who are themselves social in essence, not private or autonomous individuals in the Western sense. Bakhtin expressed this vision always in terms of the "multi-voicedness" or "multi-centeredness" of the world as we experience it. We come into consciousness speaking a language already permeated by many voices—a social, not a private or unitary language. From the very beginning we are "polyglot," already in process of mastering a variety of social dialects derived from parents, teachers, clan, class, religion, and region. We grow in consciousness by assimilating more voices, then by learning which to accept as "internally persuasive." In this way, we achieve a kind of individuality, one which recognizes and respects the fact that each of us is a "we," not just an "I." Polyphony, the interaction of many voices which finds its supreme literary expression in the novel, is thus both a fact of life and a value to be pursued endlessly against the suffocating forces of regimentation and conformity.

It is largely from Bakhtin's writings, especially his books on Dostoevsky and Rabelais, that we have learned to apply terms like "carnivalization" to the dissolution of hierarchy in all spheres of life, and it is a major part of his legacy to have taught us about the liberating energy of the carnivalesque and carnival laughter. "There is no standpoint counterposed to laughter. Laughter is 'the only positive hero'" ["The Art of the word and The Culture of Folk Humor (Rabelais and Gogol)," Semiotics and Structuralism]. Bakhtin's unshakable faith in the transcendent power of laughter permeates his lavish descriptions of the carnivalesque, descriptions which clearly celebrate a tradition whose full realization he found in Rabelais, and whose renaissance he discovered in Dostoevsky. It is characteristic of Bakhtin that the carnival-grotesque serves, in some respects, as his model of the "normal" in that it embodies both the conventional and the unexpected, the established and the creative. This model enabled him to see how traditional literary forms are abolished or transformed through parody as part of the complex interaction of social forces within particular periods of upheaval and transition; how the novel may be said to characterize literature as a whole; and how language systems are revitalized by creolization and restricted by stabilization. The most important part of Bakhtin's legacy, however, is not his immensely fruitful struggle with worn-out words and literary forms, but rather his struggle—often resourceful, cunning, and oblique—with the forces of stagnation and finalization, with the determinism of being, whether in the fixed forms of unitary discourse, genre conventions in literature, or in the rigidity of thought patterns. In other words, Bakhtin might have said that he wished to be read as a novel, not an epic.

Robert Anchor, "Bakhtin's Truths of Laughter," in CLIO, Vol. 14, No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 237-57.

Further Reading

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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 of Bakhtin." Critical Studies 2, Nos. 1-2 (1990): 123-36.

Examines Bakhtin's views on literary history through a discussion of the historical novel genre.

Hirschkop, Ken, and Shepherd, David. Bakhtin and Cultural Theory. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1989, 224 p.

Collects essays examining Bakhtin's influence on contemporary cultural studies.

Holquist, Michael. Introduction to The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, edited and translated by Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson, pp. xv-xxxiv. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Provides a biographical sketch of Bakhtin and explications of the ideas presented in the essays that make up The Dialogic Imagination.

Lachmann, Renate. "Bakhtin and Carnival: Culture as Counter-Culture." Cultural Critique 11 (Winter 1989–1990): 115-52.

Discusses Bakhtin's concepts of the carnivalesque and folk culture, focusing on his book Rabelais and His World.

Lodge, David. After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1990, 198 p.

Traces the development of Bakhtin's career and applies Bakhtinian theory to a variety of literary works.

Morson, Gary Saul. "Bakhtin, Genres, and Temporality." New Literary History 22, No. 4 (Autumn 1991): 1071–92.

Maintains that Bakhtin's devotion to the novel genre coincides with his aversion to totalizing conceptions of language and culture because of the novel's openness to polyphony, particularity, and the potentiality of time.

Patterson, David. Literature and Spirit: Essays on Bakhtin and His Contemporaries. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988, 166 p.

Collection of essays connecting Bakhtin with other critical and literary figures.

Rutland, Barry. "Bakhtinian Categories and the Discourse of Postmodernism." Critical Studies 2, Nos. 1-2 (1990): 123-36.

Discusses Bakhtin in terms of postmodernism as defined by Jean-François Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition.

Shevtsova, Maria. "Dialogism in the Novel and Bakhtin's Theory of Culture." New Literary History 23, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 747-63.

Examines how Bakhtin's linguistic theory is derived from his cultural theory, which holds that language is a corporal entity originating in the speech of popular culture.

White, Allon. "Bakhtin, Sociolinguistics and Deconstruction." In The Theory of Reading, edited by Frank Gloversmith, pp. 123-46. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1984.

Addresses how Bakhtin's ideas "prefigured both structuralist and deconstructionist views of the language of literature."

Zylko, Boguslaw. "The Author-Hero Relation in Bakhtin's Dialogical Poetics." Critical Studies 2, Nos. 1-2 (1990): 65-76.

Asserts that for Bakhtin, "the author sees and knows more than the hero, and this asymmetry is an essential condition of creativity, the real reservoir of all artistic possibilities."

Susan Stewart (essay date 1986)

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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 they (the styles, dialects, etc.) are juxtaposed and counterposed in the work. But that dialogic angle cannot be measured by means of purely linguistic criteria, because dialogic relationships, although they belong to the province of the word, fall outside the province of its purely linguistic study.

Dialogical relationships (including the dialogical relationships of the speaker to his own word) are a matter for metalinguistics. [In an endnote Stewart explains that she follows "the current practice of attributing the works of the Bakhtin school to Bakhtin himself."]

In short, only through metalinguistics could one account for the history and social life of language.

It is important to remember, however, that Bakhtin's meta-position is not so much a move toward transcendence as it is a battle stance, a polemical insistence upon situating theories of language within the constraints of their particular social and historical periods. M. A. K. Halliday has noted that some forms of speech, such as thieves' jargon and tinkers' argot, are shaped in direct opposition to the speech of the dominant class of their times; he calls these forms of speech "anti-languages" ["Anti-Languages," American Anthropologist 78 (September 1976): 170-83]. Analogously, Bakhtin's linguistics is an anti-linguistics, a systematic questioning and inverting of the basic premises and arguments of traditional linguistic theory. It follows that recent attempts to "appropriate" Bakhtin's theories of language into the tradition he rejects are largely misguided. Erasing not only Bakhtin's sense of the radically unsystematic nature of the linguistic world but also the conflicting, anarchic nature of his very texts, semioticians and structuralists have let him speak only by silencing him.

Nowhere does this problem of appropriation emerge more clearly than in examining Bakhtin's critique of language. Indeed, even using the term "language" skews the position that Bakhtin took toward verbal behavior. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, his critique of "abstract objectivist" theories is directed to the following points: that such theories stabilize language at the expense of its real mutability and the creativity of its users; that such theories assume language to be outside of contextualization and consequently outside of history; and that such theories tend to hypostatize their own categories. [In an endnote, Stewart directs the reader to Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, p. 77, and Freudianism: A Marxist Critique for more on this.] Ferdinand de Saussure had written in the Cours de linguistique générale:

In separating language from speaking we are at the same time separating: (1) what is social from what is individual; and (2) what is essential from what is accessory and more or less accidental.

Language is not a function of the speaker; it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual. It never requires premeditation, and reflection enters in only for the purpose of classification….

Speaking, on the contrary, is an individual act. It is willful and intellectual.

No position could be more the antithesis of Bakhtin's. Saussure is interested in language as an abstract and ready-made system; Bakhtin is interested only in the dynamics of living speech. Where Saussure sees passive assimilation, Bakhtin sees a process of struggle and contradiction. And whereas Saussure dichotomizes the individual and the social, Bakhtin assumes that the individual is constituted by the social, that consciousness is a matter of dialogue and juxtaposition with a social Other.

In "Discourse in the Novel" Bakhtin writes: "A passive understanding of linguistic meaning is no understanding at all, it is only the abstract aspect of meaning." For Bakhtin such an abstraction from the concrete utterance would be a dead end, reifying its own categories of the linguistic norm and producing a model with no capability of discussing linguistic—and thereby, for Bakhtin, social—change. If Bakhtin has until recently lacked his true inheritors, Saussure has not, and the major heirlooms of Saussurian linguistics—langue vs. parole, the arbitrary nature of the sign, and, more indirectly, the distinction between poetic and ordinary language—reappear in transformational grammar, in the old (and the new) stylistics, and even, surprisingly, in quasi-Marxist theories of language such as Julia Kristeva's.

The transformational grammarian's devoted outlining of abstract syntactical structures and the stylistician's almost magical rendering of phonetic and morphological structures into thematic structures stand in direct contrast to Bakhtin's object of study. [In an endnote, Stewart writes: "For an attempt to link syntactic to larger social transformations, see Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, Language and Materialism: Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject (London, 1977), pp. 127-30. This attempt seems at best metaphorical and at worst strangely skewed: without a corresponding theory of language use in context, the linkage involves a confusion of levels of analysis."] When Bakhtin discusses "problems of syntax," he has in mind the utterance as it occurs in context, in lived social time. Hence that object of study has rather fluid, generically determined boundaries, ranging from utterances consisting of a single word to utterances consisting of the entire text of a literary work. In The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, he writes:

It is the whole utterance as speech performance that is directed at the theme, not the separate word, sentence, or period. It is the whole utterance and its forms, which cannot be reduced to any linguistic forms, which control the theme. The theme of the work is the theme of the whole utterance as a definite sociohistorical act. Consequently, it is inseparable from the total situation of the utterance to the same extent that it is inseparable from linguistic elements.

The critique of abstraction in Bakhtin's work is a profound and relentless one. At every point he proclaims that the model of pure linguistic form arose from neoclassical philosophies and from the study of dead languages, that only in its living reality, shaped and articulated by social evaluation, does the word exist. He insists upon contextualizing even the notion of abstraction itself, suggesting that the tradition of normative linguistics from Aristotle and Saint Augustine through the Indo-Europeanists served the needs of sociopolitical and cultural centralization. These "centripetal forces," he contends, can be perceived only against the backdrop of the very "heteroglossia" they sought to deny. We see a rejection in his work not only of a distinction between "language" and "speech" but also of a distinction between synchrony and diachrony. Bakhtin traces these dichotomies to Cartesian rationalism and Leibniz's conception of a universal grammar. Because it denies the actual creativity of language use, Bakhtin rejects the systematizing impulse of such linguistic thought: "Formal, systematic thought about language is incompatible with living, historical understanding of language. From the system's point of view, history always seems merely a series of accidential [sic] transgressions." [In an endnote, Stewart writes: "It is thus puzzling when Krystyna Pomorska, in her foreword to Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, insists repeatedly that Bakhtin is a structuralist. Although Roman Jakobson and Jurij Tynjanov wrote in their 'Problems in the Study of Literature and Language' that 'every system necessarily exists as an evolution while, on the other hand, evolution is inescapably of a systematic nature' (quoted in Titunik, 'The Formal Method and the Sociological Method [M. M. Baxtin, P. N. Medvedev, V. N. Vološinov] in Russian Theory and Study of Literature,' appendix 2, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, p. 187), this is hardly a mirror of Bakhtin's rejection of the distinction between synchrony and diachrony. In a later essay, 'Mixail Baxtin [Mikhail Bakhtin] and His Verbal Universe,' Pomorska writes that Bakhtin is a 'real semiotician,' and she goes on to explain that, in his rejection of an autonomous function for literature, he prefigures the Tartu school's semiotics. She also writes that, in addition to the Einsteinian revolution and Husserlian philosophy, 'the other source, more obvious for Baxtin than, say, for Jakobson or Tynjanov, is classical Marxist dialectics' (PTL 3 [April 1978]: 381, 384-85)."]

Not only does such systematization lead to a denial of history—it also results in a vision of speech as a series of "accidental transgressions," a vision we find most prevalent in Noam Chomsky's distinction between competence and performance. There is perhaps no clearer description of linguistic alienation than Chomsky's position on this point: "Any interesting generative grammar will be dealing, for the most part, with mental processes that are far beyond the level of actual or even potential consciousness; furthermore, it is quite apparent that a speaker's reports and viewpoints about his behavior and competence may be in error" [Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965]. The social and political consequences of such an abstract linguistics are brought out in Bakhtin's own observations on the concept of error: "Only in abnormal and special cases do we apply the criterion of correctness to an utterance (for instance, in language instruction). Normally, the criterion of linguistic correctness is submerged by a purely ideological [i.e., thematic] criterion." Rather than assume a transcendent grammar to which actual speech performance can be only imperfectly compared, Bakhtin looks at the social articulation and uses of diversity. The consequences of the Cartesian position become clearer when we look at its current application in state policy. In such domains as the exclusion of bi- (and multi-) lingual education, language requirements attached to immigration restrictions, tensions between nonstandard and standard "dialects" (these terms themselves the necessary fictions by which a transcendent "standard" is created), and the language of state apparatuses in general, the Cartesian position functions to reinforce state institutions and to trivialize change and everyday linguistic creativity. To silence the diversity of the powerful "unsaids" of actual speech in favor of an opaque and universal form of language is to strip language of its ideological significance—a stripping that is itself strongly and univocally ideological. [In an endnote, Stewart writes: "For a sociolinguistic critique of transformational grammar, see Dell Hymes, Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach (Philadelphia, 1974), particularly pp. 119-24, where Herderian and Cartesian linguistics are contrasted; and William Labov, Sociolinguistic Patterns (Philadelphia, 1972), p. 200. In a suggestive essay, Henri Gobard has traced some of the sociological functions of abstract languages, particularly the effect of a multinational English upon vernacular French: see Gobard, L'Alienation linguistique: Analyse tetraglossique (Paris, 1976)."]

His careful attention to actual social behavior also prohibits Bakhtin from accepting any facile distinction between ordinary and poetic language. Such distinctions tend to trivialize both everyday speech acts—by making them automatic or indistinguishable—and "poetic" utterances—by making them parasitic. Most important, theories of poetic language trivialize the activities of speakers by assuming an essentialist, rather than a social, definition of genre. [In an endnote, the critic writes: "See Stanley E. Fish, 'How Ordinary Is Ordinary Language?', New Literary History, Vol. 5, Autumn, 1973, pp. 41-54; and Mary Louise Pratt, 'The Poetic Language Fallacy,' Toward a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse, pp. 3-37."] A critique of the concept of poetic language forms a major part of The Formal Method: "If the poetic construction had been placed in a complex, many-sided relationship with science, with rhetoric, with the fields of real practical life, instead of being declared the bare converse of a fabricated practical language, then formalism as we know it would not have existed." In this study, Bakhtin not only objects to the formalist concept of the autonomy of poetic language but also, in a characteristic move, attempts to show the sources and purposes of this formalist position in futurist poetics.

Although we find in Bakhtin an early critic of the linguistics of abstract objectivism, we do not find a neat precursor of contemporary social theories of language. Whereas such studies as William Labov's on the social implications of sound-change vindicate Bakhtin's rejection of a purely "linguistic" conception of phonology, the majority of sociolinguistic studies tends, no less problematically, to emphasize context in a highly abstract way—that is, without a corresponding discussion of the location of the utterance in history and social life. [In an endnote, the critic adds: "See Labov, Sociolinguistic Patterns and Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular."] In other words, as the abstract objectivists tend to hypostatize grammar, the sociolinguists often tend to hypostatize rules for speech behavior. They do not seem to realize that such rules are not simply located behind the historical processes of social life but are also emergent in them. Hence there is a tendency to want to name the situation, to close off its boundaries, particularly in speech-act theory. Consider, for instance, John Searle's original formulation of his philosophy of speech acts [in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language]: "The form this hypothesis will take is that the semantic structure of a language may be regarded as a conventional realization of a series of sets of underlying constitutive rules, and that speech acts are acts characteristically performed by uttering expressions in accordance with these sets of constitutive rules."

Similarly, although the sociolinguistic study of styles of speaking goes beyond such a static concept of situation by contrasting the "referential" and "social" aspects of discourse, it does not present a model of the historical transformation of social values and ideologies. The emphasis on rule-governed behavior in current social studies of language again tends toward a focus on "form" at the expense of ideological strategy and a focus on "system" at the expense of social creativity. As a result, such studies search for a grammar of situation; and so, their Romantic humanism notwithstanding, they recapitulate many of the methodological pitfalls of the abstract objectivists.

Bakhtin's positions on verbal interaction thus overlap—but also go beyond—the aims of both sociolinguistics and speech-act theory. The difference is that his primary concern is not so much with how things work as with how things change. In contrast to Searle's atemporality, Bakhtin presents a theory of the sequential order of change: "This is the order that the actual generative process of language follows: social intercourse is generated (stemming from the basis); in it verbal communication and interaction are generated; and in the latter, forms of speech performances are generated; finally, this generative process is reflected in the change of language forms." Like Searle and John Austin, Bakhtin is concerned with identifying what he calls the "little behavioral genres" of speech situations—question, exclamation, command, request, the light and casual causerie of the drawing room. But Bakhtin is even more interested in the relationships between those genres and their contexts in the rest of social life: "The behavioral genre fits everywhere into the channel of social intercourse assigned to it and functions as an ideological reflection of its type, structure, goal, and social composition," particularly as history changes the ideological functions of such contexts. Searle specifies the "happiness conditions" of successful speech acts; Bakhtin is the master of what we might call "unhappiness conditions," those circumstances in which the utterance stands in tension or conflict with the utterances of others. For utterances are always preceded by alien utterances which face them in the form of an addressee or social Other and which surround them with an always significant silence. Whereas linguistic theory must be grateful to sociolinguistics for specifying the profound uses of silence, it must be grateful to Bakhtin for articulating the powerful force of the silenced in language use. [In an endnote, the critic adds: "See, for example, K. H. Basso, 'To Give Up on Words': Silence in Western Apache Culture, in Language and Social Context: Selected Readings, pp. 67-86."]

Thus, Bakhtin presents us with a "generative" linguistics, but that linguistics is accounted for in a social sense. The "rules" it seeks are conventions of genre, conventions of voice, character, idea, temporality, and closure which will be modified by the ongoing transformations of social life. Because it emphasizes the social, it is directly opposed to those contemporary theories of language, such as Chomsky's, that ultimately locate transformation in biological evolutionary processes. And although Bakhtin presents an investigation of utterances in context, his concern with dialogue, with conflict, and, especially, with the cumulative forces of history acting upon each speech situation distinguishes his work from contemporary sociolinguistic theories. Finally, although many careful comparisons have been made between Bakhtin's semiotics and contemporary semiotic theory, Bakhtin's position on the sign differs from traditional semiotics in several crucial ways. [In an endnote, the critic adds: "See Matejka, 'On the First Russian Prolegomena to Semiotics,' appendix 1, MPL, pp. 161-74; Viach Vs. Ivanox, 'The Significance of M. M. Bakhtin's Ideas on Sign, Utterance, and Dialogue for Modern Semiotics (1),' Soviet Studies in Literature 11 Spring-Summer, 1975, pp. 186-243; and Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtine et la théorie de l'histoire littéraire."]

The powerful critique of "language" offered in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is supplemented throughout the rest of his works by an equally powerful critique of the concept of the sign. The Saussurian theory of the referent naively assumes a univocality of meaning, and Charles Sanders Peirce's theory of iconicity assumes an actual physical referent to which the sign-vehicle corresponds. In contrast, Bakhtin clearly distinguishes between the mechanistic and pragmatic functions of signals and the cultural and "polyvocal" functions of signs: "The process of understanding is on no account to be confused with the process of recognition. These are thoroughly different processes. Only a sign can be understood; what is recognized is a signal." For Bakhtin, the material life of the sign does not arise out of the world of physical objects; rather, it arises out of the actual material practices of everyday social life. And, unlike Saussure, Bakhtin does not see the sign as a part of an abstract system resulting from the structure of psychological perception. Instead, he looks for the ontology of the sign in the "practical business of living speech." Here again we see Bakhtin's rebellion against system. The semiotic character of culture is the result of concrete and dynamic historical processes, processes of tension and conflict inseparable from the basis of social and economic life.

Bakhtin's critique of the univocal sign is perhaps most fully developed in his study of Dostoevsky and in his early essay, "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art." In the works of Dostoevsky, Bakhtin both found and created the aesthetic correspondent to his theories of thought and language:

The idea, as seen by Dostoevsky the artist, is not a subjective individual-psychological formulation with a "permanent residence" in a person's head; no, the idea is interindividual and intersubjective. The sphere of its existence is not the individual consciousness, but the dialogical intercourse between consciousnesses. The idea is a living event which is played out in the point where two or more consciousnesses meet dialogically. In this respect the idea resembles the word, with which it forms a dialogical unity. Like the word, the idea wants to be heard, understood, and "answered" by other voices from other positions. Like the word, the idea is by nature dialogical, the monolog being merely the conventional form of its expression which arose from the soil of the ideological monologism of modern times.

The idea and the word are here conceptualized as "arenas of conflict," and this conflict arises not simply, as sociolinguistics suggests, out of the tension between the referent and the physical context of utterances but rather from bringing all past experience with the word to bear upon the present situation. For example, Bakhtin sees the works of Dostoevsky as integrating the aphoristic thinking of the Enlightenment and Romanticism into locations of contrast and conflict. And those locations invite the social value judgments of readers who are themselves implicated in the text.

In "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art," these aspects of polyvalence are worked into a sociological theory of literature. Bakhtin outlines the ways in which the relations between the author's, hero's (character's), and reader's voices intersect within the constraints of genre. "The interrelationship of author and hero, never, after all, actually is an intimate relationship of two; all the while form makes provision for the third participant—the listener—who exerts crucial influence on all the other factors of the work." It is out of these contrasting and collaborating positions that satire, parody, and irony arise as forms depicting conflicting social value judgments.

We might contrast this approach to literature with modern speech-act theories that assume, in Mary Louise Pratt's term, that literary works are "verbal displays." Such theories often neglect the specific effects that the literary work uses to create distancing and irony. [In an endnote, the critic adds: "Pratt presents a convincing argument regarding the ways in which narrative literary works should not be separated formally from narratives of everyday life. But her assumptions of the linearity and univocality of both types of narrative preclude consideration of the ways in which face-to-face narratives most often are constructed collaboratively and, hence, reveal conflicting social value judgments just as literary works do."] In other words, speech-act theories of literature often assume the same systematic and transparent univocality we find in speech-act theories of language. But Bakhtin's literary theory assumes that the problems of dialogue and multivocality that are found in face-to-face communication will be compounded by the specific effects used within the structure of the literary genre. Because the literary work relies on a common ideological purview of both author and reader and, at the same time, cannot rely upon an apparent "extraverbal" context, the work is a complex presentation of display and concealment, of the over- and under-articulated. This presentation is further complicated by the history of generic conventions. Bakhtin writes: "We might say that a poetic work is a powerful condenser of unarticulated social evaluations—each word is saturated with them. It is these social evaluations that organize form as their direct expression."

Bakhtin's concerted opening up of the word may be characterized as having distinguishable, if interwoven, formal and semantic levels. We have seen how his position takes a stance against both abstract objectivism and Romanticism, but we also might consider the influence of Bakhtin's historical work on the development of his theory. In the introduction to Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin writes that the function of the "carnival-grotesque" is "to consecrate inventive freedom, 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." It is characteristic of Bakhtin that, in several ways, the carnival-grotesque serves as a model of the normal. For carnival contains both the conventional and the unexpected, the established and the creative. He also focuses on the transitional linguistic forms of the Hellenic period, the late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance—that is, on loci of change. Here and in his discussion of the prehistory of the novel, he is interested in how traditional forms are parodied, or "carnivalized," as part of the complex interaction of social forces within particular historical periods of upheaval and transformation. He consequently paid great attention to the creolized language of the marketplace and street while he formed an image of language as mediating between conventionality and creativity.

For Bakhtin, language is mutable, reversible, antihierarchical, contaminable, and powerfully regenerative. It is always meeting—has always been meeting—what is strange, foreign, other:

Linguistics, itself the product of [the] foreign word, is far from any proper understanding of the role played by the foreign word in the history of language and linguistic consciousness. On the contrary, Indo-European studies have fashioned categories of understanding for the history of language of a kind that preclude proper evaluation of the role of [the] alien word. Meanwhile, that role, to all appearances, is enormous.

At language's point of origin, Bakhtin assumes ambivalence, multivocality, conflict, incorporation, and transformation. Not the least profound implication of this position might be that the model which linguistics has assumed, whereby stable languages eventually become creolized, has been moving backward; instead, we might assume creolization at the point of origin and view stabilization of the linguistic system not as the normal but as the restricted case.

Semantically, Bakhtin's dialogic conception of the word can be seen not only as a contribution to linguistic theory but also as a contribution to the theory of ideology. For although Bakhtin continually erases the abstract concept of language, he just as continually reformulates the concept of ideology. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to place Bakhtin among theorists of ideology rather than among theorists of linguistics and semiotics. To understand the radicalism of Bakhtin's theory of ideology, we must first turn to his own outline of the subject.

Alongside the rejection of transcendence implicit in Bakhtin's critique of abstraction and system is a corresponding rejection of "individual" consciousness. His critique of Freud suffers from the naiveté of his rather knee-jerk reaction to Freud's early published writings; yet that critique substantially predicts Jacques Lacan's reformulation of Freudianism in light of linguistic theory, particularly the translation of the unconscious into a form of language. In place of the concept of the unconscious, which Bakhtin viewed as unanalyzable so long as it remained neither physiological nor verbal, Bakhtin advances the concept of inner speech: through inner speech, all consciousness is social in its formulation. Accordingly, Bakhtin sees inner speech and outer, articulated speech as having ideological status. Inner speech is no less subjected to social evaluation than outer speech, because of the intrinsically social history and nature of the word:

The complex apparatus of verbal reactions functions in all its fundamental aspects also when the subject says nothing about his experiences but only undergoes them "in himself," since, if he is conscious of them, a process of inner ("covert") speech occurs (we do, after all, think and feel and desire with the help of words; without inner speech we would not become conscious of anything in ourselves). This process of inner speech is just as material as is outward speech.

To be sure, Bakhtin recognizes that "the formation of verbal connections (the establishment of connections among visual, motor, and other kinds of reactions over the course of interindividual communication, upon which the formation of verbal reactions depends) proceeds with special difficulty and delay in certain areas of life (for example, the sexual)," but he nevertheless does not explore in any depth the tensions between the unarticulated and articulated in those cases. In his work, little distinction is made between the nature of inner and outer speech, and he sometimes describes inner speech as a mere practice ground for what will or may later be articulated. This theoretical lack might be attributed to Bakhtin's apparent adherence in Freudianism: A Marxist Critique to a rather mechanistic behavioral psychology. He does write, however, that both inner and outer speech form a type of behavioral ideology that "is in certain respects more sensitive, more responsive, more excitable and livelier than an ideology that has undergone formulation and become 'official'."

Thus we begin to receive an outline of constraints that could distinguish between the qualities of inner and outer speech. His sensitivity to those varying constraints was most likely responsible for a major contribution in his discussion of Freud: Bakhtin stresses the shaping power of the specific dialogic situation of the psychoanalytic interview. Going beyond Freud's own individual-centered notions of transference, Bakhtin explains that the interview situation is a highly complex one and must be understood in light of the social dynamic between doctor and patient, and not—or not only—in terms of the patient's individual psyche. [In an endnote, the critic writes: "See Vološinov, Fr, pp. 78-79; Cf. Gregory Bateson, 'The Message "This Is Play,"' in Group Processes: Transactions of the Second Congress of the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation, pp. 145-242; and Ray L. Birdwhistell, 'Contribution of Linguistic-Kinesic Studies to the Understanding of Schizophrenia,' in Schizophrenia: An Integrated Approach, pp. 99-123."]

Bakhtin's insistence upon the primary place of the social, the "already said," in the formation of consciousness is at the heart of his struggle against the "bourgeois ideology" of individualism. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, we see a critique of Herderian linguistics, with all its Romantic assumptions about the individual soul. In the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Karl Vossler, and their followers, Bakhtin points out that a reformulation of this bourgeois philosophy appears in the theory that laws of linguistic creativity are laws of individual psychology. Bakhtin argues that such a position strips language of its ideological content and neglects the intrinsically social nature of linguistic change. In his book Freudianism, he pursues his attack on the abstract concept of the individual by criticizing Freud's asocial and tautological notion of self-consciousness. Here Bakhtin writes:

In becoming aware of myself, I attempt to look at myself, as it were, through the eyes of another person, another representative of my social group, my class. Thus, self-consciousness, in the final analysis, always leads us to class consciousness, the reflection and specification of which it is in all its fundamental and essential respects. Here we have the objective roots of even the most personal and intimate reactions.

According to Bakhtin, all social, antisocial, and warring impulses within consciousness are reflections of social, antisocial, and warring impulses within the mutually experienced world of lived reality. When a class is in decline, we may expect to see manifestations of its decay in the behavior of its individual members.

In Freudianism and the essay on discourse in life and art, the critique of individualism is mirrored within an aesthetic theory. Bakhtin criticizes theories of art that place the significance of the artwork within the psyche of either the creator or the contemplator: "We might say that such a thing is similar to the attempt to analyze the individual psyche of a proletarian in order thereby to disclose the objective production relations that determine his position in society." Instead, Bakhtin places the work in the interaction between these two positions and concludes that artistic value arises only in the dynamics of such social communication. Similarly, in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Bakhtin situates the subject within sociality and argues that identity is produced by speech, particularly through the contradictions of narrative. Using Dostoevsky as an example, Bakhtin observes that each of that novelist's heroes is the man of an idea, an idea that is itself a construct of contradiction and dialogue:

Only the unfinalizable and inexhaustible "man in man" can become the man of an idea, whose image is combined with the image of a full-valued idea. This is the first condition of the representation of the idea in Dostoevsky.

But this condition contains, as it were, its inverse as well. We can say that in Dostoevsky's works man overcomes his "thingness" (veshchnost') and becomes "man in man" only by entering the pure and unfinalized sphere of the idea, i. e., only by becoming the selfless man of an idea. Such are all of Dostoevsky's leading characters, i. e. all of the participants in the great dialog.

Here we find a radical departure from traditional Marxist aesthetics, in fact, the inverse of Marx's position in The German Ideology where he writes: "We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process." Rather than assume the "real" man at the point of beginning for ideology, Bakhtin would say that it is precisely within narrative, and within ideological structures, that the concept of the individual subject, of the "real" man is born. And the conclusion to The Formal Method makes clear that such ideological structures are themselves constituted by and through speech.

Bakhtin's concept of ideology differs significantly from the early reflectionist theories of Marx. In Capital, Marx writes:

The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour—for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.

Marx's theory is deferred and utopian in its outlook: ideology represents the false consciousness produced under class society; after the revolution of the proletariat, the slippage between this false consciousness and the real world will be healed and an actual relation to reality lived. This notion of ideology as false consciousness also lies behind Louis Althusser's distinction between ideology and science and Georg Lukács' attempt in History and Class Consciousness to identify truth with proximity to proletarian consciousness. Similarly, in Lucien Goldmann's distinction between a limited ideology and an embracing world view, we see a kind of "monologic" vision of ideology.

By contrast, Bakhtin asserts that ideology is manifested and created in the practical material activity of speech behavior: hence his notion of "behavioral ideology." As in his theory of linguistics, Bakhtin rejects the abstract concept in favor of the material and dynamic relation. The dialogic nature of the sign, its inner and outward form, allows the intersection of sign with sign, idea with idea, at the same time that it ensures continual upheaval and change in signifying practices as they occur in concrete historical contexts. Thus, ideology is not only the product of social life but is also both productive and reproductive of lived social relations. Furthermore, although in Bakhtin's theory of ideology the socioeconomic base is seen as determining, it is not a base that locks ideology into a static and transcendent form. Rather, ideology is seen as an arena of conflict: one's speech both reveals and produces one's position in class society, in such a way, moreover, as to set into dialogue the relations among classes. Consider this passage from Bakhtin's Marxism:

Existence reflected in sign is not merely reflected but refracted. How is this refraction of existence in the ideological sign determined? By an intersecting of differently oriented social interests within one and the same sign community, i.e.,… with the community, which is the totality of users of the same set of signs for ideological communication. Thus various different classes will use one and the same language. As a result, differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes an arena of class struggle.

Once he moves the materiality of language away from essence into the domain of practice, Bakhtin can present the cacophony of voices present in any utterance, can reject a notion of speech community based on phonology in favor of a much more useful one based on interest and on what might be termed "positionality," the place of the subject within the social structure, a place where subject and structure are mutually articulated. [In an endnote, the critic notes that in The Formal Method, Bakhtin writes: "We think and conceptualize in utterances, complexes complete in themselves. As we know, the utterance cannot be understood as a linguistic whole, and its forms are not syntactic forms. These integral, materially expressed inner acts of man's orientation in reality and the forms of these acts are very important. One might say that human consciousness possesses a series of inner genres for seeing and conceptualizing reality. A given consciousness is richer or poorer in genres, depending on its ideological environment."] What Bakhtin's theory of ideology offers is a model of ideological production. In this model, ideology is not assumed to be either a foggy lens or a mirroring cloud. It is, rather, assumed to be an ongoing product and producer of social practices. The semantic transition from reflection to refraction marks a movement from repetition to production.

Most radically, Bakhtin is unwilling to limit the place of ideology to a particular or narrow sphere of social life. Instead, he concludes that "all of these things [ideological phenomena] in their totality comprise the ideological environment, which forms a solid ring around man. And man's consciousness lives and develops in this environment. Human consciousness does not come into contact with existence directly, but through the medium of the surrounding ideological world." This is a considerable departure from traditional Marxist positions, which either locate the real in the supposedly direct purview of science or in the deferred idealism of revolution. [In an endnote, the critic adds: "In the recent work of Terry Eagleton we find a similar position, one which sees science, no less than ideology, as the product of concrete social practices." See Eagleton, "Ideology, Fiction, Narrative," Social Text, Vol. 1, Winter, 1979.] In contrast, Bakhtin concludes that both science and ideology are products whose absolute "reality"—if it existed at all—could be apprehended only by a transcendent consciousness, a consciousness that would itself be, ironically, an ideological construct. Bakhtin's movement away from a reflectionist theory can perhaps be traced to his familiarity with the carnival mode, where refraction and inversion considerably complicate a traditional functionalist model.

To understand how ideological practice is performed, we cannot begin with a model of the utterance as the spontaneous production of an individual consciousness. Rather, the utterance must be seen as bearing within itself a complex and contradictory set of historical elements. In this sense, Bakhtin observes, all speech is reported speech, for all speech carries with it a history of use and interpretation by which it achieves both identity and difference. It is within this rather remarkable capacity for making present the past that speech acquires its social meaning. Hence for Bakhtin the proper study of ideology would begin with an examination of ideological form, with the study of genre, and not in any autonomous or transcendent sense of genre or form but in the sense that form presents a location of tension between the past and the present. Bakhtin begins by distinguishing ideological objects both from instruments of production (which are consumed by their function) and from consumer goods (which, in existing for individual use, are not available for social evaluation). The specificity of ideological objects lies in their "concrete material reality" and "social meaning."

In The Formal Method, Bakhtin insists that literary form is unique in that it refracts the generating socioeconomic reality in ways particular to its own history and at the same time "reflects and refracts the reflections and refractions of other ideological spheres." Thus, literature serves as a type of super superstructure, in part because of the levels of representation involved in literary production. Here we might contrast the various possibilities of slippage offered by this model to the currently fashionable notion, offered by newer Marxist critics, of the absences in ideological discourse. [In an endnote, the critic adds: see Coward and Ellis, Language and Materialism; Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production; and Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory.] Bakhtin offers a much more positivist outlook than this deconstructionist one, for he believes that the utterance will carry within it a set of articulate silences and that the common ideological purview of author and reader will work toward the discernment of patterns in the unsaid. Thus, his theory is not necessarily burdened with a nostalgia for full presence: here the contradictions, ambivalences, and silences of the text are seen as part of its essentially dialogic nature.

According to Bakhtin, the reason that literature is the most ideological of all ideological spheres may be discovered in the structure of genre. He criticizes the formalists for ending their theory with a consideration of genre; genre, he observes, should be the first topic of poetics. The importance of genre lies in its two major capacities: conceptualization and "finalization." A genre's conceptualization has both inward and outward focus: the artist does not merely represent reality; he or she must use existing means of representation in tension with the subject at hand. This process is analogous to the dual nature of the utterance, its orientation simultaneously toward its past contexts and its present context. "A particular aspect of reality can only be understood in connection with the particular means of representing it." Genre's production of perception is not simply a matter of physical orientation; it is also a matter of ideology: "Every significant genre is a complex system of means and methods for the conscious control and finalization of reality." According to Bakhtin, nonideological domains are "open work;" not subject to an ultimate closure; but one goal of works of art is precisely to offer closure, a "finalization" that accounts for their ideological power and their capacity to produce consciousness. In the particular finalization of genre, we see a continual tension between tradition and situation. [In an endnote, the critic adds: "For a discussion of the tension between genre and performance, and between tradition and situation, in folkloric performances, see Hymes, 'Folklore's Nature and the Sun's Myth,' Journal of American Folklore Vol. 88 October-December, 1975, pp. 345-69."] As Terry Eagleton suggests in Criticism and Ideology, "A power-loom, for one thing, is not altered by its products … in the way that a literary convention is transformed by what it textually works." Analogously, Bakhtin writes that "the goal of the artistic structure of every historical genre is to merge the distances of space and time with the contemporary by the force of all-penetrating social evaluation." It is perhaps because of this purported goal that Bakhtin himself seemed to prefer the novel, which he viewed as a meta-genre incorporating at once all domains of ideology and all other literary genres. Finally, we must emphasize that Bakhtin's model of genre rests upon his insistence that literary evolution is not the result of device reacting against device, as Viktor Shklovsky believed, but rather of ideological, and ultimately socioeconomic, changes.

We see, then, that Bakhtin's work, in its radical rejection of abstraction, system, and the ideology of bourgeois individualism, forms an arena for a powerful struggle between linguistics and speech, theory and history. His theories' capacities for negation and critique are apparent whether we contrast them to the linguistic theories of his time or of ours. Moreover, this capacity for dialogue, contradiction, and complexity also exists in his work's inner speech—in its allusions to, or silences in the presence of, its own social context. In The Formal Method, at the culmination of Bakhtin's presentation of multivalence, we find as a dominant motif an insistence not only on meaning but also on meaningfulness. Bakhtin cannot accept the futurist model of perpetual and content-less motion: he continually rejects the futurists, and their influence on formalism, as nihilistic, even hedonistic, perhaps reminding us of Trotsky's position in Literature and Revolution. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin describes a historical period in which the language of the body was transformed by the rise of capitalism into an alien form of discourse. Bakhtin himself lived in a period when a similar drama was being enacted in the transformations of the peasantry by the industrial state. And yet we never find in his work a discussion of the effects of industrial practice or mechanical reproduction on ideological thought. If we look for a pattern of absences in these texts, we may gradually limn the image of the futurist machine and its totalitarian capacity for the negation of dialogue.

Susan Stewart, "Shouts on the Street: Bakhtin's Anti-Linguistics," in Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work, edited by Gary Saul Morson, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 41-57.

Richard Jackson (essay date Summer 1987)

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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 words. Each refers, in various contexts, to the ways in which characters and authors interchange language, the way each speaks in the voice of the other and at the same time undercuts the other. Here, process, not product, is the aim, and expressions such as difference, decentering, and other buzz words of deconstruction are "always already" deployed—that is, present implicitly in the text they are used to describe. What we are faced with, then, is a world of vague origins and indeterminate ends. According to Bakhtin, "The novel begins by presuming a verbal and semantic decentering of the ideological world, a certain linguistic homelessness of literary consciousness, which no longer possesses a sacrosanct and unitary linguistic medium for containing ideological thought" (Dialogic Imagination). In other words, the novel sets us adrift in a world we must half invent by entering into a dialogue with it.

Bakhtin's position in contemporary thought is not so much that of a direct influence on authors, though several acknowledge their debt to him, but that his texts, unavailable so long to English and American readers, help to describe and redefine what has been happening in Western thought during the past few decades. In our own time the poet Richard Howard admits the influence of Bakhtin's dialogic sense of character upon his own dialogues and monologues; Stephen Dobyns and Derek Walcott seem to use Bakhtin's notion of the dialectic relation between self and society; John Ashbery's and A. R. Ammons' use of the idea of the linguistic process of imagination can be better defined in Bakhtin's terms than in the deconstructive terms often used to describe their work; the play between reality and fiction in works by John Irving and Tim O'Brien can be better understood by Bakhtin's description of Dostoevsky's use of character; and the surrealistic texts of James Tate, Charles Simic (who we know has read Bakhtin), and others owe something to the idea of literature as carnivalistic. The influence here is as pervasive as it is (in most cases) nonspecific; but just this sort of influence, as we shall see below, is in strict keeping with Bakhtin's own work.

The difficulty of entering into a dialogue with Bakhtin's texts is precisely the above-mentioned "plurality of consciousness" (note the singular), which even encompasses the immediate problem of authorship: both Freudianism and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (published under the name of Voloshinov) as well as The Formal Method in Literary Studies (published under the name of Medvedev) are disputed texts, as are a number of essays. Tzvetan Todorov, from convincing internal evidence, suggests that these books are probably not by Bakhtin, but influenced by him. The short, choppy sentences and sections of Formal Method, for example, are opposed to the looser, more rambling style of unquestioned texts. A "Bakhtin Circle" of critics, writers, and other artists existed in the 1920's and '30's in a way that can only be defined as a single, pluralistic consciousness—and Bakhtin himself, Todorov points out, disdained the idea of simple authorship and favored the medium of the public-meeting forum, a Socratic form of debate. Yet Bakhtin admitted to these disputed texts later on, after Voloshinov and Medvedev had died, and the political constraints of the times may have prompted Bakhtin to authorship under other names. Bakhtin was arrested in 1929, and many Marxist references in all the texts are nods to the censor, though Bakhtin has a distinctly socialist stance.

The question of what constitutes authorship is central to Bakhtin because it relates to his underlying concern with the nature of the self. Does authorship mean providing new ideas in an "idiosyncratic vocabulary," or the translation of those ideas and words into a more public format, or the actual preparation of a manuscript? "There are no pure texts, nor can there be," Bakhtin writes (quoted in Clark and Holquist). For Bakhtin, the self is never finished—and his habits of writing in an illegible pencil script, of leaving texts unfinished and projects abandoned in notebooks in the manner of Coleridge, underscore this. The self exists for Bakhtin as a "dialogic" relationship, that is, as a "set of responses to the world." These responses are given in language, through "utterances" (including nonverbal associations, the "force" of language) that by definition take the "other" into account. Each utterance changes as the "boundaries" of the speaker and listener do; it is expressive, not just denotative; it is always addressed to someone; it has an evolving relation to past and future utterances so that its meaning cannot be fixed. In other words, the utterance is based upon the possibility of a response and the fact that such utterance itself is always already a response. Utterance is thus always point of view. This is why, for Bakhtin, "a word's meaning never coincides with the word itself," but with the larger and more evasive movement of the dialogue: the self.

The self, then, is known "from other selves. I cannot see the self that is my own, so I must try to perceive it in other's eyes." This bifocal or dialogic self is always futural; every "I" has a "thou" and includes the "thou." What characterizes this relationship between self and other is "answerability": the inclusion of dialectic viewpoints in any statement or judgment, the notion that being means "being with." The early and continuing influence upon Bakhtin here is Kant's notion of a dialectic between mind and world. However, for Bakhtin the result is not a transcendental synthesis, but rather an ongoing, historical process, a series of provisional syntheses. He also relies on Einstein's notion of "simultaneity"—in the universe we can't determine simultaneity as fact, and "there is thus no actual simultaneity: there are only systems of reference by which two different events can be brought into a conceptual unity." There is only dialogism.

These notions of the self as open and under revision, when applied to authorship, are precisely what attract Bakhtin to Dostoevsky and mark the uniqueness, indeed the greatness, of his treatment of that author. For Bakhtin, the author exists somewhere between a character and a person, and in this respect is an invisible "I." In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics Bakhtin focuses upon the polyphonic point of view of the narrator. As opposed to Tolstoy, whose procedure is to have all characters speak through the narrator's controlling point of view, Dostoevsky allows his characters to speak for themselves, usually undercutting each other as well as the narrator both in theme and style. The result is heteroglossia (multiple language types and levels) as opposed to Tolstoy's monoglossia. The real "hero interests Dostoevsky as a particular point of view on the world and on oneself, as the position enabling a person to interpret and evaluate his own self and his surrounding reality" (Problems.) Thus the hero "is not an objectified image but an autonomous discourse, pure voice; we do not see him, we hear him." So, Bakhtin notes, "Dostoevsky—to speak paradoxically—thought not in thoughts but in points of view, consciousnesses, voices. He tried to perceive and formulate each thought in such a way that a whole person was expressed and began to sound it." Dostoevsky's fundamental technique is a "transferral of words from one mouth to another, where content remains the same although the tone and ultimate meaning are changed," a form that Bakhtin calls the "double voice." This voice can sound through various embedded forms existing like Chinese boxes, one inside another—with, say, the narrator revealing a character revealing another character's perspective. Parody, rejoinder, dialogue, and folk forms are all deployed. Raskolnikov, for instance, can allow various languages to enter his "inner speech" as a way of evaluating points of view—just as Dostoevsky himself can. It is important to spend time describing this bifocal voice because it is something that also marks the critical procedure of Bakhtin himself. He never does a close reading of a novel; rather he focuses on specific characters as perspectives, citing them amply, letting them speak for themselves. His structure is usually fragmented, a sort of unending dialogue that evades monologic closure. For Bakhtin, the critic does not bring meaning, only further questions.

A good example of the way Bakhtin reads dialogically occurs in his essay "Discourse in the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination. Here he closely analyzes passages from (among others) Dickens' Little Dorrit, showing how Dickens adopts into his own style the styles of various characters, thus producing a sort of "refracted" or indirect quotation, what Bakhtin calls a "hybrid construction." Dickens' "entire text is, in fact, everywhere dotted with quotation marks that serve to separate out little islands of scattered direct speech and purely authorial speech, washed by heteroglot waves from all sides. But it would have been impossible actually to insert such marks, since, as we have seen, one and the same word often figures both as the speech of the author and as the speech of another—and at the same time." For Bakhtin, every novel is a "hybrid," consciously formulated. In his Dostoevsky book, Bakhtin identifies "authorial" and "reported" speech—the first is direct speech, the second is speech within speech (the other's perspective given by syntax, diction, grammar, etc. affecting the hypothetically "pure" authorial speech). The author resides at the boundary of these two, in a way characterized either by linear structures (where the boundaries are clear) or reported structures (where the boundaries blur). Dickens and Dostoevsky are, for Bakhtin, examples of the second, more sophisticated form.

Bakhtin's other essays in Dialogic Imagination examine the problems of genre. "Epic and Novel" traces the development of the closed Greek system, the monologic epic, to more open systems in the modern dialogic novel. The central essay, "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel," analyzes the development of the novel from its beginnings in epic through the use of "chronotopes." The chronotope is a unit of analysis that focuses on the structure of thinking as it reflects the social-linguistic forces of a culture. (The term itself reflects the time/space categories of Kant and Einstein.) Bakhtin sees, for example, a development from "adventure time" (abstract, fragmented sequences in early stories) to "everyday time" (more individual units according to place and person, linked, and with more sophisticated use of point of view) to "biographical time" (where the characters, places, and moments are fully individualized and dialectically related). This historical process is called "novelization"—a term that can be used to talk about the lyric, drama, or any other sort of text. A novelized text is one that exhibits dialogic forces—heteroglossia, multiple viewpoints. The traditional lyric voice does not interest Bakhtin because it is a monoglossic, unified, pure voice. The problems of genre definition he implicitly poses (how do we fit in, say, Williams' Paterson, Pound's Cantos, Stevens, Ashbery?) do not become so insurmountable if we keep in mind that novelization is, like dialogism, a process, not a static category. In fact, these concepts provide a better way to analyze such poets, and indeed to view the developments in contemporary poetry, than do other methodologies.

Perhaps the most Bakhtinian author Bakhtin analyzes is Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel is essentially marked, according to Bakhtin, by clashes in language reflecting different histories, the grotesque use of the body as an intertext for the temporality of the physical world, and the use of the "carnival" atmosphere as an intertext of evolving ideologies. Bakhtin's concern in Rabelais and His World is thus always with history: "all the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities." Laughter, in this context, becomes a way of laughing with time, a way to perceive sanely the transience of our existence, to topple the structures of an official society which tries to assert the constancy of its laws. So too, "Popular festive forms look into the future. They present the victory of all the people's material abundance, freedom, equality, brotherhood." Analyzing Rabelais' use of the marketplace, the carnival, and colloquial language and images—all of which developed out of Menippean satire—Bakhtin finds the birth of the modern novel. Language, as always, is the main determinant for Bakhtin. He notes, for instance, in high "medieval Latin, which levels all things, the markers of time were almost entirely effaced," but in Rabelais' vernacular (with all its "low" associations), a progressive, optimistic process of renewal—and revolution—can begin.

Most of what we have been examining constitutes, sometimes in earlier forms, the basis of Bakhtin's dismissal of the Russian Formalists in The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, a work that could also be read as a valuable critique of American New Criticism. According to Bakhtin, the Formalists ignored history and attempted to present a single, monoglossic vision that preserved a simple truth for each text. The Formalists felt they could see a static world of poetic values objectively, rigidly, accurately; Bakhtin laughs at their "pathetic references to 'the facts themselves'." Behind Formalism is a set of value assumptions, evolving within the language of philosophy, culture, and criticism, that allows the world to be divided between the pure and eternal poetic language and the historical, pragmatic language that changes in time—as well as between subject and object, form and content. Thus, Bakhtin notes, the Formalists "brought along the features of poetic language and the devices they had used to study it. Their conception of the constructive functions of the elements of the poetic work was predetermined by their characterization of the elements of poetic language. The poetic construction had to illustrate the theory of poetic language already developed." The writer—critic or novelist—cannot escape the dialogue that language already has with him or her, because that dialogue is inherent in the value systems the writer inherits from that language.

Another problem Bakhtin sees with Formalism is its exclusive focus on the text itself, to the abandonment of the author and the reader—both of whom "participate equally in the creation of the represented world in the text" (Dialogic Imagination.). Bakhtin avoids, however, the simple subjectivism of much contemporary reader-response criticism because of the dialogism of his stance, just as he avoids the pseudo-objectivism of the Formalists. For him, text, author, and reader make up an "archetonic" structure, an evolving "situation." What Bakhtin tries to avoid is "turning active and generating problems into ready theses, statements, and philosophical, political, religious, etc. conclusions."

It is interesting, in the light of these various contexts of Bakhtin's thought, to note the distinctions between the study by Todorov [Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Principle] and that by Clark and Holquist [Mikhail Bakhtin]. Todorov provides a succinct account of Bakhtin's "system" in a schematic and closed way; Clark and Holquist opt for a narrative that preserves much of the openness that Bakhtin himself valued. The approach of Clark and Holquist allows more of the richness and historical development of Bakhtin's ideas to emerge. Theirs is a brilliant study, a full picture of Bakhtin, his circle, the dialogic forces in his life, texts, and times.

What all the recent activity in Bakhtin studies suggests is that this very important thinker—or interlocutor—may finally claim the central position he deserves as one of the key writers of the century. Of course, he is not served by the sort of simplified view of, say, a Denis Donoghue, who takes several pages in a recent issue of Raritan (Fall 1985) to convince himself that all of Bakhtin can be reduced to the struggle between "monologic" and "dialogic." Donoghue wants to place Bakhtin within the context of his own either/or war between "secure" conservatives and wild radicals. But Bakhtin's work is rich both in its metaphors for points of view and inits play among such points of view. He does not, as Donoghue claims, merely echo Auerbach or C. L. Barber, unless one wants to reduce the arguments of those writers to bottom lines and college trot notes. After all, it is process that is so important to Bakhtin. He stands as a corrective to the oversimplifications offered by New Critics and as a more constructive deconstructionist—one who attempts, through dialogue, to build bridges (however provisional) across the "differences" he sees at least as clearly as the deconstructionists themselves.

Richard Jackson, "The Dialogic Self," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLI, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 415-20.

Caryl Emerson (essay date Winter 1988)

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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 sistemam (17 [1984]) to the structure of dialogue as a semiotic mechanism. In 1986, large chunks of the remaining archival material from the early 1920s were published in the Soviet press. In a recent review essay of the latest Soviet anthology of Baxtin's writings, Sergej Averincev claims that Baxtin has achieved the status of "classic"—and thus merits a thoroughly researched, multi-volume academy edition of his works, not another one-volume sbornik.

The task is thus no longer one of maiden translation or primary explication, but considerably more difficult. We must now ask: Has the body of Baxtin's writing been articulate and forceful enough to stimulate a genuine counter-voice—as opposed to the mere backlash predictable in the wake of any cult figure? Do Baxtin's core theoretical ideas survive when they are applied, or does continued work with them only bring into focus their paradoxical, perhaps even fatally flawed sides?

It is this most recent stage that I would like to address in this essay. "Problems with Baxtin's Poetics" are, of course, everywhere: his astonishing logos-centrism (that is, his presumption that if you can't talk about an experience, you didn't have it), his often naive personification of genres, his reluctance to analyze artistic wholes, his narrow and unsympathetic definition of the lyric, his idealization of carnival, and the general imprecision of his terms. Some of these problems, to be sure, become less problematic as more of the archive becomes available. Among the recently published material, for example, is an ingenious analysis of Puškin's lyric "Dlja beregov otčiznoj dal'noj"—an analysis that demonstrates Baxtin's thorough appreciation of the complexity and multi-voicedness of lyrical form. But large, troublesome areas remain.

A good starting point might be the title of this essay. For the problems, clearly, are not only with Baxtin's poetics, but with the very way he uses the word "poetics." Baxtin does not, of course, have in mind the traditional neoclassical model, that is, poetics understood as a fixed hierarchy of genres or aesthetic norms. But even more radically, he does not have in mind a poetics exclusively of art.

Here we might compare Baxtin with his Russian Formalist compatriots. For the Formalists, the very concept of a "poetics" implied the relative autonomy of art from life. Baxtin, in contrast, aggressively combines the two. Thus he has little use for notions of "poetic language," for what the Formalists called "literariness," or for the purely aesthetic function. But we should note that Baxtin combines life and art in a very special way.

First, he situates the separation of art and life historically, that is, as something that may or may not be true at any given time or place, and always as a matter of degree. To use his terminology, the separation of life and art is not given, dan, but posited, zadan. And then, Baxtin does not presume that in the many and energetic efforts of aesthetes to keep art and life apart, art has been the only side to benefit. In his first published essay, a six-paragraph fragment entitled "Art and Responsibility" dating from 1919, Baxtin concludes that the whole fraught question of the art-life boundary has in fact worked to the mutual convenience of both sides. "Both art and life desire to lighten their respective burdens," Baxtin writes, "for it is, after all, easier to create without answering to life, and easier to live not reckoning with art." Then there follows one of Baxtin's more elusive and provocative formulations: "Art and life are not one, but they must become united in me, in the unity of my responsibility."

We might say, therefore, that two realms confront one another in each individual: the ethical and the aesthetic. Where they meet is what we call the "I." This special sense of the "I" as a threshold concept—or, better, as a boundary phenomenon—has its counterpart, of course, in Baxtin's model of the utterance: not a slice of system, and not an individual speech act, but a unique exchange between or among people. The ethical-aesthetic boundary is also analogous to Baxtin's larger concept of the self as a social entity. The self is a special relation among the voices that inhabit us; as Baxtin would say, the socium lives within us. But it is important to emphasize that this socium is not an undifferentiated mass; the social always partakes of the accents and intonations of each individual speaker. The social self, therefore, is not the generalized self, the self that can be reduced (as in certain facile Marxist or Formalist models) to economic class or psychological reflex. As it is with self and society, so it is with life and art. The two are separate and irreducible, but the pattern of their responses to each other determines the shape of the self. Expanding this scenario into a theory of art, Baxtin claims that such patterns of ethical-aesthetic interaction shape the inner form of the artwork itself.

The process is discussed in the early manuscripts, where Baxtin takes to task the Formalist idea of the device as art's marker and guarantor of the creative act. The aesthetic project, Baxtin insists, begins not with the device but with the creation of a second consciousness in addition to the author. What makes any work aesthetic is the degree to which this second consciousness can follow its own laws—in the presence of that primary force, the author, who strives to surmount it. In this struggle, aesthetic form belongs to the author, ethical content to the hero.

Elsewhere in the manuscripts, Baxtin illustrates this "struggle" through an analysis of lyrical and dramatic texts. Every poem—or for that matter every aesthetic event—is, Baxtin claims, a "reaction to a reaction." The primary reaction belongs to the protagonist and is therefore ethical: the hero reacts from within a world that is real to him, with gestures that (from his point of view) have real consequences. The secondary reaction is aesthetic: the author, from his outside point of view, shapes the events of that created world. In highly structured metric poetry, such a "reaction to a reaction" sets up rich countercurrents, which Baxtin investigates in terms of the protagonist's "realistic intonation" and the author's "formal rhythm." Since all these variables must of necessity be expressed externally on the same verbal plane, they will struggle for dominance. The more subtle and well-crafted this struggle between ethical "real-life" acts and the author's aesthetic shaping of them, the more satisfying the artwork.

What follows from this radical inter-penetrability, even inter-responsibility, of life and art is one of the peculiar constants of Baxtin's universe: the presumption that literary or aesthetic categories must have their real-life ethical counterparts. Thus a problem in the poetics of art will always have its analogous problem in a poetics of life. From this set of parallel problems with Baxtin's poetics I hope to map out two major troubling areas.

The first troubling area is that cluster of concepts all designating one or another kind of multiplicity or openness: those unlovely, overworked words—dialogism, unfinalizability, polyphony, heteroglossia. What all these terms share is a commitment to a special sort of change, change that is neither systematic nor systemic. In this Baxtin again differs from the Russian Formalists, whose theories of literary history were largely predicated on the evolution of literary, and nonliterary, systems. For Baxtin, most change is of a different order.

Here we must return to Baxtin's early, as yet untranslated writing before 1925. For it is a peculiar lopsidedness of Baxtin's received image in the West that the so-called "Baxtin School canon" (which includes the work authored by Vološinov and Medvedev) begins only in 1926, after Baxtin had discovered language as a central metaphor, and after he had targeted Saussurian concepts of language as his principal foe. Before this time, the central concept for Baxtin was not slovo (the word) but postupok (the act). What was to become, in the late 1920s, a juxtaposition of responsible utterance versus system is cast in the early writings as life versus theory, as the act versus any abstraction of the act. In these early manuscripts, published as "K filosofii postupka" ("Toward a philosophy of the act"), Baxtin makes a passionate plea—very much in the spirit of Gercen and Tolstoj—against abstraction as the chief enemy of personal responsibility. As soon, Baxtin writes, as the content of any cognitive act (thought as well as deed) is torn away from its concrete embodiment, an independent logic begins to govern it, it begins to develop spontaneously (samoproizvol'no) and we are at the mercy of its logic. We cease to exist actively in our own act. What is only posited in life suddenly appears as given. And as a result, we lose all that is "absolutely new, creating, impending in the act, all that by which it lives."

In these early writings, Baxtin directly addresses what he considers to be a shortcoming of Kantian ethics. Our individual will is indeed creatively active, Baxtin asserts, but our will "does not in any way generate a norm or a general position." Laws and norms of all sorts—and here Baxtin has the categorical imperative in mind—cannot be productively active first principles in the real world of events. "It is a sad misunderstanding, the legacy of rationalism," Baxtin writes, "that truth [pravda] can only be the sort of truth [istina] that coalesces out of generalized moments; that the truth of a position is [taken to be] precisely what is repeatable and permanent in it." In fact, Baxtin claims, language as such—permeated by intonation, emotion, intention—is not capable of expressing the logically abstract moment. Thus any act or word which does not arise responsibly out of its own nonreproducible context and author, any act which is the product of abstraction or of some "immanent law of development," can invade our lives as a "terrifying and destructive force." Baxtin dismisses as unlikely the dangers at the opposite extreme—that is, the possibility that an act, thus stripped of any ethical system, might become arbitrary or irrational. In fact, he would dismiss the very opposition between objectivity (supposedly systematic and rational) and subjectivity (the presumed realm of the individual and the arbitrary). Such a dichotomy is itself a fiction, Baxtin insists, a "rationalist prejudice." "The act, in its integral wholeness, is more than rational, it is responsible."

Fifty years later, near the end of his life, Baxtin reaffirmed this optimistic role for the asystemically creative personal act. He jotted down in his note-book that cultural phenomena can be approached in two ways. First, he wrote, there is "the study of culture (or some area of it) at the level of system and [then] at the higher level of organic unity: open, becoming, unresolved and unpredetermined, capable of death and renewal, transcending itself, that is, exceeding its own boundaries." In art and in life, "unfinalizability" seems to mean for Baxtin that at any point in the development of a word, a culture, a person or a text there is a multiplicity of possibilities which are not implicit or inscribed in earlier stages. Thus the world can genuinely surprise us, and we can surprise the world. Each of those terms—dialogism, polyphony, heteroglossia—presupposes not just change, but unpredictable change.

One could say, then, that Baxtin's fundamental value is newness, creativity, what he himself called (in one of his awkward neologisms) sjurpriznost', "surprisingness." It should be stressed, however, that "surprisingness" is never generated by chaos, nor is it the product of some aleatory principle. Surprise, as Baxtin sees it, is saturated with responsibility. This point is worth stressing, because the image of Baxtin in current literary theory is somewhat askew. Due to the extraordinary popularity of the essays from the 1930s translated as The Dialogic Imagination—and due to some misplaced emphases on the part of Baxtin's early interpreters, including myself—the dominant image is now that of the "libertarian Baxtin," the apostle of freedom who rejoices, Bakunin-like, in the undoing of rules, in centrifugal energy, in carnival clowning, in novels as loopholes, and in sly denials of authorship. To be sure, a strain of utopian anarchism has always been strong in Russian thought, which is no stranger to the wedding of millenarian fantasies with holy foolishness. But Baxtin in fact insulates himself against that sort of thought better than it at first appears. Judging him not only by the essays of his best-known middle period but by the evolution of his work as a whole, Baxtin is, if anything, an apostle of constraints.

Thus he does not advocate the sort of novelty that makes a self-conscious "cult of the new," or that claims to make a fresh start by canceling out all previous movements or norms. Baxtin's aesthetic does not necessarily privilege modernism or modernity. On the contrary, Baxtin rarely mentions the modern novel, and he saw Futurism—and other forms of radical experimentation in art—as largely spurious attempts at novelty, spurious to the extent that they denied the past and diminished the presence of the responsible individual in the aesthetic act. What Baxtin seems to have sought was newness that did not stress the autonomy of the present or the future, but that addressed the past in unanticipated, productive ways—and invited similar approaches to itself.

Let us first consider how this idea of unpredictable, but response-laden, change works in Baxtin's poetics of literary art. Here, of course, it would be truer to say "poetics of the novel"—or even better, prosaics of the novel—for the novel embodied for Baxtin the essential open principle. No friend of New-Critical, structuralist, or neo-Aristotelian notions of closure and autonomy, Baxtin was forever on the lookout for genuine baggy monsters to staff his eccentric pantheon of master-novels. In this pantheon, true novelists are those like Dostoevskij, who somehow manage to locate themselves among their characters and not above them, and who appear to grant their characters in art the same cunning mix of freedom and necessity that we all know in life. The novel, Baxtin intimates, is the only art form of true potentiality.

This "freedom in openness" that supposedly characterizes polyphonic works has been, perhaps, the most trouble-some aspect of Baxtin's theory of the novel. Baxtin, at any rate, thought so: as he wrote his literary executor Vadim Kožinov in July 1961, "more than any other thing, the position of the author in the polyphonic novel has given rise to objections and misunderstandings" (cited by Averincev and Bočarov). And well it might. Polyphony has been misunderstood as many things: as authorlessness (that is, as an abdication of the author), or as relativism (that is, as the indifference of the author), or as a disdain for the finished whole of an artwork. It has even been taken to mean—by (among others) Rene Wellek and, more recently, Joseph Frank—as the failure of an author to establish any responsible point of view.

A careful reading of Baxtin's texts absolves him, I believe, from most of these charges. He specifically states that polyphonic authors are neither absent nor passive: they are profoundly active, but active in a way different from monophonic authors. As regards the problem of relativism, Baxtin was equally explicit. In the Dostoevskij book he wrote, with perhaps regrettable understatement, that "we see no special need to point out that the polyphonic approach has nothing in common with relativism (or with dogmatism) … both … equally exclude all argumentation, all authentic dialogue, by making it either unnecessary (relativism) or impossible (dogmatism)." What makes relativism and dogmatism twin sins for Baxtin is that both shut off the possibility of new, meaningful exchange. For one must be capable of some commitment in order to propose the new and suspicious of total commitment which denies the possibility of the new. The alternative to both relativism and dogmatism is the situation Baxtin elaborates in his "K filosofii postupka": a world in which one makes committed statements, but recognizes them as provisional.

We might sum up the polyphonic position in this way. Because an artistic work is decentered and the authority in it is provisional does not mean that it ceases to embody value, or that it celebrates the impossibility of meaning, or that it begins to "play." On the contrary, Baxtin and his circle repeatedly insist on the necessity of concrete meaning and value in every utterance. The final chapter of Vološinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language ends on an impassioned plea for "the revival of the ideological word … the word with its theme intact, permeated with confident social value judgments, the word that really means and takes responsibility for what it says." Baxtin assumes that words and values are historical, social, and therefore conditional. But to admit this much is not to endorse ethical relativism, for that would release individuals from the obligation to assign value. In like manner, authors do not relinquish an "authorial point of view" when they choose to design works in which the truth of a situation is to be found among speakers, rather than embedded within a single speaker. But such authors do, of course, reconceive the structure of truth.

Charges of authorlessness and relativism, then, cannot really be sustained against the polyphonic novel. But the final problem with Baxtin's concept of aesthetic "openness" is not so easy to dismiss. This is Baxtin's reluctance to deal with the whole of a work of art, and especially with the whole of novels. This reluctance is all the more unfortunate, because one of the few things that aestheticians of almost all persuasions agree upon is the primacy of unity in an artwork—be it a unity of structure, or more loosely a unity of effect, or even (as in some modern works) a unity in the calculated failure to achieve unity. Baxtin admits that the issue is important, but endlessly defers dealing with it. None of his work sounds like a New-Critical reading, or even like its post-structuralist inversion.

It is possible, of course, that Baxtin declined to analyze individual novels rigorously because the claims he made for their "polyphonic" authors—and for Dostoevskij in particular—are very overstated. And he might have been urged toward overstatement because of that parallel set of poetics we must always keep in mind. Baxtin appears to seek in novels only what he can transpose into a philosophy of living.

Let us move, then, to the other side of the chart, to the poetics of life. The problem of human closure, that is, of the properly finalized life, is discussed by Baxtin at length in his early manuscripts. There he makes it clear that "finalizability" is both necessary and desirable—as long as it is not the act of a single isolated consciousness. Closure, Baxtin assures us, is something we can never will from within our own life. Our own inner consciousness always knows how partial and open-ended our every act and utterance really is; we appear whole to others, but not to ourselves. Thus the only whole gift we can give others is our death, because only after death can the other's "aestheticizing" of our personality begin.

Death, as Baxtin conceives of it, can be an aestheticizing agent because it makes wholes possible; thus it is always in the past or the future, never in the present, which can only anticipate or remember it. From our living present, we can only describe someone else's death. Tolstoy's Ivan Il'ič notwithstanding, we can never take a stance of closure with respect to our own selves.

Baxtin's reluctance to engage the artistic whole in novels might well have something to do with his tendency to link it with death, that is, with the way in which lives are given closure. Here a contrast with Georg Lukács might be helpful. In his Soul and Form and Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues that aesthetic form functions as a sort of compensation for the fragmentation and alienation of modern life. The modern novelist's task, he claims, is to impose form on a world otherwise devoid of necessary value. The price we pay for taking pleasure in this form is the knowledge that any world thus portrayed must be eternally a fiction. For Baxtin, in contrast, the novel's task lies in a representation of the openness of development, in an unfolding of potentials that are precisely unforeseen, as yet unformed, and can therefore mimic real experience. And thus—while Baxtin and Lukács agree that the novel is the genre best suited to depicting man's struggle in a world without a priori forms—Lukács expects novelists to bestow form on their novels and novelistic characters to bestow form on their lives. The novelists Baxtin celebrates are much less likely to redeem humankind through be stowed meaning. That, perhaps, is the task of readers, who close down the text in their own ways and in so doing liberate an author from captivity to his own epoch. Baxtin links the baggy, open-ended novel with redemption not because he cares any less about truth but because he is persuaded that only real death, not real life, has the sort of meaning that can be redeemed through wholeness.

To appreciate the analogies Baxtin intends here between life and art, we must remember that for Baxtin authorship is an everyday activity. Nothing could be further from Baxtin's poetics than the insistence—shared in different ways by Romantics, New Critics, and Formalists—that authorship is something special. On the contrary, it is the very business of living. We author others at each encounter with them, and are in turn "authored" by those who interact with us.

Here we should note a crucial distinction Baxtin draws between inner and outer self. The inner self is always open, potential, hopeful, not-yet-concrete; this Baxtin calls the "I-for-myself." This inner "I" always knows that whatever it does is provisional; any act could, and should, have been better and different. The outer self, in contrast, is the personality others perceive and help bring into being. This so-called "I-for-others" is always to some extent closed, finalized, and identified with completed deeds—because that is the only self others can see. Both of these "I"s are socially constituted; one, however, is relatively open, the other relatively closed. And they are absolutely indispensable to each other: we could not go on living if we felt that what we have been so far for others is all we can become. Thus Baxtin can write in his final notes that genuine creative existence, a true quest for one's own word, is always "a striving to depart from one's own words—with which nothing essential can be said." In this scheme of things, we literally do not know what we have said, or who we are, until others respond to us.

This privileging of the outside perspective is a constant feature of Baxtin's approach to the world, and provides the necessary constraint on his too-easily-sung hymn to freedom. "Insideness," one's "I-for-myself," might indeed be free, but freedom in that raw state cannot contribute anything significant to understanding. Genuine freedom and understanding lie not on the inside but on the outside. This is true even for so interior a form as autobiography. When we tell the story of our own lives, Baxtin insists, what speaks in us most often is not direct experience or memory but a narrator with someone else's values and intonations, "the valuable other in me," as Baxtin puts it. "I-for-myself," he says, "is not capable of telling any stories."

Thus even autobiographical value—our own self's sense of itself—is composite, with a unity that is only posited. As heroes of our own ongoing life we want to live, to keep options open. But as authors of our own biography we strive to assign value, to consummate and shape; we see here traces of the struggle between inner (ethical) and outer (aesthetic) pressures that define any creative act. Thus Baxtin can conclude that even one's own biography is bestowed: "I receive it as a gift from others and for others."

This continual presence of the embodied other in all acts of identity is, according to Baxtin, the one guarantee that genuine authorship will continue to occur. At the end of his early essay on authors and their heroes, Baxtin devotes a special section to the "Problem of the Author." There he delineates possible causes for a crisis in authorship and style. Three major misunderstandings, he claims, can trigger a crisis in authorship. The first occurs whenever aesthetic movements endorse a "cult of the artist." Authors during such a time (Baxtin has Romanticism in mind, and doubtless Symbolism as well) are unwilling to "humble themselves to the status of toilers," and they resist defining their place in existence "among others and alongside others." This resistance to the cult of the artist was, of course, also part of the Formalist ethos, which proclaimed the poet a craftsman, not a seer. But Baxtin goes further. From the later perspective of the Dostoevskij book we see that Baxtin already poses, in this early essay, a homology between art and life: how polyphonic authors place themselves among their own created characters—as participants in an event, not as masters of it—is also the ideal model for poets functioning in society.

The second crisis (indeed related to the first) occurs whenever authors lose faith in their right to be outside another. In such instances the author insists that life can be viewed correctly only from within; the act of understanding then comes to mean entering an object and judging the world through its eyes. Both God and religion become interiorized and psychologized, and one's creative energies "withdraw from the boundaries, thereby leaving them to the mercy of arbitrary fate." Such a shrinking of the "I" happens, not surprisingly, when life begins to "fear boundaries and strives to dissolve them, having lost faith in the essentialness or benevolence of the force shaping it from without." When the "I" of an author ceases to be a boundary phenomenon, it ceases to be altogether.

The third type of authorship-crisis is more conventional, and draws Baxtin's poetics firmly back into the aesthetic sphere. Authors may find themselves paralyzed, Baxtin intimates, when their position of outsideness becomes too purely, too "painfully ethical." Such an ethical imperative, which summons consciousness to action and judgment in the world, acts to destabilize the boundary separating human beings and their art. Aesthetic authorship is threatened when there is "no confident, calm, unshakable and rich position of outsideness."

We see, therefore, that Baxtin's dictum on "art and life uniting in me" in no sense sanctions an erasing of boundaries between the two spheres, nor does it "reduce" art to life. What such union makes possible, rather, is an awareness of parallel challenges in the ethical and the aesthetic realm. Through aesthetic authoring we can—in Baxtin's wonderfully suggestive phrase—"exit into the unity of the event," that is, abandon the open, but sterile, I-for-myself and allow ourselves to be defined in interaction with others.

Here the problems begin in earnest, on both sides of Baxtin's poetics. We recall that dialogue and unfinalizability in a poetics of art raise compositional problems: can authorial intention in fact be encoded in "open heroes" and "open plots," and do not such concepts misrepresent the control an author exercises over the shape of the text? In a poetics of life, analogously, this endless deferment of one's self to the other for finalization raises moral and ethical questions. What, ultimately, can we call our identity? Since the very concept of responsibility assumes that there is a self to be responsible, how do we define personal morality?

All the ready ways out of this dilemma prove equally problematic. If, for example, it is truly up to others to complete us, then what we must do is seek not to remain ourselves (which in any case would be an impossibility, if not a contradiction in terms); we must instead seek the key to our freedom in permitting ourselves to be finalized by more than one person, perhaps even by as many people as possible. An analogue suggests itself in Baxtin's theory of "speech genres." In that essay, Baxtin argues that "individuality" as we know it is not a function of radical originality but depends, rather, upon our ability to assimilate the many conventional templates made available by our particular culture and time. It follows that we are flexible and rich in our individuality to the extent that we have mastered—and can therefore choose among and recombine—the speech or behavioral genres that others recognize and share. In the same way, one might argue, we must have many outside "finalizers" to express our multiple selves and our multiple potentialities for self.

But in this scenario of ever-expanding otherness, what does it mean to be "true to oneself"? What continuities does the multiple self know, and—more importantly—how does it express its responsibility? Baxtin clearly had these questions on his mind all his life. In his final notes he remarked, with what must have been a certain fatal weariness, "Are there genres of pure self-expression…. Do there exist genres without an addressee?" But still one feels a certain uneasiness at the casualness with which Baxtin dismisses—or declines to engage—what is genuinely problematic in this issue.

For him, the presence of the other and of the other's response is so indispensable to human being that other considerations—and perhaps even moral ones—are shunted aside. As Baxtin concludes in his late essay on the role of the text in the human sciences ["Problem of the Text"]:

For the word (and consequently for a human being) there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response. Even a word that is known to be false is not absolutely false, and always presupposes an instance that would understand and justify it, even if in the form: "anyone in my position would have lied, too."

Lies, it seems, are better than nothing. And for some, this is a troubling form of tolerance. The moral dilemma here is the one confronting all socially-based theories of self: the possibility that the others who shape the self may be wrong.

Baxtin suggests that any finalization has value, because it completes us from a point of view fundamentally inaccessible to us and thus enriches our sense of self. But surely this makes light of the politics involved. If, as Baxtin insists, the worst human state (what he calls absolute death or non-being) is "the state of being unheard, unrecognized, unremembered," then do we ever have an inner, ethical right to non-response? Do we have a right to say: "Don't touch me, I don't want to be finalized by you," or, in more familiar language, "You are to blame, for making me see myself that way"? Within Baxtin's ethical universe, there appear to be few legitimate options for being left alone.

Baxtin does provide a loophole, to be sure—the same loophole he claims that Dostoevskij provided for the Underground Man. He reserves for the self an infinite supply of additional words to counter any outside verdict, positive as well as negative. But in Baxtin's scenario even these inner words—which save us from the trap of definition and final judgment—must in turn be finalized from without in order to achieve any stability of definition, any biographical validity. Baxtin is fully aware of the implications of this progression. "As something possessed by otherness," he wrote in the 1920s, "biographical value is precarious. The biographically valuable life hangs by a thread, for it cannot be definitely grounded internally…. [Thus] biographical life … is always enveloped by a naive faith, its atmosphere is warm. Biography is deeply trustful, but naively so (without crises); it presupposes a kind, gentle activity situated outside it and encompassing it, but this is not the activity of the author, who is in need of such activity right alongside the hero."

Baxtin's implied potential other lives forever on friendly boundaries and continuums. This is a major difference, as has been pointed out, between Baxtin's model and the discontinuous stratifications and incompatible discourses of Foucault; Baxtin's other always works to define us in ways we can live with. The self is presumed resilient or vigorous enough to incorporate, or counter, any definition the other might thrust upon it—and the other, as a rule, rises up to meet the self from a warm and trustful atmosphere. Baxtin characterizes this ideal otherness succinctly in his final notes, where he writes: "Benevolent demarcation and only then cooperation…. The more demarcation the better, but benevolent demarcation. Without border disputes. Cooperation."

This leads me to the second major troubling area in Baxtin's poetics, what we might call its presumption of "benevolence" or "benignness." Just as in Baxtin's scheme of things an openness to others can never really be threatening, so Baxtin seems to assume that dialogue just naturally optimizes itself for its participants. Is it not equally plausible that making dialogue happen takes a lot of inner work, work that is not social in its essence but more like moving rocks in a field you want to plow, or a struggle against terror? This idea is beginning to be developed in some provocative "revisionist" criticism against the Baxtinian model. One of the most persuasive is Aaron Fogel's Coercion to Speak, a study of Joseph Conrad from an antidialogic perspective. What Fogel suggests is that dialogue is not the normal human relation at all; that most human speech is forced, under constraint, and that Conrad is a master at portraying this truth in novelistic form. The exemplar here is the wretched Razumov in Under Western Eyes, who comes home one evening to a dialogue he never chose to enter and spends the rest of his life trying to regain control over his own, lost word. With that "Russian" novel of Conrad's in mind—so obviously modeled on Dostoevskij—we might rethink Baxtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics.

It has often been noted that Baxtin's book on Dostoevskij affords spiritual inspiration to the reader but is not, at many crucial points, true to the spirit of Dostoevskij. Most of us would agree that many characters and scenes in Dostoevskij's novels are genuinely pathological; so, often enough, is Dostoevskij himself. In Baxtin's reading, however, both the man and his work somehow come out therapeutic. Even the tortured moves of the Underground Man ultimately come to represent a celebration of unrealized potential, the right to postpone forever the final world. A similar tender warmth envelopes Baxtin's discussion of the Idiot, Prince Myškin. Baxtin appropriately places Nastasja Filippovna, the infernal heroine, in a "carnival hell," but Myškin he places in a "carnival heaven"—because the Prince strives so mightily to finalize others benevolently, to release them from their most desperate selves and even to deny the existence of those negative selves. But surely this ignores a crucial paradox in Dostoevskij's novel. When the Prince exclaims to Rogožin, "Parfen! I don't believe it!" or to Nastasja Filippovna that he knew "she was really not that sort of woman," he monologizes his fellow characters—and this move they will inevitably resist. Myškin's stubborn reductive benevolence is itself a central factor impelling the novel's heroes to their destruction.

Readers of Baxtin's book on Rabelais (and the other texts on carnival) might experience a similar discomfort—a sense that the dark side has somehow evaporated. In those works, Baxtin rejoices in the open orifices and robust laughter of the Renaissance body. To be grotesque is to be forever available for fundamental change. But openness and laughter—and this is the important point—do not necessarily affirm any new or significant value. Sometimes the most they can document is the potential for survival, and sometimes they signify the purest desperation. Yet Baxtin refuses to admit nihilism, absurdity, or pain into his Rabelaisian poetics of the body. Such bodies always embody positive and concrete meaning.

The noncontinuity between these two corporealities—the individual mortal body and the regenerating folkloric body—is also felt, in somewhat altered form, beneath Baxtin's remarkably benign construct for cultures of laughter. Historians of carnival have been quick to point out that real-life carnival can be both conservative and repressive, and can function as a societal safety valve that domesticates conflict by sanctioning victimization. Critics have also noted that Baxtin projects a rather eccentric image of the people's appetites: he tends to consign all formal and elevated aspects of carnival life—and of noncarnival life as well—to the "official spheres" of culture, while ascribing to the folk a passion solely for life's mocking and open forms.

There are also complications in Baxtin's model when cultural boundaries are crossed. Its image of the common people might indeed reflect the Rabelaisian carnival experience. But it is—as Lotman and Uspenskij have pointed out—quite foreign to medieval Russian culture. There the guffaw was not open or ambivalent, it was the laugh of Satan.

Only occasionally in the Rabelais book does Baxtin let it be known that real carnival—or, for that matter, the real Rabelais—is not his primary concern. Drawing on the work of the Soviet Renaissance scholar Leonid Pinskij, Baxtin reveals his underlying agenda, the connection between laughter and truth. The purpose of carnival laughter in literature is to work a change on readers: to liberate them from fear, and thus free them to create. Laughter purifies the world by making it possible to see. And this, according to Baxtin, is the paradoxical truth of Rabelaisian negation. Neither affirmation nor denial are fixed points; what matters is the movement from a negative to a positive pole. That liminal moment, so familiar to us from Formalist concepts of ostranenie but used here to such different purpose, is where all genuine learning takes place.

Here, I suggest, we glimpse Baxtin's version of a world in a state of grace. In that world, learning is always possible because value is already there, presumed to exist in a myriad of concrete forms always on the brink of transformation and nourished by a basically benign environment. Baxtin is a Heraclitian pantheist. He presumes no conflict in principle between an organism and its surroundings, just as he presumes no conflict in principle between self and society. This "benevolent environment" for life is much more than a nod to evolutionary biology. Baxtin connects essential benevolence with consciousness itself. As he discusses the issue in his early essay on authors and their heroes:

A certain degree of warmth is necessary in the value-laden atmosphere surrounding me in order for self-consciousness and self-utterance to be realized, in order for life to begin…. One lives and becomes conscious neither within a guarantee, nor within a wilderness…. One can only live in faith.

A faith so constituted is an attitude, a search for higher authority, and precisely as a search it is always open to redefinition. In fact, Baxtin would probably argue that ultimate value exists largely in order to make striving meaningful. Since genuine seeking (like true dialogue) can only take place between embodied subjects, each of whom possesses the power to change the other, higher authority is never abstract or impersonal. Here Baxtin resembles his great contemporary in exile, Nikolaj Berdjaev, for whom Godmanhood was intimate and reciprocal—and in whose Christian, personalist socialism man could be redeemed from the Fall not by asceticism, and not by mere obedience, but only by creativity.

This brings me to my final and most general point about Baxtin's "benevolence." The celebration of an ability to create something new is but one example of Baxtin's extraordinary privileging of the immediate future. He has little interest in distant or abstract futures, in the conventional utopia; when he says that "everything is still in the future and will always be in the future" he means the cutting edge of the present, tied with innumerable strands to now. But this stance carries within it an inevitable tension. Baxtin both insists upon the reality of events in the present, and at the same time wants to make it possible for closure not to happen—for events not to add up, stick, or cripple future action. Events can be laughed away. The future is important not as the sum of past events, but as the realm of newly-arranged value. In contrast to some American post-structuralists, Baxtin draws his primary data not from the category of "always already" but rather from the category of "always about to be." The "always already" component in Russian formalist criticism—its reliance on recombining old forms, its negative thrust, its equation of aesthetic experience with subtraction of meaning, and the absence in it of a genuinely constructive, creative impulse—was in fact the master complaint that the Baxtin Circle lodged against the Formal Method. True freedom is freedom of creative judgment. But there is little here of the "judgmental": what matters in the act of judging is not condemnation, not catching-in-the-act or any other such legal category. What matters about judging is its potential transformative power.

We might illustrate Baxtin's ideas by applying them to the concluding chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitrij is indeed a man unjustly finalized by others. The court that finds him guilty of murder is a caricature; its judges and jurors cannot even reconstruct the outer event. But the act of being judged brings about a transformation in the accused and makes possible a new self. As Baxtin jotted down in his final notes, one's inner freedom "cannot change existence, as it were, materially (nor can it want to)—it can change only the sense of existence … This is the freedom of the witness and the judge. It is expressed in the word."

Here we recognize in Baxtin's poetics a reinterpretation, from a dialogic perspective, of stoicism. And this is intriguing because for Baxtin—unlike the Stoics—self is always social.

This powerful, open role for the future makes Baxtin's world remarkably free of bitterness, and singularly incapable of comprehending texts of true rage. Winston Smith, after all, lived in a world where he was all too free to "change the sense of existence" and reassess the significance of facts. It is one of the inspiring ironies of Baxtin's life that his work—all produced under Soviet conditions and much of it under Stalinist conditions—seems so little poisoned by the realities that Orwell confronted in 1984. This benevolence of Baxtin's is the most appealing and perhaps the most troublesome aspect of his poetics; as in the most challenging of Christ's parables, the capacity to affirm seems closely tied to a tolerance of injustice.

Where does this leave us as critics of Baxtin's legacy? We might consider first his poetics of literary art. In this realm it is clear that dialogue, heteroglossia and polyphony should not be invoked as strict technical terms for analyzing the structural whole of a literary work. They are rather like functions which can govern select patches of certain novels—rarely the whole of a novel, and not all novels. There are, nevertheless, genuine differences between dialogically and monologically inspired works. A dialogic work invites a certain sort of response. It may be more loosely constructed; its ending may not be planned in advance, and therefore the significance of any particular incident in it cannot be guaranteed. The work can be designed so that at each moment of reading the openness of each act is paramount—thus the act itself potentiates many patterns, but need not conform to any single one. By such criteria, Tolstoj is perhaps more thoroughly polyphonic than Dostoevskij.

As part of a poetics of life, "benign openness" offers a slightly different mix of benefits and dangers.

Here one must ask: is Baxtin's huge privileging of the future, his insistence on the creative potential of the next response and the capacity of response to transfigure event, really compatible with responsibility for events? Can we—as Baxtin put it in that 1919 essay—answer for art with our life, if we endlessly defer the meaning of that life as we wait for the next response to it to come in? At what point does one stand still and take stock in one's own voice? Read Baxtin carefully, and he will tell you: never. When you stand still you are dead, and others take stock of your life. To be conscious is to always have an exit—or at least to be always looking for an exit. In contrast to this benign scenario, we might consider an alternative vision, the perhaps apocryphal story of Dostoevskij's final thesis at the Engineering School in Petersburg where he was a student in the 1840s: a fortress designed with no windows and no doors.

One final way of viewing the problematics of openness might be to consider the ambiguities in the Russian abstract noun otvetstvennost'. Its root is otvet, the word for "answer" or "response," and the conventional English equivalent for otvetstvennost' is "responsibility." But Baxtin plays with the word, using it in contexts that suggest not only responsibility but also "answerability," that is, an openness to new answers, responsive listening. Between this privileging of the future where everything is open, and a recognition that action cannot be undone and must be answered for, lies the challenge of combining, if possible, the responsively new and the morally responsible. For Baxtin, the supreme value in life is the potential for creativity. But much in his own model makes the pursuit of this value problematic.

Some of these problems are inevitable, given Baxtin's priorities and the cast of his mind; they are the blindnesses, as it were, that must accompany his insights. Other problems can be traced to a "fetishization" of certain highly visible and marketable sides of Baxtin—especially the carnivalesque—to the exclusion of more "conservative" concerns arguably more central to his thought. And yet a third set of problems with Baxtin's poetics can actually be eased by a consideration of the ethical position Baxtin mapped out for art in his early manuscripts. This position underwent considerable—and often surprising—change throughout Baxtin's life, re-emerging in his final years as central to his vision of the human sciences. Several ideas suggested by these earliest and latest writings might serve to summarize the problems raised in this essay.

First, Baxtin was not just offering a new poetics, he was undoing the very idea of a poetics. For he seems to have associated impersonal systems of all sorts with the mode of thinking proper to a "poetics" of the aesthetic world: initially an Aristotelian poetics of closed wholes and well-shaped plots, but soon Formalist, then Structuralist, and—had he lived to hear of it—quite certainly deconstructionist. "[I have] a different understanding of specification," he wrote near the end of his life, in response to the methodologies of formalism and structuralism. For Baxtin, the specific in the human sciences was always found in the nongeneralizable human context and not in a code, or, as he put it, in depth rather than precision. The realization that no two living contexts could ever repeat themselves sufficiently to create a genuinely applicable code—a fact that guaranteed, not undermined, the authenticity of meaning and value—is the first step toward understanding Baxtin's ideas on wholeness and unity.

As Gary Saul Morson and I will argue in our forthcoming study of Baxtin, such an idea of specification is less poetic than it is prosaic. This is prosaic in both senses of the term: both prose-like as opposed to poetical, and ordinary, that is, pertaining to and celebrating the mass of unmarked everyday decisions that require work of us precisely because we cannot ground them in general norms, principles, or the drama of clean-cut openings and closings. Baxtin is a singer of middle spaces. A "prosaic" approach to his work, therefore, might shed some light on what many consider to be the most problematic sides of Baxtinian poetics: its insistence on decentering and "openness" in the novel, and its presumption that this openness is essentially benign.

A quote from the early manuscripts will illustrate "prosaics" with a difficult but crucial Russian phrase. "We live," Baxtin writes, "in a world of exitless reality, not of random potential." Note that for Baxtin this "exitlessness" is a very good thing. Random potential, mere possibility, always splits me off from the world; it is, as Baxtin says, the "unbridled play of empty objectivity," an "infinity of cognition" that no one has yet signed.

The positive term in that little sentence, then, is "exitless reality," bezysxodnaja dejstvitel'nost', the world you cannot get out of and cannot help answering for. This is not, significantly, the no-exit of no meaning but the no-exit of unlimited meaning. And in this context, doublevoicedness, loophole, carnival—all those terms of freeing-up and letting-go—do not mean "getting out of it," escaping meaning, but simply getting out of one thing into something else, getting a second chance at it that will again bind you and bind your act. Polyphony is the tie that binds, not releases, and polyphonic bonds are infinitely more complex and delimiting than those in a monologic text.

For this reason one could argue that the weakest, least consistent, and most dangerous category in Baxtin's arsenal is the concept of "carnival." Properly placed in his world, carnival is valuable solely as a mechanism for laughing at system, not for laughing at individual answerability for acts. For a prosaic world must begin with personal responsibility. What is important is not the holiday (with its masks, its extraordinary inversions and suspensions of personality) but rather the ordinary, unrepeatable, radically individual everyday event, events of the sort that novels are made of. What is also not important—what is even fraudulent—are all systems that would claim to classify those events and rank them according to impersonal hierarchies. Few contemporary -isms, from Marxism to post-structuralism, would wish to claim such freedom from system.

More helpful here than any dialogue with twentieth-century theoretical trends might be Baxtin's debt to the Orthodox, Slavophile strain in Russian romanticism. Much in the Baxtinian dualistic universe recalls mid-nineteenth-century debates between Westernizers and Slavophiles. The world is a battleground between material and moral freedom. On one side (the West) there is mere external unity, logic, system, coercion—that is, centripetal forces. The other side (Orthodoxy) has access to cel'noe bytie, "integral existence," which alone makes faith possible. From that stable position the self can reach out in a voluntary, centrifugal gesture and never fear difference.

For both Baxtin and these early Slavophiles, politics is a distortion and a burden. Their implied communities are outside political parties, and perhaps even outside history itself. If indeed, as Baxtin claims, there can be no human unit of less than two consciousnesses, then the upper limit seems also to be of cozy, chamber-room dimensions: not humanity, not a state or institution, but people we can see, touch, and alter by our everyday authoring. Under these conditions, individuality is not suppressed in collectivity but is, in Konstantin Aksakov's celebrated phrase, "most free in a chorus." To the extent that this miraculous balance is achieved in life and in art, Baxtin's poetics ceases to be problematic.

Caryl Emerson, "Problems with Baxtin's Poetics," in Slavic and East-European Journal, n. s. Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 503-25.

Paul de Man (essay date 1989)

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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 and to fatigue, are prone to generate legitimate admiration with regard to predecessors who have somehow managed to sustain the ordeal of these difficulties and to bequeath to us some of the skills and strategies gained in the course of this experience. Literary theory, and especially theory of narrative, a rather barren area of endeavor constantly threatened by the tedium of its techniques as well as by the magnitude of the issues, offers poor soil for the heroes and the hero worship that it rather desperately needs. So when a possible candidate for such a status comes along, he is likely to be very well received, especially if he is safely and posthumously out of reach. Such belated "receptions," for being rare, are all the more intense in the field of literary theory. A fairly recent example is, of course, the case of Walter Benjamin. More recent, and more intense still, is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, who was recently heralded, by his highly competent and clear-eyed introducers, as "le plus important penseur soviètique dans le domaine des sciences humaines et le plus grand théoricien de la littérature au 20 siècle" ("the most important Soviet thinker in the area of the human sciences and the greatest literary theorist of the twentieth century") and "as one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century." In both cases, this entirely justified admiration is focused on Bakhtin's contribution to the theory of the novel, not only in the relatively well-known books on Rabelais and Dostoevsky but in more theoretical studies such as the essay entitled "Discourse in the Novel" which dates from 1934–35. This essay is singled out by both Todorov and Holquist as the major theoretical statement. And, within the theory of the novel, it is the concept of dialogism, rather than related but other Bakhtinian terms such as chronotopes, refraction, heteroglossia, or the carnivalesque, that receives major attention, as is apparent from the titles of the two books: Le principe dialogique (1981) and The Dialogic Imagination (1981).

The last thing I wish to do here is to dispute or dispel this enthusiasm. There is no merit whatever to the facile and always cheaply available gesture that protects mediocrity by exposing the blindness that is part of any dedication and of the admiration it inspires. The attentive and critical reading of Bakhtin's work has barely begun, at least in the West, and since I ignore the Russian language, it is not an enterprise in which I can responsibly hope to take part. My question therefore does not address the significance of Bakhtin, or of Voloshinov/Bakhtin or of Medvedev/Bakhtin, as a theoretician or as a thinker, but the much more narrow question of why the notion of dialogism can be so enthusiastically received by theoreticians of very diverse persuasion and made to appear as a valid way out of many of the quandaries that have plagued us for so long. Or, to put it in the terms of this issue: how does dialogism, as developed in Bakhtin and his group, cope with and indeed seem to overcome the ever-recurring question of the status of fact, meaning, and fiction in the novel?

Dialogism can mean, and indeed has meant, many things to many critics, sometimes without reference to Bakhtin…. It can, first of all, simply mean double-talk, the necessary obliqueness of any persecuted speech that cannot, at the risk of survival, openly say what it means to say: there is ample evidence, from what is known of Bakhtin's biography, that this meaning is entirely relevant in his case. The readers of oppressed thinkers, in the words of a major theoretician of the discourse of persecution, "are to be led step by step from the popular view […] to the truth which is merely and purely theoretical, guided by certain obtrusively enigmatic features in the presentation of the popular teaching—obscurity of the plan, contradictions, pseudonyms, inexact repetitions of earlier statements, strange expressions, etc." This quotation from Leo Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing fits the case of Bakhtin very well. Strauss could have added another salient feature: the circulation of more or less clandestine class or seminar notes by initiated disciples or, even more symptomatic, the rumored (and often confirmed) existence of unpublished manuscripts made available only to an enterprising or privileged researcher and which will decisively seal one mode of interpretation at the expense of all rival modes—at least until one of the rivals will, in his turn, discover the real or imaginary countermanuscript on which to base his counterclaim. What in the context of our topic interests us primarily in this situation is that it is bound to engender a community tied together by the common task of decrypting the repressed message hidden in the public utterance. As the sole detainers of an esoteric knowledge, this community is bound to be small, self-selective, and likely to consider itself as a chosen elite. To the extent, however, that the process of understanding becomes constitutively linked to the elaboration and the life of a society, fact and fiction are brought together by the mediation of shared communal labor. The possibility of this mediation is built within the production of the text itself: since it does not mean to say what it actually says, it is a fiction, but a fiction that, in the hands of the right community of readers, will become fact.

For Leo Strauss, the model of persecution applies predominantly to philosophical rather than to literary texts; Bakhtin's stress on the novel adds a potentially libertarian and revolutionary dimension. "Im Sklaven fängt die Prosa an": it is in the slave, says Hegel, that prose begins and he says this in the section of the Aesthetics that deal precisely with fables as the ancestors of the novel. Like Strauss's philosopher, Bakhtin's novelist is persecuted per definition and carries within himself the image of his liberation. But this image exists not, as is still the case in Lukács, in the form of a nostalgia for the presumably unified world of the epic; the novelist does not set out to take the place of his master, the epic poet, but to set him free from the restricting coercions of his single-minded, monological vision. Bakhtin's novel definitely belongs to what Northrop Frye calls the low-mimetic modes: it is ideologically prosaic, anti-romance, anti-epical, and anti-mythical; its multivoicedness or heteroglossia postulates distinct and antagonistic class structures as well as the celebratory crossing of social barriers. The dialogism of a revolutionary community reconciles fact and fiction in a manner that is not essentially distinct from the persecutory model, except for the introduction of a temporal dimension: the freedom that is being celebrated is not utopian, yet it is not actualized in the immediacy of the textual invention. It is projected in a metatextual future as the prolepsis of a no longer fictional freedom. The scheme is bound to exercise a powerful attraction on a type of literary criticism that stems from a rebellion against the constraints of transcendental and monological systems such as institutional religions. An author and a concept—dialogism—that can be made to accommodate the textual model of Leo Strauss as well as of some disciples of Gilles Deleuze shows, to say the least, remarkable scope.

In Bakhtin's writings, the notion of dialogism is also systematically developed, not only, as in "Discourse in the Novel" or in the Rabelais book, in dialectical exchange with the persecutory power of monistic discourses, but in a prolonged and complex discussion of formalism. As is well known, the topic figures prominently in the pseudonymous books Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Voloshinov) and The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (Medvedev). Very summarily put, it is possible to think of dialogism as a still formal method by which to conquer or to sublate formalism itself. Dialogism is here still a descriptive and metalinguistic term that says something about language rather than about the world. Bakhtin is consistent in his assertion that the dialogical relationship is intra-linguistic, between what he calls two heterogeneous "voices," as in a musical score. It is, in his terms, the image of a language (rather than the image of a language) and not of a society or of an interpersonal relationship. Therefore, as becomes evident in examples taken from Dickens and Turgenev, it is possible to analyze descriptively dialogical structures in actual texts, in a manner that is by no means unusual to "formalist" practitioners of an American style of close reading. On the other hand, dialogism also functions, throughout the work and especially in the Dostoevsky book, as a principle of radical otherness or, to use again Bakhtin's own terminology, as a principle of exotopy: far from aspiring to the telos of a synthesis or a resolution, as could be said to be the case in dialectical systems, the function of dialogism is to sustain and think through the radical exteriority or heterogeneity of one voice with regard to any other, including that of the novelist himself. She or he is not, in this regard, in any privileged situation with respect to his characters. The self-reflexive, autotelic, or, if you wish, narcissistic structure of form, as a definitional description enclosed within specific borderlines, is hereby replaced by an assertion of the otherness of the other, preliminary to even the possibility of a recognition of his otherness. Rather than having to do with class structures, as in the societal models of "Discourse in the Novel," exotopy has to do with relationships between distinct cultural and ideological units. It would apply to conflicts between nations or religions rather than between classes. In this perspective, dialogism is no longer a formal and descriptive principle, nor does it pertain particularly to language: heteroglossia (multivariedness between discourses) is a special case of exotopy (otherness as such) and the formal study of literary texts becomes important because it leads from intralinguistic to intracultural relationships. At that point, the binary opposition between fiction and fact is no longer relevant: in any differential system, it is the assertion of the space between the entities that matters. Binaries, to the extent that they allow and invite synthesis, are therefore the most misleading of differential structures. Novelists like Dostoevsky or, one might surmise, Balzac reveal their exotopy when they simply ignore such strongly suggestive oppositions as those between author and character: Dostoevsky's or Balzac's characters are not voices of authorial identity or identification (not: Madame Bovary, c'est moi) but voices of radical alterity, not because they are fictions and the author isn't, but because their otherness is their reality. The reality principle coincides with the principle of otherness. Bakhtin at times conveys the impression that one can accede from dialogism as a metalinguistic (i.e., formal) structure to dialogism as a recognition of exotopy. The itinerary beyond form by ways of formal analysis is particularly attractive to someone skilled in the formal analysis of structural semiotics or structural stylistics but grown impatient with the inability to break out of the formal shell and to address, at long last, questions that appear no longer to be merely linguistic. Todorov is, of course, himself a case in point.

It is also by ways of exotopy that, finally, a larger philosophical claim can be made for Bakhtin not just as a technician of literary discourse but as a thinker or metaphysician whose name can be considered next to those of Husserl, Heidegger, or, as Todorov aptly suggests, Levinas. The radical experience of voiced otherness as a way to a regained proximity can indeed be found as a dominant theme in Levinas and to have at least a submerged existence in Heidegger. One can think of the lines in Hölderlin's poem Mnemosyne, "Seit ein Gespräch wir sind / Und hören können von einander" as a common ground. Whether the passage from otherness to the recognition of the other—the passage, in other words, from dialogism to dialogue—can be said to take place in Bakhtin as more than a desire, remains a question for Bakhtin interpretation to consider in the proper critical spirit. This renders premature any more specific consideration of how this recognition is to occur: as a religious transcendentalism which would allow one to read "God" wherever Bakhtin says "society," as a Heideggerian disclosure of ontological truth in the otherness of language or as a secular but messianic ideologism that would bear a superficial, and perhaps misleading, resemblance to the position attributed to Walter Benjamin. To adjudicate hastily between these various options would be unthinkable; what can be observed is that, in each case, dialogism appears as a provisional stage under way toward a more absolute claim, a claim that is not necessarily monological but that points, at any rate, well beyond the limited confines of literary theory. Whether such an extension of Bakhtin's range is sound and legitimate also remains to be established. But that it is a possibility is made clear by the tone, even more than by the substance, of what is being written about him in Western Europe and in the United States.

One sees that it would be possible to line up an impressive list of contemporary theorists of very diverse persuasion, all of which would have a legitimate claim on Bakhtin's dialogism as congenial or even essential to their enterprise: the list could include analytical philosophers, formalist semioticians grown weary with their science, narratologists, technicians of reader reception, religious phenomenologists, Heideggerian critical ontologists, defenders of permanent revolution, disciples of Leo Strauss—and one could easily play the game of extending still further this list of unlikely bedfellows. If one then would be curious to know what they have in common, at least negatively, one should perhaps ask who, if anyone, would have reason to find it difficult or even impossible to enlist Bakhtin's version of dialogism among his methodological tools or skills. Such as, for example, a literary theoretician or critic concerned with tropological displacements of logic, with a rhetoric of cognition as well as of persuasion. Bakhtin has very astute things to say about tropes but, if one is willing to suspend for a moment the potential dialogical otherness of these statements, he seems, on the whole, to consider that the discourse of tropes is not dialogical, does not account for dialogism, and remains, by and large, on the near side of the theories of narrative that dialogism allows one to elaborate. Bakhtin frequently asserts the separation of trope from dialogism, for instance in the passage on the distinction between discourse in poetry and in prose, as stated in terms of refraction, in "Discourse" or in the later, even more dogmatically explicit passage in the same text, on the distinction between the tropological polysemy of poetry and the dialogism of prose. Here Bakhtin unambiguously asserts that "no matter how one understands the interrelationship of meanings in a poetic symbol (or trope), this relationship is never of the dialogical sort; it is impossible under any conditions or at any time to imagine a trope (say, a metaphor) being unfolded into the two exchanges of a dialogue, that is, two meanings parceled out between two separate voices." These passages are among the richest in the canon of Bakhtin's works, but this implies that they are also among the most contradictory and, for that reason, monologically aberrant. More than any other, they reveal the metaphysical impensé of Bakhtin's thought, the dogmatic foundations that make the dialogical ideology so attractive and so diverse. This is not the time and the place for a detailed analysis of the passages in question. But lest you suspect me of being evasive, let me state the direction that such a reading would take—while adding, as a matter of course, that at the moment when I appropriate these passages as the ground of my own admiration for the revealingly aberrant character of Bakhtin's writings, I have included myself in the odd list of Bakhtin admirers from which I first pretended to be excluded; this, however, in no way disposes of the negative thrust of the proposed argument. One would have to point out (1) that, for Bakhtin, the trope is an intentional structure directed toward an object and, as such, a pure episteme and not a fact of language; this in fact excludes tropes from literary discourse, poetic as well as prosaic, and locates them, perhaps surprisingly, in the field of epistemology; (2) that the opposition between trope as object-directed and dialogism as social-oriented discourse sets up a binary opposition between object and society that is itself tropological in the worst possible sense, namely as a reification; (3) and more revealing for us, that as the analysis of dialogical refraction develops, Bakhtin has to reintroduce the categorical foundations of a precritical phenomenalism in which there is no room for exotopy, for otherness, in any shape or degree. When it is said, for example, that "the heteroglot voices […] create the background necessary for [the author's] own voice," we recognize the foreground-background model derived from Husserl's theories of perception and here uncritically assimilating the structure of language to the structure of a secure perception: from that moment on, the figure of refraction and of the light ray becomes coercive as the only possible trope for trope, and we are within a reflective system of mise en abŷme that is anything but dialogical. It is therefore not at all surprising that, still in the same passage, Bakhtin modulates irrevocably from dialogism to a conception of dialogue as question and answer of which it can then be said that "the speaker breaks through the alien conceptual horizon of the listener, constructs his own utterance on alien territory against his, the listener's, apperceptive background." Again, there is no trace of dialogism left in such a gesture of dialectical imperialism that is an inevitable part of any hermeneutic system of question and answer. The ideologies of otherness and of hermeneutic understanding are not compatible, and therefore their relationship is not a dialogical but simply a contradictory one. It is not a foregone conclusion whether Bakhtin's discourse is itself dialogical or simply contradictory.

Let me turn, in conclusion, to a text which can, I think, be said to be dialogical, which also happens to be a dialogue and a dialogue about the novel at that. Rousseau's prefatory post-face to La Nouvelle Héloise, sometimes entitled Dialogue on the Novel, combines two modes of dialogue. First a hermeneutic mode in which author and reader are engaged in a sequence of questions and answers, a set of who's and what's for the purpose of determining whether the contents of the novel are fact or fiction: Who is Julie? Did she exist? The outcome of this hermeneutic quest is utterly inconclusive: the hermeneutics of reference are undecidable. But, in case you worry about the legitimacy of the present performance, the decision of undecidability is itself entirely rational and legitimate: although another session on fact and fiction within the novel in next year's MLA is not going to get any further than we got today, such a continuation is entirely legitimate and, in fact, inevitable. The formal expression of this certainty is manifest in the symmetry of the question and answer patterns which would allow one, within the orbit of such a question, to substitute author for reader without any loss of consistency: the unreadability of the referent is just as challenging, and for the same reasons, for the one as for the other, and their complicity in the hermeneutic quest is manifest.

On the other hand, the text also stages something very different: a battle of wits between author and reader in which they try to outdo each other, parrying, feinting, and setting traps in a sequence of attacks and defenses somewhat like a fencing match, or like the seduction which is being carried on in the exchange of letters that make up the first part of Rousseau's novel. In this exchange, the question is no longer a question of who or what: it would be naive to ask who wins the match since in this model, Rousseau, as author, controls the moves of each of the antagonists. And it would be equally naive to ask over what one is fighting: one fights over whether or not there is a question, which means that one is at least twice removed from any possibility of an answer as to what, in this fight, is at stake. All the interest focuses on how one fights (or seduces), on the how, the poetics of writing and of reading rather than the hermeneutics. The author wants to know what all authors always want to know: Did you read my book? Did you read it to the end? Do you think people will want to buy it? Will it sell in Paris? All of which amounts to wondering if he put it together right—questions all belonging to the realm of empirical poetics (how to write a book that will achieve fame) rather than hermeneutics (what is the truth of the text). This puts him at an obvious disadvantage in the ensuing battle in which the urbane reader can constantly play on the vulnerability of his position and make him look foolish: the smart reader always outwits an author who depends on him from the moment he has opened a dialogue that is never entirely gratuitous, that is always a battle for mastery. Yet, at the end of Rousseau's text, the character designated by R, and who is the author, refuses the substitution offered to him:

N. … I advise you, however, to switch parts. Pretend that I am the one who urges you on to publish this collection of letters and that you are the one who resists. You give yourself the objections and I'll rebut them. It will sound more humble and make a better impression.

R. Will it also be in conformity with what you find to be praiseworthy in my character?

N. No, I was setting you a trap. Leave things as they are.

One of the ways in which this tricky passage has to be read is as the refusal, in terms of poetics, to grant the substitutive symmetry implied in a hermeneutics. Rousseau does not have the least intention to relinquish to his reader the benefit in fame or money of the 70,000 copies which, at the time of writing the so-called preface, he knew his novel had already sold, in Paris as well as in the provinces. Rira bien qui rira le dernier. This success of his poetics is in no way compatible, however, with the rules of his hermeneutics. The relationship between poetics and hermeneutics, like that between R the author and N the reader, is dialogical to the precise extent that the one cannot be substituted for the other, despite the fact that the nondialogical discourse of question and answer fully justifies the substitution. What one has to admire Bakhtin for (that is, want to be in his place in having written what he wrote), as all his present readers, including myself, do, is his hope that, by starting out, as he does, in a poetics of novelistic discourse one may gain access to the power of a hermeneutics. The apparent question of the relationship between fact and fiction in the novel hides the more fundamental question of the compatibility between the descriptive discourse of poetics and the normative discourse of hermeneutics. Such compatibility can only be achieved at the expense of dialogism. To imitate or to apply Bakhtin, to read him by engaging him in a dialogue, betrays what is most valid in his work.

Paul de Man, "Dialogue and Dialogism," in Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges, edited by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Northwestern University Press, 1989, pp. 105-14.

Michael Holquist (essay date 1990)

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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 Bakhtin does, the question remains: what kind of philosophy is it?

Stated at the highest level of (quite hair-raising) abstraction, what can only uneasily be called "Bakhtin's philosophy" is a pragmatically oriented theory of knowledge; more particularly, it is one of several modern epistemologies that seek to grasp human behavior through the use humans make of language. Bakhtin's distinctive place among these is specified by the dialogic concept of language he proposes as fundamental. For this reason, the term used in [Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World] to refer to the interconnected set of concerns that dominate Bakhtin's thinking is "dialogism," a term, I hasten to add, never used by Bakhtin himself. There can be no theoretical excuse for spawning yet another "ism," but the history of Bakhtin's reception seems to suggest that if we are to continue to think about his work in a way that is useful, some synthetic means must be found for categorizing the different ways he meditated on dialogue. That is, some way must be found to conceive his varied activity as a unity, without losing sight of the dynamic heterogeneity of his achievement. Before looking at any of Bakhtin's particular works, it will be useful to have some sense of the ideas that permeate them all. This [essay] will seek, then, to lay out in a general way some of the ideas considered by Bakhtin at the beginning of his career, and which—with different shifts of emphasis and new accretions of significance—he never ceased to hold.

Dialogue is an obvious master key to the assumptions that guided Bakhtin's work throughout his whole career: dialogue is present in one way or another throughout the notebooks he kept from his youth to his death at the age of 80. Most of these are lost, some remain in the form of communications so self-directed they are now almost impossible to decipher or understand, while others eventually took on the more public and comprehensible form of published books. But early or late, no matter what the topic of the moment, regardless of the name under which he wrote or the degree of shared communication he presumed, all Bakhtin's writings are animated and controlled by the principle of dialogue. It is becoming increasingly evident that Bakhtin's lifelong meditation on dialogue does not have a place solely in the history of literary theory, capacious as the borders of that subject have recently become. It is now clear that dialogism is also implicated in the history of modern thinking about thinking.

In this it is far from unique: the work of many other recent thinkers, especially in France, combines literary criticism, even literary production, with concerns that are essentially philosophical. But the kind of literature and the kind of philosophy that are woven together in the writings of a Sartre or a Derrida constitute genres significantly different from those that characterize dialogism. Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, the philosophers recently "discovered" by students of literature, represent, not surprisingly, the literary aspect of philosophy. They are lyrical thinkers, some of whom set out consciously to poeticize metaphysics.

Bakhtin is working out of a very different philosophical tradition, one that is little known, even among many Anglo-American professors of philosophy. The men who constitute a dialogizing background for Bakhtin differ from most thinkers now in fashion in so far as they were, in their own day, very much in the mainstream of academic philosophy. They held chairs in the important German universities and sought to make metaphysics even more systematic than had Hegel (most were, in fact, militantly anti-Hegelian, as was Bakhtin himself). Systematic metaphysics is now out of fashion and the names by which philosophy was defined in the latter half of the nineteenth century are for the most part forgotten. It is difficult for most of us now to conceive the passion excited in their time by such men as Hermann Cohen or Richard Avenarius. And if we take the trouble to look into their books, it becomes even harder, for they are written in the forbidding language of German technical philosophy in one of its more complex phases. And there are very few translations. I mention this tradition (emphatically) not to scare anyone away from a deeper involvement in Bakhtin's philosophical roots, but only to make it clear that such an involvement requires the extra effort always required to go beyond the categories and concepts (and translations) currently in fashion.

Dialogism, let it be clear from the outset, is itself not a systematic philosophy. But the specific way in which it refuses to be systematic can only be gauged against the failure of all nineteenth-century metaphysical systems to cope with new challenges raised by the natural and mathematical sciences. The most spectacular of these failures was the increasingly obvious irrelevance of Hegelianism (right or left) to the new scientific discoveries. As a result, from the 1860s on, more and more attention was paid to Kant: by the 1890s Neo-Kantianism in one form or another had become the dominant school of philosophy in Germany—and Russia.

There are many reasons why the rallying cry "Back to Kant!" proved so successful, but chief among them was a compatibility between Kant's work and developments in the realm of science outside philosophy. Kant himself had taught scientific subjects for many years before he published his first critique and became known as a philosopher. And the first critique was aimed precisely at the kind of pure reason divorced from experience that would bring Hegel's Absolute Spirit into disrepute in the later nineteenth century, an age when empiricism and experiment were yielding such obvious scientific benefits. In the fields of physics, mathematics, and physiology, such men as Ernst Mach and Wilhelm von Helmholtz were explicitly committed to working out the larger implications of Kant's speculative epistemology not in the philosopher's study, but in the scientist's laboratory, as they charted new paths in physics and physiology.

Dialogism's immediate philosophical antecedents are to be found in attempts made by various Neo-Kantians to overcome the gap between "matter" and "spirit." After the death of Hegel, this gap became increasingly apparent in the growing hostility between science and philosophy. Dialogism, then, is part of a major tendency in European thought to reconceptualize epistemology the better to accord with the new versions of mind and the revolutionary models of the world that began to emerge in the natural sciences in the nineteenth century. It is an attempt to frame a theory of knowledge for an age when relativity dominates physics and cosmology and thus when noncoincidence of one kind or another—of sign to its referent, of the subject to itself—raises troubling new questions about the very existence of mind.

Bakhtin begins by accepting Kant's argument that there is an unbridgeable gap between mind and world (but as we shall see, he differs from Kant in assuming that therefore there are things in themselves; there may be things outside mind, but they are nevertheless not in themselves). The non-identity of mind and world is the conceptual rock on which dialogism is founded and the source of all the other levels of non-concurring identity which Bakhtin sees shaping the world and our place in it. Bakhtin's thought is a meditation on how we know, a meditation based on dialogue precisely because, unlike many other theories of knowing, the site of knowledge it posits is never unitary. I use the admittedly cumbersome term "meditation on knowledge" here, because from his very earliest work Bakhtin is highly critical of what he calls "epistemologism," a tendency pervading all nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophy. A theory of knowledge devolves into mere epistemologism when there is posited "a unitary and unique consciousness … any determinateness must be derived from itself [thus it] cannot have another consciousness outside itself … any unity is its own unity."

In dialogism, the very capacity to have consciousness is based on otherness. This otherness is not merely a dialectical alienation on its way to a sublation that will endow it with a unifying identity in higher consciousness. On the contrary: in dialogism consciousness is otherness. More accurately, it is the differential relation between a center and all that is not that center. Now, a caution is in order here. Serious questions have recently been raised about the validity of any discourse that invokes the concept of center, as in various versions of what has come to be called "logocentrism." "Center" has often been used as a name for the unreflective assumption of ontological privilege, the sort of mystification sometimes attacked as the "illusion of presence." It is important from the outset, then, that "center" in Bakhtin's thought be understood for what it is: a relative rather than an absolute term, and, as such, one with no claim to absolute privilege, least of all one with transcendent ambitions.

This last point is particularly important, for certain of the terms crucial to Bakhtin's thought, such as "self" and "other," have so often been used as masked claims to privilege. Before we further specify the roles played by these protagonists in Bakhtinian scenarios, the simple yet all-important fact should be stressed again that they always enact a drama containing more than one actor.

Self and other are terms that sound vaguely atavistic in an age remarkable for its celebration of all that is extra- and impersonal. We are frequently told that not only God has died, but so has the subject. And perhaps no subject is quite so moribund as the particular kind that once was honored as author. It has even been argued with self-immolating eloquence that man (or at least Man) himself has died in history. All these deaths are melodramatic ways of formulating an end to the same thing: the old conviction that the individual subject is the seat of certainty, whether the subject so conceived was named God, the soul, the author, or—my self. Bakhtin, too, is suspicious of untrammeled subjectivity's claims; he perhaps least of all is mystified by them. And he attacks such claims at their root, in the self itself, which is why for him "self" can never be a self-sufficient construct.

It cannot be stressed enough that for him "self" is dialogic, a relation. And because it is so fundamental a relation, dialogue can help us understand how other relationships work, even (or especially) those that preoccupy the sometimes stern, sometimes playful new Stoics who most dwell on the death of the subject: relationships such as signifier/signified, text/context, system/history, rhetoric/language, and speaking/writing…. [We must recognize] that for Bakhtin the key to understanding all such artificially isolated dualisms is the dialogue between self and other.

Whatever else it is, self/other is a relation of simultaneity. No matter how conceived, simultaneity deals with ratios of same and different in space and time, which is why Bakhtin was always so concerned with space/time. Bakhtin's thought was greatly influenced by the new concepts of time and space that were being proposed by revolutionary physicists after the collapse of the old Newtonian cosmos. In Newton's mechanics it was possible for physical processes to propagate at infinite velocity through space. This meant that if one and the same action emanates from one body and reaches another body at the same instant, the process is purely spatial for it has occupied zero time. In Newton's universe, the sum of instants occurring simultaneously over all of space add up to a time that is absolute in the sense that it is a flux of simultaneous instants embracing the whole of the universe. It was, in other words, a dream of unity in physics that could serve as the proper setting for a dream of unity in Newton's theology, and which could later underwrite in philosophy the absolute oneness of consciousness in Hegelian dialectic. Dialogue, by contrast, knows no sublation. Bakhtin insists on differences that cannot be overcome: separateness and simultaneity are basic conditions of existence. Thus the physics proper to such a universe are post-Newtonian. Bakhtin grew up amidst battles that raged over the concepts of space and time among such "empiriocritics" as Mach, his Russian followers (primarily Bogdanov) and his Russian opponents (such as Lenin). Of these scientists and philosophers, the most helpful in grasping Bakhtin's thought is Einstein. Although there can be no question of immediate influence, dialogism is a version of relativity.

Einstein invented a number of just-so stories, or "thought experiments," as a way to elide physical limits on experimentation. Although not directly related, these experiments in some ways correspond to Bakhtin's attempts to use the situation of dialogue as a means for getting around traditional limitations of ideas of the subject. Both resort to what might be called a "philosophical optics," a conceptual means for seeing processes invisible to any other lens. More particularly, both resort to experiments with seeing in order to meditate on the necessity of the other. Einstein invented several situations (typically involving people looking at moving objects such as trains) that involve problems in perception raised by the speed of light. For instance, if light travels at a certain velocity in one system and at the same velocity in another system moving without acceleration relative to the first, it is impossible to detect the first system's movement by optical means, no matter how refined: the observer's ability to see motion depends on one body changing its position vis-à-vis other bodies. Motion, we have come to accept, has only a relative meaning. Stated differently, one body's motion has meaning only in relation to another body; or—since it is a relation that is mutual—has meaning only in dialogue with another body.

Dialogism argues that all meaning is relative in the sense that it comes about only as a result of the relation between two bodies occupying simultaneous but different space, where bodies may be thought of as ranging from the immediacy of our physical bodies, to political bodies and to bodies of ideas in general (ideologies). In Bakhtin's thought experiments, as in Einstein's, the position of the observer is fundamental. If motion is to have meaning, not only must there be two different bodies in a relation with each other, but there must as well be someone to grasp the nature of such a relation: the non-centeredness of the bodies themselves requires the center constituted by an observer. But unlike the passive stick figures who are positioned at a point equidistant between two railway trains in the cartoons often used to illustrate Einsteinian motion, Bakhtin's observer is also, simultaneously, an active participant in the relation of simultaneity. Conceiving being dialogically means that reality is always experienced, not just perceived, and further that it is experienced from a particular position. Bakhtin conceives that position in kinetic terms as a situation, an event, the event of being a self.

The self, moreover, is an event with a structure. Perhaps predictably for so attentive a student of Kant and post-Newtonian mechanics as Bakhtin, that structure is organized around the categories of space and time. They articulate what has been called the "law of placement" in dialogism, which says everything is perceived from a unique position in existence; its corollary is that the meaning of whatever is observed is shaped by the place from which it is perceived. Bakhtin explicates this law with a just-so story that uses seeing as a means for grasping what is essentially a non-visual situation. He begins with a simple datum from experience; not an observer looking at trains, but an observer looking at another observer. You can see things behind my back that I cannot see, and I can see things behind your back that are denied to your vision. We are both doing essentially the same thing, but from different places: although we are in the same event, that event is different for each of us. Our places are different not only because our bodies occupy different positions in exterior, physical space, but also because we regard the world and each other from different centers in cognitive time/space.

What is cognitive time/space? It is the arena in which all perception unfolds. Dialogism, like relativity, takes it for granted that nothing can be perceived except against the perspective of something else: dialogism's master assumption is that there is no figure without a ground. The mind is structured so that the world is always perceived according to this contrast. More specifically, what sets a figure off from its dialogizing background is the opposition between a time and a space that one consciousness uses to model its own limits (the I-for-myself) and the quite different temporal and spatial categories employed by the same consciousness to model the limits of other persons and things (the not-I-in-me)—and (this is crucial) vice versa.

At a very basic level, then, dialogism is the name not just for a dualism, but for a necessary multiplicity in human perception. This multiplicity manifests itself as a series of distinctions between categories appropriate to the perceiver on the one hand and categories appropriate to whatever is being perceived on the other. This way of conceiving things is not, as it might first appear to be, one more binarism, for in addition to these poles dialogism enlists the additional factors of situation and relation that make any specific instance of them more than a mere opposition of categories.

For the perceivers, their own time is forever open and unfinished; their own space is always the center of perception, the point around which things arrange themselves as a horizon whose meaning is determined by wherever they have their place in it. By contrast, the time in which we model others is perceived as closed and finished. Moreover, the space in which others are seen is never a significance-charged surrounding, but a neutral environment, i.e. the homogenizing context of the rest of the world. From the perspective of a self, the other is simply in the world, along with everyone and everything else. The contrast between spatial and temporal categories that are appropriate to me and the very different categories I employ to give shape to the other must not be misinterpreted as yet another Romantic claim for primacy of the absolute subject: self for Bakhtin is a cognitive necessity, not a mystified privilege.

We will see this—and the intimate relation dialogism bears to language—if we understand that cognitive time/space is ordered very much as time and space categories are deployed in speech. It has long been recognized that the formal means for expressing subjectivity occupy a unique place in any language. "I" is a word that has no referent in the way "tree," for instance, nominates a class of flora; if "I" is to perform its task as a pro-noun, must not be a noun, i. e. it must not refer to anything as other words do. For its task is to indicate the person uttering the present instance of the discourse containing "I," a person who is always changing and different. "I" must not refer to anything in particular if it is to be able to mean everybody in general. In Jakobson's suggestive phrase, "I" is a "shifter" because it moves the center of discourse from one speaking subject to another: its emptiness is the no man's land in which subjects can exchange the lease they hold on all of language by virtue of saying "I." When a particular person utters that word, he or she fills "I" with meaning by providing the central point needed to calibrate all further time and space discriminations: "I" is the invisible ground of all other indices in language, the benchmark to which all its spatial operations are referred, and the Greenwich mean by which all its time distinctions are calibrated. "I" marks the point between "now" and "then," as well as between "here" and "there." The difference between all these markers is manifested by the relation each of them bears either to the proximity of the speaker's horizon (here and now), or to the distance of the other's environment (there and then). As the linguist Émile Benveniste has remarked [in Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Mary, 1971], "Language itself reveals the profound difference between these two planes." The gate of the "I" is located at the center not only of one's own existence, but of language as well.

This is so because there is an intimate connection between the project of language and the project of selfhood: they both exist in order to mean. The word Bakhtin uses for "project," (zadanie) is another twist on the central distinction between something that is "given" (dan) and something that presents itself in the nature of a task, as something that must be "conceived" (zadan.) The situatedness of the self is a multiple phenomenon: it has been given the task of not being merely given. It must stand out in existence because it is dominated by a "drive to meaning," where meaning is understood as something still in the process of creation, something still bending toward the future as opposed to that which is already completed.

It should be added in passing that brute chronological indicators are no guarantee of whether a thing has meaning in this sense or not, for events initiated in the most distant past, as measured by the clock, may still be fresh and unfinished in cognitive time/space. Dialogism's drive to meaning should not be confused with the Hegelian impulse toward a single state of higher consciousness in the future. In Bakhtin there is no one meaning being striven for: the world is a vast congeries of contesting meanings, a heteroglossia so varied that no single term capable of unifying its diversifying energies is possible.

Since Bakhtin sees the world as activity, it will come as no surprise that he defines existence as an event. But it will perhaps seem contradictory that his term for existence is "the unique and unified event of being" (edinstvennoe i edinoe sobytie bytija), a phrase that recurs with obsessive regularity in Bakhtin's early work, and a formulation so important for understanding Bakhtin that each word requires some glossing.

The activity of the world comes to each of us as a series of events that uniquely occur in the site I, and only I, occupy in the world. If I slash my finger with a knife, an "other" may be intellectually aware that I am in pain, and may even deeply empathize with me. But the pain itself happens to me; it is addressed to where "I" am, not to the other (pre-positions, like pro-nouns, grammatically instance the unique placedness of subjects). One way in which the uniqueness of my place in life may be judged is by the uniqueness of the death that will be mine. However, this uniqueness—in what only appears to be a paradox—is shared. We shall all die, but you cannot die in my place, any more than you can live fromthat site. And of course the reverse is also true: I cannot be in the unique place you occupy in the event of existence.

Nevertheless, the event of existence is "unified"; for although it occurs in sites that are unique, those sites are never complete in themselves. They are never in any sense of the word alone. They need others to provide the stability demanded by the structure of perception if what occurs is to have meaning. In order that the event of existence be more than a random happening, it must have meaning, and to do that it must be perceptible as a stable figureagainst the ground of the flux and indeterminacy of everything else. This unification occurs as the result of an event, the action of me fulfilling my task (zadanie), i. e. by making the slice of existence that is merely given (dan) to me something that is conceived (zadan). I perform this transformation by imposing time/space categories appropriate to the other on what is happening. Remember that those categories differ from self-categories precisely in their ability to consummate, to finish off, what is being perceived, to complete it in time and to assign it a space.

The word "event" as it occurs in the formulation above is particularly complex. The Russian word used, sobytie, is the normal word Russians would use in most contexts to mean what we call in English an "event." But as Bakhtin uses it, certain aspects of the word long-forgotten in its everyday usage, are brought to the fore. The most important of these emerges from the fact that in Bakhtin's philosophical writings the word is almost never used alone, but always in conjunction with the word "being." He insists on being as an event.

The obligatory grouping of these two words in this way is a syntactic doubling that points to the mutuality of their meaning. It points as well to the etymological relations of the two words. In Russian, "event" is a word having both a root and a stem; it is formed from the word for being-bytie-with the addition of the prefix implying sharedness, "so-, co-," (or, as we should say in English, "co-" as in cooperate or co-habit), giving sobytie, event as co-being. "Being" for Bakhtin then is, not just an event, but an event that is shared. Being is a simultaneity; it is always co-being.

[Sergi] Karcevskij, too, meditates on simultaneity [in "The asymmetric dualism of the linguistic Sign," in The Prague School: Selected Writings 1929–1946, ed. Peter Steiner, 1982]: "the simultaneous presence of these two possibilities is indispensable for any act of comprehension." Like Bakhtin—and in marked contrast to the French reading of the asymmetry of the sign that finds its most radical extreme in Derrida's differance—Karcevskij recognized that "opposition pure and simple necessarily leads to chaos and cannot serve as the basis of a system. True differentiation presupposes a simultaneous resemblance and difference." In other words, it presupposes a center and a non-center.

What Karcevskij is saying about language is essentially what Bakhtin is saying about reality as such: the self (the perceiver) and the other (the perceived) exist not as separate entities, but as "relations between two coordinates … each serving to differentiate the other." The coordinates proposed by Bakhtin for modeling this simultaneity are the two sets of time/space categories inherent in each of its poles: self and other (Bakhtin speaks of them as two interacting legal codes). The interaction of the binaries resemblance/difference, and figure/ground, both have at their heart the master distinction of self/other. In cognition, even more than in the physical world, two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. As subject, I must not share the time/space of an object. Using self and other as basic categories does not obliterate the split between subject and object, but it complicates that distinction in ways that make it productive.

The other is in the realm of completedness, whereas I experience time as open and always as yet un-completed, and I am always at the center of space. This condition has certain virtues; in a world filled with the determining energies of impersonal social force, it is a potential source of freedom, the ground of other liberties from constraint of the sort Bakhtin celebrates in carnival…. In common with everything else, however, this openness exists in tension with its dialogic partner, closure. The unfinished nature of self is not mere subjective license: like any border, it is also a limit. The very immediacy which defines my being as a self is the same condition that insures I cannot perceive my self: one way to grasp how far removed the self is from any privilege is to be aware that like anything else, its perception requires temporal categories that are less fluid and spatial categories that are more comprehensive than are provided by the manner in which my "I" is fated to live the event of being. For all their comparative openness, indeed because of it, self-categories cannot do what categories of the other can. Seeing requires a certain outsideness to what is seen, a certain stasis. "In the realm of culture, outsideness is the most powerful factor in understanding," precisely because it permits the finalized quality needed for the whole of a culture to be seen…. But as the primal activity that marks being as an ongoing event, the self "itself" cannot abide even the most minimal degree of fixity.

When I look at you, I see your whole body, and I see it as having a definite place in the total configuration of a whole landscape. I see you as occupying a certain position vis-à-vis other persons and objects in the landscape (you are one other among many others). Moreover, you not only have definite physical characteristics, specific social standing, and so on, but I see you as having a definite character as well. I imagine you as being good or bad at your trade, a good or bad husband, wife, parent, as being more or less close to dying, and a number of other things that sum you up as a (more or less definitely) consummated whole. If we imagine self and other in painterly terms, the former would be non-figurative and the latter extremely hard-edged. And yet I must have some way of forming myself into a subject having something like the particularity of the other. My "I" must have contours that are specific enough to provide a meaningful addressee: for if existence is shared, it will manifest itself as the condition of being addressed (obrashchënnost', or addressivnost'). Existence is not only an event, it is an utterance. The event of existence has the nature of dialogue in this sense; there is no word directed to no one.

It is here we approach the ineluctable association of dialogism and authorship. In order to see this connection, let us go back for a moment to the peculiarity of the first person pronoun. Remember other nouns are signs in so far as their material sound, such as the locution "tree" when we actually pronounce it, evokes the fixed notion of a particular sort of object (some kind of natural growth, let us say). In the signifier "tree" we see a signified tree. Most nouns work something like this, but not the pronoun for the self, for what "I" refers to cannot be seen, at least in the same way that the word "tree" enables us to see a tree.

In order for my specific subjectivity to fill the general slot of the first person pronoun, that word must be empty: "I" is a word that can mean nothing in general, for the reference it names can never be visualized in its consummated wholeness. But this invisibility (which, as we shall see, is akin to the invisibility of the unconscious) is not mysterious. It is a general token of absence that can be filled in any particular utterance. It is invisible only at the level of system. At the level of performance, in the event of an utterance, the meaning of "I" can always be seen. It can be said, then, that the pronoun "I" marks the point of articulation between the pre-existing, repeatable system of language and my unique, unrepeatable existence as a particular person in a specific social and historical situation.

Existence, like language, is a shared event. It is always a border incident on the gradient both joining and separating the immediate reality of my own living particularity (a uniqueness that presents itself as only for me) with the reality of the system that precedes me in existence (that is always-already-there) and which is intertwined with everyone and everything else. Through the medium of the first person pronoun each speaker appropriates a whole language to himself. Much as Peter Pan's shadow is sewn to his body, "I" is the needle that stitches the abstraction of language to the particularity of lived experience. And much the same structure insures that in all aspects of life dialogue can take place between the chaotic and particular centrifugal forces of subjectivity and the rule-driven, generalizing centripetal forces of extra-personal system.

The single world "I" is exploited in language very much as the single eye of the fates is used in Greek mythology. The three old women all pass around the same organ. If they did not share their eye they could not see. In order to have her own vision, each must use the means by which the others see. In dialogism this sharedness is indeed the nature of fate for us all. For in order to see our selves, we must appropriate the vision of others. Restated in its crudest version, the Bakhtinian just-so story of subjectivity is the tale of how I get my self from the other: it is only the other's categories that will let me be an object for my own perception. I see my self as I conceive others might see it. In order to forge a self, I must do so from outside. In other words, I author myself.

Even in this brutalized rendition it will be apparent that things cannot be so simple, and in the event (of being) they are not. First, because the act of creating a self is not free: we must, we all must, create ourselves, for the self is not given (dan) to any one of us. Or, as Bakhtin puts it, "we have no alibi in existence." This lack of choice extends to the materials available for creation, for they are always provided by the other. I cannot choose to model my self as, let us say, a Martian might see me if I have not had experience of Martians. I may, of course, imagine what Martians might be like, and then seek to appropriate their image of me as my own. But even an imaginary Martian will be made up of details provided from previous experience, for in existence that is shared, there can be nothing absolute, including nothing absolutely new.

The self, then, may be conceived as a multiple phenomenon of essentially three elements (it is—at least—a triad, not a duality): a center, a not-center, and the relation between them. Until now we have been discussing the first two elements, the center (or I-for-itself) and the not-center (the-not-I-in-me) in terms of the time/space categories appropriate to each. In taking up the third item, the relation that center and not-center bear to each other, we will have to keep in mind one or two new terms that are crucial to Bakhtin's undertaking. Dialogism is a form of architectonics, the general science of ordering parts into a whole. In other words, architectonics is the science of relations. A relation is something that always entails ratio and proportion. In addition, Bakhtin emphasizes that a relation is never static, but always in the process of being made or unmade.

In so far as a relation involves the construction of ratios, it is aesthetic in much the same way that a statue or a building may be judged in terms of how its parts have been constructed with respect to each other. Relation, it will be helpful to remember, is also a telling, a narrative, an aspect of the word's meaning that Bakhtin will not ignore as he takes the somewhat unusual step of treating the relation of the self to the other as a problem in aesthetics.

By choosing aesthetic categories to discuss questions in epistemology, Bakhtin is drawing attention to the importance in dialogism of authoring. Sharing existence as an event means among other things that we are—we cannot choose not to be—in dialogue, not only with other human beings, but also with the natural and cultural configurations we lump together as "the world." The world addresses us and we are alive and human to the degree that we are answerable, i. e. to the degree that we can respond to addressivity. We are responsible in the sense that we are compelled to respond, we cannot choose but give the world an answer. Each one of us occupies a place in existence that is uniquely ours; but far from being a privilege, far from having what Bakhtin calls an alibi in existence, the uniqueness of the place I occupy in existence is, in the deepest sense of the word, an answerability: in that place only am I addressed by the world, since only I am in it. Moreover, we must keep on forming responses as long as we are alive.

I am always answerable for the response that is generated from the unique place I occupy in existence. My responses begin to have a pattern; the dialogue I have with existence begins to assume the form of a text, a kind of book. A book, moreover, that belongs to a genre. In antiquity, too, the world was often conceived as a book, the text of libri naturae. Bakhtin conceives existence as the kind of book we call a novel, or more accurately as many novels (the radically manifold world proposed by Bakhtin looks much like Borges' Library of Babel), for all of us write our own such text, a text that is then called our life. Bakhtin uses the literary genre of the novel as an allegory for representing existence as the condition of authoring.

The author of a novel may unfold several different plots, but each will be merely one version of a more encompassing story: the narrative of how an author (as a dialogic, non-psychological self) constructs a relation with his heroes (as others). Authors are somehow both inside and outside their work. In literary texts, interaction between author and heroes is what constructs the relation that gives deepest coherence to the other meanings of relation, not least relation understood as a telling.

The particular corner (really an angle of refraction) in apperception where such authoring can take place—the self's workshop, as it were—Bakhtin calls unenakhodimost', or "outsideness" (sometimes rendered into English—from French rather than from Russian—as "exotopy"). The term, as always in dialogism, is not only spatial, but temporal: it is only from a position outside something that it can be perceived in categories that complete it in time and fix it in space. In order to be perceived as a whole, as something finished, a person or object must be shaped in the time/space categories of the other, and that is possible only when the person or object is perceived from the position of outsideness. An event cannot be wholly known, cannot be seen, from inside its own unfolding as an event. As Bergson, an important source of ideas for Bakhtin, puts it: "in so far as my body is the center of action [or what Bakhtin calls a deed], it cannot give birth to a representation." [Henri Bergson, Matters and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer, 1911].

In a dialogue that takes place between two different persons (one self/other constellation to another self/other constellation) in physical space, the medium of exchange is, of course, natural language. In such exchanges it is words that fix (if only very fleetingly) meanings. They can do so because syntax, grammar, and the sound laws governing phonology provide a relatively stable armature for marking distinctions in the unstable flux of life outside language. Words can segment experience into meaningful patterns because their essence is so radically differential: they exist only to register differences. As Saussure, summing up his argument at a crucial point [in Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, 1966], says: "Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences." Bakhtin insists that language is also a matter of sameness, but he would certainly agree that "language is only a system of pure values."

And so, argues Bakhtin, is the self. Once again quoting Saussure to gloss Bakhtin, we may say that for the units of existence we call "selves," as for the units of language we call "words," "Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not." While the self/other distinction does not operate as a complete algorithm of natural language, it does share with language the three fundamental features of function, means, and purpose. The function of each is to provide a mechanism for differentiating; each uses values to distinguish particular differences, and the purpose of doing so in each case is to give order to (what otherwise would be) the chaos of lived experience.

Let us return, then, to the example of two people regarding each other, each attempting to make sense out of the existence each shares with the other. We may now describe the dialogue of radical self/other distinctions unfolding within their cognitive space in linguistic terms. This dialogue takes place much as dialogues in natural language do: by using particular values to specify otherwise unmarked differences.

In our imagined encounter, the first person will see the second, the "other," through the relation of difference that divides all phenomena either into categories of self or categories of the other, never both. But once the distinction is made that defines the second person as one who must be perceived through the lens of the other, distinctions of a secondary order will follow that fill in the other's general outline with shades of particular differences (the progression from primary to secondary differentiation is, of course, logical, not chronological). These shadings will be made with colors drawn from the palette of specific values that obtain in the event of existence as it manifests itself in a particular time and a particular place. The first person will see the second, then, in terms much too detailed to be frozen into the sort of abstract account that a hapless expositor is condemned to provide as an example. But the terms could reasonably be expected to include such things as how physical appearance is judged (is long hair, or curly hair, or blonde hair, or perhaps no hair a good or bad thing? is being round in the tummy to be "portly" or is it to be "fat"?), also manner of speaking ("common," "stilted," "natural"), politics, relation to the major theory dominating a particular discipline at the moment, and so on. The other is always perceived in terms that are specified socially and historically, and for all the abstraction of our discussion so far, dialogism's primary thrust is always in the direction of historical and social specificity.

The only perspective from which values of such specificity and completeness may be brought to bear on the other is from the position of "outsideness." The first person succeeds in attaining the position needed to perceive the second from outside. But will he or she be able to achieve that extreme degree of outsideness toward the second which Bakhtin calls "transgredience"? Transgredience (transgradientsvo) is reached when the whole existence of others is seen from outside not only their own knowledge that they are being perceived by somebody else, but from beyond their awareness that such an other even exists. It is a cardinal assumption of dialogism that every human subject is not only highly conscious, but that his or her cognitive space is coordinated by the same I/other distinctions that organize my own: there is in fact no way "I" can be completely transgredient to another living subject, nor can he or she be completely transgredient to me.

We touch here on two other important concerns of dialogism: authority as authorship; and authority as power. Transgredience is a topic that bears on the specificity of art within a general aesthetic; and it also bears on the question of power in the state. As we shall see, transgredience, when it is used well, results in art; when used badly, it results in totalitarianism.

Although, then, dialogism is primarily an epistemology, it is not just a theory of knowledge. Rather, it is in its essence a hybrid: dialogism exploits the nature of language as a modeling system for the nature of existence, and thus is deeply involved with linguistics; dialogism sees social and ethical values as the means by which the fundamental I/other split articulates itself in specific situations and is thus a version of axiology; and in so far as the act of perception is understood as the patterning of a relation, it is a general aesthetic, or it is an architectonics, a science of building.

Use of the term architectonics betrays once again Bakhtin's debt to Kant, who used it not only in its technical sense (as a way to refer to any systematization of knowledge), but to emphasize the active, constructive role of mind in perception. By using the same word, Bakhtin also seeks to foreground these aspects; but in addition he wants to draw a line between the kind of authoring we all must do all the time, and the kind of authoring some persons do some of the time, the results of which we then call art. Architectonics involves us all; but the branch of architectonics involving artists is aesthetics proper.

What is the difference between the two? It is the ability of the artist in his or her text to treat other human subjects from the vantage point of transgredience, a privilege denied the rest of us who author only in lived experience (and denied to artists too, when they are not being artists). The author of a novel, for instance, can manipulate the other not only as an other, but as a self. This is, in fact, what the very greatest writers have always done, but the paradigmatic example is provided by Dostoevsky, who so successfully permits his characters to have the status of an "I" standing over against the claims of his own authorial other that Bakhtin felt compelled to coin the special term "polyphony" to describe it. Lesser authors treat their heroes as mere others, a relation that can be crafted in architectonics, and which does not therefore require the aesthetic privilege of art for its achievement: it is what we all do anyway. And then there are those authors who treat their characters not only as others, but as having the otherness of mere things, lacking any subjectivity. They exploit their transgredience of their characters much as scientists exploit theirs toward laboratory rats. This is formulaic pseudo-art, in which all possible initiative within the text is sacrificed to a formula pre-existing the text. If in western movies of a certain kind the "hero" ends up kissing a horse instead of a girl, or if in Stalinist fiction the boy always gets a tractor instead of a girl, we feel no violation, because we understand that neither the cowboy nor the collective farmer has any reserve of subjectivity: they are, themselves, effectively, only horses or tractors anyway.

This formulaic art makes explicit the connection of transgredience to power. For not only is snuffing out the "I" of other subjects bad aesthetics, it is bad politics. Dialogically conceived, authorship is a form of governance, for both are implicated in the architectonics of responsibility, each is a way to adjudicate center/non-center relations between subjects. Totalitarian government always seeks the (utopian) condition of absolute monologue: the Gleichschaltung which was attempted in Germany during the 1930s to "Nazify" trade unions, universities, publishing houses, professional associations, and so on had as its aim the suppression of all otherness in the state so that its creator alone might flourish. Dialogism has rightly been perceived by certain thinkers on the left as a useful correlative to Marxism, for it argues that sharing is not only an ethical or economic mandate, but a condition built into the structure of human perception, and thus a condition inherent in the very fact of being human. But by the same token dialogism differs from the pseudo-Marxism of regimes that use "Communism" as a license for totalitarian government. For as the ultimate critique of any claim to monologue, it is intransigently pluralist.

We have looked at several versions of self/other relations. In so doing certain fundamentals have emerged, not least of which is that dialogism is able to make claims in many different areas because it is basically a theory of knowledge, an architectonics of perception. Dialogism argues that we make sense of existence by defining our specific place in it, an operation performed in cognitive time and space, the basic categories of perception. Important as these categories are, they themselves are shaped by the even more fundamental set of self and other. We perceive the world through the time/space of the self and through the time/space of the other. The difference between the two is a relation of otherness that can be gauged by differing positions of outsideness that are enacted as varying degrees of transgredience. Up until this point we have discussed such relations almost exclusively in terms of the other. We must now address the difficult question of how the self achieves the outsideness it needs to perceive itself.

So as always to be an open site where the event of existence can have its occurrence, the self must never stop in time or be fixed in space. Since, however, being finished in time and being specifically located in space are conditions necessary for being "seen" in perception, the self is by definition invisible to itself. In the wake of a still-potent Romanticism, it is necessary to repeat that there is nothing mysterious about this invisibility, for it is merely structural. The self's non-referentiality can be understood by analogy with the non-referentiality of "I" as the first person pronoun in natural language. If each is to perform its function of indicating a unique place that must be shared by everybody (which is what the self marks in existence, and what the "I" marks in language), then they must both refer to nothing—or at least not refer to anything in the same manner other signs refer.

But the self is like a sign in so far as it has no absolute meaning in itself: it, too (or rather, it most of all), is relative, dependent for its existence on the other. A conventional sign is not a unitary thing, but rather a differential relation between two aspects, a signifier and a signified. In this triad it is the relation that is absolute, not the elements it yokes together, for neither of the two elements exists in itself; neither has any meaning on its own, without the simultaneous presence of the other. Nor is the "self" a unitary thing; rather, it consists in a relation, the relation between self and other. A traditional metaphor representing the unity of the linguistic sign's two elements is the unity shared by the recto and verso sides of the same sheet of paper. But in so far as the self is an activity, such a static means of conceiving it will not do: Bakhtin's metaphor for the unity of the two elements constituting the relation of self and other is dialogue, the simultaneous unity of differences in the event of utterance.

One of Bakhtin's simple illustrations will help us overcome the complexity of this last formulation. If we return for a moment to the situation of two people facing each other, we remember that although they share an external space and time (they are physically simultaneous), inside his or her own head each sees something the other does not. Let us envisage you and me confronting each other. There are certain things we both perceive, such as the table between us. But there are other things in the same encounter we do not both perceive. The simplest way to state the difference between us is to say that you see things about me (such as, at the most elementary level, my forehead) and the world (such as the wall behind my back) which are out of my sight. The fact that I cannot see such things does not mean they do not exist; we are so arranged that I simply cannot see them. But it is equally the case that I see things you are unable to see, such as your forehead, and the wall behind your back. In addition to the things we see jointly, there are aspects of our situation each of us can see only on our own, i. e. only from the unique place each of us occupies in the situation.

The aspect of the situation that you see, but I do not, is what Bakhtin calls your "surplus of seeing"; those things I see but you cannot constitute my "surplus of seeing." You know I have a surplus, and I know you have one as well. By adding the surplus that has been "given" to you to the surplus that has been "given" to me I can build up an image that includes the whole of me and the room, including those things I cannot physically see: in other words, I am able to "conceive" or construct a whole out of the different situations we are in together. I author a unified version of the event of our joint existence from my unique place in it by means of combining the things I see which are different from (in addition to) those you see, and the things you see which are different from (in addition to) that difference.

Such acts of combination are a rudimentary form of "narrativity," or the ability to put myself into scenarios of the kind I see others enacting. I never see others as frozen in the immediacy of the isolated present moment. The present is not a static moment, but a mass of different combinations of past and present relations. To say I perceive them as a whole means that I see them surrounded by their whole lives, within the context of a complete narrative having a beginning that precedes our encounter and an end that follows it. I see others as bathed in the light of their whole biography.

My "I-for-itself" lacks such a consummated biography: because the self's own time is constantly open, it resists such framing limits. Within my own consciousness my "I" has no beginning and no end. The only way I know of my birth is through accounts I have of it from others; and I shall never know my death, because my "self" will be alive only so long as I have consciousness—what is called "my" death will not be known by me, but once again only by others. In order to remain a constantly potential site of being, my self must be able to conduct its work as sheer capability, a flux of sheer becoming. If this energy is to be given specific contours, it must be shaped not only in values, but in story. Stories are the means by which values are made coherent in particular situations. And this narrativity, this possibility of conceiving my beginning and end as a whole life, is always enacted in the time/space of the other: I may see my death, but not in the category of my "I." For my "I," death occurs only for others, even when the death in question is my own.

Since Bakhtin places so much emphasis on otherness, and on otherness defined precisely as other values, community plays an enormous role in his thought. Dialogism is, among other things, an exercise in social theory. Although frequently overlooked by those who tear "carnival" out of its larger Bakhtinian context, extrapersonal social force is accorded so much weight in dialogism that it almost (but not quite) begins to verge on determinism. If my "I" is so ineluctably a product of the particular values dominating my community at the particular point in its history when I coexist with it, the question must arise, "Where is there any space, and what would the time be like, in which I might define myself against an otherness that is other from that which has been 'given' to me?"

In answering this question it will be helpful to remember that dialogue is not, as is sometimes thought, a dyadic, much less a binary, phenomenon. Dialogue is a manifold phenomenon, but for schematic purposes it can be reduced to a minimum of three elements having a structure very much like the triadic construction of the linguistic sign: a dialogue is composed of an utterance, a reply, and a relation between the two. It is the relation that is most important of the three, for without it the other two would have no meaning. They would be isolated, and the most primary of Bakhtinian a prioris is that nothing is anything in itself.

The tripartite nature of dialogue bears within it the seeds of hope: in so far as my "I" is dialogic, it insures that my existence is not a lonely event but part of a larger whole. The thirdness of dialogue frees my existence from the very circumscribed meaning it has in the limited configuration of self/other relations available in the immediate time and particular place of my life. For in later times, and in other places, there will always be other configurations of such relations, and in conjunction with that other, my self will be differently understood. This degree of thirdness outside the present event insures the possibility of whatever transgredience I can achieve toward myself.

At the heart of any dialogue is the conviction that what is exchanged has meaning. Poets who feel misunderstood in their lifetimes, martyrs for lost political causes, quite ordinary people caught in lives of quiet desperation—all have been correct to hope that outside the tyranny of the present there is a possible addressee who will understand them. This version of the significant other, this "super-addressee," is conceived in different ways at different times and by different persons: as God, as the future triumph of my version of the state, as a future reader.

As the need to posit a category such as "super-addressee" outside the present moment makes clear, conditions for creating meaning in the present moment are not always the best. A dialogic world is one in which I can never have my own way completely, and therefore I find myself plunged into constant interaction with others—and with myself. In sum, dialogism is based on the primacy of the social, and the assumption that all meaning is achieved by struggle. It is thus a stern philosophy. This fact should surprise no one, given dialogism's immediate sources in revolution, civil war, the terror of the purges, and exile. But the very otherness that makes it at times a version of Stoicism is also what insures that we are not alone. Dialogism is ultimately an epistemology founded on a loophole, for

there is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again at a given moment in the dialogue's later course when it will be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.

Michael Holquist, in his Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, Routledge, 1990, 204 p.

Mikita Hoy (essay date Summer 1992)

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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 all other genres. Therefore the range of texts composed of a series of different languages interpenetrating one another—Bakhtin's classification of "novelness"—must clearly be immense. In fact, rather than limiting the term novel to a narrow definition of a piece of textual fiction, Bakhtin uses it to name the interplay of heteroglottal strata at work within any given literary system in order to reveal the artificial limits and constraints of that system; for "novelization" as Bakhtin sees it is fundamentally opposed to the ordering into genres and canons that is characteristic of most literary systems.

Bakhtin's version of novelization does not permit generic monologue, but rather insists on an interplay of dialogues between what any given system will admit as literature, or "high culture," or art, or "good writing," and on the other hand all those texts excluded from these definitions as nonliterature, "low culture," popular culture, or subculture. All writing features this interplay, and therefore all kinds of language, even those which might not be classed as "higher literary forms" by the traditional critic, such as musical lyrics or advertisement logos, to Bakhtin represent important forms of novelization. That piece of textual fiction more conventionally described as the "novel" is merely the most refined and distilled version of this definition, which spills over into other kinds of texts and novels in other times. As Bakhtin himself writes in The Dialogic Imagination, "texts continue to grow and develop even after the moment of their creation … they are capable of being creatively transformed in different eras, far distant from the day and hour of their original birth."

Bakhtinian analysis of the novel represents then a theoretical system to which it is not only possible but critically essential to submit today's magazines, comedy, advertisements, popular music, art, and fashion, since in their continual interchange and deliberate fusion of high and low styles, politics, parody and pastiche, comic strip and literature, haut couture and street fashion, they constitute a singular shifting dialogism whose rich carnival of discourse lies open to Bakhtin's radical definition of "novelness," and their instances of language, say in rock lyrics or advertisements, are in this way very similar to the instances of language that Bakhtin finds in the novel.

It is vital however to realize that, according to Bakhtin, in any analysis of the social ideology of genres such as "high" and "low" styles, "politics," "parody," "pastiche," and so on, it is impossible to escape the fact that the author / artist / designer is Russian or Polish, Jewish or Catholic, male or female, old or young, formally educated or formally uneducated, and so on. Bakhtin finds it difficult to identify specific genres beyond "relatively stable forms of construction of the whole" in every discourse and utterance, from the literary and the rhetorical to the spontaneous and the everyday—hence his theory of "sociopolitical genre," or "generic wholes." Real "genres" as such do not actually exist; rather, they play at being all-encompassing and "total." Consequently, the very notion of a "unity" is false, since that supposed "unity" encompasses infinite strata of other, autonomous unities. Absolute, ideal extremes are illusory—it is possible to theorize and quantify only, according to Bakhtin, in terms of approximate "wholes" and the generalization of generic regularities.

Bakhtin's theory of heteroglossia rests upon his vision of language not as a static, communicable representation of the speaker's intention but as a system bearing the weight of centuries of intention, motivation, and implication. Language can never be molded into working for the speaker's unique purpose but can only be handed back and forth like printed books borrowed from a lending library. Since it is already composed of weighted uses, grammatical rules, and agreed conventional lexis, Bakhtin sees all language as negating the uniqueness of personal experience, and with it any possibility of maintaining a connection with value and intention, as does Sartre in Being and Nothingness: "the 'meaning' of my expressions always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify…. As soon as I express myself, I can only guess at the meaning of what I express—i. e. the meaning of what I am."

Within every single word, within every single utterance, Bakhtin identifies a large and ancient collection of ideas, motives, and intentions utilized by centuries of speakers and writers. All language, according to Bakhtin, is prestratified into social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, languages of generations and age-groups, tendentious languages, languages of authority, and, especially in recent media language, the discourse of various circles and passing fashions of the day, even of the hour.

Bakhtin finds himself unable to describe social forms and conventions (what most critics today would define as "genres") without reducing them to the obviously individualistic category of voices, and equally unable to imagine consistentdialogue among similar genres, or among works within a genre, except as a kind of loose, multiform "whole." Bakhtin reserves the term genre for obvious, widely accepted generic structures—epic, myth, poetry, or the space-time structures of youth, age, the beginning, the end, and so on. Essentially, genre in Bakhtin is something of a nonce-word. He seems ultimately to suggest that it is possible—indeed, necessary—to reduce all forms, narratives, structures, and so on, to their own "ideological languages." Nevertheless, he keeps the terms genre and generic wholes to identify and theorize widely accepted forms, partly in order to enable reference to wider literary and narrative traditions than his consistent return to sociological and ideological theory would generate.

But as Ken Hirschkop points out [in "Introduction: Bakhtin and Cultural Theory," in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, 1989], even the meanings of words like dialogism and carnival are "a sedimentation of past uses, current and past social conflicts, the changing forms of ideological life; in short, these terms are themselves dialogical." Yet this does not mean that the schema at play in even the most basic language-unit are too densely interwoven ever to comprehend: "Such is the fleeting language of a day, of an epoch, a social group, a genre, a school and so forth," writes Bakhtin, that "[i]t is possible to give a concrete and detailed analysis of any utterance, once having exposed it as a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of … embattled tendencies in the life of language."

In recent popular culture, nowhere is the influence of heteroglossia more obvious and immediate than in so-called style magazines like Arena, i.d., and The Face. Arena is a fairly new magazine, on sale mainly in England, the United States, Germany, and Italy, published and edited in England by Nick Logan, and specializing in "exclusive" interviews with film and rock stars, upmarket articles on sport and fashion, and pieces on politics and architecture. The market for Q has similar international aspirations; this is also a relatively new publication which aims to be "the modern guide to music and more," focusing mainly on rock interviews and reviews. i.d. has been around for rather longer; it is marketed over most of Europe as well as the United States, Japan, and Australia but focuses mainly on British music, fashion, film, television, and so on.

Such forms of what Bakhtin would class as heteroglottal novelization consistently obliterate the distinctions, on the written page and, it is suggested, in youth society, between high-artistic-noncommercial and mass-pop-consumerist, between street and Parisian fashions, art and advertising, pop and nonpop, poetry and lyrics, comic-strip and literature, the marginal and the mainstream. It is impossible to tell fashion shots from advertisement photographs, virtually impossible to distinguish between articles and commercials. The prose is a fusion of colloquial Americanisms, technical jargon, black street rap, quasi-academic analysis, and fashionable puns. In this extract from The Face, Jim McClellan reviews a Percy Adlon film, Rosalie Goes Shopping:

A comic fantasy about the consumer credit trap and the personal computer, it stars Marianne Sagebrecht as a German housewife … determined to live life the shop-till-you-drop post-modern American way. Hubbie Brad Davis's wages can't even pay the interest on all those afternoons at the mall, so she starts double-dealing with a vast deck of credit cards and number-crunching on her personal computer. Trouble is, her crimes don't feel wrong. Rosalie ends up nearly saying something about the hyperconformist consumer and the double standards of the debt economy. Pity about the soundtrack, though.

Here the dialogue consists of a fusion of British middle-class colloquialisms ("Hubbie") and ellipsis ("Pity about …"), fairly respectable economic textbook language ("the consumer credit trap," "the double standards of the debt economy"), the language of nontabloid, ostensibly apolitical British journalism ("A comic fantasy, it stars Marianne Sagebrecht as a German housewife"), tabloid language ("shop-till-you-drop"), American language—or, at least, the Americanisms commonly used by British journalists ("Trouble is …," "number-crunching") and a parody of current critical sociological and literary discourse ("postmodern American way," "the hyperconformist consumer").

Each stratification of discourse inevitably incorporates various motives, leanings, intentions—unconscious, prereflective ideologies that are often defined as political. Bakhtin himself, in a string of dialogues from 1934 onwards, moves on to define dialogism as "the unmasking of social languages." So while Jim McClellan's film review—as a form of heteroglottal "novelization"—constitutes an interweaving of leftist economics, anticapitalism, anticonsumerism, fashionable British anti-Americanism (although the utilization of American colloquialisms suggests, on another level, a certain subcurrent of pro-American sentiment), what these strata most clearly convey is the discourse of the white, Western, middle-class, male, formally educated intellectual. Hirschkop develops this idea of conflicting ideologies into straight political tendencies: "If each language is a voice, then society is a welter of intersecting groups and different ideologies, more or less the version of society on offer from liberalism. And yet things are in a way even worse than that. For each point of view is described as an interested point of view: it embodies not just a perspective but a set of values or desires."

By an interested point of view, however, it seems more likely that Bakhtin is suggesting a subconscious, preexistent, unthinking ideological worldview rather than the active political aims Hirschkop suggests in his use of evaluative terms like worse. In "Discourse in the Novel," a similar point is made: "all languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them and making each unique, are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values."

The main point about heteroglossia is that all language has a sideways glance, and yet in Jim McClellan's film review, the sideways glance seems to be partly directed at itself. This kind of language is self-referential, self-regarding—aware, in a way, of its own shifting dialogism. The result of this self-parody, which in youth style magazines such as the self-confessedly superficial The Face seems almost inevitable, is that the language loses much of its primary intention (here, the film review) and develops instead into a game of words, a kind of linguistic solitaire. This is the kind of discourse that "lives, as it were, beyond itself, in a living impulse [napravlennost] toward the object" ["Discourse in the Novel"]. Ann Jefferson writes [in "Bodymatters: Self and other in Bakhtin, Sartre and Barthes," Bakhtin and Cultural Theory]: "Looking (at yourself) while you leap is a highly dangerous thing to do, and on the figurative plain the effects of such self-regarding attitudes can be just as devastating, because they empty acts of their substance and purpose, and action is, significantly, turned into play or gesture."

This kind of ironic, self-reflecting parody of the dialogism inherent in language is often the style of the traditional fool, who mocks others' uses of words by using them himself. Shakespeare's Fool in King Lear, for example, is introduced into the text partly for purposes of "making strange" (ostranenie) the world of conventional pathos by making Lear's dramatic, aristocratic language of suffering seem distant and unreal when it is cited beside similar meanings couched in the Fool's own folkloric, nursery riddles.

And this is precisely the relation between dialogism—both lived and textual—and the Bakhtinian notion of carnival. Carnival is the time when all social groups and classes join together in a wild Saturnalian celebration, which involves the fusion of each group's dialogical stratum into a parodic, ironic festival of language. According to Bakhtin, each level of heteroglossia is linked to the next by a common folkloric laughter, whose roots go back deep into pre-class folklore and which destroys traditional connections and abolishes idealized strata, bringing out the crude, unmediated links between words and concepts that are normally kept very separate. Carnival, according to Bakhtin, represents "the disunification of what has traditionally been linked, and the bringing together of that which has been traditionally kept distant and disunified." Carnival, in the written text as well as in lived language, brings the everyday into sacred life in the form of ritualistic violations (skvernoslovie'), causing ritualistic laughter and clownishness. The slave and jester become substitutes for the ruler and god, various forms of ritualistic parody make their appearance, and "the passions" are mixed with laughter and gaiety. Bakhtinian carnival cavalierly suppresses hierarchies and distinctions, "recalling us to a common creatureliness" [Terry Eagleton, "Bakhtin, Schopenhauer, Kundera," in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory].

So just as the court jester's ironic repetition of common language estranges that language and alienates it, so at the carnival does the riotous confusion of all varieties of discourse, both high and low, make strange the similar level of dialogism preexistent in language. Opposed to all those who are well-to-do in life, suggests Bakhtin, comes the language of the merry rogue—streetsongs, folksayings, anecdotes, a lively parody of the words of poets, scholars, monks, knights, and others. Like the interplay of genres and levels within the prose of popular style magazines such as The Face, the language of the merry rogue parodically reprocesses other people's discourse, but always in such a way as to rob them of their power, to "distance them from the mouth," as it were, by means of a roguish deception, to mock their language and thus turn what was direct discourse into light self-parody. "Falsehood is illuminated by ironic consciousness and in the mouth of the happy rogue parodies itself" ["Discourse in the Novel"].

In this respect, much of recent popular culture appears as "permanent" carnivalization (though "permanent" in the sense of "permanently" ephemeral, constantly changing). Style magazines consistently offer a wide range of interweaving discourses, languages, ontologies, and dialogues characteristic of the anticanonism Bakhtin defines as essential to the language of novelization, and the festival of heteroglossia that results is not a mere sideshow at a traveling carnival, but a "permanently" ephemeral, playful, self-referential, self-parodying component of postmodern popular culture. Bakhtin's idea of carnival, both lived and textual, as the self-regarding parody of different language styles and levels of dialogue, and his description of the stock-in-trade carnival jester who has to be able to mimic "birds and animals,… the speech, facial expressions and gesticulation of a slave, a peasant, a procurer, a scholastic pedant and a foreigner" ["From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse," The Dialogic Imagination], are still relevant to mass culture's current and continuous taste for impersonation and parody, as testified by the viewing figures for stand-up comics keen on topical political subject matter,… and the popularity of the political caricatures on television programs like "Spitting Image."

Yet it would be unwise to empty Bakhtin's carnival theory of its political conflict—to reduce it to an eclectic blend of styles and languages, to see it as conflation rather than contention, as generalized indifference rather than the clash of highly interested standpoints. There is also much of the merry rogue in a number of popular musicians, notably in the punk movement where ritualistic violation and cultic indecency are all part of the act. Like the carnival jester, Lords of Misrule like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious celebrated a thoughtless deceit opposed to everything that is conventional and false—synthetic forms for the parodied exposure of others. As the harbinger of carnival, the punk, like the clown, is granted "the right not to understand, the right to confuse … the right to parody others while talking, the right not to be taken literally … the right to act life as a comedy and to treat others as actors, the right to rip off masks, the right to rage at others with a primeval (almost cultic) rage" ["Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination].

In popular style magazines, this notion of the carnivalesque manifests itself as parody, pastiche, or irony ("that which cannot be put in words without betraying itself")—a type of folkloric laughter which, Bakhtin believes, works to bring "official," "sacred" things (politics, religion, business—although such areas can be separated only insofar as Bakhtin's theory of generic wholes will permit, since all borders, according to Bakhtin, have already been crossed and no "zone" is ever separate) to a place of maximal proximity where they can be turned inside out and closely examined from all angles. In The Face and i.d., in fact, all representatives of the established canonical literary system and the old, official, sacred world (the royal family, politicians, businessmen, the upper classes, well-established media figures) are treated as absurd and ridiculous and laughed down in favor of the latest top model, alternative comedian, or cult musician, kings and queens for an issue precisely because of their hip, chic ephemerality (look at The Face's occasional features on the latest independent bands such as Ride or Lush—spotlighted usually because their refusal to sign up to any major record label virtually guarantees their status as flash-in-the-pan, up-to-the-minute underground fads, never likely to become mainstream acts).

At other times, this carnivalesque impulse will take the form of a mockery of academic prose and criticism. In such cases, the language of the author strives to overcome "literariness" and to get away from outmoded styles and period-bound language by fusing this very "literariness" with folk language and, creating a dialogue between the canonical literary system and the generic languages of various subcultures in what is defined by Bakhtin as heteroglottal novelization, thus making the language parody itself.

One important function of this spirited, self-conscious dialogism is to reduce all false sublimations back to their earthy, earthly roots. As in Menippean satire, the cruder, more bawdy, brawling, more obviously mocking forms of carnival bring everything down to a single level—like the wave of new American comedians epitomized by Andrew Dice Clay, whose "Comedy of Hate" consists in ritualistic abuse of audience members. Bakhtin points out that laughter is associated with folklore and the gross realities of life, possessing the capacity to strip the object of the false verbal and ideological husk that encloses it—a carnivalesque performance which realizes the theories of the textual and linguistic carnivalesque (embodied by, say, the style magazine).

Here it is important to distinguish between carnival as a vast mélange of styles, which lends itself well enough to postmodernism, and carnival as political animus. In other words, to graft Bakhtinian carnival onto postmodern culture without reservation brings the latter out as rather more subversive than much of it actually is. This second kind of political carnivalesque destroys epic distance and restores a "dynamic authenticity" ["Epic and Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination] to man, allowing participants to investigate themselves freely, to study the disparity between their potential and their reality, in the text as well as on the street. Bakhtin talks about the performances of obscenely cavorting phallophors in religious processions, and deikilists (mimers) who both travestied national and local myths and mimicked the characteristically typical "languages" and speech mannerisms of foreign doctors, procurers, heterae, peasants, slaves, scholars, judges, and so on.

The Sex Pistols sing about "bodies" and one of their slogans declares "Fuck Forever." In fact, much of the punk movement's motivation centered around an impulse to disgust and appall by reducing the sublimations of serious artists and musicians to a celebration of what Bakhtin in "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel" describes as the "series of the human body" (a space-time which, for Bakhtin, seems to replace conventional definitions of "genre"—in other words, an unbound "generic whole")—vomiting (the food series), wearing dustbin-liners held together with safety-pins (the human clothing series), "getting pissed" to "destroy" (the drink and drunkenness series), fucking forever (sexual series), sporting "Sid Lives" T-shirts (death series). "The pleasures of carnival," writes Ken Hirschkop, "are not the pleasures of mere talk but those of a discourse that has rediscovered its connection to the concrete"—thus, again, the fusion of textual carnivalesque with the carnivalesque in performance to form the heteroglottal "novelization" of texts and forms of language more usually excluded from the literary system.

Much of this political kind of carnivalization, of course, revolves around the destruction of images sacred in other, different, often opposing cultural levels and dialogues. Just as magazine and television advertisements through a process of ritual disembowelment use celebrated and highly revered pieces of music (popular or classical) and images (old masters, pieces of "high" art, and highly paid popular musicians and media figures) for what is considered to be the trivial process of selling, things held sacred in one language or discourse are inevitably parodied in another. Much of the Sex Pistols material is sacrilegious to other dialogues—their lyrics make parody out of the monarchy ("God Save the Queen"), the government ("Anarchy in the U.K."), the human body ("Bodies"), multinational corporations ("EMI"), and the holocaust ("Belsen was a Gas"). Malcolm McLaren's sale of "Sid Lives" T-shirts only a couple of weeks after Vicious's overdose smacks a great deal of Bakhtin's carnivalesque version of death, which he applies particularly to Rabelaisian burlesque ("in … the grotesque [clownish] portrayal of death, the image of death itself takes on humorous aspects: death is inseparable from laughter" ["Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel"]). Bakhtin's celebration of carnival is perhaps too undifferentiating, since (as some critics have pointed out) carnival actually involved a lot of violence and machismo.

That once-taboo topics like sex and death can be treated with such hilarity during the carnival is a signifier not just of the carnivalesque reduction of all cultural sublimations to their folkloric roots, but—even further—the desecration of all that a culture considers "sacred" or meaningful to nothing more than another of the merry rogue's clownish jests. Everything that has been built up to have significance and moment for mankind is rendered absurd: there is an emphasis in the carnivalesque on the healthy failure of the fool (the "man of the people") to understand accepted conventions and falsehoods (religion, the government, education, capitalism, advertising, even the pretensions of the music industry itself)—which exposes them for what they are. Here, again, there is little difference between textual and lived carnivalesque. The carnivalesque of this textual heteroglossia—the fusion of canonical and noncanonical literary and subliterary systems—is embodied in the performance of "real life." The punk and the skinhead "estrange" the discourse of mass-appeal, major-label, commercialized chart music by means of an uncomprehending stupidity (simplicity, naivety)—where the very aspect of not understanding, not grasping the conventions of a society, not comprehending lofty, meaning-charged lyrics, chords, words, labels, things, and events—remains vital.

But the key to popular culture today lies in the aesthetic (or, often, anti-aesthetic) avowal of superficiality, of vacancy, of as little meaning as possible. Texts like the magazine The Face, its very title heralding an uncompromising superficiality, are temples to ephemera, to the garish colors and images of a transient, drifting pop life. These magazines, like many television and cinema commercials, are not meant to be read or studied closely, but to be "cruised" through, looked at fleetingly with a vague sense of admiration and temptation, the same way you would look at a shop window or an advertisement offering seductive, brightly colored consumer goods in a plastic carnival where, like Rosalie in Rosalie Goes Shopping, you become a "hyperconformist consumer" in the "shop-till-you-drop postmodern American way" when "there is nowhere left to go but to the shops."

These forms of carnivalesque and examples of heteroglottal novelization in text (magazine, soap opera, pulp novel) as well as in reality (game show, rock concert, shopping spree) are characterized by a self-evident failure to "stand up" to philosophical literary theories, but of value for their capacity for "breaking down" into infinite layers of dialogical strata to reveal the limits and constraints of such definitions which restrict, for example, a variety of heteroglottal novelization from inclusion in a traditionally narrow literary canon. Like the anti-academic, anti-serious, anti-intelligent Saturnalian humor of the punk movement and its music, the popular postmodern text is joyously aware of the inadequacies of its own language. In its gleeful celebration of pop art, pop journalism, pop advertising, pop cinema, pop literature, pop feminism, and pop shopping, every dialogue in the style magazine is a joke at the expense of its own irrelevance, its own unimportance, its own meaninglessness, its own ephemerality.

Heteroglottal dialogues and systems of "novelness" like The Face recognize the emptiness of society, the plasticity of consumerism and, like the Sex Pistols singing about their own vacancy ("Pretty Vacant") or their manager Malcolm McLaren making a film entitled The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (and, incidentally, profiting financially from his rebellion), resolve that there is nothing left to do but to celebrate that very vacancy, to go shopping. Terry Eagleton points out that Bakhtin fails to stress the politically limited nature of carnival, which is after all licensed misrule, a contained and officially sanctioned rebellion, after which everything returns to normal.

Yet for Bakhtin, this ambivalent image of wise ignorance brings to mind the self-praise of the Socratic dialogue ("I am wiser than everyone, because I know that I know nothing"), and the image of Socrates ("a wise man of the most elevated sort," "wearing the popular mask of a bewildered fool [almost a Margit]") ["Epic and Novel"]. There is no sort of direct discourse, suggests Bakhtin—artistic, rhetorical, philosophical, everyday ("styles" rather than "genres"; Bakhtin describes the novel as a "stylistics of genre" and can never reconcile the idea of genre with the idea of style, redeeming genre as a term for describing "finished and resolved wholes" and style as designating the syntactic and lexical patterns of identifiable social voices)—that doesn't have "its own parodying and travestying double, its own comic-ironic contre-partie."

In this light, popular culture appears as the reverse of "high" culture, its alter ego, where all pretensions to meaning, relevance, and aesthetic value are travestied by a parodic, mocking dialogue of vacancy, anti-aestheticism and plasticity. In "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse," Bakhtin observes that the most wise and revered figures in epic have their comic counterparts, and become themselves comic: "Odysseus … donned a clown's fool's cap (pileus) and harnessed his horse and ox to a plow, pretending to be mad in order to avoid participation in the war…. Hercules, who had conquered death in battle … descended into the nether world [to become] the monstrous glutton, the playboy, the drunk and scrapper, but especially Hercules the madman."

Popular culture, then—where pop art, music, fashion, and literature all parody their more serious counterparts and where monarchs and political leaders are mocked by figures like Johnny Rotten, the Lord of Misrule—becomes what Bakhtin describes as the Holiday of Fools or "festa stultorum, a form of ludus in which everything is reversed, even clothing; trousers were worn on the head, for instance, an operation that symbolically reflects in some measure the jongleurs, who are depicted in miniatures head-downward": a dialogue between what the given system will admit into its canons, and what it systematically rejects—forms of language embraced by Bakhtin in his universal definition of heteroglottal novelization.

Everything serious has to have a comic double, in text and in reality. Just as in the Saturnalia the clown is the double of the ruler, the slave the double of the master, similar comic doubles exist in all forms of literature and culture. And the funhouse of popular images, pictures, commercials, music, art, and literature displayed in current style magazines as in current popular culture represents, in the same way that the Lord of Misrule doubles the king, the parodic, self-referential, carnivalesque counterpart to all forms of "high" culture.

Perhaps neither phenomenon—carnival nor popular culture—is as unqualifiedly positive as it seems to be, since this systemic reversal or inversion figured by the carnivalesque can equally be interpreted as madness. There is a constant similarity between the polyglossia of the carnival, textual and nontextual, and the manifold layers and levels of discourse within the madman's psychological dialogism. Clair Wills, in her feminist interpretation of carnival, draws a parallel between the carnival itself, which disrupts by juxtaposing public indecency with official order, and women's texts considered hysteric even by avant-garde writers such as Julia Kristeva. Wills charts a connection between carnival, which fuses common and official types of discourse as well as many others in a polyglossia, and the hysteric's reliving of past history, family situations, and so on, in the present: "her capacity for turning things 'upside-down' is contained within the family. The … 'transgressive' nature of popular festive forms and hysterical discourse are connected not only in their similar relation to history, but also in their content…. Freud's descriptions of the hysteric call on popular festive imagery: 'it is striking how the broken fragments of carnival, terrifying and disconnected, glide through the discourse of the hysteric'" ["Upsetting the Public: Carnival, Hysteria and Women's Texts," in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory].

This kind of hysteria—a form of Bakhtin's heteroglottal novelization in its anticanonical dialogue between what the given system admits as the language of "literature" and what it rejects as subculture—manifests itself not only in the fusion of retrospective and up-to-the-minute language in style magazines and in popular culture in particular but, more clearly perhaps, in the continuous, repetitive, confused stream of discourse that comes from the radio deejay or rap artist. Wills views the discourse of the hysteric as "an attempt to open up the protests of the women of the past by seeing their similarity with the feminist protest of the present," just as Bakhtinian carnival brings together the crises of the past and present. "The crises of the past," writes Wills, "live on in a separate area of the psyche like the last vestiges of a small-town marketplace carnival." In The Newly Born Woman, Catherine Clément cites Marcel Mauss to describe people with a "dangerous symbiotic mobility" as afflicted with what she calls "madness, anomaly, perversion"—people whom Mauss labels "neurotics, ecstatics, outsiders, carnies, drifters, jugglers, acrobats."

This interpretation of carnival as insanity—where the fusing strands of each type of heteroglottal discourse represent the madman's reliving of past events, emotions, lives, and dialogues—bodes ill for recent popular culture. If the textual and nontextual heteroglossia of elements of today's popular cultural "novelness" and dialogues—television comedians, comedy shows, pop art, advertisements, films, and most of all magazines—is symptomatic of a carnivalesque madness, then that madness is accepted all over the Western world as popular culture. If the interplay between official, unofficial, academic, nonacademic, popular, parodic, journalistic, artistic, vulgar, colloquial, and plenty of other forms of textual and nontextual discourse is to be interpreted as symptomatic of the hysteric's revertive, transgressive reliving of past and other dialogues, then the hysteria of popular culture is a part of everyday life. The furthest extent of this argument is perhaps best illustrated by the current debate over "fiction factory" television, where fake footage and false news reports have been aired as real news. In one instance, ABC staff members acted out a news story about a spy's alleged dealings with Soviet agents, but "forgot" to label the footage as a recreation. There is no distinction to be made any more between irony, pastiche, and fiction, on the one hand, and, on the other, the reality it imitates and mocks.

An article on the resurgent popularity of the T-shirt in The Face is accompanied by "artistic" photos of vague-looking models—and, a few pages later, a nine-page photographic fashion supplement features similar images of slightly puzzled, slightly aloof "art" characters. The models chosen are always young and beautiful, the writers affect a youthful idiom, the pop music featured is aimed at the young, and played by young musicians. The films and books reviewed are the latest hip releases, the outlandish clothes modeled could be worn only by the young, the advertisements (for new bank accounts, cosmetics, sound systems and stereos, cigarettes, drink, clothes, other style magazines) and notices (of forthcoming concerts, shows, new clubs, discos) are all aimed at an audience under thirty. The Face seems permanently suspended in its own dream of youth-time, where the interests and concerns of older and less chic generations (marriage, the family, jobs, health, finances, the home) are featured only parodically, as subjects for comedy, and are otherwise dismissed as of interest only to the readers of other, outmoded magazines like Cosmopolitan or Vogue.

This permanent existence in a vacuum of youth-time resembles a kind of generic whole which Bakhtin in his studies on the novel refers to as the chronotope (space-time: according to Bakhtin every entry into the sphere of meaning is accomplished only through the gates of the chronotope). In the novel, the chronotope can take a variety of forms—Bakhtin mentions chronotopes of the road, the threshold, the castle, the family idyll. The Face figures an eternal chronotope of youth, of youth adventure, the folkloric conception of the idealized beginning, youth idyll with its magic costumes and accoutrements—cosmetics, fashionable clothes, pop music, certain brands of cigarettes, and so on. The youth idyll presented by The Face is a characteristic of folkloric time charted against the background of the reader's own, contemporary perception of time. Bakhtin points out in "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel" that our understanding of folkloric time is not a fact of primitive man's consciousness, but rather something that must be adduced from a study of objective material, since the chronotope is what determines the unity of every motif and idea in a text, as well as determining the logic by which these images unfold. The chronotope, then, is artificial—the youth idyll of the style magazine, for example, exhibits no teenage suicide, no young people who are not beautiful, no young classical artists or musicians, no youthful depression or psychological breakdown except when angst and neurosis are chic.

This filtering of moments in chronotope, Hirschkop believes, takes place not because all authors are necessarily prejudiced, but because "they must approach the object language with some task, project, or aim in mind if speech is to exhibit its ideological structure." The reasoning behind each motif of youth chronotope selected for a style magazine article, pop song, or advertisement, then, is connected to the capitalist nature of the market in which these texts are sold and the fact that they are almost universally produced as commercial, consumerist, money-making commodities.

And this is where any application of Bakhtinian analysis of the carnivalesque to textual practices encounters a stumbling block. So far in this essay I have been referring to carnivalesque practices in text and in reality as realizing similar effects. However, the textual carnival can never completely realize the dialogical struggle current in the social carnival. Although their effects and implications may be similar, it will never be possible completely to align the carnivalesque in text and the carnivalesque in performance, unless the solitary activity of reading is regarded as a kind of performance.

However joyous and festive they may appear, commodities of the textual carnivalesque—those artifacts which emphasize words and language rather than being and doing: the pop song, the advertisement, the magazine, the comic—are still no more than static studies, inevitably far distanced from the active, nontextual, participatory reality of being and doing which they attempt to achieve in print or on the screen. There is a vast difference between the text which promotes the carnivalesque in linguistic terms, and the actual carnival of being and doing itself (concert, festival, disco, club, shopping, and so on). Clair Wills is hasty to criticize the lack of connections between the textual carnival and the carnivalesque as a genuine social force. Similarly, Ann Jefferson agrees that authoring is by its very nature a decarnivalizing activity, since the authorial perspective and the demarcation between observer and participants are against the whole spirit of carnival.

So although Bakhtin's interpretation of what he refers to as "the novel"—defined by a proclivity to display different languages interpenetrating one another—allows examples of language outside the bounds of what traditional scholars would think of as strictly literary history, such as pop lyrics and advertising, to be studied as instances of the language use he finds in heteroglottal novelization, despite the linguistic heteroglossia of the style magazine and the dialogism of the advertisement, cinema film or pop record, no text can come closer to carnival than the levels of description, imitation, and representation. There will always be some kind of dichotomy between the carnivalesque discourses of the text and the social power of its actual equivalent—the festivals at Woodstock or Altamont, for example, a Sex Pistols gig or all-night disco, a consumer spree in a giant shopping mall, audience participation on a popular television game show, the realities of being and doing.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember Bakhtin's words: "great novelistic images continue to grow and develop even after the moment of their creation; they are capable of being creatively transformed in different eras, far distant from the day and hour of their original birth" ["Discourse in the Novel"]. Rather than simply subscribing to the cliche of "different times, different interpretations," Bakhtin is suggesting that the heteroglottal novelization of all language structures in all dialogic texts, irrespective of origin and original purpose, allows them to be given new relevance, new meaning, new interest as they are subjected, like the texts used in this study, to new readings and new analyses.

It is this independent, interdependent battle and play of different levels and layers of interested dialogue that gives every text a variety of meanings, interpretations, subtexts. This quality of inherent polyglossia means that texts produced for very direct and immediate purposes like the rebellion and outrageousness of a Sex Pistols lyric or the hyped-up, overexposed commercialism of magazines like The Face can, in other times and contexts, come to assume a radically different meaning. But their meaning is still a textual meaning, their dialogism a textual dialogism. In the place of the powerful, social polyglossia of the real carnival, all we can observe instead is the "lonely carnival of reading" [Jefferson, "Body Matters"].

Mikita Hoy, "Bakhtin and Popular Culture," in New Literary History, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 765-82.


Bakhtin, Mikhail (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)