Mikhail Bakhtin 1895-1975
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov) Russian critic, essayist, and literary theorist.
The following entry presents an overview of Bakhtin's life and works. For further information on his career, see CLC, Volume 83.
The significance of the contributions that Bakhtin made to the fields of philosophy, linguistics and cultural studies, as well as aesthetics and literary theory, were not widely known in the West until his work was translated posthumously. An unsystematic thinker whose work defies categorization, Bakhtin posited that the forms and meanings of language are constantly shaped by history and culture. Among Bakhtin's most influence concepts are “heteroglossia,” the idea that culture and its narratives, no matter how monolithic they appear, are comprised of a polyphony of competing voices; “dialogism,” which holds that culture is inherently responsive and interactive, involving individuals acting and reacting at a particular point in time and space; and “the carnivalesque,” a subversive mixing of high and low cultures that undermines social hierarchies and opens the way for change and new connections. Bakhtin's theories, which celebrate the parodic and fragmentary, have provided new ways of reading both canonical and marginalized or neglected literature.
The second son of a bank manager who was descended from Russian nobility, Bakhtin was born in 1895 in Orel, a town south of Moscow, and grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania and Odessa, Russia. As a young man Bakhtin was influenced by the philosophy of culture advocated by the Russian Symbolist poets. A university student during the 1917 revolution, Bakhtin graduated from St. Petersburg University in 1918. Although many academics fled Stalin's regime, Bakhtin joined a group of intellectuals in famine-plagued Nevel, three hundred miles from St Petersburg. In 1920 Bakhtin moved to Vitebsk, where he taught Russian literature and religious philosophy. Suffering from typhoid and the bone disease osteomyelitis, he was nursed by Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovich, whom he married in 1921. Bakhtin published his early works pseudonymously to avoid the censorship, exile, or execution common to intellectuals under Stalin. Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (which may be translated as “Problems of Dostoevsky's Art.”), published under his own name in 1929, was immediately suppressed. That same year Bakhtin was arrested for his membership in a Christian organization and exiled to the Russian territory Kaziakh (now Kazakhstan), where he worked as a bookkeeper and began work on Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa (published 1965; Rabelais and His World). In 1936 Bakhtin taught for a year at the Mordovia Pedagogical Institute, but fled to avoid another Stalinist purge. Because of his bone disease, Bakhtin's leg was amputated in 1938. In 1937-38, Bakhtin wrote an analysis of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, which was partially destroyed during a World War II paper shortage, when Bakhtin used the prospectus, introduction, and conclusion for cigarette wrappers and smoked them. The surviving fragment is included in Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (1979; Speech Genres and Other Essays). After the war Bakhtin was allowed to return to the Pedagogical Institute, where he remained until his retirement in 1961. With the lifting of political oppression, Bakhtin published a substantially revised version of his study of Dostoevsky in 1963, released Rabelais and His World in 1965, and issued the six-essay collection Voprosy literatury i estetiki (partially translated as The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays) in 1972. His health continued to fail; in 1969, his remaining leg was amputated. He died of emphysema in Moscow on March 7, 1975; his last words were “I go to thee.”
Even Bakhtin's earliest writings, such as the essays “Iskusstvo i otvetstvennost” (1919; “Art and Answerability”) and “K filosofii postupka” (published 1986; Toward a Philosophy of the Act) grapple with the themes of the dynamic relationship between art and culture and how meaning evolves from the interaction of multiple voices and viewpoints. The authorship of several of Bakhtin's early works, which were published under pseudonyms, is contested; in the first of these, Formal'nyi metod v literaturovedenii (1928; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship), Bakhtin outlines a materialist method of literary criticism; in Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka (1929; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) he develops a sociohistorical approach to language; Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk (1927; Freudianism: A Critical Sketch) is a materialist critique of psychoanalysis. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, the 1963 version of his study, Bakhtin argues that Dostoevsky's multivoiced, or polyphonic, fiction draws on Socrates' dialogues, in which contrasting viewpoints interact in an evolving conversation—“dialogism”—in which language and context shape one another. Rabelais and His World traces the history of the carnival as represented by François Rabelais, reading the carnival as a radical interpretation of the Christ's Passion and Resurrection. In its subversion of hierarchy and established authority through laughter, parody, and the inversion of low and high culture, the carnival has the “regenerative potential” to create new connections, according to Bakhtin. The four essays collected in The Dialogic Imagination further develop Bakhtin's theory of the dialogic. In “Formy vremeni i khronotopa v romane” (“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”) Bakhtin defines “heteroglossia” as the dependence of a piece of literature's language and meaning on its chronotope, or specific sociohistorical context. “Slovo v romane” (“Discourse in the Novel”) outlines Bakhtin's theory of the novel and further develops his language theory. Bakhtin's posthumous collection, Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (1979; partially translated as Speech Genres and Other Late Essays), contains several important essays on linguistics, including “Problema rechevykh zhanrov” (“The Problem of Speech Genres”) and “Problema teksta v lingvistike, filologii i drugikh gumanitarnykh naukakh” (“The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences”). In all his work, Bakhtin examines the ways that language creates culture and examines the part culture plays in shaping meaning—concepts with broad philosophical and linguistic implications.
When Bakhtin first became known in the West in the 1960s, after decades of suppression in the Soviet Union, his work was considered a valuable contribution to the field of linguistics for its emphasis on sociohistorical context, openness, and dialogue. Although the Russian academic community generally holds Bakhtin to be the author of his pseudonymous works, the authorship of Freudianism, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language has been much contested in the West, with critics such as Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark ascribing authorship to Bakhtin, while critics such as Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson disagree. At a time when literary scholarship was reacting against Structuralism and New Criticism, Bakhtin was an exciting new force. Emerson, Bakhtin's translator, acknowledges that “although his writing style could not be called elegant, it swarmed with living, moving consciousness,” and Susan Stewart praises Bakhtin's “relentlessly speculative approach to language, literature, and the human universe.” While granting that perhaps “the value of Bakhtin's theories lies in their deepening of the problems to be solved,” Morson considers Bakhtin “the most remarkable modern thinker to examine time in narrative.” Although Ken Hirschkop criticizes “the confusion or overlapping between dialogue and dialogism” in Bakhtin and especially his followers, he finds that conflation makes Bakhtin's work “interesting and provocative.” Bakhtin was enormously influential in several literary movements of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly postmodern, cultural, feminist, and postcolonial studies. It is Bakhtin's “radically different point of departure about how words signify in cultural communication that has mattered the most” for African-American literary scholarship, writes Dale Peterson. Carol Adlam notes that “Bakhtin offers feminism a theory of subjectivity which allows [an] autonomy” which is “always in a process of negotiation through an aesthetic cognition of the other's inner and outer specificity.” Despite the ways in which Western critics have simplified and sometimes misused Bakhtin's concepts, Aileen Kelly stresses, “Bakhtin's aesthetic approach to life was no hazy, all-embracing benevolence: it demanded an attention to the ‘humble prose of living’ (Bakhtin's term) that was far more exacting and serious than those who relied on ready-made rules to guide their actions.”